Kirk David rode through the town of Walnut Grove, disturbing the quiet, rain-washed Sunday evening with the rumble of his Harley-Davidson Super Glide.
Sun glinted off empty streets devoid of litter, not even a cigarette butt peeked up from the crevices in the cement sections. So much cleaner than ten years ago.
Sidewalks gleamed like polished silver and shop windows glistened in the late sunlight bright enough to blind Kirk. He winced and looked toward the burnt orange leaves on the town square’s oldest oak tree. It looked as if it might pull its roots from the earth and stalk Kirk’s way intent on stomping him into the ground.
Kirk shivered. What am I doing back here?
When he pulled to a stop sign, he dropped heavy black-booted feet to the pavement, looked one way, then the other, and caught movement on Spring Street.
Fingers, attached to the shadowy outline of a body, shifted the blinds in the newspaper office and lifted one slat.
“Living dangerously,” Kirk mumbled. No one dared skip church service on Sunday morning in Reverend Hollis Thackery’s town. Everyone feared the old white-haired man more than the Devil. He sucked in enough fire and brimstone to make Hell feel like oceanfront property in Alaska, then spewed it onto his poor parishioners. By the time the church doors opened to let them out, the congregation resembled the charred inhabitants of a fire-damaged building.
Kirk revved the motor on his Harley loud enough to vibrate the plate-glass on Cindy Kate’s Beauty Salon across the intersection, then took off in a roar down Veterans Boulevard.
Time to check in on the old man; see if he’s as lively as he was ten years ago, or if he just coughs out smoke these days.
The brick church sprawled across an open field where the boulevard ended. Its white steeple reached toward Heaven as if to kiss the face of an angel. Or maybe it had loftier goals—perchance to touch the face of God? Seems those were words in a poem Kirk read long ago in high school.
When he killed the motor on his bike, the sound of silence roared in his ears louder, than the rumble of his Harley, disturbed only by a dry leaf as it skittered across the blacktop parking lot. Loudest noise for what could have been miles. Shouting and singing should have filtered from the church, with Hollis Thackery’s voice booming above those of the members. It used to be one of those lively churches where the preacher hopped around the pulpit, shouting, clapping his hands, and waving a white handkerchief, while deacons shouted amen at regular intervals. “Surrender to God or else” seemed to be the message.
Not Kirks scene. He preferred a quieter and gentler way. He’d rather bring people to salvation through the love of Christ, not the threat of Hell.
Unease traveled along his nerves like spiders scurrying across sand. Something was wrong with this town. Very wrong.
Kirk swung his leg over the seat of the Harley and removed his helmet. He looked down at his black leather chaps, his many-zippered jacket, fingerless gloves, and the pistol strapped against one hip. He wasn’t exactly dressed for Sunday-go-to-Meeting, but compelled to hear Hollis preach, he strode toward the entrance. Though he hadn’t cared for the fire and brimstone sermons as a young man, he wished to hear one now just to feel as if something remained normal about this town.
White double doors looked smaller as all things seemed to when you’ve been away for a long spell. Someone had added a fresh coat of paint onto raw wood yesterday. It needed another coat to match the cleanliness of the town. Shoving them open, he stepped inside and slid into a pew near the back. Every head in the church swiveled to cast him a furtive glance, then pivoted back toward the front in unison as if connected by a huge, bizarre turntable, the rustle of clothing the only indication they’d moved at all.
One thing hadn’t changed. Church benches were still as hard and cold as a tombstone in the dead of winter. Kirk shifted, attempting to get comfortable without much luck.
When he looked up at Reverend Thackery, his breath caught in his throat. Is this the same man? It couldn’t be. The man who stood behind the pulpit looked as if he’d shrunk a few inches and grown the extra inches on his upper back. Stooped and broken came to mind. His hair was no longer white, but more the color of snow after it’d lain around on the ground for a few days. A voice that used to resonate off the stainless glass windows, now cracked with age. Holy words barely pushed through hollow cheeks and thin lips.
None of the occupants shouted in jubilation. Not one amen to be heard among the whole bunch. No peace here either.
Ten years has done this much damage?
Thackery’s empty gaze focused on Kirk and, for a split second, a glimmer of hope sparked to life in the old preacher’s watery, blue eyes. With a quick side-ways glance, the old man snuffed out the spark as if afraid someone would see it.
