Under a cloudless sky, p.17

Under a Cloudless Sky, page 17


Under a Cloudless Sky

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  The hymns took on new meaning as well, and when they came to “Dwelling in Beulah Land,” the hymn they sang each week, the words jumped off the page as if they had been written for her.

  Viewing here the works of God, I sink in contemplation;

  Hearing now His blessed voice, I see the way He planned;

  Dwelling in the Spirit, here I learn of full salvation;

  Gladly I will tarry in Beulah Land.

  Beulah Land was not a spot on a map—it was the holy ground of her heart. And if she yielded land and title to God, he would guide her and make her paths straight. Her coming here was not happenstance. And no matter how far she traveled, she would never forget these people and this day.

  There was an altar at the front where Ruby had seen people kneel. It seemed humiliating, people prostrating themselves. Now, she felt pulled there by an unseen hand. Without invitation or chiding, Ruby made her way forward. She put her head on the wooden railing and opened her heart like a flood. She apologized for her selfish ways. She asked God to give her a new heart. As she prayed, Ruby felt that her mother would have been proud.

  She felt a warm hand on her shoulder and looked up. Through tears she saw Pastor Brace with his bushy mustache and wrinkled face, the sun-drenched stained-glass windows framing him.

  “Welcome home, child,” he said softly in her ear.

  She smiled, then laughed—which seemed out of place at church, but she couldn’t hold it in. When the last refrain was sung, everyone sat and Pastor Brace told them Ruby wanted to be baptized. A murmur rushed through the room, overtaken by several hallelujahs. Pastor Brace ushered her into the back and Talitha Beasley helped her into a baptismal gown.

  The baptistery consisted of a hole in the wall behind the pulpit. Narrow wooden stairs led down on either side to a metal trough filled with water. Algae grew there. The pastor helped steady Ruby as she stepped into the chest-deep, chilly water. When she found her footing, she looked out over the congregation and saw Bean with both hands over her mouth.

  “The ground is level at the foot of the cross. It doesn’t matter where you come from, how much you have or don’t have—we all are in need of the forgiveness of God.”

  “Amen,” an older man said in the front, and a woman raised a hand and said, “Hallelujah.”

  “There is no saving work that happens at baptism. That happens in the heart. But you see here an outward work of God’s Spirit on the inner part of this child. Ruby has seen her need of a Savior. She knows there’s nothing she can do to earn God’s love . . .”

  The man’s voice trailed off and Ruby studied his face. It seemed he had either come to a fork in the road of his theology or he had seen something startling. Ruby looked at the congregation again and saw her father. He removed his hat, taking a seat on the back row.

  “Today Ruby has exchanged her sin for the righteousness of God’s only Son. She is now clothed in that righteousness and she’s trusting in him fully and completely.” Pastor Brace looked down at her. “Is that right, Ruby?”

  “Yes, sir,” she said, her voice just a smidgen above a mouse squeak. Her hands shook from the temperature of the water.

  The pastor asked a few questions about her decision and she answered them, glancing at the congregation and seeing her father crane his neck.

  “In Romans we read, ‘If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.’ So because of your confession today, Ruby, it is my honor to baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

  The last words were engulfed in the sound of water in her ears and she plunged down only a moment, but it felt like an eternity. When she came up, she gasped for a breath, then wiped water and algae away and embraced the pastor.

  Her father met her after the service. He spoke briefly with the pastor and tipped his hat as he passed Bean and her mother. Ruby hugged Bean. “We’ll talk later,” she whispered.

  Ruby’s father was the first to speak on the walk home. “You’ve gotten baptized. Care to explain?”

  “I can’t. I just finally understood what they were talking about. It was like a window opened and light came in.”

  “Do you think religion will help you make sense of things? Losing your mother?”

  “I’m not looking for religion. I know now that Jesus loves me and gave himself for me. He wants me as part of his family. Mother talked about this when I was little but I didn’t understand.”

  He nodded. “Your mother liked religion—Jesus, as you say.”

