Authors: Anne Mateer
Tags: #FIC042030, #FIC042040, #FIC027050, #Christian fiction, #Love stories
“It's a gamble whether the school board will agree to any of it, but nothing lost by trying.” Principal Gray was focusing on a point far away. His thinking look. Then his eyes returned to me. “If you want to propose this, I'll support you. But you'll have to take the lead.”
I dropped into the chair I'd abandoned, suddenly spent. “Absolutely. I'll enlist Brian Giles' help, as well.”
Before Principal Gray could answer, female chatter drifted in from the reception area. I eased from my seat and escaped the gathering in the outer office with nothing more than a tip of my hat.
I couldn't shake Jewel's great sorrow. Not in my classroom at the university. Nor at Mrs. McInnish's boardinghouse. Nor while trying to solve a difficult equation or explain a basic concept. Jewel stared back at me from the faces of my students. Her crying echoed in my head as my pencil scratched across the page.
“Your mind is elsewhere, my girl.” Professor Clayton peered down at my paper. I followed his gaze. The square root of six is three? For heaven's sake! I pushed an eraser over my error. Calculated again. 2.44948974278.
“These have been some rough days, Miss Bowman.” His face drooped with understanding. “Why don't you put your work away for now? Go home early. Get some rest.”
He was right. I'd been pushing myself, trying to banish Jewel's need from my head and my heart. But I was tired. So tired. I gathered my things. “I'll be ready to finish this tomorrow. I promise.”
He smiled at me as if he didn't quite believe my words. To be honest, I didn't believe them, either. If only I could know
how Jewel and the kids were getting along. Maybe I could go to Dunn on the weekends. Give her a break from the children, the housework. But to arrive late Friday night and leave again on Sunday wouldn't do much to help her. Or me.
What if I paid someone to help her? I chewed my lip and toyed with that idea. It would require economy on my part. A cheaper boardinghouse. Turning my dresses, resewing them with the faded fabric to the inside, instead of buying new ones. Surely I could find enough extra in my pay to relieve her of the need to find work, at least for a little while. Not that she'd find much in the way of employment. Not in a small town like Dunn. Not with her eighth-grade education. Maybe in nearby Lawton?
Trudging into Mrs. McInnish's, I sought out the newspaper to put my plan in motion. But Mrs. McInnish handed me a letter instead.
Miss Lula Bowman
was penned across the outside in Jewel's elegant hand. I tore it open, eager for news to relieve my anxiety, more determined than before to enclose a generous gift in my reply.
The front door slammed shut behind Miss Frank and Miss Thompson, their laughing chatter filling every crevice of the room. I angled my knees toward the wall, hoping they'd read my need to remain undisturbed. As they climbed the stairs and their voices faded, my eyes drank in Jewel's words.
I hope this finds you well and happy. In spite of the reason for your visit, know that your presence here is greatly missed. The girls still can talk of nothing but Aunt Lula. You truly stole their hearts during your short stay. JC spends much of his free time at the livery stable. Mr. Timmons has
kindly allowed him to help with the horses, but I fear that he needs more of me than I can give right now.
My heart clenched. Jewel, the one who'd set aside her own grief over Mama to help me through mine, shouldn't have that guilt. Of course, back then she'd had Davy to help shoulder her burden. Now she had no one. I cringed.
someone to help her. Please, God? Someone besides me.
I devoured Jewel's words about Daddy, but she had nothing new to report. He remained the same. Stricken in body, active in mind. I should have made time to go see him. Don would have driven me to Chickasha. But the thought of Don and Audra hounding me to stay with Jewel had overpowered my need to see my father. My champion. Or maybe it gave me the excuse to remember Daddy as he'd been before the stroke.
I returned to Jewel's letter. Janice's daughter, my twenty-year-old niece, had given birth to a son. Nothing from Ben in Texas, of course.
And then there is my own news, Lula. The news I suspected when you all were here but didn't know for certain. The sweet, sad secret I've told no one but you, even now.
I closed my eyes, but only for a moment.
I'm going to have a baby, Lula. In March. Davy's final gift, the last tangible reminder of our love.
My cheeks flamed, then my heart swam in my stomach. Losing Davy with four children to raise had been bad enough. But another child on the way? How would she manage alone?
Dread settled on my shoulders. My throat tightened.
Please, Lula, can't you come and stay?
A vise squeezed my heart. I wanted to oblige. I did. But if I wentâif I quit schoolâI'd forfeit too much. My scholarship. My education. My employment. Daddy's hope that one of his children would get a PhD. If I left here, I'd be Fruity Lu once again, giving up before I reached the end, getting distracted by other things. Couldn't Jewel of all people see that?
I blew out a hard breath, but it didn't relieve the pinch in my chest. I'd have to find a way to send Jewel money. My brothers and sisters might still think me a child, but I'd been taking care of myself for years. I could sacrifice my own comfort for Jewel and her children.
I rose, determined to stow the letter in my trunk upstairs and get on with finding a new, cheaper place to live.
“Everything all right?” Mrs. McInnish opened the front door to let in the evening air.
“Yes, Mrs. McInnish. Just fine.”
“Your sister, then? She's well?” Concern laced the words, threatening to break my resolve.
