Authors: Dallas Schulze
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Her name was Lily and she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. In all his fifteen years, Trace had never seen anyone or anything like her. She stepped out of the worn truck into the dusty yard and the flat Oklahoma prairie faded away.
His mother had said that this new member of the family was eight, but Trace wondered if that was right. She was tiny—smaller even than Ned Higgindorf, who lived at the farm down the road, and Ned was only six. From a distance her bones seemed too delicate to support her, her limbs too fragile to be real. Her skin was pale, like the white china teacup that was his mother's prize possession, and her hair— How could he describe her hair? It was black but not just black. Where the sun caught it there were blue highlights, like the wings of some tropical butterfly in a picture book. It fell in a rich black cloud past her shoulders.
Trace stood on the porch, caught between the need to get closer to such beauty—to see if it was real—and the urge to back into the shadows of the tumbledown house.
His stepfather slammed the driver's door of the truck and came around the front, his boot heels scrunching on the thin layer of gravel that served as a driveway. He carried a cheap vinyl suitcase in one hand and a sack in the other. Trace
barely glanced at him. The suitcase would be the girl's things; the sack would be from Joe's liquor store.
*'Come on, Lily. Come meet your new family."
The words floated over the yards between them, the voice slurred, indicating that whatever the bag contained, the old man had already more than sampled it.
Lily. Trace rolled the name over in his mind. Lily. There were some lilies growing in old Mrs. Grady's flower bed near the school. He rem^nbered seeing them and thinking they looked too delicate to survive the cold winters that blew down out of the north. Lily. The name suited the child who was picking her way across the rutted yard.
"Don't just stand there, boy. Come and meet your new sister." The old man stopped at the foot of the stairs and set down the suitcase, stripping the paper bag off the bottle and twisting the cap off the whiskey. The bag skittered across the yard, pushed by a late summer breeze. It caught in the branches of an overgrown rosebush, the thorns holding it tight. The rosebush was all that was left of the rose garden his mother had planted. The rest of the bushes had succumbed to bitter cold winter winds, searing hot summer sun and neglect. The bag dangled from a canp, its rustling reminding Trace of a cricket trapped in a shoe box, scrambling to escape.
"Well, boy, ain't ya gonna come meet Lily?"
Before Trace could answer, the screen door squealed a protest and his mother stepped onto the porch, squinting against the sun.
Addie Roberts had been a pretty woman once, but time and life had worn the prettiness out of her, leaving her dried up and old before her time. Her hair, once the same dark blond as her son's, was streaked with gray and her face bore lines of worry. It was only when Trace closed his eyes and thought real hard that he could remember the pretty smiling woman she'd been when he was little.
Her brow furrowed now, her eyes anxious. ''I'm sorry I wasn't here to greet you, Jed, but the sink clogged up again and I was trying to fix it."
Jed Roberts grunted and lifted the bottle to his lips, taking a long pull of the amber liquid before answering his wife. **I can't leave the house even to go pick up my only brother's little girl without something going wrong around here. It's a wonder how you manage when I go to work."
Trace's upper lip quivered in contempt. They did just fine when the old man went to work, but that wasn't very often.
*'I know, Jed, and I'm real sorry about the sink."
"Never mind about the sink." Jed waved the bottle, the Hquid sloshing in it. '*You haven't said hello to Lily. Trace wouldn't even come off the porch to make her welcome. What's a matter, boy? You afraid of a girl child?"
Addie cast a worried glance at her son but Trace only shrugged. After thirteen years he'd learned that most of his stepfather's comments weren't worth bothering about. The old man was just trying to get a rise out of him and it was more satisfying to frustrate him by ignoring the remark. Seeing that there wasn't going to be trouble, Addie turned her attention to the little girl, who'd watched the exchange without expression, her wide eyes taking it all in but revealing nothing.
"Hello, Lily. I'm Addie. I hope you'll be happy with us." She held out her hand and the child took it in one of her own; her other hand clutched a stuffed dog. Lily climbed the three steps onto the porch, stopping just out of the sunlight.
"I'm very sorry about your mommy and daddy but your uncle Jed and I will take very good care of you."
"Thank you." The self-possessed little voice left Httle room for sympathy, and Addie stared at the child for a moment, at a loss for words. Lily looked around the porch and
then fixed her gaze on Trace, who still hung back in a corner. Those eyes drew him forward and he took a step, then knelt down in front of her to meet her face-to-face.
'*Hi. I'm Trace.'* Up close her face was all delicate angles and lines, too beautiful for a child. Her eyes were large and thickly lashed and the most brilliant shade of green he'd ever seen. Her beauty was enough to catch at your breath. She held out her hand and he took it, feeling the fragility of her bones contrasting with the strength of his callused palm.
* Trace?" She wrinkled her nose, her face crinkling in a purely childish expression. "That's a funny name."
*'I think Lily is a beautiful name."
'Thank you. This is Isaiah. He's my best friend." She held up the stuffed dog and Trace nodded solemnly, taking the dog's paw in his hand and shaking it.
*'I hope you'll let me be a friend, too."
Lily stared at him, those fathomless eyes thoughtful, and then she nodded. 'T think so."
''Let's get Lily settled in her room." Addie's voice broke into the strange rapport between her son and the little girl. Trace stood up, feehng an odd glow when'Lily slipped her hand into his, her tiny fingers curling trustingly around his, as if she had no doubt that he'd be staying with her. He'd planned to walk the five miles into town and look for a job he could take on at nights when school started in a couple of weeks, but that didn't seem so important now.
Addie led the way into the house and Trace and Lily followed her with Jed bringing up the rear. Trace had helped clear out the old sewing room only that morning. The sewing machine still sat in one corner but a narrow bed and a dresser transformed the space into a bedroom. Addie hurried into the room, smoothing the worn blue coverlet with anxious hands.
