Ghost Creek, Chapter 4

Kevin G.

Part 4 – The Fair


{Penny Thompson returned to her family farm after her father died suddenly. Penny is haunted by memories of her mother who died of cancer when Penny was a teenager, and the tragic death of her brother, Eric, in a car accident. Penny was resigned to the plan of selling the farm to the town of Westfield, which made a deal with Penny’s father to keep the land undeveloped in exchange for a monthly payment. The mayor, Chester Almon, told Penny the open space deal with the town set the sale price at $450,000. Before Penny could sign the deal and go back to the City, she and her old high school sweetheart, Chuck Foreman, now a Sheriff’s deputy, discovered a body buried in the embankment of the creek out by the cow pasture. As the police investigated the identity of the body, a real estate agent showed up and told Penny that her father made a deal to sell the farm to a group of developers he represented. The family lawyer then explained to Penny that, although her father was restricted from selling the farm except to the town, she now owned it free and clear and could do what she wanted.

                While Penny and Chuck got reacquainted, they worked together to get the old farm tractor working. When Chuck came to the farm expecting a romantic dinner, Penny wasn’t ready to eat. She had found Eric’s suicide note. She said she suspected the dead body might be a boy named Oliver, who came to visit the farm shortly before Eric killed himself.}


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AFTER PENNY STOPPED CRYING, Chuck led her downstairs, her old yellow Lab, Duke, padding along behind. Chuck threw together a dinner with the stray ingredients he found in the fridge. Trying to distract her from the emotional experience of finding her brother’s suicide note more than two years after his death, Chuck talked about the farm. The extraordinarily hot summer continued unabated except for brief interruptions of thunderstorms and torrential rain. It was not a good combination for the local farmers. Penny was happy her family had not worried about the size of its crop for years because of the open space agreement with the town. Still, the diminutive corn stalks were a sad sight. Penny mentioned the Mayor’s comment about how she needed to keep something growing on the farm to fulfill the obligations of the open space deal. She lamented that the pumpkin crop had not been planted.

                “You could still plant,” Chuck suggested hopefully.

                “I know, but what’s the point?”

                “The kids will be bummed out if there are no pumpkins for Halloween. Even if you sell the farm, the next owner won’t be able to plant in time to have a crop this year. I can help.”

                “You’ve got a job, Chuck. You can’t be out here working the farm. Besides, we still don’t have the tractor fixed.”

                “You have a working tractor out in the equipment shed.”

                “I know, but I don’t want that one,” Penny crossed her arms defiantly.

                Chuck scooped up his last bite of food, then set down his fork with a clang, prompting Duke to raise his head off the gray pillow in the corner. The prospect of stray food always got his attention. “I can see that your dad let the place get a bit run down over the past few years, but I was thinking about that. Maybe you could get some of the local high school kids to help clean the place up. They could even help plant the pumpkin crop.”

                “Why would they want to do that?”

                “Because they all grew up getting their jack-o-lanterns from your dad’s farm, and they’re good kids. I work with some of ’em after school.”

                “Doing what?” Penny sat forward, suddenly more interested in the subject.

                “Doing . . . well, doing community service.”

                “You mean the delinquents? You do the detention duty now?”

                “They’re not delinquents!” Chuck was instantly protective. “They’ve had some problems and some scrapes with the law. Some of ’em smoked some weed and got caught, and other stuff like that, and they all need remedial driver safety training.”

                “And stuff?”

                “OK, a few of ’em stole a car, and one of ’em assaulted a teacher, but that’s just a few. Most of ’em are good kids who need some guidance.”

                “And you’re guiding them?” Penny’s lips curled; her recent tears forgotten. “You always were a softie for the younger kids.”

                “I’m trying to help them. It’s one of the best things about being a Deputy. But, like I said, I bet I could get some of them to come down and help out. What do you say?”

                Penny didn’t agree, but she didn’t say no, either. Instead, they talked about pleasant memories involving the farm – the strawberry field berry fights, the Haunted Hayrides, chasing each other through the corn maze, and the lazy Sundays out in the pasture by the creek.

