Her mother rushed at her wielding the razor strop. Gloriana Pearl Fuller’s dress and corset provided little padding for her slight build. She?d practically sell her soul to the devil to leave home.
Snap! Gloriana dodged and fell on the floor, scraping her knee. Her head barely missed hitting a cast iron leg. The lash licked her calf. Snap!
"Come here, you little?"
Myrtle swung again and again. Flinching, Gloriana shrieked. It stung. She scrambled to her feet, covering her head and face with her hands and arms.
Her mother’s bushy brows rumpled and her lips curved into an arc-of-hate, an expression that visited Gloriana in nightmares. Throughout her life, her mother had whipped her. Gloriana yanked a chair from under the table, blocking her mother’s path, further enraging her. Myrtle shoved it aside. A pot crashed to the floor.
"You no account little?" She yanked Gloriana’s brunette hair. With the other hand, Myrtle drew back the strop and struck Gloriana’s back. "Come here!"
Snap! As Myrtle readied for a fresh hit, Gloriana scurried around the table.
Her mother cornered her. Again and again she swung, striking Gloriana on the back, buttocks, and legs. Praying, Gloriana squeezed her eyes shut. Pain shot through her body until her mother’s arm tired and the whipping ended.
"Don?t ever leave this yard again! You hear me?" The heavyset woman bellowed with the tenacity of a drill sergeant leading a satanic army. "Not without my permission. You don?t seem to learn." Her chest heaving, she hung the strop on its hook. "Next time it?ll be harder. Now get out of my sight."
Sobbing, Gloriana wished her life would end. Her back burned from welts. Gloriana lifted her skirt, tore through the dining room and sitting parlor. Loping up the stairs two steps at a time, she passed her gleeful nine-year-old brother. Inside her bedchamber she pressed the door shut with her back. Breathlessly, Gloriana waited for footsteps, but merciful silence fell upon the house. She waited, her heart thundering. Five minutes passed and her mother didn?t come. She was safe.
Her brother laughed, and sang, "Nah, nah, nah, nah!"
The sound carried. The four-feet-nine-inch, skinny-legged, blonde terror angered her. He enjoyed inciting her mother. Myrtle seldom spanked Trevor because he could do no wrong. Her aunt told her once that her grandmother whipped Myrtle with a strop. Perhaps her mother thought it normal to whip a girl child. However, Gloriana was no longer a child, for goodness sake. Couldn?t her mother see that?
Thinking back, Gloriana remembered the crime; following her cat. An unthinkable act. A dog had chased it down the alley and past the barn. Gloriana feared the tom would lose its way. Stupidly she followed. She loved the cat. Needless to say, she had made a poor decision.
From the window, Myrtle had watched. Gloriana hung clothes on the line. All morning she kept her eyes on Gloriana’s movements. The moment Gloriana stepped off the property, her mother followed. She grabbed a handful of Gloriana’s dark hair, marched her home, pushed her up the steps, and through the back door. In shock, neighbors stood near a hedgerow, and watched the nightmarish scene and soon dispersed, appalled.
Her mother allowed Gloriana out of her sight on Sunday afternoons, when her friends visited. They gossiped and drank lemonade, tea, or coffee. Gloriana lived for the freedom of Sundays after church. As she stood with her back flattened to her closed bedchamber door, tears wet her cheeks. If she were to leave, where would she live? How would she earn money?
The pain subsided. Looking at the positive side, her mother hadn?t picked up the razor strop lately. Wordlessly sitting at the dining room table, Gloriana scooted the bit of scrambled egg across her plate. She whiffed coffee and heard the rattle of the neighbor’s automobile. She was not allowed to speak, although her brother Trevor talked incessantly. Trevor whined about how badly the neighbor boy treated him during a baseball game.
To her right, her father hid behind his section of the Marion Daily
Republican. He folded it and read the back page without noticing Gloriana’s plight. Usually, he concerned himself with three clock repair shops. Rarely, did he come home. An unwritten rule existed. He was not to be disturbed with domestic problems. Conversation was sparse. Gloriana feared mentioning her troubles. Medium-tall and gaunt, he hunched at the shoulders and sniffed every few seconds. Silver streaked his hair and worry lines cut deep into his forehead. Gloriana wondered why he refused to go to church.
