NOTE: Available only in 2012 revised ebook edition.
Jolene’s back in Kickapoo for her mother’s annual birthday bash at the DQ, which is trouble enough, but when her checkered high school past comes back to haunt her, the problems turn decidedly deadly.
Thanks to her old sweetheart, Sheriff Jerry Don Parker, high school wasn’t that bad for Jolene–if you don’t count the scandal with the non-teaching English teacher, the daily death threats from a jealous rival or the cocky come-ons from the perverted principal.
Okay, maybe things weren’t that great, but with bodies turning up faster than beer cans in the river, they’re a darned sight worse now. And it doesn’t help matters that old rival Rhonda-the-Lying-Slut Davenport wants Jolene to be the next one to take a dive at Dead Man Falls.
Read a sample chapter!
I can’t be sure, of course, but I suspect that for most folks, their mother’s birthday is neither an earth-shaking event nor a life-altering one. Oh, if only it were so for me.
When the long summer days begin to shorten and the September chill sweeps across my home in Colorado, there are a few things of which I am pretty much certain: the aspens will turn gold, fresh snow will start to fall and Jolene Jackson will find herself back in Kickapoo, Texas–like it or not.
This last little inevitability occurs because my mother is certain she will die on the spot if I don’t show up for her annual birthday bash at the town’s social center, meaning the local Dairy Queen. She also prefers that I arrive cheerful and perky, but we all know that’s a long shot. I make a good effort, really I do, but a body can only take so much St. Johns wort without becoming comatose.
Now, I suspect that the correlation between a big to-do at a Dairy Queen some seven hundred miles south of my home and a personal crisis requiring herbal mood enhancers is not readily apparent, so let me explain.
There are several routine problems associated with my dear mother’s birthday extravaganza. To be sure, Lady Lucille’s whims and antics are enough to give me an annual case of dread as well as ulcers. However, the really big stomach-churner this year is the fact that September isn’t that far removed from July–or my last certifiably painful visit here. The tedious facts and fatalities don’t bear repeating, so I’ll stick to the more generic personal revelations of my unfortunate sojourn.
To begin with, I found out a whole bunch of things about my seventy-two-year-old mother that I really didn’t need to know. For one, she’s in the market for another boyfriend, the previous one being a dud even before he was murdered in the aforementioned July fiasco. For another, she carries a 9 mm Glock with a laser sight in her purse. Yes, really.
Both of these things make me a little nervous. Okay, the gun makes me really nervous–twitchy even. Being nearly killed will do that to a person. And no, my mother didn’t shoot me, although I had the feeling she thought about it a time or two. The almost-healed bullet hole in my arm–and the resulting steel pin holding the bone together–was the work of a now-deceased local crazy. But let’s not dwell on past unpleasantries when there are certainly new ones to be had.
I arrived at my mother’s house in Kickapoo, Texas, around nine p.m., which means I had managed to force myself up, up and away by eight–that would be morning time. As anyone who knows me will attest, I am of the opinion that eight a.m. is a time for sleeping. Ditto for nine. Ten is negotiable.
In spite of the disagreeable early morning departure time, I usually drive down rather than fly. Redwater Falls does have an airport–of sorts–and you can eventually get there from Denver, but it is neither easy nor cheap. Besides, driving my own car gives me the illusion that I have control over something. Once I enter the twilight zone, aka Kickapoo, Texas, even that is iffy.
After unloading my one duffel bag and chatting semi-amicably with my mother, I found myself collapsed on the couch in front of the television–just in time for the local news. Yippee.
My mother perched herself on the edge of a new grape-colored velvet chair, her gaze intent on the TV screen. The initial news bites that are supposed to keep you watching through the upcoming commercials were definitely doing their job. “This is the biggest thing that’s happened around here since the tornado of eighty-three,” she said enthusiastically. Lucille shook her head and clucked her tongue. “I don’t much care for that new girl. She spends more time prissing for the camera than she does giving the news.”
Please, no, not the “You’d have been good at that if” speech. I rubbed my road-weary eyes, tucked a stray wave of auburn hair behind my ear and pretended she hadn’t said a word. A yawn and stretch emphasized the point.
