The earth shuddered through all of Kiminee when Jeff’s red semi rumbled and grumbled toward Missy’s home. The elders residing at Touch of Kindness rest home gripped armrests and bed rails. Grant, at Kiminee Five ‘N Dime, slapped and bumped down aisles, trying to keep needle packets, spools of thread, buttons, greeting cards, shoelaces and polish, costume jewelry and bins of penny candies from clattering onto the scuffed wooden floor. Chester Dillard did the same with nails, curtain rods, nuts and bolts, locks, paint cans, and so forth at the hardware store. Students at the academy hid under their desks. Animals in fields stood frozen in fright. The coleus on Earl’s desk rolled leaves to stem and bowed. Owls awoke from their daytime slumber and who-who’d like beaky foghorns.
Some folks thought the commotion was the onset of Armageddon; others were sure the Russians had messed with the atmosphere and created a new kind of thunder strong enough to penetrate soil and rock. A few assumed a heretofore-unknown geologic fault had growled to life. Whatever the cause, everyone in town was soon on the move, eager to see what was going on. A brilliant double rainbow greeted them, though no drops had fallen and no clouds were adrift in the pale blue sky.
It wasn’t long before a crowd gathered at Missy’s, awestruck by the sight of the vehicle, which had grown longer and louder as it made its way through town. By the time it grunted and hissed to a halt at Missy’s curb, it was about 10 percent bigger than it used to be.
When things finally calmed, Jeff and Maxine creaked open their respective doors. But Velda scrunched herself into a little ball in the back of the cab. “Close the doors. I’m not ready. I can’t,” she blurted loud enough for people closest to the truck to hear. “If I’d stayed, Carly Mae wouldn’t have been taken. She’d still be here. No one will ever forgive me. “
People pressed toward the truck, attempting to get within earshot. Two teenagers even vaulted onto the engine hood and saw Maxine reach back, pat Velda’s arm and say, “Of course you can. We talked about this. And I’m here for you. We’ll live here permanently if need be.”
Jeff pounded the windshield and shooed the teens away. With gleeful whoops, they jumped down, and soon everyone knew who was in the truck and what they were doing. The minutes ticked on and on and on some more. It seemed an eternity that Jeff and Maxine worked to coax Velda outside, but only two members of the cheese co-op left the scene, and that’s because a curious cloud of smoke rose from their processing plant, and they feared something had gone wrong with their signature Kiminee cheese, which was created by Tempest Binsack’s daughter Gloria and sold like crazy at both Suzette’s and the Five ‘N Dime. The rest of the group stayed put like ticket holders at a raffle, hoping their numbers would soon be called.
Then Maxine opened her door wide and leaned out.
Maridee Pratt gasped at the sight of her glorious red hair. “My goodness. She looks like a goddess,” she whispered to Tempest, who was gaping at the sight of the svelte, young stranger.
“A veritable siren,” Tempest whispered back.
Maxine climbed down and held the door open for Velda, who emerged moments later—to a series of gasps observers could not repress, because the Velda they saw reaching for Maxine’s hand bore little resemblance to the Velda they knew and loved.
“Wha’s up with that hair stretchin’ below her shoulders like a big ole patch a crabgrass? And look at that beaded headband ‘cross her forehead,” Abby Louise said to Tam-Tam, who gripped her arm for support.
“She ain’t no Indian. Band looks downright silly on ‘er,” Tam-Tam griped.
Nearby Maridee confided in Tempest. “I swear she’s lost her sense of style. I mean, look at that thin top with spaghetti straps and no bra. No bra! Missy will be fit to be tied.”
“That skirt’s a conundrum, too,” Tempest replied. “Looks like it’s made from a bunch of old men’s ties sewn together.”
With so many eyes trained on her, Velda quivered as she walked up the path with Maxine. Jeff was close behind, followed by several people trying to get near enough to hear what they might say.
Moments later they reached the porch, and Missy flung open her door. If anything about her daughter’s appearance shook her equilibrium, she didn’t let on. She just grabbed Velda so tight everyone could feel the squeeze, even those muttering across the street about who Velda’s new friends might be and where she’d been.
When Missy finally released Velda, she waved to the crowd and said, “My baby’s home. Thank the Lord!” She ushered Velda and Maxine inside, but Jeff stopped at the door, shook Missy’s hand, and said he had to get right home to his sweet wife, Barbara, at the Good Luck Café.
“Nonsense,” Missy declared. “You’re not leavin’ here without a good meal in ya, and at least one picnic basket of goodies for the road, including a couple slices of pineapple upside down cake fresh baked today—one for you and one for your missus.”
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