Wednesday, September 15, 2010
First Chapter Wednesday--Sun Tunnels and Secrets
On a trip to the Sun Tunnels in the Utah desert, Norma and her sisters find a body on the side of the road. But this awful discovery turns out to be the least of their problems. Norma's husband just passed on, and she learns he kept a secret from her for sixty years. LaRue is keeping a secret from Norma. The sisters' young friend Tony is keeping a secret about his famous father, and Tony's mother is keeping a secret of her own. Tony is secretly in love with his friend Kelli, who recently escaped from a polygamist cult. And who is the mysterious young car thief with whom Norma feels a special connection? Everything converges in Grouse Creek at the Fourth of July celebration.
Will secrets prove everyone's undoing?
It looked like a body.
The three elderly sisters had just turned off the lonely highway onto the even more desolate dirt road when Norma saw it. Her foot trembled as she pressed the brake pedal.
“Oh, are we here?” LaRue asked, looking up from her embroidery and squinting through her spectacles. “I can’t see those sun pipes. I thought you said they were out past Lucin.”
“What is that on the side of the road?” Mabel pointed from the back seat.
“I . . . I believe it’s a dead man,” Norma answered in a tiny voice she didn’t recognize. She swallowed hard.
“I’m getting one of my bad feelings.” LaRue strained to see around Norma, clutching her embroidery basket to her chest. Suddenly, LaRue yelped, “Goodness gracious! That man isn’t wearing any clothes!”
Norma’s eyes went wide as she realized the man was indeed naked. She drummed the steering wheel with her fingers and thought. “What should we do?”
“Nothing. It would be indecent to—”
“Remember the story of the Good Samaritan?” Mabel interrupted, opening her door. “The man by the side of the road was without his clothes as well.”
As Norma and LaRue watched, their impulsive and somewhat arthritic sister carefully made her way over the gravel to the body, which lay face-up a few yards from the side of the road. Mabel leaned over him, hand on her back, and hollered, “If I fall over, you’ll help me up now, won’t you?”
Norma glanced at LaRue, who was as white as her lace collar. The light gray curls framing her pudgy face shook slightly as she stared out the window at Mabel. “It’s unseemly to see her hovering over a man, a n–naked man, no less.”
“I imagine she’s making sure he’s dead. If he’s not, then we’ll need to help him. Mabel is right about that.”
Norma didn’t think it was possible, but LaRue paled even more at this suggestion.
Mabel shouted, “You still have that umbrella in your car?”
“Yes,” Norma said, reaching under the seat and handing the umbrella to Mabel, who had shuffled up to the car window.
Mabel walked over and poked the body with the tip of the umbrella. The man didn’t move. “Bring over something to cover him with.”
Norma searched under the seat again, then in the glove compartment, but found nothing suitable. She turned to LaRue. “What do you have in your basket?”
LaRue now sat with her eyes shut, as if she thought the dead body would disappear if she didn’t look at it. Finally, she slowly opened one eye, then sighed and pushed her embroidery basket toward her dark-haired, green-eyed sister. Norma fumbled through the paraphernalia and grabbed a partially embroidered pillowcase. “This will work.”
LaRue let out a gasp. “Over my dead body!”
“No, but maybe over someone else’s.” Norma brusquely opened her door, then walked over to Mabel and the body.
As Norma stared at the man, she suddenly felt nauseous. He looked no older than her grandson Zach, who was twenty years old. His sandy hair was matted to his head, and black bruises outlined his closed eyes. Blood had congealed in a gash on his forehead.
“He doesn’t seem to be alive,” Mabel said, shaking her head. “Poor, poor, boy. And would you look at that nasty sunburn? He’s been here a good while—and it sure looks like someone has beaten him, doesn’t it?”
Norma shuddered. The body was indeed scorched from lying in the desert sun, and the man had clearly been beaten. She wondered if the assailant was still around. She scanned the flat landscape and saw only small scrub bushes and gravel—nowhere to hide. She dabbed at her sweaty forehead with the back of her hand. “Well, should we go call the authorities?” She wished her cell phone had service out in the middle of this nowhere.
Then she looked back at LaRue and sighed. There was no way she and Mabel would get her to come out here again. Norma had been looking forward to this outing—her first time out of town since her husband had passed away several weeks earlier. She looked back at the body; it wasn’t going anywhere.
