Heart Like A Tractor (early Beta Reader page)

The next thing I’m working on is a novella that will be serialized and published in ten installments during 2023-24 in InD’Tale magazine. It’s tentatively titled “Heart Like A Tractor.” On this page, just for my newsletter readers, I’ll be posting the early chapters of the serial novella. Please send me an email to give me feedback on the early draft. Tell me any reactions or thoughts you have, or answer the questions at the bottom of each chapter. If you send me feedback, I’ll enter you in a drawing for a prize to be determined — probably a free download of the next new novel. Thanks in advance for any feedback you can offer. Or, if you just enjoy reading a rough draft.

Note: Please DO NOT DO ANY COPY EDITING. This is a rough draft that will go through ten more revisions and a professional edit. I do not want you to correct punctuation, grammar, word choices, etc. I’m interested in big-picture feedback about how you react to the story and the characters, not whether you think I should have used a semi-colon. Happy reading.

Part 2 – Investigations

{In Part 1, Penny Thompson reluctantly returned to her family farm after the death of her father, Gary. The farm brought back to her the ghosts of her dead mother, who died of cancer when she was sixteen, and her brother, Eric, who was tragically killed in a farming accident while Penny was off at college. The town’s mayor told Penny that she could live on the farm, under the same deal her father made with the town, which paid Farmer Thompson to keep the farm undeveloped open space. This allowed Gary to grow strawberries in the spring, corn in the summer, and pumpkins in the fall without worrying about making a profit. He was a beloved figure in the small town of Westfield. Penny reunited with the family Labrador, Duke, and wandered into the barn, where she found the rusting hulk of the old farm tractor that used to pull the local children through the “haunted hayride” at Halloween. Her father taught her how to maintain and fix the tractor and how to work with his tools. Those were Penny’s fondest childhood memories of her father, before her mother’s illness.

          Penny also met up with her high school sweetheart, Chuck Foreman, who went off to the Army, then returned home and became a Sheriff’s deputy. Chuck met Penny at the train station and drove her to the farm, then returned the next morning to check out a fire on the property, caused by a lightning strike. When they reached the creek in the cow pasture near a smoldering oak tree, Chuck noticed a foot sticking out of the bank, where the soil had been washed away by the storm. The body had been there for a while.}

“WHAT DO WE DO?” Penny gasped, her eyes transfixed on the gruesome appendage hanging limply from the now-exposed creek bank.

          “We call in the crime scene team,” Chuck’s voice was even as he reached out and took Penny’s hand, helping her back up the slippery incline. Once back on the pasture’s scrubby grass, he looked seriously into Penny’s face. “Do you know whether anyone was ever buried out here?”

          “No!” Penny’s face was a maelstrom of fear, confusion, and also anger at Chuck for thinking her family would be burying random corpses in their cow pasture. “We never buried anybody out here. Maybe it’s some old Civil War soldier or something.”

          “Not wearing a rubber-soled sneaker,” Chuck mumbled his reply, not wanting to spook Penny. “Let’s get back. That fire is out. It won’t spread anywhere.”

          “Shouldn’t we look for clues about who that is?”

          “That’s what the crime scene team is for.” He took her hand again and pulled Penny away from the creek. She looked back at the still-smoldering oak tree and at the edge of the creek. In her mind, she still saw the raw bone protruding from the mud.

* * *

BY NOON, HALF A DOZEN Sheriff’s deputies, two grave diggers from the local mortuary, and the county coroner were working in the blazing sun to carefully extract the remains of the body Penny and Chuck discovered. Extracting the skeleton, shreds of clothing, and fragments of partially-preserved skin and other body parts was a slow process. An accidental death could not possibly have sunk the person so deeply in the embankment. The Sheriff presumed it was a murder. By sundown, the remains had been fully exhumed and laid on a blue tarp in the back of a F-150 pickup. At that point, the coroner announced, without an autopsy, that the hole in the skeleton’s skull, just above the left ear, was the likely cause of death. She was not able to give a road-side opinion on the likely murder weapon or how long the body had been buried.

          The biggest question, of course, was the identity of the corpse. Within a few hours, the small town of Westfield was abuzz with speculation. Penny spent the day in the pasture, watching the crew and passing out lemonade to the workers. Her father’s finances and the future of the farm took a backseat to the unexpected floorshow and its intriguing mystery. When her father’s lawyer called on her mobile to ask about coming to visit, Penny put him off, saying they could talk after the funeral.

