“Momma, Justine stole a cookie.”
“Momma, Delia colored all over my homework.”
“Momma, Dani’s stuck in the slide.”
Anna Turner wished for just this once that someone else named Momma lived in the house, and then she almost cried. Because someone else named Momma did live in the house. She was just in the middle of a crying jag and wouldn’t get out of bed.
She knew she needed to try talking to her mother, but her kids needed her first.
Running a frustrated hand through her cropped blonde hair, she counted to ten and blew out a frustrated breath as she left her mother’s bedroom door and started down the back steps to see what had her baby girls in such an uproar.
Stuck in the slide sounded worst.
She hit the door and heard the commotion at the same time.
There, stuck between the first two steps on the ladder, baby Dani smiled, her toddler legs—one shoe on, one off—dangling from the backyard slide. Gran’s Chihuahua, Killer, was dancing around barking his head off. Justine had one of Dani’s arms. Delia the other. It looked like the girls were going to pull their baby sister apart.
Sighing she started through the yard, side stepped Killer’s dog doo. She reached the slide and pulled Dani up into her arms.
“Justine, no dessert. Delia, go get your sister’s homework and let me see it. I swear, if you made too much of a mess you’re gonna be in trouble. Do you understand me?”
Delia’s bottom lip trembled as she ran into the house.
Justine crossed her arms over her chest and let out a sigh that was far too old for her seven years. “I was hungry. It was just a cookie.”
But it was more than that and Justine was old enough to know it. Those cookies had to last. Anna scrimped and saved and clipped coupons so they could have those cookies.
She started to remind Justine of how much effort went into making sure they could have that cookie after school when her eyes caught the scar on her oldest daughter’s shoulder. The one that started there, matched by twins and triplets of puckered skin, skin that would never know perfection, all the way down to the top of her hip.
Guilt nagged at her even though Anna knew she’d done everything in her power to make it up to her girl, her oldest, her dear sweet Justine.
But nothing was going to erase the awareness in those big chocolate brown eyes of hers. And nothing was ever going to put the innocence back.
What harm was an extra cookie? Justine’d earned that and more.
Anna tried to hold Dani close, to use the soft touch of the baby to give her a moment’s peace, but by the time she’d caught a whiff of her No More Tears Shampoo, Dani was wiggling free.
Anna sighed at the same time Justine did, and she smiled. “Yes, sweetie. It was just a cookie. I bought the cookies for you and your sisters. One a day after school. That’s the deal. You had two, so you skip tomorrow’s.”
Justine started in on the “Mom” rant at the same time Delia brought out the homework sheet. Yep. Colored. Bright red and orange scribbles marred the perfect printed spelling words beneath.
“I was just trying to write, Momma. I was helping Justine.” Delia looked up at Justine with unadulterated hero worship and Anna tried to stifle her smile. Mr. Andrews would still take it on Monday. He’d understand. No damage done.
“You leave your sister’s homework alone, Delia. If you want to help, ask her first.”
Delia’s bottom lip quivered. “She never lets me help. She hates me.”
Delia didn’t remember, thank God, how very untrue that statement was.
Anna grabbed the homework, shook her head and didn’t bother answering.
“Your sister doesn’t hate you, Delia. She just needs her space. And her homework is important. Go get Dani and we’ll have supper in a minute.”
“Mac’roni and cheese?”
Anna shook her head. “Yep.” Third day in a row. This time they had french fries and weenies to go with.
Delia whooped with glee—the girl could eat her weight in macaroni and cheese—and chased after her baby sister. Their soft brown hair with golden highlights seemed to sparkle in the late afternoon sun. Sparkle just like Cass’s had once upon a time.
Turning to go back in the house, Anna knew she had to call Cass. She couldn’t keep doing this alone. Momma needed help. Help maybe Cass could give.
Help Anna’d been trying to give all by herself for eighteen years. But it wasn’t enough. Not any more. Cass had to come home.
One week later
Cass took the last exit into Standridge, Texas, and resisted the urge to turn the car right around and head back to Kansas City.
She rubbed a sweaty hand on her pants and scanned for a radio station until she finally settled on the only one that seemed to be working. Country 101.
Just like old times.
But it wasn’t.
Anna’s desperate call for help had come at an opportune moment.
Cass was desperate enough to get away that she’d clung to the excuse.
But now that she was here, passing the royal blue and red sign proclaiming Standridge the home of the Standridge Dancing Ranglerettes, she realized she’d made a huge mistake.
Eighteen years was a long time to be gone.
She’d never planned on staying away, but it had just happened. One year had become another and another until it seemed okay.
But Cass knew the truth. She hadn’t come home because it was easier to avoid the truths she’d run away from.
Now it was easier to face those truths than the ones she’d left at home with John.
God help her, she was a mess.
