It was a lovely dress, soft and pink as a cloud at dawn. Bertie admired the way the chiffon draped from her neck in long, light, curving folds, seeming to narrow her square shoulders, and it pleased her to imagine how the skirt would swish around her calves when she walked to the stage to get her eighth-grade diploma, but she was most fond of the two buttons, small silver roses, that fastened the sleeve bands just below each elbow. Two months Mabel had worked for the dress, going into Kendall’s an hour early every day, fixing it with Mrs. Kendall so, come commencement week, Bertie could choose any one she wanted. Bertie twirled before the mirror, then lifted her hair to see how it would look pinned up, and, yes, suddenly she was taller, almost elegant. She couldn’t remember feeling pretty before. In this dress, she did, and it was wonderful. She even felt a little sorry for Mabel. Her sister had always been beautiful—slim and doll-like, with big eyes and glistening bobbed hair, Juniper’s Clara Bow—so Mabel couldn’t appreciate the wonder of suddenly feeling transformed, caterpillar to butterfly.
Bertie swooshed out her arms, letting her hair fall again down her back. Stooping to pull open the bottom drawer of the dresser, she reached into the far back corner for Mabel’s photograph—the one made specially for the stereopticon, with two of the same view, printed side by side.
There was Mabel, sitting on a swing, a painted garden behind her—a pair of Mabel’s, as if she were her own twin—looking like an exquisite, unhappy bride in a lacy white dress, her dark hair, still long then, longer and fuller than Bertie’s had ever been, spilling round her shoulders.
Bertie slid her fingertips across her own hair—not heavy, but fine and smooth. Very soft. Sometimes, just before he kissed her cheek, Wallace stroked her hair like this. He’d never told her if he thought it was pretty—but he must think so. Why else would he have made her a Christmas present of the pale green ribbon she’d pointed out to him in the window at Kendall’s?
She’d never worn it, not once. It stung her suddenly to realize this must have hurt Wallace, made him think she didn’t appreciate him. No one but the two of them knew about the gift—not even Mabel. Bertie had brought it home and hidden it, taking it out to hold against her cheek only when she was alone in the house—too afraid of her stepfather’s angry questions, demanding to know how she had come by it.
Well, she would wear it. This Saturday, her graduation day. She would wear Wallace’s ribbon and not care what anyone said. Such a pretty green to go with her dress, pretty as the spring-fresh stem of a rosebud. She would wear it and Wallace would know that she loved him, and then maybe, just maybe, in another year, after Wallace had finished high school, they could talk to his folks about getting married. Even if the Hansford’s said they had to wait awhile longer, until Bertie was sixteen or seventeen, she could leave school and get a job, and with her and Wallace both working and saving up, they could get a place of their own straight off.
Mabel would be upset to know Bertie was thinking this way. Lately, Mabel had talked as hopefully about her finishing high school as Mama once had—all through that sad winter after the doctor, fearing for the baby, had put Mama to bed. Every afternoon when nine-year-old Bertie got in from school, she hurried into Mama’s room, not pausing long enough even to take off her damp coat. She would lean in, kiss Mama with her wind-frozen lips, then turn to hug Mabel, who would take the coat to the kitchen to dry. While her sister started supper, Bertie sat in the bed beside her mother.
“When the baby comes,” Bertie said, “I’ll stay home to help.”
“You’ll still be in school.” Mama pulled her close. “Don’t you mind what your step daddy says. We’ll work it out. Mabel’s here now, and I’ll have both my girls to help me through the summer.” Mama’s voice was tired, tinged around the edges with uncertainty, but firm at the center. “Come the autumn, I want the two of you back in school where you belong.”
When Mama talked, Bertie believed her, but then at supper, in between mouthfuls of stew, their stepfather, Jim Butcher, not looking straight at either of them, would tell the girls what was on his mind. “You’ve had enough school,” he said to Mabel. “Reckon even too much.” He stabbed his fork toward Bertie before filling it again. “Even she’s had more than I had, and I had more than my daddy. You know how to read, write, do all the sums you’re liable to need. That’s plenty enough.”
“But when Mama’s stronger—” Mabel began.
“Then there’ll be another one along.”
At one time or another, it seemed like everybody in Juniper had heard Jim Butcher tell his story— always when he was drinking—about how, when he’d made it across the field of wheat and lay alone in a thicket in Belleau Wood—lay gasping, covered in the mixed muck of rotting leaves, pine needles, blood and flesh—God had spoken to him and promised him three sons.
