First Lady (Wynette, Texas #4)(9)

by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

The commercial ended and Tom Petty began to sing. Nealy laughed again, then joined in. She was free-falling.

Mat was the world’s biggest chump. Instead of being behind the wheel of his Mercedes convertible with only the radio to keep him company, he was driving west in a ten-year-old Winnebago named Mabel on a Pennsylvania back road with two kids who were as bad as all seven of his sisters combined had been.

Yesterday afternoon, he’d called Sandy’s attorney to tell him about Joanne Pressman, but instead of guaranteeing that the girls would be turned over to her as soon as she got back in the country, the attorney had equivocated.

“Child and Youth Services will have to make sure she can provide a satisfactory home for them.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Mat had countered. “She’s a college professor. And anything’s better than what they have now.”

“She still has to be investigated.”

“How long will that take?”

“It’s hard to say. It shouldn’t be more than six weeks. Two months at the outside.”

Mat had been furious. Even a month in the foster care system could chomp up a kid like Lucy and spit out her bones. He’d found himself promising to stay with the girls that night so Child Services wouldn’t have to get them until morning.

As he tried to fall asleep on Sandy’s lumpy couch after his aborted attempt to get the blood tests done, he’d reminded himself how much better the foster care system was now than it used to be. The background checks were more thorough, home visits more common. But the image of all the kids the Havlovs had abused kept coming back to him.

Toward morning, he’d realized his conscience wouldn’t let him out of this one. Too much early influence from nuns. He couldn’t let either the Teenage Terrorist or the Demon Baby spend months stuck in foster care when all he had to do was baby-sit them for a couple of days, then turn them over to their grandmother on the weekend.

Joanne Pressman’s Iowa address had been in Sandy’s date book. He needed to get the girls out of the house early, so he decided they’d catch a morning flight to Burlington. When he got there, he’d rent a car and drive to Willow Grove. And while he was waiting for Joanne Pressman to get home, he’d have the blood tests done, even if he had to carry Lucy into the lab.

Unfortunately, his plan had fallen apart when he’d discovered needles weren’t Lucy’s only phobia.

“I’m not getting on a plane, Jorik! I hate flying! And if you try to make me, I’ll start screaming to everybody in the airport that you’re kidnapping me.”

Another kid might have been bluffing, but he’d suspected Lucy would do exactly as she said, and since he was already skating on the thinnest edge of the law by dodging Child Services, not to mention taking the kids out of state, he’d decided not to risk it. Instead, he’d grabbed a pile of their clothes, some food he’d bought last night, and shoved them into the motor home. He had four or five days to kill anyway, so what did it matter if he spent it on the road?

He wasn’t certain how aggressively the authorities would be looking for him, especially since Sandy’s attorney would surely figure out where he was heading. Still, there was no point in taking chances, so he was staying off the interstate for a while where tollbooth operators and the state police might already have the Winnebago’s license plate number. Unfortunately, between the Demon Baby’s screams and Lucy’s complaints, he couldn’t enjoy the scenery.

“I think I’m going to hurl.”

She was sitting in the motor home’s small banquette. He jerked his head toward the rear and spoke over the sounds of the baby’s howls. “The toilet’s back there.”

“If you don’t start being nicer to me and Butt, you’re going to be sorry.”

“Will you stop calling her that?”

“It’s her name.”

Even Sandy wasn’t that crazy, but he still hadn’t been able to pry the baby’s real name out of Lucy.

The howls subsided. Maybe the baby was going to sleep. He glanced over toward the couch, where she was strapped in her car seat, but she looked wide awake and grumpy. All wet blue eyes and cherub’s mouth. The world’s crankiest angel.

“We’re hungry.”

“I thought you said you were feeling sick.”

The howls started again, louder than before. Why hadn’t he brought somebody along to take care of these little monsters? Some kindhearted, stone-deaf old lady.

“I feel sick when I get hungry. And Butt needs to eat.”

“Feed her. We brought bags of baby food and formula with us, so don’t try to tell me there isn’t anything for her to eat.”

“If I feed her while Mabel’s moving, she’ll hurl.”

“I don’t want to hear another word about anybody hurling! Feed the damn kid!”

She glared at him, then flounced out of her seat and made her way to the sacks of baby food and diapers.

He drove for another fifteen miles in blessed silence before he heard it. First a baby’s cough, then a gag, then a small eruption.

“I told you so.”

Nealy backed out of the driveway from her first garage sale and pulled onto the highway. A huge green ceramic frog perched on the seat next to her. The lady who’d sold it to her for ten dollars said it was a garden ornament her mother-in-law had made in a craft class.

It was supremely ugly, with an iridescent green glaze, protruding eyes that were slightly crossed, and dull brown spots the size of silver dollars across its back. For nearly three years, Nealy had lived in a national shrine decorated with the very best American antiques. Maybe that was why she’d known instantly that she had to have it.

Even after she’d made her purchase and tucked the heavy frog under her arm, she’d stood talking to the garage sale lady. And she hadn’t needed a gray old lady’s wig or elastic stockings to do it. Her wonderful new disguise was working.

Nealy spotted a sign ahead for a truck stop. There’d be hamburgers and french fries, thick chocolate shakes and slabs of pie. Bliss!

The smell of diesel fuel and fried food hit Mat as he stepped out of Mabel into the truck stop parking lot. He also caught a whiff of manure from a nearby field, but it beat the smell of baby puke.

A blue Chevy Corsica with a woman driving whipped into the parking place next to him. Lucky lady. Alone in her car with nothing but her own thoughts to keep her company.