Kirk had the distinct feeling that someone sat right next to the pulpit with perfect blonde hair, smooth skin, long fingers, and manicured nails. The stranger faced the congregation with an amused smile spread across his young face. When his gaze lighted on Kirk’s, the smile faltered before resuming with a hint of arrogance as if he’d glanced into his soul and dismissed Kirk as no threat.
As Kirk had wandered from place to place, he’d seen men like that a hundred times before in a hundred different little towns. The wrecker of peace, the destroyer of good people, and the Father of Lies—the Devil in Armani. What was he doing in Walnut Grove?
Next to Kirk a skeletal woman in a gray turtleneck dress caught a sneeze before it launched from her nose. She cast a fearful glance toward the young man seated near the pulpit and relaxed when he didn’t look her way.
Confusion buzzed through Kirk’s mind. When he’d left after his sister’s disappearance, this town hadn’t needed the Devil to corrupt it. The good people of Walnut Grove had shouted hallelujah on Sunday morning and hit the lake with beer and foul mouths on Sunday afternoon. What did the Devil hope to gain by turning then into zombies? It might put a damper on spreading the gospel, but the sad fact was most towns didn’t need the Devil to prod them into that.
A door to the right of the podium creaked open. Kirk thought it had opened on a breath of air, but he caught a glimpse of a slight figure. She peered through the thin crack, locked gazes with him, then eased the door closed, careful not to let it click.
Something about her seemed familiar, but sudden dizziness overwhelmed him before he could grasp her name. He rose from the bench and headed outside for some fresh air—or at least air a bit less foul. He sank to the steps and stared back toward town.
Why have I returned to this god-forsaken place?
He hadn’t been back in a long time and had ceased to preach for even longer than that. But he needed answers about a past he chose to run from.
“Lord, I can’t do this,” he whispered. “I don’t know where to begin.”
Before the doors opened to empty the people, he pushed off the steps, mounted his Harley and roared out of the parking lot. The Devil’s gaze burned between his shoulder blades, but he refused to turn and look. That icy glare had followed him everywhere he roamed, always at his back ready to pounce and bring him further and further away from God. This time the Devil loomed within arm’s reach and breathed fire down his spine.
He ended up on the outskirts of town in front of Hattie’s Bar and Grill. Music thumped as laughter and conversation flowed through the tavern’s insubstantial walls—sounds of people with life in their soul.
With a sigh of relief, Kirk dismounted. It might be a bar, but he’d never been as glad to see something so normal in his life.
When he strolled into the bar, the patrons tossed him quick glances, but their curiosity didn’t reach beyond that. They went back to their beer and conversation as if he were just another thirsty stranger off the highway to nowhere. Welcome as long as he didn’t cause trouble.
After he took a seat at the bar, a petite, brown-haired waitress in a short black skirt and white blouse approached him. Buttons weren’t fastened all the way up to her neck, but not undone to an obscene length either. Wild innocence leapt to his mind, drowning out any comprehension of what she’d just said.
“Thirsty?” she repeated with a voice as sweet and rough as Demi Moore’s.
“Cherry…” He cleared his throat and rampant thoughts from his brain and tried again.
A laugh spilled out of her mouth. “You’re kidding, right?” She leaned closer. “Men who look like you don’t order Cherry Cola in a bar.”
“I don’t drink.” He leveled his gaze with her huge, brown eyes—innocent eyes. He didn’t think she drank, either.
“I’ll have to go out back and dust of the soda bottles.” A tiny smile tugged at the corners of her full lips.
“Dust off one for yourself.” Kirk laughed and watched her weave around the crowd. His gaze lingered on the sway of her hips, followed by a small sheen of sweat that broke out on his skin. A distraction—that’s what she is. Had the Devil sent her? Swallowing hard, he fisted his hand and banged it against his knee. He had to get a grip or he’d see the Devil in a newborn baby before long.
He just wanted to find out what truly happened to his sister. She was still here. Somewhere. Dead or alive. Most likely dead, but he needed to find a body and lay her to rest. That way maybe he’d find peace.
The pretty waitress returned with two sodas in the old-fashioned green glass bottles. She produced a church key from under the bar.
“I didn’t know those things still existed,” he said with a nod toward the bottle opener.
“Everything invented exists somewhere.” She popped off the tops. Ice-cold colas frosted in the warm air, and before the fizz had time to settle, she slid one of the bottles toward him. “Enjoy.”
