Their teens, Claire and Phillip, pulled off their earphones and stared at the barren corn stubble landscape. “Not even a gas station or convenience store,” Claire said. “Tell me again why we’re celebrating Thanksgiving in the middle of nowhere.”
“Glenda’s mother is critically ill, and Glenda knows this is Granny’s last Thanksgiving at the family farm,” Lizzie said. “People handle grief differently. If she wants to invite her daughter’s soccer team for Thanksgiving dinner, I’ll accommodate her request, including making pumpkin pies from Granny’s sugar pumpkins.”
“It’s not like Caitlyn’s on the team,” Claire said. “She’s second-string goalie for the tournament this weekend.”
“Please be kind,” Lizzie said. “I’ve put my time in during practice listening to Glenda, who told me Caitlyn was thrilled to be a guest player. Your team is desperate for a backup goalie, so the team mothers were especially welcoming. Several families will attend today’s gathering.”
“Mom, we read the email Glenda sent. Have you ever eaten deep-fried turkey?” Claire asked.
“Life is full of culinary adventures, except for my pies.” Lizzie positioned her feet next to the baskets containing her apple and pumpkin pies.
“Glenda’s menu included frog eye salad,” Phillip said. “Something witches eat?”
“Jell-O salad with maraschino cherries and whipped topping, a fifties staple at every Thanksgiving table,” Lizzie said. “I had to Google it.”
“Flying pumpkins?” Claire asked. “It almost hit us.”
“Punkin chunkin,” Lizzie said. “Shooting pumpkins with catapults or pneumatic cannons. Glenda gave me an earful one evening. It’s a popular activity at this time of year.”
“Think they’re shooting at us?” Phillip asked. Another boom rattled the windows as Lizzie’s phone app announced their destination.
Nick swerved on the rutted gravel driveway and approached a ramshackle nineteenth-century farmhouse. Set next to a windbreak of spruce trees, the house had broken windows, shutters hanging by a nail, and a sagging roof. Lizzie wondered whether Granny or the house would die first.
After Nick parked near the barn, Lizzie climbed out of the van with her pie baskets. Glenda, clad in her usual flannel shirt and jeans, placed the lids on her turkey fryers before she checked Lizzie’s pies. Opening the baskets, she carefully inspected the baked goods. “Your apple pies look fine. I like the egg wash and sugar sprinkled on the top crust.” Glenda sniffed one of the pumpkin pies. “Did you use Granny’s sugar pumpkins and recipe?”
“Yes, I did.” Lizzie hid a smile. “I added a surprise ingredient to the pumpkin filling. I’m sure you’ll recognize it.”
After Lizzie’s pies had passed muster with Glenda, she put them on a long table in the barn and offered to assist with the turkey frying.
“Turns out I don’t need or want your help,” Glenda said. “Caitlyn’s shooting pumpkins down the road. She should be home soon.”
Lizzie asked if they could pay their respects to Granny before the other soccer families arrived.
Glenda grunted a response. “Suit yourself. She’s in the bedroom at the front of the house.”
Lizzie joined Nick and the kids. “We’ve got some time to kill. Let’s say hello to Granny before we explore the farm.”
They climbed the rotting wooden steps to the back door, and entered a kitchen last updated in the sixties with copper-toned appliances and butterscotch plaid linoleum. While Lizzie led her family down the hall toward the front door, another boom rattled the windows. “Still at it chucking pumpkins,” Lizzie said. “Poor Granny. I’m sure she doesn’t appreciate the noise.”
Lizzie gingerly tested each step on the staircase, clinging to a wall of peeling wallpaper to avoid the sagging bannisters. The floor above them creaked, and a shadow flitted across the hall.
“Mom, what’s that?” Claire asked, clutching Lizzie’s jacket.
“Probably a bird flew through one of the broken windows.” Lizzie could see her breath as she exhaled, the second floor noticeably colder than the first. After she stepped into the upstairs hall, she pulled on her gloves and zipped up her jacket. “This way.” She pointed down the hall.
Lizzie pushed open the bedroom door at the front of the house. The double-sash windows hung wide open, the dingy tieback curtains flapping in the breeze. Granny, propped on pillows in the four-poster bed, wore a ragged bed jacket trimmed with pink ribbons, her teeth in a plastic cup next to her eyeglasses on the nightstand.
Nick pulled the windows closed as Lizzie approached the bed. “Hello, Granny, happy Thanksgiving.”
Granny lay still, her eyes half-open and her toothless mouth agape. Nick covered his hand with a tissue before he took Granny’s carotid pulse and checked her pupils. Pulling Lizzie away from the bed, he said, “She’s gone, maybe no more than an hour. Petechiae in her eyes indicates asphyxia.”
Lizzie swallowed a sob. “Not on Thanksgiving Day. Poor Glenda.”
Nick pulled back the covers tucked tightly around Granny’s body and discovered the ring finger on her left hand missing. He clicked on his cell phone flashlight and checked the blood-free stump, tendons and bones visible. “Severed post-mortem. I have a bad feeling about Granny’s demise.”
Dizzy and short of breath, Lizzie stepped back and considered the situation, wondering why Granny’s digit had been removed. Probably not to open a fingerprint-activated computer or cell phone. The obvious answer was a ring, perhaps her engagement ring. She checked her cell phone. No bars.
She motioned Nick into the hallway, where the kids waited. Lizzie put her arms around them and murmured, “Granny’s dead, maybe in the last hour. We need to tell Glenda and find a place with cell reception to call for help.”
Claire and Phillip nodded, wide-eyed. “Poor Caitlyn,” Claire said. “It’s tough to lose a grandma.”