But Jim Butcher’s only son had died before he could take even one breath. Two days the baby had battled to be born, and when he gave up, he took Mama with him. That—losing Mama—had been the worst thing possible, and yet Bertie couldn’t help feeling that for Mama it might have been best, dying before three, four, five years of new babies could make her older and ever more tired, make her worry more about the burden she was leaving on her girls.
Only because of Mabel, who did everything Butcher wanted—tending the house and working a job, too—had Bertie been able to go back to school. Her sister had just stepped into Mama’s shoes, seeing to all the cooking, the washing, and the dreaming for Bertie’s future. How could she tell Mabel that going on to high school didn’t matter to her? She wasn’t quick like her sister was—Mabel loved everything about books and learning— but Bertie struggled mightily whenever she had to read something. All she really wanted was to make a life with Wallace, to stand by him, and raise his children, and smile on him until death.
Bertie reached again into the open drawer until her hand found the fold of tissue paper protecting Wallace’s ribbon. Mabel would be in the kitchen now getting breakfast, and Jim Butcher would be sitting on the chair beside the bed that used to be Mama’s bed, pulling on his work boots, probably figuring up some new way he could make Bertie feel small, some reason to call her stupid and clumsy, like the way he did when he saw her slosh a little milk out of the pail after stumbling in a rut outside the barn.
But Bertie didn’t care. She stood before the mirror, drawing the ribbon out to its full length. It was beautiful against the dress. She might wear the ribbon as a band, leaving her hair loose as a waterfall down her back. Or she might gather the hair at her neck to show off the ribbon in a shimmery bow. What mattered was that, however she wore the ribbon, Wallace would see, and then—at the party after the commencement service, since no dancing would be allowed in the church hall—then Wallace would keep his promise to her by dancing her outside, and he would glide her in circles across the grass, and, flushed and dizzy, they would stop and he would look right at her, touch the ribbon, and tell her she was beautiful.
She picked up Mabel’s portrait again, turning it to face the mirror, just to see how she measured against her sister. But no—she would not look. She was done comparing herself with Mabel. And she was done trying to work out why Mabel hated this picture of herself, why she’d cut off her hair the night after it had been taken, why she had wanted to burn the card the very day Jim Butcher had brought it back from that Louisville photographer.
Right now, this moment, Bertie was determined to be happy. She had made it through Saturday and Sunday, and now it was Monday again and she had only to make it through the school day until she would see Wallace, waiting for her on the stoop like he always did, ready to hold her hand on their slow walk away from school, through town, and to the corner, where he would kiss her cheek before leaving her to turn for home.
“Alberta!” Butcher’s growl flung out ahead of his familiar heavy step.
She dropped the ribbon into the open drawer and pushed it closed, waiting to answer her stepfather until he appeared in the doorway. “Sir?’
He pulled back a little when he saw her, and stared. Raking his eyes up and down her body, up and down, like he didn’t know her. For a moment, Bertie stopped breathing and reached out a hand to steady herself on the dresser. She’d been caught trying on the dress when she ought to have been checking the water for the cow or pulling any little weeds that might have come up around the tomato sets during the night. He might be angry enough to tell her she couldn’t go to graduation. He might even tell her she couldn’t go to school today to sit for her final examinations, and if she didn’t take them, the school might fail her and she’d be forever without her eighth-grade diploma. Terrified as she was of what Butcher might say, she felt a flash of anger at herself for not having thought through the possibilities. She should have left the dress alone until evening.
Butcher looked past her and out the window at the empty clotheslines. Bertie couldn’t remember a time when he’d broken a hard stare at her, and the change made her more nervous.
“You finish all your chores?” He was looking toward her again, but somehow not quite at her.
“Almost, sir,” she said, struggling to relax her throat enough to get a breath. “I’m going now, just as soon as I change my dress. I had to make sure it fit.”
Still he stood in the doorway, watching her. Did he expect her to take it off then and there?
Bertie took a step toward the door. “I’ll be right out, sir. Soon as I change.”
“How long’s that program Saturday?”
She didn’t dare go any closer. He might see her trembling. “The ceremony’s at three,” she said. “At the church. There’s a light supper after. And after that . . .” How could such a cold stare burn a hole in her? She should just give up the party, not even mention it, come right home after she got her diploma. No hair ribbon. No dance with Wallace on the lawn. But Wallace would understand, wouldn’t he? She was almost sure he would.
