Excerpt From Fruit Baskets and Holiday Caskets

CHAPTER ONE

“Goodbye, Amy. You’ve been such a sweet girl to me, and I want you to know how much I love you. I’m hanging up and calling Jackie now. I want her to be the last one who hears my voice.”

Before I could say a word, Aunt Bess hung up. I knew I’d better call Mom and find out what was going on. We were in the midst of a severe thunderstorm—strange for December, but not unheard of—and our power was out. I took my lit candle into the kitchen to retrieve my phone from my purse. Rory, my little brown terrier, followed me, his toenails clicking on the tile floor. Princess Eloise, my—or, rather, Mom’s—white Persian cat, remained on the armchair and flicked her tail.
Calling Mom’s number as I walked back to the living room, I sank onto the sofa. Rory hopped onto my lap, his body trembling as a clap of thunder rattled the windows.
“Amy, is everything all right down there?” Mom asked in lieu of a greeting.
“You tell me. Aunt Bess just called to say goodbye. She’s probably talking with Jackie now because she wants her granddaughter to be the last one who hears her voice.”
“Oh, good grief.” 
“Is she sick?” I asked.
“No, but I’m about to kill her.” Mom growled in frustration. “I’ll call you back as soon as I try to keep her from scaring Jackie half to death.”
Mom ended the call, and I cuddled Rory and wondered what Aunt Bess was up to now. To call Aunt Bess eccentric would be a kind understatement. She was actually my great-aunt—my grandmother’s sister. Before Nana died, Aunt Bess moved into the “big house” with her. Mom and I lived in a smaller house down the hill from Nana’s place. And after Nana died, Mom moved in with Aunt Bess to take care of her and to make sure she didn’t get into any mischief. Well, the latter turned out to be a lost cause. 
When my phone rang approximately ten minutes later, it was Mom informing me that “Henny Penny thinks the sky is falling.”
I had guessed Aunt Bess was making something out of nothing, but I waited for Mom to elaborate.
“The roof over her bed is leaking. A few drops of water plunked her on the forehead, and she became convinced that the roof was about to fall in on top of her.” Mom blew out a breath. “And, naturally, instead of getting up like a normal person, she began phoning in her good-byes.”
Laughing, I said, “I’m glad it’s nothing serious.”
“Well, unfortunately, I’m afraid it might be more significant than I let on to Aunt Bess. Jackie said she’ll send Roger over tomorrow morning to assess the damage. I’ve moved Aunt Bess’s bed and put a bucket under the leak, and I’m going to get Aunt Bess settled into the guest room. Wish me luck.”
“I’d be happy to slip on my raincoat and come help out if you need me,” I said.
“Please don’t. I don’t want to have to worry about your being struck by lightning on your way here. Besides, I’m sure the pets are frightened and need you there.”
“That’s true.” I gave Rory a reassuring pat. “Still, I’ll come up before I go to work in the morning.”
“With the way this night is going, that’ll probably be about the time I fall asleep,” Mom said. “Would you mind dropping in after work?”
“Sure. I’ll bring dinner. Just call me if you need anything before then.”

 


As soon as I arrived at the café the next morning, I got the coffee brewing. I was going to need plenty of caffeine today to keep me moving. Our electricity had come back on at around eleven o’clock. I’d gotten up and looked up the hill toward the big house and saw lights on in the living room, so I was reassured the power was back on there too. I wasn’t worried so much about the lights, but I didn’t want the heat to be out for very long. Mom had gas logs in the fireplace in the living room—maybe she’d bundled Aunt Bess up, and the two of them had sat in the living room until the electricity was restored.
Jackie was yawning as she walked through the door, so I knew she was probably as tired as I. “Coffee?”
Nodding, I raised my cup. “I have the French vanilla, but there’s a pot of dark roast that should be finished brewing by now.”
My cousin poured herself a cup of the dark roast and came to stand beside me at the counter. “What are we doing just standing here?” she asked, knowing I should be halfway through the morning kitchen prep by now.
“Procrastinating?”
She nodded. “Works for me.”
“What time did your lights come back on?”
“The power never went out in my building.” She jerked her head toward the kitchen. “Was the power off here?”
“I don’t think it was in the café. Ryan assured me the power hadn’t been out in this part of town, and I was relieved to see that there weren’t any fallen limbs or other debris on the road or in the parking lot.”
“Roger is going by the big house to check on the roof this morning,” Jackie said. “He’ll be by here when he’s finished.”
“Good. I hope it’s nothing major.” I was interrupted by the phone ringing. I answered, “Down South Café, Amy speaking.”
“Hi, darlin’. It’s Dilly.”
Dilly Boyd was almost always our first customer of the day. She rose with the sun and often dined with her beau Walter Jackson.
“How are you?” I asked.
“I’m fine, but I don’t have heat at my house.”
“Oh, no! Is your electricity still off?”
“No, just the heat pump,” Dilly said. “I believe I’ve got on nearly every stitch of clothes I own.”
“I’m so sorry! How can I help?”
“What is it?” Jackie whispered.
I held up an index finger as I listened to Dilly.
“Walter is coming by to pick up our breakfast. We’d both like the pancakes, eggs, and sausage. And don’t forget the biscuit for the raccoon,” she said. “I hope he weathered the storm all right.”
The raccoon Dilly mentioned came down out of the woods behind her house every evening at dusk to get a biscuit. I didn’t think Dilly considered the little masked bandit a pet, but she certainly looked out for him. 
“We’ll have your order ready for you when Walter gets here,” I said. “Have you called someone about your heat pump?”
“No one is open for business yet,” she said. 
After telling her to let us know if there was anything—other than breakfast—we could do to help, I ended the call and started on her order. Scott and Luis, our waiter and busboy/dishwasher, arrived, and I could hear patrons begin to trickle into the dining room as I worked. 
We had Christmas music playing softly, and I could catch snippets of tunes over the sounds of frying sausage and clinking silverware. We had a small, decorated tree atop the display case, and there were garlands hung over the doors and windows. Hearing a bit of the chorus of Silver Bells, I hummed along as I flipped Dilly’s pancakes.