It is no secret that Lucille Jackson has always wanted to see her only child in the limelight–onstage, front and center in one way or another. Forty-three years of waiting–and nagging–about it have been hard on her. She’d initially hoped to be a stage mom on the beauty pageant and/or fashion model circuit. Unfortunately, my non-anorexic five-foot-four-inch body–not to mention my budding feminist attitude–put me at a decided disadvantage in both categories.
Once, in a weak teenage moment, I agreed to participate in the regional high school all-star Greenbelt Bowl–as a potential queen, not a fullback. Suffice it to say that my comment to the judges about moving the pageant proceedings to the feedlot down the road where we could have us a real meat show did not secure me a rhinestone crown–or an amused mother. She didn’t even attempt to get over it until I got that journalism scholarship to UT, which spawned a whole new set of maternal dreams. I blew those all to hell, too, of course, but she did have a few brief moments of almost-glory.
To this day Mother has held firm in her belief that I would have made a lovely television news anchor had I not squandered my potential and my journalism degree by running off to Denver, marrying an idiot (I’d give her that one) and starting that silly little card company. It may be silly to her, but it gives me a silly little income that allows me to drop everything and run to Texas on her every little whim or incarceration–whichever comes first.
Now, I do make a serious effort to try to please my mother–witness my current whereabouts–but living here is above and beyond the call of duty. Besides, I doubt any self-respecting Redwater station would have ever hired me anyway. I hadn’t been meek and mild in high school, and I was less so after finishing at the University of Texas in Austin. Geographically speaking, Redwater Falls is nowhere near Austin. Philosophically, we’re talking different galaxies. Redwater is, however, about ten minutes north of where I grew up in Kickapoo, and is the “big” town in these parts, meaning its population bloomed to about one hundred thousand thirty years ago and has stayed pretty much the same ever since.
“There it is!” Lucille exclaimed, springing forward in her chair. She waggled a purple acrylic nail at the television screen, her bespangled wrist tinkling like chimes in a breeze. As she wiggled this way and that to punctuate her enthusiasm, her rhinestone-studded sweatshirt shot flashes of light across the room like a disco ball. “Would you just look at that! This is what I’ve been trying to tell you about. There’s our new waterfall!”
She sounded very excited about something, but I wasn’t exactly sure what. Did she really say waterfall? I blinked a few times and tried to focus my eyes on the fleeting image of what looked like a large wall of Volkswagen-sized rocks. “A what?”
“Oh, my,” Lucille gasped, her attention still riveted to the screen. “Oh, for heaven’s sake. Whatever will they do? Why, this is just awful!” A gold glittery slipper stomped the floor. “Oh, well, hmmm, fire hoses, that could work, wonderful idea.”
Huh? Fire hoses? I scooted myself semi-upright on the couch and made a feeble attempt at paying attention to what the painted lady with the really big cyclone-proof red hair was saying. I suppose I’m also obligated to mention the spandex and cleavage as well, but don’t ask me to explain it. This is heavy-duty Bible Belt country, but that belt’s known for missing a loop or two when it’s convenient.
I was sorely tempted to climb upon my high horse and examine the moral juxtaposition of luscious lips and bulging boobs selling news to the conservative Christian crowd, but since that particular horse has a tendency to run away with me, I reined myself in and focused on what anchor-babe was actually saying. Mother’s running dialog filled in the blanks and I pieced together enough details to determine that the wall of rocks I had just seen was a newly erected waterfall.
What made said waterfall unique–in addition to the manmade part–was its location, which was above and beside the lazy river rather than actually in it. Consequently, water didn’t flow over the carefully placed rocks naturally, (No, I was not even a little surprised.) and high-powered pumps were required to move water up and over the falls then back into the river. And there was the problem. The pumps weren’t going to be ready for the big opening ceremony tomorrow, thus the clever fire truck option. Firefighters with high-pressure hoses would be situated at the top the falls, ready to shoot water over the edge so, as they say, the show could go on. Clever.
