Authors: Anne Mateer
Tags: #FIC042030, #FIC042040, #FIC027050, #Christian fiction, #Love stories
The shadows under Jewel's eyes bothered me. I sent her to the front room to put up her feet while I warmed the dinner I'd cooked the night before. A scrawny chicken with potatoes mashed into a fluffy mound. At least I was helpingâbut Jewel needed so much more than my limited skills in the kitchen. For one, she needed me to help her family keep their home. In order to do that, I needed a job. Now. Accepting the position of church pianist might help out, but it wouldn't supply all our needs.
After Sunday dinner, we enjoyed the crisp afternoon air, sunlight falling like bright jewels through the baring branches of the large oak tree. All of us except JC. He asked permission to visit the horses at the livery. Jewel wanted to say no; I could read it in her eyes. But with a heavy sigh, she consented.
JC raced away. I didn't comment. Jewel didn't, either. Instead, we listened to the
of a horse walking over the hard-packed dirt road in front of the house. The squeals of neighborhood children nearby. The chirp of squirrels gathering their winter store of acorns and pecans.
Trula plopped down in Jewel's lap, where we were lounging beneath the oak in the backyard. “Sing me a song, Mama.”
Jewel laughed, though I thought I heard her gulp down a sob at the end. “That was your daddy's talent, not mine.”
I cocked my head and stared at my sister. She had a nice singing voice. I'd heard her hundreds of times, usually in tandem withâ
I closed my eyes, willed Trula to accept her mother's answer. But the child's bottom lip jutted out and the corners of her mouth trembled. “Please?”
Jewel's gaze met mine, her eyes liquid and anguished. “I'm sure Aunt Lula wouldn't mind.”
Trula bounced into my lap and clapped her hands. “Please, Aunt Lula!”
Jewel cleared her throat. “She can sing
play the piano, Trula. Much better than your mama can.”
Trula's eager eyes found mine. I knew I ought to smile, but couldn't. Jewel understood that I'd left behind things like music when I'd settled into academic pursuits. But for the second time in a matter of hours, she'd pushed me in the old direction. Mama had encouraged things like music and artâthings Fruity Lu dabbled at. Things that had no place in the scholarly world Daddy encouraged.
Jewel rose from her place on the grass beside me. “Trula can show you where we keep the sheet music. I'll bring Inez and Russell inside.”
I mashed my lips together and glared at Jewel's back. I hadn't made a fuss at church this morning, playing in public when I hadn't touched a piano in years, but nowÂ .Â .Â .
Trula pulled at my arm, forced me to my feet. Before I could protest, I was on the stool at the piano, Inez jumping up and down, arms flapping like a bird taking flight. “Sing, Auntie Lula! Play and sing!”
Jewel certainly knew how to make it so I couldn't refuse.
I snatched a hymnal from atop the stack of music, hoping it would keep my focus on God, not on my playing. The book opened easily. I set it in place and squinted at the notes, my heart fluttering the same as it had this morning in church. One tentative finger pressed a treble keyâslowly, so that it made no soundâthen harder, the hammer striking the taut strings beneath it. The tone sounded off, as if they hadn't had the instrument tuned in some time.
Inez plopped down near my feet and popped her thumb in her mouth, eyes wide.
I took a deep breath, let my fingers find their way once more. And as they had that morning, they remembered more than I'd imagined they would. Tremors of fear skittered from my fingers to my toes, but the enraptured looks on the faces of those listening terrified me even more.
I jerked my hands to my lap and clamped my lips shut, leaving the strains of the piano to die in the silence.
“See? You'd be a perfect music teacher!” Jewel's smile brightened.
“I told you. The high school needs a music teacher because the other one”âshe cut her eyes to her little girlsâ“E-L-O-P-E-D. As far as I know the position is still available.”
I bit my lip, knowing how much Jewel wanted me to take up music again. But teaching it? That went far beyond accompanying hymns at one Sunday morning service. To teach music meant
embracing it altogether. I could teach a far more important subject than musicâI was
to teach more than music. “I don't think that's a good idea. I'll just lookâ”
“Nonsense. You'll go right on down there tomorrow morning and apply. Tell Principal Gray you're my sister.”
