CHAPTER SIX HUNDRED and SIXTY-FOUR
Sunday early morning — 5:15 a.m.
“Ava!” Valerie said as she came around the corner from the stairs and into the kitchen.
Ava O’Malley was sitting with her forehead on the kitchen table. She raised a hand and waved at Valerie.
“Are you okay?” Valerie asked.
Without lifting her head, Ava nodded against the table. Valerie empathetically touched Ava’s back as she passed to the kitchen. Valerie turned on the coffee pot. She checked the electric kettle for water. Finding it full, she turned it one. She went into the deep closet they used as a pantry and returned with a tin. She went around and set the tin in front of Ava.
“What is it?” Ava said, still not lifting her head.
“Breakfast cookies,” Valerie said. “They are my favorite. Sandy makes them for me and Jill — well, any adult who’s not eating Cap’n Crunch.”
When Ava didn’t move, Valerie opened the lit of the tin. She took out a cookie and set it in Ava’s hand. Ava shifted to look at Valerie.
“You’ll feel better,” Valerie said.
Ava grunted, but didn’t put her head down again. She took a bite of the cookie.
“These are really good,” Ava said.
“They are,” Valerie said. “I take them with me when I leave. They make for fast and easy mornings.”
Valerie poured a cup of coffee from the still filling pot.
“I think Maresol is coming here to make heuvos rancheros,” Ava said. “At least that’s what she said last night. I left before she was awake.”
Valerie set the coffee in front of Ava and brought her the cream. Ava ate her cookie and drank her coffee while Valerie made two pots of tea.
“What’s going on?” Valerie asked.
“I love Harvest Day,” Ava said. “It’s so fun to see everyone working and laughing. You make great food. I mean, like this morning, Maresol is making everyone breakfast from beans you grew, eggs the chickens made. . .”
“Corn tortillas she made yesterday from that huge corn crop at Mr. Matchel’s,” Valerie said.
“It’s like magic,” Ava said. She sighed. “I haven’t been able to participate because of this stupid detective.”
“Stone?” Valerie asked.
“She called me at four this morning,” Ava said. “Woke me up. Yelled at me for twenty minutes.”
Ava shook her head.
“You wouldn’t believe what she said,” Ava said. “I’m a spoiled, stupid, corrupt employee of an incompetent lab and. . .”
“She said worse things about Seth,” Ava said, nodding.
“How can anyone hate Seth O’Malley?” Valerie asked. She shook her head. “The woman is clearly deranged.”
“I rushed over here so that I could start,” Ava said. “Walk her through what we’ve done.”
“Stone said she’d be here?” Valerie asked.
“What a cow,” Valerie said.
“I’ve been sitting here for more than an hour,” Ava said. “Who’s stupider? Stone? Or me, for doing what she told me to do?”
“Well, I’m glad for your company,” Valerie said. “Mike’s in the shower. The kids are mostly sleeping. Even Grace.”
“The newest baby?” Ava asked.
“Everyone is worn out by all of the Harvest Day activities,” Valerie said. “I need to get my big pots going so that we can make more soup today. Jake’s going to be canning outside today.”
“Sounds fun,” Ava said.
“You can help me,” Valerie said. “Unless you just want to sit there and be mad.”
“Nope,” Ava said. “I’m over it. What do you need?”
“What I really need help with is the jars,” Valerie said. “We have them, and certainly we clean them, but they aren’t always clean enough to can with. It takes a real eye to see the imperfections in the glass or lids or. . .”
“Sounds like something I can do,” Ava said. “Where are they?”
“I’ll show you,” Valerie said, with a grin. “Jake brought them up from the basement but there was no space here so we put them. . .”
Valerie went to the wall behind the kitchen table. She pressed on the wood panel and it opened to show deep shelves.
“Jake said that he used a few apartments to make this space,” Ava said.
“I think that this was an original part of the apartment, but. . .” Valerie shrugged. “It’s all a little hard to track. You’d have to see the plans and even then. . .”
“He’s really good at this stuff,” Ava said.
“Weird, isn’t it?” Valerie nodded. “You know who’s as good or better?”
Ava shook her head.
“Jill,” Valerie said. “She can see things in her head that. . . It’s really amazing. Have you seen the place across the street?”
“They invited me but I’ve been crawling around in the dust,” Ava said.
“Right,” Valerie said. “Who’d want to give up grime?”
“Exactly,” Ava grinned.
Valerie moved away. Ava started hauling box after box of glass canning jars and set them on the kitchen table. Valerie set another cup of coffee on the table for Ava. Feeling better, Ava started to check the jars. Some were dusty. Some had breaks. But most of them were ready to be used.
“Oh great!” Jill said, seeing Ava and the jars lined up on the table. “If I bring you some Italian tomato sauce, could you put it in the jars? You don’t have to do the lids. I just need to get the. . .”
The sound of a weeping baby reached them.
“I’ll send Jake down with it,” Jill said, running up the stairs. “Thanks!”
