First runner-up…that means you lost.
Ashley Giraud parked her rental car, a conspicuous Victory Red Chevrolet Impala, in the long line by the curb and turned off her headlights. Before she could move, her car door was opened by Donald Weber, a classmate from twenty-four years ago at Adams County High School and the current mayor of tiny Maple Ridge, Missouri, population 2,833. She had tried all day to shake Donald, but he seemed determined to serve as her escort.Gallantly removing his suede fedora, he extended an arm. “Miss Muldoon would have been pleased at such a beautiful day, don’t you reckon? They say she never stepped foot out of her house when it rained or snowed.”
“A lovely day for sure, Donald.”
Cool, crisp autumns were one thing—perhaps the only thing—Ashley missed about Missouri. Tampa had weather like this, but only for a few days in January and never with the color that was sprinkled throughout the trees of Maple Ridge. Donald was right. Cassandra certainly would have come out on a day like this.
With her arm hooked through Donald’s elbow, she leaned forward slightly so the heels of her pumps wouldn’t sink into the soft ground as she walked among the headstones to the canvas tent erected by Taylor and Sons Funeral Home.
Cassandra’s cherry casket sat before two rows of folding chairs that held her family, including her elderly father, who had to be well into his nineties. More than a hundred townspeople had followed from the church to say their final farewell at the cemetery. No one had expected to bury Maple Ridge’s most illustrious citizen at only sixty-seven years old.
“And Jesus said…”
The Muldoons were Baptists, and it was their pastor who led the service. Cassandra herself had never been much for church, since her reluctance to get out in bad weather precluded perfect attendance. The only thing worse than not going to church at all, she said, was going only sometimes because people would notice your lapses. In fact, Cassandra didn’t do much of anything if she couldn’t do it perfectly.
Better to be forgotten than remembered for your deficiencies.
“…and we deliver our sister Cassandra unto you…”
From the sunny periphery, Ashley stared at the elegant casket’s fine grain and brass handles, trying to imagine the lining inside, probably satin. Cassandra would have preferred cotton sateen, since she abhorred polyester. At least she would have been glad for the closed cover, even had her death not come in a horrid fire that swept through her house in the night. The idea of someone else applying her makeup might have brought her back from the dead.
Two-thirds of the people in attendance were women of various ages. Judging by their posture, makeup and elegant dress, many had been students at the Muldoon Pageant Class, Cassandra’s afternoon program to train young ladies for potential careers on the beauty pageant circuit. Ashley recognized a few who won the title of Miss Adams County, but only she had equaled Cassandra’s feat of winning the Miss Missouri crown. Ashley then bested her with third runner-up in the Miss America contest, earning a scholarship to the University of Missouri in Columbia, where she had majored in broadcast journalism.
Noticeably absent from the mourners was Lori Spearman, who had left Maple Ridge not long after Ashley to marry Matt Hodges, the slugging third baseman for the Kansas City Royals. Lori was two years older than she and had always been one of Cassandra’s favorites.
With a final prayer the service came to an end, and the somber crowd seemed to heave a collective sigh of closure. Ashley stepped under the tent as the family filed out, determined to say her own private goodbye.
It wasn’t to be. Donald turned up at her side again like a bad penny. “Such a tragedy. They say she died right there in her bed, like she never even knew the house was on fire.” Lowering his voice, he added, “Not that I’m gossiping or anything, but her sister said she got so she sipped the sherry a little too much, if you know what I mean. Arthritis and all…the poor woman.”
Not that he was gossiping or anything. Ashley remembered how Cassandra would take a single cordial into her parlor each night after dinner.
A proper lady never drinks more than one.
“Now that Miss Muldoon is gone, that makes you our most prominent citizen…you and Lori Spearman, that is. She comes back to Maple Ridge to see her folks every now and then, and people get all excited about seeing her ballplayer husband. Any chance you’ll settle back here one day? Maybe start up the Pageant Class again?”
She’d rather get rabies from a rat.
“I’m afraid I don’t keep up with the pageants anymore, Donald. My life is in Tampa now.”
Today was Ashley’s first return to Maple Ridge since high school. Her departure had been a turning point in her life, when she inventoried all she had learned, and chose what to remember and what to try to forget.
“You don’t miss our town even a little bit?”
She smiled wistfully and let her eyes wander the vividly painted tree line. “I have to admit it’s pretty here, especially in the fall.” When it became clear Donald wasn’t leaving her side, she took his arm again and started the deliberate walk back to her rental car.
“We’ll miss Cassandra, but at least we have her legacy with all these graceful ladies from her school, present company included.” He shuffled ahead to open her car door. “The church put together a potluck for everybody in their fellowship hall. You’ll join us, won’t you?”
“I wish I could.” Far from it. She had been in Maple Ridge for only two hours and was already itching to leave. “As it is, I have just enough time to get back to Kansas City for my flight, but thank you so much for the invitation.”
Driving past fields of newly-sprouted cover crops, Ashley considered Donald’s observation that Cassandra had left a legacy in the women she trained. There was no denying she wouldn’t have become the person she was today had it not been for her time in Cassandra’s Pageant Class, and it nagged her that after traveling so far for the funeral she had left things unsaid at the gravesite.
She turned around and drove back to the cemetery, only to find the burial crew already at work on their final task. Resigned to watching the proceedings from afar, she parked by the gate and turned off the ignition.
“So much I wanted to say, Cassandra.”
She wondered if any of the women in attendance today still heard Cassandra’s voice the way she did, the recitation of her austere rules and humbling derisions. It was doubtful any of them had been impacted the way she was.
You’re the special one, Ashley. I’m going to open all the doors for you.
Not a day went by when Ashley didn’t look back on her life and gauge the influence of Cassandra’s hand. Everything she was—and wasn’t—she owed to this once-glorious champion of beauty and grace, now marred for eternity by the fire that had claimed her life.
“I can’t imagine your horror…burning to death in your bed.”
The Bobcat dozer scooted forward and back, packing the dirt so it was even with the surrounding grass. The other crewman smoothed the surface with a rake.
She started the car again, never taking her eyes from the distant scene. “Now I can only hope you’re burning in hell.”
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