“Did you hear that?” Dimple Kilpatrick added another couple of peaches to the basket on the ground and paused to listen.
“Hear what?” Charlie Carr, her fellow teacher and former pupil, stood on a ladder almost concealed by the leaves of the tree. Only her jean-clad legs were visible.
Dimple frowned. “It sounded like someone screaming.” She paused to dab her forehead with a purple plaid bandanna. It was mid-July and the heat had been unrelenting. “Do you think someone could be in trouble?”
“I didn’t hear a thing,” Annie Gardner said. The younger teacher didn’t want to say it, but in spite of her quiet demeanor, Miss Dimple Kilpatrick seemed to invite the opportunity to delve into a bit of detective work, usually at great risk of danger.
Phoebe Chadwick, who owned the rooming house where several of the teachers lived, planned to put up a few jars of spiced peaches with the help of her cook, Odessa Kirby, and the women had pooled their valuable ration stamps to help supply the necessary sugar. If they had enough left over, Odessa had promised to make peach ice cream.
“It’s probably Delia and Prentice acting silly,” Charlie said, speaking of her sister and her friend, who were working that summer at the Peach Shed down the road. “You know how those two are when they get together, and the Shed’s not that far away.”
Although Delia, at twenty, was married and the mother of a small boy, she seemed to act more like a teen around Prentice, two years younger. But Charlie knew her sister worried constantly over her young husband overseas with the army, and she was glad to see her have fun. The war had forced them all to take life more seriously, but most had learned to relish any fragment of happiness that came along, however slight.
“I don’t know,” Miss Dimple admitted. “Prentice hasn’t seemed herself since Leola died so suddenly. “One doesn’t adjust to that kind of thing overnight.” Leola Parker had helped to take care of Prentice since the child came to live with her aunt Elberta when she was three, and the two had always been close.
“I’ll bet you heard one of that McKenzie brood,” Annie said. “Don’t they live around here somewhere? I had Wilbur in my class last year and his sister the year before. I’ll swear you can hear ’em in the next county.”
Dimple Kilpatrick moved quietly to the next tree. She hoped the others were right.
* * *
For a long time afterward, Delia Varnadore sickened at the rich, heady smell of peaches. But that morning, hurrying back to the Peach Shed, where she worked, all she could think about was standing in the shade of that big old gnarled oak, gulping her Coke and letting the cold liquid rush sweetly down her throat.
The two-lane asphalt road sizzled in the July sun, and Delia felt the heat clean through her sandals as she dashed across with a frosty bottle in each hand: a NuGrape soda for her friend Prentice and a Coke for herself. Steam rose from puddles left from a brief morning shower, and she avoided the worst of them as she made her way through wiry grass, trampled with foot traffic and red with clay, on the other side of the road. The Hershey bar in her skirt pocket bumped against her hip as she ran, and Delia hoped it wouldn’t melt before she could eat it. She paused to wipe the inevitable mud from her thin-soled sandals. They had already been resoled twice since the war began, and, due to a shortage of leather and almost everything else, they would have to last the rest of the summer. Her family, like most others, had made do by cutting cardboard to line the insides of their winter shoes, but that wouldn’t work with sandals. Delia didn’t mind—not really—not while Ned Varnadore, her husband and the person she loved best in the world (well, except maybe for their adorable little Tommy, affectionately known as “Pooh”), was over there fighting along with her brother, Fain, and just about every boy she had graduated with from Elderberry High School. Had that been only three years ago? It seemed more like a thousand.
She looked around for Prentice. Something was bothering her friend, gnawing at her like a chigger bite in a place you couldn’t scratch, and Delia couldn’t worm it out of her no matter how hard she tried. Now Prentice had made it clear she was sick and tired of being asked. The NuGrape was a peace offering.
The Hershey bar was for Delia, and she felt a little guilty for not sharing—but not too guilty. After all, she’d earned it, hadn’t she, sacrificing most of her summer sweating behind the counter and constantly itching with that blasted peach fuzz to sell peaches and produce when she’d rather have been at home with Pooh. And wouldn’t Ned be pleased when he learned she’d been putting aside most of the money she’d earned along with a portion of the amount she received from his modest army pay? Delia could hardly wait to surprise him when this war was finally over and they could be a real family—just the three of them.
