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       Tumbleweeds, p.2

           Leila Meacham

  To coax the child from her despondency, Emma had described the prairie in spring, how it looked like a never-ending carpet of wildflowers—“the most beautiful, transformed sight you’d ever want to see,” she declared, when her enthusiasm was interrupted by the awestruck pointing of the child’s finger.

  “Oh, my God,” Emma said.

  A mass of gray tumbleweeds barreled toward them off the prairie, dozens of dried uprooted Russian thistles propelled by the wind and looking like a band of malevolent ghosts set on attacking the car. Emma could not pull to a stop before the horde was upon them, clawing at Catherine Ann’s side of the Ford. Her granddaughter squealed, tucked her elbows close to her sides, and covered her head with her hands.

  “It’s okay, Catherine Ann,” Emma said, stopping the car to enfold her granddaughter’s tightly compressed body into her arms. The tumbleweeds had scattered and scuttled off, those that had not broken apart from the assault on the Ford. “They’re only dried plants, a weed,” she explained gently. “You’ll find them throughout the Southwest. In winter when they’ve matured, the parts aboveground break off from the root and tumble away in the wind. That’s why they’re called tumbleweeds. Sometimes a whole colony takes off together and forms the phenomenon we just saw. They’re scary as all get out, but they’re not harmful.”

  She could feel the terrified pounding of the child’s heart through the fabric of her coat. Most children, seeing such a spectacle, would have flown to safety in the arms of the nearest adult, but Catherine Ann had not. She’d looked to herself for protection. The observation had left Emma with a well-remembered feeling of rejection.

  “Cathy is very self-sufficient, despite the doting of her parents,” Beth, the wife of Dr. Rhinelander, had told Emma.

  Self-sufficient. Emma pried the lid off a box of Nestlé’s Quik. Was that another word for indifference to parental love and instruction she’d endured from the child’s father?

  At their reintroduction, Catherine Ann’s cool, blue-eyed gaze had reminded Emma so much of Sonny’s that a chill had gripped her, and she’d instantly felt the conflict of love and revulsion that had plagued her feelings for him. In the hectic week of arranging for the funeral, getting the house ready for sale, packing boxes to be shipped to Kersey and luggage for the plane—all without hearing a word leave the child’s lips—Emma had looked for genetic indicators that pegged Catherine Ann as Sonny’s daughter. Other than the fine features and coloring of her handsome father, Emma had found none, but they were hard to spot behind a wall of silence.

  Most of the information she’d learned of Catherine Ann had come from Beth. “She’s very bright, curious, often treated younger than she is because she’s small for her age. But you learn fast enough who you’re dealing with. She’s been so good for our shy daughter, Laura. She’s given her confidence she wouldn’t have otherwise.”

  When Emma had gone to collect Catherine Ann’s school records from Winchester Academy, an institution founded exclusively for gifted children, the principal had confirmed Beth’s impression of her granddaughter’s intelligence. “You do know what Cathy aspires to be when she grows up?” he’d asked.

  Emma had to say she’d no idea.

  “A doctor. Most children toss that notion about with no more strength behind it than crepe paper in the rain, but I wouldn’t put the goal past Cathy.”

  Emma peeked into the TV room to find her granddaughter sitting where she’d left her, hands folded on her lap, feet crossed, body still, the look of an abandoned child on her face but the self-containment of her father evident in every line of her posture. A wave of despair washed over Emma. She’d shouldered a lot of sadness in her life—her husband’s railroad accident early in their marriage that had left her a widow and her sons fatherless, her firstborn’s death in Vietnam, his brother’s years-long alienation from her, and now his eternal loss without hope of their reconciliation—but how could she bear Catherine Ann’s refusal to accept the love she was heartsick to offer? How could she withstand the extension of her son’s indifference in his little automaton of a daughter?

  Emma brought in the cups of cocoa. “Here we go—,” she started to say, but her voice broke, and she could not go on. Grief blocked her throat, grief for her boys she would never see again, for the son lost to her in war and the other from his birth, the one she’d loved the best. Tears began to slide down her cheeks, and then, to her astonishment, the little automaton rose and stood stiffly in front of her, her smooth brow puckered—what’s wrong?—and an empathetic cast in her eyes. Don’t be sad.

