Book Three in the Appalachian Mountain Mysteries Series
Welcome the Little Children
“I don’t know what to do with this.”
I was working in the back of the store, and I could’ve sworn I heard someone calling me. But when I looked out front, no one was there.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard phantom customers. Probably wishful thinking, though over the past ten years, I had built up the trade at Coburn’s General Store, a small grocery I’d bought in Laurel Falls, N.C. (Not even the locals knew who Coburn was, but the name came with the deed. And no one would’ve called it anything else, no matter what I renamed it.)
I’d gone back to cutting a large round of cheddar into wedges when I heard: “I said, I don’t know what to do with this.”
That time I walked to the cheese counter and looked around. “Down here,” someone barked. “I want to know how to use this.”
I glanced down at a little girl dressed in standard-issue jeans and T-shirt who couldn’t have been more than seven years old. Her round, full face framed by blond curly hair frowned at me as she held up a bulging can of chickpeas.
“Some old woman gave this to us from the Rolling Store.”
“Oh, I see,” was all I could think to say. I’d learned that catch-all expression from my neighbor Mildred Bradshaw, perfect for times when I found myself at a loss for words. And the sight of a remarkably composed little girl holding a can of beans that could’ve blown any minute had that effect on me.
I stepped around the counter and bent down. “May I?” I asked, taking away the bean bomb and setting it on the floor behind the counter where it couldn’t do much harm. “The Rolling Store took its last run out of Laurel Falls in 1990, so you’ve had that can at least four years.”
“I don’t know about that,” she said, crossing her arms in front of her chest. “It was in the back of the cupboard when I was scrabbling for something to make dinner with. And like I’ve been trying to tell you, I don’t know what to do with it.”
“You’d better not do anything with it. It’s about to explode, well past its expiration date.”
“What a rip-off. You give away something that’s no good.” She punctuated her feelings with a stomp of her little sneaker-clad foot.
“I stand by my merchandise,” I said, motioning for her to follow me. “Why don’t you pick out something to replace it?”
Her frown eased as she wandered the aisles, picking up different items and studying them. Eventually, she grabbed a can and said, “I’ll swap for this.” A tin of Petrossian Caviar, something I stocked for a rich customer who ordered it more to impress her guests than a love of the delicacy. (Normally, no one else would be buying caviar at $90 a can, but this new customer was shaping up to be anything but normal.) I must have made a face at the costly swap, because the little imp started chuckling. “I was just kidding with you. I figured it was the most expensive thing in the store, whatever it is. How ‘bout this?” She held up a $4 can of salmon.
“Let’s make it two of those.” I reached for another can and set them both on the counter. “How many are you cooking for?
“Four, though Mama doesn’t eat much. But Daddy and my brother, Dee, eat plenty. I have to serve myself first to make sure I get enough nourishment.”
Why is this child shopping for her family and making and serving them dinner? I thought. And why isn’t she in school? Then I remembered it was Saturday. But still, something about the scene unnerved me.
She interrupted my thoughts. “I’m fussing over dinner because Mama’s sick,” she said, her hands on her hips, standing her ground.
I was trying hard to keep a promise to mind my own business. At least most days. A few years ago when I helped my next-door neighbor and best friend, Abit Bradshaw, track down a trio of con artists, I told everyone afterwards that I planned to stay clear of other people’s problems. They laughed, but I’d managed to confine my enduring reporter’s nosiness (from a former life) to friends and family.
Something about a little girl cooking for her father and brother irked me enough to ask more questions. She beat me to it.
“I know what you’re thinking. Why doesn’t my father do the cooking? He’s just awful at it, and I don’t think he’s fakin’ it. And my brother is only a little feller. Dee’s just six years old.”
I looked closer to make sure she wasn’t really a miniature adult. She was bossy and self-assured in a way I never was at her age. But I liked her spunk. “So, what’s your name?” I asked.
“Astrid.” She thrust out her chin in a defiant way.
“Oh, that’s a nice name. You don’t hear it much anymore.”
“Yeah, there’s a good reason for that. The kids at school make terrible fun of it.”
When I asked what they said about it, her face crump led, and I could tell she was struggling not to cry. “I’ll tell you what,” I added quickly. “Let’s not sully this space with anything from the schoolyard, okay?” She looked puzzled. “What I mean is, it’s a lovely name in my store. You can consider this a safe zone.” She nodded and relaxed her stance. “Why don’t we have a Coke or cookies or something?” I asked. “I’m starving.”
“Do you have anything that’s not sugary? I haven’t had any lunch, and I get a little dizzy if I eat sweets when I’m this hungry.”