He grabbed it and downed half of it in several long swallows. Effervescence stung his eyes and nose. Thirst satisfied he decided to ask her a direct question. “What’s with the town?” He hitched a thumb over his shoulder.
“You noticed, huh?” She leaned across the counter and whispered near his ear, “Maybe you should leave while you still can.”
Surprise and a sense of doom seized his chest. Perhaps Eve could have done us all a favor and heeded a woman’s intuition and got the heck out of the wrong side of Paradise. Kirk knew he should do the same, but like Eve, he doubted he would heed the warning.
She pulled back. “It’s the Devil’s playground, and that church is a mockery of what it once was.” She stared into space for several seconds, then spoke again. “Never was a real church, but what it’s become now…”
A gray-haired man toppled over in his chair behind Kirk, followed by bawdy laughter. The jukebox kicked up a lively Garth Brooks tune and several patrons begin to sing along about friends in low places.
Kirk glanced over his shoulder, then returned his attention to the girl. “And this place is different how?”
She shrugged. “At least we aren’t hypocrites and pretend most of what we do outside of church is right.”
“You’ve got a point.”
She smiled and extended her hand. “Name’s Lenora Elayne.”
Her hand, small and soft in his big, rough one, sent a pleasant shiver up his arm. “Kirk David.”
They spoke simultaneously, “Is that your middle name or …” then trailed off in laughter.
Lenora sipped her Diet Coke, then set it on the bar. “It’s not every day I meet another person with two first names. Must be fate.”
A dark chill danced a jig up Kirk’s spine. Fate had never been kind to him. In fact she’d been a downright wicked bitch. He winced at the words that came to his mind so easily since he’d left his faith in the dust on his way out of this town years ago.
Door to the bar banged against the wall and a man with glazed eyes paused inside the entry. Ratty clothes hung on his gaunt body, and he swayed a little, reaching out to catch himself on the air. He almost pitched forward onto the floor, but jerked the other way, teetered, then finally gained balance.
“Not again.” Lenora crawled across the bar, giving Kirk a view of her long, sexy legs still tanned from the summer sun. She hopped down and headed toward the guy standing in the doorway.
The man shouted, “No more.” He slung spittle in all directions, with a show of strength Kirk hadn’t thought he possessed in such a weakened state.
“It’s okay, Jimmy.” Lenora spoke in soft tones as she took slow and measured steps toward him.
The bar had gone as quiet as the church, unnerving Kirk. Damn, he was beginning to hate silence.
“I need my medicine. He wouldn’t let me have it,” Jimmy yelled and searched the crowd as if looking for someone to attack. His gaze settled back on Lenora. “Wanna know why?” he asked with a calm that belied the anger boiling beneath the surface.
Kirk moved next to her, his hand on the gun at his hip.
Lenora glanced at it with irritation and shot him a look that said, don’t even think about drawing that thing in here.
“Sure we do,” she answered Jimmy’s question.
“I broke the silence with a sneeze.” He lifted his hand and rubbed his eyes. “I sneezed in church of all things. Who the hell hasn’t sneezed in church?” He drew in a wheezy breath.
Kirk remembered the terror in the eyes of the lady in gray who had sat next to him earlier that evening. She’d almost sneezed. Had the town adopted an ordinance for noise pollution while he was gone? If so, he was in a heap of trouble with his Harley.
“Jimmy, you know you can get your asthma medicine here. Why didn’t you?”
His crazed eyes shifted around the room, settled on Kirk, then skittered away. “I—I shouldn’t be here. He told me not to come here again unless I planned to stay and perish with the rest of you.”
“He who?” Kirk asked.
Jimmy lurched forward, clutched a handful of Lenora’s shirt, and yanked her against him. “Medicine!” he shouted. He turned loose of her blouse and latched onto her throat.
Lenora choked out a cough when his grip tightened, cutting off her oxygen. “Give. Me. My. Medicine,” Jimmy roared and dug his fingers into her neck and squeezed harder. Congestion rattled in his lungs.
Kirk grabbed the man by the collar, jerked him away from Lenora and shoved his pistol in Jimmy’s face.
A collective gasp rippled across the bar.
“No!” Lenora yelled and shoved the gun away. Chair legs scraped across the floor as several of the bigger men got to their feet.
