If Mashed Potatoes Could Dance
An Excerpt From
If Mashed Potatoes Could Dance
Chapter 1

“They want us to keep them all here?” Gram said. “Where in the Sam Hill do they expect everyone to sleep?” “On the floor, I guess,” I said.

“On the floor? In the kitchen? I don’t understand, Isabelle. How in the world did they even think to ask us? This is a cooking school, not a hotel, for Jack’s sake.”

Gram had been cleaning. Her short gray hair was hidden by a red bandana, and her Harvard T-shirt had a giant wet spot right in the middle. She wore bright yellow rubber gloves and smelled of bleach. We were conducting our annual mid- summer ritual of scrubbing every single spot of her cooking school. Midsummer was the perfect time. We were on a one- week hiatus from our nighttime classes, and our daytime classes weren’t set to begin for another month and a half. We’d already sent out acceptance letters to our fall students, and we had this small break before our night class on everything potatoes,

“Mash Away, but Respect Me in the Morning,” was to begin.

“I believe it was Jake’s idea,” I said.

Jake was my best friend and Broken Rope’s fake sheriff and town historian. He was very active with the tourism bureau as well. When you’re a self-made millionaire you can do pretty much whatever you want.

“Jake? What was he thinking?” Gram said as she snapped off one of the gloves.

“He thought it would be bad business to turn away a tour bus. It’s only for one night and then the hotel will have the rooms available. Someone messed up the reservations. The tour group was going to cancel their stop, but Jake heard they were a bunch of foodies on a trip across country. He told them your school was here and thought we might work in a free lesson of some sort and have a sleepover.”

Gram blinked. “I’ll ask again, what was he thinking? Sleeping on the floor and offering a lesson? Won’t we be breaking about a thousand food safety regulations? Come on, Isabelle, you should know this stuff.”

Gram was referring to my short and incomplete time in law school.

“I didn’t make it to the food safety stuff,” I said. Food safety wasn’t a part of law school, so even if I hadn’t dropped out I wouldn’t have been any better versed in the ins and outs of slumber parties held in cooking schools, but I didn’t want to go into detail when she was so riled up.

Gram sighed. “What kind of lesson?”

Maybe she was warming to the idea.

“Don’t know. I was thinking something slumber-party- like. Fondue, dips, twice-baked bacony potatoes. We’ll be teaching all things potatoes in a week anyway. We could practice a little,” I said.

“Well.” She hesitated a long time. I’m sure she was turning it every which direction in her mind, but bottom line, Gram liked to be cooperative, in a stubborn Gram way, but cooperative nonetheless. “I guess that might work. Foodies, huh?”

“That’s what Jake said.” It was my turn to pause. “You haven’t mentioned how you feel about the free part.”

“Oh, I’ll make Jake pay. He’s got plenty of money. He can buy the supplies. I’ll happily provide the lessons free of charge, but he can buy the groceries.”

“I’m sure he’ll do that.”

Jake’s fortune had been obtained via the stock market. While most of the rest of his friends, me included, were off at college, Jake was mastering things like calls and puts and annual reports. I was sure he would have bought the groceries anyway. He would probably also want to pay Gram, but we hadn’t gotten that far in our earlier quick but succinct phone conversation.

“Yes, he will. Now, we can’t allow people to sleep on the floor. We’ll have to gather some cots. Call Teddy, get him on the job,” Gram instructed.

“That’s a good plan.” I pulled out my cell phone.

Teddy was my younger and much wilder brother. His reputation as Broken Rope’s Don Juan had mellowed slightly this summer, but finding him might still be difficult. He some- times answered his phone, he sometimes didn’t. His reasons for not answering were as simple as the phone was turned off to the too-often-used he was no longer in possession of it because some woman threw it out a window, or into a pool, or ran over it, or stomped it to death. Teddy’s ways as a lothario were embarrassing, but at least he never pretended to be something he wasn’t.

My call attempt was halted by a big gust of wind that blew through the kitchen’s open windows. It was so strong that it rattled the glass and knocked a couple pots off a shelf, the metallic crash as loud as a gun.

