By Judy Christie
Barbour Publishing, Inc. Copyright © 2011 Judy Christie
All rights reserved.
As much as Wreath wanted to stay, Frankie pushed her to go.
"You need to leave," her mama said. "Today."
"Not yet. Please, Frankie, not yet." Wreath hated the way her voice trembled. "You're better this morning. Let me stay a little longer."
Her mother lifted her hand and pulled Wreath weakly down to the bed. The skinny teenager snuggled as she had done hundreds of times, Frankie running her fingers through Wreath's long, reddish-brown hair.
"Be strong for me, sweet girl. Show the world what Willis women are made of." The words were little more than a whisper. "When you get scared, remember that I'm in your heart." Wreath was already terrified.
She wished Frankie's words were not more and more difficult to hear. Her mother's breathing sounded ugly and strained, like the time the window fan motor went out and the blades kept trying to turn.
"You want me to get your oxygen?"
Frankie shook her head, and for the first time Wreath noticed tears in her eyes. She moved even closer to Frankie and kissed her forehead.
"Wreath Wisteria Willis!" Frankie's voice startled Wreath with its sudden fierceness. "What's our motto? Tell Mama our motto!"
Wreath propped herself up on her elbow and looked into her mother's eyes. "Where there's a Willis, there's a way," she said with a trembling smile.
Her mother nodded, her chin bumping into Wreath's shoulder. "Don't ever forget that. It'll see you through the hard days."
"I won't forget."
"You need to get out of here before it's too late. I don't want Big Fun to know where you're headed. Are you ready?"
"Everything's set." Wreath turned away from Frankie and sat up on the side of the bed. Her stomach churned. She didn't mention that she'd never called the number on the piece of paper and that she had no intention of signing up to be a foster child.
"Be sweet. Make good grades. Help around the house. You're good at that," Frankie whispered. "Your new family'll treat you right."
"Yes, ma'am." The fact that Wreath had fooled her mother into believing she would live in a house with strangers showed how out of it Frankie was.
"Promise me you'll go to college."
Wreath said nothing. She wondered how she would get through her senior year of high school, much less pay for college.
"Promise Mama. Promise." The words seemed to take all of Frankie's energy and frightened Wreath with their intensity.
"Good, Wreath ..." Her mother's voice trailed off as she squeezed the teenager's hand.
"Shhh, Frankie. Rest. Everything's going to work out okay."
A slight smile came to the dry, cracked lips. "You've been telling me that since you were a little bitty girl. 'It okay, Frankie, it okay,' you'd say. I was supposed to be the one telling you that."
"You've told me lots of stuff." With her hands shaking, Wreath poured a cup of water from the pink plastic pitcher on the bedside table, a remnant of one of her mother's hospital stays, and held it for Frankie to sip.
"I should've given you another daddy after yours got killed. I never could find one who would take good care of you."
"Don't worry." Wreath tensed at the rare mention of her father, who had died before she was born, not even married to her mother, his name never spoken.
Frankie rubbed Wreath's arm gently, the glass of water sloshing onto the sheet. "Your daddy was a nice guy, but we were both just kids." She looked past her daughter as though she could see someone standing on the other side of the room.
Uneasy, Wreath pulled the worn bedspread up around her mother's shoulders.
"I'm sorry I wasn't a better mama to you," Frankie said.
"No one ever had a better mama. You're the best."
"I love you, Wreath Willis."
"I love you, Frankie Willis."
"Remember our plan, sweetie. Do better than I did." Frankie's voice stopped. She didn't gasp or wheeze. She just slipped away.
"Not yet, Mama." Tears rolled down Wreath's face.
She held her mother's hand until it grew cold, folded the bedspread back neatly, stroked her fine brown hair, and reached under the matress until she found what she needed.
Fighting sobs, she made the call to 911, mimicking the grown-up voice of a neighbor, and headed to the back door.
"Good-bye, Frankie." She walked out as though leaving for school or an errand.
If her mama heard her at all, Wreath knew it had to be from a better place.
* * *
Slipping behind a neighbor's house, Wreath watched.
She couldn't leave her mother's body until someone came to the run-down house.
A lonely pain shot through her. No amount of planning or the many lists she had made could have prepared her for how much this hurt.
When a sheriff's car pulled up, siren blaring and lights whirling, neighbors spilled out of run-down houses and loudly told each other what they saw, thought they saw, or wished they had seen. Some shook their heads with regret, while others grew animated, as though part of an exciting event.
The entire scene reminded Wreath of one of the police shows on television where bad things happened and the wrong people got hurt.
A deputy marched up the rickety steps, knocked, called out, and gave the door a shove with his shoulder. He disappeared inside, and Wreath could picture the path he took, finding the thin body of her mother.
Within minutes, the officer was back and spoke tersely into the radio in his car, the squawk of a reply impossible to understand. As he talked, an ambulance whirled around the corner, the flashing lights making the street more garish than usual.