Jimmy sagged and passed out; Kirk let him drop to the floor with a hard thud.
She sank to her knees beside the man, checked his pulse, and pressed her hand to his forehead. “His skin is on fire.” She glanced up at Kirk. “I had it under control.”
“Yeah, I could see that.”
“Jesus would never act so cruel,” she murmured.
“What?” Sharpness in his voice caused her to look up again.
“I said Jesus wouldn’t have done what you did.”
“I seem to recall He wasn’t too kind to the money changers in the church.”
“He did overturned tables. He didn’t shove a gun up their noses.” She glared at him, then stood, arms crossed over her chest, to glare some more.
Kirk shoved the gun back in the holster. “Oh, well, the next time someone starts to choke the life out of you, I’ll just kick over a table. That ought to make the lunatic turn loose.”
Someone in the crowd snickered, earning a withering glance from Lenora. “You had no right.”
“Look, that man raged in here like a demon from hell and attempted to hurt you. What was I supposed to do? Let him?”
“I had it under control,” she said again, teeth gritted. “You don’t understand what’s going on here.”
Two men, who seemed to step out of nowhere, lifted Jimmy and held his limp body between them.
“Take him to the back, give him his medicine and put him to bed,” Lenora instructed them.
The taller of the two men, with pro-wrestler muscles, frowned. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, Jerry.” Lenora waved them away, and they dragged Jimmy through a door at the rear of the bar.
Kirk gestured in the direction Jimmy was taken. “I don’t know that man…” he began.
“Exactly. You shouldn’t judge a situation by how it looks.”
“It looked like he was strangling you.”
Lenora returned to her place behind the bar and the patrons to their regular Sunday night routine as if what had happened was an everyday occurrence. Except, Kirk was new to the little drama played on this particular stage directed by some unknown entity with mischief on its mind.
Kirk had no idea what was going on, and wasn’t sure he wanted to. But God had led him back to his hometown for a reason other than his sister. On the surface, Walnut Grove appeared no different than any other small town, but something ugly sizzled below the crust, and clawed at Kirk’s gut instinct.
He retook his barstool and followed Lenora’s every move. She rarely looked his way and, when she did, she glared at him, but he also saw a hint of curiosity—and a light of hope like the one that had lit Reverend Thackery’s eyes for a second or two when he’d looked Kirk’s way.
Finally, with a huge sigh, she moved in front of Kirk and stared at him without speaking for a few seconds.
Kirk took a swig from his now warm cherry cola and returned her scrutiny without a blink. She’s awfully damn pretty. He may have been a preacher once, but the man in him still noticed a good-looking woman.
“Who are you?” she finally asked.
He lowered his drink, letting it thump on the scratched bar. “I’m an ex-preacher.” Might as well be honest with her; she wouldn’t believe him no matter what he told her. She looked the type, though it probably wasn’t a good idea to judge by appearances. More times than not, it had got him into a heap of trouble—like a few minutes ago.
With one sweep of her long lashes, thick with mascara, she traveled the length of his body with her gaze. “Oh, yeah? You don’t look like the Godly type.”
“Now who’s being judgmental?” Half a smile tugged the corners of his mouth as he got up and walked out.
* * *
Lenora massaged the bridge of her nose, and watched Kirk slip through the door and vanish into the night. Once he spoke his name, she knew who he was, of course, regardless of the changes in his appearance. He’d had a sister. Used to preach. Then he’d disappeared like his sister had, but everyone knew he’d just left town. As for Angelina, no one knows what fate had dealt her.
Some thought Kirk had murdered her, but that didn’t make any sense to Lenora. What motive would he’ve had? Perhaps he’d wanted out from under the burden of caring for someone with a disability. No. That didn’t fit either. Angelina was a remarkably self-sufficient young woman in the face of her handicaps.
A motorcycle growled to life, and she almost laughed in spite of the town’s dire predicament. Boy, I bet Jason just loves that awful racket. Jason being the assistant preacher over at Walnut Grove Baptist Church.
For once she wished everyone would go home early so she could head on home and lay down her weary head. She hadn’t slept much last night. Dreams, bordering on the nightmarish, still haunted her sleep nightly. Last night she’d awakened in a cold sweat as a storm raged outside. A small girl stood at the end of her bed and whispered that salvation would come on wings and thunder. She vanished with the next lightning strike.