**It's not much. Probably not near as nice as what you're used to, but we can fix it up. Some paint maybe, and new curtains." She dusted at the scarred window frame as if the neglect of years could be repaired with a flick of her apron. She turned to smile at Lily, her expression apologetic. "You probably had a real nice room at your folks' home."
"You're very kind to let me stay here." She was obviously parroting something she'd been told to say. Trace wondered who'd coached her. Maybe the neighbors she'd stayed with after the small plane crash that had killed her parents.
"You're my brother's only child. Of course you're goin' to stay here." Jed pushed into the room and Trace wondered if it was only his own distaste for the old man that made him think Lily shrank a little closer.
Jed dropped the suitcase on the floor and took another pull at the bottle. He caught his wife's eyes as he lowered it and his mouth set in a sneer. "Don't say a word, Addie. I'm tired of your whining every time I take a drink. It's gettin' to the point where you'd think I was drunk all the time or somethin'. Is that what you think?"
"Of course not, Jed. I just worry about you." Addie's eyes skittered away from him, settling on nothing in particular.
"Well, stop worrying. Never could stand to have a woman fussin' over me." He turned and looked at Lily. "When you're growed, don't you go fussin' at a man, you hear?"
This time Trace knew it wasn't his imagination. The child edged back slightly so that she was partially behind his leg, her wide eyes fixed on her uncle. She didn't say anything. Jed looked as if he might like to press for an answer and then changed his mind. He left the room, his walk still reasonably steady. But that wouldn't last long. Pretty soon he'd have finished the bottle and then maybe he'd start in on another.
Addie watched her husband leave and then met her son's eyes for a moment before looking quickly away. She'd long since given up trying to answer the questions she knew he'd never ask.
"Well, Lily," she said. **I hope you'll be happy here." She looked around, seeing the worn paint and scuffed floors, the tattered curtains that hung at windows that had been painted shut years ago. Her smile flickered quickly. "I'd better go water the vegetable garden. The sun gets real hot this time of year. Trace will stay with you and show you around the place. There's all kinds of things to see."
Trace watched her leave and then looked down at Lily. She was staring around the room, her expression unreadable. He wondered what she was thinking. He wondered if he'd ever know.
Lily settled into the household as if she'd always been there. Trace couldn't remember what life had been like without her. She tagged along after him whenever he wasn't at school or work. He might have found her a nuisance, but somehow she fit so neatly into whatever he was doing that he didn't mind having her along.
He taught her how to look for eggs, dis(5overing all the places the hens liked to hide their nests. She followed him when he went fishing, sitting quietly on the creek bank, watching his pole with more interest than Trace had himself until she'd fall asleep, her head pillowed on the stuffed dog that was her constant companion.
She rarely talked about her family. When he asked, she said that her parents had been gone a lot, leaving her with various sitters, all of them nice. She didn't seem to miss them much, though sometimes he thought he saw a deep sadness in her eyes.
She made friends with Addie and helped to weed the garden and snap beans for canning. She was slow and awk-
ward with the tasks but Addie didn't hurry her. A few minutes either way didn't matter.
It was only with Jed that Lily failed to display the friendliness that seemed to be so natural with her. She watched her uncle with wary eyes, speaking to him only if he asked her a direct question.
Summer edged into September and Trace started school. In years past he'd looked on school as an opportunity to be away from home all day, away from the tension and hopelessness. Now he found himself looking forward to getting hcMne. He took a job at the grocer's in town, and Lily learned what time to expect him. She'd wait by the road, Isaiah in one hand and a fistful of papers in the other, eager to show him what she'd learned in school. And Trace wanted to know.
If he'd tried to analyze his reaction, he would have said that Lily was an orphan, alone in the world, and that was why it was easy to be kind to her. But the truth was, Lily brought something into his life, something he couldn't define, couldn't explain. He wanted to protect her, keep her from the harsh realities of the world as he knew it.
She'd been with them almost two months when Jed came home one night>oaring drunk. Jed's drinking always got worse as winter approached. It was a pattern Trace had learned to live with. He simply stayed out of the old man's way as much as possible.
Dinner was tense that night. Jed drank steadily. Addie watched him, her eyes nervous. Lily picked at her food, her big eyes darting to her uncle's flushed face and then away. Trace watched his mother, hating the fear he saw in her eyes.
As soon as the meal was over, Addie sent Lily off to get ready for bed. Trace retreated to his cramped room and shut the door. It didn't help. He could almost smell the anger and fear and resentment. He had homework but he didn't pick up a book.
He leaned against the window and stared out into the darkness. There was no moon that night, but he didn't need light to know what lay beyond the window. Flat prairie stretched in all directions—featureless, monotonous, never changing.
Jed's voice rose in anger and Trace closed his eyes. He couldn't hear what his stepfather was saying but he could guess at the general theme. If Jed hadn't married Addie and taken on her and her son, he could have made something of himself. He would have been a big star by now, working out of Nashville. Everyone around here knew he could have been a star.
And Addie would apologize and tell him she was sorry she'd held him back, sorry she'd had so many miscarriages and had never given Jed a son of his own.
Trace's hands clenched into fists. He opened his eyes. Somewhere out there beyond the flat prairie there had to be something more. Something better.
He turned away from the window. Jed's voice still rose and fell in the living room, the whining note coming through even when he was shouting. Trace knelt next to the bed and reached under the mattress, drawing out an old cigar box. He set it on the rumpled blanket and lifted the lid. Worn bills stared back at him, a few fives and tens, a couple of twenties, but mostly ones. He didn't pick up the money to count it. He knew how much was there. Three hundred fifty-three dollars.