"She's kind of uppity, keeps to herself most of the time," a woman with bleached-blond hair said, smoking a cigarette and flirting with the deputy. Wreath had seen that woman sit close to Frankie's boyfriend on the porch the past couple of weeks and knew he'd left the house with her a handful of times, at least.
"They haven't lived here very long," a man who worked on cars in his yard said. "She and that girl of hers won't take no help from the neighbors. Ain't like they got two nickels to rub together. They're just too proud to ask."
"They told me they didn't have any kinfolk around," the nice old lady who lived next door said. "It's a real shame. She and her daughter were real close. Somebody needs to find that child and tell her. She's the sweetest little thing. It's going to break her heart."
For an instant, Wreath thought about throwing herself in the woman's arms, begging to stay. She had gone with her to the library four or five times and even visited church with her once.
As she considered asking the woman for assistance, Big Fun, her mother's boyfriend, pulled up in his shiny old Chevrolet, painted the color of tropical punch. The silver wheels spun, and the radio blared. Wreath's heart pounded, and the nausea she had been feeling for the past few minutes threatened to spill over.
That man should have been named Big Mean. He was big but lacking in the fun department. He'd had little patience with Wreath from the beginning and even less as her mama's end drew near.
"Nice car," the blonde said, moving from the deputy over to Big Fun, who took the cigarette out of her mouth and used it to light one of his own. "Isn't it about time you take me for another ride?"
In the background, paramedics rolled Frankie out, a sheet over her, the body strapped to a gurney.
The sight of her mother drew Wreath out of her hiding spot with the pull of a strong magnet. She took three steps toward the still figure and glanced toward Big Fun, leaned up against his car, his arm draped around the blonde.
He caught sight of Wreath, and she knew she'd made a mistake. Pointing at her with pure evil in his eyes, he sneered at her, always the bully. She turned to run, then wheeled around to look at Frankie one last time. Big Fun turned to see what she was looking at and moved toward the ambulance, cursing loudly.
The commotion that followed made it easy for Wreath to slip away, propelled by fear.
Once out of sight, she walked deliberately, staying behind garages that listed to the side, stinky chicken coops, and huge trees that must have been planted when the neighborhood was new. She wove through backyards, over broken-down fences, and around piles of trash. A dog or two barked, and she jumped and looked around to make sure no one noticed.
Stepping inside a rusty tin shed two streets over, Wreath caught her breath and adjusted to the gloom. She wrapped her arms tightly around her middle but could not keep her body from shaking. A repressed sob, something like a hiccup, escaped.
She took a deep breath and rubbed tears from her eyes, mad at herself for crying and trying not to be mad at Frankie for dying.
Moving a bag of dog food, a collection of yard tools, and a burlap sack, Wreath pulled a backpack and black garbage bag from their hiding places, double-checked for the seventy-four dollars, notebook, and pencil in the sandwich bag, and considered stealing the owner's flashlight. She couldn't bring herself to do it.
Wreath's plan was under way, a variation on the one she and her mother had worked up carefully when the cancer hit. "Forgive me, Frankie, for misleading you," she whispered into the dank darkness. "I'll make a better life. I promise."
She exited the building and set off through the nearby woods, pausing to pet a neighbor's dog. His tail wagged.
The first few miles were easy, fueled by grief and determination. Wreath moved briskly but casually, as though out for pleasure, hanging close to whatever she could hide behind. An elderly couple sitting in lawn chairs smiled and waved as she walked past the back of their house. Wreath, dismayed that she had been seen, mumbled a greeting in return.
The last thing she needed was to be noticed, a girl wandering down the road with all she owned.
She did not want to be hunted by one of her mother's supposed friends, the same people who had taken off with their TV or stolen the grocery money. Most of all she did not want to be found by Big Fun, who liked to punch Frankie and had made ugly suggestions about how much he liked Wreath, who had done terrible things and liked to tell her about them. She gagged as she remembered his hand on her arm, and now with her mother gone ... She couldn't bear the thought.
Nor could she stomach the possibility of being swept into some welfare system, peppered with official titles and severe faces. She had gotten her fill of those with Frankie as they'd drifted from place to place and in trying to get help when her mother got so sick.
After her grandmother died, Wreath had clung even tighter to Frankie, knowing only her mama stood between her and strangers, hearing kids at her many schools talk about being moved from family to family or sent to group homes.
Now she had one year to graduate.
She would make a better life.
The awful day she realized her mother would soon die, Wreath decided. She would no longer be at the mercy of other people.
She intended to run away. She would disappear right under their noses.
Fatigue swept into Wreath's body as she realized she had underestimated how long it would take her to walk to the junkyard in Landry.
Worn out and wrung out, her mother a day dead, she stashed her black garbage bag in the thicket where she'd slept, hiding it in the midst of a patch of poison ivy. She pressed her pack against her chest.