It wasn’t a ghost. I was still sleeping. Had to be. No such things as ghosts. At least, not according to her father—the epitome of a southern bible thumper. Funny, how could there be such a thing as a Holy Ghost, if ghosts don’t exist?
The motorcycle’s noise faded in the distance until only the memory of its sound reverberated through her mind.
Would Kirk David be friend or foe?
* * *
Kirk drove his Harley into the dusty garage of his family home and parked it. For several minutes, he sat in the darkness and listened to the motor tick as it cooled. Other than that, not even a katydid ventured to chirp a nocturnal tune.
It had always been quiet after his sister disappeared.
Even in her mute world where she couldn’t hear nor utter a sound, something pleasant had whispered around her, filling their home with warmth and cheer.
Total quiet more than anything had driven him out of this town. Pointed stares, accusations, and blatant abuse he could handle.
But not the silence.
Never the silence.
And now there’s a damn law against noise.
He didn’t want to be here now, but he’d never learned what happened to his sister, plus God wanted him here. And what God wanted, God got. Kirk didn’t understand and, though still a little angry over the past, he would obey.
What happened to my sister?
How many times had he asked God that very same question only to be met with silence?
Angelina had disappeared like a puff of smoke in a mist—beautiful Angelina David, so soft and kindhearted. Walnut Grove’s sweetheart.
Everyone loved her and hated Kirk when she disappeared. They blamed him. He blamed himself. He should have done more to protect her. He’d long ago given up hope she’d be found alive. He just wished he knew for certain. His head already knew the answer—convincing his heart to accept it was the problem.
With tightness in his chest, he swung his leg over the back of his bike and headed for the door in the corner of the garage that led into the kitchen. He hadn’t been here in years. Would the place look the same? Could he withstand the onslaught of memories that would surely slap him in the face when he walked the empty halls?
The key scraped in the rusty lock and stuck for an instant before turning. He twisted the doorknob and stepped over the threshold.
The cup he’d drank his last coffee from before leaving town still sat on the kitchen table, undisturbed, the half inch of old coffee hardened solid and cracked with age.
A musty smell crept into his nostrils, dry and claustrophobic.
“I can’t stay here,” he whispered to the empty room. Darkness took his words and bounced them off the chipped, white sink, the electric stove strewn with rat droppings, the dingy refrigerator, and the hardwood walls.
The room moved in on him, and he grappled for one of the ladder-back kitchen chairs. He yanked it around and sat down with a hard thud, took one—two—three deep breaths, before he was finally able to calm himself.
He gazed toward Heaven. “Why, God? I’m not strong enough for this yet.”
It’s been ten years. How much time do you need?
Moonlight streamed through the window above the kitchen sink. One end of the curtain rod had lost its battle with gravity and fallen. Blue, synthetic fabric pooled in the sink, half threaded on the rod.
Kirk rose, moved toward the sink and lifted the curtain, smoothing it into place and replaced the rod on the hook. Dust flew up.
He glanced from corner to corner as if he expected the Devil in Armani to appear out of the shadows and punish him for breaking the sacred silence.
He sneezed again.
Blast it all!
Door to the garage slammed against the wall, causing him to jump and utter a word he was sure God wouldn’t approve of. For some odd reason he expected to see Jimmy standing there demanding his medicine.
On the alert, his hand automatically went to the pistol. It brushed the sides of the holster as he pulled it free.
“Hello?” He eased toward the door, gun held at shoulder level, finger on the trigger. Someone stood out of sight in the darkness, the silence of held breath loud in the quiet night.
A frigid current shifted by him.
He shivered. A cold breeze from the outer garage door, he reassured himself. Except it was at least seventy degrees out.
Feeling like a cop in a bad detective movie, he pointed the gun through the open door with a quick flick of his wrist.
Nothing, but the dark shape of his Harley and a few cardboard boxes stacked in one corner near an open window, along with his 1986 Buell racing bike, greeted his X-Files FBI agent impersonation.
He relaxed, let the breath escape from his lungs, and lowered the gun. “Overactive imagination,” he mumbled.
When he turned, pinpricks of fear hit him as if struck by a jolt of electricity. He backed up until his heels dangled over the doorway’s edge.
Grappling for balance, he stared in pasty white fear at the woman silhouetted in the moonlight next to the sink—a woman who looked a lot like his long-lost, missing sister.