Not that she wasn’t grateful to her mother and her sister, Charlie, for helping out with the baby this summer so she could put money aside. Her old baby bed had fit snugly in a corner of her upstairs room, its walls still a patchwork of high school snapshots and souvenirs. The corners of a program from her senior class play curled between a photo of Clark Gable cut from a film magazine and the dried and crumbling wrist corsage of once-pink roses from the prom. Her mother, Jo, worked faithfully three days a week at the munitions plant in nearby Milledgeville, and in September Charlie would begin her third year as a third-grade teacher at the grammar school they had attended as children, which was on the next block. When Ned was shipped overseas, the two of them had welcomed her home to the house on Katherine Street in the small Georgia town where she’d grown up and where Tommy was born a few months later. The same room in the same house in the same town. But everything was different.
Except for a brief shower that morning, it had been weeks since it had rained in Elderberry, and straggly weeds bent yellow with dust around the Shed’s hand-painted sign with a picture of a lopsided peach the color of no peach Delia had ever seen. Knox Jarrett, who owned the orchard, had painted it so he wouldn’t have to pay an artist. Trying to pinch a penny as always, Delia’s aunt Lou claimed, which is why they had to use the bathroom at Grady Clinkscales’s Gas ’n Eats across the road.
Yellow jackets hovered over mounded baskets of rosy Elberta peaches on the wooden counter. Delia had been stung twice already that summer and she despised wasps, yellow jackets, the whole hateful lot, but was grateful for the part-time job, and it was fun working with Prentice. Usually.
Although they were two years apart, Delia and Prentice Blair had been friends since grade school, and the money they earned now would be put to good use. Delia’s for her future household; and, after working for a year at Lewellyn’s Drug Store, Prentice planned to go away to college in the fall.
Just about everybody in town hung out at the Peach Shed at one time or another, so they always knew what was going on. If asked, Delia would begrudgingly admit she even liked the way the old place looked. The big, airy shoe box of a building squatted in the shade of a huge red oak. Its unpainted timbers had weathered the soft gray of a rain cloud, and the open sides allowed for a cross breeze if one were ever to come along. And several times a day, the NC and St. L, billowing smoke and cinders, would chug through on the tracks at the bottom of the hill, sometimes with fresh young recruits bound for Fort Benning, in Columbus, and the two always waved to them.
Delia took the two shallow steps in one stride and clanked the bottles onto the counter by the cash register. Since no one was about, she raised the hem of her cotton skirt to mop her wet face and looked about for Prentice. “Hey, I’m back! Brought you a surprise.… Where are you? Prentice?”
The room was a storehouse of heady smells and a palate of deep yellow, coral, and watermelon red. Bushels of green beans and sweet white corn lined the walls with green-striped watermelons and hills of pungent cantaloupe. Jars of Ida Ellerby’s blackberry jelly marched along a table next to the register with Odessa Kirby’s watermelon-rind pickles. But aside from the produce and Delia, the room was empty.
* * *
“Come on now, Prentice, I give up! Guess I’ll just have to drink this nice cold NuGrape I brought you.” Getting no answer, Delia opened the door to the small storage room in the back where baskets and cleaning supplies were kept, but only a beetle scurried away.
Prentice would never go off and leave the cash register untended. And where would she go? Prentice’s aunt Bertie had dropped the two of them off earlier that morning, and they didn’t have access to a car. The only place nearby was the Gas ’n Eats across the road. Delia’s aunt Lou said they ought to call the station Eats ’n Gas instead of the other way around, and usually just the name of the place made Delia want to smile. But she had a growing feeling this wasn’t going to be a smiling kind of day.
Shoving damp hair from her forehead, Delia checked the cash drawer. Everything seemed okay. It had been a slow morning: Delia’s neighbor Bessie Jenkins had stopped by for cantaloupe and tomatoes for supper, and Geneva Odom, who taught with Charlie, had purchased a watermelon for a family picnic. Their last customer, Dora Delaney, owner of the Total Perfection Beauty Salon on Court Street, had come for her weekly supply of peaches during her midmorning break.
“You oughta come by and let me do something with all that hair,” she’d told Delia. “Must be hotter than the devil’s kitchen in here, and look at all that mop on your neck! When’s the last time you had a trim?” Dora swapped a couple of peaches in her basket for larger ones and examined Delia with her perfectly lashed green eyes. Dora Delaney would never see forty again, but she didn’t look much older than thirty with her blond pompadour and cheerleader figure. Delia found herself envious of somebody who could look cool and trim while wearing a hot-pink smock.