          Chuck said it would be a day or two before they would know much more about the body. The crime scene team didn’t find anything near the body that could have been a murder weapon or any other clues.

          On Saturday, a procession of more than a hundred cars paraded to the cemetery after the heartfelt memorial service for “Farmer Gary” Thompson. Pastor Thurmond had to limit the number of speakers to eight, then read the names of everyone else who had volunteered to give a testimonial.

          After the burial, next to the grave of his wife, Chuck pulled Penny aside to brief her on the investigation into the mystery body. “We checked all the records in the past few years about missing teenagers. The coroner estimated the age of the kid at about eighteen to twenty years and certainly male. His sneakers were an Air Jordan 1 retro model that had been released for sale three years earlier, which narrowed down the search parameters.”

          “How many missing persons fit that profile?” Penny asked, glad to talk about something other than her sainted father and how sad everyone was.

          “Well, there are no unsolved murders in the county. There are two open files on kids who disappeared, but the investigations all concluded that the boys ran away because of problems at home. We don’t know where they went, so it’s possible one of them is our body. We’re checking on descriptions and dental records. Our skull has a clean set of teeth, so we should be able to make an ID from that without needing DNA analysis.”

          “You think somebody killed one of those boys and then decided to dump the body on our farm?”

          “It’s possible. The ground would be soft there on the edge of the creek, even in the hot weather.”

          “It really creeps me out. I love that creek.”

          Chuck reached out and gently touched Penny’s elbow. “I remember.”

          Penny put her hand on Chuck’s, feeling his warmth and strength. Then the funeral director tapped her on the shoulder and ushered her into a waiting limousine. She pulled away, making eye contact with Chuck as she ducked inside the car.

* * *

          On Monday morning, Penny called her boss at the marketing firm where she had worked for nearly a year. “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to need more time off than I thought. . . . No, I’m fine, it’s just that things here are more complicated than I expected. . . . The family farm will get sold to the town, I guess. That won’t happen quickly, but I need to clean up some, um, problems before I can come back. . . . Thanks for understanding. I’ll call you at the end of the week and let you know where things are.”

          Penny stared at the black handset, attached to the kitchen wall by a long, coiled cord with multiple kinks. She recalled pulling that cord to its limits while trying to find a private place where she could have a high school sweetheart conversation with Chuck. Her father refused to get a cordless phone. The old land line was good enough for him, so it was good enough for his kids. And a cell phone for a teenager was out of the question. There was an extension line in her parents’ bedroom, but Penny and Eric weren’t allowed to use it. She told her friends she felt like their farm house was frozen in the 1970s. And yet, when she needed to call her boss, she hadn’t used her cell, but had picked up the old black wall phone. Old habits seemed to come with being back home.

          Penny put out food for Duke, but before she could sit down to her morning yogurt and granola, the piercing clang of the phone’s bell called her back. It was Mayor Almon. After again expressing his sympathy, he got to the point. “I’m not trying to put any pressure on you, but, well, I hate to even bring this up, but in order to keep the farm going under the terms of the open space agreement, you need to be growing something on at least some of the land, except in the winter, of course.”

          “The corn’s growing,” Penny responded. “Not well, because of the heat and the dry weather, but it’s growing. I’m not sure I’ll be able to make a maze from it, but it’s there.”

          “That’s great. It would be a shame if the kids don’t have a corn maze this fall, but I completely understand. If you decided to stay, I know the town would be so happy to have pumpkins in the fall. Did your father plant yet?”

          Penny stared out the window. She could see the field where the pumpkins grew every year, except when the crop got rotated. A few tufts of weeds stuck up from the dry, tan ground. She could tell that nothing had been planted there recently. “I’m not sure. I’ll have to look into that. Thanks for calling.” When she hung up, the thought crossed her mind that she could plant the pumpkin crop, but she dismissed it as crazy. She had not told the mayor she still intended to sell, although she couldn’t explain why. She hadn’t told Chuck, either.

          Just before noon, Chuck called to report no progress in the investigation into the mystery body. The Sheriff had expanded the search to any missing boys in the whole state. The coroner sent DNA samples to the state crime lab and to the FBI to see if they could match the body to any open cases. It was a slow process.