“How old did you say you were?”
“I didn’t. But I’m eight years old. What’s it to you?”
Wow. That little bruiser didn’t hold back. If I were still a reporter writing profiles as I did back in D.C., I’d have started taking notes. I wondered again about her size and age—and worried she may not be getting the “nourishment” she needed.
I grabbed some of the cheddar cheese I’d been cutting and a few rounds of dry-cured salami, then sliced whole wheat bread and an apple. I set them on the table in the back and added a couple of fizzy waters. I wasn’t sure if a kid her age would like the sharp cheese and peppery meat, but she gobbled it all down, as if she thought she’d better stock up while she could. But I also got the impression she’d be a force to reckon with at her own dining table—she positioned her elbows in a way that told me she was well-practiced at protecting her food. I had to scramble to get some, though I didn’t care about that.
We finished our snack with coffee. I fixed hers like I used to for Abit—mostly milk with a slug of coffee. She drank that right down. When I opened a tin of chocolate chip cookies I’d made the night before, her eyes opened wide; she took two of the biggest ones.
While she ate them, systematically nibbling around the edges, I tried to think who she reminded me of. I chuckled when it hit me—Nancy Drew. I’d read all those books when I was a girl, and I still remembered how composed and worldly she seemed for someone her age. I asked Astrid if she’d read those books, too, but she wrinkled her nose.
“Actually,” she said between bites, “I prefer the Hardy Boys.” She wiped her mouth on a paper towel and asked, “Do you have any recipes for what to do with that salmon (pronounced SAL-man)? I don’t believe I’ve ever had it before.”
After I set her up in the back with a couple of easy cookbooks and paper and pen, she got busy copying. I had to explain what some words meant, but otherwise, she sailed along. As I cleared our plates and cups, I asked, “Say, Astrid, would you like this tin of cookies to take home?”
Her face lit up, but just as quickly a shadow fell over it. “I’d better not,” was all she said before returning to her recipes.
She was working away when I left to check on my dog, Jake. He was getting older, and I liked to bring him down to the store in the afternoon, once the nosy health inspector was safely on his way back to Newland after spot checks around the county.
As we came in the back door, I called out, “Hey, Astrid, I’d like you to meet my dog.” Jake was already sniffing around, eager to see who or what was new in the store. But she’d left. Just a slip of paper on the counter with the words: THANK YOU.
A sadness crept over me as I read her eight-year-old’s scrawl. The same feeling I had when I first saw her. I laid the note back on the counter and told myself I was being silly. She was just fine.
“Whoa! Stop! You almost backed into the band saw I’m running over here. Dangerously close to being like the butcher who backed into his meat grinder and got a little behind in his work.”
That was Shiloh. I’d hired him because, well, I was a little behind in my work. And he made some of the prettiest dovetail joints I’d ever seen. We’d met at The Hicks, or the Hickson School of American Studies in Boone, N.C. After my jaunt through the Virginia mountains to find con artists who’d messed with me and the school, I went back there to learn more about woodworking and wood carving. Two year ago, I moved home to Laurel Falls and set up my woodshop in a corner of the family barn. Next door to Della Kincaid, right where I wanted to be.
Della had seen somethin’ in me no one else ever had, and I didn’t want to venture too far from that. And she’d brainstorm with me sometimes when I was designing new furniture. So would Alex, her ex-husband and now boyfriend, when he wasn’t in D.C. or somewhere covering a news story.
Even though my woodshop stood in the shadow of my parents’ house, I liked working there. I’d taken out the dividing wall between two stalls so I had a good-sized space for making large pieces of furniture. The walls were mostly logs and chinking, but I covered one in rough-cut pine that gave me space to organize tools and such. I added a strong floor so I had a sturdy place to set all them power tools.
At first, when I started building furniture, I didn’t know what to make. But then I recalled the things that stirred me the first time I saw them—like that sideboard at Ila Pittman’s while I was traipsing through Virginia. Or the dining table at Alex’s. And hoosiers had always been a favorite. Ever since I was a kid, I’d watched Mama crank the sifter handle under the built-in flour bin to make it snow into her bowl. Hoosiers also have a pull-out countertop for more room to pat out biscuits and a large cabinet below for storage. All them nooks and crannies gave me places to add special touches. Mostly carvings on the legs or at the top, but sometimes I’d chisel out a place for ceramic or enameled inlays from local artists. As more tourists and second home people came to live nearby, my business was on the rise.
