Book # 1 in Cupid’s Crossing Series
by Lori Soard
You are listening to KARE – the radio station that cares about you. If you haven’t picked up one of our Cupid’s Quest Scavenger Hunt forms, stop in at Hart Grocery or the library today to get one. The first person to solve the scavenger hunt wins the grand prize. That’s right, folks, $20,000 and a trip to Hawaii for two, all expenses paid. What are you waiting for? C’mon Cupid’s Corner residents, let the hunt begin.
Gracie Resquire turned the knob and flicked off the radio. $20,000 would save Days Never New Retirement Home and keep the 24 residents from being thrown out of the only home they had. Ever since Walt Jensen from Cupid’s Bank and Trust had broken the news to her that the bank would not extend their mercy any further until payments were caught up, she’d been praying for a solution. The large, remodeled 1920s church that she and her parents had painstakingly turned into a full service retirement home cost more to keep up each month than she brought in and the late payments had quickly gotten out of control. Now, she owed nearly $10,000 to the bank and had no idea how she could ever pay it.
If she could win the scavenger hunt, she could catch up with the mortgage and have some cushion in the bank. Even if it didn’t completely save them, it would keep them in a home for another year or two. For some of these residents, that would be enough. The others she would worry about when and if the time came that she was again unable to stay afloat. Now, she just needed to get the residents on board with the plan and figure out how to solve the scavenger hunt before anyone else did.
“Brandt, come here quickly!”
His mother’s voice, weakened from several rounds of chemotherapy, was louder than he’d heard it in months. Brandt leaped down the farm house’s narrow staircase two steps at a time, missed the final three steps, skidded to a landing on his boots and stopped in the kitchen. His chest heaved from the mad dash and his heart pounded with fear that something was terribly wrong. He took the last dozen steps across the kitchen and into the sitting room where his mother had taken to resting during the mornings.
“You okay?” he asked.
Her cheeks held a hint of rosy color and her eyes glittered with mischief. “Did you hear it?”
“Hear what?” Had the chemotherapy eaten her brain cells? She wasn’t making any sense.
“The contest! The scavenger hunt – on the radio. We can save the farm for your children.” She clapped her hands together and smiled. The bright pink scarf on her head hid her hair loss and added some cheer to the otherwise dark room.
“Mom, I don’t have any children. Are you feeling okay?” Now, he was truly worried. She was talking complete gibberish; he had two foals due today and a crop to plant. He didn’t have time to talk about his lack of wife and children yet again.
Evelyn Bentley pointed her slender finger at him and chuckled. “Silly boy, I mean your future children. This farm has been in our family for 100 years. I want you to be able to pass it down to your children one day.”
“The drought last year was rough, but we’ll recover.” He avoided her gaze, because he wasn’t sure they would recover. He was running the farm and working full-time as the maintenance man for the local parks system and they still weren’t making their bills. He didn’t know how long he could keep up this pace, and each year the farm needed more and more upgrades and equipment replaced.
“Twenty thousand dollars, Brandt. You could convert the farm into the apple and pumpkin picking operation you wanted to five years ago and have activities for kids and schools. It would be enough money to keep you afloat for a year so you could try it. I know it would make more money than what we’re doing now. We already have the orchard that Grandma planted. You could add to it and plant pumpkins instead of yet another corn or soybean crop.”
“I don’t want you to worry about this. You need to focus on getting better.” He pulled a knitted comforter from the back of the couch and placed it over her legs. His mother reached up and placed a palm on the side of his face. Her eyes held a look of comfort and concern at the same time.
“Son, we both know I’m not getting any better. The only thing you can do for me now is to promise me you are going to win that contest and save this farm. You are the smartest man I know. Just like your father was. You can win that contest if you try just a little bit.”
“Stop talking like that.” He didn’t want to think about losing his only remaining parent. He truly couldn’t bear the thought right now. “You’re going to be fine.”
She put her elbows on the arms of the recliner she was in and leaned up close to him. “Promise me, Brandt.”
“Promise me!” She started to cough in deep, rasping, heaving, and staccato punctuations.
“Okay. I promise. Just rest, please.” What had he just agreed to? He didn’t have time to scratch his own back, much less go on a crazy scavenger hunt put on by some radio station.
The years teach much which the days never knew. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Days Never New sat directly on the east end of the U-shaped Heart Boulevard. On the front side, just across the street, was the gently babbling sounds of Love Creek and on the other side of the creek some woods and farm land owned by the Bentley family. When her parents had purchased the dilapidated old Baptist church, there had been an empty meadow to the north and a few older houses to the south off Main Street. Today, a housing development filled the empty space to the north and the high school’s ever-expanding sports fields sat directly behind the establishment. Still, they had enough room for an enclosed back yard with a beautiful garden area that the residents could enjoy on a sunny afternoon.
Gracie had been born and raised in Cupid’s Crossing, and it seemed as though everyone there knew everyone else’s business. She could hardly stand the sympathetic stares she received these days and the whispered comments people made to one another when she walked past. They felt sorry for her and thought she was giving up her life to carry on her parents’ legacy, but the truth was that the residents were her family and she would do anything to keep them in a home.