With the Central Louisiana woods as camouflage, she swatted mosquitoes and waited nearly an hour for the Tourist Welcome Center to open. When she walked in, the air was deliciously cool, but the hostesses not welcoming.
Groggy, hungry, bug-bitten, and grimy, she imagined she looked like a runaway or druggie, ratty after a night spent on the ground in the woods. Longing to tell them about Frankie, she almost asked for help. "You have to sign here for a free map." A stern lady's voice interrupted her thoughts. "Give your address." Suspicion rolled off the woman like rain running off the roof into the yard.
Wreath took a deep breath and tried to look calm and collected. Carefully writing the fake address she had come up with weeks before, she scrawled her name in unrecognizable script and picked up brochures about the area.
"Only take the ones you need," the worker said. "We don't like to waste those." Wreath managed a small smile, pretended to read one, and put it back, taking another instead.
Hearing the worker give an exaggerated sigh, Wreath looked desperately for the bathroom and charged in, leaning against the cool, blue tile wall to catch her breath.
Rattled by the hostility and fatigue, she stumbled to the sink and splashed water on her face. When she looked into the mirror, she scarcely recognized herself, her thick hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, her cheeks flushed, and her hazel eyes sunken.
She shook her head, as though the action might shake off her despair, and cleaned up, grimacing at the employee sent in to check on her. Without a doubt, she stood out like a shiny toy on a run-down porch.
"My mother's waiting in the car, but you know how we girls are," Wreath said, speaking in a snobbish voice one of the rich girls at school had used. "She'll appreciate the tourist material. We've never visited Louisiana before."
With her heart nearly pounding out of her chest, she wandered outside to a soda machine, bought an expensive bottled soft drink she couldn't afford, and acted as though she were walking to one of the cars in the parking lot. Looking over her shoulder to make sure she wasn't being followed, she turned around to find herself not a car's length from Big Fun.
"Did you think you could get away that easy?" he snarled and jerked her arm, his long, greasy hair lifting with the movement. "You and I have unfinished business. I'll hunt you down wherever you run and wring that scrawny little neck of yours if you don't do what I say."
"You don't scare me," Wreath hissed, wondering what in the world to do.
"Girl, you don't know what scared is," he said. "You've crossed Big Fun one time too many. Did you call the cops on me, too?"
"No," Wreath whispered, trying to hide the backpack from his line of sight. "I didn't do anything."
"Shut up! I've had about enough of your snotty attitude. If you think I intend to let you get away from me, you're crazier than a bedbug."
"All you ever cared about was Frankie's paycheck," Wreath cried out. "I will never let you treat me the way you treated my mama. Let me go, or I'll scream."
"Don't even think about it." He grabbed her wrist so hard she thought it might snap. "Get in my car. Now. Or you'll regret it."
When Wreath was about ten, she'd seen a pit bull attack a chicken, and she thought she knew now how the chicken had felt. Judging the distance to the edge of the woods, she knew she couldn't outrun Big Fun. She considered rolling under the car, but didn't think she had room. Maybe she could jump out of the car once they got started, or push him out and take the wheel.
Who was she kidding? She'd seen him hit Frankie repeatedly over a few dollars in tips from her mother's day at the café, and he had backhanded Wreath more than once for defending her. If only her mother hadn't gotten sick, they could have moved away from Big Fun, the way Frankie had planned. Maybe they could have gotten away from him and his fists and his horrible secret.
Hope evaporating, Wreath heard a quiet whirring sound. A security guard in a golf cart with a flashing yellow light rolled to a stop and stepped out. "Take your hands off that girl immediately," he demanded. "What's all the shouting about?" Although he was ancient and overweight, he spoke with authority and looked oddly threatening with his hand on the spray he wore snapped to his belt.
Cursing under his breath, Big Fun let go of Wreath but stepped so close to her that his arm touched her shoulder.
"You in trouble, young lady?" the guard asked.
Big Fun spoke first. "Teenage daughters!" he said with a weird laugh. "They certainly have a mind of their own." When he spoke, she could smell the tobacco and beer on his breath, his threats ringing in her ears.
The guard relaxed his stance slightly, and Wreath knew only her wits would get her away now. "My dad's upset because I need to go to the bathroom again," she said, rubbing her wrist. "He gets mad when I throw him off his schedule."
"Well, now, missy, why don't you run on into the bathroom there," Big Fun said, pinching her back where the guard couldn't see.
Her frightened look must have caught the guard's attention because he nodded, pulled the cart over to the curb, and walked next to Big Fun and her, talking in a grandfatherly way. "Fathers don't always understand their little girls, and they sometimes handle them wrong. Go on inside and freshen up." He almost blushed as he said the last words. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Wreath by Judy Christie. Copyright © 2011 Judy Christie. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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