“I’ve been thinking about a French twist,” she said, handing Dora her change. “Only I never seem to have time to fool with it.”
“Give me a holler,” Dora said. “We’ll make time.”
Did she look that bad? When the local hairdresser takes notice, it must be time to make a change. Delia shrugged. What did it matter when the only person she wanted to please was thousands of miles away?
Now frowning, Delia searched the road in front of her and watched as someone in a light blue Ford pulled into Grady’s for gas. A truck rumbled past. Less than a mile away, her sister, Charlie, picked peaches with her friends and fellow teachers, Annie and Miss Dimple. But Delia couldn’t imagine her friend deserting the Shed to join the pickers. She quietly set down her drink and stood waiting, listening. Her stomach had that same weak queasy feeling it did when she threw a stone into a deep ravine and watched it fall … fall … before it finally hit bottom. She wanted to be upset with Prentice for worrying her like this, wanted to find her friend and confront her, but her heart told her something wasn’t right.
Prentice liked to tease, but since Leola’s death two weeks before, her friend hadn’t been in a teasing mood. Leola had been much more than a baby-sitter. She was a friend, somebody Prentice could talk with, turn to for advice. “I can tell Leola things I’d never dream of telling Aunt Bertie,” she once admitted, and Delia knew Leola was the one who convinced Prentice to go away to college in the fall, a decision that had led to a breakup with her boyfriend.
Clay Jarrett, whose father owned the Peach Shed, had graduated in the class ahead of Prentice’s, and the two had been dating for a couple of years. Prentice had recently confided to Delia that Clay had proposed. He wanted to marry right away and planned to enlist in the navy, but she wasn’t ready for such a commitment. “I know it worked for you and Ned,” she said, “but I’ve always planned to go to college, and Clay knows that. Aunt Bertie will help, and I’ve saved some from my drugstore earnings. Besides,” she added, “Clay’s content to stay right here in Elderberry after the war, and I’m not sure that’s what I want.”
Leola, of course, had agreed. An excellent seamstress, she’d been looking forward to making additional clothing for Prentice’s college wardrobe, and the two had pored happily over pattern books, selected material, and shared excitement at the prospect of what was in store.
Prentice had been the one who found her body, and since then she hadn’t acted like the same person: moody, jumpy, quick to cry. But there was something else, too. Delia had noticed a change in her friend even before Leola died.
Sighing, Delia lifted the heavy hair from her neck and fanned herself with a newspaper. “Prentice Blair! Your drink’s getting warm! Don’t you want it?”
“Prentice? Come on, now, answer me! Are you back there? This is not funny.”
Still no answer.
She was probably crying. Out there behind the Shed crying—just like yesterday and the day before, but couldn’t she at least answer? Or maybe she was emptying trash.
But not for this long. Bracing herself, Delia walked slowly through the cluttered storage room, out the back door, and down the steps. Two large garbage cans sat to the right of the door, the top of each anchored with a rock to discourage stray dogs and raccoons. Nothing but dust stirred in the narrow, grassy clearing. Beyond it, a stand of scruffy cedars and underbrush led into several acres of woodland that served as a buffer between the Peach Shed and Knox Jarrett’s orchards and farm.
Why in the world would Prentice wander off into the woods unless somebody had called to her, needed her? Delia ventured to the edge of the knee-high weeds and called her friend’s name, hollered it as loud as she could. Queen Anne’s lace bobbed under the weight of bumblebees, and a small brown rabbit leapt from behind a clump of sumac and disappeared into the brambles. Nothing else moved.
Hattie McGee lived somewhere back there in a trashy old trailer. “Mad Hattie” everybody called her, and Delia was afraid of her. So was Prentice. The old woman thought she was Scarlett O’Hara and wore a tattered green skirt that dragged the ground—stole rosebushes, too. Dug them up in the middle of the night and planted them around her trailer. Prentice’s aunt Bertie was missing a Talisman, and Bessie Jenkins, her Mary Margaret McBride, a pretty pink hybrid she’d planted last spring, and neither would do anything about it. “Poor old Hattie’s harmless,” everybody said.
If it were up to Delia, she would make “poor old Hattie” dig them up and give them back—that is, if she weren’t such a chicken. And she knew Prentice wouldn’t have wandered anywhere close to Mad Hattie’s—not intentionally.
