Nothing but Trouble | Chapter 17 of 32

Author: Susan May Warren | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1188 Views | Add a Review

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CHAPTER ELEVEN

Dear Ms. Nicholson,

Please forgive my recent outburst about the missing library book 

Dear Fellows Director,

I know that attire sets an example for others, and I apologize 

Dear Fellows Hall Monitor,

Okay, I can agree that maybe lateness is a metaphor for disrespect, but I promise that David is not the instigator 

PJ took the stationery, wadded it into a hard ball, and threw it at the chrome basket in Connie’s sleek office. It ricocheted off the neat black credenza, the tall bookshelves stacked with smart books, and landed on the white Berber carpet. She glared at the formal picture of Connie and Davy on the computer screen —Davy in a black three-piece suit, his wavy hair tamed into place, sitting up straight and grinning while his mother cupped his shoulder and offered a sweet, chaste smile.

All evidence of her deceased husband had vanished. An intimate photo of Sergei, standing bare-chested with a towel around his wide neck, grinning, perched in a five-by-seven frame next to the leather pencil holder.

PJ turned it facedown, feeling too much like an intruder. In the next room, Vera was trying to coax some sort of deep-fried bread into Davy’s mouth while he pinned it shut and made noises like a wounded animal.

Boris sat outside in a Speedo, with his goat.

Dear Fellows Highbrows 

Math homework, in kindergarten?

Dear Connie,

I’m really sorry. But . . . seriously . . . Fellows?

PJ gathered up the debris of her thoughts, dumped the lot into the garbage, turned out the light to the office, and left. “Time for bed, Davy.” She held out her hand.

To her surprise, he slid off the stool and took it. “Horton?”

“You got it, little man.”

She read the story and two others before finally tucking him in. A light rain this evening had diluted the heavy summer heat and stirred the sweet syrup of flowers and fresh grass into the air. She’d left his window open, and now the crickets enriched the darkness with their song.

“Auntie PJ, can we go to church again?”

PJ brushed his hair from his face. “Do you and your mommy go to church?” The fact that he’d waged very little war this morning when she’d packed him up and brought him to the Kellogg Praise and Worship Center suggested he knew what he was doing. Then again, she’d slunk into the back and kept him supplied with a candy bar she dug out of her bag to keep him quiet.

“Grandma brings me to her church sometimes.” He rolled over onto his side. “I saw Daniel and Felicia at church today. They want me to come over and play with them. Can I?”

PJ hadn’t expected to see Maxine, nor to receive the hug that Trudi’s friend gave her. How she appreciated the way Maxine steered the conversation wide around their friend’s current pain. PJ had called Trudi that afternoon and been updated on her despair. Jack still sat in jail. They were still broke.

And PJ still believed that Jack was innocent. Despite the mounting evidence against him. She had to believe her instincts —they were about all she had left.

“Did you like church?” PJ gathered his dirty clothes and gave another cursory look for the library book, this time under the DVDs.

“It’s loud,” he murmured, his voice drowsy.

“Yeah.” PJ kissed him on the forehead as he closed his eyes.

She took a bath, then put on her pajamas. From her window, she spied Boris limelighted by the outside spot, dressed in his scary blue nylon workout pants. He poured feed from a bag into a bucket. Yeah, right, get a clue, pal. Dora the Goat —Davy’s choice of names —was going to be hiccuping gladiolas all night.

After cracking the window open, she turned off the light and climbed into bed, listening to the house groan in the darkness. The water from her empty claw-foot tub in the bathroom plinked, and the smell of the lilac bath oil she’d used scented her sister’s white cotton sheets as PJ flopped back onto the pillows. Connie was going to take her head off when she saw the damage in the garden. Or when she found out Davy hadn’t learned long division by the time she got home.

But . . . he had gotten his shoulders wet and learned to trust her, hadn’t he? Auntie PJ. She could quickly fall in love with the singsong of her name in his little voice.

And what to do with the goat? Tomorrow she’d have to get serious about disposing —er, adopting it out. But what if Boris took it as a personal insult? Worse, would the consumption of Connie’s gladiolas mean a rough start to her new married life?

Not to mention the fact that Jack still sat in the Kellogg lockup and that Trudi was losing her home and future right before her eyes.

