I Love You, Jilly Sanders, page 6
“I found an old car out in Otto’s back field,” she said.
Ned hopped off his stool, his chubby belly bouncing. “Oh no.” His voice fell flat.
“Did Otto tell cha ‘bout that?”
“Not exactly. He told me to stay out of the right field, but I didn’t, and the only thing out there is that car.”
Ned harrumphed. “He might as well told cha to take a magnifyin’ glass out there! Tellin’ a young un to not do somethin’ is the same as givin’ a invitation if cha ask me!”
“You know about the car?” Jilly asked.
“Course I do! I know why he told cha to stay away, too!”
Jilly tilted her head and stared at him. “Why?”
Ned paced behind the counter for a few minutes, his reluctance to talk visible in his slouched shoulders. He gave a small shake of his head, and said, “Aww, I might as well tell cha; I already went this far.”
Jilly moved in closer to the counter and Ned leaned over to whisper, “That’s the car that nearly killed Miss Jane Sandra.”
Jilly’s stomach plummeted like a bird dive-bombing a cat. She opened her mouth, but she couldn’t think of a word to say.
Ned didn’t have that problem. “Couple months ‘fore Miss Jane’s sixteenth birthday, Otto was takin’ her out to practice drivin’. She was gonna get her driver’s permit, cha know? So the two of them went out practicin’ for weeks; heard tell afterwards they wanted to surprise Mrs. Mirabelle.” Ned lumbered back up on his stool, looking certain now of his captive audience.
“Anyways, Miss Jane was drivin’ out near Cranberry Lake— Those roads be twistin’ and windin’ somethin’ fierce! —and she wrecked.” He swiped at his lips before continuing. “Smashed into a cement embankment.” He paused for effect, then continued. “Like I told cha, it nearly killed her, but Otto tweren’t much damaged. Shortly after that, though, the two of them—Mrs. Mirabelle and Miss Jane—took off and left ol’ Otto all by hisself out there in that big ol’ house.”
“Yep. Reckon it is. But now cha can see why Otto tol’ cha to stay away from that car, can’t cha?”
“Why’d they leave? Do you know?” Jilly asked, fear sweeping across her skin. As soon as the words left her mouth, she was tempted to say ‘never mind’ — to tell Ned to hush up and not ever speak again.
“Well, cha didn’t hear this from me, but story ‘round town says ol’ Otto found out some news ‘bout Miss Jane Sandra that sent ‘em all into a tailspin!” Ned scratched his nose.
Jilly’s stomach clenched. He’d found out about her! He’d found out Jane Sandra was pregnant! Her stomach unclenched and rolled; she felt sick. The white walls of the store glimmered, and for a moment she thought she might faint for the second time in her life.
The cowbell rang and a customer came into the store. The walls stopped shaking and Jilly’s breath came back to her. She should have known: a person can’t change a story that really happened; the only thing one could do is take it all in and try to figure things out later. Perspective—that was the key.
“Thanks, Ned.” Jilly hesitated. “I—I’ve got to get going.”
“Chore a good egg,” he said. “Stop in an’ see me again when cha come to town, ‘kay?”
Jilly agreed and walked out of the store, the cowbell banging noisily behind her. She hoped he never found out she wasn’t a good egg at all. Perspective or not, she knew one thing: even before she was born, she’d done nothing but cause heartache and sorrow.
Jilly was half-way home when one of the back wheels flopped off the Radio Flyer and sent her bag of groceries tumbling into the dirt. “I shouldn’t even be surprised,” she said grimly, and felt a jolt of amazement when she heard someone answer.
“Been having some bad luck, I presume?”
Jilly looked around. Gwenivere sat under an elm tree, her bare legs folded Indian-style beneath her. She looked more than ever like some creature from a fairytale, her creamy hair lifting—dancing, Jilly thought—in the breeze. She wondered if Tinkerbell-wings would sprout from beneath Gwenivere’s t-shirt.
No such luck. Gwenivere stood up and smacked the dust off her behind. “Probably lost a pin,” she said. She began searching along the edge of the road.