Shiloh, aka Bob Greene, had a religious conversion of sorts while at The Hicks. He hooked up with some of the Buddhists who came there every summer, but unlike their serious devotion, he seemed to cherry-pick whatever suited him. He changed his appearance by dressing only in loose clothing, mostly black hippie pants and black T-shirts, and growing a long wispy mustache that gave him the air of a magician. That impression grew stronger when, after a meditation break, he’d slip into the woodshop without me knowing it.
Shiloh seemed to have specially taken to the notion of the laughing Buddha; he liked nothin’ better than telling jokes. His repertoire was growing, though he repeated his jokes a lot, or at least I heard them over and over when different folks came into the shop. Even so, some of them made me laugh every time. Some of them.
I needed a break, so I headed over to Della’s. I dusted off my overalls (I used to worry they made me look like a hillbilly, but they were the best thing for the kind of work I did); whistled for my dog, Millie, a black-and-white fiest who took up with me in Virginia; and walked down the mossy steps to the store. It was a blustery day for May; I figured a rain storm was on the way. When I opened the front door, a gust of wind snuck in behind me and blew some papers onto the floor. I picked them up and couldn’t help but read the top one.
“Hey, Della. Who’re you mad at?” I shouted toward the back, since I couldn’t see her anywheres out front. I looked down to see Millie and Della’s dog, Jake, some kind of yellow hound, already tussling—their way of saying howdy.
“I’m not mad at anyone,” Della said, carrying a case of homemade jams to the front.
I’d swear in the ten year I’d known her, Della hadn’t changed a lick, but somehow that day, she looked different. It took a minute before it dawned on me she’d cut her hair to an inch or so below her ears, like she wore it when I first met her. Her hair was still that pretty reddish gold, though there were more gray streaks. But that was it. Me? I’d grown to almost six feet three inches and filled out a lot. Of course, I’d started as a kid and come June I’d be twenty-five.
“So why did you have this note by your phone saying ASS TURD?”
“Where?” she asked, a frown crossing her face. “That’s not exactly my style of swearing, you know; I’m a little more traditional. Let me see that.” She took the paper from me and turned it over. “Oh, for heaven’s sake.”
“A little girl named Astrid was in here earlier, and she didn’t want to tell me what the bullies at school called her. She skipped out while I was upstairs and left me a THANK YOU on this side of the paper, but I hadn’t realized she’d written something on the back. Those bullies must have skewed her name to ASS TURD.”
Oh, man, I knew what Laurel Falls bullies were like. Probably the same everywhere. And a name like Astrid was just different enough to whet their appetites. A dozen year back, they were mean about my names. As if sharing Daddy’s name of Vester (with Junior tacked on to make matters worse) weren’t bad enough, the nickname of Abit made them downright giddy. A bit slow. A bit stupid. Or a bit retarded when they really wanted to pile on. But who could blame them when my own daddy called me that? Not long after I was born, he told everyone, “He’s a bit slow” to make him feel better, letting folks know he knew his kid wasn’t as smart as most. Turned out, I learned a lot at The Hicks, and while I wasn’t much good at math and such, I’d found my groove, you might say, in wood. That was about the same time I started telling people my name was V.J. (a nickname Della came up with).
“Laurel Falls Elementary is missing a bet,” I said after thinking about ASS TURD. “You know how schools are always doing bake sales for new books or uniforms? Well, our school should set up a panel of 10-year-olds to judge the names parents wanted to give their newborn babies.” I started laughing, imagining all them kids in striped T-shirts sitting at a table, discussing the merits of any given name, all serious-like.
I could tell Della didn’t get what I was saying, so I went on. “Take the name Astrid. Her parents could’ve come to the school, paid $5 and asked the panel what would happen to the name Astrid on the playground. Those kids wouldn’t even have to think about it—ASS and TURD would’ve come to them in the blink of an eye. Or remember that guy—head of the Forest Service—Richard Everhardt? I mean, what were his parents thinking? No wonder he was so grumpy, given what he likely put up with on the playground. No question they called him Dick Neverhard. And poor Mr. Peterson, the science teacher. The kids all said …”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” Della interrupted, but she was laughing. “I think you’re onto something, Mister.”
“So who is she? Surely not a customer?”
“Well, in a way she is. She came in by herself holding an old can of beans, long expired after Cleva gave it to her years ago from the Rolling Store.”