  Inside her, the little seed of hope sprouted that now Emma realized Beth Rhinelander had meant to implant as they’d said their good-byes. “Cathy is her own person,” she’d whispered into her ear. Emma was still holding the hot cups, and as her granddaughter came between them she bent down to receive the child’s arms around her neck and the tender pat of a small hand on her back.

  Chapter Three

  Through the kitchen window overlooking her backyard, Mabel Church watched her eleven-year-old nephew, Trey Don Hall, and John Caldwell, his best friend, toss a football to each other in the last light of the winter afternoon. Trey’s face still held a trace of petulance in contrast to John’s good-humored expression, and Mabel heard him say, “Oh, come on, TD. We just have to look after her for a week or so, and then our indenture will be over!”

  Indenture. One of the words on the boy’s sixth-grade vocabulary list. Trey insisted on using double negatives as a way of sounding macho, but both of them enjoyed flinging about new words in their conversations with each other, a practice Mabel hoped would impress Catherine Ann Benson. Regrettably, Emma’s granddaughter sounded too smart for her own good—certainly for Kersey Elementary School, one of the reasons Emma had requested Mabel to ask the boys to look after her for a couple of weeks after she enrolled. The other was even more off-putting in a primary school setting. Emma’s granddaughter suffered from “selective mutism,” but only temporarily, Mabel’s old friend had explained, “until Catherine Ann can adjust to her new surroundings.”

  Emma had the idea that Catherine Ann’s transition into Kersey Elementary School would be made easier if Trey and John, the undisputed leaders of the sixth grade, were to set the example of how she should be treated—with courtesy and respect. “Appeal to their male vanity,” she’d suggested. “Tell them that since they’re the kingpins of their class, the others will take their cue from them, follow their lead.” Emma was convinced that no one would dare make fun of Catherine Ann if the boys took her under their protective wing.

  Mabel had broached the subject that afternoon as the boys were doing their homework around her kitchen table. As she’d expected, her nephew’s face had screwed up as if he were eating turnips when she explained what looking after Catherine Ann entailed.

  “Forget it, Aunt Mabel. We’re not babysitting a mute, sitting with her in the cafeteria, sticking with her on the playground. How would that make John and me look? We sit at the jock table at lunch and play football during recess.”

  “She’s not a mute,” Mabel had attempted to explain. “She’s simply lost the will to speak for a while. It’s a condition brought on from the shock of her parents’ sudden deaths and her whole world being turned upside down in a matter of days. She’s been hauled away from everything and everyone she knows to an unfamiliar place of strangers. She’s been totally orphaned. No wonder she’s lost her voice. You can understand that, can’t you, Trey Don?”

  John had spoken up. “Of course he understands it. We both do.” He looked at Trey. “Think about it, TD. The girl’s parents just died. She’s an orphan. We know what that’s like. Miss Emma’s right. The other kids will make fun of her if we don’t protect her. You know how mean Cissie Jane and her group can be.”

  Mabel’s heart had warmed toward him. She loved that he called her aunt. John Caldwell was not her nephew, but she felt as much akin to him as she did to her sister’s child. It was times like these that M
abel saw the clear results of family heredity, a subject she and Emma often discussed and on which they agreed. The generous blood of John’s mother, God rest her soul, flowed in John, while Trey Don’s veins ran with her selfish baby sister’s. But John’s reference to orphan had grazed a nerve in her nephew. His parents were alive. They just didn’t know where. Trey’s father had disappeared before he was born, and his mother had taken off with who knew what sort of trash after she’d deposited her four-year-old son with Mabel and her husband “for only a few days.”

  They never saw her again.

  Trey had asked reluctantly, “What does she look like?” his dark eyes hopeful that Catherine Ann did not favor Miss Emma.

  “Well, I’m glad you asked that,” Mabel said, brightening. “Emma says she’s very pretty. A blue-eyed blonde. She’s small in size, but independent and gutsy, not clingy at all.”

  “It doesn’t matter what she looks like,” John said. “We’ll do it, Aunt Mabel. Count us in. When do we meet her?”