Lord, a little help here?

Instead of a calming voice, she heard Boone’s words from last night: “You just don’t want to forgive me, do you?”

She had forgiven him, hadn’t she?

She closed her eyes, seeing his broken, pained expression. She hated how it created the smallest ball of satisfaction inside her chest, how she clung to it. Even before she became a Christian, she knew that a person had to forgive to move on. It seemed pretty easy to forgive, or at least think she’d forgiven, when sitting in a pew surrounded by praise music. But in the real world, that’s when forgiveness got gritty.

Maybe, despite the miles she’d put on her Bug, she hadn’t left Kellogg at all.

PJ pulled the covers up to her chin, staring at the ceiling. Watching the fan whir in the shadows.

Okay, so she hadn’t forgiven him. Because . . . then what?

Her unforgiveness lay like a boulder in the center of her stomach, heavy and taking up too much room. Maybe it had kept her tethered to Boone or at least to the past. Kept the blame on him for everything that had gone wrong in her life —from the night she left Kellogg, through all her travels, her job changes, her crazy whims that some might call mistakes, to a warm beach in Florida, throwing a shoe at Matthew. Maybe not forgiving Boone just made it easier to live with herself and her own failures.

PJ sat up, turned on one of the bedside lamps, and stared at herself in the mirror across from the bed (which, by the way, was a horrible place for a mirror). In this light she looked tired, her dark red hair hanging in long tangles around her head after her bath. She touched Boone’s name on her shoulder. She probably could have turned it into flowers or something else long ago.

“You just don’t want to forgive me, do you?”

No, she just didn’t want to face the truth. That maybe the past ten years weren’t Boone’s fault at all. That once she made the decision to leave Kellogg and not look back, everything she did —every choice, every action, every mistake —had been hers alone. She was the only one responsible for the person she’d become today.

And frankly, she didn’t know if she liked that person.

What might it feel like to be free of the stone inside? to forgive Boone? take back her life? start over, a true new creation?

The thought took her, filled her, pressed tears to her eyes. “I want to forgive him, Lord. Help me to forgive.” She covered her eyes with the heels of her hands, listened to her breathing. “Help me to start over.”

“Lord, help me understand the person I’m supposed to be here.” The prayer she’d spoken in the shadowed hush of the sanctuary filled her mind now. She thought she was supposed to help Trudi . . . but maybe Boone was right; maybe she was just interfering. Except it had felt right, even good, to be doing something for someone else. To finally be the friend that Trudi deserved.

She got out of bed, the floor chilly to her bare feet, and dug around in her duffel for her Bible, then paged open to the verse from this week’s sermon . . . 1 Peter 1, was it?

“To God’s elect, strangers in the world . . . who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying of work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus . . .”

Sanctifying work. The pastor today had suggested it might be more than just being a better person. That it meant becoming a servant for Christ. Someone different, set apart.

PJ knew all about being different, but maybe she could be set apart for God to use. The kind of person who stood up for the innocent. Stood up for those who couldn’t find their voice.

Starting with Jack and Trudi.

She closed her Bible and tucked it next to her pillow, then turned off the light.

She had to get inside Hoffman’s house. Maybe she could find some of those coins, sort out if they had something to do with his murder.

But how, exactly?

“I could use some help, Lord.”

The sweet smell of evening and the sound of crickets harmonized her into sleep.

* * *

She knew it was a dream, knew that she couldn’t change a thing. Still, she tried —tried to change the wine-red dress she’d had tailor-made, with the empire waist, V-neck, spaghetti straps, and shirred front. Tried to change the look on Boone’s face when he picked her up, scrutinizing her with those approving eyes.

PJ settled into the dream, feeling royal as she stepped from Boone’s father’s Cadillac, floating into prom on his tuxedoed arm. Roger Buckam stood near the door and nodded toward them. His eyes tight, he shook Boone’s hand, his gold pinkie ring glinting under the light of the torches that lined the walkway.

Couples strolled the golf course just outside the halo of light pushing through the club windows. Boone winked at her, then ushered her into the dance.

