Read an Excerpt
Quilts of Love Series
By Bonnie S. Calhoun
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Bonnie S. Calhoun
All rights reserved.
June 15, 1938
Corde-eel-ee, don't be sil-ly. We'll find you sooner or later!"
The taunt echoed down the alley, bouncing from building to building at the same rate her heartbeat pounded in her ears. The voices pumped more adrenaline into her blood. Would they pop into the Court from Pine Street?
Cordelia Grace pedaled her red and tan Schwinn as fast as her legs would go. She sucked in short, rapid breaths that burned her lungs. She took a glance behind. No one. She swerved, avoiding the metal garbage cans in front of Stoney's Garage. Panic raced through her throat as tears pricked at her eyes. Where were her two girlfriends? They were supposed to be right behind her. Now she was alone to face her tormentors.
She probably wouldn't have run from them if she had "more meat on her bones," like Grammy said. Other girls had the weight and power she lacked. Why did she have to fight? Truth be told, she didn't know how to fight. Her daddy was a preacher man, and her momma always said young ladies of good breeding didn't act like street hoodlums. No one had ever taught her self-defense.
She breathed hard, pulling in big gulps of air. Maybe they hadn't seen her turn down Dix Court? Maybe she could make it home safely ... today. The alley, wide enough for cars to pass in either direction, felt as though it were closing in on her, squeezing her into the dusty center. She prayed someone would be on their porch. Just one grown-up she could stop and talk with until the danger passed. But each house stood silent, each narrow porch empty. Rows of garbage cans lined impossibly narrow strips of grass like tin soldiers, but none offered protection.
The quarter-sized scab on her left knee caught on the hem of her play dress as her legs pumped the pedals. The tiny prickle pains from the pulled skin would be worth it if she managed to escape. She jerked her head around to look back again. Her long, skinny braids whacked her in the face and slapped her in the right eye. Tears spilled onto her cheek. Bitsy Morgan's house marked the halfway point in the alley. Still no one in hot pursuit.
Her arms relaxed on the handlebars and her legs slowed. She back-pedaled to brake. The bicycle slid to a stop. Cordelia hopped off the seat and straddled the "J" frame. Her lungs burned.
Five houses up, they emerged on the path leading to the avenue. The three bullies spread across the Court, blocking her way.
Cordelia whimpered as dread clenched her belly. They had found her. She tried to turn, but the chain caught her dress hem, wrenching the handlebars from her grip. The bicycle fell, and the chain dug into the soft flesh of her ankle. A trail of black grease tracked down one of her white socks. Ignore the pain. If they see tears, they'll know I'm scared. She lifted her quivering chin and stared at them.
Two girls and a boy ran at her.
She bent over and raised her bicycle.
Two more girls raced toward her. The five Wilson kids had trapped their prey. She tried not to let fear register in her eyes.
"Cor-deel-lee, you belong to me." Debbie Lu, the tallest girl in the group, had her nappy hair scraped back in a short ponytail so tight it pulled back the corners of her eyes, adding to her sinister look.
Cordelia shrank back, choking her handlebars with shaking hands. She watched the Wilson girl approach, slapping her fist into the palm of her other hand.
Debbie Lu charged and slammed into Cordelia with the full force of both fists.
Cordelia stumbled from her bicycle and skidded on the ground. Her palms raked over the graveled dirt of the alley. The sting forced tears into her eyes. She refused to respond.
A red flash streaked from the roof of the shed on the left side of the alley. A cute light-skinned boy landed on the ground beside her bicycle. He wore blue jeans and a bright red shirt opened down the front to reveal a dingy T-shirt. Cordelia eyed him warily—another tormentor?
He didn't join the bullies.
She looked him up and down. Who was he? Her heart pounding eased.
The cute boy stepped between her and Debbie Lu. "What's the problem?" He pointed his thumb back at Cordelia. "Did she steal your Tootsie Pop?"
"I'm gonna pop her, all right. Little Miss High Yella' doesn't belong in this neighborhood with her light skin and straight hair. She acts like she's white people and better'n us," said the dark-complexioned girl.
The cute boy turned away from Debbie Lu to glance at Cordelia.
He raised one side of his lips in a slight smile and winked, then turned back to the menace. "In case you haven't noticed, you should probably call me high yella' too since my skin is as light as hers. Does that mean you want me out of the neighborhood, too?" He stepped closer to the girl. "See, I just moved here, and I don't think my pa would want to leave, since he just got a job at the coal company."
The girl scowled but lowered her fist and backed up.
Tim Wilson, one brother of the group, pushed Debbie Lu out of the way and stood toe-to-toe with the new boy. "Don't you talk to my sister like that."
"Or what?" The cute boy's eyebrows furrowed and he lowered his head a tad.
Cordelia eyed the exchange. Her brain told her to run while she had the chance, but her feet stayed rooted to the spot. What did he think he was doing, facing off with the Wilson kids? They were well-known scrappers.
Tim Wilson raised his left hand.
The cute boy's right fist shot out and punched Tim square in the nose.