“After that,” Bertie began again, but suddenly Mabel appeared behind Butcher.
“Daddy,” she said, touching his arm lightly, “your breakfast’s ready. Will chicken be all right for supper?”
Daddy, Bertie thought. She loved her sister but despised her for calling him that.
Butcher turned his head slightly toward Mabel, then looked down at his arm, where her fingers still rested. Without looking up, he spoke in Bertie’s direction: “Saturday, you be in by eight-thirty. Not a minute later.”
He walked off to the kitchen, Mabel calling after him, “I’ll be right there, Daddy.”
With a quick look behind her, Mabel slipped inside the bedroom and closed the door. “Let me help you with the back buttons.”
Bertie turned toward the mirror. “Why do you call him that?”
Instead of answering, Mabel took the brush from the dresser and drew it through Bertie’s hair in long, firm strokes. “It fits just right,” Mabel said. “The dress. Like it was made for you.” She smiled over Bertie’s shoulder at their paired reflections. “Just look how beautiful you are.”
Bertie closed her eyes, enjoying the way her scalp tingled with every stroke of the brush. After Mama died, it was the way Mabel—fourteen then, the same age Bertie was now—had stilled Bertie’s sobbing. That, and spending hours with her on their shared bed, looking at pictures in the
stereopticon, just like they’d done with Mama, long before Jim Butcher spent a few weeks of rough charm on her, drawing her out of her widow’s loneliness, persuading her that, without a man, she’d surely lose the little patch of land left to her, along with the only security she had for her girls.
In the months after Mama’s passing, they’d hear Butcher round the back of the house, throwing rocks or dried-up corncobs, sticks of kindling or empty bottles—whatever he could find—at the side of the barn, raging at the sky, calling God a filthy bastard for breaking his promise. Sometimes,
to cover up the sound, Mabel would read out loud to Bertie, or they’d sing songs Mama had liked, but always, before long, they’d get out the photo cards Mama had collected since she was a girl, and Mabel would fit them, one at a time, into the clamps on the stereopticon.
Bertie’s favorite was “The Mother’s Tender Kiss,” from a set Mama had been given a year or two before she married their father. Dated 1905, it showed a wedding party against what seemed a wall of huge blossoms, even a ceiling, like a cave of lilies. Everyone in the photo—the women in their layers of lace and the men in their slim black suits—looked toward the bride, almost obscured by her mother, who leaned in for a final kiss before her daughter became a wife. When Bertie was very small, she thought the picture was of her parents’ wedding, and even though she knew now it wasn’t true, in her mind, that’s just how it had been: a day of flowers, of lovely women and handsome men, all happy and loving each other.
“Mabel,” Bertie said now, placing her hand over the brush and taking it from her sister. “What’ll I do when you get married?”
“Who says I’m getting married?”
“It’s bound to happen. Boys like you.”
With her quick and gentle hands, Mabel separated Bertie’s hair into three sections and started braiding it. “That’s not for me,” she said. “So don’t you worry about it.”
“Do you still think about Freddy?”
All last year, Bertie had been terrified that Mabel would leave her to marry Freddy Porter. It seemed then that everywhere she went people had something to say about how Mabel Fischer ought to snap up her chance before it got away from her. Freddy had an uncle who owned a furniture store in Louisville, and it was said he was planning to get Freddy started in the business. Of course the older girls were jealous—the girls that used to be Mabel’s friends before she had to leave school—saying the only reason Freddy liked her at all was for her looks, but Bertie knew that wasn’t true. Maybe she hadn’t seen it then, but now, when she remembered, she could see that Freddy had looked at Mabel the way Wallace sometimes looked at her. Suddenly, now that it seemed possible she might be the one to get married, the one to leave her sister alone with a hateful man, Bertie was ashamed that she hadn’t really been sorry—sorry in her heart—when Butcher ran Freddy off. The idea of being left behind with her stepfather had been so terrible that she had refused even to ask herself if Mabel’s heart might be broken.
“Did you like him very much?” Bertie asked. “Freddy?”
Mabel finished the braid and held the end secure in her hand. “I did,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter now. Should I pin this up, or would you like me to tie it?”
