I Love You, Jilly Sanders, page 11
Jilly made triangles for eyes and a nose, cut out a jagged mouth with three teeth, and Gwen found her a bit of plumber’s candle to put inside and when evening came Jilly never failed to light it. Otto and Cat watched over the two of them like doting parents. The thought made Jilly smile to herself. She’d never seen a more unlikely looking couple: Otto had to be close to twenty years older than Cat, and Cat was a sensuous black woman. Between them, they risked every taboo Jilly imagined the folks of Briar Rose could name, and yet . . . there was something about the way they looked at each other, something sweet and perfect and intangible . . . . Jilly decided that what she saw between Otto and Cat—clear and bright as fallen dew—was love.
She liked that idea, and she liked to see Cat let Otto take care of her. It was as though she reveled in the attentiveness, the seriousness of Otto’s affection, and in return she bestowed the same gift onto him. And if that wasn’t love, Jilly would eat her pumpkin raw.
Three days later was Halloween, but no kids came out to Otto’s house on Chestnut Road. Still, the night felt sufficiently spooky, especially when Tage came over and he and Jilly went for a walk. He had gotten a job at the only garage in town, and now he changed oil and tires, and did other minor repairs for anyone who came into the shop, but he still stopped in every evening to give Jilly a math assignment and to visit.
The huge October moon lit up the roadside in silver hues, and Tage and Jilly cast long shadows out in front of them. Tage tried to scare her with tales of gollywoggles and hidebehinds.
“What’s a gollywoggle?” Jilly asked him.
“Slimy creature—sort of like a snake; they’re harmless really, except for their looks. They’re so ugly they’d scare the hair off you if you ever caught sight of one.”
Jilly nodded as though she believed him. “And a hidebehind?”
“Little furry creatures with razor-teeth. They hide behind themselves and leap out at you when you pass by.” Tage reached over and grabbed her hand. “Those’re the ones you gotta watch out for.”
“Ha ha,” Jilly said, but she noticed Tage didn’t let go of her hand.
They walked in silence for a few moments.
“Are you cold?” Tage asked. He let go of her hand so he could wrap his arm around her waist.
“We better get back,” Jilly said. Sometimes she liked those feathery-blood feelings that rushed through her whenever Tage touched her, but sometimes the feelings scared her and she didn’t know why.
They turned around and headed back toward Otto’s.
“Someday I’ll take you up and show you the deadmen caves,” Tage said.
“Is that where the gollywogs and hidebehinds live?” Jilly asked, tilting her head sideways so she could look up at him.
“No. The caves are real. There’s a ravine near the outskirts of town. There’s about thirty caves up there. Folks used to say that’s where people went to bury their dead—the dead they didn’t want everyone to know about—that’s one version of how the caves got the name.”
“That’s nice,” Jilly said, her voice laced with sarcasm. “Ever plant anyone up there?”
Tage laughed. “Not me.” He squeezed her waist. “But there’s some say there’re more than bodies hidden up there.”
Jilly halted in the road, and turned to stand in front of him. “That’s where your father stashed the money, isn’t it?”
Tage shrugged and made to move past her. But then he relented. “I was with him when he took it up there. I was sick, and he refused to leave me home alone, remember? He carried me piggyback most of the way, I remember that. I also remember the canvas sack he stuffed inside his jacket. I must have slept some, or else I was too little to remember everything. I do recall waking up and crying. It was pitch black inside the cave and when I opened my eyes I couldn’t see anything but a huge upside down V-shaped opening of light. Later, I saw that I’d only seen the mouth where the cave opened up, but it literally scared the pee out of me then. It looked like—like the view from inside your pumpkin must look. I think I even saw a couple jagged teeth hanging down!”
Jilly shivered in sympathy.
“We walked into the rear of the cave and there was this little shelf-like opening taller than my father’s head. He set me down on the ground, and I saw him heft the bag up and into the opening.”