  “Dad, I want you to be baptized. I want you to feel what I feel.”

  “Which is what?”


  Her father smiled. “And what do you have to be forgiven for, Ruby? What egregious thing have you done?”

  “Terrible things. Terrible thoughts about Mrs. Grigsby and Mr. Coleman. I’ve disobeyed you a thousand times.”

  “All perfectly innocent. Compared with the things I’ve done, you don’t hold a candle.”

  “Exactly. It doesn’t matter how bad you’ve sinned because God is holy. And you and I can’t be good enough to make up for our badness. God knew we needed Jesus to take our place on the cross and come live in us. That’s what I want for you.”

  Her father nodded. “I’m happy for you, Ruby.” He pulled her close as they walked toward the company store. “I’ve ordered something for you that I thought would take away some of the sting of leaving Bean behind, and now it seems a gift is even more appropriate. It should be here before you leave.”





  Ruby stared at the broken glove box as Kelly drove. Had Liz done that? How did she know to look for money in there? He flipped on the radio and tuned to a station playing a song about werewolves and a little old lady getting mutilated. It turned her stomach. The curvy roads didn’t help. She wanted the whole episode to be over. She wanted to go home. But how would she face her daughter and son after this lapse of judgment? How could she have trusted these two?

  She tried to think of the words to “Dwelling in Beulah Land” but couldn’t because of the radio, so she put her hands over her ears like a child. Kelly turned onto another road and Ruby wondered how she’d ever find her way back.

  “If you’d have listened to us, you wouldn’t be in this fix,” Kelly said, taking a draw on a cigarette.

  Ruby stared at him. “You’re in a fix because . . .” She reached over and hit the Power button on the radio. “You’re in a fix because you’re a thief. One day the law is going to catch up with you and put you in your place.”

  Ruby felt better having said it, but the look on Kelly’s face made her wish she hadn’t.

  “If I was you, I’d shut up,” he said, slapping the Power button and turning the music up louder.

  They drove farther into the woods and uphill, the road narrowing and the trees closing in. Clouds blocked the sunlight. Ruby’s stomach growled and she realized she hadn’t eaten and her head was light. She reached into the backseat for the cooler she had packed with sandwiches, but Kelly smacked her arm hard.

  Ruby whimpered, covering her face. The road beneath them became gravel, then dirt and ruts and bumps, and she felt the arthritis in her hip.

  They stopped with a jerk on an uphill grade and Kelly pulled the emergency brake and took the keys. A big dog barked. Ruby didn’t like big dogs. She opened her eyes. They were near a trailer at the side of a dirt path that continued into the hills. She felt like she had reached the ends of the earth.

  Liz pulled up in the truck and got out as Kelly yelled and gestured with the cigarette. Ruby turned and pulled the soft-packed cooler to herself, unzipping the top. She took out a sandwich and chewed it, watching the two like they were some TV show.

  Liz ran a hand through her hair, whi
ch wasn’t easy because it was a tangled, matted mess. Ruby couldn’t believe she had put any stock in what the girl had said. Liz spoke, Kelly shouted and took the envelope of cash and opened it. He dropped his cigarette as he leafed through the bills.

  Kelly walked back to the car and opened Ruby’s door. “Get out.”

  Ruby pleaded with him to let her go. She said she wouldn’t tell anyone what they had done, and tried to stay in the car, but Kelly grabbed her by the wrist and hauled her out and Ruby felt something pop when he jerked her. It was the same wrist she had injured in her fall on the front steps of her house. She whimpered in pain and held her wrist with the other hand as she fell onto their couch, if you could call it that. It looked like something someone tossed to the side of the road that the two had scavenged. There was a smell of something burning inside the trailer—like a pan had been left on the stove too long. Glass bottles and jars were scattered throughout the kitchen and living room, some with tubes coming out of them. Prescription bottles were stacked on a small table, most of them empty. There were boxes of clothes and pots and pans and a large-screen TV that looked like it was about to topple off its rickety stand. Ruby had never seen such a mess.