To her left, her mother raised her head from behind the front page and sneered. Gloriana lowered her eyes to her bacon, not wishing to provoke her. Elaine’s father and mother accepted her without question. Why couldn?t it be that way in the Fuller household? The grandfather clock chimed six times, reminding her that a day of freedom approached. She lived for Sundays.
"What’s happening to the young people today?" her mother’s voice cut into the silence. The family gazed her way when she lowered the paper. "I want you to look at this." She pecked a photograph of made-up young women who wore risqu?, shapeless dresses. "Showing their ankles and calves. Look at ?em. Incredible."
"Mm-hm." Butch wagged his head and resumed reading his section.
"They get by with murder," said Myrtle.
Her dislike of Gloriana apparent, she frowned, and smiled Trevor’s way. "Those ruffians who pick on you, the ones down the street, need me to come down there."
"Yeah," said Trevor, not understanding the implied violence.
"Like you, Gloriana." She gazed icily toward Gloriana. "If I didn?t punish you, you?d be loose, like those girls in the paper. Some day you?ll thank me."
For her brutal treatment, Gloriana could never forgive her mother. Silently, she finished eating and waited to be excused, knowing better than to speak in her own defense; her mother would slap her out of the chair.
"If I?d ever catch you going near any boys who don?t belong to our church." She paused, thinking. "Or if I catch you mixin? with strange men, you?d get it real hard."
Who was she talking about? Boys were afraid to come near her. Her mother invented trouble. Her father put down the paper and interrupted. For once he stood up for Gloriana.
"Good heavens, she won?t Myrtle."
"Butch, I beg your pardon. I know her a lot better. ?Cause you?re never here." Gloriana’s mother scowled, her German patience wearing thin. "Remember what I said missy. I don?t ever want to hear about you with any strange men."
Much to her dismay, the hellfire and damnation sermon kept everyone past twelve o?clock. Patiently, she listened while fingering a page of a hymnal. The final prayer was said, the doors opened, and worshippers emerged into the sun, heading for their surreys and motorcars. The bell clanged and she bid friends goodbye. She ran-walked toward sidewalk, en route for the Sunshine Soda and Confectionery Shop. The Sunshine was the place to go. Other businesses were closed, because they observed the Sabbath.
Her mother climbed into the surrey, but didn?t sit. "Gloriana?"
"Yes?" With dread, Glori turned and looked back.
"You?d better not be a minute later than five."
"Yes M?m," she said. She hurried out of the yard before her mother could change her mind.
It was a glorious day. The sun shone in the light blue sky. Birds tweeted. The air was warm and not too humid. Through the week she thought about talking with friends on Sunday afternoons. The Catholic Church dismissed the congregation earlier than the Protestant church. Unlike Gloriana, Elaine was Catholic. Elaine arrived several minutes early and saved a place for them to sit. This week, due to Elaine’s insistence, they opted for counter seats. Gloriana found it odd, but went along. She didn?t care whether she sat at the counter or the tables.
Gloriana wore her least-faded summer dress. The hem touched her ankles and the sleeves lined her wrists. It was a hot garment to wear during the dog days of summer. Her ebony hair tumbled and bounced on her shoulders. She held the wide-brimmed hat and waved at an acquaintance along the way.
The previous six days crawled by and she knew the current afternoon of freedom would zip past. With excitement, her heartbeat quickened. She hopped over the cracks in the sidewalk, striding farther away from the church. A horse and rider passed, catching her attention.
"How?re you doin? Glori?" asked a boy her age.
He seemed to be smiling more broadly than usual. Was he flirting? She hoped not.
"Just fine, too."
Humming, she meandered toward the square. She tried not to appear eager, so she scanned the opposite side of the street. To her chagrin, her brother had followed. Cringing, she looked ahead. He wouldn?t dare go to the soda shop. He accompanied a friend. That was a good sign. After calling her name, he stuck out his tongue, and yelled a rude remark. How come her mother allowed him out of the yard? He had the run of the town.