Tage stared down at her. “For all I know, it was an opening to some bottomless crevice.”
“We ought to go look,” Jilly said. She felt Tage’s step falter, and she slowed her pace.
“Why? We couldn’t spend the money . . .”
“I know,” Jilly said. “Still, searching would be like treasure hunting, wouldn’t it?
“I’m not sure I could really find it. There are a lot of caves up there, and my memory’s pretty hazy about the place. I was awfully little.”
“You never went back to the place—ever?” Jilly asked. “The whole time you were living with your Aunt Bess, it never occurred to you to take a stroll up to the deadmen caves and take a peek around?”
Tage shook his head. “My dad told me not to ever go up there; he said people had been lost in those caves and never came out, and that’s how the place got it’s name . . .” Tage shrugged one shoulder and laughed lowly. “I guess I thought it was some law or something. That was practically the last thing my father asked of me. The cops came the next day.”
“How do you know somebody else didn’t find the money? Doesn’t anyone go up to those caves?”
“People go up there all the time, especially teenagers. I even went up there with some friends from school one year, but we didn’t go into any of the caves. I couldn’t help but think about the money then, but I didn’t recognize which cave we’d been in that night.”
They had reached the edge of Otto’s yard. “And believe me,” Tage said, “the whole town would have known if somebody found that money.” He shook his head. “No. It’s still up there somewhere, but as far as I’m concerned, it can stay there.”
The night air was turning chilly; Jilly could see her breath, wispy fogs of opaque white, when they reached the light shining from the front porch.
She squeezed Tage’s hand. “You’re right,” she told him. “I guess if anybody was to get that money out of there, it ought to be your dad. It’s too bad he couldn’t spend it,” she said thoughtfully. “He’s paid a high price for it now.”
“Thirteen years of his life,” Tage said. “That’s too much to pay for what he did. Especially when I know he never would have tried to commit a crime if it weren’t for his loving me.”
“Just think,” Jilly said as she went up the steps. “Next Halloween he’ll be here—” Her voice tapered off and she stared in horror.
“What’s the matter?” Tage asked, bounding up on the porch beside her so quickly Jilly felt the wood tremble beneath her feet.
She pointed wordlessly.
A dead kitten, so young its eyes weren’t fully opened, lay in front of the screen door.
“It was Kane,” Gwen said, her face the cold white color of a fish belly. “He’s warning me. He’ll kill this baby if I don’t go back and give it to him.”
“It wasn’t Kane!” Cat said fiercely, even though she didn’t appear too certain. “Reuben brought that kitten—that cat—” she said pointedly, “to scare me.”
Nobody knew what to do. The warning, no matter which it was for, was so mean and sudden it took them all by surprise. Otto buried the poor kitten out in the field behind the barn, and when he came in his face was gray and his hands trembled.
“Whoever did that,” he said, his voice tight and controlled, “is not a rational, thinking, feeling human being. I wouldn’t let either one of you leave this house now. I’d fear for your lives.” He reached over and patted Jilly on the head, but he was looking at Cat and Gwen. “So if either one of you have any such thoughts in your heads, you can forget about them. You’d not only be harming yourselves, you’d be leaving me and Jilly
The mini-lecture left both women speechless and left Jilly near tears. She hadn’t fully realized how much she worried that Otto thought she had brought strangers into his house without his permission. His words proved the truth of the matter: he felt as committed to Gwen and Cat as she did. She only wished she could do something to take care of them all, to make everything right. That would prove her love for them was as real as the skin covering her body.
But as the months advanced, there wasn’t much any of them could do except become more watchful. Tage practically took up residence with them; he stayed at Otto’s from suppertime until dark, only leaving to go home and sleep and then go to work in the morning.
“I just want to make sure everyone is all right,” he told Jilly. It was the last Saturday before Christmas, and they were in the living room stringing popcorn for the Christmas tree Cat and Otto had gone to cut down. “I’m glad Otto has that gun; he’d use it, too, if he had to.”
