Read Wildwood Creek Online

Authors: Lisa Wingate

Tags: #FIC042000, #FIC042040, #FIC027020, #Missing persons—Fiction

Wildwood Creek (23 page)

BOOK: Wildwood Creek
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Did Blake Fulton play his own game, I wondered? Or was he forced into someone else’s? Was that what kept him up wandering at night?

The conversation died out, and we sat silent, me leaning on the window frame, and Blake kicking back on the wood-box, his long legs crossed at the knee, where his trousers were tucked into the stovepipe boots.

I took another sip of the coffee, grimaced, and swallowed it.

“You don’t have to drink that if you don’t want to.”

Shaking my head, I tasted it again. It started to grow on you after your mouth got numb. “You forget that in less than an hour, the schoolhouse fills up, and before that, Wren comes for morning go-live. Wren Godley and caffeine withdrawals all at the same time are
not
a good thing.”

“I get your point.” His eyes took on a golden hue as the early rays of sunlight pressed over the bluffs. “She’s a handful, isn’t she. Poor kid.”

“Poor
kid
?” The liquid in my cup splashed over the windowsill. “That’s no kid—that’s Atilla the Hun in a pint-size body. Without her, the school-teaching thing would be easy. Well, not easy, but it would be doable. Literally every time I turn my back, she’s starting a fight with somebody over something. And if she’s not, she’s catching me in some corner where the remote cameras can’t find us, and she’s telling me
everything
I’m doing wrong.”

“She’s just looking for a friend.” He pointed to a bluebird hopping across the dusty grass. The bird’s feathers cast a flash of brilliant color as it flitted off. “Give her a little time. You’ll
win her over with your charm and undeniable enthusiasm for the teaching job.” It took me a moment to decide that he was joking. By then, the part about
charm
had already flowed over me like warm water.

“You overrate the power of the force, Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

A quizzical frown turned my way. “So why do you do that?”

“What?” I was instantly embarrassed. The
Star Wars
reference was probably dorky.

“Brush it off or change the subject when someone tries to pay you a compliment?” The intensity of his gaze made me draw back.

A half-dozen child psychologists would love to know the answer to that question
. My mother had been merciless about therapy after my father’s death, even through my teenage years. As if there’s something abnormal about a girl who can’t let go of the father she loved and just . . . move on to a new father who never really wanted her around.

Blake didn’t need to know all that, of course. It was ancient history.

Fortunately, I was spared from coming up with an answer. The front door of the schoolhouse slammed, and the noise rattled the building. A moment later, the apartment door burst open, and Wren waltzed in like she owned the place. She was scheduled to arrive a half hour before the start of school each morning so the cameras could do a short go-live of the beginning of the daily domestic routine that Bonnie Rose and Maggie might have shared.

I glanced at the small antique clock on the shelf above my cookstove. Morning go-live was in less than fifteen minutes. I’d been so caught up in the coffee conversation with Blake that time had slipped by.

Wren was late, actually, and she was a mess. Rather than having been neatly plaited into the usual braids, her hair was
a wild frizz—like Einstein after a trip through a wind tunnel. I knew that look. I’d arrived at elementary school with it many times.

Outside the window, Blake stood up, calmly checking his pocket watch as Wren raced through the room in a tizzy and slammed a fabric-wrapped bundle onto the table. “Here’s the stupid breakfast. I hope it’s better than the last time. I think that lady who lives in the Hendrick house gave us her old leftover biscuits yesterday. I don’t know why I have to pick up the breakfast stuff from somebody in the village instead of just bringing food from Crew Camp, anyway. It’s way better than this crap.”

Blake leaned in the window, pulling the string on the bundle and ferreting out a piece of bacon. “Good morning to you too, Wren.” He smiled at Wren and winked at me.

Wren ignored him completely. “You gotta fix my hair.” She handed me a hairbrush along with two blue ribbons. “I want these. And
not
two stupid braids either. One braid, over the shoulder, horsetail style. One ribbon at the top. One at the bottom. It’s more mature. That’s what they were wearing at the Emmys this year.”

“I’m not much of a hair fixer, can you tell?” I offered up my own as an example.

Wren rolled a scathing look my way, surveying the extravaganza on my head, which I would somehow have to stuff into the snood in thirty seconds or less. Snoods, I had discovered, were amazing things. When I was finished in Wildwood, I intended to make it my life’s work to bring snoods back into style. You could cram a tangled, dirty, frizzy thick mess into a snood, and it looked pretty good.