My frown grew deeper. I'd committed to keeping Jewel and her children in this house, the house Davy had constructed with his own hands, even if he did buy the kit from Aladdin. If I abandoned that goal now, Don and Janice would roll their eyes and mutter about the unreliability of Fruity Lu.
Teaching was by far my most profitable skill. So I'd present myself at the high school tomorrow. Talk with the principal. Ask for a job.
As anything but the music teacher.
Darkness fell, and JC still hadn't returned. I picked up a ball of yarn and a crochet hook.
“Go on to bed, Jewel. I'll wait up.”
“He ought to be home by now.” She stared out the window, arms folded across her chest as if to barricade her heart. “You'll come get me if he isn't back soon?”
“I promise.” The hook missed the loop. I let the short string unravel as Jewel plodded up the stairs.
Oh, JC. Can't you make things
a mite easier on your mama?
Only crickets answered my unspoken plea. Or was it a prayer?
I hadn't prayed much lately. I'd sat in church every Sunday, heard the words. But very little had penetrated to my heart. Why was that? In my younger years, I'd often felt close to God. Even when Mama passed, I could sense Him there with me. Then something changed. I changed.
My gaze wandered to the piano, and my fingers twitched. I slipped them beneath my thighs and searched for something else to do.
Clear the supper dishes. Tidy up the kitchen. Turn out the lights. By the time I finished, JC would be home again. Or I'd slip out to find him. I shivered at the thought of the chill in the air and the blackness of the streets.
As I set the last dish in the cupboard, a bump sounded from the living room. I held my breath, tiptoed across the wide hall. Caught JC with one leg over the window sill, half his body inside, half outside. His head jerked in my direction, and he gasped. Then relief coursed through his brown eyes as he considered me in the half-light.
I decided it best not to scold. “Glad you're finally back. We missed you.”
He shrugged, swung his other leg into the house, eased the window shut, then studied the floor. I wanted to sweep him into my arms and tell him to cry on my shoulder as I had the night we buried his father. But I sensed a difference in him now. A manly pride in place of little-boy grief. Was that why he didn't want to be at home? Did he not want to appear weak?
My insides crumpled like a sheet of paper in a fist. I had no idea how to inspire him to work out his sorrow in tandem with his family. Jewel had Davy when Mama died. Don and Janice had growing children to grant some reprieve from grieving their mother. And Ben, he'd spent only a day at home before returning to Texas. Daddy couldn't handle his own loss, let alone mine.
For a few months, I'd hidden my pain under a frenzy of laughter and music, of flirting and silliness, as if nothing had happened to my mother. Then one day Daddy noticed my math test. A perfect score.
“I was a schoolteacher when I met your mama, you know,” he told me. I nodded, having heard the story a hundred times from Mama's lips. “But all my children took after her. âI don't need more schooling,' they told me time and again. But you.” His eyes lit with a pride I'd never seen him direct toward me. “You are my last chance. My only hope. You could make me proud.”
I'd scrunched up my face in confusion. Wasn't he proud of Don and his ranch? Or Ben owning a store in Texas? And both Janice and Jewel had husbands who loved them and provided well for their families.
He looked at my test again. “Yes, you could be the one.” He sat down beside me, outlined a plan for my education. Not just high school, but beyond.
“But Daddy, girls don't go to college!”
“The smart ones do. We'll make sure you're one of them. After college, a master's degree. Then a doctorate. The first woman PhD in the state of Oklahoma!”
I held my breath, not sure I wanted to follow his plan. Or did I? I searched his weathered, wrinkled face. He'd not paid much attention to the child of his old age. Until now.
That day, I quit music. And painting. And parties.
It took longer to leave off boys, but they soon made it clear they had no interest in a girl with ambitions such as mine.
I'd thrown myself into my education to deal with the ache in my heart over Mama. What could distract JC from his grief? I squatted in front of my nephew, took his shoulders gently between my hands. “I know you miss your daddy. Your mama and sisters do, too. But they need you sometimes. And even if you don't think so, you need them, too.”
He looked away. “You play piano better than Mrs. Wayfair.”
I huffed out a long breath. “Do you really care about that, JC? Or is it just an opportunity to argue?”
“I care.” His lips clamped shut.
I reached over, took his hand in mine. “Tell me why.” The soft, coaxing tone I'd often heard in Mama's voice layered my own.
