Chapter 1 - Lost and Found
by Erin Halfelven
"I should have known better," Ceecee Noble Sweet told herself for about the fortieth time. She trudged down the shady lane between rows of pecan trees on one side and a scrubby-looking woodland on the other. Her wedding dress finery had gotten a bit bedraggled in her flight from the church and now she began to suspect that she must be lost.
Occasional bright patches of sun did little to warm up the late morning in early May. Partly just to keep herself from freezing, she considered her new husband and his family out loud in colorful terms.
Her new mother-in-law, "Blood-sucking harpy with an alligator heart." Her sisters-in-law; "Tripe for brains." Her brother-in-law, "A sump chump libido running on alcohol."
Her new husband, Hamilton Edward Sweet IV got the full treatment. "Fucking redneck aristocrat, probably inbred to boot," she said. "What could you expect out of a family with a fortune based on pumping out septic tanks?"
A chattering squirrel on a pecan limb drew a cold, blue-eyed stare and a snarl. "What the hell do you know about it?" she demanded of the rodent. Jaybirds made derisive comments and somewhere a crow complained about the cost of corn.
Ceecee pushed back her mane of red-gold hair and paused for a moment, listening for pursuit. Faint voices reached her through the woods but they didn't seem to be getting any closer.
When she had dashed back into the church just after taking her vows, no one expected her to sneak out through the parson's entrance and hide in the forest. Least of all herself. And certainly not her bridegroom and husband for all of fourteen minutes, Neddie Sweet.
While the hunt for her began among the wedding party with halloos and calls of "Ceecee? Ceecee!", she had threaded her way through the woods around the little country church, found the lane, picked a direction and headed what she hoped was away from the chase.
She must have still been doing things they didn't expect because she had lost them, and now herself. They sounded further away than before but she had no idea just how to get back to town without running into the wedding party.
But she wasn't in any mood to take backtalk from a tree rat with a pompadour. "And you can tell Neddie all that for me!" she charged the squirrel before setting off down the lane again.
Fifty yards further, she kicked at a harmless, inoffensive rock and broke the heel off her delicate shoe, stepped backward onto her train and sat down hard in the dust. Crying and cursing in a strangled voice, she tossed her corsage, both shoes and her veil into the bushes beside the lane.
"Let go of me!" she yelped to no one.
She was trying to tear the train off her wedding dress while still sitting on it when she heard the sound of a car.
Ricky Peters still didn't know what to do with his new wealth and freedom. The shock of his aunt's sudden death had barely worn off before he found out about the will. Who could have imagined that Aunt Sharon had more than half a million in the bank, owned shares in real estate syndicates scattered around the midwest or had taken out a three million dollar life insurance policy on her own life -- with him, her nephew and only blood relative as sole heir and beneficiary.
He'd quit his job keeping books for a furniture store, quit school where he'd been taking business courses, sold his old beater and bought a sportscar. He hated the new car because it was a stick shift standard "four-on-the-floor" and he'd always driven automatics. The salesman assured him that he would soon get used to shifting -- but he hadn't.
Besides, the car cramped his six-foot-plus American body into a seat obviously designed for a more Euro-proportioned driver. James Bond never had problems banging his knee with the shift knob, Ricky thought.
He did a lot of driving in third gear, reluctant to go up to fourth for fear of having to downshift on turns or hills. If his knee swelled up anymore, he wouldn't even be able to get it into the car.
And he couldn't seem to get the timing of when to put in the clutch or let it out. He feared that the constant grinding noises when he shifted meant the car would suddenly give out on him, leaving him stranded on some back road where people played banjos just for fun.
He spent several thousands on new clothes from the skin out, to go with the car. Apparently born with impeccable taste, he bought name-brand new and vintage clothing that at least made him look like someone with millions in the bank.
He still hadn't made much of a dent in his inheritance and left most of it in the charge of his aunt's financial advisers. They assured him that her, now his, income properties had not suffered too much from the economic downturn and that it was a good time to expand his holdings by buying up "distressed" properties at bargain prices.
Financially, they convinced him, morally he wasn't so sure but what else could he do? He didn't want to try to manage even a small real estate empire himself but he had no real experience in being one of the idle rich, either.
Six months after his aunt's death and still two months short of his 25th birthday, Ricky left Rock Island early one April morning with some cockamamie idea of finding himself, whatever that meant.
First he'd headed to Chicago but the big city intimidated him. Three days in a State Street hotel convinced him that the Windy City would not be his new home. He repacked his cashmere slacks and suede coats into his Armani luggage and stowed them in the back of the Aston Martin.
He drifted south along back roads and byways, staying in cheap motels and eating either fast food or the greasy sort of stuff they served in places called "Mom's Diner." He had a perpetual headache and sour stomach after almost two weeks of driving.