Some did have families they could go live with. Still others would relocate and be okay. It was the remaining handful that she worried about. They had no one to love them but her and nowhere else but here to live.
“Gracie girl, why so sad?” Cap Rosland, one of the residents who would be out in the cold without her, breezed into her office like a man half his eighty-four years.
“Nothing. What can I do for you, Cap?” She had believed for months that the residents didn’t need to be bothered with her money woes, but today she would have to tell them all what was going on and about her idea to participate in the scavenger hunt.
“Oh, I don’t know. How about a plate full of honesty followed by a slice of I-don’t-believe you pie?”
Gracie laughed before she could help herself. Leave it to Cap to call her out on her guise. She pointed to the brown suede armchair in front of her desk. He leaned sideways, using his cane for leverage and lowered himself slowly toward the seat before letting himself fall the last few inches. He settled into the chair with a grunt of arthritic pain.
His once brown hair had turned mostly gray with just a few brown specks showing through. He’d once been well over six feet tall, but years of walking hunched over a cane had reduced his size to closer to six feet. Standing up completely straight was no longer an option. He’d been at the home since Grace had been a child, having lost his wife and, later, his only son in a military training accident. He simply hadn’t anywhere else to go and had wanted a community of people to socialize with. Over the years his once powerful, booming voice had taken on a raspy and somewhat wobbly edge. Gracie adored him as much as if he’d been her actual grandfather. She didn’t have a single childhood memory that didn’t somehow involve Cap giving her advice and passing on wisdom.
“The old war injury hurting you?” she asked.
“Nothing to complain about. I still have a leg. That’s more than my buddy Arnie came away with.”
Gracie nodded. She’d heard all the stories of the childhood friend of Cap’s who was in his same unit in the war and who had lost both his legs but not his life. Cap had saved him, pulling them both to safety, even though his leg had also been injured. It didn’t matter how much pain his leg caused him, because Cap always looked at the positive side of things. He never complained about the hand life had dealt him. Instead, he was a problem solver. That was one of the reasons she hadn’t wanted to share the home’s money woes with him. He would have jumped in and tried to solve what seemed to be an unsolvable situation. However, now there was a possible solution.
“The home is in trouble financially,” she finally said. No point in being vague with Cap. He would force her to be direct eventually, so she might as well save them both some time. “We are behind on mortgage payments, electricity, heat and phone. We are around $10,000 in the red.”
Cap whistled. “Whoa, Nellie. That is a lot of Ben Franklins.”
“Yes, I know, but I have an idea.” He would probably think she was crazy. They were all going to think she was crazy, but the scavenger hunt was the only hope they had to save this place.
“There is a radio scavenger hunt–”
“I’m in! Let’s do it,” Cap interrupted her.
“You haven’t even heard what it is.” If only the other residents would agree this easily.
“Doesn’t matter. It’s our only choice. If you’re for the idea, then I’m for the idea.”
And that was exactly why Gracie loved him. No questions. No argument. The only thing he offered was support and help.
“Well, I guess it’s time to tell the others.” She wished her voice didn’t sound as rickety as the old fence in front of this place, but she knew not all of the residents would be as enthused as Cap.
It was almost time for lunch, so the residents would just be leaving their morning activities and headed for the lunch room. Some would have been involved in a game of corn hole, while others may have been reading, taking a music lesson, sitting in the garden and feeding the birds or watching the news. Each resident chose the activity that most suited his personality and physical abilities. Throughout the day they were scattered around the residence. However, they all showed up for meals and that was the time to let them know what was going on. It was a conversation she had been dreading for months.
Libby Henderson entered the dining area first. Gracie took a deep breath, trying to steady her nerves. Libby was a straight shooter. One thing the woman did not worry about was if she was going to hurt someone’s feelings. In fact, if someone’s feelings got in the way of her blunt honesty, then they needed to toughen up. Gracie wasn’t sure if Libby would even care if the home shut down. She’d only lived here for a year, barely enough time to settle in, and she could go live with her daughter and son-in-law, who had an extra room in their home and invited her to stay in it at least once a month. She chose to stay at Days Never New, but it wasn’t her only option.
“You look like someone punched your dead grandmother in the stomach,” Libby noted as she walked past Gracie and sat down in her usual spot at a round table situated in the corner closest to the kitchen.
“How are you today, Mrs. Henderson?” She ignored the rude comment, it was just who Libby Henderson was. She didn’t mean to be offensive and actually had a warm and caring heart. Gracie knew Mrs. Henderson cared about her. She treated her own daughter much the same way.
“My hip hurts.” Libby Henderson launched into a long diatribe about her new hip and the many problems she’d had with it that caused her to use a cane these days.
Gracie half listened while she planned out the words she would say once everyone was assembled. It was common for residents to complain about their aches, pains and health woes. Gracie had grown up listening to such complaints and knew it was human nature to vent to a sympathetic ear.
