Applying Pressure

Don’t want her losing steam in week two so here’s…

Chapter 2

Claudia shouted to the GPS chick that we needed to get to the mall in Athens by the quickest route possible. Then, she kind of stepped on it, leaving the professors to their fate.

As we drove, we tried to decrypt the message we had been given.

The mall, obviously, had something to do with wood, but we weren’t at all sure what.

“Well, if—”

That huge little word of hers caused the heels of her hands to smack the steering wheel at the same time mine slapped the dashboard. Her deafening “damn it” collided with my loud and severely elongated “yes.” Then, my left hand flapped in front of her. “Five bucks,” I less-than-adultly yelled. “You owe me five bucks!” 

Five bucks! I wagged my hand more forcefully. It had been days since I had the gratifying opportunity to collect from her. See, we had swearword jars, but the one and only swearword: if. We had used it so many times since she gave me that chunk of land, that we had begun to drive ourselves batty. If we built… If we moved… If… If… If… Eventually, we outlawed the word, and two days later, all synonyms thereof. If you said it—if you got caught saying it, you had to put five bucks in the other’s jar. Whoever had the most money at week’s end, got to pick a place for dinner and pay with the accumulated fines of both. The shithead went so far as to check my articles in the Journal for the frickin’ word, catching me once when I had no choice but to quote the mayor. Needless to say, it had become a blood sport.

When I wagged my hand again, she groaned, and admittedly, I liked this part far better than the actual five bucks.

Less-than-adultly, she said, “Fine. I’ll pay!” She sighed, and then said, “I’ll pay as soon as I know we don’t need any money for whatever the hell they have us doing.”

I retracted my hand and contemplated whether I should demand an actual handwritten IOU.

 “How about we just ditch the rule for the weekend?” she asked. “We have enough to worry about without watching our language.”

First, I made sure she still intended on paying up, and then I agreed. We decided that enforcement would begin again the moment we headed for home the next day.

Then, she smacked the steering wheel once more for good measure. “Now, where the hell was I?”

 “Wood,” I reminded. “Wood, and a mall in Athens.”

She remained silent for a moment; collecting her thoughts, I assumed. Finally, she said, “If they’re just copying other weekends, though, they could be copying Holly and Laura, and ‘wood’ could be trees, Arbor/Earth day.”

“Okay, so… Um, we’re supposed to find trees at—” I slapped the poor dashboard again. “Maybe the mall has trees growing in it like Granton’s does.”

She thought that seemed plausible enough, suggesting that maybe that was where we’d meet up with the others, the rendezvous point. “What else do we know?”

“Tote ‘em,” we figured, was simply a reference to the totem-guessing thing we did on the banks of Gator River. Claudia had supplied the totem, and I had to spend the whole frickin’ weekend trying to figure out what the hell it was. I had failed to identify the little tin heart filled with blue and green confetti, and a little “Be Mine” heart I carried with me quite often—but not today. Damn it! What if being in possession of that totem meant winning?

We knew what the little pink backpack alluded to, but we had no clue why.

And the key. Again, we had no idea whatsoever, and we lamented not looking more thoroughly in the motel’s yucky rooms for a lockbox or something. Hell, a minibar would’ve been most welcome.

About ten minutes later, the GPS chick told her to take a right and then a left. Shortly, thereafter, another left landed us by the mall.

It had become a day of synchronized yelling. “Birchwood Mall!”

Except, our excitement was short lived. Athens had only one mall, we figured, because the GPS chick didn’t ask her to specify which one. She didn’t have to say, “The one with the wood in it.” So, if it was no big deal, why didn’t Maggie and Susan—er, Joan and Vanna, just frickin’ say it? It was a clue to nothing.

Suddenly, she applied the brakes. “Get out and have a smoke.” With her head, she gestured and said, “I’ll go through that drive-thru for coffee and water.” With another jerk of her head, she specified, “Meet me over there.”

She was a good woman, and I hopped out.

After I lit up, I meandered my way toward the burger joint she had driven to as I scanned each row of cars and every pedestrian. If Ginny and Kris were behind us, perhaps Holly and Laura or Alison and Janice were ahead of us and had figured this all out. Unfortunately, I saw none of them.

I caught up with Claudia, and as soon as I got back in the car, she took the nearest parking spot. As she dug Earl from her purse, I asked whether she had any ideas about what we were supposed to do.

“Absolutely none.” She removed the cover from her hot water cup, dunked Earl, and then asked the same of me.

I figured Susan had to have factored in the danger of sending Claudia into a mall without a mission or a time constraint—other than when the place closed. That made me think there had to be something we were missing.

I recalled last Valentine’s Day when the ten of us had stayed at the Granton Inn and were sent to the mall to buy something that represented how we felt about each other. She had been in a foul mood, as had the reactive yours truly, and I had defiantly skipped the mall and had driven instead into a ditch on the way to Peter’s Palace. I never had the opportunity to buy her anything, and to this day, I have no idea what the hell I would’ve gotten her from a porn shop. When I tried to remember what she had gotten me, something very important dawned on me. On the weekend we had played the stupid Babes with Baggage game, we had also gone shopping, that time to a toy store where we were to pick out something for the child we had been and then donate the toy to the Christmas drive.

“Claudia,” I said, trying to assemble the jumbled information, “I think there’s more here than we’re seeing.”

She glanced around the area, and I rolled my eyes, saying, “I mean with the clues. Both the motel stay and the pink backpack are from weekends when we went shopping, and both times, we were supposed to buy things that represented something, which goes with the whole totem thing.”

In vain, I had expected her to have an aha moment, but she simply looked at me with narrowed eyes. Then, she blew on the edge of her partially brewed tea and took a tiny sip. Finally, she said, “So we’ve got: wood from Arbor Day; shopping and motel from Valentine’s; shopping from a backpack card game; and totems. Did I miss anything?”

“No,” I answered but quickly corrected, “We’re characters from a 1930s murder mystery. Oh, and we have a 17C key.”

Again, we grew quiet for a moment, and then she said, “I think we’re supposed to shop for something made of wood that represents…”

I took a stab, “That represents our relationship or who we were as kids.”

“What if it’s trees and not just wood?” she challenged. “I mean we’re in the parking lot of Birchwood Mall.”

“We’re supposed to buy trees again?”

With a swat, she said, “Maybe they’re planning an orchard on our land this time! That would be sweet.”

My brain burbled another complication. “But, birchwood isn’t a tree. Birchwood is what you get from a birch tree.”

“Good point,” she conceded. “Wood, then, not trees, which is good. We don’t need a carful of trees again.” A second later, she shouted an aha that startled me. She reached and squeezed my thigh. “Remember one of Ginny and Kris’ scavenger hunts? We had to buy a plank of wood from Nelson’s Lumber.”

“A carful of planks would be far worse than trees,” I pointed out, remembering how the thing barely fit, and didn’t fit in Holly’s car.

“This is insane,” she said. She took a hefty swig of tea, and I did the same of my coffee.

We needed to figure this out.

“If it’s a competition,” I said, “then chances are there’s a clock ticking somewhere.”

“Maybe we just have to get the right things.” She put the car into drive and suggested that we head into the mall. “Maybe there’s a wood store or something that will give us a neon clue.”

“Look at store numbers, too. Maybe there’s a store numbered 17C.”

Why the hell they’d give us a store key made no sense, but even less to think they had one to begin with. This was goddamn frustrating, and our hostesses were proving their ability to mess with us. Parenthood had not, apparently, matured them to the point where they could not be juvenile.