                When he had arrived for dinner, Chuck’s plan had been to coax Penny out that evening to the county fair, hosted each year by Westfield. Penny had happy memories of her father judging the livestock competition while she and Eric ran with friends, ate cotton candy and corn dogs, and rode the giant Ferris Wheel in the traveling carnival that showed up each year for the festivities. Chuck had escorted Penny to the fair when they were a couple in high school. It was a connection to Westfield. Penny wasn’t jazzed about the idea, but a persistent Chuck eventually broke her down and convinced her to come along for one night.


* * *


WALKING UNDER THE blazing bulbs spelling out “FAIR,” Penny slid her left arm under Chuck’s elbow and leaned into his shoulder. The scene was exactly the same as she remembered it from when she was ten years old. The fairgrounds were unchanged. The pigs, cows, chickens, goats, and sheep were in the same enclosures as always. The big wheel glowed perhaps a bit brighter, but the corn dog and shaved ice vendors were the same as ever. The familiar odors of hay and frying grease brought back a flood of memories, mostly of fun and good friends.

                They strolled through the midway, past squealing children and amorous teen couples tossing rings or softballs, hoping for a coveted stuffed animal prize. Then, Chuck stopped short. Penny looked ahead and saw the rotund form of Mayor Chester Almon coming toward them with a group of middle-aged companions, one of whom Penny recognized as his wife.

                “Hey, Mr. Mayor!” Chuck called out.

                “Chuck? What are you doing?” Penny dug her nails into his forearm.

                He turned to her and whispered, “Trust me, this is perfect.” He raised a muscular arm and waved again, making eye contact with the Mayor, who had little choice but to nod his acknowledgement. Chuck maneuvered through the crowd in the narrow space between midway games until they blocked the Mayor’s group.

                Chuck held out a hand and shook with Almon. “Sir, I’m glad we bumped into you. Penny needs to let you know that she got an offer from a real estate developer to sell the Thompson farm, and it’s a whole lot more money than the offer from the town. I guess you would know what the land is worth, though, right?”

                “Well,” Almon stalled, obviously contemplating his response, “that’s nice to know. But we’re here to have fun tonight and not talk about politics or town business, so why don’t you give me a call tomorrow and we can talk about it?”

                “That’s fine,” Chuck said, fully immersed in his role as Penny’s spokesperson while Penny clung to his arm and smiled weakly. “We also spoke to Stuart King, who’s the family’s lawyer, and he confirmed that Penny has no restrictions on selling the farm, because the agreement the town had with Gary Thompson expired when he died. You must have known that, right?”

                “Well, I can’t say whether I ever really thought about it, Mr. Foreman. I’ll have to consult with the town’s lawyers to confirm that – tomorrow. It would be a shame, though, if the farm got sold to developers and turned into a strip mall or a housing complex. We all love that old farm. We’re looking forward to the pumpkins in the fall, like always. For now, it’s been nice seeing you, and you, too, Miss Thompson.” He tipped an imaginary hat toward Penny as he dragged his wife away by the arm. The Mayor’s little entourage followed dutifully.

                Penny exhaled, not realizing she had been holding her breath. “Oh, he is such a snake!”

                “Sure, but now he’s on record with those witnesses. He can’t claim that you are obligated to sell only to the town. Not unless he gets his lawyers to find something in the open space agreement that says otherwise. You’ll be clear to sell for whatever price you can get – if you decide you want to sell.”

                Penny squeezed Chuck’s arm harder, but did not reply. They walked forward, lost in the lights, sounds, and smells. After inspecting the contestants in the competition for the best pie in several categories, Penny wanted something sweet. Chuck bought her an ice cream cone and they sat on a wooden bench, trading licks. Chuck’s fingers overlapped Penny’s as they jointly held the delicate treat. They didn’t talk, but stared into each other’s eyes, deep in their own thoughts. The moment was broken by a shrill voice directly in front of them.