"You don?t mean that!"
"You better not tell me what to do. I?ll tell Mother and you?ll get a whippin?. I can?t wait." He let out a high-pitched giggle.
Gloriana rolled her eyes. The little demon. She couldn?t stand him. Picking up her pace, she walked down a side street. He would tell. Even if a whipping awaited her, she didn?t want to miss an afternoon in town. She felt as though Lincoln freed the slaves. Entering the soda shop, she scanned the tables.
"Elaine?" Gloriana moved to Elaine’s side, sporting a broad smile.
Elaine and Gloriana ordered a sarsaparilla. Elaine’s figure was curvy and regal, her features were dainty, and she seemed optimistic.
"It’s on the house," the soda jerk said. and made a clicking sound with his tongue.
"Thank you," said Gloriana, picking up the soft drink. "Wasn?t that nice? Free."
"They do that for ladies who sits up here," said Elaine.
"Why?" Gloriana paused. "Maybe we should sit up here more often."
Elaine shrugged. "I guess maybe we should."
She turned, and whispered, "And also, he’s got a crush on me."
Gloriana giggled. "Oh, so that’s why."
"He’s not my type."
For a few minutes they chatted about the week’s happenings. The soda shop was a high-ceilinged room that possessed shiny hardwood floors, and colorful bottles of syrups on the back of the counter. She felt older than eighteen.
High-pitched laughter rose above the hum of voices. The soda jerk mixed different drinks. None of the drinks contained liquor, because liquor was illegal and immoral. The soda jerk wiped down newly vacated tables.
Gloriana whispered to Elaine, "You?re right. He’s not your type."
A reflection from outdoors flashed out the corner of Glori’s eye. A black automobile parked outside. She turned toward the back of the counter.
"Nice, huh?" said Elaine, cooly. "The automobile, I mean."
Gloriana glimpsed outside, and sighed. "It’s the prettiest one I?ve ever seen."
"It’s noisy." Elaine laughed. Elaine grinned. "I know the owner."
"You do? Who?"
"The owner’s rich."
"He?d have to be," said Gloriana, sipping.
"Get this. Those bigger cars scare horses." She laughed. "They sure do. Elaine’s hair was glistening russet and combed up in a new style called a pompadour and a lot of make-up.
"Where’s your new boyfriend?" asked Gloriana.
"He’s meeting me."
"What’s his name?"
"Dwight Kramer," she said, in a soft and clear voice.
"He’s coming here? Today?"
"Do I look all right? Tell me the truth." Her back straight and taut, she posed.
Admiring Elaine’s trendy chemise and feathered cloche, she nodded. "I wish I looked as good as you."
Elaine groaned. "You do. Your mother?I don?t like to talk bad about people, but Glori, she’s got you so?torn down. You?re beautiful."
"Look at you, Lainie! You?re so sophisticated. And your clothes are?"
Gloriana stopped, thinking she sounded silly. The nicest thing Gloriana wore was a homemade hat, which displayed blue and pink streamers. The hat never changed. Gloriana changed the ribbons each Saturday evening. Elaine’s tone grew serious.
"If I could dress you up and put some make-up on you, why Glori, you?d be a beauty queen."
"Oh, really?" Gloriana peered at her in disbelief. "What kind of dress is that you?re wearing? It’s the new style, isn?t it?"
"I do, but it’s short. Mother?d kill me if I ever?"
"Don?t ruin your day," said Elaine. "Don?t even mention her name."
Gloriana agreed. A shiver wavered through her. Why did she mention her mother? A male hand brushed Gloriana’s back and she whiffed his citrusy after-shave lotion. She turned and looked up at him. She hadn?t seen anyone coming.
A deep, male voice murmured, "I?m in love."
Who was he talking about?
