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Monday Morning

Death, Guns and Sticky Buns

THE FIRST RAYS OF EARLY MORNING SUN STREAMED through the louvered window of my bedroom, waking me.

As quietly as I could, I went downstairs and entered the kitchen. Noel, my dainty little gray and white tabby, lay sprawled on the oaken kitchen table between the salt and pepper shakers.

Hi, sweetie. She rewarded me with a gentle purr for stroking her back. Where's Fred? I whispered. I was speaking softly because the last thing I needed was Ethelind demanding to know where I was going. It was as if I were a teenager again, having to explain my every move.

Well! Good morning, young lady. Ethelind's voice boomed in my ears. She stood in the doorway that led into the front of the house with one of her disgusting brown cigarettes stuck to her lower lip and Fred goofily draped over her left shoulder. I've been up for hours, she announced. Fred turned around and blinked twice as if he also wanted to chastise me for sleeping late.

I removed Fred from her shoulder. He's got chronic bronchitis, I told her. He shouldn't be exposed to cigarette smoke. Fred added emphasis to my statement by sneezing twice. It helped make the point.

I've heard of people being allergic to cats, but I've never heard of a cat being allergic to people.

Not people, just cigarettes.

She tossed her cigarette into the sink and ran water on it. Good thing I'm due to leave in a couple of days.

I'd heard that before!

I busied myself with filling the cats dishes with Tasty Tabby Treats. Both cats came running over, thanked me by gently winding around my legs a couple of times, then began to gobble their food as if they hadn't seen anything to eat in a week.

Got to get to work, I muttered, trying to sound cheerful.

Will you be here for dinner tonight? Ethelind asked. I fix a damn good toad-in-the-hole.

Toad-in-the-hole was the British equivalent of Greta's scalloped weiners. I didn't care for either. I think I have to work late. Sorry.

Disappointment showed in her face, and I felt bad. Well, a little bad. I vowed to spend a whole evening with her before she left-if she ever did leave.

I had dressed this morning in what I hoped was appropriate fall office attire: brown slacks, a lightweight pumpkin-colored sweater, and gold corduroy blazer. With the addition of my gold hoop earrings and a couple of chains, I thought I looked quite stylish. Even Cas-sie couldn't find anything wrong with this outfit.

The cats were in the sink playing catch with the cigarette butt Ethelind had tossed into it and didn't even glance up as I left. I'll be home early, I promised them silently as I made my escape from the smoke-filled kitchen.

When I walked into the office, Cassie looked up from a stack of papers, rubbed her forehead as though suffering severe pain, and groaned.

What's wrong? I asked. I hung my blazer on the back of my chair and sat down.

This. With each hand she waved a piece of paper at me. Subscription cancellations. Dozens of them.

But why?

The phone rang, and Cassie snatched it up. Are you sure you want to do this, Mrs. Layman? Please don't forget we put your grandson's picture on the front page last year yes, I know the article was about the symphony, but he was first violin I promise you it will never yes, I know Miss Mullins would never have I'm sorry you feel this way

She hung up and glared at me. It's been like that all morning. The Chronicle is doomed. You might have told me that the reenactment was going to be an execution, Tori.

It had crossed my mind when I attended the first planning session, but somehow I thought she wouldn't have approved, so I had kept quiet. Are you telling me the Chronicle is going down like Titanic, just because we cosponsored Saturday's event? I can't believe that.

She waved another paper at me. Here's the proof. They might have put up with something like this if P. J. had been in charge, but you let's face it, Tori, you don't have the best reputation in town.

I was shocked. What do you mean? Surely, they've forgiven me for burning down the Historical Society. Everybody knows that was an accident.

They might say they've forgiven you, but then you ruined the Apple Butter Festival, and they haven't had time to forget that. And of course there's the matter of the clinic closing, too.

Tears brimmed in my eyes, and I had to blink to keep them from falling out. That's really unfair, I mumbled into a Kleenex. I was only helping out. And I'll kill you if you say something smarmy like, who said life is fair?

To hide my distress, I pulled the cardboard box I'd brought from home out from under my desk and looked through it.

What are you doing? Cassie asked.

This office is really drab. It'll look better once I hang up a few personal items. I took a faded old photograph down from the wall above my desk. Just look at this ugly frame. It's all chipped.

It's a photograph of the paper's founder, Cassie said.

We'll put it back up before P. J. returns. I climbed up on the desktop and hung a framed poster on the hook. It was from the Philomathean Society's show of W. W. Denslow's children's illustrations, a real favorite of mine.

Where did that come from? Cassie asked.

I had my neighbor send my stuff. Figured if I'm going to be in Lickin Creek for six months, it would be nice to have my own things here.

After a few adjustments, I was happy with the way the picture looked. The bright green color added a cheerful note to an otherwise drab room. Before I could climb down, the door burst open and President Godlove from the college entered. Even in his sharp gray suit, cream colored shirt, and subtly striped silk tie, he reminded me of a military officer as he stood stiffly in the doorway gazing with disapproval at me.