Circling the Shed for a second time, Delia spied a peach partially hidden in rusty weeds beside the back steps. Testily, she tapped it with her toe, expecting to see a smushed, rotting underside, but the fruit was whole, firm. Delia picked it up and squeezed it. In a day or so, the peach would be ripe. It might have fallen from a basket as the fruit was being unloaded, except they always unloaded in front so they wouldn’t have to carry it so far. She frowned. Customers usually parked in the gravel area out front, as well. It wouldn’t make sense to go all the way around to the back.
So why? Delia thought she knew why, but hoped it wasn’t true. Snatching open the screen door, she hurried inside.
Hardin Haynesworth Kirkland, crisp in beige linen and smelling of some demure scent that probably cost more than Delia’s entire wardrobe, stood at the cash register with her lips pursed. Delia hadn’t heard her drive up. The woman held a cantaloupe in one hand and a jar of jelly in the other and sighed loud enough to stir up a storm. Delia ignored her.
Rushing past the pouty-faced matron, Delia squatted behind the counter, stretched her arm as far as she could, and felt, pushed far back on the lower shelf, the thing she had dreaded to find: Prentice Blair’s purse.
The handbag was of tan imitation leather, but it looked almost like the real thing, Delia had assured her, and had been a gift from Clay when Prentice turned eighteen in May. How could she simply disappear? Delia crouched behind the counter until her heartbeat slowed. She had been across the street for hardly more than ten minutes. Only long enough to use the rest room, dash water on her face, and comb her hair. Then she’d had to wait to pay for the drinks while Grady went out to put gas in the tank for Emmaline Brumlow, who, of course, wanted her windshields cleaned front and back. She’d been held up by the train before crossing the tracks, she said, and her car had been showered with cinders.
“My dear, I am in rather a hurry. If you don’t mind…” Delia’s waiting customer drummed fingers on the counter and sighed again.
Delia stood slowly. She felt as if she had a stick jammed down her throat all the way into her chest. This couldn’t be happening!
But it was. “Mrs. Kirkland, I’m afraid something’s happened to Prentice.” Whose voice was this? It didn’t sound like hers. “I can’t find her anywhere and I know she wouldn’t just go off like this.”
The woman tossed a dollar onto the counter to pay for her purchases and brushed an invisible hair from her cheek. “Now, Delia … it is Delia, isn’t it?” She smiled like it pained her, and Delia wanted to vault over the counter and shake her. “She’s probably in the back somewhere, or maybe she went across to the filling station. I’m afraid you’ve let yourself get overwrought.”
“You don’t understand! I just came from there and I’ve looked everywhere. Prentice is gone. GONE!” Her voice was only a notch below screaming. It was becoming obvious that Prentice had left with somebody, probably against her will, since she’d left her purse behind and the cash register untended.
“Exactly what is it you want me to do?” Hardin asked in a voice as stiff as her shoulders. Delia could tell she didn’t believe her.
“I’m going over to Grady’s to call the police, but my sister, Charlie, and some of her friends are picking peaches this morning in the orchard right up the road. Would you see if you can find them and tell them to come? And hurry, please hurry!”
Whoever drove off with Prentice must have parked behind the Shed and enticed her into the car on the pretext of needing help to load the peaches, Delia thought, and since this had taken place while she was gone, the abductor had to have been watching.
* * *
“Who is this?” It was obvious that the woman who answered the phone at the local police station believed it was a prank. Delia gave her name and repeated the message. “My friend’s been taken—probably kidnapped, and this is no joke! Please get somebody out to the Peach Shed as fast as you can. We’ve got to find her!” When the woman hesitated, Delia demanded to speak with Bobby Tinsley, Elderberry’s chief of police. “Just tell him I’m Charlie Carr’s sister and she’s a friend of Miss Dimple Kilpatrick,” she added, knowing that from past experience the chief was familiar with the two of them.
Minutes later, Delia stood among the knobby roots of the old oak, waiting for the police to respond. The tree had been there for over a hundred years, people said, withstanding drought, wind, and storms. Delia ran a finger along its dark, crusty bark. If she could only draw strength from the massive trunk, calmness to ease the turmoil inside her. Looking off in the distance, she saw a vehicle approaching and hoped it was Charlie driving the old family car. Delia prayed under her breath that Mrs. Kirkland had been able to find them.
Seconds later, the familiar Studebaker skidded into the parking lot beside the Peach Shed and came to a jolting stop, scattering gravel in its wake. Running out to meet them, Delia Varnadore finally allowed the tears to come.
Copyright © 2014 by Mignon F. Ballard