Tim's hands cupped his nose as blood squirted down the front of his shirt and splattered his sisters.
The girls screamed and hightailed it down the alley.
Cordelia grimaced. An involuntary sigh pushed from her chest. This boy wasn't afraid of them.
"I'll get you for this," Tim warned in a nasal tone.
"Yeah, well, when you're not bleeding and wanna stop playing house with your sisters, be sure and let me know."
Tim pointed a bloody finger at the boy. "Hey, you take that back or I'm gonna beat your—"
"Oh, no! I'm sorry," the cute boy interrupted, his voice pleading. "I didn't mean to hurt you."
Cordelia's heart sank. So much for her fearless hero. She couldn't blame him, but somehow it felt worse than Debbie Lu's fist in her belly.
Which way should she run before Tim called his sisters back to finish the job?
The boy added, "Yeah, I'm sorry. I meant to hit your sister."
Tim scowled through the mess dripping from his chin. He sputtered, but before he could speak, Cordelia's rescuer faked a lunge. Tim recoiled with a girlish squeal and sprang after his sisters.
Cordelia's eyes widened as she stared at the back of the cute boy's head.
He turned to face her. "Do you talk?"
A nervous smile crossed her lips. Her dry throat croaked out the word "Yes." She swallowed hard and wet her lips. "Thank you for helping me." A flutter settled into her tummy.
He looked down at the splatter of blood on his own sleeve. With a look of disgust he ripped the shirt off and threw it to the ground. A rolled-up tube of paper fell from his back pocket. "Jeepers creepers, I gotta lose that. If my ma sees blood on my shirt, I'm gonna be in real big trouble for fightin' again."
Cordelia smiled. "I could explain for you. You were very brave—"
"No! Pa told me if I got in trouble in this town, he was gonna ..." He kicked at the shirt then locked his fingers together over his head, resting his arms against his ears. "I'll run away before ..."
Cordelia tipped her head to the side to look up into his downcast eyes. "Before what?"
"What did you say?"
He looked defiant. "I said before I get beat again."
Cordelia jerked back her chin at the odd choice of words.
"Berr-nard!" A woman's voice carried over the fence.
"Com-ing," he yelled but never took his eyes off Cordelia.
His stare reached into her soul. She shivered. He looked about thirteen. Same age as her, but at least a head taller, and really cute. He'd be gone in a second. Cordelia's heart thumped an erratic rhythm. At least she knew his name ... Bernard.
"I have to go before she comes looking for me. My dad will be home from the mines any minute. I got to already be at the dinner table when he comes in." He reached for the rickety wooden gate.
"Hey, you dropped something." Cordelia pointed at the rolled paper.
Bernard grabbed it up and unrolled the tube. Flattening the pages, he showed her the comic book with a mostly yellow and white cover. A man in blue tights and a red cape lifted a car over his head. "This is the first Action Comic! And this here is Superman. He flies over tall buildings."
Cordelia looked at the page, then back at Bernard. "So what?"
He just shook his head. "So what? Do you know how many extra chores I had to do for the ten cents to buy this?" He shook his head. "You're just a girl. Girls know nothin'."
She tipped her head to the side, and a smile creased her lips. "Well, can you fly and lift a car over your head?" He had used what she considered superhuman strength to save her. Her regular smart-alecky mouth displaced her anxiety. Grammy said her mouth always got her in trouble. She wanted to slap herself for being flippant.
He began to argue.
"Berr-nard, dinn-ner," the lady's voice yelled from the other side of the tall wooden fence.
He never took his eyes off Cordelia. "Comin', Ma!"
He turned to the gate, and then back to Cordelia. "What's your name, girl?"
"Cordelia ... Cordelia Grace." Now her heart pounded for a different reason.
"Good to meet you, Cordelia-Cordelia Grace." He winked and reached for the gate.
"Welcome to the neighborhood." Cordelia's heart thumped against her ribs. Her voice trailed off as the gate closed behind him.
She leaned over and grabbed up the red shirt, then held it up, looking for spots of blood. Scrunching up her nose, she folded the splashes to the inside. Why did she want this dirty thing? She stuffed the shirt into the book bag in her bicycle basket, then pedaled out of the alley and down Olive Street.
* * *
May 19, 1942
"Did you hear what I asked you, baby girl?"
Cordelia's thoughts jerked back to the present, but her hand rested on the circle of red triangles. The memory both stung and warmed her heart. "I'm sorry. What did you ask, Grammy?"
"Well, I asked what had you deep in thought. You even breathed heavy for a spell there." Grammy Mae measured squares of colored cloth as she rocked in her chair.
Cordelia hitched up the side of her mouth in a wry smile. "You know how some people can pinpoint when their lives changed for the better or the worse?"
"Yes, baby. I've heard tell about folks like that. For me, I just personally felt it all began the day I was birthed." Grammy Mae, with her hair pulled back in a perfect chignon, wore a tailored housedress; she had looked prim and proper every day Cordelia could remember. Even her black Hill and Dale stack-heel oxfords were polished to a high shine. Grammy loved shoes. She had taught Cordelia the brand name of every pair, though, to her grandmother's chagrin, Cordelia preferred to go barefoot.