I've been trying to get you on the telephone for ten minutes, he said. He stared at my desktop. No wonder. The phone's unplugged.

I must have caught my foot in the cord when I climbed up here, I admitted.

He looked up at me and shook his head.

What can I do for you? I asked, once I had my two feet on the floor.

Are you planning on going to Mack Macmillan's funeral this afternoon?

I hadn't planned to.

It could smooth things over for you. Show the community that you're really sorry this happened.

I don't see how I could possibly get away. I picked up the day's calendar and read, Cover the Chicken and Stuff benefit lunch at the Rec Center Maybe that wasn't a good example. There's a guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Caven County Realtors Society. And the AMVETS has a new flag. I didn't mention that I also hoped to track down the other reenactor, Darious DeShong.

Tori, I can get one of our freelancers to handle all of today's hot news stories, Cassie said. I agree with Dr. Godlove. You really should go to the funeral. It might even get us back some of our disgruntled subscribers.

All right. What time and where?

Two o'clock, the college president said. At Arlington National Cemetery.

Please tell me you don't mean the one in Washington, D.C.!

That's the one. If you leave by ten, you'll be there in plenty of time. He stopped in the doorway on his way out. I'd give you a ride, but my car's already full with the trustees.

Be sure to keep track of your mileage, Cassie said. If there's any money left at the end of the month, we can reimburse you for the gas.

Being the editor/publisher wasn't all I'd hoped it would be.

I nearly forgot, you had a phone call this morning. Cassie rummaged through the mess on her desk. Here it is. Dr. Washabaugh. Again.

I'll call her first thing tomorrow, I said.

Cassie said, Call her now, Tori. Why are you procrastinating on this? She began pushing buttons on her telephone.

Procrastination is one of the character defects which make me so lovable, I said.

She ignored me and said into the receiver. Dr. Washabaugh, please. This is Tori Miracle returning her call. To me she said, She'll be on in a minute. You can take it on your phone. Yes, yes, she's right here. She glared at me until I picked up the phone on my desk.

This is Tori, I reluctantly said to the invisible person on the line.

I've been trying to get hold of you for a long time. Dr. Washabaugh sounded aggravated. Didn't you get any of my messages?

Sorry. I've been really busy.

Can you come to my office this afternoon? I want to go over your test results with you.

Can't make it today, I said.

Tomorrow morning, then.

I felt a growing sense of alarm. What is it? Can't you tell me now?

It would be better if we did this in the office. I'll see you at eight.

I held on to the receiver for a long time after I heard the disconnecting click.

Something wrong? Cassie asked.

I hung up and shook my head. No. Just routine stuff. Are you sure you can handle everything this afternoon?

Of course I can.

I know you can. Which makes me wonder why P. J. didn't ask you to take over the Chronicle.

She did, Tori.

Why didn't you?

You'll find out.

The drive to Washington on the interstate was long and boring, making me wish once again the Chronicle could afford a tape player for its car. Or even a radio. Air-conditioning would be nice, too, I thought, as my face was bombarded by dirt thrown through the open window by the parade of tractor trailers speeding past me. At long last I drove through the impressive entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, parked at the modern visitor center, and picked up a funeral pass.

There's a bus to the grave site, the woman at the desk told me. It's parked out front.

I paused for a moment outside to admire the beautiful vista before me of rolling hills marked with small white grave markers and impressive monuments. On the hill stood Arlington House, once the home of Robert E. Lee and Mary Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, and, since the Civil War, a possession of the United States government. I'd been to a beautiful wedding there once, a long time ago.

I found a bus marked SSGT EDWARD MACMILLAN and climbed the steps. Is this the right bus? I asked the driver. I'm looking for Congressman Macmillan's funeral.

This is it, he told me. Here, we go by the departed's military rank.

As I walked to the back of the bus, I recognized a lot of people from Lickin Creek. I've come to the conclusion there are only fifty people living in the town, and they go to everything as a group. They all were in gray, black, or navy blue. I was dressed all wrong, as usual- my gold corduroy jacket stood out like a lighthouse beacon in a storm.

A plump lady with a stiff white bonnet on her bun of gray hair patted the seat next to her. Sit with me, Tori. If I'd known you was coming we could have rode together.

She was Garnet's aunt Gladys. One of them anyway. At family gatherings it always seemed as if all the women were Aunt Gladys and all the men were Uncle Zeke.

I'd barely had time to sit down on the hard brown vinyl bench seat next to her before she said, My, what pretty earrings, Tori. You look like a gypsy.

The bus lurched to a start, and a few minutes later we were disembarking at the grave site.

Rows of metal folding chairs faced an open grave, hauntingly reminiscent of the one recently dug on the lawn of the Lickin Creek College for Women. Aunt Gladys insisted on looking at the white marble grave marker, so I went with her. The carving on the stone said, SSGT Edward Macmillan. D.O.B., March 27, 1924. D.O.D.-. His date with death had not yet been filled in. On the back of the stone were more words: Ramona Macmillan, D.O.B., December 12, 1926. D.O.D., April 9, 1966.