“Yeah, I can see that.” Bracing her hands on her hips, she filled the room with pure adolescent attitude. The lovely warmth of morning coffee time was gone.
Poof.

Blake checked his pocket watch again, then stepped away from the window, since he wasn’t supposed to be there for go-live.

“Use the force, Luke Skywalker,” he offered as parting advice.

A puff of private laughter slipped past my lips, and Wren shot an annoyed look toward the window, suspecting an inside joke. “What
ever
. Maybe
you
better go down to the claims office instead of hanging around here drinking coffee and
stealing
our bacon. Two guys already got in a fight down there this morning. I heard that people’ve been lined up since, like, three a.m. waiting for the thing to open, so they can get their papers and go digging for gold. I thought
you
were supposed to be Mr. Law and Order around here. Isn’t that your
real
job?”

Blake blinked, surprised, his brows darting upward momentarily. Then he walked away without another word.

“So, what do you mean, his
real
job? How do you know why he’s here?” I turned to Wren expectantly. Maybe I was finally going to solve the mystery of Blake Fluton, albeit through an unlikely source.

She made a show of checking her fingernails for dirt. “I look. I listen. I get around. You should try it sometime. You might learn something.” Grabbing the ribbons again, she shoved them my way. “You better fix my hair before we’re live. I can’t go on camera like this, now
can
I?”

“If you don’t stop talking to me like that, you can.”

“What
ever
.”

“You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.” I had the sisterly urge to take the blue hair ribbons and use them to somehow tie her mouth shut. It really seemed wrong that a face so cute could spew such a constant stream of ugliness. “You know what, Wren? If you wouldn’t insult people and boss
them around and snap at them all the time, they’d like you a lot better.”

“I don’t
care
.” A narrow-eyed look came my way as she turned her back to me. “Now fix my hair. Hurry up.”

“Everyone
cares
if people like them.”

She swiveled fully then, blinking at me, her lashes finally holding at half-mast. “
You
care too
much
if people like you.”

“Maybe you can just figure out the hair for yourself, then. Since you’re so
smart
about everything.” She was sucking me in, pushing every button, and I knew it. This kid understood the psychology of insults better than anyone I’d ever met.

Then, for a fraction of a second, there was a flash of emotion in that freckled face—vulnerable, wounded, needy. “Well, maybe if my stupid
mother
wasn’t totally out of it this morning, my hair would be done already. There
isn’t
anybody else
but
you, okay?” The faintest quiver teased her mouth, the muscles straining in her neck.

Suddenly, I was an eleven-year-old girl, struggling to do something with my ridiculous hair that wouldn’t get me laughed at in school, my mother too busy with new babies to worry about it.

A wave of sympathy came in, powerful and unexpected. “How about a snood? I have an extra one.” Wren shrugged, looking down at her hands, and I added, “Snoods are very mature.”

When the cameras in the room went live, Wren and I were fixing hair—a lovely, pastoral scene between sisters in the soft morning light, sweet as a dusting of powdered sugar.

As I smoothed her tangled locks and worked to twist and cram them into the snood, she chattered brightly about 1861 life, how interesting the school lessons were, the challenges of living without running water, and how much work it was carrying buckets, which to my knowledge she had never done.

Irregardless, she hammed it up for the cameras, waxing nostalgic about the absolute darkness of the night sky here and the fact that, in the wilderness, neighbors were forced to depend on one another. Back home, she didn’t even
know
her neighbors.

“Isn’t it fun spending so much
time
with your
neighbor
? Like sharing
coffee
in the morning and things. Isn’t that
awesome
?” She turned toward the camera, flashing her baby blues in total innocence.

“Mmm-hmn.” I yanked the hair harder than I needed to, attaching the snood into place.

“Ouch!” She giggled good-naturedly.

“Done.” I grabbed my own snood and rolled and stuffed my hair into it. “You look adorable.”

“Thank you.” Voicing the little nicety clearly hurt.
Thank you
was one of Wren’s least favorite expressions.

We ate breakfast while she chattered on about life in Wildwood, offering lines that were far beyond the scope of an eleven-year-old. Her mom had clearly been rehearsing with her.