Cordelia rubbed her hand over the red material that was close to the center of the quilt. "Well, this is when I was reborn."
Grammy smiled. "I knew the day you brought that bloody shirt in here, something was burnin' in your belly."
"That day I met Bernard." She sighed, remembering the whole jumble of feelings from that day. Her mind had raced to find excuses for the dirt on her play dress. She didn't want to tell about being pushed to the ground. A bicycle fall always seemed a handy excuse. Sometimes she was sure Grammy had guessed the truth. And then there was her Superman, Bernard Howard.
Cordelia knew they were destined to marry from the moment she laid eyes on him and when she stole his cast-off shirt. "That day you started my quilt, too. I feel different now than when I was thirteen. How could that be a whole four years ago?"
Different wasn't exactly the right word. She still feared being deserted, and she was still very good at hiding her dirty secret about God. Older, yes. A more appropriate description.
She looked up. "Do you think someone my age could be in love?"
Grammy stroked Cordelia's hair. "Well, of course, child. In my day, girls close to your age were already married and birthing babies. You've got a good head on your shoulders. You know your own mind."
"Seems like only yesterday." Grammy continued as she rocked and cut squares. "Out of all the boys skulking around here at the time, why did you pick up with him?"
Cordelia knew all too vividly why Bernard had become her hero, but this was not the time to speak of her personal pain out loud. "Because I was worried over something he said that day about his father."
Grammy looked up from the pile of colored squares resting in her lap. "What did he say?"
"He said his father beat him." Those words made her hands shake after all these years.
Grammy Mae stopped rocking.
"And he said he was going to run away if he got beat again. I didn't understand why he would make such a big deal outta getting switched. Daddy always made me go out back to the willow tree and cut my own switch. That part was worse than getting hit, but I never thought of running away."
Although a switching usually consisted of more threat than action. She could only remember getting whacked a couple times. She'd learned that an instant performance of crying and screaming, regardless of how light the whack, would cause her father to relent.
Grammy Mae looked like a storm cloud was fixing to burst from her forehead. "I don't think the boy was talking about a regular switchin', baby. I think he could have been talking about a full-on man beatin'."
Cordelia nodded. "That's what I found out later. His father is a real nightmare. But he wouldn't try to beat him like that now because Bernard swears he'd fight back."
Grammy set her jaw.
Cordelia knew that look well. She needed to change topics before Grammy took off to Dix Court to punch Mr. Howard in the eye, or worse. "Tell me the story of my life covering again."
Cordelia glanced around the room at the piles of colored squares spread across the dressing table, ironing board, and bedspread. Over these past four years, the circular Pinecone Quilt pattern had grown to several feet in circumference.
Grammy's look softened. "Baby girl, I've told you the story of this quilt a dozen times. You should be able to recite it by heart."
"But I like to hear you say it." Actually, she enjoyed seeing the twinkle in Grammy's eyes as she talked.
Grammy Mae looked up, smiled, and then nodded her head. "I guessed it was up to me to teach you, since the tradition goes back as many generations as I can remember on our side of the family. This is a Pinecone Quilt. Some folks on my daddy's side of the family call it a Pine Burr Quilt, but it all works out to be the same pattern."
"You started working on it because Mom didn't like it."
"Now, Cordelia. Don't be startin' no trouble with your ma. I started your quilt because it was time someone got to work on it," said Grammy with a hint of annoyance in her voice. "It's not that she didn't like it. She didn't think it was necessary to give you a life covering."
Grammy and Ma were always at odds about the ways of the world. Ma called herself modern. Cordelia had caught her more than once mocking Grammy for talking about the olden days.
Her father told her their tussles resulted from two women, related only by marriage, of different generations, in the same house. Grammy was Daddy's mom. She liked to say she came from different stock than Ma's family. Sometimes Cordelia felt the tension between her ma and Grammy, but for the most part the two women stayed out of each other's way. Cordelia pretended not to pay much attention. But she adored Grammy, her confidant and ally.
Cordelia grinned. "She doesn't know how to quilt either."
"Baby girl, hush your mouth. The youngsters don't do a lot of the things we learned as girls. Now, let me tell the story."
Cordelia stifled a giggle at the thought of her mother navigating anything more complicated than the sales aisle at Woolworth's.
Grammy reached across and pulled folded muslin material into her lap, then shook it out across her knees. Concentric circles spaced about an inch and a half apart spread from the edge of the large completed circle.
"Our family tradition holds that the quiltmaker prays over each square, folding prayers into the triangles." Grammy grabbed up a square. She folded it diagonally to form a triangle; then, folding each outside point in, she created a square.
She held out the piece of green gingham material. "See this? I just folded in a prayer for your good health as I made the corners."
Excerpted from Quilts of Love Series by Bonnie S. Calhoun. Copyright © 2013 Bonnie S. Calhoun. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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