The stranger who stood at Gloriana’s side whispered something to Elaine’s partner, Dwight Kramer. Two men arrived instead of one. Who was the second man? Gloriana fixed her eyes up at the tall, dark-haired man. He peered back with an attitude of self-command and studied relaxation. His eyes were blue?or were they gray? He was strong and wore a suit bought somewhere else. In fact, both men wore very expensive clothing, unlike the men from Grantsburg. Didn?t she once see a photograph of a movie star, Rudolph Valentino, and hadn?t he worn a similar suit? The fellow who stood next to her was as handsome as Rudolph.
When he returned her interest, her eyes dove. Plaguing her, his hand touched the small of her back. She should go home, because he shouldn?t place his hand there. Although, the more she thought about it, it wasn?t hurting anything. How well did Elaine know her new boyfriend? Gloriana peered their way.
Dwight put his arm around Elaine’s shoulder. Gloriana’s cheeks deepened in color while she watched them. What was Elaine’s boyfriend’s other hand doing?
"Quit," Elaine said, softly urging him. She shoved his hand off her waist. "Don?t."
"Loosen up," Dwight said.
"People are watching," whispered Elaine.
Dwight’s dark blonde hair was cut in a trendy style. He wore a muscular physique on his six-foot frame. Gold and jeweled rings sparkled on his fingers. Gloriana didn?t care for his aggressiveness.
"What’s your name?" asked the man with the blue-gray eyes, who stood beside Gloriana.
She tore her gaze off Dwight and focused on the man who placed his hand on her waistline. "Gloriana Fuller. Any you?re?"
"Jack Diamond." A laugh escaped his lips. "You?re?"
"Glori’s fine. Nice to meet you."
He seemed citified, and his demeanor urbane. He didn?t look like other men. Neither man seemed as though they lived in Grantsburg, population 642.
"The pleasure is mine."
Her senses returned and she repositioned her attention on the soda jerk. Her body tautened as she leaned away from. It was an unnatural position, but his hand stayed. She began to feel uncomfortable. Should she be talking to him? Actually, he was an older man; a lot older. Too old, maybe?
"Give me one of those, and give the ladies another," he said to the soda jerk.
"Thank you," said Elaine.
"Yes, thank you," parroted Gloriana.
Was he in his mid-thirties? Oh, how she wished to be a little more forward and ask a few questions. Although, asking men leading questions wasn?t socially acceptable. Dozens of women probably wanted him as a beau. Silence hung as heavy as the July humidity. His hand stayed on her waist and she endured his visual scrutiny. Although he was much too old for her. Liquor stunk on his breath; at least, she thought it was liquor. He broke the law.
"Where do you live?" he asked.
She would be polite, remember her manners. "On the corner of Alexander and Washington. On Alexander Hill. Do you know where that is?"
"That big house?" Leaning her way, he nodded. "The one with the green shutters?"
"That’s the one." She didn?t want him going there. Perhaps she shouldn?t be so forthcoming. "How about you?"
"I live off French Lick Creek Road, at a place called Moonlight Inn."
"Oh." Perhaps her father heard of him. She hoped he didn?t hear about the current set of events, though. "That’s a nice name: Moonlight Inn."
"I named it myself. In fact, I had it built. You know where French Lick Creek Road is?"
"Yes." She held her breath, summoning the nerve to ask him a daring question. "What do you do, Mr. Diamond, or a living?"
"Jewelry," he said, and laughed.
"Do you really?" His name was Diamond and he sold jewelry. "What a big coincidence."
Her father sold and repaired watches, too. Also, Elaine’s male friend wore a lot of jewelry. Did he buy it from Mr. Diamond?
In a voice like a knife scraping sandpaper, he murmured, "Where have you been all my life?"
As he said it, his nose hovered an inch over her ear. Shivers tore through her until her knees weakened. It happened just as he reached for his soda. She gasped.
"Didn?t mean to shock you," he said.
Brushing her long skirt, he propped a strong leg on her stool as though he were taking possession. If he continued, other boys would be afraid to come and talk. But, of course, she could be misinterpreting the entire situation.
Hesitantly, she said, "I?ve been right here in Grantsburg. All my life. I haven?t moved anywhere." She found his interest nerve-racking.