He was married before? I asked.

Gladys nodded and dabbed at her eyes with a lace-edged handkerchief. Lovely woman. Died of cancer. Smoker, of course. I was sure no cigarette had ever soiled Garnet's Aunt Gladys's lips. She added, She was an Unterberger, you know, as if that should mean something to me.

We took seats in the last row and rested our feet on the green artificial grass carpet beneath the chairs. Soon Dr. Godlove arrived, accompanied by several people who must have been the college trustees. He nodded and passed by me to take a seat in the roped-off section down front. Exactly at two o'clock, the sound of a band playing a Sousa march prompted us all to turn around.

Over the crest of a hill came an impressive parade, an army band, an honor guard of soldiers in dress uniform, a riderless horse, and a caisson, on which lay a coffin covered with an American flag. Walking behind the coffin were several mourners, including one who I assumed was the widow since she wore a long black veil, `a la Jackie Kennedy, that hid her hair and face.

The mourners took their seats in the front row, and an army officer stepped forward. From the little silver cross he wore on his uniform, I guessed he was the chaplain. He gave a subtle signal with one hand, and a sharp-looking soldier stepped up to the caisson, lifted the flag on top of the coffin, opened a little door in the rear of it, and removed a small flat metal box. Everyone stood as he carried it to the grave site, where he solemnly laid it on the artificial turf.

What's that? I asked Aunt Gladys.

That's Mack. He was cremated.

I'd never seen a box of cremated human remains before, and I was surprised that it was so small. How could a person be reduced to so little?

The service went quickly. The chaplain said a few words about the congressman's military service in World War II and his long tenure as a congressman, then offered a prayer. The band played taps, and the honor guard raised their rifles and gave the departed man a twenty-one-gun salute. Ironic, I thought, considering the last thing he'd seen was fifteen rifles aiming directly at him.

The flag from the coffin was folded into a neat triangle by several soldiers, one of whom passed it to the chaplain, who then handed it to the widow. That was the signal for everyone to stand and rush forward to offer condolences to Mrs. Macmillan. I stood in line and waited my turn, wondering what I was going to say to her.

From behind I admired her trim, athletic figure. She had to be a lot younger than her husband, I figured. Nobody could look that good in their seventies, even from the back.

It was almost my turn. She extracted herself from a bear hug given her by one of the Lickin Creek contingent and turned to me. I reached out to shake her hand, then stopped with it hanging awkwardly in midair.

She had raised her veil in order to hug and kiss the well-wishers. Other than her lips and eyes, Mrs. Mac-millan's face was totally covered with a tan elastic mask. A black hole marked the place where her nose should be.

The lips smiled and said, Thank you so much for coming today.

I completely forgot what I thought I should say. I'm so sorry, I stammered, not sure whether I meant sorry about her husband or sorry about her face.

Thank you so much she murmured automatically, and reached past me to take Aunt Gladys's outstretched hand. I walked slowly back to the bus. What dreadful thing had happened to her face, I wondered?

Gladys joined me on the bus and fanned her pink face with a memorial leaflet. Can't believe this kind of weather so late in October. Throws the animals off their feed. Not to mention what it does to the fruit crops. I recall back when I was a kid, we didn't have none of them cloud seeders keeping it from raining then, and the weather was always

Aunt Gladys, I interrupted. Do you know why Mrs. Macmillan has to wear the elastic mask?

Of course, she said, wiping her forehead with a lace handkerchief.

Since she'd apparently answered my question to her satisfaction, I tried another tack. Why does she wear it?

Oh, I'm sorry. I keep forgetting you aren't local, Tori. It was an accident last summer. The Macmillans had a big barbecue at their farm for the horsey set. The charcoal didn't seem to be burning, so Charlotte sprayed it with lighter fluid. Naturally, it flared up in her face. Gladys shuddered. Horrible burns, I understand. She was a patient at Hershey Medical Center for a long time. Then when she came home, she had to wear that mask. Something to do with keeping the skin from scarring more badly. Such a shame. She was a beautiful woman.

I repressed a shudder. I could imagine nothing more painful than a severe burn. A few weeks ago, at the college, I heard someone say Mrs. Macmillan was settling a crisis at the stable. Is she a horsewoman?

Oh my, yes indeed. And a famous one. The college is lucky to have someone like Charlotte running its equestrian program. She was a famous horse trainer before marrying Mack. He bought a horse farm in Gettysburg for her, right next to the battlefield. Besides teaching riding at the college, she gives lessons at her farm. Also does volunteer work. Brings handicapped kids to the farm to ride for free.

She sounds like a remarkable woman. She is, Tori. It was a blessed day when she came to our community. She peered at me through the mid-section of her trifocals, and I felt she was comparing me to the saintly Mrs. Macmillan. And I didn't even come in a close second.

Sunday Afternoon | Death, Guns and Sticky Buns | Tuesday Morning