Jilly followed suit. “What are we looking for?” she asked.
“Looks something like a paper clip, only bigg—” She knelt down and scooped something up. “Here it is!” She held it up so Jilly could see. “This holds the wheel on. I used to have a wagon when I was a kid. It was older than the dickens, but we didn’t have any money for new stuff where I lived, so I got pretty good at fixing things.”
Gwenivere’s eyes were the exact shady green color of an old-fashioned Coke bottle.
She winked at Jilly. “I’ll just put this back together for you, honey.” She bent down, picked up the tire, pushed it back onto the axle, and clipped the pin in place. She stood up. “Good as new!”
“Thank you very much,” Jilly said.
“No problem,” Gwenivere said. She slid her fingertips into the back pockets of her shorts, her elbows jutting out, reminding Jilly once again of fairy-wings. “I take it you were having a string of bad luck,” she said. “You know,” she explained, “when you said you should have expected your tire to fall off.”
“Oh, that,” Jilly said. “My luck’s never been good.”
“Haven’t you ever heard that people make their own luck?” She grinned at Jilly. “Nope. Skip that. My own luck hasn’t been too hot lately, either, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it!” She clapped her hand over her mouth, and said from between her fingers, “Cripes! I’m trying to quit swearing. But those words just pop out of my mouth like popcorn out of an unlidded pan.”
Jilly blinked. A swearing fairy princess, she thought, standing right here in front of her. What were the odds of finding that? she wondered.
“I wish I had something to give you to thank you,” she said. “For fixing my wheel and all. I’d have had to carry all these books and the groceries, too. Probably would have had to drag the Radio Flyer along, too. It’s Otto’s.” She had a ten dollar bill and seventeen cents left out of her stash of money. She felt bad, but she didn’t want to give Gwenivere her last ten dollars, and she didn’t want to insult her by offering her seventeen cents, either.
“You don’t owe me a thing, honey,” Gwenivere said. “Who’s Otto?”
Jilly reached into the grocery bag and pulled out a Milky Way. “He’s my grandfather.” She supposed if she said that aloud enough times, she might even convince herself. “Would you like a candy bar?”
Gwenivere eyed it and bit the side of her lip. Her hand came out a few inches, but then she pulled back. “No. That’s okay. That’s your candy bar.”
“No. Here.” Jilly pushed the candy bar into Gwen’s hand, and bent to rummage around in the sack of grocery. “I’ve got another one.” She showed it to Gwen, not bothering to tell her she’d bought it for Otto. “And I’ve got a bottle of pink milk, too.”
“Pink milk?” Gwen said faintly.
“Strawberry flavored.” Jilly put Otto’s candy bar back in the bag, and pulled the plastic bottle of milk out. “You can have that, too. It’ll be warm before I get home anyway. Might even spoil. You’d be doing me a favor if you drank it.”
Gwen reached out and took the milk. Beads of water had formed on the side of the bottle and she wiped her hand around it. “If you’re sure . . .” she said.
“Oh, hell and damnation! I am hungry.” She ripped open the candy bar and took a jaw-stretching bite. She chewed, her eyes closed in bliss. She swallowed before she opened the strawberry milk to take a big drink. She smiled at Jilly, a pink milk-moustache outlining her pouty-pink lips. “Thank you.” She took another bite, and then said, “I might as well tell you. It’s not like I’m ashamed or anything. The last thing I had to eat was a b
She polished off the milk, and stuffed the last of the Milky Way into her mouth.
Jilly had a million questions, but she didn’t want to ask any of them. If Gwen had run away from home, like she had, she knew the other girl wouldn’t appreciate a bunch of nosy questions, even if she was half-starving.
“Would you like to come to my house for dinner?” she asked shyly. “I’m making spaghetti and meatballs.”
Gwen licked her lips. “Really?”