Jilly picked her finger with the needle and raised the wounded finger to her mouth. “I don’t like that gun,” she said. “I didn’t like it when you pointed it at me that day we met, and I don’t like it now.”
“I didn’t point it at you,” Tage denied.
“Yes you did!”
“No I didn’t.”
Jilly opened her mouth to reply, but before she could Gwen waddled into the room and said, “You two sound like a pair of six-year-olds.”
Tage laughed. “You look like you’ve got a pair of six-year-olds in your belly.”
“Very funny,” Gwen said. She eased her way sideways onto the sofa, leaning backwards to catch herself with one hand. She looked more than ready to give birth.
“Turn the radio on, Jilly,” she said. “Maybe they’re playing some Christmas carols.” She rummaged around in a box sitting on the coffee table. “Found it!”
“What?” Jilly asked.
“Mistletoe,” Gwen said, pulling the plastic green branches out of the box. “Who cares if it’s fake? Hang it up in the doorway, Jilly. Here’s a tack.” She handed both to Jilly.
“I’m not tall enough,” she said. “Tage’ll do it.”
“Give it here.”
He walked over to the doorway and reached up to tack the mistletoe to the archway. “I need another tack,” he said. Jilly brought it over to him, but when she did he didn’t take it from her hand. Instead, he leaned down and kissed her.
His lips were a bit chapped from the cold weather, but they still felt warm against her own. Her stomach somersaulted. She darted a glance toward Gwen who was still pawing through the box of ornaments on the coffee table.
Quickly, before she could think about it and change her mind, she reached up and kissed him again. She caught him off guard and her lips landed somewhere near his chin. She felt a few stray prickles of hair against her lips and wondered why the sensation felt so good.
Tage smiled at her, and they went back to stringing popcorn. Gwen was humming along to the radio, and then Otto and Cat swept into the house. Otto’s hat was covered with snow, and Cat’s eyelashes had ice crystals, but their faces sparkled with joy.
“Look at this magnificent tree Otto found!” Cat said.
They all went out to the porch and exclaimed over its size. Otto and Tage pulled the tree through the doorway with Cat and Jilly helping here and there. Gwen stood back and directed them, her belly pointing out in front of her.
When they finally got the tree into the stand, Jilly collapsed on the living room floor. “Geesh . . .” she sighed. “Who ever would have thought Christmas was such work?”
“You barely lifted a pine needle,” Tage told her.
She sat up and stuck out her tongue at him, but he grinned at her and crossed his eyes.
“Would you come help me get this set of lights working?” Otto asked Tage.
Jilly hugged her knees to her chest and surveyed the scene in front of her.
Gwen, fatter than the chubby spruce tree, was still digging decorations out of the Christmas box, Cat was carrying in a wooden tray loaded with cups of heavenly smelling hot chocolate, and Tage and Otto were arguing over which one of them should plug in the light set they were trying to fix.
She’d known many kinds of Christmases at all of the foster homes she’d lived in, but none had prepared her for this one. If she could stop time, she’d do it right this instant. She’d freeze out all the problems hanging over their heads, and live in the joy and peace of a Christmas that felt like family.
BOOK TWO: ARRIVALS
Five days into the new year, forecasters began predicting an extraordinary ice storm heading into the North Country. The radio broadcast warnings and advised people to have an extra jug of water and a few candles on hand in case the electricity went off.
Otto clicked off the radio after the latest weather report, and said to Cat, “I know it’s your day off, but would you like to walk into town and pick up a few extra supplies?”
Gwen was in the kitchen making a double-layer chocolate cake; ever since yesterday she’d been running on a burst of energy and efficiency she called her ‘second wind.’ Jilly, curled up on the couch, still wore the fuzzy flannel pajamas she’d received from Cat for Christmas. She was reading Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rölvaag, a book recommended to her by Ned for her literature studies. She’d taken some time off from school—telling everyone that even home-schooled kids got Christmas vacation—but today was the official first day back for studying. To her everlasting amazement, she was finding the Norwegian immigrant story captivating reading.