I also managed to discover that the big falls dedication was part of the city’s sesquicentennial celebration, meaning they were having a big party because the town has been in existence for a really long time. More specifically, it had been 125 years since the first luckless travelers’ mule died and they got stranded here for life–or so one might suspect. I wisely kept my ugly thoughts to myself as Lucille does not find my little asides humorous, and in fact gets rather testy when I say anything the least little bit untoward about her revered hometowns–yes, she claims them both.
Of course, this is home to me, too, and I was embarrassed to admit that in my eighteen years of growing up here, never once had I wondered if Redwater Falls actually had a falls. I also never wondered if Mineral Wells had any wells, if you could really “see more” in Seymour, or if Holliday was like a…well, you get the idea.
“So, is this an old falls they’re making bigger, or a new falls they added just to go with the name?”
“Well, Jolene,” Mother said, rather snotty-like, tipping up her aquiline nose for emphasis. “I’m certain there was a falls around here when Redwater was first settled, but where it was or was not located is beside the point. What’s important is that we’ve got one now and everybody in the whole world will know where it is.”
Indeed. No doubt travel agents worldwide were fast at work setting up week-long tours at this very moment. I smiled. “That sounds great.”
She did not return my smile, just pointed the remote at the TV and clicked it off. “The new falls is built right off the main highway so as to be a showpiece for those coming into town from the north. It’s really quite nice, of national landmark quality. I can’t wait for you to see it.”
See it? Why would I want to see it? My stomach gurgled, accompanied by an all-too-familiar queasy feeling. That crash course in self-preservation back in July taught me a healthy respect for my internal early warning system and I intended to pay attention. “I’ll see the falls one of these days, Mother. I’m sure it’s very nice, but I’ll just wait until the big crowds die down, you know I just hate crowds.”
Lucille stood and patted her fluffed but sturdy pinkish hair. Since I’d last seen her, she’d done a little tweaking to the color of her trademark bouffant and I didn’t much like it, not that I was stupid enough to say so.
She gave me a sly glance. “I rather expected you’d want to go to the celebration tomorrow. All of your old friends will be there.”
Uh huh, and that was another problem. There was only one old friend I cared anything at all about seeing, and she very well knew which one that was.
“Jerry Don Parker’s going to be there,” she said, right on cue.
I’d seen it coming, but the statement still hit me like a punch to the gut. If the truth be told–and I’d darn well prefer it wasn’t–I had been looking forward to getting down here so I could see Jerry again.
Obviously, she knew that and was now using it to get me to do what she wanted. I could turn my back on a 125-year historic event and the unveiling of a brand-new fake waterfall, but I couldn’t turn my back on my old high school sweetheart–or so she thought.
“Sure, Jerry will probably be there, along with ninety-nine thousand other people,” I said, putting a little bravado and swagger in my voice. “I’m also sure he’ll have his kids with him.”
Jerry’s children were eight and eleven, good-looking, polite and all around well behaved. And I didn’t want to deal with them.
You see, I’ve already raised my brood. Yes, I mean raised, like on a farm, in a barn, with the pigs, and so on. Jerry’s children, however, are being reared by his sweet ex-wife Amy. He has a good ten years left on his parental sentence, whereas my debts are almost paid off. My little darlings are exactly where kids should be–living far away with others of their kind.
Okay, I’m kidding. I love my children dearly. We three weathered some tough times together and have moved to the stage where we’re almost friends. Matt and Sarah are great people. Both are honor students at college and I’m very proud of them. They’re proud of me too, particularly when they need money.
“Hey, how about my kids, Mother? You haven’t asked about them,” I said, deftly steering the conversation away from Jerry. “You probably don’t know it, but this semester at college has been tough.”
Lucille sighed dramatically. “I just talked to them both this morning, Jolene. My little angels are doing just wonderfully and you very well know it.”
Yes, I knew it. I knew a lot of things, like the fact that Lucille called her grandchildren often, which was just peachy, but what kind of peeved me was that they called her just as frequently. Weren’t eighteen and twenty year-olds supposed to be preoccupied with themselves and never call unless they wanted something? Sort of seemed to work that way with me.