          Meanwhile, Penny had uncovered as much of her father’s financial records as she needed to feel comfortable about paying off all the outstanding bills without overdrawing the checking account. According to the bank records, the town made its open space payment directly into her father’s checking account on the first of every month. But it wasn’t enough to make her want to stay and live with the ghosts.

          She had an appointment Tuesday morning with her father’s lawyer to talk about settling the estate. Without anything else to do, Penny spent several hours in the barn with Duke, working on the told tractor. There was a working tractor in the equipment shed, along with a [planter] and a harvester. But Penny didn’t want to ride the new tractor. She wanted to ride the old one – the one she drove around the farm as a girl. It passed the time in an environment with no wi-fi and a pathetically weak cell signal. Chuck had brought out a new battery on Sunday. By Monday afternoon, Penny got the old girl cleaned up, but still could not get her engine to turn over. The problem was definitely the starter. She could fix many things, but not a starter. She would need a new one and planned to make a trip to the John Deere store as soon as she could arrange transportation.

          After a shower, Penny roamed the old house, looking for anything she might want to salvage for herself, Duke dutifully following behind her. There wasn’t much. She stood at the end of the upstairs hallway for two full minutes before forcing herself to open the door to Eric’s bedroom.

          The musty odor of stale air hit her hard. Eric’s single bed, its powder blue comforter stretched tautly, sat patiently under wall posters of Harry Styles, Halsey, Marilyn Monroe, Lady Gaga, Prince, Katy Perry, and Freddy Mercury. A black blotter on a painted oak desk waited for homework assignments that would never come. Her father had not touched the room since Eric’s funeral. There was nothing visible that Penny wanted to bring back to her small apartment in the city.

          Opening the closet door, she scanned Eric’s clothes, which brought back another tsunami of memories she had deeply buried and did not welcome. She flopped on the hardwood floor and opened a shoebox pushed into the corner. Inside was a mess of papers and personal things. Eric’s learner’s permit. A dried flower in a plastic sleeve. High school transcripts. His acceptance letter from Brown University for the freshman year he never had. She realized she was crying only when a tear splashed onto the envelope. It felt good to cry She didn’t try to stop.

          She noticed a photograph in which Eric was smiling happily. Her brother was seldom happy, so it warmed her heart. He stood on a boulder that she recognized. It was next to a small lake a few miles away, where they went swimming when their little creek wasn’t enough. Wearing a bathing suit, his smooth chest bare, he looked younger than she remembered. His left arm was thrown casually around the shoulder of another boy. She didn’t recognize him, but his smile was as wide as Eric’s. She dropped the photo into a canvas bag, which she had been dragging around the house like she was trick-or-treating on Halloween, expecting to fill it with mementos before the house got sold. It was empty, except now for Eric’s photo.

          Digging to the bottom of the box, Penny pulled out four envelopes, wrapped in a rubber band and addressed by hand to Eric. She put them back. Reading them would be an invasion of Eric’s privacy, and far too painful for her. Penny retreated from the room, closing the door tightly behind her.

          Duke barked and bounded forward toward the stairs. Moments later, Penny heard the approaching vehicle. Outside, a tall man wearing a red blazer, even in the sweltering heat, waved while leaning against a white Ford Taurus. The man had wavy brown hair and a smile punctuated by teeth brighter than the overhead sun. “You must be Penny,” he called.

          “Who’s asking?” She reached down to massage Duke’s head as the dog emitted a low growl in the direction of the stranger.

          “Arthur Madden, Century real estate. I heard about your father and wanted to come settle up our deal. Since you’ll get the proceeds, I’m guessing you’ll want to get that done pretty quickly. Am I right?” He again flashed his artificially whitened teeth, as if Penny would swoon at the sight of his dimples.

          “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

          Madden reached behind him and held up a yellow folder. “Why don’t we get out of this sun and I’ll fill you in?”

          With Duke’s ears pricked up and alert, Penny allowed the real estate agent into the kitchen and offered him a Coke. He spread some papers on the smooth wooden table surface and explained that Gary Thompson had made a deal two years earlier, shortly after Eric’s death, to sell the farm to a group of real estate developers represented by Madden. “It should be in your father’s will.”

          Penny picked up a pile of papers, noting that none of them bore her father’s signature. “Dad never told me anything about this. Besides, he had a deal with the town. They pay him to keep the farm working and undeveloped. When he dies – died – the town has an option to buy the land. I don’t think dad could have made any other deal, with you or with anyone else.”