But now she put her finger in the book to hold to her place and looked over at Otto and Cat. “Do you want me to go? Tage is coming over after work this afternoon, and we could walk into town to get whatever you want.”
Cat shook her head. “I’d like to go for a walk with Otto. It’s actually quite nice outside right now.” She cocked her head at Gwen thoughtfully. “We’ll grab the sled and be off.” She stood up. “Let me get my boots and things and I’ll be all set. Don’t forget your gloves, either, Otto.” Due to the weather change, they’d put away the old Radio Flyer and were using a metal runner sled. Otto had built wooden sides for it, so it resembled a wagon on skis.
Jilly went back to reading and didn’t stop until she smelled the heavy-sweet scent of chocolate drifting into the living room. Naturally, she went to investigate.
Gwen sat at the kitchen table absentmindedly stirring a bowl of chocolate silk frosting. The cakes were cooling on two racks next to the oven.
“That smells great,” Jilly said. “Let’s eat it for lunch.”
She’d only been teasing, and was shocked when Gwen agreed.
“Really?” Jilly said.
Gwen looked up at her. “What did you say?”
“I knew you weren’t listening,” Jilly said, her voice mournful at the thought of waiting until after supper for the cake. Gwen’s face tightened. “What’s the matter?” Jilly asked.
“Nothing,” Gwen said, letting out a brief sigh. “I wish Otto and Cat would come back. It’s really starting to freeze on out there.”
As if response to Gwen’s summons, Jilly heard footsteps on the front porch. The door swung open, but it was only Tage.
“What are you doing here?” Jilly asked, eyeing the clock. The time read two-thirty, she’d missed lunchtime altogether she noticed, and Tage didn’t get off work until four. “You’re drenched.”
“I know. You got a towel?” He ran a hand through his rain-darkened hair. “Rob let us go early. It’s really bad out there!” He bent down and untied his boots so he could take them off. “There must be a half-inch of ice coating the trees already. If this keeps up, we’re really going to be in trouble.”
Jilly handed him a kitchen towel she’d retrieved from the drawer and went to peer out the rectangular window in the door.
“They’re not here?” Tage asked in surprise. “Where’d they go?”
“To town,” Gwen said. “Why?”
“I barely made it out here,” Tage said grimly. “Walking is treacherous, driving is impossible. The cops are closing the roads.” He looked at the two of them. “Haven’t you guys been listening to the radio?”
Jilly shook her head. “I was reading, and Gwen was making a cake.” She bit her lip. “Do you think we ought to go look for them?”
“No!” Gwen said.
They stared at her.
“I mean,” she said with a forced laugh. “I don’t want to be here alone.”
The color drained out of Tage’s face leaving it a pasty white. “You don’t,” he said.
“You look sick,” Jilly told him. She looked over to Gwen for confirmation of this announcement and found her nodding.
“Wait a minute,” Jilly said. “You just said—” She stopped. “Oh-my-God-you’re-having-the-baby-aren’t-you?”
“Well, not right this minute,” Gwen said, sounding defensive. “But I started having some back pain a couple hours ago and they’re circling around to the front now.”
“But—but—” Jilly sputtered. “Cat’s not here!” she said unnecessarily. She knew Gwen and Cat had formulated some kind of plan for when Gwen went into labor, but she hadn’t really paid much attention.
Tage collapsed into one of the kitchen chairs. “We’ve got to get you out of here.”
Gwen picked up the first layer of the cake, positioned it on a platter, and spread a mound of frosting over the top. “We don’t have a phone, and you said the roads were closed. What else is there to do?” She concentrated on the cake, but her face looked peaked. “Cat was going to make arrangements for one of her friends to take me to the hospital over in Mooreville,” she said, her voice quiet. “But now I don’t know. I don’t know,” she repeated.