As we finished our go-live and gathered our things for school, I motioned to our reflection in the wardrobe door mirror. “Behold, the magic of the snood. The solution for bad hair days, antique-style.”

“Great, now we look like
twinsies
.” Things were back to normal now that the cameras were off. “This stupid thing itches.”

“I could take it out.”
Really, really fast. I could.

“Well . . . it’s already done now.” On the way out the door, my pretend sister stopped one more time at the mirror to admire her snooded self.

Chapter 20

A
LLIE
K
IRKLAND
J
UNE
, P
RESENT
D
AY

T
he school day was typical enough. Pretty good at times, something of a zoo at others. School hours were shorter than what would probably have been normal in the actual town of Wildwood. As usual, we ended with lunch pails around a wooden table outside. Two cameramen with handhelds stood nearby, and a grip held a boom mike overhead as the kids reviewed their lessons.

When they drifted away to play stickball, Wren was, as always, not invited to participate on either team. Typically, she wandered off behind the cedar trees to hide from the cameras, pretending to be headed to the outhouse.

Today, however, she followed me back into the school and sulked in a corner as I finished cleaning up and put things in place for another day. This afternoon, I needed to do laundry, a monumental chore, but on a teacher’s salary, I couldn’t afford to have it done at the bathhouse, and after only three days live, every bit of my daily wear felt sweaty, crusty, and disgusting.

“Why don’t you get in on the stickball game? I’ll go out there with you, if you want,” I suggested.

“It’ll mess up my costume. You don’t have to try to get
rid
of me, you know. I’m not hurting anything in here.” She rolled a petulant look my way.

“Never mind, then. I just thought you might have more fun outside.”

“Stickball is stupid.” A little sneer, and her head fell back against the wall. “Where’s the dumb zookeeper? I wanna get outta here. I need a soda. Now.”

“She should be here any minute.” The production assistant was late coming to get the kids. Just yesterday we’d been reminded of the need for them to travel with a handler until they were back in their parents’ care. A team of massive draft horses had spooked and careened through the set, nearly mowing down a little girl who didn’t see them coming. It was a quick and almost tragic lesson in the dangers of nineteenth-century life.

Wren wandered through the schoolhouse door and onto the porch, scuffing her shoes against the rough wood.

“Hello! Holy cow!” Suddenly, she was jumping off the porch and running toward town. A moment later a completely foreign sound split the air, the noise out of sync with 1861.

A siren?
I’d barely registered the thought when the two cameramen with handhelds and my entire group of kids bolted up the street, dodging wagons, pedestrians, confused cast members on horseback, and various dogs and cats that wandered the set.

I dashed after the kids, yelling, “Stop! Hey! You guys, stop! Now!” What were the cameramen thinking, letting the kids take off? “Hey! I said, stop!”

But no one was listening. We’d reached the edge of the chaos near Unger’s Store before I caught up and started gathering my students into a group off to the side. The noise of the sirens had brought everyone in the village running. Nearby,
horses balked and tugged their reins, loose chickens ran for the cover of crawl spaces under buildings, and two dogs got in a fight. A team of paramedics was coming down the hill from crew camp with a stretcher.

Nick’s mom spotted us and hurried over to help with the kids.

“Mallory, what’s going on?” I stood on my toes, trying to get a glimpse over the crowd, but all I could see were dresses, hats, heads, and people whispering. In the distance, the sound of another siren slowly grew louder.

Between two shoulders, I caught a flash of someone dragging a man to his feet by a set of handcuffs. Was that Blake standing over the man? The crowd shifted, and I couldn’t see anything.

Wren climbed onto a pile of crates to get a better view. “Whoa! The set medic has a guy on a body board thingy in front of Unger’s Store, and he’s, like, all
bloody
!”

Mallory leaned close to me. “I didn’t hear all the details, but there was some kind of fight outside the land office this morning—something about claims. Security broke it up. They sent the guys away to cool off, but then the two of them got into it again this afternoon. By the time it was over, one man came after the other with a bowie knife, right in the middle of the set. This whole thing is way too authentic for me, especially with kids around.” She rested her hands on Nick’s shoulders with a look of concern. “If it’s like this after only a couple of days . . .”

“They’re messing with peoples’ minds. That’s what they’re doing.” Kim had threaded her way through the chaos and found us.