“I have something.” Carefully, so as not to pull the braid from Mabel’s hand, Bertie bent to open the bottom drawer again. The unfurled ribbon was in easy reach. “Will this work?”
“It’s more the length for braiding in,” Mabel said, “but I can fix it some way.”
“No, just pin it,” Bertie said, stroking the ribbon. “I want to save this for something special.” She was surprised, when she looked at Mabel’s reflection, to see her sister smiling at her.
“That’s the one Wallace bought for you, isn’t it?”
Bertie flushed with the discovery, and for a moment all she could think of was how ugly the pink chiffon looked on her now, with her change of color. “How did you . . .”
Mabel laughed. “Did you forget the store’s on the way home from school? I’ve seen you two going past for months—since October at least.” She wrapped an arm across her sister’s chest and pressed her cheek over the very spot Wallace kissed. “I’m happy for you, Bertie,” she said. “I like Wallace.”
Quickly, Mabel fastened up the braid in a loop, then picked up the brush, sweeping it through her own hair in rough, short strokes. Meeting Bertie’s eyes in the mirror, Mabel tipped her head toward the closed bedroom door and whispered, “You mustn’t let on to him, though. He wouldn’t like it.” She laid the brush on the dresser. “I’d better get in there before he hollers. And you’d better get changed or you won’t finish your chores in time to get to school.”
With her everyday dress on, the looped braid was too fancy—people would laugh, say she was putting on airs—so Bertie plucked out the pins and shook her hair loose, tying it back from her face with piece of twine. What was it Wallace saw in her? She was so plain, she might as well have been invisible.
Around the house, that was the best way to be. If not for Mabel, she might have run away a dozen times over, but her sister always smoothed things, seeming to know the way to talk to calm Butcher down. Then, late at night, after they had heard him go down the hall to bed, Mabel would relight the lamp and get out the stereopticon. They’d take turns with it, spreading the cards across the rug.
Mabel might hold out a view of downtown San Francisco or New Orleans or Chicago and say, “Let’s you and me go there.”
And Bertie would gaze at the gray city and try to imagine herself there. She couldn’t—she’d never been out of Juniper. “What about money?” she would say. “He expects me to go to work soon as schools out.”
Mabel would smile—always a smile shadowed with secrets, but a shadow that stilled Bertie’s worries, as if the things she didn’t know were what kept her safe. “Whenever he sends me to the store,” Mabel told her once, “I keep back a nickel or a dime—whatever I think he won’t notice. That I save. I’ll work extra when I can, like I’ve been doing for your commencement dress. By the time you finish high school, there’ll be enough to get us out of Juniper, to get us started somewhere else.”
There was plenty of money in Butcher’s strongbox, the one he kept back of the low cabinet behind the whiskey bottles. Surely Mabel knew about that. Or maybe she didn’t. Bertie hadn’t known about it for long—only since she’d stepped around the corner early one morning last winter while he was loading up his pockets for his trip to the bootlegger. He didn’t see her, but she saw him put the box back in its hiding place.
Just a week or two ago, while studying a view of New York, Mabel had again said, “We’ll go there. You and me. Someday.”
“Oh, Mabel, let’s go now.” She could surprise Mabel with the money. Make up some story about how she’d earned it. Or about how Mama had hidden it away for them. A gift. “Let’s go right after graduation. I can work, too.” Bertie had meant it when she said it, caught up in the idea of getting away from Jim Butcher, meant it until she remembered Wallace. Leaving Juniper would mean leaving Wallace, and she didn’t want to do that.
“One of us should finish school.” Mabel squeezed Bertie’s hand. “For Mama’s sake. Besides, right now I don’t have enough to get you or me to the other side of town. When we go, we need to get at least as far as Indianapolis—the bigger the city and the farther away the better.” She stretched back across the bed and gazed at the ceiling. “When you start a new life, everything has to be different.”
Bertie took another quick look in the mirror, then picked up her books so she could go on to school straight from the barn, right after she’d turned the horse out into the little pasture and cleaned the stall. She knew some of the others talked behind her back, gossiping about her clothes and her dirty shoes, but what did it matter if Wallace didn’t mind?
She stepped into the hall, just in time to hear Mabel saying, as sweetly as you please, “Another cup of coffee, Daddy?”