I’d ridden shotgun on the Rollin’ Store for Duane Dockery back in 1985, taking food and supplies into the backwoods for folks who couldn’t make the trek into town, a long tradition that went back a good fifty year to when the Rollin’ Store started as an open-bed truck. But that big ol’ bus got to be a drag on Della’s business after a while, and by 1990, Duane parked it for the last time behind the store. Della used it for storage after that. Too good to take to the scrap yard, she said, especially with Duane’s fine paintings of flowers and vines on the side of the bus, which still looked good after all these year.
“Okay, but why was she in here all alone?” I asked.
Della filled me in on what she knew about Astrid and her ailing mama—news she’d gotten when she called her best friend, Cleva Hall, after the little girl left. Cleva’d retired from being a teacher and principal in the county, but she still knew everything going on. “She said Astrid’s mother and father moved here some fifteen years ago to homestead, but neither one of them knew much about the land or living in the country.”
“Sounds like you,” I added, taking a big sip of the coffee she’d poured me.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, pal.” She smacked my hand as I reached for one of her chocolate chip cookies, but I knew she was just kiddin’ round. Besides, I hadn’t meant to sound mean. Della’d struggled a lot when she first bought Daddy’s store, but she’d made her way better than most—outsiders or locals.
“Anyway, Cleva said her mother wasn’t well; she got the impression it was not so much physical as mental. She’s sad all the time, won’t eat, and spends much of her time in her bedroom. The father is smart enough, according to Cleva, but there aren’t that many places to work around here; he takes what odd jobs he can find. Cleva didn’t know how they made enough money to live on, though the father may have some kind of trust fund.”
“Next time ASS TURD comes in, let me know. I’d like to meet her,” I said. “Maybe tell her how I used to be bullied—and that it gets better.”
Within a couple of days, Della called. Astrid was back for more cooking ideas. As I walked down to the store, Millie in tow, I thought about how hard Mama had worked making our meals; that was a lot to put on a little girl.
Della introduced us, and oncet we’d said our howdy-dos, we started in like a house a fire. She petted Millie while I gave her some ideas about outsmarting them bullies and getting on with her life, though given she was only eight year old, I wasn’t sure how much “getting on” she could manage. It felt good to share my woeful tales in the hopes of helping someone else, though at some point, I started worrying all this might be too much for a little girl to carry. But she was drinking in every word, looking up at me like Millie did when I’d tell her she was a good dog.
When I was leaving, I heard Astrid tell Della to be sure to let “that boy” know next time she stopped by and added, “He has some valuable information to share.” I looked back and saw Della smiling. You couldn’t help but.
A week later, I checked with Della to see when Astrid might be coming over because I wanted to talk with her again. She had a funny look on her face when she asked, “Aren’t you a little behind in your work?”
At first I couldn’t imagine why she was talking to me that way. Then it hit. “Has Shiloh been over here telling you jokes?”
She kinda snorted. “Just left. Funny guy, that Shiloh. But he’s sure fond of patchouli, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, he loves the stuff. It took me a year to get the old cow smell out of the barn—now I’ve got that to deal with.”
“Well, I believe I’d take eau de cow to this,” she said, fanning the air with her hand. “Which reminds me—I haven’t seen your work lately, and there’s something I want to order. When’s a good time to stop by?”
“Shiloh’s off tomorrow, so anytime. I’ll air out the place.”
I went over to Coburn’s a few more times when Astrid was there, just to see how things were going for her. I was trying to live up to that revelation I’d had while on my trip through Virginia: be kind. Something I figured came to me from Jesus, from the way he lived his life. It wasn’t that easy to do, though it was easy round Astrid. And Jake and Millie liked her, too. She was as crazy about dogs as me and Della.
It was a nice time in all our lives. I wished it could’ve stayed like that.
Astrid came by the store several more times. She’d wave and toss out a quick hi before walking the aisles or looking through cookbooks. When I’d ask what she’d cooked the night before, she’d stop to think for a moment before judiciously recapping every step in her meal-making. I bet she was doing a good job because if a cook was pleased with her creations, her family or guests often enjoyed them even more.
Early on, we established that she could help herself to any drink or snack in the store (or “refreshments” as she called them). I wanted her to feel welcome. She wouldn’t take anything when she first got there—she’d dig right in and get to work. In a while, though, she’d wipe her brow after so much exhausting work, like only a kid can pull off, and take a much-needed pull from a can of soda.
I got a kick out of her precociousness, and yet I’d’ve been happier watching her play softball or jump rope or whatever kids did for fun. But I consoled myself that she seemed to be enjoying herself, and I liked having her around.
