I Love You, Jilly Sanders, page 8
Otto about Jane Sandra, and lately there was so much to do she’d put the task off. It seemed like all three of them had something sad in their pasts, something that made Gwen cry herself to sleep at night, something that made Otto clam up like a rock about his own wife and daughter, and something that frightened Jilly so much she couldn’t quite bring herself to confront the truth.
Even Tage had something bad in his past, Jilly thought. Having a father in jail made Tage one of them, at least in her eyes. She’d taken Otto’s advice and gotten to know Tage, startled to discover she actually liked him. Now the two of them spent at least part of every day together.
“I think we’re going to go berrying,” Jilly told Gwen. “Tage claims he knows where there’s some ripe blackberries—not blackcaps—blackberries. There’s a difference, I guess. Blackberries are supposed to be better for some reason.”
“If you bring some home, I’ll make a pie.” Gwen laughed. “Not that I’ve ever made a pie before, but I’m sure Otto’s got some sort of recipe book around here somewhere.”
“Let me do the dishes,” Jilly said, nudging her way in front of Gwen. “You’re always doing them.”
“Okay,” Gwen said. “I’ve got some laundry to do anyway.”
Jilly rolled her eyes as Gwen left the kitchen. There was no stopping her once she got started. Despite the fact that she was only twenty-one years old, Gwen had the soul of a much older person. Or maybe older wasn’t the right word; perhaps she had the soul of a peaceful, happy home-person, content with the smaller things in life.
She finished the dishes and yelled up the stairs to tell Gwen she was going to meet Tage. “Tell Otto I’ll be back in time for supper!”
She heard Gwen’s murmur of assent and slammed out of the house, eager to be off.
Tage met her about a half-mile down the road. He was carrying a silver bucket that looked like a shiny version of the one Gwen used to hold the mop water.
“You look like Tom Sawyer,” Jilly greeted him, squelching the strange flutters in her stomach that had suddenly appeared when she saw him.
Tage lifted the bucket in acknowledgment. “I prefer Huck Finn, if you don’t mind. He was the much more interesting character. Poor Tom was just another naughty white boy; Huck had issues.”
Jilly raised her eyebrows at him. “Did you learn that in school?”
Tage grinned at her. “Don’t worry, little girl, maybe you’ll learn all about literature when you go back to school next month.”
“I told you I’m not going back,” Jilly said flatly, setting off again down the road. The sun was blistering hot and the road smelled like melting tar.
“You have to graduate from high school,” Tage argued.
“Why? What’s it gotten you?”
Tage shrugged. “I’m thinking about going on to college, but if not, I’m going to get a job. And the point is I have choices.” He whistled a tune, and then stopped to add, “Right now, though, I’m taking the summer off. My last summer before I have to grow up!”
“How do you live, anyway?” Jilly asked, curious. “You have to have money.” He lived all by himself out at his father’s house. She’d visited him there once, and the place was worse off than Otto’s. At least Otto’s house was solid, even if it hadn’t been too pretty. Tage’s place, she hated to admit, was ugly and decrepit.
“I get by,” Tage told her.
“Hmmm,” Jilly said, borrowing Otto’s all-purpose hum. “Are you ever going to tell me about your father?”
Tage glanced down at her. “What’s to tell?”
Jilly kicked a round rock down the road, not answering him.
“He’s in jail. You know that,” he said.
She caught up to the rock and kicked it again. “You don’t have to tell me.” She skipped ahead and gave the rock another slap-shot with the toe of her sneaker. “It’s none of my business.”
Tage caught up with her. “No,” he said. “It’s all right. It’s just that I haven’t ever talked to anyone about what really happened.” He hesitated a minute before he said, “And that’s what you want to know, isn’t it? The real story?”
“The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” Jilly quoted, but she didn’t laugh so Tage didn’t get angry.
Instead, he sighed and said, “My dad robbed the First National Bank.”