“We made it from tomatoes on Friday,” Valerie said. “They’ve been cooking it down in their kitchen.”
“What is it?” Ava asked.
“Sauce for pizza, spaghetti, bruschetta,” Valerie said. “Sandy has. . .”
“Oh great,” Sandy said coming into the kitchen. “Would you mind if I brought you some tortilla soup? Val and Maresol made it on Friday. We’ve been cooking it down.”
Ava nodded. Sandy grinned.
“We have to clear the stove top for today’s baking,” Sandy said.
“What’s today?” Ava asked.
“Chicken noodle,” Valerie said. “Stewed tomatoes, vegetable soup, pickles, and. . .”
“Pies,” Sandy said. “We’re making pies in my apartment. If you’d like to come and hang out, you’re welcome.”
“I have to crawl around in the dirt,” Ava said with a sigh.
“Sorry,” Sandy said. “Did you ever figure out why that horrible woman is so obsessed?”
“Her mother was killed here,” Delphie said entering the kitchen.
“Is that it?” Ava asked.
“There’s no excuse for her to be so horrible though,” Delphie said.
“She called me this morning and. . .” Ava shook her head. “We’ve found seven remains and the labs are working.”
“You haven’t found where her mother was killed,” Delphie said.
“Probably,” Ava said. “It makes sense why she would be so insistent if it was her own mother.”
“Still,” Valerie said. “No one should be so mean to our Ava.”
Valerie looked at Delphie and Sandy.
“Ava was deflated when I came down stairs,” Valerie said.
“I’m so sorry,” Sandy said. She hugged Ava. “You sure you’re up to this?”
“Absolutely,” Ava said nodding.
“Great,” Sandy said.
Sandy put her fingers to her mouth and blew a loud whistle. Teddy came in with a large pot of soup followed by Nash and Charlie, each carrying a full pot of soup.
“You can set them here,” Valerie said. “Ava, can you move some of the jars?”
Ava and Delphie moved enough glass canning jars off the kitchen table so that the boys could put down their three pots of spicy delicious tortilla soup.
“That’s a lot of soup,” Ava said.
“We go through it,” Valerie said. “Especially this one.”
“It’s really good,” Nash said. “We make it vegetarian so that everyone can eat it.”
“The meat eaters add whatever they want,” Charlie said. “You should try it.”
“What will happen with the jars when they’re filled?” Ava asked.
“I’ll start canning them outside,” Jacob said. He was carrying a large pot full of tomato sauce. “Where should I. . .”
Valerie pointed to the kitchen counter.
“Great,” Jacob said. He set the large pot down. Turning to Ava, he said, “Let me get this set up and I’ll show you the last site. It’s a mess. I wasn’t sure what to do with it so I boarded it up.”
“Mess?” Ava asked.
“Two,” Valerie set a two cup measuring cup in front of Ava.
Ava nodded to Valerie.
“You’ll see,” Jacob said. “I probably need an hour.”
“That’s okay,” Ava said. “Detective Stone ordered me to meet her here at 4:30 am.”
“She’s not coming,” Delphie said.
“Clearly,” Ava said. “Anyway, I have this. The team will be here in a bit. We can help out until you’re ready, Jake.”
Jacob nodded and ran back upstairs for another pot of sauce.
Ava got to work. With her laboratory science skills and her two cup measuring cup, she filled the jars. She write “Italian” on a sheet of paper and set the jars on top of it. Valerie started cleaning the tops and putting the canning lids on top. A half hour or so later, Ava’s team arrived. They helped put the soup and the tomato sauce into jars. Fran took over the cleaning so that Valerie just put the lids on top.
When Jacob returned, he talked Nelson into helping him carry the full jars out to the deck. Jacob set up three propane burners with three large pressure canners.
Ava was on her third cup of coffee when Detective Stone’s partner arrived. And Ava and her team grabbed Jacob and got to work.
Sunday morning — 8:05 a.m.
Alex Hargreaves jumped out of the truck and turned around to help her twins, Joey and Máire, out of the back. Her husband, John Drayson, got out of the driver’s seat and went around to the back.
They were in charge of getting the school gardens ready for all of the children and their parents to come harvest the vegetables. The gardens were large and the growing year had been successful. They had a lot of food to get picked, stacked, and moved to the Castle where two teams of students and parents were cooking in the driveway.
It was also a big event for the Marlowe School. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the children spent more time outdoors while their rooms were cleaned and the UV lights were on. This garden was a source of pride and joy for not only the children but teachers and parents, too.
Every class had their own garden. Every student had planted or weeded or watered. And now, finally, everything was ready to harvest.
Of course, Delphie already had crops planned for the fall and winter garden here. That meant that after everything was harvested, another group of students and parents would help to plant winter foods while still another group set up tubes and plastic covering to create mini-greenhouses for when winter came.
Alex, John, and their twins were there to get everything started. They had practical experience in harvesting since, prior to the pandemic, they returned to Afghanistan every year to help with harvesting in the entire valley inherited by the twins from their biological parents.
