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Chapter one

First meeting 2-1_cropped

“Well, I suppose we should start now.”

This timid statement came from Maggie-May Peasle. At the advanced age of 11, she already possessed the nearly magical Peasle speaking voice — so quiet, but so effective. Whether it was presiding over the parish council or saying grace at the very crowded dinner table, the agreeable tones of Peasles brought order to chaos.

In this case, however, the low-level chatter continued. With five girls and a three-year-old boy all crowded into one room of the social hall, a certain level of babble and noise was natural. All the same, Maggie’s delicate features registered disapproval. Spring had been slow to come to western Missouri, and the littlest conference room was a little chilly, even in late April. Besides, Maggie thought fretfully, I don’t have a lot of time. Maggie took a breath and tried again.

“This meeting of the Every Tuesday Club will now come to order.”

To Maggie’s relief, the conversation subsided. But Xenia Murphy, sitting next to her, glanced up through black, droopy bangs.

“Are you starting?”

Maggie-May raised a perfectly shaped eyebrow. It seemed like a silly question, but Xenia wasn’t very silly as a rule. So Maggie just answered with a perfectly pronounced “Yes.”
Xenia shook her head sadly. As the Club’s technical expert, Xenia felt often as if she had to explain things that should be obvious. “You didn’t do it right. You have to tell me when you’re going to start so I can start recording on my phone.”

“And say the whole name of the Club.”

This last remark came from Photini Jenkins, sitting across from Xenia. She had lifted her feet up under her and tucked her straight, blonde hair behind her ears as she spoke. When her remark drew a noticeable silence, she glanced up to find Maggie looking at her critically.

First meeting_V and A“Well, I mean if you have to start over anyway …” She peered over at the Club’s other two members for support, but Vanessa Taybeck merely returned her look without lifting the chin that was cupped lazily in one hand. And Abigail Alverson, whose opinion carried a lot of weight in Club matters, had a blank expression that meant that her thoughts were elsewhere.

“Fine,” said Maggie. “Xenia?” Maggie waited until Xenia made eye contact. “I’m starting now.” Xenia jerked her head in something that might have been a nod and tapped buttons on her phone.

Maggie took the green plastic bottle that served as a gavel away from her little brother Jacob and waved it grandly.

“This meeting of the Every Tuesday Girls’ Club of St. Michael the Archangel Orthodox Church is now in session. Abigail Alverson, president.” Maggie inclined her head in a formal nod to Abigail, who seemed to notice for the first time that anyone was talking. “The honorable Maggie-May Peasle is chairing this meeting. And with all five members in attendance, I declare this meeting to have — ” Maggie brought the green bottle down smartly on the conference table. “— started!”
Vanessa shifted restlessly in her chair and plumped her chin onto her other palm. She had been looking forward to meeting with the other girls, but now that she was here, she couldn’t seem to relax.

These chairs aren’t very comfortable, she thought irritably. I don’t know why we can’t use the big conference room with the office chairs. And there are boxes of stuff all over the place in here — it looks trashy.

She frowned at the offending bins and boxes. The Church’s biggest feast of the year — Pascha, which her non-Orthodox friends knew better as Easter — had come and gone, followed by the week of festivities known as Bright Week.

That had ended last Sunday, and there were decorations that needed to be stored away for the year. Someone had apparently decided to park it all in the littlest conference room for now, and Vanessa’s keen sense of style was appalled by the sight of stacked plastic and cardboard boxes shoved into the corner.

If it were still my turn to chair the meeting, I would have started by having us move this stuff out of the way.

The Every Tuesday Girls’ Club had been going on for just over a year, and they had decided to take turns leading the meetings. It still felt a little strange not to have Abigail lead them, since she had started the Club in the first place. But it had actually been her idea to have a rotation, and it had worked out pretty well, on the whole.

In fact, most things about the Every Tuesday Girls’ Club went along well. Vanessa glanced over fondly as shy Photini led them in prayer to open the meeting. It had been her unofficial job since the Club had started, probably because the Jenkins family took church matters very seriously and she seemed like the obvious choice.

Saying the words now, Photini’s nervous demeanor faded away, and an expression of simple purity was plainly visible on her pale face. At one time, Vanessa hadn’t been sure she would have much in common with someone as saintly as Photini, or with quirky Xenia, or pretty Maggie, and certainly not with inventive and impish Abigail. But over the past year or so, they had all grown quite close.

Vanessa listened with half an ear to the meeting’s proceedings as she glanced at each of the girls in turn. No, there wasn’t that much to connect her to the group, really, other than their all going to the same church and being close to the same age. She was painfully aware sometimes that her manners could be abrupt, and that she could come off kind of quick-tempered or smart-alecky. At home or at school, she needed to be that way to keep from getting teased or pushed around, but in church, she could tell that sometimes it put people off.

The five members of Every Tuesday Girls’ Club weren’t very much alike. But somehow when they all came together, their differences didn’t matter as much.

Vanessa had tried to explain it in her family, but her older brother James just treated it like some kind of joke — he tended to treat almost everything as a joke. Her parents couldn’t seem to understand why it mattered. Her younger brother Noah listened to her patiently, but even he seemed confused.

“So you guys meet together, and you don’t just do girl stuff?” Noah asked, mystified. “You don’t just braid each others’ hair and draw ponies and things?”