  “I’ll tell you what,” Liz said to Kelly, “if she’s got that much cash on her, there’s more where that came from.”

  Ruby muttered, “I don’t know what you’re going to do with the money, but you might want to think about hiring a maid.”

  Liz ignored her. “You can tell she’s loaded. Not by the car or how she’s dressed, but I can smell the money. Sometimes that’s the dead giveaway—rich people try to look like they’re not.”

  “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ruby said.

  Kelly opened the screen door and flicked his cigarette out and lit another. “This gets us into a whole different level, Liz. It’s one thing to . . .” He waved his hand around the room. “But it’s another to kidnap somebody.”

  “We didn’t kidnap anybody. We helped an old woman.”

  “You stole my money,” Ruby said.

  “Shut up!” Liz said, and Ruby could tell she meant it. “The police aren’t going to bother with some old woman lost in the woods. Besides, nobody saw us.”

  “I think somebody’s going to come looking for her.”

  “And how are they going to know where she is?”

  Ruby sat up straight. “That fellow at the gas station will remember me.”

  “I’ve had enough,” Liz said, grabbing a roll of duct tape and unraveling a long strip. “Hold out your hands.”

  Ruby held her arms out, her right wrist shaking. It was turning black-and-blue and was twisted slightly to the side. “My arm’s hurt. I need a doctor.”

  Liz wrapped the tape around her arms tightly, then ripped off another strip.

  “I need a drink of water,” Ruby said.

  “Only water you’re going to get is when we toss you into the bottom of a well. Now shut up.” She stuck the tape over Ruby’s mouth.

  Ruby tried to talk but the tape was on too tight. It was hard to breathe, too, and she tried to say that but all they heard were her mumbling groans.

  “I say we take her out back and hit her in the head with a shovel,” Liz said. “That’ll keep her quiet.”

  Ruby’s eyes grew wide and she wondered if they had done that kind of thing before.

  “She’s right about the gas station,” Kelly said. “They might have cameras. All it takes is one by the cash register. Or outside at the pumps.”

  “Did you see a camera?”

  “No, but I wasn’t looking for one. If they were there, somebody will see us. I’m telling you, this is bad news.”

  “We helped her with her gas cap.”

  Ruby mumbled.

  “I did what you told me when she went inside. Screwed it on too tight, remember? The camera catches that and it shows we set her up. This is not good.”

  “It’s a fine time for you to grow a conscience.”

  The dog barked viciously and Kelly kicked the screen door open and walked outside. He came back with Ruby’s purse.

  “What was he barking at?” Liz said.

  “Squirrel, I reckon.”

  Kelly tossed the purse to Liz and she dumped the contents on the end of the couch. “Look what we have here. A cell phone.” She flipped it open. “Too bad there’s no service.” Liz scrolled through the contact list. “Lady, either you got no friends in the world or you never use this thing.” She opened the back of the phone and removed the battery and tossed it back in the purse. “No matter what, we can’t let her talk. That’s clear as day.”

  Kelly pulled the hair away from his face. “What do you mean?”

  “Well, if you’re so scared, we can get Carl. He owes us. He’ll take care of her and give us something for the car. Then we’d be free and clear.”

  Kelly looked at her like she had two heads. “Carl? You want to give her to Carl? And you think when they find her and then trace her back to Carl, he’s going to be quiet? He’s not going to say how he found her?”

  Liz rubbed the back of her hand across her nose. “I can’t believe you’re talking like this. We got a gold mine sitting right here. We got cash and a credit card. And if I’m right, there’s probably somebody in Kentucky who’d pay a pretty penny to get their mama back.” She looked at Ruby. “Ain’t that right, old woman?”

  Ruby scowled.

  Liz sidled up to Kelly and put her arms on his shoulders. “You and me could take a vacation. Find someplace nice to stay. Maybe turn the cash we got into more. Know what I mean?”

  Kelly smiled. “I could go for a vacation. But what about her?”

