This is Part 7 of a serial story. The story began here.
It was a pleasant drive to Pampa. For a gal like me, raised on the plains, the sight of big blue skies is a balm to the soul. If only the grass was green. But the drought had reduced every stalk and leaf to a sickly yellow-brown. I'd even heard tell that horses were beginning to starve throughout the plains. People couldn't afford feed to supplement the non-existent grazing, so they abandoned their horses to die. A rescue agency in near Amarillo took in as many as they could, but now their resources were stretched to the breaking point.
I shook my head and turned up the volume on the CD player. There was no room on the drive for depressing thoughts. I was determined to enjoy myself.
Heck, who was I kidding. I didn't want the drive to end. When it did, I'd have to deal with Steve. The thought made my stomach churn. Literally.
My first stop when I reached Pampa was the drugstore. There must be some anti-nausea medication especially designed for family reunions. I roamed the aisles, a little aimless, and came away with two books of Sodoku puzzles and a bottle of Tums.
In line at the register, I fiddled with my smartphone. What did we do in lines before someone invented a computer small enough to carry in our pockets?
“Maryanne Wells? Is that you?” someone behind me asked.
I turned around. A woman and a girl stood behind me, smiling expectantly. The girl I couldn't place, but the woman seemed familiar.
“DeeDee?” I asked uncertainly.
The woman beamed. “You do remember me,” she said. “I almost didn't recognize you, at first. But your stance is exactly like your mother's and your aunt's. Did you know that?”
“No, I didn't. I didn't think I resembled my mother in the least.”
DeeDee laughed. “You do, know it or not. Speaking of mothers and daughters, let me introduce you to my daughter. This is Alayna. Alayna, say hello to Maryanne Wells. Her mother's family used to live in Pampa. You've seen her cousin in the Nutcracker.”
Alayna and I shook hands. Here was a girl who did look like her mother, in all the best ways. She had the soft smile of an honest soul, and the eyes of an artist. I guessed her to be somewhere in her teens.
“I like your hat,” I remarked, taking in the sequined number on Alayna's head.
“Thank you,” the girl said shyly.
“Doesn't she have great fashion sense?” bragged DeeDee. And for once, a bragging mother was right. Alayna's whole outfit bespoke a sense of personal style you didn't normally see in a girl her age. She didn't just copy what she saw in fashion magazines. She wore what was right for her. Remarkable. I wondered if she could give me some tips.
“So, are you still working at the local dance studio?” I asked DeeDee. My cousin Steve had taken lessons at the Pampa ballet studio years ago, before his family moved to Lubbock. I'd met DeeDee following one of Steve's performances. It was back in the days when the Mackenzie's and the Wells' were still speaking.
“Oh, yes. In fact, I own it now. You know, we're already getting ready for the Nutcracker.”
“I thought the Nutcracker was performed near Christmas.”
“But...this is October.”
DeeDee and Alayna both laughed. “We start planning during the summer. And auditions aren't far away,” DeeDee informed me. “Will Steve be joining us again this year?”
“I don't know. Isn't he a little old to play the nephew-turned-prince?”
“Of course. But he comes back every year, to play a parent in the party scene.”
I didn't believe it. But DeeDee sounded certain, and Alayna was nodding her head.
“Uh, well, we haven't discussed the Nutcracker,” I said uncomfortably. “That is, it didn't come up the last time we talked.”
Dang it, I hate socially awkward moments like that. The whole world thinks everything's going just great in your family, and you want them to go on believing it. So you play hide the truth with fumbled words and awkward phrases.
“Maybe Steve will come by the studio this week and let you know, Mom,” said Alayna.
“Is Steve in town?” DeeDee asked.
“I guess so. Judge Miller is supposed to meet with the lawyers on the haunted house case this week. I heard it at school.”
“Alayna,” her mother scolded. She looked at me uncertainly then looked away.
“But Mom, everyone knows the house is haunted.”
I leaned forward eagerly. “Do you mean the Johnson house?” I asked.
“Yes,” DeeDee said reluctantly. “Though I must say that I don't believe in ghosts.”
“Renee does,” Alayna said. “She tried to have dinner with Mrs. Johnson once and the ghost scared her half to death.”
“That's enough, Alayna.”
“No, wait,” I said. “I want to hear more. The truth is,” I paused and took a deep breath. “The truth is, I'm in town because of the case. I'm supposed to help Steve with the ghost part of it.”
DeeDee looked at me curiously. “Do you have experience with these things?”
“Sort of,” I hedged. “The local priest contacted me. It was his idea to have me assist Steve.”
“Oh, Father Blackman. I see.”
Alayna fidgeted a little. “Should I go get Renee?” she asked her mother.
“What do you mean?”
“I saw her in the shampoo aisle. She can tell Maryanne about the ghost.”
DeeDee considered it. “Yes, get Renee,” she said at last.