This novel would not have been completed without the help of Kathryn Craft, a wonderful developmental editor and friend. When I was hopelessly lost in the middle of the first draft of this story, Kathryn took the manuscript, and me, in hand and helped me figure out how to write a novel so different from the mysteries that I had previously written. After I finished the first draft, Kathryn again offered the best guidance for the rewrites.
I must also acknowledge my muse, or the spirit of my mother, that started speaking to me one day in the shower and compelled me to go to my computer to start this project.
Chapter One - Evelyn – June 1923
Evelyn Gundrum sat in the shade of the leaves adorning the branches of the sweeping elm, digging in the sandy dirt with a tarnished silver spoon Miz Beatrice had given her to play with. She also had a blue plastic bowl. It was cracked but still held dirt if she balanced it carefully. When she was allowed to go outside, Evelyn liked to play in the sand near the front porch, methodically filling the bowl, dumping it out, then filling it again. Her sister, two years older, thought that was silly. Viola preferred to stay on the porch with her dolls, closer to Miz Beatrice, who sat on the porch swing slowly pushing it back and forth with one toe on the faded wood planking.
Only four years old, Evelyn didn't remember why they were living with Miz Beatrice or why they didn't call her Mother. Evelyn couldn’t remember for sure how long they had been here, either. She had vague recollections of living somewhere else before, but she got confused easily, and Viola had to explain why they were supposed to call this lady Miz Beatrice. Wasn't she their mother? "No," Viola had said. "Our mother brought us here months ago. Beatrice is a friend."
"Why did Mother give us to Miz Beatrice?"
"I already told you."
"Tell me again."
Viola sighed. "Okay. But this is the last time. Promise you won't ask again."
"What if I forget?"
"Then you forget. I'm tired of telling you. After Daddy left, Mother went to Detroit with a man named John."
"Why did Daddy leave?"
"I don't know. Now hush so I can tell you the rest. Mother said she was going to come and take us to Detroit too, but something happened, and she couldn't. So she took us here and wants us to live with Miz Beatrice."
Evelyn wasn’t even sure where “here” was, but she did remember that Viola told her before that Detroit was far, far away. Now and then, her mind worried over the reason that their mother had not taken them to that place called Detroit. Mothers didn’t leave babies. That’s what Miz Beatrice had said when showing them the kittens under the porch last summer. That day, Miz Beatrice had been putting some food under there for the mama cat.
They weren’t supposed to feed that cat, even though Evelyn would sneak her a piece of bacon when Miz Beatrice wasn’t looking. The cat was supposed to feed herself, and her kittens, by catching the mice that often got into the bags of flour in the pantry.
“Why are you feeding the cat? You said not to,” Evelyn had asked.
Miz Beatrice patted Evelyn on the shoulder. “This is just for a little while. The mama cat needs food to keep her close to her babies until they’re older.”
“To keep close to take care of the kittens.”
“But she didn’t,” Viola said. “Yesterday, she pushed that little one away. It died.”
“It was the runt.” Miz Beatrice sighed and rose slowly to her feet. “It probably wasn’t going to live anyway.”
The kittens were gone now. And so was the mother cat. She’d disappeared sometime in the winter. Evelyn checked every day, hoping the cat was back, but she wasn’t. Looking at the empty space, she thought about what Miz Beatrice had said about mothers and babies. Evelyn didn’t understand about the runt and why the mama cat pushed it away. Had it been a bad kitten? Is that what being a runt meant? Was it the same for real mothers? Their mother?
When the questions threatened to clog Evelyn’s brain, she took them to Viola, even though her sister hated the deluge of questions that Evelyn sometimes couldn’t hold back. Viola had just laughed. “Don’t be silly. We aren’t kittens. And there’s nothing wrong with us.”
Evelyn tried to believe that. She tried really hard. And sometimes, she could forget about those fears and just be happy.
Today was going to be a special day. That’s what Miz Beatrice had said at breakfast this morning. A surprise guest was coming, and now Evelyn’s tummy was full of eggs and toast, and she was wearing her favorite sundress, yellow sprinkled with white daisies. When they came outside, Miz Beatrice told her to be careful not to get the dress dirty, so Evelyn pushed the skirt between her knees as she squatted to dig in the dirt. The sun streamed through the branches of the tree, making light and dark dance on the sand with every wisp of a breeze. Birds sat on high branches, adding their song to the dance, and every now and then, a bit of conversation between Miz Beatrice and Viola floated her way.
“Please tell me who’s coming?”
“No, child. You must be surprised like your sister.”
The questions Viola asked stirred more excitement, and Evelyn’s stomach fluttered with anticipation. Then the voices faded, and Evelyn heard only the song of the birds as she played.
Moments later, a cloud passed over the sun, and Evelyn shivered in the sudden chill. Miz Beatrice had been right about it being too early in the summer for a sundress. Maybe she should go change.
Evelyn stood and started toward the house, noticing that Miz Beatrice was slumped on the porch swing asleep. Lately, she'd taken to sleeping frequently during the day, which Evelyn thought was very odd. Only babies took naps. Right?
Miz Beatrice didn't eat much at dinner or supper anymore either, and Viola had said the other day that maybe they were running out of food. For some reason, Viola always worried that one day there would be no more to eat. But Evelyn had a feeling something wasn't right inside Miz Beatrice. Once, she had walked past the open bathroom door and saw Miz Beatrice hunched over the sink. She was coughing hard, holding a rumpled handkerchief over her mouth, and Evelyn had seen bold splatters of red on the white fabric before Miz Beatrice noticed her and pushed the door closed with her hip. While Evelyn knew that the splatters were probably from blood—she'd cut herself often enough to recognize the spots—she didn't know what the blood might mean. Yet, she did know that it was probably not right that it was on the handkerchief. The fact that it was had shot a bolt of fear so deep that Evelyn couldn’t say a word about it, not even to her sister.
