BY: NANCY A HUGHES

Vietnam veteran Charlie Alderfer hires Ben, an 18-year-old hard-working student. But when his adoptive parents accuse him of a crime he didn’t commit and police terrorize him into pleading guilty Ben believes them and confesses to make the charges go away. Charlies search for the truth puts them both in danger.



TAYLOR JONES SAYS:

REGAN MURPHY SAYS:

PROLOGUE

June

Had Charlie Alderfer grasped how an overheard conversation would impact his life one year later, he would have paid more attention. He would have interrupted and asked a few questions, especially their names. Still learning the fundamentals of healthy cooking, he had been scrutinizing a peculiar squash nestled among its brethren. Two women’s exchange piqued his interest while he was puzzling over the label spaghetti.

“My daughter heard that the police dragged a junior out of the cafeteria and hauled him to jail,” a woman’s voice said.

Charlie dared a glance beyond the grocery’s vegetable bins. The pair, about the right age to have high school children, were engaged in what sounded like serious gossip. He replaced the spaghetti squash and pretended to consider a zucchini, unable to stop himself from eavesdropping. Not that his life was that dull—he just had an innate fascination with people and their inevitable drama.

“That’s not what I heard. It wasn’t a boy—it was some foster girl who was nothing but trouble,” the other woman said.

“Did your daughter know what it was about?”

“She said that the girl was bragging about getting her foster family’s son in big trouble with the police. That she’d done it before. How she’d laughed! Thought it was hilarious. I’m guessing she’s been bounced around and learned that malice was entertaining. The kids were stunned. Hung on her every word, which I’m guessing was her motivation—to shock them. I mean, this is a conservative rural community. Stuff like that just doesn’t happen around here.”

“Which was…”

“Story goes, she waited until she and their son—he’s a junior weight lifter—were alone in the house, supposedly supervising the younger foster kids. She comes on to the son. He tells her no—that it’s ‘inappropriate,’ and the son thinks that’s it. The next day she tells the guidance counselor that the son committed—”

A blaring announcement about a bakery special in aisle ten drowned out the rest of her sentence. Charlie continued scrutinizing the zucchini as if looking for imperfections, hoping she would continue.

“The story’s all over the school. Bet it was the dinner topic at every table in the district. Not just what she did, but what she brazenly admitted to a table full of kids. We just don’t have foster kids like that around here. We’re too far from the city.”

Before the speaker could finish her story, she spotted him. “Hey Charlie! I didn’t see you at first.”

Busted! Charlie jerked to attention, having feigned preoccupation with an acorn squash. He set it in his basket.

As a matter of explanation, the mother began volunteering some background to her friend. “Charlie Alderfer spent ages helping me choose my appliances. I had no idea what I wanted, and my contractor was apoplectic about my indecision. Charlie walked me through every detail and answered all my stupid questions.” She grinned her appreciation. “I can’t thank you enough.”
“I loved my job. It’s easy when a salesman believes in what he sells and the store stands behind the products.” Charlie took a chance and guessed. “How did that stove work out for you?”
“Love it. Went back for the fridge, washer, and dryer you recommended.”

Charlie dredged his mind for the woman’s name but hadn’t a clue. She didn’t supply one—if only he’d asked.

“Gotta go,” she said, having snapped a glance at her watch. “Hope you’re enjoying your well-earned retirement.” The pair rolled away, any embellishment to their story fading with their departure.

Later that day tragedy struck, the chance conversation forgotten among events that changed Charlie’s life. Having found a recipe to bake that acorn squash in his Emma’s worn red plaid cookbook, Charlie feasted on it for dinner. After tidying the kitchen, he went outside to watch an ordinary day fade into a glorious evening.

The week had been dry. He had watered Emma’s roses, turned off the soaker hose, and tucked the wand under his arm. He would remember swinging his arm as he strode toward the faucet to shut off the gush. Satisfied, he sank into his favorite old lawn chair, his gaze drinking in a perfect June evening.

Emma’s beloved garden—the scent of the ox eye daisies, roses, and verbena, their profusion glowing in the gathering dusk. Beyond the garden stretched fragrant, crisply mowed grass. Charlie valued such peaceful moments. He had overcome crushing challenges—the Vietnam war, surgery for his wounds, the transition to civilian life, Emma’s illness and death, the empty nest, but he chose to live thankfully—for his marriage, their two amazing daughters. The grandkids.

If only…

He remembered Emma’s last admonition as her health faded: “You must dance at our daughters’ weddings.” The way that she stated it left no opportunity to argue.
“We. We will dance…”

But that wasn’t to be. Fifteen years—where had it gone? A soft breeze carried the scent of cut grass, flowers and, could it be? His neighbor had mucked out his barn.
As Charlie waited for that first heavenly jewel, just as his family, his parents, and siblings had done, he heard the kitchen phone ring. Nearly tripped by the chair’s collapsible frame, he chastised himself. If it weren’t for his nasty habit of leaving the cordless out in the rain he wouldn’t have to tear into the house. And that answering machine only gave him five rings. Breathing hard, he yanked open the screen door and stumbled into the kitchen. Before he could traverse the half dozen steps, a searing pain overwhelmed him.

Ripping!

Crushing!

Tearing!

Like nothing he had ever experienced, not even when he was shot. With ultimate effort he grabbed at the phone, which clattered from its bracket onto the floor, landing several feet from where he collapsed. Pain ratcheted even as his strength plummeted. In excruciating pain, he snagged the handset.

“Help me! Help,” he gasped as horrific pain inflamed every nerve in his body. “Wallet! On. Kitchen. Counter! Call—daughters…” He whispered his pleas, praying his failing voice had connected with someone.

Sirens. An ER’s blazing lights. Aggregate people who staccatoed clipped instructions. Voices that barked, equipment that bleeped, and hands—lots of hands that worked with cold stuff. Then he was airborne. Blades thump-thump-thumping and lights flickering like an old black and white movie. A jumble of impressions sluicing in disjointed snatches. Blackness cocooned him. Then there was nothing.

Charlie’s catastrophe—a ruptured aneurysm—was followed by weeks in the VA’s hospice. They expected he’d die any moment. But he had defied them, relishing his victory over nearly succumbing. Struggling to regain his health, he graduated from hospice. How grateful he was to be home, knitting together his disjointed life, flying to visit his daughters, and enjoying simple pleasures like grocery shopping.

His daughters, however, warned him to be on his guard. That made him smile. They were concerned, not just about his health, but about predatory single women, trying to seduce him with casseroles and cleavage. And his dear friend and neighbor, Old Mr. Greer, would get him into trouble. That Charlie’s kindhearted nature would rekindle his passion for getting involved, drawing him into new battles. Charlie had smiled—a lot—and indulged his girls with promises to thwart their long-range worrying. Funny how nearly dying—twice—had awakened his spirit for adventure.

©2020 by Nancy A. Hughes