She hadn’t been much of a drinker even then, but when Trudi slipped her a taste of the liquid she’d poured into a medicine bottle in her purse, well, she hadn’t been able to eat strawberries since without thinking of schnapps. She laughed too loud, danced hard, flirted well, and by midnight, Boone pulled her tight and offered an invitation that, even in her mood-heightened state, made her blush.

She’d agreed to meet him on the fourth tee, and he disappeared. “Boone? Boone?” She heard her voice, wondered if she spoke aloud, but then found herself at the pond, high heels swinging from her fingers. Overhead, the night sky played along with Boone’s plans, stars winking at her, a slight breeze sullying a nearby willow, a golden near-full moon stealing her breath as well as any last remorse.

He loved her. Boone loved her.

And tonight, she’d love him back. A swirl of anticipation tightened inside her.

She heard laughter —Boone’s, husky and deep —from the country club, and it lured her near enough to find him sitting on the back steps with his football cohort and Trudi’s date, Greg Morris. Boone held the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, and when he saw her standing barefoot in the shadows next to the dripping air conditioner, he looked up at her like a deer in the headlights.

Yes, that’s right; she’d heard him.

She vaguely heard him tell Greg to get lost as she yanked the cigarette from him. He found his feet. “PJ —”

“Don’t even try, Boone.” She stared at the cigarette, her entire body shaking. “You totally cheapened our . . . wrecked —”

A group of boys walked by —football buddies —and Boone lifted his hand in greeting. They laughed, and one gave him a thumbs-up.

“Does the entire school know?” She had the urge to fling the cigarette to the ground, but she was barefoot and not about to put it out with her pedicure. “Here.” She handed the smoke back to him. “That’s the most ‘fun’ you’re going to have tonight.”

She turned away, sliding out of Boone’s reach as he tried to catch her arm. Above her thundering heartbeat she barely heard the swish of her bare feet scuffing through the stubbly grass of the putting green. Even the trees seemed to want to hush her as she fought tears.

“PJ!”

He caught her on the tenth green, his hand on her arm. She whipped out of his grasp, slipped on the slick grass, and went down in a silky heap.

She felt ruined.

Boone knelt next to her. “I’m sorry.”

He ran his thumb under her eyes, wiping her tears. “We weren’t talking about you.”

“Then who —”

But she never finished because he kissed her, softly, his eyes in hers as he drew away. “I love you, PJ. I always will.”

When he kissed her again, her arms went around his wide shoulders. Her breath mixed with his, and she could taste the champagne he’d snuck into the prom. She lost herself inside his embrace, moving into his advances, barely aware of her shoulders bared, how he’d managed to woo her nearly out of her dress, wrap her in his jacket, how he himself had lost his tailored shirt.

Her heart had already said yes long before this night. It was only a matter of time before her body followed.

“Daniel Buckam, what in the —?”

Boone sprang away from her. PJ reached out to pull him back, but she’d already lost him as he found his feet, staring in horror at his father riding in a golf cart. Sitting beside him was Ben Murphy and, behind them, Ernie Hoffman.

PJ clutched Boone’s jacket around herself, hot embarrassment wrenching away her breath.

“Dad —”

“Don’t, Boone. Get in,” Buckam said coldly.

Without a word Boone obeyed his father, sliding onto the back shelf of the cart.

PJ huddled in the wet grass, unsure what to do.

Then Director Buckam gave her a look that made her want to curl into the fetal position. “What are you waiting for?” he snapped.

Murphy crooked a finger at her. But Ernie smiled kindly, patted the seat beside him.

PJ turned her back to them and pulled her dress closed, shivering, shaking. Feeling naked even as she zippered herself back together.

And Boone didn’t look at her.

She tried to find defense —wasn’t prom night the perfect night? And it wasn’t like it was a first for the country club or even, probably, this green. Still as she climbed on beside Ernie and they raced back to the clubhouse, she felt like a tramp.

And then she got it.

Smoke spiraled off one end of the country club. Near the restaurant. Where she’d taken the cigarette from Boone.

Thick and black, the smoke chewed up the night sky, devouring their prom.

She glanced at Boone. He’d gone pale.

When Buckam stopped the cart and got out, PJ expected him to address Boone. Instead he grabbed PJ by the arm and hauled her over to the chief of police, who gave her a look that cleared the final passion fog from her brain.