  Liz rolled her eyes and kicked at the screen door. She turned to Ruby and pointed a bony finger. “Stay there. You try to get up and I’ll duct-tape your legs.”

  The two went through Ruby’s car. What unnerved Ruby the most wasn’t the yelling. It was when they got quiet and Liz talked to Kelly sweetly that made her think there was more trouble ahead.

  Ruby’s lips were parched and her tongue swollen, she guessed from all the fluids rushing to her broken wrist. The dryness and arm pain were only eclipsed by the feeling she got listening to the music Kelly and Liz played. Every drumbeat and pluck of the bass guitar was a thump to her already-taxed aorta. Theirs was music you didn’t just hear, you felt down to the joints and marrow. The songs shook the walls and the metal roof of the trailer. She liked her Southern gospel loud, of course, but this was not “I’ll Fly Away” or “Mansion over the Hilltop.”

  When the two came back to the trailer after going through her car, Ruby looked into their eyes. She had always believed the eyes were the windows to the soul, but if that were true, theirs needed a bucket of Windex. Both were dirty brown and cloudy. There was a hint that Kelly had convinced Liz not to harm Ruby more because Kelly called her “ma’am” when he spoke again. Ruby grunted loud enough for Kelly to pull the duct tape off her mouth. She told them her lips were as parched as the Sahara and when they didn’t give her anything to drink, Ruby became agitated. She demanded they let her go because she didn’t like driving in the dark. That’s when Liz turned on her and ordered Kelly to put her in the bedroom.

  Kelly helped Ruby to her feet and stared at her wrist.

  “I think it’s broke,” he said to Liz. “It’s puffed up and black-and-blue.”

  “Put her in the bedroom,” Liz said again with a flick of the hand as though Ruby were no more than a stick of furniture that needed to be hauled away. Something they should’ve done with the furniture in their trailer—it all needed to be burnt, Ruby thought.

  Kelly led her to a bare twin mattress that rested on a piece of plywood on top of cinder blocks. The mattress was stained with something brown at the bottom and she didn’t want to think of the last person who had fallen asleep here or where they might be buried. She sat, her arms still secured with the duct tape, on the opposite end from the stain. Ruby wondered what kind of mark the tape would
leave when it was taken off. But maybe no one would ever see it anyway. The rain would make digging a hole in the wet ground much easier.

  “You stay right here,” Kelly said.

  “Can you take this off?” Ruby said softly, nodding at the duct tape on her wrists.

  “No, just lay back. Try to rest.”

  “Have you ever tried to rest with your arms in this position? I’m an old woman. I’ve got a cramp.”

  Kelly frowned, then pulled out a pocketknife and cut the tape. Ruby yelped when he ripped the piece off her bad wrist. He leaned down and whispered, “Now you’ll stop complaining if you know what’s good for you.”

  What was good for her now was a lot different than she’d thought twenty-four hours earlier. What was good then was a clandestine trip, without the constraints of her children’s knowledge, to see the place she had seen in her dreams for more than seventy years. What seemed good was to finally tell herself the truth about what had happened, even though she could not tell another living soul that truth.

  Kelly closed the door and Ruby stayed seated out of defiance. If she lay back, she might fall asleep because she was exhausted and her wrist ached. She wanted to elevate it, but there wasn’t a pillow and she didn’t dare ask for anything. She let her eyes adjust to the room’s darkness, lit only by the security light that shone through the window. In the corner was a guitar with a broken neck, held together by rusted strings. She pondered the circumstances of that musical mishap until something gray with a long tail moved beside the guitar. Then she closed her eyes and picked up her feet, putting them on the mattress.

  She stared at the window, calculating its height and width and how far the fall would be if she got it open. She would have to climb onto the mattress and lean forward to get her arms out and then let gravity do the rest. Perhaps the rat in the corner would jump at her and that would give her the extra oomph to get over the sill.

  Just as she thought she would die of thirst, the door opened and Liz walked in with a mug. She held it out without making eye contact. “You said you was thirsty. Drink this.”


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