The already dim glow from the overhead lights didn’t quite make it to where the tanks stood, so I pressed the button on the flashlight with my thumb, pointing it into the corner and then gliding it along the wall.
I leaned down, shining my light at the base of the first tank. The pilot lights were on. The thermostats were turned all the way down. “What the . . . ?”
Something creaked behind me, and I froze, waiting for another noise. Nothing. I turned the dial on the first tank and then the next.
Gravel softly scratched the concrete floor.
“Who’s there?” I asked, shining my flashlight.
I jumped and yelped, covering my mouth. Mama slowly turned to face me, standing on her bare feet, looking pale and angry. Her fingers pinched and twisted the same section of her thin cotton nightgown over and over.
“What are you doing down here?” I asked.
The anger on her face melted away, and she peered around the basement, seeming confused. “I was looking for something.”
“Were you trying to fix the tanks?” I asked. I bent down, shining the flashlight on the controls, rotating the rest of the dials. “Mama,” I said, peering up at her, “did you do this?”
She just stared at me, looking lost.
“Did you do that to the thermostat upstairs, too? We have a guest. Why would you . . .”
She touched her chest. “Me? I didn’t do this. Someone is trying to sabotage us. Someone wants the Juniper to close down.”
The pilot lights were brighter, one after another igniting the flames beneath, causing a low humming to come from the tanks. I stood, exasperated. “Who, Mama? Who would care enough about our failing bed and breakfast to sabotage it?”
“It’s not about the bed and breakfast. Don’t you see? It’s what we’re trying to do here! We’re being watched, Catherine. I think . . . I think it’s . . .”
“I think it’s your father.”
My face metamorphosed from annoyance to rage. “Don’t say that.”
“I’ve suspected for months.”
“Mama, it’s not him.”
“He’s been sneaking in here, changing things, scaring our guests away. He never wanted this bed and breakfast. He doesn’t like our guests. He doesn’t want them around you.”
“Mama . . .”
“He left us, Catherine. He left us, and now he’s trying to ruin us!”
“Mama, stop! He didn’t leave us. He’s dead!”
Mama’s wet eyes met mine. It took her a long time to speak, and when she did, her voice was broken. “You’re so cruel, Catherine.” She turned and climbed the steps, shutting the door behind her.
Each class was a blur. The teachers spoke, and I pretended to listen, but my head was swarming with worry and foggy from sleep deprivation. Mr. Heitmeyer would not be back to the Juniper, and part of me hoped no one else would come.
The clouds outside were low and gray. I stared outside, watching school buses and cars pass, their tires sloshing through the rivers that were lining the streets. The forecast called for freezing rain by noon, and everyone was out trying to buy bread and milk and fill their gas tanks as if one loaf of bread and one tank of gas was the difference between life and death.
The last ten minutes before lunch, I sat with my chin in my hand, blinking to keep my heavy eyes from staying closed. Each minute felt like an hour, and by the time the bell rang, I felt too tired to move.
“Catherine?” Mrs. Faust said, her carrot-colored hair sticking up in places like she’d taken a nap between classes and forgotten to comb it.