“Here’s our little arsonist,” Buckam said as smoke teared her eyes.

She looked over her shoulder and caught Boone’s eyes. What? But Boone was the one with the cigarette 

He turned away, his hands in his pockets.

The memory of the smoke could still make her tear up, fill her lungs with acrid pitch. She coughed. Coughed again, her chest closing upon itself. Coughed again, so violently it woke her.

She sat up in bed, still feeling the bruise of her cough.

Smoke.

A thin veneer crept into the room in the early morning light, but because of her vast experience she recognized it in a second. As if in confirmation, the fire alarm went off, numbing nearly all thoughts save one.

“Davy!”

PJ launched from her bed and raced down the hall to Davy’s room in zero point two seconds. Here, at the top of the stairs, the smoke thickened, a haze that stung her eyes. A quick sweep of his room revealed it empty. She hacked again, putting her hand to her mouth, and raced down the stairs. “Fire!”

She dove into the fog toward the kitchen and barely made out Vera, dressed in a rust-colored robe, her hair tied back in a scarf, fanning a towel below the alarm. Davy, seated at the counter with a stack of what looked like pancakes, clamped his hands over his ears.

“Turn off the stove!” PJ grabbed a wooden spoon and took a swipe at the alarm, knocking it from its mount. It dangled, silenced, from a thin wire.

She turned her attention to the stove, where pancakes bubbled in a sea of sizzling oil from a smoking cast-iron pot probably hauled over from the motherland and formerly used to serve father Lenin.

“Blini,” Vera said, as if explaining the food group.

PJ turned off the stove and squished past Vera, grabbing an oven mitt and then the pan. She expected it to combust at any moment. Muscling open the back door, she ran out onto the porch and tossed the smoking contents into the backyard, pancakes and all.

Dora looked up at her and stopped chewing a mouthful of hostas.

“Breakfast,” PJ said.

“Shto tee dyelish?”

What was she doing? What did Vera think PJ was doing —watering the lawn? She rounded on the babushka standing on the porch. Vera seethed —PJ deduced that from the wild hand gestures, the rough-edged Russian that sounded like a curse upon their entire family. Which, PJ wanted to remind her, she was a part of now.

“Sorry,” PJ said calmly, holding up a mittened hand in surrender. “I have this thing about fire.”

“That oil’s not good for the grass.”

PJ whirled. Super, more criticism. Connie’s lawn boy . . . er, man . . . in a green jumpsuit and brown cap knelt in her garden fertilizing the recently replanted, badly wounded bleeding heart. “When did you get here?”

“Maybe an hour ago. Sorry. Mrs. Morton expects me, so I just come in and get started. I’m Anders, with the lawn service.”

PJ looked at him, and while she had the vague understanding that she stood there in her jammies, what was providentially clear was that she’d found the answer to her problem.

She knew exactly how she’d get into Ernie Hoffman’s house.

Marching inside past the angry Russian, she dropped the pan into the sink, opened a few windows, and sprinted upstairs. A glance in the mirror told her that she should be wincing. But she was too fueled by her plan to care. Sweeping her hair back into a ponytail, she whipped on a pair of jogging shorts and a T-shirt and pulled on her tennis shoes.

This wouldn’t take long.

She took the stairs two at a time, swinging her keys.

Davy perched at the bottom, wearing a goatee of syrup.

PJ skidded to a stop. Oh yeah, Davy. She sank down hard onto the bottom step. Foiled again.

Vera materialized through the fog, wiping her hands. Her gaze ranged from PJ to Davy to PJ’s keys. “Ya smatroo za rebyonka.”

Hmm . . . PJ deciphered that as an offer to watch the fish. Which she dearly hoped meant Davy. Still, fish or not, he was a little guy who’d felt abandoned lately.

PJ crouched in front of him. “Little man, I gotta run out for a bit. Will you stay with uh . . . uh . . .”

“Baba Vera?”

PJ glanced at Vera; she was smiling at Davy. She focused on the smile and the way Baba Vera took Davy by the hand, leading him back to the kitchen, then perching him on a chair and patting his cheeks. It looked like the “fish” would be fine for a few minutes.