The wind brought a scent with it. The distinct smell of lavender filled the long room. I looked at Gram, who looked back at me with a tight mouth.

The last time I’d experienced a gust of wind and a distinct smell, I’d been visited by the ghost of Jerome Cowbender, one of Broken Rope’s long-dead historical figures. Jerome’s appearance had caused a number of problems, the biggest one being that I’d developed an unhealthy crush on him. He’d been gone for a month and a half and I still missed him, though I tried to hide it. Missing a ghost was not a good way to live life. I knew this. I hoped my emotions would catch up with my intellect soon.

That wasn’t going to happen today, though, because as the wind brought in the lavender, the first thing I said was, “Jerome?” And the first thing I did was run to the window and look out at the neighboring cemetery. I saw green, mostly trimmed grass, a few old trees, and a number of tombstones, some of them still upright, some of them not so upright, some of them carved with serious and sad words, and others with funny ones. However, there was no sign of the dead cowboy. Anywhere.

“Betts, dear, I told you that he probably won’t be back for some time. You need to get over him.” Gram stood behind me and put her hand on my shoulder.

I nodded. “I know.” I’d developed a habit of touching the very small scar on my neck that I’d received as the result of being grazed by a bullet when Jerome and I fought off a killer, someone who’d fooled us all and murdered Broken Rope’s historical theater owner, Everett Morningside. I touched it now with the fingers on one hand as I reached into my pocket with the other and twirled the coin that had come from Jerome’s long-ago buried treasure. If Gram knew I kept it with me and considered it a good luck charm of sorts, she’d probably just tell me again to get a grip and get over him.

“Besides, the only smell Jerome brings is wood smoke. This is flowery—lavender, I think,” Gram said. “I’m trying to remember who brings lavender.”

Since Jerome left, Gram had tried to explain the ghosts of Broken Rope. She told me they come and go, they couldn’t be controlled, they were mostly not dangerous, but some of them could cause “a whole bushel of trouble.” She also mentioned that I should never, ever get attached to any of them. They weren’t alive and never would be again. They come and they go, she’d repeated a few times. They didn’t have free will. They had no will. They were the remnants of dead people.

I understood this all, and yet I still wished for the time when Jerome might come back.

“I know, Gram, but something just happened, didn’t it?” I looked out the window again.

“Yes, someone’s here, but I can’t remember who. They’ll show themselves soon enough, I suppose. Shoot, there are so many.”

“You’ve mentioned that, but you haven’t told me how many yet.”

Gram had been torn about my introduction to the Broken Rope ghosts. She was glad to have someone to share her haunted experiences with. But she also thought the ghosts were sometimes a nuisance, and she didn’t want me to have to deal with any nuisances. I was just curious enough that I didn’t see the harm. Maybe someday, after I’d gotten to know a few more, I’d feel differently, but not now.

“Let’s not worry about that until we really have to,” Gram said. “Come along. Let’s check the cemetery and see what we’re up against.”

I didn’t follow her right away, but watched the doors swing closed behind her. I was curious, of course, but I wasn’t ready. I’d been telling myself that if I ever again had dealings with a ghost, I would do exactly as she had been telling me to do—not get attached. I would let them be what they were: stuff left over from life, stuff that’s dead, stuff that our unusual town of Bro- ken Rope somehow held on to. I knew it would be difficult, though. There was something inherently appealing about being able to communicate with a ghost.

Gram had been dealing with the ghosts all her life. She knew nothing different. If she thought it was amazing to be able to see and talk to them, she didn’t show it. She was pretty matter-of-fact about the whole thing.

It was still all new to me. I needed to be able to accept this gift or talent or perhaps even curse and make it work for me. I took a steadying breath, ignored my drying mouth, and followed her path through the kitchen and out the front doors of the school.

I had to put my hand up to shade my eyes from the bright sun, so I didn’t immediately see why Gram exclaimed, “Don’t worry, you won’t feel it!” as I joined her in front of the school.