Mabel put her hand on Norma’s arm. “We can’t really do anything for him now, dear.”
“Yes, and I guess we can call the sheriff when we get back home, so . . .”
Norma felt a little guilty at the thought, but what was a little more time to the deceased? And they had already come so far. Besides she hoped to be able to visit with Mabel about the phone call she’d had from a young woman named Katie that morning. “Is Mr. Wesley Weaver there?” the caller had asked. It had shocked Norma to hear someone ask for her husband, but then she remembered most of the bills were still in his name.
“May I ask who’s calling?” Norma had asked.
“Just tell Hummer it’s Katie.”
This obviously isn’t the gas company, and why did she refer to Wes as Hummer? “Katie who?”
“Just Katie. I need help.”
Norma’s mind raced with all the possible Katies she had ever known, but none had any sort of personal relationship with her husband. When she’d told the caller that Wes had passed on, there was silence, as if the young-sounding woman were processing the information. Finally, Norma heard a sob, and then the caller hung up.
The strange phone call worried Norma, and she couldn’t stop wondering who Katie was—and what she’d wanted from Wes.
Now there was this dead man. Norma hugged herself and watched as Mabel leaned over the man once more and asked, “Are you dead?” She poked him again with the umbrella. Silence.
“Get me LaRue’s bottle of water.”
Thinking Mabel was thirsty, Norma made her way back to the passenger-side door. “Mabel needs your water.”
LaRue harrumphed. “What’ll I take my decongestant tablets with?”
“She won’t drink all of it.”
LaRue reached into her basket again and grumbled, but handed Norma the water.
Norma hurried back to Mabel and gave her the bottle. Then Mabel slowly knelt down, her blue skirt scooting up on her bare, wrinkled legs. She poured the water onto the pillowcase and wiped the blood from the man’s forehead. Then she carefully laid the embroidered pillowcase where it would do him the most good. “There now, that’s better. If it were me lying here dead, I wouldn’t want to be exposing myself.” She paused and looked at Norma. “Nor would I want to ruin anyone’s excursion. So let’s just go see those tunnels before we drive back to Grouse Creek and call the sheriff. I think in the long run this young man will feel better about that.”
Norma smiled, glad Mabel thought it was all right to continue on. Mabel stayed on her knees half a minute longer, her soft, gray curls peeking out from beneath her baseball cap.
“I said a prayer for him. I can give him that much.” Mabel straightened up again. Slowly she took off her cap and placed it over the man’s face. Then she opened the umbrella and propped it up to shade his body. “To keep the sun from doing any more damage, and to slow down the poor boy’s decomposition. Now give me a hand up, you hear?”
Norma held out her hand and tugged her eighty-two-year-old sister to her feet.
“Well?” LaRue said when they got back into the car.
“He’s dead.” Mabel handed her the nearly empty water bottle.
“Well, he certainly can’t wear my embroidery. It’s not finished.”
Norma smiled slightly. “Well, LaRue dear, you’re welcome to retrieve it.” LaRue glanced past them at the body and a look of horror crossed her face. She remained rooted in her seat.
The sisters didn’t speak the rest of the way to the Sun Tunnels—a land art project built in the 1970s in the remote desert west of the Great Salt Lake. Norma’s red Subaru bumped over railroad tracks and down through gullies and swells. She recalled the hubbub about the Sun Tunnels when they were first built, but since then, few people other than locals even knew of their existence. And none of the three sisters had ever been to the tunnels. Recently, however, there had been renewed interest in the tunnels, and people from all over were making the trek to the isolated northwest corner of the state to see them. Rumors abounded that during the summer solstice, hippies, Druids, and tree-huggers—although there wasn’t a single tree there to hug—converged on the property, danced naked beneath the lowering sun and rising moon, and smoked marijuana. Norma suspected the rumors were exaggerated and was sure LaRue had never heard them, since she had consented to the trip. Nevertheless, the sisters made certain their outing would happen the day after the solstice, just to be on the safe side. Norma didn’t want to run into any nude dancers, pot-smoking or otherwise.