She tried to unstick herself from the syrup that had puddled under her tennis shoes.

Casting a final look toward Davy and his baba, PJ lit out for the front door.

She did have a plan, one that didn’t include breaking too many laws. “Hey, Anders! I gotta move your truck, okay?” PJ peeked around the side of the house where he was watering the hostas. The spray rainbowed under the morning sun. He looked up, nodding.

She checked the back of the truck and yes, there hung an extra jumpsuit, a hat, and a plethora of gardening tools. She debated leaving a note, but judging by the amount of yard Connie had maintained, Anders would be busy for at least an hour.

She fully planned to be back before he noticed that she’d relocated his truck . . . to Hoffman’s neighborhood.

Nobody noticed the lawn guy. Or the mailman or milkman.

She slid into the jumpsuit, zipped it up, and added the hat, pulling her hair through the back. As a former locksmith’s apprentice, she was counting on her rudimentary knowledge of legal B and E to get her inside Hoffman’s house. People often secreted a key outside their house. Seventy percent of their emergency calls had come from kids or the elderly who forgot where they hid their extra key. Maybe she wouldn’t have to technically break in.

Regardless, she wasn’t going to take anything. Just look around. Like a fly. And again, she was with the good guys.

Hoffman’s house, which PJ had found from the address listed in the paper and confirmed with the name on the mailbox, was a 1970s rambler with a long, low front porch overgrown with lilac bushes, purple viburnum, and two beautiful pink hydrangea plants. She put a hand inside the dying impatiens hanging near the front door and nearly tripped over the two huge frog planters guarding the stoop.

She was a lawn girl. So she filled the watering can from the outside spigot (no key box magnetized to the faucet) and watered some of the bushes and the impatiens. At the country club, they had always left the key to the pool house on top of the door.

PJ sidled up to the front door, ran her hand over the frame.

Nothing.

She lifted the welcome mat.

Nope.

She watered the geraniums in the frogs, picked out a couple weedy shoots, lifted and looked under one of the planters. Nothing but an outline of froggy.

A zippy red compact drove by. The driver waved, and PJ waved back with her watering can. Even criminals were friendly in Minnesota.

She moved to the next planter. When she lifted it, she heard something rattle inside, down deep in the froggy’s throat.

Oh, she was so good at this. Or maybe that wasn’t something she should be proud of?

PJ checked over her shoulder. Yes, she knew it made her look slightly guilty, but it could also come in handy if someone, say Boone or one of his henchmen, happened to be driving down the street.

Street was clear.

She entered Ernie’s home.

A dead guy’s house. Inside, stale air and the odor of rotting milk made her pause, and she tasted her heartbeat in her mouth. Closing the door behind her, she allowed her eyes to adjust and, for a moment, froze.

The place had been destroyed. Just from her vantage point looking into the family room, she could recognize Angry Search in the overturned cushions on the sofa, the pictures torn from the wall, the books strewn on the floor, a crushed trout ripped from its mount.

The mail had been scattered on the entry floor —newspapers, magazines, letters. She crouched and sifted through it: AARP, offers for credit cards, a history magazine. She accidentally stepped on a bubble envelope and heard it crunch. She winced and picked it up. Priority mail, with a green certified mail sticker.

PJ stared at the signature, the date.

Ernie had died sometime after getting his mail. After signing for it.

Strange that he hadn’t opened it.

She put the mailer on the buffet table. Turning right, down the hall, she saw that the first bedroom had been dismantled —overturned mattress, a shattered mirror. Yeah, that made sense.

The next room down made her pause. A boy’s bedroom, also destroyed. Even the wooden airplane that she guessed hung over the bed had been trampled into little balsa wood splinters. Hardy Boys books littered the floor, along with a torn Men in Black movie poster.

The room looked like it hadn’t been updated since the midnineties. Her gaze lingered on a thick oil portrait of Ernie, Tucker, and Mrs. Hoffman. Tucker looked about ten, his grin betraying buck teeth PJ knew were later accessorized into submission. Ernie beamed, his hand on his only son’s shoulder. PJ recalled Denise’s words: “You’d think a widower in his twilight years would want to spend time with his son and grandchildren.