“When have you ever seen me draw a pony? Besides, I told you,” she answered in annoyance, “Abigail started it because she thought that we could actually help people with their problems. That’s what the Club is there for.”

“To help people,” he replied skeptically. “And does that work?”

That had been hard for her to answer. She started to say, “Don’t you remember last year when you —” but she had stopped.

The fact was, the Club had helped. Last year, their family had gotten into some real trouble, and the other girls had come to the rescue. But it had seemed best not to make a big deal out of it, and Noah had never known that the Club was involved. The matter had been serious enough that the priest at St. Michael — kindly Fr. Andrew — had given counseling to her family, and it seemed like the worst of it was finally behind them.

Until now …

The thought seemed to pop into her head out of nowhere. Vanessa brushed her thick hair back abruptly. I am not thinking about this right now. I’m just not. I need to stop daydreaming and get a grip. She forced herself to re-enter the meeting’s conversation, just in time to hear Maggie open up the topic of “old business.”

“And old business is anything that we have been working on, right?” Maggie asked Xenia.

“That’s right,” Xenia answered importantly. When it had been her turn to lead the meetings, Xenia had done research into how meetings were supposed to be run, and she had made some changes. “So we go through old business first and catch up on where we are, and then we talk about new business.”

“Well,” mused Maggie. “So we know that we have been switching off who does the babysitting. And pulling weeds. Oh, and Miss Hemmings needs us to work at Broadmere House.” Broadmere House was a restaurant that the church owned, and the girls took shifts washing dishes and doing odd jobs during busy times. “That’s all old business. Um, what else?”

“I still don’t know why we can’t just talk like we used to,” Photini murmured.

Xenia stared at her. “Because it wasn’t efficient.”

“But it was fun.”

“Maybe for people that wanted to ramble on without—”

“Ohh-kay,” Maggie rapped the green bottle to stop Xenia from finishing her thought. “So let’s be getting on with that old business then, shall we? What assignments have we been working on?”
Vanessa hid a smile. She had to admire the way that Maggie dealt with things. Maggie was obviously starting to get a little annoyed, but instead of getting mad about it, she stayed focused and handled it with authority and humor.

I should do that, thought Vanessa. I lose my cool too much and just let everything get to me. I should be like Maggie. She makes everything look so easy. I wonder how she does it. She’s got five brothers and sisters, and yet, they always seem to just enjoy being with each other. But then, she doesn’t have brothers like mine. I’ll bet even Maggie couldn’t do anything about —

Vanessa angled her head a little, straining to hear any noise that might come from down the hall. It’s happening right now. Right down the hall in Father Andrew’s office. If only I could hear something.

Jacob playfully brought the plastic bottle down on the table and Vanessa jumped as if someone had fired a shot.

“Holy cow, Jacob!” she shouted.

Little Jacob was nearly unflappable, but he turned a pinched face up to Maggie, and she hastened to give him a reassuring squeeze to let him know he wasn’t in trouble.

“I’m sorry,” Vanessa blurted, horrified. Barking at Jacob like that was about the only way to make Maggie really mad. “I’m really sorry. Jacob, you were fine. I just got startled. I was … I had been thinking about …” Vanessa realized she really didn’t want to finish the sentence. But Maggie-May didn’t feel like letting her off the hook.

“Well?” she said coolly. “What were you thinking about? You haven’t been paying attention to the meeting. So what’s the problem?”

“Um …” Vanessa foundered. Her eyes happened to fall on Jacob, who was watching her cautiously, and she grabbed at the only idea she could think of.

“I was thinking about my brother Noah.”

She couldn’t help noticing that Photini and Xenia exchanged a look. Abigail nodded in an unconvincing imitation of sympathy, but Maggie’s expression didn’t soften.

“Oh,” she said simply.

Feeling a little desperate, Vanessa continued, “You know, because he’s away now and … I miss him.”

Xenia frowned in a pinched way that Maggie mistook for confusion. “You remember,”

Maggie explained to her. “Vanessa told us that Noah got invited to go to his best friend’s ranch in Joplin. And even though the school year isn’t quite over, her parents thought it would be a good experience, and so —”

“I know,” interrupted Xenia. “Her parents worked it out and he really wanted to go, and so he’s on a farm in the middle of Missouri, and she’s worried he’ll fall off a horse or get bitten by a snake or something.”

Vanessa felt annoyed. “Well, you don’t have to say it like that.”

Photini never liked arguments to start, so she broke in nervously, “I’m sure she didn’t mean anything, Vanessa. It’s just that we’ve been over this. You’ve talked about it kind of a lot.”

“That’s right,” Xenia grunted disagreeably. “So you can stop worrying. About him, anyway. Now, your other brother—”

Vanessa turned on Xenia, a sharp response already on the tip of her tongue. But Maggie brought the plastic bottle gavel down on the conference table before she could open her mouth.

“Boy!” exclaimed Maggie brightly. “I’d love to keep talking about all this, but we’ve got to finish up because I have to leave early tonight. Darn!”

Xenia blinked at her. “I just meant that her brother James —”

“Xenia!” Maggie snapped. “Remember how important you said it was for us to stay on topic? So do you have any Club business to talk about?”

Xenia looked at Maggie as if she were slightly insane. “No. Oh wait, yes.”

Maggie tried not to groan. “Yes?”

“Yes,” nodded Xenia. “There’s Jeffie Sanders’ rat.”