“It’s seriously creepy, watching motives change.” Mallory took in the crowd, perhaps wondering how she’d write about this as she documented the Wildwood project. “A week ago
everyone was just excited to be here and to learn pioneer skills. It was all about neighbor-help-neighbor, about building a community. Now all anyone I interview can talk about is how fast they can get their claim staked and start looking for gold, and who’s going to find it. The people who have town jobs—the ones who were
thrilled
during the training period because they get the more comfortable places to live—are mad now. They want a chance at the million dollars in ore. It’s nuts, and to tell you the truth, even though all of this will make an interesting story, I’m not sure I’m ready to report a modern-day gold rush. For now I think I’ll just take Nick back up to crew camp and hang out. He really doesn’t need to see all this.”

“I don’t blame you.” I looked at the rest of the kids, now trying to climb atop the crates with Wren so they, too, could get a look at the bloody man being prepared for medical transport. “I think I’ll take the kids back to school and wait until the street clears, then walk them up to crew camp if the production assistants haven’t come for them by then.”

“I’ll help you,” Kim offered.

We gathered the kids and herded them down the street with Wren offering everyone a blow-by-blow of what she had seen. The others were wide-eyed, listening.

“That’s enough, Wren. Everyone doesn’t need to hear all about it.”

She crossed her arms and stomped ahead of us, sulking when the other kids finally took off toward the school building in a loosely orchestrated footrace.

I moved closer to Kim, hugging my arms, a chill crawling over my skin despite the heat of the day. Suddenly, the atmosphere in Wildwood felt oppressive and strange. Dangerous. “What happened up there? Did you see any of it?”

Kim pushed her bonnet back, scratching her head. “I
didn’t see it, but I heard two guys got in a fight over gold claims. One of them actually pulled a knife, which was pretty stupid of him, because the other guy had a rock pick. Anyway, the one guy almost beat the other guy into oblivion. Your neighbor pulled him off and did a takedown on him in the street.”

“Blake?”

“Yes, Blake. He probably saved the guy’s life. Well, that’s what I heard anyway. When I got down there it’d been over for a while. On-site medical was tending to the one guy, Blake had the other guy cuffed on the porch, and the county sheriff was on the way, along with the ambulance.”

“That’s awful.” I thought about what Wren had said, about preventing fights at the land office being Blake’s job.

Kim stopped walking before we reached the school, her blue eyes floating in a pool of tears. “I just wanna go home. I hate it here. I know I was the one who was all excited about it, but I’m really sorry I got you into this. I just . . . I don’t think I have it in me. I’m tired, I’m lonely, I’m sore, I’m scared out of my mind I’ll step on a snake or get eaten by a coyote every time I have to walk to the outhouse after dark. There are
mice
in my room at night. I smell awful, and I’m already sick of other people’s laundry and disgusting tub water. My hands are so cracked up, they’re bleeding. I feel like my fingers are gonna fall off. I thought this would be some great big adventure, but it’s so . . . physically and mentally hard. I want to quit.”

Taking her hands in mine, I looked at the damage. “I have some salve you can use on that. It’s in my medical kit for the school.” I tried to tamp down her panic as my own was rising. Even though she and I hardly ever saw each other in the course of a normal day here, just knowing she was nearby made village life doable. “You can’t leave.”

Her head dropped forward and tears trailed her cheeks. “I can’t do it, Allie. I’m not as strong as you.”

“Yes you are. You’re stronger than I ever thought about being.”

“The lives these women led in bathhouses and saloons were awful, Allie. They weren’t anything like you see on
Gunsmoke
. It’s sad to think that mostly these were just young girls. Teenagers. I don’t know how they did it, but I guess there’s not enough pioneer in me. Besides that, I miss Jake so much I’m going crazy. I just want to talk to him.”

She was cracking. The part of me that loved my best friend desperately wanted to make it all better, and the part of me that didn’t want to be left alone here was just plain desperate. “If you could talk to him, would it help?” The question was out before I really had time to think about the implications.

Kim wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “I don’t want to be a quitter . . . I just . . . Wait, what did you say?”

“If you could talk to him, would it make a difference?”

“Why?”

I took a breath, then plunged into the story about the iPhone and Stewart. For half a second, Kim looked like she was seriously considering decking me with a left hook. We’d be the next two in handcuffs, facedown on the street.