          Madden’s facial expression didn’t change. “Have you read his will?”

          “No. That’s something I need to do tomorrow. I’m meeting with our lawyer.”

          “Well, I’m sure when you do that, you’ll see that the will includes the deal. You’ll be getting the million dollars.”

          “A million dollars?” she dropped the papers.

          “Yep. That’s the sale price, and it goes to you. You’re the only surviving heir, right?”

          Penny dropped her head. “Yes. I’m it.”

          “Great. Well, I don’t mean – it’s not great that you are the only member of your family left, but it’s great that you’ll get the money. I’m guessing that working the farm isn’t what you have in mind for the rest of your life, huh?”

          “Probably not.”

          Madden stood and extended a gold-colored business card toward Penny. “You give me a call after you talk to your lawyer. I’ll be staying in town for a few days.” She took the card, seeing that the man wasn’t leaving until she did. He showed himself out and drove away while Penny sat and read through the transaction papers he left behind. She couldn’t understand how it was possible for her father to agree to sell to the developers.

          That evening, Chuck arrived, wearing overalls and carrying a pizza box. He was ready to spend his non-working time helping Penny with her work on the old tractor out in the barn. As stary-eyed teens, they snuck out to the barn to make out in the hay loft. Penny never let Chuck get her naked, but they explored each other as much as physically possible with clothes mostly on. Since her return to town, Chuck had been a perfect gentleman, although Penny sensed from his attention and helpfulness that he was hoping to rekindle their former heat. But she wasn’t ready. She hadn’t had a serious romantic attachment since Eric died. She explained that they needed a new starter and that there wasn’t much they could do without one, but they managed to spend three hours tinkering with the dormant engine and talking about old times. Chuck even made her laugh a few times.

          The next morning, Chuck accompanied Penny on her errands in town, happy to be her chauffeur. He was still wearing his uniform and driving the Sheriff’s department SUV, but said he was off duty for the day. They started at John Deere, where Mr. Blyer behind the parts desk took down the information on the old tractor and promised to expedite an order for a new starter. Then they parked downtown, across from the movie theater, and walked into the ground-level storefront of Stuart King, attorney-at-law.

          The old lawyer wore a three-piece suit with a silk tie. His white hair and gold pocket watch completed the look of a gentleman from the 19th century. After some awkward small-talk and King’s expression of condolences in the same tone and with the exact same words he had used at the funeral, the lawyer got down to business and handed each of them a copy of Gary Thompson’s last will and testament. It was not a complex document. When he finished explaining that Penny would inherit the farm and all her father’s other assets, she asked, “Is there anything in there about a deal to sell the farm to a real estate developer?”

          King shook a puzzled head. “No. Nothing about that. And he couldn’t do that. His deal with the town required him to keep the farm until his death, or sell it to the town. Of course, now that you own the farm, you could sell it to a developer.”

          “What do you mean? I can only sell to the town.”

          King looked up from his copy of the will. “No, I’m very sure that the restrictions on selling the property ended with Gary’s death. You own the property free and clear. The payments from the town for keeping the land undeveloped will continue as long as a member of the family satisfies the conditions of the open space deal, but if you want to sell, you can sell to anyone. Who told you otherwise?”

Beta Reader Questions:

  1. Are you engaged by the story after the first two chapters? Do you care (at least a little bit) about Penny and what’s going to happen?
  2. What do you think is going to develop between Penny and Chuck? Is it clear enough that this is going to be some kind of romantic relationship? Is to too obvious? Is it not teased well enough? Do you care one way or the other?
  3. Is there enough suspense in this chapter, after the reveal of the dead body at the end of part 1? Is it too slow, or do you feel like the tension is building sufficiently to get you to come back next month and read part 3?

Part 1 – Ghosts

THE FAMILY FARM was the absolute last destination on Penny’s travel wish list. A stray strand of corn-silk colored hair fell across her amber eyes as she stared out the pockmarked window of the Amtrak. A blurred carousel of images passed by without sparking any interest. Farmland, strip malls, neatly organized pods of houses, then more farmland. She already missed the city. Her girlfriends were most likely at Rosie’s pub, having brunch and flirting with the hot waiter. Penny was on the train to Hell. She thought she left the ghosts behind two years ago.