"How old are you, hon?"
Much too young for him. Judging by his words and actions, she doubted he was a man with scruples. Although, as unsophisticated as she was, how would she know? Maybe men from different cities acted like Mr. Diamond and Dwight Kramer. Nodding, he brought a bottle of brown liquid from an inside pocket of his jacket.
"You?re a young thing, aren?t you?" he asked, uncapping it.
"I guess so. Not real young."
Lifting the bottle to his lips, his eyes dropped to hers as he contemplated her words. "Want some?"
Gloriana didn?t want her mother noticing the scent of whiskey later. She wouldn?t be able to walk for a week. She whiffed the fumes and scrunched her nose.
"P-shu! Hoh! I think not."
"Come on," he urged softly, holding it closely. "One little sip."
"I can?t." Gently, she shoved his hand away.
She shrugged. "Go ahead." As he sipped, she summoned the nerve to ask, "So, how old are you?" Her eyes shot down once the question left her lips.
"Ah. Thirty-six." His gaze grazed her downcast profile. "Why?"
She shrugged. "Just wondered."
"You think I?m too old for you, hon??"
Hon? She flushed miserably, perspiring. She fanned herself with a piece of paper. "Too old for what, Mr. Diamond."
Obviously contemplating her breast size, he again lifted the bottle to his lips. His Adam’s apple bobbed once. Her heart skipped a beat. She dropped her soda.
"Oh no!" It crashed onto the floor.
"It’s no big deal. He?ll get it." Jack raised a hand and snapped at the soda jerk.
The boy jumped. "Yes, sir?"
It was an order. "Get it."
The boy’s eyes rounded and he froze in place. "Yes sir, right away."
He hurried for the back room. With renewed humiliation, she looked away until the soda jerk emerged and mopped up the mess.
"I?m so sorry."
Jack’s amused expression embraced her. "No problem."
"There’s a free table," said Dwight Kramer. "Over there." A cigarette bounced on his lip. "We can get out of his way." His diamond rings flashing in the sunlight, he escorted Elaine toward the main window that overlooked a motorcar.
"Care to join them?" Jack lowered his eyes.
Was there another choice? She scanned the table. Standing at the counter drew attention that she wasn?t sure she wanted. All heads turned their way. Who was he really?
Elaine turned, and asked "Coming, Glori?"
Did Elaine want to sit with him? She considered the escalating drama while fanning away cigar smoke that twirled her way. Without even considering Mr. Diamond’s wishes, she wouldn?t mind sitting where the air was fresher. She glanced outside. If Trevor caught her mingling with him, he?d run home and tell. Sunday freedom would be a memory.
"Is everything all right?" Mr. Diamond asked.
"Yes," She lied. His concern made her shudder to the depths of her soul.
"Ready?" He took her arm. No man had ever escorted her anywhere.
"I can?t." She stopped, and took her arm from his hand.
"You can?t be serious," Mr. Diamond said. "You don?t want to sit down?"
A lady wouldn?t immediately take up with a man, especially one who looked and acted like him. Contemplating his demeanor, she smiled, unable to help herself. Intrigued, she noticed how the sunlight caught the glint of blue steel under his jacket’s bulging lapel. A gun? Quickly, she looked away.
"I-I can?t stay." With three sets of disappointed eyes focused on her, Gloriana paused. "Maybe for a few minutes, I can talk." It was too early to go home. Her mother really would suspect her of something.
"I?d be honored," he said.
"You would be? Really? Thank you."
She flushed as they crossed the room and he pulled the chair from under the table. Outside a man leaned against the luxurious car all the while. He dressed a lot like Dwight and Jack Diamond. Elaine noticed, too.
"Nice," Elaine told Mr. Diamond.
"So that’s yours?" Gloriana asked. "Not the man, but the motorcar?"
"Yeah to both."
"Where do you buy petrol?"
"Five miles that way." He motioned with his head.
"Oh, nice. Isn?t it nice?" Elaine gave her a quizzical look, and mouthed, "What’s wrong with you?"
Gloriana rolled her eyes. What could she say? The man made her clam up.