She wanted to love Mabel—did love her—but at times like this Bertie wondered if it was possible to love someone you couldn’t understand, someone who could do something so terrible. Mostly, she was sure Mabel hated Butcher as much as she did, but Mabel would never admit it, not even when she and Bertie were alone. Sometimes Bertie thought she heard a sneer in Mabel’s voice when she said Daddy. But even if that was true, saying it at all was still an insult to their father—the father Mabel, being five years older, remembered far better than Bertie could. Bertie hadn’t started school yet when he’d been called up for the war. There’d been only a couple of letters after he left home, which Mabel, like Mama before her, kept in the blanket chest along with the telegram saying he’d died of influenza a week before he was to ship out to France.
Mabel remembered him so well she could still tell stories about his teaching her to look under the leaves when hunting blackberries, and about the eagle-shaped swing he’d made for her one summer. He’d slung the swing’s rope over a thick limb of the maple tree in the front yard and said, “Now you can fly as high and far as you want. Far as you can think.”
How Mabel could remember all that and still call Jim Butcher Daddy, Bertie couldn’t accept—wouldn’t forgive—no matter how good a sister Mabel was to her. She would tell her so—today, right now. She’d stand in the kitchen door and throw an angry look at Mabel. So what if Butcher saw it?
But the moment she was in the doorway, seeing Butcher hunched over the table, leaning on his thick arms, strong as iron chain, Bertie lost her nerve. Then, as if she sensed Bertie watching them, Mabel looked up suddenly, her eyes wide, almost terrified, and with a quick jerk of her head she told Bertie to be on her way.
With Mabel’s look, Bertie forgot about Butcher, and her courage returned. The signal annoyed her. And besides that, she was hungry. She would march right in and cut a slice of bread for her breakfast, take a piece of cheese to carry for her lunch.
She took one step. Mabel lifted her hand as if to say Stop! her eyes now wider still, diving up and down between Bertie and Jim Butcher. Those eyes pleaded, as Mabel shook her head violently. Now. She was telling Bertie. For God’s sake, go now.
There’d never been such a crowd in the sanctuary of the Emmanuel Baptist Church, not even on Easter Sunday. Every pew was full and the people who couldn’t get seats lined the walls and clumped in the aisles. The graduates sat hip-to-hip in the first two rows. Bertie stood up again and turned around to scan the congregation, ignoring Irma Henderson, who was tugging on her wrist and telling her to sit down. “They’re about to start, Bertie. Please!” Irma pulled harder. Bertie stayed on her feet.
They had to be there. But no matter how hard she looked, forcing herself to go face by face, she couldn’t see them anywhere—not Mabel or Wallace. It was possible they had slipped in while she was sitting down, but surely they would wave from wherever they were if they saw her. Over and over she ran her gaze through every row and into every corner, but they just weren’t there.
At the edge of the stage, old Miss Callahan sat down at the piano and began playing the melody of “We Gather Together” while her first-grade students filed into the choir loft to prepare to sing. Bertie had learned the hymn herself at that age, baffled by most of the words: The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing—what could that mean? How she used to stumble over that odd way of phrasing: And pray that thou still our defender wilt be. Now, as she stood with the rest of the congregation to join in, the words slipped easily from her mouth. Had she ever really listened to them, even after she had learned their meaning?
Just the idea of gathering together made her want to cry. What might she have done that would make Mabel and Wallace desert her this way? People were sure to notice. Everyone else in her class had at least one parent present, plus grandparents, brothers, sisters, cousins—and here she was with no one who cared enough to come.
While the principal stood in the preacher’s place and gave a speech about stepping off the train in Juniper as a young teacher in 1900, Bertie crumpled a handful of chiffon in her fist. She saw now how foolish the dress was—much too pale a color for her, and too like the ancient peach colored silk that silly spinster Miss Callahan always wore when she sang at weddings. Had Mabel thought the same thing when she helped her pick it out? Had her own sister set her up to be mocked?
She didn’t want to believe these things about Mabel, but how could she not? Her sister couldn’t be trusted. Time after time, Mabel had urged her to cooperate with Jim Butcher—and just look at the way she played up to him, speaking softly and keeping her eyes lowered, smiling from time to time, and even touching him gently now and again. This whole last week had been worse than ever, seeming almost like Mabel was inviting Butcher to court her. Not once since Monday, when she’d tried on the dress, had Mabel come to brush out Bertie’s hair or to sit on the bed to look through the stereopticon or talk about school or ask about Wallace.