“Sure. You can even help me. Otto said he hated spaghetti, and then I bragged that mine was special—just so he’d eat it.” Jilly reached down and grabbed the Radio Flyer’s handle. “Besides, it’d be nice to have somebody new to talk to. There’s not much to do at the house. We don’t even have a television.”
Gwen moved into place beside her and they started walking together. “Don’t feel bad,” she said. “We didn’t even have electricity where I used to live!”
“Really? Why not?”
“I lived in a commune.”
Jilly’s only experience with the word was a joke Lester used to tell about a bunch of nudists who lived in a hippie commune. “What’s that?”
“A place near the foot of White Face Mountain. There’s a bunch of cabins, well, shacks, really, where everyone lived. There was one big one, that’s where everybody got together to eat and socialize, and three other ones where people slept.”
“Did you live with your mom and dad?”
“The commune doesn’t have mothers and fathers. All the females are the mothers and all the males are the fathers. Sort of shared parenting. Hell, I grew up there and I don’t have the foggiest idea who my biological mother and father are. For all I know, they up and left a long time ago.”
Jilly stared at her, stricken at the thought.
“That’s what I did, you know. Left.” She reached out and took the wagon from Jilly. “Here, let me pull that thing for a while.”
“You ran away?” She figured it was okay to ask once Gwenivere said something.
“Not exactly. It’s not like I was a prisoner there. We all just lived together, and were one big goddamn family.” Her voice was flat and empty.
Jilly, whose own idea of family teetered somewhere between the Cosbys and the Waltons, could have cried.
She wanted to tell Gwen she never knew who her mother was, either, but she hadn’t even told Otto that yet. Besides, just the thought of telling someone was enough to make her stomach flip over and her lips go dry and tight.
Jilly swallowed the hard pebble that suddenly formed in her throat. “The commune doesn’t sound like a very good place,” she said. “I think it would be awful to look around and see people who might be your mother, but never be able to find out for sure.”
Gwen nodded. “That’s why I left the commune,” she confessed. “I learned the hard way exactly how important a mother a real mother—is to a kid.” She reached down and rubbed her stomach. “I’m going to have a baby.”
Jilly’s foot kicked a rock and she stumbled. “When?”
“Not for a while. I think maybe some time in December or January.”
“Where have you been living?”
“Oh, here and there. Mostly camping out; that’s not so different from the commune, except there isn’t a place to heat water and take a bath. I’ve been traveling for over a month; I don’t know why I ended up staying here for a spell. I think it had something to do with the free-access bathroom at the mini-mart, and the library.” She laughed. “Today was the second day I spent in there. That little old librarian was a hoot, wasn’t she? I got a chuckle out of her, even though I probably shouldn’t have teased her about her Golden Rules.”
“She was mean!” Jilly said.
Gwenivere shrugged. “Not really. That’s her job. Cripes, that job is probably her whole life. I don’t think she has anything else. Remember that, honey, when you get older. If you aren’t careful, you can slide into something that changes who you are inside, and sometimes, you can’t ever crawl out.”
Jilly nodded, but she wondered if Gwen’s harsh words were true. She hoped not because she’d been having that slip-sliding sensation ever since she’d walked up to Otto’s house.
“That almost happened to me,” Gwen said. She stopped walking and looked intently at Jilly. “Can you keep a secret?”
She’d been keeping so many secrets lately, seemed like she didn’t know how to do anything else! But she nodded.
“The babies born in the commune—they, well, they sort of belong to the place until they grow up. That’s how they keep the place going. Once commune kids get to be eighteen they can leave if they want to, but most of them don’t go.
They’re used to the place; it’s all they’ve ever known. Hell, we even go to school there.” She snorted. “Home-schooled by a bunch of people who never went to a real school! It’s a wonder I can read at all!”
Impulsively, Jilly reached out and linked her hand with Gwen’s, and she felt Gwen’s tentative finger-hug response. They started walking again, Gwen pulling the Radio Flyer, their two linked hands swinging freely between them.
“Anyway, I’m twenty-one years old now, so, technically, I was able to sneak away. The only problem is the baby’s father—his name’s Kane—if he finds me—”
Jilly squeezed her hand. “What’ll happen?”