“Fine. However, Iâ” If I said the words out loud, committed myself to my plan, then the roiling guilt inside would calm, right? “I'll be looking for a new place to live. Less expensive, so I can help my sister's family.”
Her eyes saddened. “I'm sorry to hear that, Miss Bowman. You're a good boarder. You'll have any reference you need from me. But are you certainÂ .Â .Â .”
I sucked in a deep breath. “I'm certain. My sister has four children to support.” I sat hard on the sofa. Five, now.
Mrs. McInnish plopped down beside me. “What's the matter, dear?”
“She'sâshe's going to have another baby. In March. SheÂ .Â .Â . she needsâ”
Mrs. McInnish's hand closed around mine. “She's going to need more than money, I fear. She'll need someone to stay with her.”
Her words haunted me through the commotion of supper and in the quiet of my bedroom. I paced the narrow space beside my iron bedstead, Jewel's letter crumpled in my hand. I couldn't go back. I couldn't. If I did, I'd remain Fruity Lu for the rest of my days. The child who nearly caught the house on fire after leaving a lamp burning in the kitchen, who contaminated the well with a shovelful of manure. The girl with half-finished paintings littering the attic, scads of piano music disintegrating in a box in the cellar, a string of broken hearts behind her. The girl who threw away the prestigious Donally Award.
The bedsprings creaked as I lowered onto the edge of the mattress, head hanging. Mrs. McInnish was right. Someone needed to be with Jewel, and it seemed God was calling me.
My hands shook. I clenched them still.
You and Jewel help each other,”
Mama had told me just before she passed away. Jewel had heartily obeyed, helping me through my last year of high school and my college applications. To go would be to honor Mama and repay Jewel. To stay here would be to please Daddy and to take a stand for every woman who desired to further her education. My heart pulled and stretched, breath-prayers rising to heaven in desperation.
The next morning, I sought out Professor Clayton, told him everything. I expected him to jump into the silence when I
stopped, remind me of my commitments, urge me to stay. But he didn't speak. I bit my lower lip as his chin tilted toward his shoulder and his gaze slipped from mine.
“What?” I whispered. But my heart already knew.
“When I lost Elvira, it was my one regret. Putting this life”âhe swept his arm to encompass the officeâ“before her. Don't make the same mistake, Miss Bowman.”
“But the Donallyâ”
“You do what needs to be done and leave the rest in God's hands. And mine.” He patted my shoulders, compassion in his eyes. “I'll do all I can to sway the committee to put your scholarship on hold, but you must go to your sister.”
“Lula?” Jewel stood on the porch of her house Saturday morning, hair unbrushed, skin sallow, arms tight across her middle, as if holding herself together. My chest ached at the sight.
It hadn't been easy to resign from my position and pack my trunk. My heart felt shredded, like a piece of silk beneath unwieldy scissors. But seeing my sister now, I knew I'd chosen correctly.
Her tired eyes strayed to the valise in my hand, then jumped back to my face. Relief spread over her features as she hurried down the steps and met me in the yard. She threw her arms around me, pulled me close.
“I knew you'd come.” Her whisper in my ear birthed tears in my eyes. I shook them away, unwilling to let her see. She pulled back, smiled. But the corner of her mouth trembled. “I'm sorry I didn't tell y'all earlier. I thoughtâ” She sighed and rubbed a finger across her forehead. “I guess I thought I could handle all of it alone. But I can't.”
We made our way arm in arm up the steps. Inside, Trula and Inez dropped their dolls and ran to me, pressing their small bodies into mine, gazing up at me with rapturous faces. Russell toddled in a circle around his sisters, clapping his pudgy hands. My eyes skimmed over the room. No JC. I raised an eyebrow at Jewel. She winced and sat in the wide leather armchair near the pianoâDavy's chairâhands writhing in her lap. “Girls, take your brother outside and push him on the swing.”
They protested a moment but then did as she bade.
“He's always at the livery.”
I nodded. “It reminds him of his daddy.”
Jewel sighed. “I suppose so. Mr. Timmons has been gracious to let him run about the place pretending he's useful, as Davy used to. But one day JC'll have to understand that he has no right to be there anymore.”
“You sold it?”
Jewel nodded. “But Davy owed more money than I'd thought. There wasn't much left to live on. Janice and Don are coming today to discuss âmy financial situation.'” She hesitated. “They don't know about the baby yet.”
I blew out a long breath. My hand grazed the top of the piano. Dust came away on my fingers. I tried to rub them clean on the floor as I knelt next to the chair Jewel occupied, but they came away dirtier than before. Already things were further out of hand than I'd imagined.
I clasped Jewel's hand in my clean one. “We'll figure things out. Together.”
She nodded, then leaned her head back and closed her eyesâalmost as if Davy's chair were his arms wrapped around her once more.
Don settled at the dining room table less than an hour later. “I don't have time to dawdle, so let's get right to it.” I set a glass of cold water in front of him. He drank half in one gulp.
Janice pressed her cheek to Jewel's, then mine. “We didn't expect you here,” she told me.
I just smiled. Let her wonder. For now.
Don pulled some papers from a leather bag and spread them out on the table. “From what I see, Jewel, if you sell the motorcar and the house, you and the children ought to be able to sustain yourselves for a year or two.”