Jilly stopped in the middle of the road. “You’re kidding,” she said.
Tage shook his head. “No, I’m not. He pretended he had a pistol in his coat pocket and got the teller to give him a bagful of cash.”
“But they caught him?”
“Yeah. He got thirteen years; the judge said that was a light sentence, but since my dad hadn’t used a real weapon the judge didn’t think my dad should serve any more time than that.” He paused and looked over at her. “But he also said my dad shouldn’t serve any less time than that, so he’s not eligible for release until Friday, the thirteenth of February next year. That’s when he’s coming home.”
Jilly walked on. She could hear the birds calling out to each other up in the trees and the wind rustling the leaves.”You ever see him?”
Tage shook his head. “My dad won’t let me go to the prison—he’s in Dannemora—says it’s no place for a kid. He writes to me, and I write to him. Aunt Bess sends him my school pictures, so he knows what I look like, and once he sent me a snapshot of him out in the prison yard, but I haven’t seen him in person since I was six years old.”
Jilly stopped kicking the rock and walked on. “Do you hate him?” she asked quietly. “For not thinking about you before he committed a crime, I mean.”
Tage laughed, and then shook his head. “You don’t understand,” he said. “My father tried to rob that bank for me—not because he wasn’t thinking about me.”
The bucket clanged against Tage’s knee, and for a second the birds went silent.
Maybe that’s what happened, Jilly thought. A person could love a child so much it became impossible to think beyond the moment, to envision long-term consequences. Maybe even now her mother was regretting that fateful decision she’d made to leave Jilly at the church.
Tage interrupted her thoughts. “It was shortly after my mother died. We were flat-out broke, practically starving. Dad couldn’t get a job anywhere, and even if he could have, he didn’t know what he was going to do with me. We needed money to live on, but he couldn’t leave me alone. I was too little.” Tage paused. “And then I got sick—strep throat—and we didn’t have the money to get my medicine. It seems stupid now, but he was desperate.
“He left me in the car burning up with a fever and went inside the bank. When he came out, he was carrying a bank bag all puffed out, and I remember how our tires squealed when we drove away. I was five, and I liked Matchbox cars. I was always burning rubber.” He grinned at her and made a realistic tire-squealing sound to demonstrate his rubber-burning activity as a child before he continued.
“When we got home, Dad hid the money away. That was the funny part. We couldn’t even spend the money! Dad heard on the news that the criminal had gotten a bag full of marked money, and the police were confident they’d catch the man.
“And they did.” He laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. “But after they got him and they were questioning him, he told them they wouldn’t find a lick of that money near him.”
Tage shrugged. “I don’t remember much else, but afterwards I went to live with my Aunt Bess and Uncle Howie.”
Jilly’s mouth hung open and she snapped it shut. “Are you telling me your father never gave the money back?”
Tage shook his head.
“You’re a liar, Tage Oakes!”
He shrugged. “I don’t care if you believe me or not.”
“Where is it then?” Jilly demanded. “If you’re telling the truth, you ought to know where the money is!”
“Oh, I know where it is,” Tage said.
“I suppose that’s what you’re living on?” Jill
“Of course not!” Tage brushed past her. “Uncle Howie and Aunt Bess had collected all my birthday money for the past twelve years, and they added to it, too, and when I graduated they gave me the passbook. It’s not a lot, but I got enough money to take me through the summer.”
Jilly didn’t know whether to believe him or not. The whole story was so preposterous it could have been true!
“Follow me,” Tage said. He walked off the road onto a flattened path and headed into the woods.
“Where’re we going?” Jilly asked, her heart pounding. Was he going to lead her straight to the hidden money?
Tage looked at her in surprise. “To pick berries!”
Jilly felt the urge to punch him. “I don’t believe you know where that money is,” she said. “I bet your father gave it back!”
“He didn’t.” Tage shook his head. “But I’m the only one who knows.” He gave her a curious look and said, “And now you know, too. I’ve never told anyone else what I just told you. I didn’t even have to testify when my father went to trial.”
