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For The Strength of Youth

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Submitted by kerry blair on 23 May 2007 - 11:06am. |

Chapter 3

It is difficult to keep the thoughts together in everything; one little mistake upsets all our arrangements.
(The Snow Queen, Story the Third: The Flower Garden of the Woman Who Could Conjure, 1845)

Okay, so he shouldn’t have given a zero-star review to the diner, David thought as he stared down at the plate of charcoal toast and runny eggs that had been tossed on his table with a look that could have curdled the goat milk. And he really shouldn’t have called Libby James anything but blessed yesterday—at least not in this town.

He pushed the plate away and looked out the window to avoid meeting the glassy-eyed gaze of a buffalo head that frowned down from its mountings above his booth. Across the street was the town square. David was surprised to note that Libby’s statue had not yet been erected there. Possibly it was just off its stand being polished somewhere else.

In the meantime, there was a veritable chorus of townspeople to sing her praises. Max Wheeler, for one. The principal hadn’t sent him packing after yesterday’s snow queen incident, but David knew that he’d considered it. And it might have been easier to pack up and tell his chief at the agency that he’d botched the assignment than it was to apologize to his unhappy new boss and then define “cad” for his baffled new colleague.

Shenla Naylor, another card-carrying member of the Libby James fan club, hadn’t heard his remark, so he still got dinner at her house with extra helpings of Libby testimonials. Did he know, Shenla had asked, that Libby made the sauce in those applesauce cookies herself and grew the nuts and ground the spices? (He didn’t.) And did he know that she was simply the sweetest person ever born on the face of the planet? (Then why was she turning her countrymen’s safety over to terrorists?)

David set his palm computer where his plate used to be, then looked around to make sure that none of the men seated at the counter slurping coffee had turned his way. Finally, assured that the only creatures looking on with any interest were the ones mounted on the walls with the buffalo, he pressed a couple of buttons to call up the latest communication from the Phoenix office.

There was nothing new to look at. Elisabeth James was as slick as the Teflon panels that lined the space shuttle—nothing would stick to her. Or else, said a voice in his head, there is nothing to stick.

Try as he might after meeting her yesterday, David had had a hard time fixing Libby James on any kind of “wanted” list but the most personal variety. Rather than listing her with murderers, thieves, and international spies, David was more likely to jot her name in his little black book. Not that she’d be there long. David’s address book was famous in certain circles in Houston because all the names in it were written in pencil. Those that hadn’t been erased had mostly faded away over time. It wasn’t that David didn’t like to have women around. It was that he didn’t like to have them around very close or for very long.

In that way he thought he was like his grandfather, Admiral Benton Rogers, the man who had cared for him when his father was killed and his mother abandoned him. Perhaps “cared for” wasn’t the word to describe the relationship David had with his grandfather. He was not so much cared for as he was molded, and by the time he was eight years old he was packed off to Farragut—a Naval military school that boasted three astronaut alumni before him—for the first phase of his grandfather’s idea of his destiny.

At the thought of Libby, David stuck his palm computer in one pocket of his knapsack and removed his scriptures from another. If he’d learned nothing else in the last couple of years, he’d discovered that daily scripture reading kept him centered. That’s what he needed now. He had to keep his thoughts together and his mind on the job ahead. He couldn’t let his feelings for this woman—if he had any—upset any of the careful preparations. He’d been sent to this desert island of a town on a mission and the faster he accomplished it the faster he could hail a rescue ship and get back to civilization. Amen gave him the willies. It was darker at night than outer space and the din of crickets in the trees and frogs on the river banks kept him up nights missing the sounds of sirens and jet planes he was used to.

David opened to where he’d left off reading the night before, Section 6 of the Doctrine and Covenants. It was only a few verses—all he had time for if he wanted to be on time for his second day of school. At first, the Lord seemed to be speaking exclusively to Joseph and Oliver, but in verse 14, David experienced the vague shiver that he’d come to recognize as the Spirit, so he read the verse again and then a third time:

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, blessed art thou for what thou hast done; for thou hast inquired of me, and behold, as often as thou hast inquired thou hast received instruction of my Spirit. If it had not been so, thou wouldst not have come to the place where thou art at this time.

David looked up, but it was clear that the little voice that said “Amen” was in his head. He looked back at the page. The first part was unquestionably true. At the time in his life when he had most needed God—needed a Father with both compassion and power—he had inquired with desperation and the Lord had responded with devotion. It had happened again under less desperate circumstances, then with increasing frequency, and had culminated in his return to the church of his infancy. He’d been baptized just over a year ago and had recently been ordained, and then endowed in the Houston Temple.

Despite his recognition of the truth in the first lines of scripture, the words that commanded his attention now were the last: If it had not been so, thou wouldst not have come to the place where thou art at this time.

Amen? It was a question, not a benediction, but it was something to think about.

To think about later, that is, after he’d survived another day of the public education of Attila’s latter-day Huns. David returned his scriptures to his knapsack and dug a dollar for a tip from his wallet. Then he reconsidered and pulled out a five instead. He’d gone back to The Garden of Eatin’ this morning when he realized that if he wanted to get anywhere on this assignment he’d better start rebuilding his bridges mighty fast. He hasitily spooned most of the raw egg into his mouth and slipped the burnt toast into his knapsack. Then he picked up the check and headed toward the register.