The next door led to the office. Curls of dust rimmed the tracings where the computer had sat, conspicuously absent next to the lonely monitor on Ernie’s desk. She ran her finger along the bookshelf, taking in the volumes and volumes of books on ancient coins. She picked one up and was momentarily caught by a picture of a coin struck during the time of Constantine the Great, from the fourth century AD. She didn’t even know there’d been a Great Constantine (although maybe Boris did). More importantly, what might such a coin be worth today?

A dusty guitar leaned on a stand in the corner, and through her mind swept the vague recollection of Mr. Hoffman playing “Elvira” during a talent night at the school. She plucked a string as she crouched next to it, paging through a photo album on the floor. In it she recognized a picture of Ernie jauntily dressed in shorts and hiking boots, posed in front of the ancient Parthenon in Athens. Another showed him at an archaeological dig in what looked like Italy.

She stood for a long time, looking at the blank monitor. She’d had a computer once, had spent long hours surfing the Net late into the night with a laptop on a pillow in her bed. Leaving the office, she found Hoffman’s bedroom across the hall. She stood at the threshold, an invisible hand pressing against her chest. The covers had been torn from the bed, a puddle of brown cotton on the floor. Only the fitted sheet and the dust ruffle remained. A pile of books lay upended, tossed to the floor from his bedside stand. On the other side of the bed, a high school picture of his wife sat untarnished.

PJ tiptoed over the debris and sat down on the side of the bed. Dusty sunlight striped the green carpet through the venetian blinds, and a plant in the corner begged for water with its brown and curling leaves.

She should go.

But first . . . she fell to her knees and lifted the edge of the dust ruffle. And discovered that Ernie Hoffman and she had had one thing in common —they both kept their late-night surfing laptops under their beds.

More proof that it wasn’t the cops who’d ransacked the house —since they’d taken Ernie’s desktop, they would have also confiscated his laptop if they’d found it. But clearly whoever had tossed the place wasn’t interested in Ernie’s laptop. Which begged the question —what were they looking for?

She pulled the computer out and sat on the bed, booting it up.

For two months right after she started going to New Life Church and dating Matthew, the surfer-turned-pastor, she’d taken a job retrieving files from damaged computers. Yes, she used a software program provided by the owner and mostly just pushed Okay or Cancel. Still, she learned a few things, like how to search for files on a computer and access recently visited Web sites.

Ernie had file upon file of pictures, data, descriptions, and articles about coins, mostly centered around the time of Nero. PJ remembered Nero. Like Buckam, he accused some perfectly innocent people of setting fire to something. In Nero’s case, it had been Rome. She didn’t particularly like Nero.

Thankfully Ernie still had his settings stored and she easily hooked up to his wireless connection. Going to his history file, she accessed his last few Web sites, starting at his account on Auction.com. The cookies still had him signed in under the name Antionias. Interesting. According to the site, his last auction had been of a Nero coin cast in AD 60.

She was googling that coin when a car door slammed outside.

PJ closed the laptop and hit her knees, peering over the sash just in time to see Boone standing in front of the lawn truck. He turned and stared at the house as if it might have come alive.

She tucked the computer under her arm, then keeping low, scampered through the house.

Surely there was a back door. Or a basement?

Or . . . the garage! From the kitchen, PJ spotted Boone striding by the picture window. She ducked under the counter and crawled, keeping her head down, toward what she prayed was the garage door and eased it open. Darkness and the pungency of oil, grass clippings, and cement sucked her into the muggy shadows.

PJ closed the door behind her, also closing her nose to the odor and the stifling air that pressed against her. The only light filtered through the grimy utility door window.

A shadow clipped the sunlight. Boone! She dodged a supply of rakes and shovels, leaped the lawn mower, and scooted behind the front end of the car. There she hid, sweat beading under the brown cap and dripping down the back of the jumpsuit, trying to swallow her heart back into her chest.

The shadow passed.

She hung on to the fender and breathed out, embracing the computer to her chest, gathering her feet under her to stand.

Something moved behind her —a scuff, a creak of bone.

PJ turned, but a hand clamped over her mouth just as a voice rasped, “Don’t scream.”

Yeah, right. Where was Boone when she needed him?

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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