But if Miz Beatrice was sick, Viola should know so she could help figure out what to do if the lady died and left them all alone.
Evelyn glanced at her sister, who was next to Miz Beatrice on the swing. Maybe she could tell her now. It looked like Miz Beatrice was good and asleep. She started to walk toward the porch steps but turned when she heard the sound of a motor. A big, gray car rumbled to a stop in front of the house, and a tall woman wearing a navy-blue dress with white ruffles at the top, white gloves, and a hat with a wide, curved brim got out. When the woman walked toward the house, the dress flared around her legs, lifted at the hem by a slight breeze. It was not any of the ladies who visited Miz Beatrice before, and curiosity distracted Evelyn from her worries.
Suddenly, Viola jumped up, raced down the four steps to the front walk, and launched herself at the woman. "Mother!"
The lady disengaged herself from Viola's wild embrace and just stood for a moment, looking first at Viola then up the walk toward Evelyn.
Another chill washed over Evelyn. This lady was their mother? She didn't know if she should run to hug her too, but then Miz Beatrice roused and called out. "Regina. It’s good that you could come so quickly."
Miz Beatrice slowly rose from the swing and walked to meet the lady at the steps to the porch. The two women hugged, and Viola ran over and tugged at Evelyn. "Come on. Say hello to Mother."
Evelyn planted her feet in the sand, and Viola tugged again. “Come on!”
Cautiously, Evelyn took a few steps closer. "Hello." The word was barely a whisper.
The woman who was Mother leaned down and touched Evelyn lightly on the cheek. "You're a pretty little thing."
"Both of your girls are quite lovely," Miz Beatrice said. "Please come inside. We need to talk about what we're going to do."
The two women entered the house, leaving the girls in the yard.
Once more, Viola tugged at Evelyn. "Let's go listen."
More willing to eavesdrop than talk to a stranger, Evelyn crept quietly into the house, following Viola to the doorway to the kitchen, careful to stay out of sight. After a few moments, Evelyn dared to peek around the doorjamb and saw Miz Beatrice pouring glasses of lemonade. Miz Beatrice made the best lemonade, and Evelyn wished she could have a glass. She started to step into the kitchen to ask for one, but Viola held her back.
"I'm thirsty," Evelyn said.
"Shhhh." Viola held her fingers to her lips.
"Girls? What are you doing out there?" Not much escaped Miz Beatrice's sharp hearing or watchful eyes.
"Now look what you've done," Viola said in a quiet whisper. Then she called out. "Nothing, Miz Beatrice."
"Then go do nothing somewhere else."
Evelyn followed Viola back out to the porch and scrambled up on the swing. "Push me."
If Viola sat on the edge of the swing and stretched her leg as far as she could, she could toe the swing into action like Miz Beatrice. So that's what she did. "Maybe mother came to take us home," Viola said after a moment, raising her foot and letting the swing slowly sway back and forth.
“I don’t understand.”
Viola put her foot down and gave the swing another push. "You were too little to remember."
"Anything. You keep forgetting everything. I have to keep telling you things over and over again."
Evelyn thought about Miz Beatrice maybe being sick. Was that what brought their mother here? Was everything going to change? "Are we going to have to move?"
"I don't know." Viola jumped off the swing. "Stop asking so many questions."
Evelyn fought back tears. She always made her sister mad. She didn't mean to, but she always did. "I'm sorry," she whispered, but Viola was already off the porch and running around the side of the house to the backyard.
Evelyn kept waiting for something to make sense, but nothing that was happening did. That night at supper, silence was served up with the ham and potatoes. Miz Beatrice always said that suppertime should be pleasant, and she often had stories to tell as they ate a meal. Sometimes she even told jokes, but tonight, she was more reserved. Because of the company?
Appetites were not as usual either. Evelyn’s stomach was so tight with nerves she had to force each morsel of food down her throat. The visitor took the smallest portions of mashed potatoes and green beans and hardly took more than a nibble of each. She just pushed her beans into her potatoes and stirred them around. Evelyn couldn't quite believe this woman was really their mother, no matter what Viola said. So maybe Evelyn should just call her Regina like Miz Beatrice did.
No, she should say Miz Regina. That was the polite way to address an adult.
Knowing she didn’t dare leave food on her plate, Evelyn forced down her few remaining bites of potatoes, and then looked over to Miz Beatrice. "Finished. Excuse please?"
"Not yet. Your mother has something to say."
"No, no. You tell them," Miz Regina said. "They're more comfortable with you."
Miz Beatrice sighed and held her breath so long Evelyn wondered if she was ever going to speak. Then she stuttered over her words. “Well, uh … I—”
"Oh, for heaven's sake. There is no need for such dramatics." Miz Regina looked intently at each girl for a moment. "This is what you need to know. You can no longer stay here. Beatrice has The Cancer, so she can’t keep you anymore. I can't take you back with me, so I've made arrangements for you to go to another home here."
The words spun around in Evelyn's head, and all she caught was “Cancer” and “I can't take you back.”
If Miz Regina was their mother, why couldn't she?
Viola voiced the other question, "What kind of home?"