It took me only a second, though, to see the ax being swung in my direction, at my head more specifically. I was too stunned to do much of anything, so it was a good thing I wouldn’t feel it. The ax landed right on my neck. And then went right through it.

“Betts, meet Sally Swarthmore. She’s harmless now—even her ax isn’t real any longer—but she was one wicked woman in her time.”

Sally Swarthmore was blond and top-heavy. She was also strikingly pretty, even in the bright sunlight that caused the ghosts to be a slightly faded version of what they were in the dark.

My heart had taken an express route to my throat, but now it began to sink back down to the right spot. I wondered if Ms. Swarthmore would have liked nothing more than for the ax to still be sharp and lethal.

“Sally,” I said cautiously. No matter what Gram said about the ghosts being harmless, I had learned something about them during Jerome’s visit that made me ponder just how harmful they could be if they really wanted to. I still hadn’t told Gram what I knew. I wasn’t sure I ever would. If, in fact, she didn’t know what could happen to the ghosts when they were surrounded by the dark, that lack of knowledge might be the very thing keeping her peace of mind intact. At the moment, I didn’t want to be the one to shake her sense of security.

“Who are you?” Sally asked roughly, though her face softened one tiny bit.

“Isabelle Winston. I’m Missouri’s granddaughter.”

“Miz, your granddaughter can see me?”

“Seems that way,” Gram said. “Maybe we could drop the theatrics, Sally. You’ve attempted to haunt people since you died. It hasn’t worked with me, and it isn’t going to work with Betts. You’re too silly to pull it off anyway.”

Sally put the ax to her side. “I’m silly? Well, that’s a fine bundle of sour oats.” She looked at Gram and then back at me. “I guess I’m glad there’s more than one of you. Maybe you’ll be more fun than your grandmother. This could be interesting. Tell me, Miz, where did we leave off?”

The ghosts arrived with spotty memories, having mostly forgotten their lives along with their previous visits. Jerome, and it seemed that Sally, too, remembered Gram, though. She must have been their touchstone. I supposed that was better than starting at absolute zero every time.

Gram thought a moment. “I seem to remember us discussing a diary, your diary. You said that you wished you knew where it was so you could prove that your homicides were justifiable.”

“Really?” Sally’s eyes opened wide. “My murders were justifiable?”

“That’s what you said last time.”

Sally shook her head. “I hope it comes back to me, but right now I don’t . . . oh, hang on, maybe . . . no. We’ll see. Until then, what should we do?” She smiled and swung the ax up to her shoulder.

Gram looked at me. “You’ll find that Sally likes to ‘do’ things. She’s a curious ghost and doesn’t always go away whenyou’d like her to.”

“Hey, I’m right here,” Sally said.

“Oh, I know,” Gram said. “We’ve got work to do, so you may come into the school and join us, but stay out of our way.”

Gram pushed past me and hurried back into the building.

“Nice to see you, too, Missouri,” Sally muttered.

“You want to come in?” I asked.

Sally shrugged and tried to look nonplussed. “I guess there’s nothing else to do.”

The inch-by-inch cleaning we’d originally planned trans-formed into just a good cleaning. I called Teddy, who answered his phone and said he’d be able to round up the cots and other bedding we’d need.

Sally, her ax seemingly permanently attached to her gripped hand, mostly complied with Gram’s order to stay out of the way as we hurried to get the school ready for the guests. She was a talker, though. She asked about everything—the appliances, the utensils, the mop, my hair, Gram’s bandana, the cars out front, everything.

“I don’t understand why people will be sleeping here,” she said after we’d given her a brief overview of how transportation had changed since she was alive.

“There’s no other place,” I told her. “The hotel is booked. I even checked on the high school gymnasium, but it’s busy with a volleyball tournament.”

My dad was the high school principal, and my mom was the auto shop teacher. They were currently on vacation some- where in Arizona, but the high school building was constantly being used for something; summer camps, sports tournaments, etc.

“We’re just going to have an all-night cooking class. Those who want to participate will learn everything there is to know about potatoes. Those who want to sleep will have cots in the reception area and the back classroom that we rarely use.” Gram paused and looked at Sally like she couldn’t believe she’d taken the time to explain the circumstances to the ghost.