And what about Wallace? That same afternoon, Monday, he wasn’t on the stoop waiting for her after school. Instead, Henry Layman was there in his place, saying Wallace wouldn’t be able to turn up for the rest of the week. When Bertie had asked the reason, Henry just shrugged: “That’s all he said.”
None of it made any sense—or at least none Bertie wanted to accept.
I like Wallace. That’s what Mabel had said.
No one had been more surprised than Bertie when Wallace started paying attention to her. Not that he was the best-looking boy in town—he was barely an inch taller than she was, dark blond hair always in a tumble, and sturdy as a stump from hard work, with dozens of small scrapes and scars to show for it—but just about everybody said he was one of the nicest boys there was, and, more important, good- hearted and responsible.
Wallace was so much older than she was, too, just a year behind Mabel, and even though Bertie would marry him tomorrow if he asked, she’d worried that when he was ready he might decide she was too young. Not long ago she’d heard a couple of boys laughing behind her back, saying if a fellow thought he needed a Fischer girl enough to stand up to the trouble that came with Butcher, he’d be crazy to go for Bertie over Mabel.
She didn’t want to set the last piece of the puzzle into place. It just fell in on its own.
Two days ago, knowing Wallace wasn’t going to be waiting for her, Bertie had walked into town to get some thread that would match her dress, just in case a button came off or a seam broke at the last minute. Mabel was supposed to be working until 5:30 at Kendall’s, but she was standing with Wallace under the awning of the hardware store, tucked as far back as they could be behind a display of washtubs. Wallace had hold of both her hands and leaned his head close to hers. Mabel was nodding, looking nervous, but there wasn’t any question they were agreeing on something. Then Wallace drew Mabel into his arms and held her, her head nestling against his neck, his hand on her hair.
What are you doing? Bertie had called to them from her heart, the words stopping in her throat. What are you doing? A firm pair of hands—she never knew whose—settled on her shoulders to urge her back onto the walk and out of the street.
“Bertie, what are you doing?” Irma’s whisper stung her ear. “They’ve called your name.” Irma pushed her forward, nudged her up the steps and across the stage, then grabbed her elbow to keep her from turning in the wrong direction as they stepped back onto the floor.
When the ceremony was over, Bertie let Irma lead her to the church hall with the rest of the graduates. She wandered through the buffet line, spooning food onto her plate, but after a few minutes she left it untouched on the corner table where she’d gone to be out of everyone else’s way.
The church bell was just chiming five when she pushed past the Anderson clan, who were celebrating the graduation of their twin sons. She was nearly to the door when she heard her name called out over the Andersons’ laughing chatter. “Bertie! Bertie, wait!” She turned toward the young man’s voice. Wallace had come. She was sure it was Wallace. When he found his way through the crowd to clasp her hands, she would scold him—just a little, not too much—for being late. “Bertie!” she heard again.
It wasn’t Wallace at all. She could see Henry Layman trying to get to her. He was waving something over his head—a piece of paper, maybe—and calling out for her to stay put for a minute.
So Henry had been sent as messenger again. It was a dirty trick. Yellow, it was. If Wallace wanted to tell her something, if he was going to tell her he liked Mabel better, then he could do it to her face. And Bertie would see to it Mabel looked her in the eye, too. She wasn’t about to listen to any made-up excuses they’d fed to poor Henry.
Bertie shook her head at Henry, still struggling his way through the crowd. She turned on her heel and went out the door.
There wasn’t a soul on the street, just a couple of dogs tumbling in play on the parsonage lawn. The sun, so bright this morning, had faded behind heavy ash-colored clouds and the air simmered with the feeling of coming rain.
She’d give anything to think of somewhere to go besides back to the house, but she wanted out of this ridiculous dress and out of everyone’s sight. Pretty soon, it would be all around town about Mabel and Wallace— off somewhere together on Bertie’s special day, laughing at her.
Would it be possible, if she worked, to live on her own? She was pretty sure Butcher wouldn’t make a fuss, even about losing a hand around the place, and she didn’t care if Mabel did. She’d heard Nellie Perkins was looking for a girl for the boarding house to do some scrubbing and to help the cook. If she could get her room and board for the main part of her pay, then she wouldn’t need but a few dollars a month for other things. She wouldn’t even have to wait for morning. If she hurried back, she could get changed into a clean house dress and get everything settled with Mrs. Perkins before dark.