  “Not until next Monday. I suggested that you children meet beforehand, but Emma doesn’t think that’s a good idea because of the speech problem.”

  Trey had fumed and argued, but John’s reference to orphan had taken the wind out of his objections. He’d gotten in the last word by saying, “Don’t expect us to carry her books!”

  It was too cold for them to be outside, but Mabel observed them for a few more minutes before attempting to call them in. It was easy to see why they were the princes of the sixth grade. Already, at eleven, burgeoning athletes, they were tall and well formed and handsome—heartbreakers in the making. They were intelligent, too, and interested in their studies and making good grades. No slouches, either one, but what would Emma’s cultured granddaughter think of them—and they of her? The child could read and speak French, had studied art, had taken ballet since she was six, and excelled at the piano—“and here I am with no piano to offer her,” Emma had called to lament.

  Mabel recalled Sonny Benson well. He had broken Emma’s heart. God help her oldest and dearest friend if daughter was like father, and God help Catherine Ann if she took his snobbish ways into Kersey Elementary School.

  SIX DAYS LATER, on a late Sunday afternoon, Trey left John’s house and made a detour. Usually when leaving John’s, he went straight on down the block to Aunt Mabel’s home on the corner, but on this particular afternoon Trey decided to walk over to the next street where Miss Emma lived, despite his hatred of the cold and wind and snow.

  He’d never dreaded anything more than the adjustment in his life coming tomorrow morning when he and John had to act as Catherine Ann Benson’s bodyguards. He’d made John promise they’d be enslaved for only a week. There had been daily bulletins of the new girl’s progress in adjusting to her “culture shock” (his aunt’s term), telephoned in by Miss Emma, but he still had no idea what he and John were in for.

  The girl was finally starting to speak a little, and Miss Emma had taken her to Penney’s in Amarillo to buy her a warmer coat and shoes and jeans and flannel shirts, the type of clothes the sixth-grade girls wore in Kersey Elementary School. He’d been relieved to hear that. How embarrassing if she’d shown up in the kinds of things they wore in her private school back in California—uniforms and knee socks, so Miss Emma had told Aunt Mabel. Imagine, knee socks!

  Miss Emma had tried to keep Catherine Ann occupied with things like baking cookies to take to the nursing home, looking at photo albums of her father as a boy, and searching for soil breaks in the flower beds that meant the daffodils would soon be up. How those activities could fill anybody’s time Trey didn’t know, but he guessed they were the kinds of things girls liked. He and John had wondered how Miss Emma’s granddaughter would react to Sampson, the old turtle that lived in her backyard and looked like a prehistoric monster. Trey had bet she’d faint right on the spot when Sampson crawled out of his hole on his powerful, reptilian legs and made a beeline for the treat in Miss Emma’s pocket like a military tank on the attack. To Trey’s surprise, the two had cottoned to each other right away, and the new girl took over the job of feeding him. The day before, after the night’s big snowfall, Miss Emma had helped her to build a snowman or, rather, a snow queen. Miss Emma had gone on and on telling his aunt how creative Catherine Ann was in choosing a fluted fruit bowl for a crown, a barbeque fork for a scepter, and a portion of red oilcloth for a sash. It was the first time the new girl had ever seen snow.

  A big panel truck with ACE PLUMBING written on the door was parked on his side of the street across from Miss Emma’s house. He stopped beside it, his feet beginning to tingle inside his boots from the cold. The snow queen was in the front yard. It had black bottle caps for eyes, a funnel for a nose, and red buttons arched into a smiling mouth. The look was actually pretty neat.

  The front door opened and Catherine Ann Benson ran out. Hatless, mittenless, her coat unbuttoned, she rushed to the snow queen, her cheeks flushing red almost immediately, her hair dancing in the wind, her small white hands like butterflies fluttering with the sash, the funnel, an awry button. Then she flew back up the steps and closed the door behind her.