One afternoon I needed to go to the SuperMart out on the highway. I didn’t like to patronize that place—the father of our former sheriff owned it, and he’d always disliked me because I’d beaten him on the bid for Coburn’s. (I guessed he’d had his heart set on a grocery monopoly in the metropolis of Laurel Falls.) Anyway, I asked Astrid if she’d like to go along so I could show her different cuts of meat (something I didn’t carry), especially the cheaper ones that needed to be braised or slow cooked to make them tender. We had fun together—Astrid checked out every aisle, marveling at institutional-sized cans of tomatoes and all the glass jars of penny candy that rivaled anything from my youth. When I bought her an ice cream cone, you’d have thought I’d knit her a sweater.
When we got back to Coburn’s, Astrid took off on her old bike, which I could just make out had once been pink and festooned with colorful tassels (faded and brittle now). She’d told me she knew it looked “bedraggled,” but it got her where she wanted to go. Which that day, I presumed, was home. She’d never mentioned where she lived, but I didn’t think it could be too far from the store. I doubted she was strong enough to ride a long way over steep dirt roads.
A few days later, following one of our afternoon sessions (school had let out for summer), a thunderstorm rolled through just as Astrid was ready to cycle home. I offered to give her a ride. She seemed nervous about accepting, but the rain looked steady and flashes of lightening concerned me. We loaded her small bike into the back of the Jeep, and I said, “Where to?”
“Not far. Do you know where Hanging Dog is?”
I nodded and turned right out of the parking lot. We rode along in comfortable silence until I asked, “What did you say your father and mother’s names were?”
“I didn’t.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
I’d’ve chuckled if she hadn’t looked so serious. “Okay, what are your father and mother’s names?”
“Daddy and Mama.” When I laughed, she did, too. A beat later, she said, “Enoch and Lilah. Enoch and Lilah Holt.”
“Those are good names around these parts.”
She stayed quiet after that. When I turned onto her road, she said in a low voice, “I’m not supposed to bring anyone home.”
“Why not?” I asked, lapsing into my nosy self.
“It’s tawdry.” I loved that kid’s vocabulary, particularly when she misused bigger words in a way that had its own logic. “But maybe Daddy won’t be home.”
No such luck.
Enoch Holt stood on the front porch as we made our way up their rutted driveway. As he loomed over us, Astrid became agitated. “I usually walk my bike from here. You can let me out now.” I was determined to meet her parents, so I ignored her. “Really. Just let me out now,” she said, her little sneaker stomping the footwell.
I parked close to the house and told her to run on to the porch; I’d bring her bike. It was pouring rain now, and I had on a raincoat. But she headed to the back of the Jeep and took her bike as soon as I got it close to the ground. She was already drenched as she pushed it under the overhang and hit the kickstand with her foot.
“Get inside and change, Astrid,” her father said as she stepped up on the porch. He put his hand on her back and practically pushed her toward the front door. She turned and looked at me over her shoulder, then disappeared behind a closed door.
“Who are you?” her father asked. He gave the impression of being scrawny, not so much by stature as posture and attitude. His light brown hair curled down around the collar of a wrinkled linen shirt hanging over loose black pants. “Oh, wait,” he added, “you must be that person who took my daughter to the SuperMart without ever asking me or her mother if that was okay.”
For once, I was speechless. I could well imagine that any number of people could have told Enoch they’d seen Astrid with that woman from Coburn’s—maybe when he was out on one of his odd jobs. And I got it that parents had the right to know who was driving their kid around, but they also had an obligation to feed her well and care for her. As I saw it, we weren’t even close in the wrongdoing department.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You’re right. I should have checked first to see if I could take her to that store. She came to me looking for cooking ideas, and I just thought of it as a fun trip to see different ingredients for dinner. But as long as you brought that up, maybe you can explain why a little girl is saddled with so much responsibility for her family’s meals.”
He pulled on his beard. “I don’t see how that’s any of your concern,” he said before turning and going inside. I heard the lock click into place.
The rain had let up, so I stood there a moment, hoping the door would fly open and Astrid would run out to play. I was surprised by how nice the house looked—a good-sized, hand-built cabin from one of those kits popular a decade or two ago. It had aged well, though it needed work around the deck and windows. When she didn’t come out, I worried I’d gotten her in serious trouble with her father. Sure, I’d been reaching out to someone who’d come asking for help, but I knew I hadn’t handled things well.
As I put the Jeep in reverse, I saw the curtain on one of the windows twitch. I looked closer as a hand opened the curtain wider and a woman’s face pressed against the glass. We locked eyes and stared at each other for a few seconds. Then she let the curtain fall back into place.
That was the last time I laid eyes on Lilah Holt.