          It had been a shock when the call came. Her father, Gary Thompson, had bypass surgery ten years ago. She never thought about it. He was as strong as a bull, stubborn as a mule, and would never die. Wrong again. If only her brother, Eric, could handle this for her. Penny turned away from the window and extracted a tissue from her clutch. She swore to herself that she wasn’t going to cry. These tears were not for her father.

          Penny’s mother died of cancer when she was sixteen. Eric was fourteen then. Their father, always stoic and distant, took refuge in bottles of Jack Daniels. When she went off to college, Eric was a junior at Westfield high. He said he would be fine alone with dad until graduation. Penny was nearing the end of her sophomore year, enjoying life in the city, when word came that Eric had been killed in a farming accident. One month shy of his escape from the farm. The whole town turned out for the funeral. Such sadness should not befall a single family. That was the last time she had ridden the Amtrak back to the place she once called home. Two years ago. She wasn’t looking forward to her father’s funeral or spending any time in the big farm house – with the ghosts.

Penny exited the train onto the familiar concrete platform. A colorful poster for her old dentist, Dr. Tuttle, featuring a cartoonish roadster shaped like a tooth, made her smile. She couldn’t help herself. She had spent hours in the toy car in the dentist’s waiting room as a girl. Another placard announced the upcoming county fair, featuring smiling faces holding corn dogs on long sticks. Her stomach churned thinking of the grease. Before more old memories could flood her already addled brain, blue and red flashing lights caught her attention.

A black Sherriff’s SUV hugged the curb at the base of the wooden stairs leading from the train platform. Seeing the man in the blue uniform leaning against the front grill sent a tingle up Penny’s spine. She froze, prompting other passengers to brush against her as they veered around the unexpected obstruction. Penny’s gaze was fixed on Chuck Foreman, who was waving. She smiled and waved back, years of memories flooding into her brain, despite her best efforts to block them.

“How’d you know I’d be on this train?” She dropped her Yves St. Laurant overnight bag on the sidewalk.

Chuck looked different. At their senior prom, his hair dangled around his ears and his face was dappled with acne. Now, his square chin was smooth beneath a row of white teeth. He seemed taller, and certainly broader in the chest and shoulders in his crisp uniform. She couldn’t see any hair peeking below his Smokey Bear hat. Clear blue eyes stared at her with the same puppy-dog expression she remembered. They had dated the duration of their junior and senior years. Then he went off to the Army and she left for college in the city. Six years ago. A lifetime.

“You know how it is,” he looked at the ground with the shy smile she remembered being so attracted to as a naive teenager. “Betty Anne’s mom works at the funeral parlor and knows you have an appointment at four-thirty. Word got around to me and this is the last train that would get you here in time. You look amazing.”

Penny knew she looked far from amazing. Two hours on a train. Barely any make-up. Eyes bloodshot. Unwashed hair tied up in a pony tail. Wearing a shapeless t-shirt and her worst pair of jeans. Chuck had to be starved for any girl not dragging a toddler. “Thanks. I’m a mess.”

“Well, you look great to me.” Chuck reached for her bag and tossed it into the back seat, then opened the passenger door for Penny. The simple act of chivalry reminded her that most of the men she met in the city were assholes. On the ride, she asked about Chuck’s parents and his younger sister. Audrey was married and had two kids. His parents were the typical doting grandparents. His father still ran the hardware store and his mom spent most of her time at the Presbyterian Church, where she was the secretary and office manager. Chuck enthusiastically recounted his family’s happiness. He knew not to ask about hers.

          At the funeral parlor, Penny survived the process of approving the arrangements – the framed photo that would be on display next to the casket, the information in the guest book, and a dozen other details she barely comprehended and cared nothing about. She politely declined to view the body. Back outside, Penny inhaled deeply. The warm July air was thick with humidity and memories. Chuck, who had made it his business to be her personal chauffeur for the day, drove her to her childhood home.

          As the big SUV rolled up the long, winding dirt road to the Thompson farmhouse, a chocolate-colored Labrador bounded down the gravel driveway, barking excitedly. Penny’s face lit up. She spilled out of the car before it fully stopped, dropped to one knee, and buried her face in the neck of the old dog, which licked her ear and whined happily. “Duke, oh you good boy!” she chirped, digging a manicured nail into the floppy folds of skin around the dog’s neck.