And he had to admit it, he'd gotten himself thoroughly lost. His idea of visiting Graceland had evaporated when he'd found out that Memphis traffic sucked every bit as bad as Chicago. Or at least it seemed so to him. Rock Island, his hometown, wasn't some hick burg but part of the Quad Cities, an urban oasis on the Mississippi in the middle of Iowa and Illinois cornfields.
Memphis, however, spread out for miles wider than he expected. The Interstate seemed to be under construction, and detours kept taking him along state and county byways that last saw repair crews when Grant commanded the Army of the West.
He had to admit it. He'd gotten lost, again. Even back home, he had a knack for getting turned around. Now, on a country road east of Memphis, he had driven for some miles without seeing any road signs that gave him the slightest clue as to which way he should turn. He had the vague feeling that he had gone completely around the city and might now be cruising through Mississippi toward New Orleans.
But without a reason to get off the road onto another more or less identical road, he stuck with the one he'd started with. It had to go somewhere, sooner or later, didn't it?
Where did all the hills come from, he wondered. Wasn't Memphis a relatively flat area? Changeable clouds hid the sun and he continued driving east while thinking he was going south.
The barefoot girl came running out of the woods on some little half-wide lane he hadn't even know was there. She wore what looked like a torn, dirty, white prom gown or maybe a wedding dress. Her long brownish hair caught the sunlight and turned a brilliant red-gold just as she reached the pavement.
"Stop! Stop! Stop!" she screamed at him, waving her hands over her head.
Ricky began to stop, concerned that the young woman might run in front of the car. The encounter seemed very bizarre, there had to be some sort of story behind the girl's presence on a quiet country road in what looked to be the remains of a bridal gown.
He had just got the window on the right hand side down electrically before he brought the vehicle to a complete stop when the excited redhead reached through the window, unlocked the door, opened it and slipped inside before the wheels stopped rolling.
"Drive!" she said, pointing down the road.
Ricky pushed his prescription sunglasses to a secure position on the bridge of his nose and turned to examine his new passenger.
She leaned toward him, showing a generous and distracting amount of cleavage. "Drive, I said!" she screamed right in his face.
Ricky banged his knee twice getting the little car back into the right gear. "Step on it," she ordered.
Ricky left forty dollars worth of rubber on the asphalt.
Ceecee didn't begin to relax until her getaway car had put a mile or two between her and the remains of her wedding party. When they emerged from the little country road onto a state highway, she turned to look at the driver.
"Got a size on you, don't you?" she commented. Lord, he was big. He reminded her of Chris Reeve, the actor in those old Superman movies, the one who had died after being paralyzed in a riding accident. Except his hair was dishwater blond and he wore sunglasses instead of hornrims.
"Pardon?" he said. "I didn't get your name. I'm Ricky Peters." He glanced at her but turned his attention back to the road, making a right hand turn onto the highway.
"I'm Ceecee," she said. "Are we going to Decatur?"
"Uh," he admitted. "I don't know. Originally, I was trying to get to Memphis."
"Memphis?" she said, startled. "We're in Alabama and you're heading east, ain't no where near Memphis."
"Alabama?" He looked puzzled, dismayed even.
"You have to be in Memphis by some certain time?" she asked.
"Uh, no. I'm just sightseeing." He glanced at her again, taking in the pale skin, freckles and wide blue eyes.
She chuckled. "Well, you're taking the scenic route for sure. Where are you from?" Privately, she guessed Omaha or Milwaukee, some place with flat Midwestern vowels but not the urgent tempo of Chicago.
"Rock Island," he said. "That's in Illinois, on the Mississippi."
"Uh-huh," she said. "You should have been able to find Memphis, just follow the river south." She grinned at him, showing her dimples on purpose.
He blushed. My God, thought Ceecee, he's cute. Down, girl, she reminded herself. You married the last cute guy you saw and that's how you got in this fix.
The current cute guy, the one driving the cute car, looked around as if he would be only mildly surprised to find okapis or llamas grazing in the fields instead of Holsteins. "Well, I made a few side trips and got lost." He looked back at her. "Are we really in Alabama?"
"Uh-huh," she said again. "You bet your banjo. Say, if you're not going anywhere in particular, can you take me home?"
"I guess so. But you'll have to give me directions." He smiled at her. "Obviously, I'm already lost. Where do you live?"
"Bakersfield," she said.
He blinked and looked back at the highway for a moment before glancing at her again. "Bakersfield, Alabama? Where's that?"
"Bakersfield, California," she said. "It's about a hundred miles north of Los Angeles."
Ricky followed Ceecee's directions and got headed west on a road that she assured him would take them to Memphis. "A nice car like this, you should have GPS."
He knew GPS stood for Global Positioning System but getting it put into his car had not occurred to him. "Huh," he said. A lot of his conversations with Ceecee seemed to consist of inflected grunts; she did a lot of talking.