Mr. Diamond said, "I have two motorcars, really. I plan to buy a couple more."
"Two?" said Elaine. "Wow-ee."
"Lincoln’s," he said.
"Mm-hm. Very nice," said Gloriana.
"That’s a lot; two and soon four," said Elaine. "Isn?t it, Glori?"
"The other’s a year newer." His eyes lingered on hers. "Good cars. Best I ever drove."
Gloriana said, "It’s the first time I saw one."
"How about a ride?" asked Jack Diamond.
From the first moment she saw him the feeling that he would extend an invitation lingered in the back of her mind. "Oh, no. I can?t."
Elaine leaned toward them. "It’s not her. It’s her mother. She’s a real doozie." Elaine rolled her eyes. "If you know what I mean."
"I can handle her," Mr. Diamond said.
Her voice, an ebbing tide, said, "No, you just can?t. She?d?you don?t know her."
"What would she do?" asked Mr. Diamond, his eyes wide. "Not to me she wouldn?t do a damned thing. And I wouldn?t let her try anything with you. She wouldn?t know who she was dealin? with."
Grimly, she looked away not saying a word. Her pool of thought regarding her mother was private and she would not let him tap it. What would he say if he knew that her mother routinely whipped her over small matters?
"It bothers you to talk about it, doesn?t it?" he asked, and rubbed her back for two or three seconds.
After a pause, she shrugged. "I can?t say."
He removed his hand. "Did I upset you?"
In a sharp exhalation, she said, "It’s okay."
"I like your hat," he said, fingering the streamers that dangled down her back.
"Oh, this old thing. It’s nothing, really." His fingers moved on her bodice back and an unwelcome tint climbed her cheeks.
"I like this," he murmured.
She looked down at the wriggling fingers in her lap, and inwardly pooh-poohed his compliment. Anyone with eyes could tell she hand-decorated the hat. He tried to impress her with flattery.
"It’s Elaine’s hat. Or, it once was. She gave it to me."
"Thank you, Mr. Diamond."
"A ride?d be fun, sometime," said Elaine. "Don?t you think, Glori?"
Gloriana grimaced. If she could, she?d nudge Elaine’s leg. "I really do appreciate it. And, it’s nice of you and all. But I can?t." Turning in her seat, she began to rise. "I have to go. It was nice meeting you, gentlemen. Mr. Diamond." Mustering her strength, she looked both of the men in the face. "See you."
"I?ll drive you," said Mr. Diamond.
He had to be joking. Such an act would be dangerous. She envisioned Jack Diamond dropping her off at the corner of Alexander and Washington as her mother watched. The repercussions would be catastrophic.
"You come here every Sunday?" he asked. He grasped a lock of her hair and twirled it around his finger.
The urge to leave vanished. He seemed to tear his eyes off her. His line of vision drifted outside. He didn?t focus. He turned back, looking at her full in the face.
"How about next Sunday? You?ll be here?"
She bit her lip and shrugged. "I don?t know. Maybe."
"What if I?m here?" he asked. "And what if I asked you to go on a ride with me and Dwight and Elaine? Then what? Would you say ?no??"
Her heart rate increased. It would be so very much fun and she yearned to do it. "I-I don?t know."
"It’s settled then. I?ll be here."
He reached out and squeezed her hand. When did she say yes? Pausing, Gloriana sighed with exasperation.
"Mr. Diamond, where?re you from?"
She gave him an odd look, wondering what he was doing in Grantsburg, Illinois. His face looked vaguely familiar. Surely, she could trust him. She gazed down and noticed his hand. Where was his second to smallest finger? She had no business asking, but she did anyway, touching his hand.
"A bar fight. I beat the dickens out of him. He healed, but my finger got infected."
"Your ring finger."
"It doesn?t stop me from doing other stuff." His fingers moved and rested on her shoulder.
"I see that."
He smiled. "What if I want to talk to you, say through the week? Pop in?"
"No." Panic gripped her. "Please don?t."
He nodded. "Okay, then. I?ll send you a note. Through Elaine."
