“There shoulda been a wake.” The gravel of the church parking lot crunched under Ted’s polished wing tips. “Aunt Myrtle could throw a good one. The least we could do . . .” his voice trailed off.
“It wouldn’t be fitting. Not with that fire, and all.” Lula Mae toddled along carrying a warm casserole dish. Her pantyhose scritch-scratched as she tried to keep up on their way to the First Holiness social hall. She leaned over and whispered to Ted, “Captain Dan said half her face was burned clean off.” She shook her teased and hair-sprayed head in that pitiful way that said ‘bless her heart’ without saying it out loud.
“Hey, where’s Joey?” Ted asked, opening the church door to let Lula Mae pass through.
“Late, as usual,” Lula Mae replied. “I told him he can be late for his own funeral. But Aunt Myrt deserved better.”
Ted pulled the door closed behind them, and they made their way through the gathering to an overflowing buffet. Lula Mae shoved dishes aside, set her casserole in front and said, “He’ll be here directly in the truck.”
“Well, that’s prob’ly a good idea.” Ted peeked outside. “Looks like rain. They’ve got the road torn up around Forest Lawn. Joe’s old Ford might be mandatory once the service is over.”
“Miss Odessa, would you reach me that bottle of creamer?” Lula Mae spoke across the social hall kitchen counter. Several women bustled around the tidy kitchen washing cups, folding napkins and stacking up plates. No proper Southern funeral could ever be complete without a covered-dish supper after the service. Two teenage girls stood at opposite ends of the buffet and spread out a white tablecloth, covering all of the food until the service was over.
Lula Mae poured coffee for her and Ted and thanked the elderly woman for the French Vanilla before handing it back across the counter.
“My, Aunt Myrt would be so pleased at this turnout,” said Lula Mae, scanning the roomful of familiar faces. She and Ted sipped their hot drinks and added to the conversational hum.
“When I see that man, he’s gonna wish he’d never been born.” Ted held the door while Lula Mae climbed onto the running board and into his jacked-up SUV. She settled into the camo-covered passenger seat.
“Don’t be too hard on him, Lulabelle,” Ted scolded, good-naturedly. “Joey’s feeling awful bad. He probably stopped for a beer to calm his nerves. Can’t say I’d wanna trade a booth for a pew, either.”
“He knows it ain’t his fault,” she said, stretching the seatbelt around her middle.
“You and I know that,” he replied. “Aunt Myrt knows it. But Joey don’t. He’s gonna wish forever that he’d fixed Myrt’s stove like he said he would.” He slammed the heavy door twice to make it catch and walked around to the other side. “Let’s get you home.” He hopped in, fired up the Chevy and crept through the sticky mud around the grave site. “Sorry about your shoes, Lulabelle. And your nice hairdo.”
Lula Mae adjusted the wet scarf around her head and looked down at her muddy kitten heels with a sigh.
Ted cast his line again. Yesterday’s rain had turned the lake murky, but he didn’t mind.
Early morning was his favorite. There was nothing to hear but the whirr of his reel and a few glurgs from fish jumping here and there. The haze over the water reminded him of a story that his grandpa used to tell. “When there’s smoke on the lake,” he said, “that means the fish are fryin' up breakfast.” He loved fishing with his grandpa. He loved fishing in general.
His line caught a bite. He tugged, but it wouldn’t budge. “Good Lord,” he thought. “Eh, it’s probably an old tire.”
Just then, his cell rang. “Dammit, I meant to turn that off,” he grumbled and flipped it open. “Ted!” Lula Mae’s voice was frantic. “Have you seen Joey? He didn’t come home last night.”
“Are you sure he didn’t sleep downstairs? I know I’d have dodged your ire. Maybe check out in his shop, too.”
“I’ve checked everywhere. His truck isn’t here, either.”
“I’m out at the lake right now. Give me about ten minutes to pack up and I’ll head out.”
“Please call the minute you hear anything.”
Ted closed the phone and tucked it back into his pocket. He didn’t want to lose another lure, so he tugged again. Whatever he’d caught, it wasn’t giving in. He cranked and pulled with all of his might. Something pink bobbed up, sending out ripples in all directions. Just as quickly, it sunk back down.
“What the . . .”
Ted waded into the shallow edge and wrestled with the reel until whatever was in the water surfaced again. This time, there was a foot. Or a hand? “Dear God,” he gasped. He dropped the rod and grabbed his phone.
Emergency vehicles lined the shore while officials examined the scene. Red, blue and yellow lights flashed silently against the fog. Two men in a John boat dredged the water.
“We’ve got something!” one of the men called. And then a muffled cry floated to shore. Ted dropped to his knees. One of the officers put her hand on his shoulder.
The search and rescue men hauled the body into the boat and slowly traveled back to shore. As silent company was the half-charred remains of beloved Myrtle Jackson.
“Who could have done this?” Ted peppered Sheriff Lester Flint with questions.
“You’ll know when I know, Ted.” The two men watched while the team tended to Myrtle’s body.
Ted’s cell rang again. “Have you found anything yet?”
“I’m afraid it’s going to be a while. Lulabelle, are you sitting down?” Ted issued the news as gently as he could. Naturally, she was hysterical. He ended the call with a promise to look for Joey as soon as possible.
“What’s that about Joey?” Lester seemed concerned.
“Lula Mae says he didn’t come home last night.”
“I noticed he wasn’t at the funeral.”
“Yeah. We figured he’d stopped off for some liquid courage.”
Lester nodded and chewed his lip. Then he headed to his cruiser with long, deliberate strides and grabbed the radio.
“No, now!” he bellowed into the radio loudly enough to startle everyone at the lake. “Forest Lawn Cemetery! And call the groundskeeper. We’ll be needing the backhoe.”
Coroner Mitchell’s face turned gray. There were a few gasps around the gravesite. Poor Lula Mae fainted dead away. The coffin had been difficult enough to pry back open. And that was Joey’s permanent undoing.
The pink satin lining tumbled off the coffin lid in shredded tatters. And Joey Jackson’s fingernails had been worn down to nothing but bloody nubs.
Carole Oldroyd is a freelance writer who spends most of her days mainlining coffee and earning her living with words. She pecks away at a keyboard from a window seat desk that’s flanked by bookcases overflowing with Shelley, Poe, Straub and King. Inside her folk Victorian farmhouse that’s nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, she and her three cats and two dogs are plenty familiar with rattling doorknobs, footfalls on the old walnut staircase, and things that go bump in the night. She wishes that more people were familiar with James Whitcomb Riley’s spooky poem, Little Orphant Annie
, which her grandmother used to recite with wide-eyed, animated glee. You can check out more of her writing at Irrational Propensity
and House Hugger
Image credit: Sea of Color, by Bs0u1030 , via Flickr Creative Commons.