I didn’t much like where that train of thought was headed so I stood up, ready to retreat to my old bedroom.
“You know,” Lucille said, lilting her voice to snag my attention. “Merline’s cousin over in Bowman City said it’s just a crime the way women are throwing themselves at Jerry Don these days.”
That stopped me in my tracks.
“Why, I guess he just can’t go anywhere in peace anymore. Mothers even pushing their nearly teenage daughters on him, if you can imagine,” she said, implying that she could very well imagine it. “Suppose it’s to be expected, him being the sheriff and available and all, not to mention real good-looking …”
Having deftly set the hook, she swiveled around and pranced off to the kitchen.
My mother had no doubts that I would follow her. All catfish are drawn to stink bait–they just can’t help themselves–and neither could I.
With my heart thundering in my chest and my teeth clenching spasmodically, I watched her fill a glass of water from her special purified jug in the fridge and suddenly decided I could use a little drink myself. Water wasn’t my first choice at the moment, but I really don’t like liquor and my beloved Dr Pepper would keep me wired all night–no matter how tired I was. Imagining hordes of women slobbering after Jerry wasn’t going to help either.
As Mother reeled me in with a knowing smirk, she also grabbed a fresh glass from the cabinet and filled it from the jug. Holding it out to me, she said, “I wasn’t implying that Jerry Don was taken with any of the girls or anything, mind you, just that he’s being pursued.”
I snatched the cold glass of water and was a little surprised it didn’t start boiling in my hand. I took a sip. “Nice try, Mother, but I’m not biting. I don’t care who’s drooling after Jerry. It doesn’t have a thing at all to do with me.”
It was a lie, of course, and she knew it as well as I did. If indeed women were falling at his feet–and I fully suspected they were–I darn well wanted to know every single one of their names and home addresses–not to mention dates of birth and bra sizes.
Lucille flicked her acrylic claws as if shooing flies. “Well, he is quite a catch, and I’m sure there are plenty of women that would be more than happy to take care of his children if they got Jerry Don in the bargain.”
She paused for effect and took another sip of water. When she was darned good and ready, she said, “Really, Jolene, under the unfortunate circumstances, it wouldn’t hurt you to befriend his children. Those poor little things could use a good role model.”
Me? A role model? This was definitely a new development since I couldn’t recall a single time I’d ever made a parenting decision that the Queen Mother had agreed with. I don’t think she’d ever been straightforward in saying so, but it was clearly implied that Matt and Sarah had turned out to be intelligent and decent human beings due to their grandmother’s remote influence, and in spite of my daily one.
“Jerry’s kids have their mother,” I said, pointing out the obvious and ignoring the fact that I had to actually have a relationship with Sheriff Parker for any of this to even matter. “Besides, I’m sure you’ll cheerfully agree that compared to me, Amy Parker is a saint.”
“Well, yes,” Lucille said, not even bothering to try to placate me. “Amy’s a sweet, good-natured, darling girl.” She looked at me and fluttered her eyelashes.
I fluttered back. “What’s your point?”
Lucille toyed with a dangly earring of multi-colored beads. “Well, it’s just that I heard Amy has herself another girlfriend now…”
She left the sentence hanging there, just begging me to pick it up, but I was not about to get into that conversation–not no way, not no how. I let her stew for a bit as I slowly sipped down the rest of the nice cool water, which had amazingly simmered me down to just barely “hot under the collar” and slipping toward “merely amused.”
“Well,” I said, setting the glass on the counter. “Sounds like every woman in the county is either after Jerry or his ex-wife. Statistically speaking, that’s pretty darned amazing. But, I don’t see that Amy’s love life is any of my business.” Or yours, Mother, I conveyed with a pointed look. “Ready for bed?”
Lucille put the jug of water away. “Have you talked to him much?”
Him obviously meaning Sheriff Jerry Don Parker. I like to call him my Texas James Bond, kind of a Pierce Brosnan with a rumbling twang, but not to his face, of course. I couldn’t help but smile at the image. And yes, oh yes, I’d talked to him–a lot. “He called a few times to see how I was doing.”