Jilly swallowed. Why had he told her? The quivering sensation in her belly returned.
“You know what else?” Tage asked. “My father told me he couldn’t give the money back and protect me, too.”
She stared at him and felt sweat forming near her hair line. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
For the first time, Tage appeared puzzled himself. “I’m not sure,” he said slowly. “I do know this, though. He never once—not to his lawyer or to the judge or to anyone—admitted he was guilty.”
Gwen was singing along with the radio when they returned from berry -picking, their lips and fingers stained blue-purple. Jilly had found the radio last week, tucked under a shelf in the living room, coated with dust.
“I’m assuming you either found berries or killed something and ate it raw,”
Gwen said when she looked at them.
Tage set the bucket of berries on the kitchen table. “I found berries. Jilly killed a raccoon.”
“I did not!” Jilly burst out, and then twisted her lips when Tage and Gwen laughed. “Laugh it up,” she said. “You two can make the pie. I’m just going to eat it!”
“There’s a problem with that, kiddies,” Gwen said, giving the already glowing wooden kitchen table another swipe with the dust cloth she held in her hand. “We’re out of flour. I found about a half a cup in the flour bag, and no more to be seen anyplace.” She reached into the bucket and grabbed two fat blackberries. “Too bad.” She popped the berries into her mouth and made a ‘yum’ sound.
“Do you want to go to town and get some flour?” Tage asked Jilly.
She shrugged and nodded. “Let me tell Otto I’m going, though. I’ve been gone all day.”
“He’s not here,” Gwen said. “He left right after lunch and said he was going into town. If I’d have known we were out of flour, I’d have asked him to get some.”
“Did he say where he was going?” Jilly asked.
Gwen shook her head. “I didn’t ask, either. I figured if he wanted us to know, he’d tell us.”
“He hangs out at the cemetery,” Jilly informed them.
Her words had the expected reaction.
“That’s not very nice!” Gwen exclaimed.
“He does not!” Tage said at the same time.
“Yes, he does. That’s where I met him.”
“What are you talking about?” Tage asked.
“I’ll tell you sometime,” she promised. She owed him something; he shared his secret story with her, so as soon as she got up the nerve, she’d tell him about Otto—and about Jane Sandra. After all, in a way, he was in the same situation she was. He hadn’t been able to see or touch his father for almost thirteen years, and she hadn’t seen or touched her mother, either.
Gwen put her hands on her hips, and her green eyes flashed. “I hardly think poor old Otto hangs out with ghouls, Miss Jilly.”
She sounded like a know-it-all sister, Jilly thought. She smiled.
“Don’t grin at me,” Gwen said, but she was smiling herself now.
Tage shook his head in dismay at both of them. “If we’re going to town, we’d better get going. Otherwise we won’t get back before dark.”
“I’ll have you both know this isn’t the first time he’s gone to the cemetery,” Jilly said, as though it were a foregone conclusion Otto was there now. “I wonder why he goes there . . .” She trailed off, almost afraid to think about the answer. What if she went back to the cemetery and found Jane Sandra’s name carved into a headstone?
As if she had read Jilly’s mind, Gwen said, “Well, if he goes to the cemetery often, he must be going there to visit somebody’s grave, don’t you think?”
“Do you need anything else to make the pie?” Tage asked Gwen. “Sugar? Eggs?”
“Eggs?” Gwen looked at him blankly. “Does it take eggs to make a pie?”
“I don’t know, either,” Gwen mused. “But if it does, we have a dozen in the fridge.” She bustled around the kitchen. “While you two are gone, I better search for a cookbook.” She disappeared into the pantry, mumbling, “If we need anything else we don’t have, the pie will just have to wait.”
“You want us to wait till you find the recipe?” Tage called out to her.