Another pickup truck pulled up beside theirs. Alex’s identical twin, Max, his partner, Wyatt, and their two boys — Chase and Beau — were there to help get everything started. John and Max went to open the large metal storage container with everything “garden” in it. Alex and Wyatt were taking down the temporary fences to allow open access to the garden today.
“Hello?” a woman’s accented voice came from the edge of the garden.
Alex turned to look at the woman. She was small in stature and thin. She wore a runner’s outfit — tights with a skirt over them, long sleeved shirt, and a sport hijab with an exercise face mask.
"As-Salam-u-Alaikum" Alex said.
“I am looking for. . .” the woman continued in Arabic.
“Yes,” Alex looked at Wyatt. He nodded and continued with the fencing. Pulling a face mask from her pocket, Alex walked toward the woman. Alex had her face mask on by the time they were close. Alex stopped six feet from the woman.
“How can I help?” Alex asked in Arabic.
“Uh,” she said. “Now I just feel dumb.”
“Why would that be?” Alex asked.
Alex smiled hoping that the woman felt less anxious, only to realize that the woman couldn’t see her smile behind the facemask.
“Oh, yes. Well. . .” The woman looked away and then back at Alex. “My mother called me early this morning. I was on call last night. I’m a veterinary at the vet hospital.”
The woman waved toward the north.
“What did your mother say?” Alex asked.
“She said that the head of our tribe would be here, in this lot, today, and that I should come to meet them,” the woman said. “I must ‘Let everyone know that they are here so that everyone could meet them.’”
“You’re from Afghanistan,” Alex said.
The woman nodded.
“Are you a member of. . .” Alex said the name of the Afghan tribe.
“I moved here to go to school and then stayed,” the woman said. “I like it here in Denver.”
“I’m Alex Hargreaves,” she said, in the hope that the woman would introduce herself in return.
Gasping, the woman reeled back.
“Should I bow?” the woman asked. “I think I should kneel or. . .”
“Please,” Alex said.
“You have no idea what you’ve done for our people, our family,” the woman said. “I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t let my brother move to the land. My mother’s mother along with my mother and father live with them, now. Our parents have had a difficult life and left the valley for work.”
“They wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t,” Alex said, referring to the fact that everyone in the valley had been murdered. Joey and Máire’s mother had managed to escape, but she did not survive after the birth of her twins.
The woman nodded.
“So we’re kin,” Alex said.
“I am Asal Noor,” she said with a nod.
“Maman?” Alex’s daughter, Máire, ran up.
“Wafa?” The woman said Máire’s Afghan name.
Grabbing Alex’s hand, Máire gave the woman a confused look.
“This is Asal,” Alex said. “She is your cousin.”
“Nice to meet you, Cousin Asal,” Máire said in Arabic.
“Your Arabic is beautiful,” Asal said with a nod. “I’m so glad that I came. Would you mind if I take a photo with you and Amir?”
Amir was Alex’s twin Joey’s Afghan name. Máire looked up at her mother.
“My mother is missing you this year,” Asal said. “She will be delighted to see how big you’ve grown over the last year.”
“Grandmother Noor is your mother?” Máire asked. “Great-grandmother Noor is your grandmother?”
Asal nodded. Maire grinned at Asal.
“They have the best bees,” Máire said. “Biggest hives. Best honey.”
“That’s my grandmother,” Asal said. “She loves bees.”
“We were just saying that we hoped to get honey this year,” Alex said.
Joey ran up to see what was going on. He stopped short when he saw the woman.
“You’re Grandmother Noor’s daughter,” Joey said. “I recognize you from her photographs.”
With this simple words, Asal began to cry. The children looked at Alex, and she nodded to them. Máire and Joey hugged Asal. And Asal hugged them back.
After a moment, the children pulled back and returned to holding Alex’s hands.
“You said that you’ve were on call last night,” Alex said. “You must be exhausted. We’re going to be here all day. We have a lot to harvest. You can head home to rest and return in the afternoon.”
“May I take a photo first?” Asal asked.
“Of course,” Alex said. She nudged her twins forward. “Why don’t I take it?”
Asal nodded and gave Alex her cellphone. Joey and Máire stood on either side of their newly found cousin. Alex gestured for her kids to pull down their face masks. Then, Alex took a few shots with Asal’s cellphone. The twins put their facemasks back on and ran off to be with Chase and Beau.
“Do you need help?” Asal asked.
“We have a lot of people coming,” Alex said.
“We will come.” Asal said with a nod. She gave the children one last look and started running again.
Not sure what that meant, Alex watched the woman run off.
Although there was a large Afghan community in Denver, Alex and her twins rarely had contact with them. She wasn’t sure why they never saw the twins family members. She’d assumed that people were as busy as they were. Watching Asal run off, Alex wondered if there might be more to it than sheer busyness. Shrugging to herself, Alex went to help to get the site ready for harvest day.
Denver Cereal continues next week...
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