“Hmmm,” Sally said.

“Sally, if you try to haunt our guests, you’ll only end up irritating Betts and me. We’re the only ones who can see and hear you. You might want to work on ‘demure’ this evening.”

Both Sally and I laughed. Gauging from the short time I’d known her, I doubted she’d ever been demure, and even though she couldn’t remember the details, she probably was pretty certain she hadn’t been either. It was that one shared laugh, that small connection, that made me think I was fated to become at least partially attached to these traveling ghosts forever. I couldn’t say that I liked Sally really. It wasn’t possible for me to so quickly befriend someone who’d axed her family to death, even if her actions might have been justified. But there was something more than just my ability to talk to ghosts that made them appealing to me. I wondered about the connection and hoped I might someday understand it. For now, I thought that maybe it was simply that I could see them because I was somehow predisposed to feel tied to them.

The rumble of a big engine sounded from the front of the school.

“Is that the bus?” Gram asked. “Betts, what time were they supposed to be here?”

“I thought not until this evening.”

Gram flung the bandana off her head, and we both removed our rubber gloves, throwing everything onto a shelf. Gram fluffed her short hair, and I pulled my ponytail a little tighter. We were not in any shape to have company, but the squeak and air release of brakes told us we didn’t have any more time to prepare.

“I guess we’d better go greet them,” I said.

We hurried out to the front of the school. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Sally followed close behind, but she didn’t speak, which made her voice as quiet as her footfalls. It seemed the only sounds the ghosts made were those that came out of their mouths.

The bus was big and black with tall purple lettering that said Have Food? The windows were dark enough that we could see figures inside but nothing specific about our visitors.

The door swung open.

It seemed to take forever for the person inside to climb down the stairs and off the bus. Finally, an extraordinarily well-groomed man smiled and then bounded toward us.

“Hi, are we at the right place?” he asked. “I’m the group’s guide and driver, and I don’t want to disrupt the riders if I didn’t get the right spot.” He stopped in front of us and smiled. It was difficult to tell how old he was, but I thought he was in his fifties. His hair was a darker black than the color of the bus and it shone like the finish, as though he waxed both the bus and his hair at the same time. His mustache was perfect, and his short-sleeved shirt and khaki pants didn’t have one wrinkle. I wondered how someone could drive a bus and not be wrinkled.

Gram extended her hand. “I’m Missouri Anna Winston, owner of this place. Call me Miz. This is my granddaughter, Isabelle, or Betts.” She pointed to the Gram’s Country Cooking School sign. “I believe you are most definitely supposed to be here for one night. You’re the food tour group, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He shook Gram’s hand. “Leroy Norton at your service. Well, I’m at their service really.” He nodded toward the bus. “Thanks for putting us up for the night. I’m a little baffled at where everyone’s going to sleep, though. I pictured a . . . well, something else.”

“We’ll have cots. Soon,” I said.

“Cots?” Leroy didn’t hide his displeasure. “I’m not sure . . .”

“Leroy—Robert’s leg is cramping. Can I get him off the bus?” A woman with a big, red beehive hairdo was leaning out of the bus’s open door.

“’Scuse me,” Leroy said as he turned and hurried back to the bus.

“I don’t think cots are what he had in mind,” I said. “Uh-oh,” Gram said as she glanced toward the bus door and put her hands on her hips.

“What?” I said as I followed her line of vision.

Leroy was off the bus again, but he was reaching into the open door. Slowly, more slowly than I could have thought possible, he stepped backward as he helped someone disembark.

The man exiting the bus was very old. His skinny figure was hunched over, and he walked with a cane in one hand while holding Leroy’s with the other hand.

“Betts, is this an older persons’ tour?” Gram asked quietly.

“No one mentioned their ages,” I said just as quietly.

Sally laughed. “I don’t have to try to haunt these people. They could join me at any minute.”

Neither Gram nor I laughed with her.

If Mashed Potatoes Could Dance

If Mashed Potatoes Could Dance

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