She stuck her head out of the pantry doorway. “No, no. Go ahead. You’ll probably run into Otto on the way there, and if you do, tell him what we’re doing, okay? Maybe his long-time memory includes a recipe for pie. He’ll know if we need anything else.”
Flour cost one dollar and ninety-five cents for a five pound bag at Digg’s. Jilly paid for that, and Tage bought her a Mountain Dew and himself a bottle of water. When they got outside, Jilly said, “They probably filled that in the sink out back.”
“This?” Tage held up his bottled water. “Not a chance! This is pure undiluted sparkling fresh spring water from some mountain in China. It says so on the label.” He tipped the bottle back and guzzled the liquid. When he finished the bottle was half empty and he made a smacking noise of satisfaction.
Jilly sipped demurely on her Mountain Dew.
“So are we going out to the cemetery?” Tage asked innocently.
Jilly choked on her soda.
He clapped her on the back. “What’s the matter? You know you were thinking about it.”
She had been, but she didn’t think he knew that.
“You got any idea who Otto might be—visiting—there?”
Jilly shook her head. She refused to say Jane Sandra’s name aloud, and she didn’t really want to say Mirabelle, either. That would be like wishing her own grandmother dead. “I don’t know,” she told him, but her voice sounded like she was trying to convince herself.
“Let’s go look at the headstones. We’ll probably find the name ‘Beckinhide’ and then we’ll know.” Tage reached out and took the plastic bag the flour was in from her hand. “I’ll carry this.”
Her heart thundered in her chest. Why not? she thought. Then I’ll know. And if she found bad news, at least she’d have Tage there to lean on.
Dusk was falling rapidly as they reached the cemetery. “Sure looks spooky, doesn’t it?” Tage teased her.
Jilly smiled at him sort of sickly. “When I met Otto he was in the back of the cemetery, down by the corner.” She pointed. “Let’s start there.” She glanced uneasily around. “Before it gets too dark to read any names.”
Tage reached out and took her hand, twining his fingers through hers for comfort. Jilly felt the hot dampness of his hand, felt the strength of his fingers linked with hers. She liked the feeling, even though she wasn’t sure exactly what appealed to her. They stayed together, making a systematic search of row after row.
It was Tage who pointed out the small square stone set flat into the
Her fingers tightened of their own volition as she stared down at the tiny marker. Kaitlyn Ella Beckinhide. Born August 9, 1966. Died August 9, 1966.
“What’s today?” Tage asked.
Jilly’s mind flashed back to this morning. She’d told Otto, in a cheery voice, that today was August 9, 1997. “It’s the ninth,” she said faintly.
Jane Sandra had been about a year old when this baby had been born. She’d lost a sister . . . . And I’ve lost an aunt, Jilly thought. Tears of grief burned her throat. It was silly, she knew, to grieve for this baby who hadn’t even lived a day, a baby she hadn’t even known existed. Yet, in that moment, it felt to her as though she’d lost another family member, lost something else that belonged to her that she could never recapture.
Tage let out a low whistle. “No wonder Otto came to the cemetery today. He can remember her.”
Jilly shuddered. “Now I know one reason he told me he’d like to forget the past and remember the present instead.”
“Yeah. I can’t imagine losing a baby. You never knew about her?”
A piercing scream disrupted the stillness of the cemetery. Jilly and Tage jumped simultaneously. The scream was cut off abruptly and replaced by the sickening sound of nothing at all.
“What the hell was that?” Tage gasped. He pulled Jilly down into a crouch, and they both craned their heads toward the front of the cemetery. Whatever it was had come from near the road.
“I’ll choke the livin’ shit out of you, woman . . .”
Tage froze at the sound of a gruff male voice, and pulled Jilly even nearer to the ground. His lips were right against her ear. “I’ve got to go see,” he whispered. “Stay here. I’m going to circle around to the front of the cemetery.”
“No!” she hissed. “Stay here. You don’t know—”
“I’ll be careful. You stay here.” He darted off in a half-crouch, ducking behind the larger headstones.