The truth of the matter was that Jerry and I had talked at least twice a week and sometimes twice a day. We chatted about old times, new times, personal things, family things, and other things, but he hadn’t mentioned women falling at his feet, Amy’s new girlfriend, the big city celebration or the new waterfall. Probably because he knew I wouldn’t care–at least about the falls.
I hadn’t made a point of telling him that I’d be in town for my mother’s birthday either, for a similar reason. Not that he wouldn’t care, exactly, I just didn’t want him to feel obligated to see me. A long-distance phone friend was one thing. Showing up back in town as a face-to-face friend was quite another, and I wanted to do that privately.
“Well then,” Lucille said, rather smugly. “I’m sure he’ll be anxious to see for himself that you’re doing okay. Why, you absolutely must give him a call in the morning and let him know you’ll see him at the falls.”
The trap, like a snare around a rabbit’s foot, came full circle and yanked shut. Lucille Jackson is very good at this sort of thing, but I’m not that easy to manipulate. She knew I wanted to see Jerry, but I’d chew off my leg before I let her think she could tell me what to do.
“I’ll see him later,” I said, quite nonchalantly. “Besides, this is such a special event, I wouldn’t want to intrude on his time with his kids.”
She frowned a little and pursed her lips, but having been trained by the master, I continued with my rebuttal before she could respond. “I’ll just stay here at the house, out of the way. Merline and Agnes won’t know what to do if you’re not right there with them, so you just go on and have a good time. Don’t worry about me. I need to get things ready for your party anyway, you know, and that’s going to take quite a while. Yes, this year’s going to be a doozy. I need some time to pull things together, pick up the cake, that sort of thing.”
Lucille gave me a stern look, apparently unimpressed by either my enthusiasm for her party or my lame attempts at playing her game. I might have studied at the feet of the passive-aggressive master, but I was not an adept student.
“I’m going to the celebration tomorrow, Jolene, and you’re going to take me,” she said, cutting to the chase.
I moved my jaw up and down a few times, searching for some really clever refusal-type words, but managed only gurgled moans.
“Now, listen, missy, I’ve already told Agnes and Merline that I couldn’t go with them because you were going to be here and I knew you’d want the two of us to go together. Everyone is expecting you to be there with me and you darn well will be.”
Beads of sweat suffused my skin in a mighty hot flash, and I swallowed a very un-daughterly groan. This was not good. Not good at all. I knew better than to take the upfront approach and “just say no.” That would earn me the cold shoulder for the entire time I had to be here. Of course, I could just leave and go back to Colorado, always a lovely idea, but that would earn me a cold shoulder for the rest of my life–yes, I fully expected to die first as Lucille will live to be at least 143. Besides, I am an only child and she is my only living relative other than my children. Damn.
With another gurgle of my stomach, inspiration struck. “Well, I suppose I can try to take you to the big event tomorrow, if I’m up to it. That long trip down from Colorado is a killer, you know. I’m really not feeling all that great.” I rubbed my temples. “Headache, stomachache…” I wasn’t lying either.
“I’m sure you’ll feel just fine in the morning,” she said, entirely too sure of the matter. “Now, get some sleep. We’ve got a big day ahead of us.”
I tried to smile encouragingly while looking as sickly as I could. “Maybe a good night’s rest will help. I just hope I can sleep.” I stopped and frowned. That sounded like my mother’s voice coming out of my mouth, and it did not have a melodious ring to it. Maybe I’d learned more from Mother dear than I’d thought–and that was not a good thing. “See you in the morning,” I said, but not with enthusiasm.
Lucille flicked off the kitchen light and trotted to her bedroom, no doubt grinning smugly.
I did my own about-face, turned out the light in the living room and marched back to my corner, giving myself a scathing what-for every step of the way. I was an adult, for godsakes. I didn’t have to do what my mother told me to anymore. If I didn’t want to go to the stupid fake-rocks-and-fire-hose show tomorrow I darn well didn’t have to. And I’d tell her just exactly that first thing in the morning.
I could be sick if I wanted to. So there.