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Chapter One

At Aunt Em’s House “Ash-ley William-ette! Come on, we’re leaving. No-ow!” her father shouted up the stairs. He checked his watch and tapped the crystal twice, and said aloud to no one in particular, “We’ll be way off schedule.” Ashley’s mother, Saundra stood just inside the front door going over the final details with her grandmother. “Here.” She handed her husband a large blue soft-sided bag with Ashley’s clothes, a pillow and a paper grocery sack stuffed with books and a CD player and discs. “This is the last of her things. I’m sure she’ll be down by the time you’ve put them in the car.” She turned back to her conversation with her mother. “Bill has reserved a room for you at the Heartland Motel, where we’ll be staying. Here’s the telephone number just in case.” She held out a paper. “Sue, next door, is going to pick up the mail, so you won’t have to worry about that. Oh, and would you put one of those food blocks in for Timmy’s fish just before you come? That will take care of them till we get back.” “Certainly,” Dorothy answered. She took the note with Saundra’s flowery left-handed writing on it. “Bill made me a list, as usual.” She gently held her daughter’s restless hands. “Everything will be fine. It will only be a few days until I see you there.” Saundra gave her mother’s hands a light squeeze. “Bill’s good at this sort of thing. He’ll take care of it all.” “I know. That’s the reason I chose him to be my lawyer.” With a clatter, Ashley appeared at the head of the stairs and descended quickly to where her mother and grandmother stood. The ever-present lavender hair brush stuck out of the back pocket of her yellow shorts. Her new white platform canvas shoes 1


were worn without socks, and her narrow midriff showed below a white halter top with a horse’s head print. She hugged Dorothy. “I wish you were coming with us, Gram.” The girl was slender and already stood as high as her grandmother’s shoulder; she would be tall like her father. Dorothy stroked Ashley’s hair; it was the same deep brown as hers had been and as Saundra’s was before she lightened it. “I’ll only be a few days behind you. I can’t miss this doctor’s appointment.” “I know, but it’s gonna be a pain with just Timmy.” Dorothy smiled at her. “Well, be your usual sweet self.” “We’d better go now. You know how your dad gets,” Saundra interjected. Ashley released Dorothy. “Bye!” She ran out, and Dorothy walked with Saundra to the car. Timmy, just eight, liked to sit behind his dad when they drove anywhere. His tawny colored hair was buzz cut, his cheeks freckled, and one of his front teeth was not yet fully grown in. The seat he shared with Ashley was divided by their pillows and bags of games, and the back of the station wagon was filled with precisely arranged luggage; a large orange cooler chest rested just behind the seat so the kids could get into it easily. Dorothy saw her daughter eyeing the cooler. “Your father was the same way. I could barely get him to stop for the bathroom once he was behind the wheel.” They exchanged a quick kiss. Once Saundra was in the car, Bill started it up. “Everyone, seat belts on.” He leaned over Saundra to say, “See you in four days, Dotty. Sure you have the directions?” Then he put the car in reverse. Ashley waved and made a face when Timmy yelled past her ear, “Bye, Gram!”

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Dorothy saw them back out of the driveway, waved once, then returned to the house. She picked up a little clothing from Timmy’s bedroom floor and folded it, turned off the dripping bathroom faucet, and went room to room checking all the lights and appliances. It was a routine she had developed after her husband, Samuel, died. It had been his routine every night for thirty-one years, and doing it had helped ease her loneliness after he passed away. A note for Sue lay on the dark red cherry telephone table inside the front door. Dorothy stepped outside, turned both locks with the key and got into her own car. As she drove along the parkway toward home, she thought how nice it was to have her daughter’s family living in the same city—and what a blessing it was that they were also thirty minutes away. ❍❍❍ That night, Margaret and Ruth and Joe joined Dorothy for their weekly bridge game. Dorothy served lemon cake and iced tea on the back patio afterward. Ruth was writing her memoirs as a nurse in the Army in World War II and read the group the latest chapter. The next day Dorothy straightened up the house and dusted; the evening was free for reading. Dorothy had waited nearly three months to see Doctor Swann about her arthritis. Her left arm had stiffened considerably and had become a weather gauge. It was annoying. Dr. Swann was the best, so appointments were difficult to get and not to be missed. Even if her appointment meant another day’s delay, relief was worth the long wait in the doctor’s office. The following morning Dorothy would leave for Kansas. ❍❍❍ Timmy set a personal record—it was nearly two hours before he lost interest in his hand-held video game and began to pester Ashley. Bill sighed and adjusted his glasses. It would be a very long two days to Kansas. He eyed the cooler in the rear view mir3


ror after scolding Tim. Sometimes he wondered why he bothered to bring it. Saundra insisted on stopping every couple of hours, and for lunch, and they’d be at a motel—“a good one”—by early evening. The kids were old enough now. They all wanted to “get there,” to relax, yet no one wanted him to drive straight on. It took a full two days to get to the Heartland Motel. After supper the kids spent the last of their arguing energy, in the pool, while their parents soaked on the steps in the shallow end. Tomorrow they would all meet with Cousin Harold and see the house. Overnight, the motel was quiet and restful, especially once Timmy went to sleep. Saundra and Bill took-out from the restaurant next door and ate their food off plastic plates with plastic forks as their feet dangled in the warm pool. In the morning the kids were off early to the free continental breakfast and a swim. Bill telephoned Cousin Harold, but what he got was a series of confused children and an insistent woman who tried twice to call out over the four-party line, claiming he should get off “Now! Because I am Missus Dale Johnson.” When Harold finally did get on the telephone, he was slippery, and even by the time they hung up, Bill still was not sure whether “Yup, yup” meant Harold truly understood what he was saying and if Harold would be at Em’s house at noon. The real estate agent was better, if not a shade too enthusiastic, when Bill called her. ❍❍❍ The way to Aunt Em’s place was a divided landscaped road that turned right off a travel-worn county highway. It curved through a new neighborhood with spindly young trees to staked dirt lots behind a large developer’s sign that promised suburban bliss. Aunt Em’s house was a beige, two-story clapboard affair with a railed porch that ran across its front. Two huge, ancient cottonwoods dominated the front yard. 4


Ashley leaned forward in her seat as they pulled into the long driveway. “I thought Aunt Em lived on a farm. That’s what Gram always said.” “Well, she did, honey,” Saundra answered. “They had a big place, lots of acres. The original house was taken away by a cyclone, and your great-great uncle Henry built another on the same spot. When the Dust Bowl time ended and they had more money, he added a second story.” Timmy had one eye pressed against the window. “So, where’s the cows?” Saundra laughed. “After Uncle Henry died, Aunt Em hired men to work the fields. But when she got too old, she sold most of the land. After she was gone, one of her nephews took over.” “Cousin Harold?” Ashley said. Bill nodded and said, “Your Grandma Dotty actually owns the place. Cousin Harold doesn’t want to be bothered with it anymore. So, that’s why we’ve come.” Timmy screwed up his face and said loudly, “We’re gonna live here?” “No, stupid. He means Gram is going to sell it,” Ashley said. “Jeez!” Bill had brought them to the house a little early so he could look over the property. The last renters had let the yard go untouched, and the house needed paint and probably a new roof. The last forty acres were prime land; Bill had researched it and knew what the acreage was worth to a developer. Even after paying the back taxes, Dotty would live out her years quite comfortably. They waited on the porch until the realtor arrived. She offered each of them a quick, firm handshake. “Hi, Bobbi Brewster.” The key came out of a pocket of her red blazer with her company logo embroidered on the breast pocket. “Here we are. Let’s take a look, what do you say?” she smiled broadly. 5

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