“He’ll try to take me back, at least until the baby is born.” She let go of Jilly’s hand and rubbed her stomach again, as though caressing the fragile life within. “Then they’ll let me go . . . but the baby will belong to them. I wouldn’t be able to get her out—” she choked up and squeezed her eyes shut for a second— “because not one single person there will say I’m the mother.”
Jilly chewed on her bottom lip in dismay. “But—but you would be!”
“Not according to them,” Gwen said flatly. “Once the baby is born, all the females are mother, and all the males become father. While I’m pregnant, I’m just a vessel that helps Kane to fulfill one of his duties at the commune. He’s obligated to help bring in new babies, and my leaving reflects badly on him.”
“It sounds horrible!” Jilly couldn’t think of anything vile enough to call a group of people who would try to steal somebody’s baby. “You can stay with us,” she offered impulsively.
Gwen stopped walking and gave Jilly a hug. “Oh, honey,” she said. “That’s the sweetest thing anybody’s said to me in a long time.” She took off walking again. “But your grandpa isn’t going to want a stranger staying with him. That’s just not right.”
Jilly swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. Even though Gwenivere was the older one, she might have been Jilly’s little sister; the top of her head only reached Jilly’s shoulder. “He might not care if a stranger came,” she said softly. Then, more firmly, she said, “If he says it’s okay, will you stay?”
Gwenivere blinked her bottle-green eyes at Jilly. “We’ll see,” was all she said. “Now come on. If we’re going to cook a spaghetti dinner, we better get a move on. It’s getting late.”
“That’s the best dang spaghetti I ever ate,” Otto said, his voice teasing. “You two girls must be part Eye-talian!”
“Jilly cooked it,” Gwenivere said. “But I agree with you. That’s the most I’ve eaten in a month!”
“You look like you haven’t eaten in a month of Sundays,” Otto told her. “Jilly tells me you’re looking for a place to stay for a time. Maybe we can fatten you up while you’re here.”
Gwen laughed. “Seein’ as I’m going to have a baby, that’s not going to be too difficult!”
Jilly’s fork paused over her spaghetti. She wondered how she was going to break that bit of news to Otto without bringing back painful memories, but to her relief he simply smiled at Gwen.
“I won’t impose on you too
“The painting?” Otto said, his eyebrows shooting down in puzzlement.
“I thought I’d use some of the paint out in the barn to fix up the kitchen a bit, and maybe the living room,” Jilly said. “If that’s okay. I thought it would brighten everything up.”
“Hmmm,” Otto hummed. “Sounds all right to me. I don’t know what kind of paint is out there, though. Most of it’s enamel. Doesn’t seem like that would be too good for painting walls.”
“Doesn’t look like much could harm these old walls,” Gwen said. She looked over at Otto and lifted both shoulders in an embarrassed gesture. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I wasn’t implying that your house—”
“No, no,” Otto said. “You’re right. These walls could use a splash of color. Just don’t paint them International red, eh?”
Jilly laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said. “The tractor’s the only thing that’s going to be that color.”
“Hmmm,” Otto said. “I think I’ll take a walk, if you ladies will excuse me?”
“Of course,” Gwen murmured.
“See you later,” Jilly said.
After the screen door slipped shut, Gwen turned to Jilly. “I hope I didn’t offend him. I didn’t mean the house was ugly.”
“Of course you didn’t. Besides, he’s not like that. The day after I got here, I started washing the windows!”
“Do you think it’s really okay for me to stay here?”
Jilly nodded. “I talked with Otto in private, and he’s the one who suggested it. Honest.”
“What if he doesn’t remember?”
“I’ll remind him in the morning just like I remind him about me.” She’d told Gwen about Otto’s memory problem, and Gwen had been immediately sympathetic.
“You’re very kind,” Gwen told her. “I’m not sure I deserve it, though.”
“I know what it’s like to not have a place to call home,” Jilly said. “I hope you’ll stay a long time.”