What if her mother intercepted the note? Tears couldn?t come now. She acted like a whimpering schoolgirl. She felt herself being pushed to the wall.
"Mr. Diamond, listen?" Taking a deep breath, she willed herself to not cry. "You?ll get me in trouble." She wrung her hands. Word would get around that she flirted with him. The lash of the strop already stung. "Just don?t."
"I don?t want to do that." He scratched his head and his jaw twitched.
"Well, this time I really do have to go." Inhaling once sharply, she rose and backed away from the table, without making too big of a fool of herself. "I?m leaving now," she told Elaine, then stumbled over a chair, catching the table. "Oops."
Jack Diamond rose, too. "Wait, Glori!" He called her Glori and they barely knew each other. She didn?t remember her name sounding so ominous on any person’s lips--ever. "I?ll be here next week."
She shrugged. "I just don?t know."
His attention confused her. As though a demon chased her, and without a glance back she darted from the Sunshine Soda Shop and hurried home, thinking about Jack Diamond the entire jaunt. Would she meet him the next week? She had all week to think about it. Arriving home, she was relieved to find her mother entertaining her sister June and her first cousin on the porch. Jeffrey sat on the steps of the white two-story house, which boasted green spires, white siding, and a gabled roof. The two heavy-set women occupied the swing, gabbing and swatting flies.
"Hi," Aunt June said, fanning herself. "You?re all dressed up."
"Oh, this. I didn?t change after church." She looked down at her blue dress. "Thank you." She leaned and hugged her Aunt June.
"You?ve grown," said Aunt June. "My, my. You?ve blossomed into a beautiful young woman. I hadn?t seen you for two months and it seems like it’s been a year. Jeffrey and I thought we?d stop by."
"I?m glad you did."
Gloriana glanced at her mother’s disapproving expression, before she acknowledged the lavish complement. Maybe Gloriana should find a rope, wind it into a noose, and string it to the barn’s rafters. Maybe then she?d make her happy. Nothing else worked. She would laugh at Gloriana’s funeral and dance in the street. If the truth were known, Gloriana had thought about ending it all. At least Jeffrey was glad to see her. Bless his heart. A smile spread over his lips as Gloriana crossed the porch and pulled the screen open.
"What’s goin? on up town?" asked June.
"I thought about going up," Jeffrey said.
Jeffrey stood six feet tall, was solidly built, and sported a dark blonde head of hair. His eyes were blue. Jeffrey quarterbacked for Grantsburg High and enjoyed reading. His teachers told June he was a very intelligent boy of sixteen. In a way, he resembled June, except for the hair color and height. They were both friendly and she had utmost respect for them.
Her mother said, "When you get in the kitchen bring me a lemonade. Then you can start the dishes. They?d better be done by the time I go in." Her voice lowered and she told June, "You can never tell about that girl."
Gloriana shut out her mother’s words, which were barbed and hurtful.
Jeffrey rose to his feet. "Excuse me," he said, his voice cracking. "I?ll get it."
Gloriana climbed the stairs, changed into an everyday dress and went into the kitchen where Jeffrey leaned back on the stove with his arms folded at his chest and his legs planted firmly apart. Jeffrey had delivered Myrtle the glass of lemonade and began helping Gloriana dry dishes. She gazed at him as his eyes followed her.
"What’s wrong?" Jeffrey asked.
"Nothing. Why?" She scrubbed up spilled lemonade from the luncheon.
"Are you going uptown regular now on Sundays?" He hung a soggy dishtowel up to dry and searched for a dry one. His voice was laced with a new emotion.
"Yeah." She handed him a dishtowel.
"Thanks." He took the cloth and picked up a dish.
"Yeah, I go on weekends. Sundays." Briskly, she scratched stuck cooked apples off a plate.
"Does your mother jail you through the week and let you loose on Sunday?"
Gloriana stared at him. "I think they gossip and she doesn?t want me to hear." Gloriana shrugged. "She tells me I can go."
"She’s getting worse, if that’s possible."
"I?m not going to complain."