"I'm surprised the salesman didn't stick you for it," she said, looking at him sideways from under her long, dark lashes.
Ricky cleared his throat. "I paid cash for a model on the lot," he said. "Last year's model," he added to be as honest as he could.
"Cash!" she looked startled, the first thing he had said that seemed to surprise her.
"Well, a check, but the check was good."
She blinked. "This car costs what? Over 100 grand? Right?"
He nodded. "Something like that," he said, trying to sound casual about it. One hundred thirty thousand, and change.
"Gah-dammit to Trona," she muttered. "Another rich asshole with more money than brains."
"I - what?" He had hoped to impress her, not inspire another round of creative cursing.
"Look," she said, turning as far as she could sideways with the seatbelt in the way. "I really need to get to Bakersfield and I'm broke, I have like, no cash at all."
"I said I'd take you," he protested.
"Yeah, yeah, but that was before I really thought it through." She paused to nibble her lower lip a moment. "How about this deal? You take me to Bakersfield, pay expenses on the way, buy me some clothes and stuff, and I'll suck your dick every night," she said. A delicate pink-tipped finger went up. "But no fucking!"
Following her directions, Ricky got them back on a road toward Memphis. They made a stop in the next town, at a Wal-Mart where Ceecee picked up some tight jeans, cheap high heels, a couple of tank-style tops, a bright magenta purse and "stuff girls need". He didn't ask.
In the early evening, they cruised past the entrance to Graceland in a drizzling rain. "We could get a motel and come back tomorrow," Ricky suggested. A glimpse of the pillars of the big house through the rain didn't seem enough reward for all the trouble he'd gone to getting there.
Ceecee made noise with the ice in a fast food cup. "It's a dump," she assured him. "Memphis is a dump. In an hour, we could be in Arkansas on I-40 which is practically a straight shot to West Tulsa."
"Huh?" he said. "Oklahoma?"
"Well, yeah, it's in the way. But West Tulsa is what they call Bakersfield, for a joke. Almost everyone there either came from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Kansas or Missouri or their folks did." She thought about it. "Like in the Dust Bowl?"
"I wondered about your accent," he said. "You don't sound like California."
"I don't have a fucking accent," she said. "But my mom does. She's from Texas, says 'y'all' and like that. You've got an accent. You do that shovel-faced upper Midwest thing with your vowels."
"Shovel-faced?" he repeated.
"Like you had your nose broke with a shovel," she explained. "You say Mee-em-fuss, all tight like your face hurts."
"I do?" He shook his head, finding it hard to believe. Ceecee's voice sounded nasal to him, with a twang he associated with cowboy movies and a fast sing-song rhythm like nothing he'd ever heard. "Shovel-faced?" he said again.
Ceecee did rattle-and-suck thing with the ice again. "That bother you?"
Ricky felt of his nose. "No," he said.
"I didn't say you looked like you'd been hit with a shovel, I said you sounded like that. Everybody north of St. Louis does."
He didn't say anything, keeping his attention on the road.
"Actually," Ceecee said, "I think you're kind of cute. And you're big, jeez, you got out of the car at the Wal-Mart, I thought you must be a football player. You play football in college?"
He shook his head. "No, I never went out for sports."
"Why not? You're big, you look strong. I mean, you've got muscles, I can see them." She reached toward his arm.
He quivered instead of flinching. "I used to be fat."
She stopped before touching him. "How fat?"
"Really fat." He didn't tell her about being orphaned at fourteen or about living in his aunt's carriage house watching TV all alone and eating junkfood and microwave pasta until he went away to college weighing over three hundred pounds.
She dropped her hand and looked at him with her head tilted to one side, smiling. "How'd you lose the weight?"
He sighed, remembering. "Got mono. Had to drop out of school. Just started back last year, then my aunt died." He didn't mention the gym where he'd done bookkeeping in exchange for access to the weight room until his aunt had found out and gave him a paid-up three year membership for Christmas.
"The one who left you all the money you said?"
She pointed ahead before he could answer. "There's the freeway ramp, take us north to the bridge then I-40 all the way to Barstow. Hang a right there and in an hour you're in my hometown."
Ricky let the sportscar find the exit.
When they started climbing above the flat river plain Ricky asked if these were the Ozarks.
"No," she snorted. "This is Crowley's Ridge. The Ozarks are the other side of Little Rock. This is just some little ol' hills made of left over dinosaur shit."
She did so have an accent, he reflected. And she had a dirty mouth; that bothered him.
"It's pretty," he said aloud.
"It's pretty fucken dark," she said.
He winced. Dark green forests punctuated by small fields and orchards covered the quiet hills alongside Interstate 40. He liked how it looked, even if he could not see much. A fat moon had broken through the clouds behind them and cast a silvery magic over the scenery.