As the array of characters that made up the makeshift family at Days Never New assembled for the lunch meal, Gracie had to take deep breaths to keep the tears at bay. Each of the twenty-four was unique and lovable in his own way. There was Buddy White, who had chewed so much tobacco in his life that he only had a couple of snaggle teeth left, but whose smile still lit up a room with the pure joy behind it. He also had the best laugh she’d ever heard. Buddy’s laugh radiated from deep inside his stomach, traveled up into his big barrel chest and escaped in a way that embraced everyone in the vicinity.
Connie Powell was only in her early 70s, but a stroke had made it impossible for her to do some tasks on her own. She had a hard time getting dressed, remembering to take her medication and shuffling from room to room. Her sweet spirit lived on and although she didn’t say much, when she did speak the words were filled with wisdom and Christian charity.
Gracie turned her back for a moment, collecting her thoughts and calming herself. You have to remain upbeat for their sake, Gracie. Don’t let them see how worried you are. She turned back to face the now full dining room and raised her right hand, palm facing outward, to grab their attention.
“I need to speak to all of you about something.”
“You finally getting married?” Libby called out.
“I don’t even have a boyfriend, Mrs. Henderson. I spend all my time with you guys.” She couldn’t keep away a small smile. The older woman thought Gracie was an old maid because she wasn’t yet married at twenty-seven years old.
“The nursing home is in trouble. We need cash and I think I have a way for us to get it.” She was proud of how calm and steady her voice sounded even to her own ears.
“How much trouble?” Buddy asked quietly for such a big man.
She swallowed at the look of panic on his dear face. “I’m sorry, Buddy, but if we don’t get the money we need, we are going to have to close down. We will lose the building.”
In fact, she’d just gotten a notice of default and sale that stated they had 60 days to catch up payments or they would need to vacate the premises and the building would be sold. Two months to either come up with $10,000 or relocate twenty-four people who called this place home. It wasn’t enough time for either task. She might be able to buy them a little extra time, but the bank likely would insist they leave sooner rather than later.
“Gracie has an idea that will save us,” Cap announced to the room.
Murmurs and calls to tell them what the idea was filled the room. What would their reaction be when she informed the senior citizens she wanted them to traipse all over town on a scavenger hunt?
Being a fourth generation farmer in a small town meant that Brandt hadn’t given much thought to what he’d do if there wasn’t a farm. It had always been understood that the farm would be passed down to him, the only child. That had been before the drought hit and before his father’s illness that had eaten away their savings.
He swung himself up onto the seat of the John Deere 1240 tractor. The steering wheel was smooth and worn from years of use. He pressed down on the brakes with his right foot and depressed the clutch petal with his left foot. He pulled the throttle down into the full position, praying the old tractor would rumble to life. Every time he got on it, he wondered if today would be the day it coughed its last sputter and died. The tractor was yet another thing on the farm that needed replaced, but it would have to wait. He turned the key counterclockwise for a few seconds to pre-heat the cylinders and then flipped clockwise, hoping it would start. It stammered and then snorted without starting.
“C’mon, baby,” he crooned to the tractor, flipping the key back to the off position. Sending up another prayer, he turned it clockwise again. The tractor gasped, spluttered, popped and then roared to life, rumbling with a steady purr. The tractor would live for today at least.
He’d once dreamed of converting the farm back into his grandmother’s original vision of an apple picking orchard and pumpkin patch. The idea of working with school groups and families had appealed to him. He’d taken some business classes at the community college over in Indianapolis. One of his class assignments had been to create a business plan, including a financial profile. He’d used the opportunity to create a plan for the business and the numbers had looked good. While there was some competition in neighboring towns, there was nothing in their town. In addition, the acreage they owned would allow them to add on as many features as they needed to make the venture profitable.
He paused the tractor and looked out over the land, envisioning children crawling around pumpkins, a corn maze filled with families, hayrides, evening bonfires and his own family running a small farmer’s market. He laughed at the thought. Between his mother’s illness and chores on the farm, he hadn’t been on a date in almost a year. His mother worried he’d wind up an old bachelor and at the rate he was going, that could very well happen.
The only available women in town were too young and giggly for him, too old and cougarish for him, or already married. It seemed everyone else was already settled down or had the kind of habits he didn’t care to deal with. He sighed.
Maybe he should go on one of those online dating sites, but he didn’t have time for a date and he didn’t have time to really feel the loneliness that had seeped into the very marrow of his bones. He shook his head as though shaking away cobwebs of self-doubt and put the tractor in gear. There was work to be done. He didn’t have time for these youthful fantasies. He didn’t even have time to date, much less for a wife.
When he’d finished the back acre with long straight, tilled rows, he drove back to the barn and parked the John Deere. Soon, it would be time to plant the crops. Again, the image of pumpkin vines weaving between rows crept into his conscience. It didn’t matter what he wanted to do with the farm. He had to stick with the crop he knew would pay out come harvest time. In the Midwest, that meant corn or soybeans. He shut off the engine and jumped down from the tractor.
Cupid’s Quest will be released 2/14/2016. You can pre-order a copy today.