  Trey stood stock-still on the sidewalk. As he was hidden by the truck, she had not seen him. A feeling he’d never known before took command of him. He felt unable to move, as if he’d been captured in the beam of a spaceship. He could not feel the cold and wind. His hands and feet did not exist. He felt only the shock of having glimpsed an angel drop to earth, then disappear, the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen. Slowly, when he could get his feet to obey, he turned homeward, the snow like magic dust beneath his boots. He would keep his brief glance of Catherine Ann Benson to himself, a secret he would not share even with John, until tomorrow morning when he would introduce himself to her and become her protector for the rest of her life.

  Chapter Four

  Bowing into icy wind that felt like splinters hammered into her face, Cathy Benson ran with her grandmother from the Ford to the entrance of Kersey Elementary School. Butterflies batted about madly in her stomach, increasing her queasiness, and she wanted to cry, Don’t leave me here! Let me go back with you!

  Cathy was certain they’d turn around and head for the car the instant she said it, but the trouble was, she couldn’t say it. It had taken her almost a week to unthaw her tongue to speak to the woman who called herself her grandmother, but now it had frozen again, and she’d gone back into that silent place where her parents lived and all was warm and safe and familiar.

  “Now, Catherine Ann, you know the number to call if you want to come home,” her grandmother told her for the tenth time once they were inside the door. “There’s no shame in calling me to come get you.”

  But there would be shame. The woman didn’t want her to suffer, but Cathy sensed Emma would want her to stick it out—be a big girl. She suddenly recalled a memory of her father saying angrily, “That damn woman and her spine of steel!”

  That damn woman, Cathy realized, had been his mother, this tall woman who was her grandmother. She’d want her to have a spine of steel.

  She pressed the woman’s hand. I’ll be all right, and her grandmother rewarded her with a proud beam in her eye.

  A heavyset man in a business suit and tie hurried toward them, a fold of flesh resting on the neck of his too-tight collar. The hard shine of the hall floor stretched cold and unwelcoming behind him, and Cathy could hear student chatter behind the closed doors. Homeroom—the first class of the day, she’d been told—had begun. Everyone would have already been seated when she walked in. Against her struggle to be brave, her ears plugged like they did in an airplane when it descended.

  “Weldon, this is my granddaughter whom I’ve told you about,” she heard through the blockage in her ears. “Catherine Ann, this is Mr. Favor, the principal.”

  No, no, my name is Cathy, Cathy wished to correct her. It was all right for her to call her Catherine Ann in her house, but in school she wished to be called Cathy.

nbsp; “Hello there, Catherine Ann,” the principal said, shaking her hand. His hearty manner reminded Cathy of the men who worked for her father at the Jaguar dealership he managed. “Welcome to Kersey Elementary School. My goodness, what a pretty girl you are, and plenty smart, so I hear.” He turned his wide smile to her grandmother. “Now, don’t you worry one bit, Miss Emma. We’ll take good care of her.”

  “See that you do,” her grandmother said in a tone crisp as lettuce—proper for the president of the school board, Cathy supposed. The woman turned to her. “There’s a lunch inside your satchel, Catherine Ann. You have a nice day, and I’ll be waiting for you right here by the door when school lets out. Okay?”

  Cathy swallowed and nodded. Okay.

  The woman bent down and peered into her face. “Have you gone silent again, sweetheart?”

  Cathy shook her head emphatically. No!

  “Oh, dear.” Her grandmother lifted a concerned glance to the principal and elevated her brows.

  Mr. Favor threw up large palms. “Now, like I said, Miss Emma. Not to worry. The boys will take care of her. They’ll see that nobody teases her.”

  Alarmed, Cathy tugged at the woman’s sleeve. What boys?

  Her grandmother sighed and explained. “Mabel Church, my best friend, has a nephew who lives with her like you live with me. His name is Trey Don Hall. I thought I would ask him and his best friend, John Caldwell, to look after you this first week to help with your orientation. Mr. Favor here thought it a good idea, too. You’ll be glad to have them by your side. They’re the leaders of the sixth-grade class. Isn’t that so, Mr. Favor?”

  The principal said with an aggrieved roll of his eyes, “I’m afraid that’s so.”

  Cathy didn’t want any boy by her side. All the boys she knew at Winchester wore glasses and were either scrawny or fat and ran around in little groups. She and her friends called them the Nerd Herd. Why couldn’t her grandmother have recruited girls?

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