She pulled the car over into the Shell station on the corner. It used to be a Texaco. Before that a Gulf. But back before she’d escaped Standridge, it didn’t matter what its name was. Everyone knew the man who ran the whole full-service show was Old Man Swenson. Surely Lord by now he was doing something else. Especially since the Shell didn’t seem to have a full-service area anywhere in sight,
Grabbing a dollar from her purse, she stepped out of her Camry and started into the store. She should probably get on to her mother’s house, but she couldn’t make herself go just yet. The Coke break would settle her nerves. Maybe.
She pushed open the door with the come in we’re open sign and a tiny bell rang sounding her arrival.
Inside, nothing much had changed. The scent of fried burritos and coffee still mixed with oil and gasoline. Where the cigarettes used to line the cabinets, lottery tickets now enticed customers with promises of instant millions.
The young cowboy behind the counter greeted her with a Howdy Ma’am and she swallowed her nervousness. How strange to be called Ma’am. How weird to know she really was old enough to be ma’am now. Eighteen years had passed and she’d felt every one of them until this minute. Suddenly she felt like the same mixed up eighteen-year-old senior she’d been the night she’d left town.
This had been her last stop then. Funny it was her first stop now.
No Old Man Swenson so far.
There in the corner she saw the Icee machine and smiled. Sure enough, it still churned its cherry on one side Coke on the other mixture. She pulled a medium cup from the holder, snapped on the plastic lid, her taste buds dancing at the idea of the sweet treat, and nearly jumped right out of her skin when she heard the loud, long whistle followed by the tobacco scraggled voice. “Lordy me, is that Cass Deason I see over there at my Icee Machine?”
Cass bit her lip, said a quick prayer asking for help and pasted a smile on her face as she turned toward the voice.
Old Man Swenson hadn’t changed a bit in all these years, and she wasn’t about to tell him Cass Deason had ceased to exist a long time ago and not just because her last name had changed to Myers the day she got married.
“Mr. Swenson.” Her voice shook. She hoped he didn’t hear it.
The man made his way slowly across the station floor, and she saw that yes, something had changed. The cane and the slow gait made him seem older. But his denim overalls and white cotton shirt were exactly the same as they’d always been. So were his twinkling blue Santa Claus eyes.
“You surely are a sight for sore eyes, Gal. ‘Bout time you made it home for a visit.”
Cass swallowed past the guilt. “You’re definitely right about that.”
His smile turned to a frown and he leaned in close. “You home to help your momma?”
She started in surprise before she remembered that in Standridge everyone knew everything about everyone. Just one of the reasons she’d left that night. “Yes sir. Anna called, and here I am.” She sipped her Icee, the explosion of sweetness camouflaging the sour taste of regret and something else she didn’t want to identify.
He grunted and then coughed. Whipping out a red handkerchief from his pocket, he blew his nose. “’Bout time that fool sister of yours called you for help, too.”
Cass tamped down the anger at his words for her sister. Anna hadn’t had an easy time of it, Cass knew. But she was no fool.
“Anna was giving me time to come home on my own.”
Old man Swenson shook his head. “Well, it don’t much matter. You’re here now. You better get home. Your momma needs you and so does your sister. I figure you need them just about as much if not more. You got a sadness in those eyes that didn’t used to be there.”
Good grief. There was such a thing as too much honesty.
Cass didn’t know what to say to his words so she held out her dollar. “I’m sure you’re right. I better pay…”
He waved his hands through the air and wouldn’t hear a word about paying. “Consider it your welcome home. And here,” he grabbed a pink peanut pattie off the counter next to the register and threw it to her. ”I seem to remember you liking these too. You come see me if you need a break.”
With that he turned around and scooted across the station’s black and white cracked tile floor and through a back door.
Cass looked at the confection he’d thrown her. She hadn’t had one of these since the night she’d left town. Just touching it brought back memories of that scared girl she’d been.
The tiny welcome home bells rang as Cass left the air-conditioned station and walked into a breathless combination of gasoline fumes and heat so heavy you could almost taste it. The sun dipping down in the west burned bright red and gold and orange. A dust storm was blowing in from Lubbock. Maybe the dry brittle heat would help her get her head on straight. Lord knows something needed to.
She climbed in the bug splattered Camry and sat for a moment dragging her finger through the sweat on the outside of the paper Icee cup.
She was stalling and she knew it. She didn’t want to go to her mother’s home. Didn’t want to get all involved in things she couldn’t fix. Didn’t want to remember.
But she couldn’t go back either. Not yet. Not when everything was tumbling around in her brain making her feel like she was losing a part of herself, losing all of herself.
No. She had to do this. Anna needed her. So did Momma.
She closed her eyes and prayed for peace. But, as always, the peace proved elusive.
She took a few deep breaths and chastised herself for the prayer. Peace hadn’t come around with all the prayers in the last eighteen years. No way was it going to make a sneak appearance now that she was back in Standridge. So she changed her prayer to the one thing she knew God had given her plenty of. She prayed for strength.
When she opened her eyes her heart was lighter. She could do this. She didn’t have a choice.