In spite of the blister rubbing at the back of her right heel, Bertie picked up her walk to a trot and then to a full run as she approached the corner where, for months, Wallace had said good-bye with a kiss. When she turned onto her road, dusty from too little spring rain, she stopped in front of the Mitchell place to catch her breath and pinched at the damp chiffon to shake it away from her body.
“Bertie, come on in here.” Mrs. Mitchell was standing on her porch, wiping her hands on her apron.
“I’m just going home, ma’am,” Bertie said, starting on her way again.
Mrs. Mitchell rushed down the steps and out to the gate. Everything about her was atremble, even her red-rimmed eyes. She fumbled with the latch. “No, honey, please,” she said, reaching over the gate, trying to grab Bertie’s wrist. “You come in and let me give you some lemonade.”
Bertie protested again, said she was in a hurry, but, having freed the latch, Mrs. Mitchell came out of the gate, took hold of Bertie’s shoulders and steered her onto the front walk, through the house, and into the kitchen. “You need to stay here for now,” she said. “There’s some trouble at your place. So you just wait here till it passes.”
“What kind of trouble?”
No amount of questions could get Mrs. Mitchell to tell her what was going on. She wouldn’t do anything but shake her head and chip off more ice to drop into Bertie’s glass, but at last the woman looked out the window at the dark clouds. “I need to get those clothes off the line. You just stay here, Bertie, and pour yourself some more lemonade.”
This was her chance. The instant the back screen door banged behind Mrs. Mitchell, Bertie was out of her chair and pushing through the front door. It seemed like all the women on their road had been put on watch for her, calling from their porches or waving dish towels out their kitchen windows, but she ran past them. Whatever this trouble was, it must be the reason Mabel and Wallace hadn’t come to the graduation. The fear of it made Bertie’s head swim, and she felt a rush of shame for having thought they could betray her.
She stopped short at the end of the chicken-wire fence that marked their land.
Five or six men were gathered outside the barn. One of the doors was partly open.
Everything was quiet—no sound from the chickens or from the songbirds that usually swooped in to feed before a storm. Nothing but the shaking of the leaves.
Bertie recognized Mr. Mitchell and some other men who lived nearby, but a couple of them were strangers to her. They were standing in a crooked row, staring in at something they could all see through the open door, so none of them saw her until she’d walked right in amongst them.
“Whoa, Bertie!” Mr. Mitchell grabbed her just like his wife had done and swung her away from the barn and toward the house. “You go stay up on the porch. I’ll take you on to my place in a minute.”
“What’s happening?” Bertie asked. None of the men would answer her. They wouldn’t even look at her.
Everything was odd.
Somebody had tied the cow to the fence rail, right in the place where a slat was missing, so the cow could reach through to nibble at the little cornstalks, just ankle-high.
The plow was out in the middle of the patch Butcher had said this morning he was going to plant with more beans, but the mare was unhitched, wandering around through the cucumbers.
And every now and then, when the wind kicked up, Bertie could hear a muffled banging, as if the back screen door had been left unhooked.
Another man Bertie didn’t know stepped out of the barn. Even from her place on the porch, she could make out the shape of his badge. The sheriff. He took off his hat and stopped in the yard to talk to Mr. Mitchell, looking up once or twice to glance over at her. Mr. Mitchell shook his head and walked slowly back toward the barn.
The other man came toward Bertie and sat down on the top step beside her. “Bertie Fischer? That short for Alberta?”
She nodded. The sheriff reached out to take her hand. She started to pull it away, then thought better of it.
“I asked the men there to keep you out of the barn,” he said. His hand was warm. Strong and sad. “Your step daddy’s hanged hisself. They’re just cutting him down now.”
“Where’s my sister?”
The rain started in small spatters, and the sheriff looked up for a moment, as if he might read the answer in the clouds. “Looks like she’s run off,” he said. He reached in his pocket and held out a bit of crumpled paper to Bertie. “There’s a couple of empty whiskey bottles up in the loft. Neighbors said Butcher was a drinker?” He looked at her for confirmation he obviously didn’t need. “Found this right near him,” he said, nodding toward the note. “I figure he had it in his hand when he swung off, and then dropped it when . . .”
Bertie took the paper from the sheriff and smoothed it open on her knee. Just four words, not addressed to anybody. It was Mabel’s writing. Gone away with Wallace. An M for her name, the way she signed all her notes.
Copyright 2011 by Nancy Jensen