When they came to a fork in the road, Norma got out her map, crudely drawn by one of the teenagers in town. “Guess we go left.” There weren’t any signs to mark the way, and the landscape was flat, although still somewhat greenish from the spring runoff. To the east were the Salt Flats, white desolation that stretched as far as one could see. Heat rose up like steam in the windswept summer sky.
The farther they drove, the more Norma realized the potential danger of traveling so many miles off the main road. She tried to remember if she had told anyone where they were going. Her nerves were starting to get the best of her. What if whoever killed that young man was still out there somewhere?
Suddenly, Norma saw the four massive concrete pipes and breathed a sigh of relief. She drove to the north side of one pipe and stopped. The three sisters got out of the car and quietly approached the land art.
Each of the Sun Tunnels was about nine feet in circumference and about twelve feet long, and the four tunnels formed an “X.” The waning light of the setting sun cast long shadows, and a diffused glow danced through the strategically placed holes that mirrored constellations in the tunnel walls. The light played on Mabel’s face, emphasizing the creases in her tawny skin. Watching Mabel step into one of the tunnels, Norma thought she could hear their mother’s voice: “Dear, you just can’t leave a man out in the desert like that. He could die from exposure.”
“Mabel, did you say something?” Norma wanted to argue with her mother and remind her the man already was dead.
“I said LaRue went back to the car because her sinuses were closing up.”
“Oh.” Norma watched the glow dim as the sun set.
“It’s almost magical here, isn’t it?” Mabel reached her arms as high as she could in an effort to touch the tunnel’s ceiling. But since she had shrunk to under five feet two inches, the ceiling was a good foot above her outstretched fingertips.
The sisters walked out of the tunnels, then turned and watched the sun, which was just about to slip behind the mountain. The two circles aligned, one inside of the other, black silhouettes against the orange sky.
Mabel gasped. “It’s beautiful.”
Norma nodded, feeling tears well up in her eyes.
Mabel took her arm. “Sweetie, are you worried about that young man?”
“Not worried exactly. Just thinking maybe we should pray or something, so we know what to do.”
“Don’t have to pray to know what to do, Norma,” Mabel said. “We were raised in a good home, weren’t we? I think it’s high time we head back to attend to what has to be attended to.”
As they slowly walked toward the car, Mabel sighed quietly. “What kind of a person would beat someone up and abandon him clear out in the middle of nowhere, more than thirty miles from the nearest town? Maybe he’s dead because he tried to stop something bad from happening.”
Norma shuddered. She thought of how much she missed Wes, and that reminded her of the phone call. “I had a strange phone call this morning. A young woman named Katie asked for Wes.”
“What did she want?” Mabel pulled out a handkerchief to wipe her dusty face.
“She said she needed help, but she didn’t say what kind of help. Who do you think she is? I don’t remember Wes knowing anyone named Katie. Do you?”
“You didn’t ask LaRue, did you?” Mabel stuffed her handkerchief back into her shirt pocket.
“Heavens, no. She would jump to the wrong conclusion.”
“Hmm. Maybe Katie will call back again.”
Norma sighed. It was silly, but she’d hoped somehow Mabel would know exactly who the desperate-sounding woman was. Norma opened the car door and helped Mabel into the back seat.
“It’s getting dark, so it’s about time you got back,” LaRue said. “Just a bunch of old pipes anyway. Besides, don’t you think we ought to call someone about that body we found?”
When the sisters drove to where they had seen the body, Norma slowed the car to a crawl. Mabel peered out the side window, prepared to tell her when to stop. In the dusk, the land all looked the same, with a few scraggly plants struggling for life, and the only distinguishing feature would be the body itself.
The three sisters strained their eyes, looking for the body. “What happened to him?” Mabel
wondered aloud. “Surely we would’ve seen him by now. Dead men can’t walk! See, we’re almost back to the highway.”
“I’m going to turn around and retrace our path. We missed him somehow.” Even as Norma said it, she found it hard to believe. He’d been lying close to the road, his bare belly shining in the sun like some sort of beached fish. Even in the fading light they couldn’t have missed him. Norma turned the car around and drove back toward the tunnels. A little way past the spot where she was certain the body had lain, she turned the car around again and backtracked, slowing the car to a mere five miles per hour. But there was no sign of Mabel’s hat, her umbrella, or LaRue’s embroidery.
And there was no body.