"It's near to late thirty," Ceecee commented, covering a yawn. "Maybe you better find us a motel." She pulled her legs up into the seat, turned sideways, folded her arms over her chest and leaned her head back against the window glass. "It's been a long day."
"I'll find us a motel, there's a big town up ahead, just off the Interstate. I saw the signs."
"Uh-huh," she murmured. "Forrest."
Ricky thought she said, "Farthest," which made very little sense but he let it go because she had obviously fallen asleep.
Twenty minutes later, he took the first exit for Forrest, Arkansas. "So that was it," he chuckled. He'd seen a sign on the freeway that said there was a Motel 70 at the intersection with US 70 and he looked forward to -- well, he didn't actually want to think about that yet.
Unfortunately, with his navigator asleep, Ricky took a wrong turn and headed north toward Jonesboro instead of south toward Forrest. The Motel 70 which had been only half a mile away when he got off I-40 got further and further away until at a quiet little crossroads deep in the forest half an hour later, Ricky finally pulled into a parking space at a dilapidated antique motor lodge.
A semi-circle of rundown cabins, seven of them, surrounded an irregular patch of potholed pavement. Each cabin had its own tiny attached garage, a small covered porch and a brightly painted door, either white, red or blue.
The sign said Sortie Motel, or it had when all the letters worked. Half of the neon tubes no longer functioned and it currently read, "Sort e Mot" which Ricky's tired brain tried to process as half-remembered high school French. It made no sense.
But the white "Vacancy" sign was lit and the red "No" was not. So he pulled the Aston-Martin into the bumpy parking lot, stopping beside the slightly larger cabin with the office sign on the white-painted door. He took care to avoid the worst of the potholes and eased the car to a stop, not wanting to awaken his passenger.
Getting out of the sports car always presented a challenge to his size and doing so quietly, even more so, but he managed. Ceecee did not move, only sighing once in her sleep.
Through the window in the office door, Ricky saw an elderly man standing at a counter. The man motioned for him to come on in so Ricky did not knock before entering. Once in with the door closed behind him, he filled the narrow office space and loomed over the counter without intending to.
The old man wore the typical rural Arkansas costume of denim overalls and a feed store ball cap and seemed to be engaged in a task that involved arranging piles of small paper slips in some pattern. "Evening. Need a room?" he asked as Ricky entered.
Ricky considered. He had not yet internalized the local accents and what he heard sounded more to his midwestern ear like, "Ayvnin, nayduh ryuhm," without a question mark. "Yes," said Ricky.
"Sign the book," said the old man, pointing at one end of the counter. "It's $44 dollars a night or $264 a week, pay the first night now."
Ricky put his name in the logbook, filling in his license plate number and "2" in the column for number of occupants. "It'll just be the one night." He took out his wallet and began to extract a credit card.
"We don't take those," said the old man. "Cash only." He moved another stack of papers from one pile to another and added one to the total from his reserve pile.
Surprised, Ricky pulled bills from his wallet and presented them.
"You need ice, I can give you a bucket now," said the old man, handing over Ricky's change. "There's pop in the machine outside, cola, orange, root beer, lemon and diet. Fifty cents. Machine only takes quarters."
Ricky nodded. The old man looked at the logbook and handed over a key attached to a length of broom handle. The key and the handle both had a blue number five painted on them. "I'm Mr. Handshaw, Fay Handshaw, Mr. Peters. The key works both the front door and the padlock on your garage. You and the missus have a nice stay here in Sarty."
"Sarty?" Rick asked.
The old man smiled a small smile. "It's spelled French but it's pronounced Arkansas."
Ricky blinked. "Did you say your name was Fay?" he asked.
"Short for Fayreuth. My brother's name is Jersalam, we call him Jerry."
Ricky nodded, satisfied that the odd names probably had some family history attached to them. "Thank you, Mr. Handshaw." They nodded at each other.
Jersalam Handshaw entered from the cabin behind the office desk. He looked very much like his brother, Fayreuth, except he wore his coveralls with one strap hanging off his shoulder, his work shirt was blue instead of khaki and he had a strawhat on his head instead of a ball cap. Those differences and the twinkle in his eye made him look years younger than Fay.
"Did you put them into number five?" he asked his brother.
"Yep," said Fay, still sorting his papers.
Jerry watched for a moment. "Red jack on the black queen," he commented.
Fay snorted. "Mr. Smarty Pants."
Jerry grinned. His brother had never been noted for his sense of humor. Jerry on the other hand, loved a good joke. He reached over Fay's shoulder and moved a top slip of paper from one stack to another. Fay promptly covered it with another paper from the stack in his hand.
"You put them into number five," Jerry said, not asking.
"I said so." Fay paused to look at his brother out of the corner of his eye.
Jerry smiled. "That ought to sort them out."
Fay allowed himself a small smile, too. He wasn't noted for his sense of humor but he had one.
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