Nick tapped Lizzie’s shoulder. “Can we leave you here with Granny? I’ll tell Glenda, who might want a few minutes with her mother.”
“Or not, if Glenda smothered Granny and cut off her finger,” Lizzie said. “Anybody seen Caitlyn?”
As another boom rocked the house, plaster dust cascaded from the hall ceiling. “On second thought, I’ll wait downstairs.” Lizzie ushered her family ahead of her, stopping at the head of the stairs. Floorboards creaked nearby. “Hold up, everybody. I’m going to check the other rooms.”
Lizzie stepped into each bedroom, kneeling to look under the beds before she investigated the built-in wardrobes. Holding her breath, she yanked the bathroom shower curtain aside. She exhaled down to her toes, the rust-stained tub empty.
Nick joined her when she opened the door to the attic. “Think someone’s up here?”
Lizzie nodded and mounted the attic stairs, testing each tread before she put her weight on it. Sensing someone lying in wait for her at the top, she crooked her arm over her face, holding her cell phone flashlight high. Nick’s hand on her shoulder and steady breathing gave her a sense of security. They reached the attic, filled with broken windows, empty bird nests, and a large paper wasp nest. “Ugh, don’t bang into the wasp nest,” Lizzie said.
Caitlyn sat in an antique rocking chair with a cane seat and back, her team jacket zipped to her chin. She embraced a large sugar pumpkin and set the chair in motion.
Lizzie approached her. “Hello, Caitlyn. I’m sorry about Granny. Did you find her?”
Caitlyn chewed on the end of her braid and nodded, humming to herself.
“Does Glenda know?”
Caitlyn shook her head.
Lizzie held out her hand. “Please come with me. We should tell Glenda.”
Ignoring her, Caitlyn cradled the pumpkin and continued to rock.
Lizzie, exasperated, snapped at her. “Caitlyn, now. We need to phone the county sheriff and EMS.” She picked up the pumpkin and handed it to Nick, then pulled Caitlyn out of the chair. “Do you have a landline?”
Caitlyn shook her head.
“Does Glenda have a sat phone?”
“What’s that?” Caitlyn gazed at her, alert, with bright eyes.
“Never mind. Let’s find Glenda and give her the sad news.”
Lizzie put her hand under Caitlyn’s arm and escorted her outside to find Glenda, still huddled over the turkey fryers in front of the barn.
Caitlyn took her pumpkin from Nick and wandered away.
“Glenda, we have sad news,” Lizzie said. “Granny passed not long ago. Could I help with the turkeys while you say good-bye?”
“No need. It’s a relief Granny’s gone.” Glenda pulled out a cell phone. “I’ll call the funeral home for a pickup.”
“Does your cell phone work out here?” Lizzie asked.
“I use the only service that gets reception.”
“Granny’s death is suspicious,” Nick said. “We’ll need to call the county sheriff.”
“Forget it. I don’t need the sheriff poking around my house.”
“Glenda, it’s the law,” Nick said.
“Says who?” Glenda stood, hands on broad hips. “I don’t care for your tone.”
“I’m a physician. I suspect Granny’s death was not due to natural causes.”
“Get off my property. You had no right to touch Granny. You must have killed her yourself.”
“Glenda, I did no such thing,” Nick said. “Granny’s death was probably due to asphyxiation, after she was smothered with something like a pillow and before someone severed her left ring finger.”
“What?” Glenda’s face flushed crimson. “The ring’s gone?” She dropped her cooking fork. “Where’s Caitlyn?”
“She went to shoot some more pumpkins,” Claire said, “Including the one she carried outside.”
“She didn’t,” Glenda roared, pulling car keys out of her jacket pocket.
“Didn’t do what?” Lizzie asked.
“That child wields a mean hacksaw,” Glenda said. “If Granny lost a finger, Granny also lost the art deco diamond ring on her finger. We tried everything to get the ring off and nothing worked.”
“Baby oil usually does the trick,” Lizzie said.
Glenda snorted. “You’d be the one to know.”
“You’d better hurry,” Claire said. “If the finger and ring are in the pumpkin, she’s about to shoot it sky high.”
“And watch it shatter when it hits the ground,” Phillip said.
Nick held his hand. “Give me your cell phone. It’s time to call the sheriff.”
Glenda lifted the lid on the turkey fryer and started to slip the cell phone inside.
“Oh, no, you don’t.” Lizzie grabbed Glenda’s hand and forced her to drop the phone.
With another boom, the launcher in a nearby field hurled another pumpkin, which exploded mid-air.
“Not Granny’s ring!” Glenda shrieked. Lizzie tackled her, and Glenda dropped to the ground.
“What about poor Granny’s life?” Enraged, Lizzie sat on Glenda’s back, tempted to punch her. “Got her phone?” She asked Nick.
Nick tapped 9-1-1 and requested immediate assistance from the sheriff’s department. After clicking off the phone, he pulled a tissue-wrapped object out of his pocket. “I checked Caitlyn’s pumpkin before I returned it to her.” Nick unwrapped the tissue, revealing a thin, white finger wearing a large art deco ring studded with many small diamonds glittering in the fading sunlight.
Lizzie continued to sit on Glenda. “Nick, did you spot a hacksaw upstairs?”
“On the attic floor near the rocking chair,” Nick said. “I’ll tell the sheriff.”
“Here comes Caitlyn,” Claire said. “Should we grab her?”
“Caitlyn’s shot her last pumpkin,” Lizzie said. “She knows it’s over.”
As sirens sounded across the empty fields, a line of soccer team vans drove up the driveway. Caitlyn slumped to the ground next to her mother.