"I don?t know how you?ve turned out normal," Jeffrey said. "I sure wouldn?t have."
"It?d help to be crazy, that’s for sure."
Reaching for a pitcher Gloriana poured and took a long, deep sip, feeling Jeffrey’s scrutinizing stare. She wasn?t about to tell Jeffrey about Jack Diamond, because he?d have a fit.
"I bet you?re glad to get out."
"It’s great to see friends."
She ran the back of her arm across her damp forehead. She retrieved a pile of plates and leaned in front of him and seized the dishrag from the edge of a counter. Jeffrey didn?t move, so she brushed by him.
"You smell like smoke."
"They smoke in the Sunshine. The men do?cigars and cigarettes. I don?t."
"That’s where you were? How long have you been going there?"
"A couple of months, maybe." A silence fell between them. "We don?t come over much anymore."
"I noticed. I hope it isn?t me."
"Is it Mother?" she asked.
"How?d you guess?"
"It was easy." She saw a strange look in his eyes. "What?"
"There’s something I-I wanted to say. Can I just?" His voice fell.
Gloriana rinsed a dish and placed it in his hands. For a minute, she stared out the window and waited, but Jeffrey’s words stalled.
"What Jeffrey?" Why was he acting so backward? "What’s on your mind?"
"I?ve heard about how she’s been whipping you and all and?"
She felt like ice had just solidified in her stomach. Everyone knew about her life. Although very few mentioned it; the town’s shocking little secret.
"Wait," he said in a tormented tone. "It took me long enough to get the nerve to say this." He gathered his thoughts and raised a hand. "To say it is hard. So, hear me out?please. Think about this."
"Why don?t you and me?run away."
"Oh, Jeffrey. I-don?t think?"
Why would he have such a crazy idea? She stiffened and backed away an inch or two. Surely, it was the kid in him talking.
"Wait." His eyes clung to hers, seeking approval. "I?ve thought about it and it’s what I want to do. We can go far away to the east coast. I?ll go to college there. How’s that sound?"
"Do you know what you just said?" She stared at him, hoping no one hid around the corner and listened.
His tone was deadly serious. "I mean every word."
"For one thing, we?re first cousins, for goodness? sakes," she whispered.
"I know what you?re thinking." Raising his hand to his forehead, he settled down with a thoughtful pause. "Listen. If we went?away, far enough?no one would know we were, well, you know. And we could maybe get married and?" As he peered her way, his eyes darkened with emotion. "Think about it. It could save your life."
Gloriana dropped onto a chair and rested her head in her hands. Jeffrey meant well, but his feelings for her were misguided. The only event in their past that could have triggered his romantic notions occurred a year earlier. Then again, perhaps he just wanted to save her from her mother. She remembered the evening at the lake when they had almost kissed. He put his arm around her while swimming. It made her warm and tingling inside. Later, they shared a deep discussion about life and other soul-wrenching topics while lying under the stars. Could she attribute his affection to the conversation they shared that evening? She had practically forgotten it, hoping Jeffrey had also let it go. It was a fun summer, the year her mother had to go back east to tend to a sick aunt.
"No, Jeffrey. That’s so silly. Where did you dig up that idea? It’s nice and I love you, but not that way."
Surely, he experienced puppy love or perhaps felt sorry for her. In any event, it was no reason for them to run away together. Jeffrey smacked his fist into the palm of his other hand and paced around the room.
"I think you?re in danger," he said, his voice cracking. "People told us."
Her voice softened and a faraway look entered her expression. "We just can?t."
It was an impossible suggestion and an immoral way to live married to a first cousin?utterly ridiculous. Jeffrey started his Junior year of high school in September and he had a lot of growing up to do. He wasn?t thinking straight. He was a wonderful friend and his considerate gesture overwhelmed her, but he needed to find an unrelated girl who was more his age.
Her mind wandered to the problem of the moment; to the exciting Jack Diamond she had met. She couldn?t rid herself of his image. Who was she kidding? She?d never see him again. But why did he have such a powerful effect on her?
"What are you thinking?" asked Jeffrey.
"Nothing at all."