By Denise Swanson


It's Like We Never Said Goodbye

When Skye Denison was forced to return to Scumble River, Illinois, she knew it would be humiliating, but she never dreamed it would be murder. It was embarrassing enough to have been fired from her first full-time position as a school psychologist, but then she'd had to beg for a job in a place she had described as a small town, full of small-minded people, with even smaller intellects. Skye only wished she hadn't said it to the entire population of Scum­ble River via her high school valedictorian address. Granted, the speech took place twelve years ago, but she had a feeling people would remember.

Nonetheless, she was back, and nothing had changed. Skye had arrived in Scumble River last Sunday afternoon, barely in time for the start of school on Monday. Her plan had been to slip into town unnoticed and remain that way for as long as possible. But it was only Saturday, and she'd already been suckered into participating in one of the com­munity's most hokey events, the Chokeberry Days Festival. Skye stood behind a huge table made from sawhorses and sheets of plywood. Spread across its surface was a red-and-white-checked cloth on which were lined up hundreds of bright pink bottles of chokeberry jelly. The clashing col­ors made Skye dizzy, and the idea of actually tasting the contents of all those jars made her nauseous. How had she ever let herself be talked into judging the chokeberry jelly contest?

Before she could make a bolt for freedom, a woman dressed in a magenta-colored polyester pantsuit descended on the booth. 'Skye, it's good to see you back home where you belong. Though I do remember you saying something when you left about Scumble River being too small for you.'

'Aunt Minnie, what can I say?' She could think of lots of things, but none that wouldn't get her in trouble. Minnie was her mother's middle sister, and she would be on the phone griping to Skye's mom in a minute if she felt Skye had been rude.

'Did you hear about what happened Thursday night at the high school band contest?' Minnie was also gossip cen­tral for their family. She was better at getting the news out than Dan Rather.

'No, what?' Skye asked warily. Her aunt reminded her of a Venus-flytrap, and Skye was always afraid she was about to become the bug.

'Well, I thought you would've been there, since you got that fancy job working for the schools.' Minnie smiled sweetly.

Swallowing the words she wanted to say—fancy job and Scumble River School District did not belong in the same sentence—Skye matched her aunt's smile and said, 'Gee, I didn't know you all were impressed by my little job.'

After a few moments of silence, Minnie went on as if Skye hadn't spoken. 'The problems started when half the kids discovered their music had disappeared and the other half claimed their instruments were missing. Both were later found stashed in the shower stall next to the boys' locker room, but by then it was too late to go on with the contest.'

Skye said, 'Oh, my, I did hear some teachers talking about that yesterday in the teachers' lounge. There was a fight too, right?'

'Right. The rival band members blamed each other for the missing items, and Scumble River's tuba player ended up with a broken nose. A drummer from Clay Center took home two black eyes.'

'How awful. The poor kids had probably practiced for months for the competition.' Skye narrowed her eyes. 'A prank like that is just plain mean. Do you know if they found out who did it?'

Minnie shook her head.

'I wonder if the band director kicked any kids out of the band recently.'

'Not that I heard of. But that's not all that's been hap­pening,' Minnie said and fanned herself with her handker­chief. 'Yesterday at the catfish dinner, someone replaced all the salt in the kitchen with sugar. Seventy pounds of cat­fish, potato salad, and baked beans were ruined. The Feed-bag was sponsoring the supper, so they're out a pretty penny.'

Skye frowned. The Feedbag was Scumble River's only restaurant, other than the fast-food places along the road heading out of town. Like any small business, the Feed-bag operated on a shoestring and couldn't afford a big hit in the cash register. 'Why would someone do that?' she asked.

Minnie's face grew angelic. 'Why, honey, you're the one with the degree in psychology. I'm just one of those people with small intellects you told us about in your grad­uation speech.'

Skye felt her face turn the same color as her aunt's suit, and decided the better part of valor lay in switching sub­jects—quickly. 'Chokeberry Days has certainly changed a lot.'

'This year is different,' Minnie said quietly. 'There's a bad feeling in town. Half the people want the festival to grow bigger and bigger.'

Skye hazarded a guess. 'The ones in town who stand to profit from the crowds, no doubt.'

'Yes. And on the other side are all the folks that just see it for a nuisance.'

'Who's that?' Skye wrinkled her brow.

Minnie held up her hand and counted on her fingers. 'The junior high principal, Lloyd Stark, is the prime insti­ gator of the anti-festival campaign. He hates how it ruins the beginning of school. There are classes for three days, and then Chokeberry Days starts, and half the kids play hooky for the rest of the week.'

'I wondered why things were so quiet on Thursday and Friday.'

Bending down a second finger, Minnie continued. 'The people who live along Basin Street also hate the festival. Their windows get broken, garbage gets thrown in their front yards, and the noise is awful. Mike Young is the head of that group.'

'Vince's friend from high school?'

'Yes. At the time we worried when your brother stuck by him, but Mike seems to have straightened up quite a bit since his teenage years.'

'Oh, yeah. I remember now. He went to prison for a while for dealing drugs.'

'Seems okay now. He owns the local photography shop.'

'Nice to hear someone made good.' Skye closed her eyes briefly and visualized what her life had been like last year at this time. Living in New Orleans had been a dream come true. Everything was exotic and slightly forbidden. She loved nosing out the mysteries of the city. That is, until one of the secrets turned on her and caused her to be fired . .. and jilted. She shook her head. She had vowed not to think of her ex-fiance and the pain he had caused her.

'Skye, sweetheart, come give me a kiss.'

Skye looked up from her reflections into the faded green eyes of her grandmother, Antonia Leofanti. 'Grandma!'

The two women hugged fiercely. Skye noticed how frail her grandmother had become in the eight months since she had last seen her. Antonia's pink scalp peeked through her white hair, and her head barely made it to Skye's chest. It felt as if she was embracing a skeleton.

Antonia backed away first and looked confused for a moment. 'Oh, Skye ... ah, Minnie.' Her gaze cleared as she turned toward her daughter. 'I almost forgot. They've got a problem at the Altar and Rosary Society's craft tent. Someone switched all the price tags around. lona Clapp's handmade quilt is now marked twenty-five cents, and little Iris's potholder is going for four hundred dollars.'

Minnie gave a shriek and took off at a trot.

Antonia spoke over her shoulder to Skye as she slowly followed Minnie.. 'Now that you're back in town, you make sure you come visit me. It's time I told someone the family history, and I think you're the best one to hear it.'

Skye hurried toward the Port-A-Pots. One of the other judges had finally showed up to take over watching the jel­lies, and Skye was free for half an hour. When she arrived at the toilets she swore under her breath. The line snaked back past both the Lions' lemonade stand and the Knights of Columbus fishpond grab bag game. As she took her place at the end, she heard a high saccharine voice attempt­ing to tell a children's story while a small child screamed in the background.

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