“Daddy liked good music. Especially at church.”
I let the silence hold his words. They lingered between us, poking at the roots that tethered me to my carefully constructed plans. “Are you saying you'd like me to continue to play the piano at church?”
He nodded. “I heard Mama tell you Pastor Reynolds said you could.”
“If I play the piano at church, will you promise to stay at home more and tell usâor at least meâwhen you feel sad or mad?”
His eyes narrowed, as if seeing through me to judge the sincerity of my proposition. Then his head dipped. Once.
With a heavy sigh, I guided him toward the stairs. “I'll talk to Pastor Reynolds tomorrow. Happy?”
His skinny arms snaked around my waist, and I hoped to heaven he wouldn't ask me to take the position of music teacher, as well. Because for him, I'd do almost anything.
“Leland and the others are heading to Dilly's CafÃ© for lunch. You coming, too?” Brian Giles, girls' basketball coach and German teacher, stood at my desk, the characteristic grin absent from his round face.
Something was wrong. I glanced at the papers I'd been correcting. They could wait. My friend could not. I tossed aside my pencil and grabbed my jacket from the back of my chair, shoving my arms into the sleeves as I followed him out of the building.
But at the top of the stone steps, he stopped. I ran into his back as I straightened my collar. “Why'd youâ”
My gaze slammed into Lula, whose face intruded on my thoughts more often than I cared to admit. I swallowed hard, watching her watching us.
Her small booted foot rose to the first step. Then the next. And the next. Bringing her nearer. Pumping my heart faster. I pushed Giles aside, reached for the door that had shut behind me, and held it open. She passed in front of me, a stiff smile
on her face, the smell of lilacs and autumn air lingering after she'd entered the building.
Giles and I both stared through the small square of glass in the door. She looked back, hesitated, then walked toward the office, her skirt swaying.
Giles whistled, long and low. “She's a looker, for sure.”
I nodded. What was she doing here? Elation and fear spun in my gut as I remembered Mrs. Wyatt's mention of the open position. “New music teacher?”
“Maybe.” Giles slid a look at me. I didn't like what his grin implied. “Wonder if she's as eager for a husband as Miss Delancey was.”
My jaw clenched as I followed my friend down the stairs and toward the cafÃ©. Female teachers of a certain age generally had more on their minds than conveying information to their students. Would Lula be the same?
We took our usual table in the cafÃ©, the one we claimed when we didn't have to supervise the students during the noon meal. In our fourth year of teaching together, these men and I had become friends. I could count on them. But as I took my seat, I realized the conversation was about her. About Lula.
“Do you think she might be Miss Delancey'sâor should I say, Mrs. Clifton'sâreplacement?” Carl Whitson, the manual training teacher, asked.
I shrugged, looked around for our waitress. “Principal Gray mentioned he might have a candidate applying, but that was a while ago.”
Giles' eyebrows danced up and down. “Maybe this one will let you do the pursuing.”
I snorted, unfolded my napkin, and laid it across my lap. “I'm not pursuing anyone. You know that.”
“Maybe Carl will get a chance with her, then.”
Carl rolled his eyes while the others exchanged amused grins.
Leland smoothed thinning gray hair over his ears. “If I didn't have this band on my hand, I might pursue her myself.”
Laughter all around. Harold Leland, Latin teacher, was sixty, if he was a day. Married for forty years. Father to six. Grandfather toÂ .Â .Â . several.
Our waitress arrived at the table, diffusing the talk of music teachers and matrimony. The conversation turned as we waited for our food.
“Guess they're still at it near Ypres,” Carl said.
“Lots of artillery fire at Verdun, too.” Joe DeMarco, football coach and history teacher.
“And looks like they finally have good weather instead of all that rain,” Leland put in.
Each man contributed something to the talk of the war. Except Giles. He sat silent. Stared at his plate. Out the window. Into the opposite corner of the room.
His gaze stuck there. I twisted in my chair. A table of soldiers. I jerked back around. Surely Giles wasn't consideringÂ .Â .Â .
I snuffed out the thought. Giles had other things to think of right now. Like the upcoming basketball season. And his unspoken infatuation with the doe-eyed domestic science teacher.
But what if he hadn't been given a choice?