 


Jackie was making a fresh batch of coffee when Roger came into the café with Devon, one of his crew members.
“Hey, guys,” she said. “Are you hungry?”
“Always.” Devon patted his stomach.
I went over to the window between the dining room and the kitchen. “How’s the roof?”
“Not good, Flowerpot.” Roger had given me the nickname when we were kids and had, unfortunately, never let it go. “Devon and I put a tarp over the end and weighted it down with bricks. We’re going to get the materials to fix it as soon as we finish up here.”
“Do you think the entire roof should be replaced, or just the damaged area?” I asked.
“It would be best to do it all.” He accepted the cup of coffee Jackie sat in front of him. “Thanks, hon.” Turning back to me, he said, “I’m afraid if we don’t fix the entire thing, we’ll just be repairing one section right after another.”
I nodded. “Good thinking.”
“What are you two wanting for breakfast?” Jackie asked.
“I’d love the Belgian waffles,” Devon said, as he emptied a packet of sugar into his coffee.
“I’ll have biscuits and eggs,” Roger said.
“Oh, hey, you guys work on heat pumps, don’t you?” I asked.
Roger groaned. “Don’t tell me yours went out during the storm.”
“Not mine—Dilly Boyd’s. When I spoke with her, she was trying to find someone to answer her call.”
“Everybody’s swamped today.” Devon turned to Roger. “Want me to give her a call?”
“Would you? If you could take care of that while I get the roofing materials for Amy’s mom, that would be terrific.”
I wrote Dilly’s number on a napkin and slid it across the counter to Devon. “You’re a lifesaver. I can’t stand the thought of her being over there with no heat. I mean, it’s not that cold right now—not to me, anyway—but…”
“But she needs to have her heat pump working,” he finished. “I understand. And, Jackie, don’t for-get you’re gonna help me with that thing we talked about.”
She grinned. “I haven’t forgotten.”
When she followed me into the kitchen, I asked, “What thing are you helping Devon with?”
“Finding a Christmas present for his wife. He wants to get her a necklace similar to one her grandmother used to wear all the time. I’m scour-ing all the online vintage sites.”
“Good luck.”
She rolled her eyes. “Thanks. I need it. I didn’t dream a comparable necklace could be so hard to find or be so expensive. That’s probably why he was trying to make a deal for the cheaper appliances.”
The phone rang, and I quickly put on my head-set before answering. “Down South Café, Amy—”
“Don’t buy any fruit for a while!” Mom exclaimed.
“Um…okay.”
“Your Aunt Bess posted on social media that she might be dying, and four fruit baskets have already arrived, including a huge one from the fire department!”
“Why does Aunt Bess think she’s dying?” I asked. “Does she still think the roof is going to cave in?”
“No. Either that few drops of rain that pelted her on the forehead and gave her a chill will likely result in pneumonia, or the rat droppings she found on her bed after she hopped out of it will probably result in her contracting rabies or the plague.”
I went on into the kitchen to work on the breakfast orders. “Rat droppings?” I lowered my voice to almost a whisper so none of the café patrons would hear and think we had vermin.
“I should say not. They were pieces of chocolate cookie!” Mom gave a growl of frustration. “Aunt Bess knows good and well those were crumbs and not rat droppings. We both saw additional drop-pings and one leftover cookie on a saucer on her nightstand. She’s just milking this entire ordeal, as she calls it, for all the attention she can get.”
“And fruit,” I added. “Any flowers?”
“Not yet.” 
I felt bad for Mom. Corralling Aunt Bess had become a twenty-four seven responsibility. After Nana died, Mom had given up her job and moved into the big house to care for Aunt Bess, and it was times like these when I realized how much of her freedom and independence Mom had sacrificed.
“I love you, Mom.”
She chuckled. “Do I sound that pitiful?”
“Yes. If it helps, when I bring up dinner this evening, I’ll make sure the dessert isn’t chocolate. We don’t want any more rat droppings around the house.”
 “In the meantime, I’ll try to keep Aunt Bess entertained and off the computer,” Mom said.
After ending the call, Jackie wanted to know the question they’d overheard me ask Mom at the beginning of the call: Why did Aunt Bess think she was dying? I explained the situation to her as she helped me finish up the breakfast orders and Scott boxed up Dilly’s and Walter’s takeout.
“Would you mind if I visit Aunt Bess after work today?” Scott asked. “Having the roof get torn up probably scared her, and it sounds like she’s reaching out for some attention.”
Jackie and I shared a glance. Scott was so darned perceptive.
“Why don’t you join us for dinner?” I asked. Raising my voice, I called to Roger, “Would you guys like to join us at the big house for dinner? You too, Devon and Luis. And I’ll invite Ryan.”
“That works for me,” Roger said.
“I’m sorry,” Luis said. “My mother is expecting her brother over to our house, and she wants all us kids there.”
“Belinda already has a chicken in the crockpot,” Devon said. “But I appreciate the offer.”
Traffic into the café was quickly picking up, and I made a mental note to text Ryan as soon as there was a lull. The past twenty-four hours had certainly been crazy, even by Winter Garden’s standards. I was hoping for a fun, peaceful evening, but I had a sneaking suspicion that we hadn’t seen the last of the fallout from last night’s storm.

 

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