“You have
got
to be kidding. You’ve been watching me go
crazy
all this time, and you had an
iPhone
hidden away? A
phone
, like I
asked
you to bring for me, and you
wouldn’t
? So
Stewart
could give you some information about
Bonnie Rose
. Seriously? Some woman who died way back when means more to you than I do?”

“It was a last-minute decision. Stewart was so excited about something he’d found. I didn’t want to disappoint him and . . . well . . . I want to know who Bonnie Rose really was, whether
all the terrible things they say about her are true. Maybe I can . . . clear her name or something. She deserves that, you know?”

“I do not
believe
you!” Kim got louder. Nearby, Wren trained a laser eye our way from her perch atop the picnic table.

“Just calm down, okay? So, here’s the thing. So far, I haven’t even been able to get off somewhere and check the phone again, anyway. Since go-live, there’s not exactly any leisure time in the day. So, if you
promise
, and I mean,
really
promise, not to get in trouble with it, I’ll give you the phone, and you can sneak away and call Jake. There’s decent reception down past the brush arbor toward the lake. Everybody’s so preoccupied right now, they won’t even notice. It’ll be a while before things settle back to normal, and if anybody asks where you were, you can just say you got upset and went for a walk or something.” Why did I have a terrible feeling I’d end up really regretting this?

Kim’s face brightened like the noonday sun emerging from behind a cloud. “I’ll find a place where no one can see and I’ll be quick, don’t worry.”

Checking the kids one more time, I led Kim through the schoolhouse and into my room. Something stopped me in the doorway. The chairs Wren and I had left askew this morning had been neatly tucked into their proper places, and atop the table a bouquet of freshly picked bluebells sat in a tin cup. How had those gotten there, and when? And who’d put the chairs back in order?

Maybe a production assistant had come by and rearranged things while I was out? When? During all the chaos down the street? Why?

In the window, the cheesecloth screen was slightly askew, as if someone had been unable to properly put it back in place from outside.

“What’s wrong?” Kim tried to peek over my shoulder into the room.

“Nothing.” Surely those flowers weren’t from . . . Blake Fulton? The idea lit a giddy little sparkler in my chest, which I extinguished immediately. Blake and I barely knew each other, and besides, he’d been busy breaking up fights, apparently.

I touched a finger to my lips as we entered the room, just in case anyone was still in the production center, monitoring cameras. Kim and I closed ranks in front of the corner cabinet, and I pretended to be loaning her the salve as I pulled the phone from its secret hiding place and held it in the folds of my skirt.

“Here it is. Be careful with it, okay? It’s easy to get carried away and use it too much.”

“Sure!” Kim was over the moon already. “I’ll be careful, I promise.” The iPhone quickly disappeared into the pocket along the side seam of her skirt, and she grabbed me in an impulsive hug. We rocked back and forth, sharing the embrace of pioneer women trying, as hundreds of generations had before us, to survive in the wilderness by bonding over important survival supplies . . . like iPhones.

“I can’t wait to talk to him,” she whispered against my ear. “I’ll take good care of the phone, I promise. I promise. I promise. I promise. And I won’t tell a soul.”

“Shhh!” I moved away from her and checked the cameras to make sure they weren’t running. “Okay, listen, I need to get back. I can’t hear the kids outside all of a sudden.” The two oldest schoolboys, Will and Nate, practically graduation age at twelve and thirteen, didn’t necessarily cotton to following the rules. “Just don’t get caught with it, okay? I know you miss Jake, but I can’t get kicked off this project, and you don’t really want to either.” I leaned down and made eye contact,
something I’d learned in my short stint as a pretend teacher. “You’re hearing me, right?”

“I get it, Allie. I do. I would never, ever do anything to mess up your chances for film school. I know how much it means to you. You know I love you, right?”

“Yes, I know.”
But I also know you’re leaving me for a man.
“You’d better take off before things get back to normal and they expect everyone to be in their places again. While you’re on the phone, check my email and see if there’s any Bonnie Rose information from Stewart, okay? If there’s something good on there, copy it and paste it into my notes app so I can get to it without cell service. And tell Stewart thanks and I can’t be in touch anymore, now that we’ve started go-live—it’s just too hard to get away. I’ll catch up with you later this evening to get my iPhone back. I’m going to turn it in when I get a chance to give it to someone who won’t rat me out.”

BOOK: Wildwood Creek
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