          “You need any help?” Chuck asked, depositing her designer overnight bag on the dusty ground.

          “No. We’ll be alright,” she said around Duke’s tongue. Their neighbors must have taken care of Duke in the two days since he became the last remaining resident of the farm. She disengaged long enough to thank Chuck for the ride – and his kindness. He held out his arms and she fell into his hug, which lingered, but she didn’t object.

          As the cloud of dust from Chuck’s departure dissipated, Penny turned toward the cornfield. The stalks were thin and far shorter than she knew they should be in July. It had been a hot and dry summer, punctuated by thunderstorms. She shook her head. Why was she thinking about the health of the corn crop. She didn’t care. She didn’t want to be there, but somebody had to settle the estate. She knew the land would revert to the town as part of the open space deal her father made when he decided it was too hard to work the farm for profit. After that, he just grew strawberries in the spring, one field of corn in the summer, and pumpkins in the fall. He sold the pumpkins to the town’s children for pennies. Her mother had reveled in decorating the place for Halloween and designing the corn maze each fall. Before she died. The ghosts were even there in the cornfield.

          Penny finally forced herself into the house through the back door, which was unlocked, like always. The spotless kitchen, looking the same as when she was ten, waited patiently to service the family’s needs. Back then, it was a flurry of activity. Now, it was a silent shell. Duke nuzzled Penny’s leg and started whining. She put out his food, which was quickly inhaled, then fixed herself an omelet in a black cast iron skillet. Eating had slipped her mind. The cheese and eggs in the fridge were still fresh. It was like her father was just away for the weekend.

          She was halfway through her food, while swiping through dozens of condolence messages in her Instagram account, when Duke barked and sat up, staring at the kitchen door. A car ground its way up the driveway, prompting Penny to abandon her plate. She watched Duke circle around Chester Almon, the mayor of Westfield. His father, Duncan, who had been mayor before him, seamlessly passed the executive torch to his son. It was the natural progression of things.

          “I’m so sorry, Penny,” he patted his bloated chest as he spoke. Only a few years older than Penny, he had already settled into his father’s overweight body and thinning hair. The suit he was sweating through also probably belonged to his father.

          “Thank you,” she replied politely. “I just got here today. I haven’t even started trying to organize dad’s papers.”

          “You take your time with that. I’m not in a hurry. Under the terms of the agreement your father signed with the town, you have the option to stay on the farm as long as you want. You also have the option to sell the farm to the town at any time. I can tell you that the price in the contract is far above the current market value. You can take the four hundred and fifty thousand whenever you want it.”

          “That’s the sale price?”

          “That’s what’s in the agreement. But, as I said, you can also choose to stay and work the farm. You take your time and let me know when you make a decision.”

          “Those are my only options? Live here and work the farm, or sell to the town?”

          “That was your father’s deal, yes. But you have much more important things to concentrate on right now. You take care of your father’s affairs and get through the funeral and we’ll talk later. I just wanted to wish you my condolences personally.” He retreated to his BMW without looking back, Duke following behind to ensure the intruder didn’t linger.

          An hour later, tired from staring at bills, bank records, and check registers, Penny took Duke outside for a run. Waves of heat still shimmered above the dusty road. After a few quick ball-fetches, she decided to take refuge in the barn. The huge wooden doors creaked like an old friend as Penny’s nose drew in the musty air, filled with hay, manure, and cow. Penny meandered through the familiar space, stopping at her father’s workbench, with his tools neatly arranged on a pegboard wall. She recalled her father teaching her how to change the oil in the tractor, how to make a hasp, tie knots, and clean and care for the tools. On the pegboard, three hammers of varying sizes hung from hooks. There was a gap where the second-largest of the set of four should have been. It was unlike her father to leave a tool out of its proper place. Maybe he was using it when he had his heart attack. The thought actually made her smile. It’s how he would have wanted to die – holding a hammer.

          Turning away, her eyes landed on a hulking shadow against the far wall. The old tractor. When she was a girl, it was already past its prime, but it had been the iron horse of the working farm. It pulled the big wagon full of giggling children through the “haunted hayride” at Halloween. Now, it was covered with rust and mold. She climbed into the spring-loaded seat, oblivious to the grime rubbing onto her jeans. The key was in its usual hiding spot, but only a weak click greeted its turn. Dead battery. Lifting the engine cover and peering inside, she heard her father’s voice over her shoulder. She was twelve again. Duke, then a puppy, bounded in the hay. “Ya see those brown nubs, stickin’ up there? Those are your spark plugs. Without those, nothin’ runs.”