                “Why, Chuck, honey, it’s so nice to see you out tonight. And is that Penny Thompson?” Her voice raised an octave at the end of her question. Penny recognized Lisa Linderman’s squeaky voice even before seeing her face. Lisa’s long, thin legs were displayed below a skirt that barely covered her panties, ending in platform heels that were totally inappropriate for trudging around the dirt paths inside the fairgrounds. Lisa, however, was more concerned with style than comfort or practicality. A bright red halter-top left her midriff exposed to the warm night air, along with an ample portion of her cleavage. Long dangling silver earrings accentuated the length of her bare neck and her shimmering lipstick that matched her top. Penny had envied Lisa’s style, maturity, and confidence when they were in high school. The intervening years had given Penny more of her own confidence and style. Now, she thought Lisa looked like a tramp.

                “Hello, Lisa,” Penny chirped, not removing her hand from the ice cream cone. “Nice to see you.”

                Lisa, flanked by two other women Penny recognized as high school cohorts, blinked her eyes, showing off their enhanced lashes. Lisa’s blue eyes had been able to capture whatever boy she wanted when they were all seventeen. “I heard you were back in town for a bit.”

                Chuck released the ice cream and stood up, awkwardly saying, “Hey, Lisa.”

                “Oh, come here,” Lisa held out her arms and leaned into Chuck, lifting up onto her toes and wrapping her arms around Chuck’s neck. She planted a kiss on his surprised mouth. “I miss you, deputy sheriff. When you get done escorting old Penny around, you come find me, OK?” She pecked another quick kiss, then slithered her arms down Chuck’s chest, stepping back gracefully. “C’mon, ladies,” she gestured down the path and led her companions away.

                Penny turned her head when Chuck sat back down, pulling the ice cream cone to her chest. “It looks like you and Lisa are awfully friendly,” she said with a voice frostier than the chocolate-vanilla swirl in her hand.

                “Well, we used to be,” Chuck’s eyes followed Lisa’s legs as she sauntered away.

                Penny stood abruptly, the ice cream flopping out of her cone and splatting onto the compressed dirt. “Are you dating her?”

                “No! I’m not.” Chuck held out his hands toward Penny. “I was, but she broke up with me, so . . .”

                “You like her? She’s such a slut! At least, she was, and I don’t see any indication that she’s changed.”

                “She’s not – I mean . . . Look, you know how she is. She saw you and me and she just had to butt in and make trouble. She can’t stand it when anybody isn’t paying attention to her. Right?”

                “Did you sleep with her?”


                Penny looked down at Chuck. “I asked you if you slept with Lisa when you were dating?”

                “Well . . . I . . . Sure . . .Yes, I did.”

                Penny turned and walked in the opposite direction from where Lisa and her group had gone, Chuck quickly following. He caught up and grabbed Penny’s elbow, pulling gently. She spun around as he let go. Fair-goers passed by them on both sides, eager to reach their next destination. The hot day had given way to a comfortable evening with moderate humidity and everyone was in a good mood. Nobody paid the couple any attention.

                “Oh, I just hate her.” Penny’s eyes watered and threatened to gush.

                Chuck melted. “Pen, I’m so sorry. I’ve been lonely since I got back. You know me; I’m no Don Juan, and there’re not many girls my age who aren’t already married. Lisa and I hooked up. I couldn’t say no to her, you know? I mean, I’m not proud of it, but I’m not going to apologize. It’s not like you were here. I guess she figured I was as good as anyone else in this town.”

                Penny dropped her head, a blubber escaping her lips as her shoulders shuddered. Chuck hesitated an instant, then moved forward and embraced her as she cried into his chest. “You’re probably the best guy in any town. You’re way too good for Lisa.”

                “I could say the same for you. I’m surprised some rich dude in the city hasn’t scooped you up.”

                She looked up at him, and said softly, “I’ve dated a few guys in the city, but they’re mostly jerks. I didn’t sleep with any of them. Since Eric died, I haven’t really been ready for a serious boyfriend. I . . . I keep thinking about Eric.”

                “What about Eric?”

                Penny pushed away from Chuck so she could see his face better. “I always wanted him to be happy, but he never was. I thought this boy, Oliver, could make him happy. I think he and Eric were lovers. But instead of making him happy . . . it killed him.”

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