“I hear tell you’ve been to the moon.”

David paused at the quasi-greeting from one of the grizzled old men then smiled at another. The latter was his landlord, and from what David had gathered thus far, the geezer would gladly tell his cronies more about his renter’s career than he actually knew. “Well, let’s say I’ve been in the neighborhood.”

“Then you ain’t walked on the moon?”

“No,” David said. “I’ve—”

The man pounded his fist on his knee as he turned to Homer. “You owe me five bucks! Right out of the mouth of the astro-not himself. Nobody’s been there. The moon landin’ was faked, I tell you!”

“Huh?” David looked at the steaming mug in the man’s hand and wondered if there was a correlation between the consumption of bad coffee and the sudden death of brain cells. More likely there was lead in their water. That might account for so many crazies in one place. “Why would NASA fake a moon landing?” he said at last.

“That’s what I wanna know!” the man exclaimed. “You go call your buddies at Star Command and ask ‘em that, will you?”

“Uh, sure,” David said, backing away. He would drink bottled water from here on out. “First chance I get.” Shaking his head, he approached the cash register with his eyes on the snarling lynx that hung above it since the woman who stood behind the machine looked less welcoming.

“That was a great breakfast,” he told LaDonna and patted his tight, empty stomach to prove his point.

The chief cook, bottle-washer, and keeper of the menagerie was obviously torn. On the one hand, he had publicly insulted her cooking. On the other hand, she had a very unmarried daughter, and Captain Rogers was the most eligible bachelor this town would ever see. The sound with which she took his money, then, was something between a growl and a purr.

David had gained ground by facing the tiger straight-on and he knew it. “I’ll be back tonight,” he said. “I hope you’re serving that Magic Meatloaf I’ve heard so much about.” Not.

“LaRae makes it,” LaDonna said. “LaRae’s my daughter.” She gave David a shiny new quarter in change and a free peppermint before adding coyly, “I’ll wager that after one bite of that meatloaf you’ll be forced to admit that she’s an even better cook than her mother.”

Couldn’t be worse.

“And her talents!” LaDonna exclaimed as she raised a dimpled hand to encompass the dead animals or the cosmos, David wasn’t sure which. “Can you believe she did all this herself?”

“Shot them? Stuffed them? Hung them” David didn’t know if he was incredulous or nonplussed.

“Yes!”

“I can’t wait to meet her,” David lied. “I’ll come early.” The truth was that he couldn’t wait to leave. In his eagerness to get past the mightily antlered elk head that was The Garden of Eatin’s coat rack, he pushed open the glass door without first looking out it and winced when hit somebody on the sidewalk outside.

“Gosh, I’m sorry!” David dropped his knapsack and reached down to assist the middle-aged woman who’d lost her balance and fallen back into a sitting position. Her long, cotton skirts were akimbo and her wild, curly hair fell over her face.

She moved away from David’s hand as if he had raised it to strike her, and her mouth opened in a silent scream.

“You’re hurt?” David asked, unable to account in any other way for the contortion of her features.

“No.” But her face was a mask of shock and disbelief. “No, no, no!” She scuttled away from him like a frightened crab.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated helplessly. “Let me help you. I—”

She was on her feet before he could reach again for her hand. She cast him another long, searching look before she spun away and ran as if for her life.

“I’m sorry!” he called after her. When he finally turned toward school, he almost bowled over a student. Fortunately the kid was a little quicker to get out of the way.

Calvin used a grubby finger to orbit his ear. “She’s crazy, you know.” He popped up his skateboard with the toe of his sneaker and caught it expertly. “She was standing there staring in the window. She coulda moved when she saw you coming out.” He raised the finger to his ear again. “Crazy.”

David looked from the boy through the plate glass window at the restaurant/taxidermist museum and its lunar-landing skeptic of a patron. “How could you ever tell around here?” Then he looked down at his student and gathered his thoughts. “I mean, why do you say that, uh, Calvin?”

The kid beamed to hear his name—the right one this time. “Well, first off, she’s afraid of kids.”

That wasn’t crazy. He’d spent only one day with a roomful of them and he was pretty cautious now himself.

“She came to town a long time ago,” Calvin continued, “but she doesn’t have no friends and she doesn’t talk to nobody.” His face was sober. “She don’t have a job or a family or nothing. And she comes to church on Sunday but she sits all the way in the back and . . . “

David could tell that Calvin had paused for special effect. This would be the bombshell. “And?” he prompted.

“And she don’t ever take the sacrament!”

That was the bombshell? “Maybe she’s allergic to wheat,” he ventured.

“And water?”

“And water,” David agreed to end the conversation. Besides, he suspected Amen’s water himself. “We better get to school, don’t you think?”

As he walked toward Amen School with Calvin talking a mile a minute at his side, David’s thoughts drifted back toward Libby. No matter who the mysterious wild woman was, her secrets couldn’t be any deeper than Elisabeth Jamison’s. Either these naïve townspeople who thought they knew Libby so well were in for a big surprise or the Central Intelligence Agency was.

It would be interesting, he thought, to see which it would turn out to be.

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I love your sense of humor

I love your sense of humor and the descriptive way you treat the story. The characters are so real and relatable. Very easy reading.

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