          Penny shook her head to chase away her father’s spectral voice. Those were the good days. Before her mom got sick. For the first time, she felt the loss of her father like a mule kick. For the next half hour, she worked to put new plugs in the tractor’s engine. There was a fresh box in the plastic bin, second down, two in from the left. Where they belonged. That was the farm she remembered. Everything in its place. It was foolish, putting new plugs in a dilapidated engine that probably wouldn’t ever run again. But, somehow, she needed to do it.

          Wiping engine grease from her hands with a fresh rag from under the workbench, Penny remembered the first time her dad let her drive the tractor by herself. She would get a new battery tomorrow. Somehow, getting it working again was important.

          The sun was hidden behind dark, ominous clouds as Penny emerged from the barn. She felt the wind kick up and smelled the metallic scent of ozone. Storm coming. That night, Penny snuggled in her childhood bed, listening to the rain pelting like buckshot against her window. Duke’s heavy breathing helped her sleep.

          The crunch of tires on gravel woke Penny the next morning. light streamed through the crack between the shade and the top of her window, telling her it was already late morning. Duke barked and bounded through the doggie door that allowed him unimpeded ingress and egress. When Penny finally pushed through the kitchen door, her gut clenched. Chuck Foreman was kneeling by his Sheriff’s SUV, patting Duke. Seeing Penny, he stood up.

          “You don’t have to check up on me,” she said, trying to sound more annoyed than she really was. Chuck’s smiling face was more comforting than she wanted to admit.

          “I’m not checking on you. I’m checking on the fire.” Chuck gestured over his shoulder with his left thumb. Penny held a hand up to shade her eyes and squinted toward the horizon. Thin gray smoke rose up from an unseen source. She suddenly noticed the smell of burning wood. Chuck marched toward the cow pasture. The thunderstorm. It wasn’t unusual for a lightning strike to take down a tree and sometimes start a fire. Penny hurried to catch up.

          At the far side of the field, a creek snaked across the landscape at the bottom of a gully four feet below the rest of the land. Penny and Eric had spent countless hours down those banks, splashing in the clear water and fishing for the small trout that spawned in the culvert on the far side of the county road. Beyond the creek bed, an ancient oak tree lorded over the meadow where the cows grazed. The oak had seen two centuries. On this day it had lost one of its four great limbs, which lay on the grass, smoldering. A nasty black scar slashed up from the ground, along the thick trunk. The tree would survive, but would mourn the loss of an arm.

          The engorged stream rushed through its soft canyon, feeding the night’s rainwater away from the farm. A portion of the bank had collapsed and slid toward the water’s edge. Penny took a step down the bank, but slipped in the mud, embedding a sneaker. “Damn!”

          Chuck quickly reached her, his Sheriff’s boots squishing into the saturated soil. Penny’s foot escaped the mud with a sucking squish, leaving her pink New Balance running shoe behind. “Oh, for crying out loud,” she exclaimed.

          “I got that.” Chuck helpfully reached toward the hole that was quickly filling with water. He extracted the shoe, washed off the mud in the stream, then turned to hand it to Penny, who was sitting on a dark rock. His left arm was half-extended when he stopped and stared at the creek bank to his right.

          “What’s more interesting than me down there in the mud?”

          “That,” Chuck pulled back the sneaker and used it to point. On the side of the bank, where the ground had washed away, there was another sneaker. Brown from being covered in dirt, the rubber sole was visible. An exposed bone extended into the shoe’s heel, then disappeared into the soil.

          Penny’s eyes opened as wide as one of her mother’s China tea saucers. It was a body, and it had been there for a while.

Beta reader questions:

  1. — Is there enough happening here in Part 1 to make you look forward to reading Part 2 in next month’s issue of the magazine?
  2. — What is your reaction to the characters. Penny? Chuck? The Mayor? Do you have any reaction yet, or are you waiting to see what happens? If you have a reaction, what is it?
  3. — Is the tone here right? What do you think you’re going to get with the rest of the story?

If you have any other general feedback or thoughts, please pass them along. Thank you for your views.