Gayla lingered on the ‘y’ as she softly whined from her armchair by the window. She threw her arm over her face, covering her eyes, before dropping it to her lap and glaring at her sister. “That’s really not necessary.”
“Nonsense.” The teenaged girl, dolled up in a daisy-yellow tea dress, tromped over to Gayla from her spot at the open door. The study was bright in the sunshine of a warm afternoon, the soft whiteness of the spring day filtering through the sheer drapes to drown the small room in a gentle yet profound glow. Trudy held a silver platter in both her hands—the smallness of them making the platter look twice the size it was—and walked slowly across the room, extra careful not to spill the precious cargo or drop the whole thing altogether. She stepped one foot gingerly in front of the other, her tongue sticking out a little between her painted lips. Gayla watched her walk across, watched the worn cotton dress-skirt sway to and fro as her sister traversed around the edges of the fine rug splayed in the center of the room. Gayla knew Trudy was afraid of dirtying it, or spilling on it, as she was often prone to spilling things. “Now,” Trudy started, setting the platter down on the end table at Gayla’s side. She knew her big sister was in no mood for socializing but she wasn’t about to be tossed aside on the account of a stupid boy. “Let’s just drink this tea I made for you and, after that, I’ll leave you alone straightaway. I promise.”
Gayla, defeated, lowered her chin and peered up toward Trudy. The slight girl, almost a full-fledged woman in body and nearly bursting out of the hand-me-down dress, smiled broadly at her from the other side of the end table. Trudy stood waiting patiently, hands clasped at her front, eyes wide in expectation, with just the slightest bouncing on the balls of her feet as she stood. Gayla knew her sister wouldn’t leave until this social experiment had concluded. With a gentle moan she forced herself to sit up straight. “What sort of tea is it?” she asked. She lifted the teapot lid and peered inside. A mass of steam escaped. It was far too hot to drink.
“Chamomile. Greta said it would help to soothe you.”
Gayla let escape a sideways grin as she replaced the lid. Tea was not the kind of soothing she needed. She looked up at Trudy and waited. “Well?”
Trudy’s smile evaporated. Her hands twitched as she looked around. “Well… what?”
“Are you going to stand there and watch me or are you going to sit?”
“Oh.” Trudy gathered her skirts and maneuvered herself onto an adjoining chair. It took her a few moments of quiet grunting and lip-pursing before she could find a comfortable position but, after she found it, her smile returned and she beamed brightly again at her older sister. Gayla waited again.
“Are you pouring, or am I?” she finally said.
“Oh, you pour. I don’t want to spill.”
Gayla shrugged, understanding, and lifted the pot carefully over one cup, then the other, the tea pouring out a heavy yellow and bringing with it an intense aroma of chamomile and mint. Gayla questionably looked at her sister. “You put mint in here, too?”
Trudy shrugged shyly. “Mother said mint is good for digestion. I figured it couldn’t hurt, since you’ve not been eating much and all. I thought maybe your stomach hurt, maybe that’s why you haven’t been to dinner lately…” Trudy’s voice faded off. It wasn’t a question. More a hope.
Gayla set down the pot. She suddenly found her eyes burning and her hands shaking. “Trudy, you know that’s not why I haven’t been to dinner.”
There was a pause. “I… I know,” Trudy stuttered. “I just thought… I don’t know. I’m just trying to help.” She looked down at her lap. Gayla watched her fidget with her fingers as she sat in her annoyingly bright yellow dress on the dusty brocade armchair of blues and browns. She looks so awkward there, Gayla thought. The armchair was too big; the dress, too small. Trudy was only fifteen and already growing into her womanhood. Her hair was brushed, but not tied, and it hung in long strands, cascading loosely to either side of her face, framing her pale skin in waves of burnt amber. Trudy hadn’t quite managed to get the application right with the rose blush she’d received for her birthday last month. Gayla could see dark patches the makeup brush had made with a too-powerful sweep of a hand. Their mother was away, off on another of her business adventures. Neither of them knew when she would return. Mother had made herself absent during the ripe moments when her youngest daughter needed guidance and knowledge on how to be a proper woman. Gayla winced inwardly at her own selfishness; though she was more a tomboy and of little help in the area of femininity, Gayla’s disregard for her sister’s loneliness bordered abandonment. She eyed her sister for a moment, considering, and then smiled as best she could.
“It’s a fine idea, Trudy.” Gayla placed a gentle hand on Trudy’s knee, giving it a little tap. “I never would have considered it. Maybe it’s just what I need.”
Trudy looked up, relieved. Her hands settled as she gave an easy smile. “I thought so.”
“Here.” Gayla handed her a plate of jellied cookies. “The tea is too hot to drink. We’ll have to sit and talk for a few minutes to let it cool.”
It had been a long time since the sisters had talked, even this much. They passed in the hall on occasion during the day and Trudy, every once in a while, caught Gayla in the kitchen at midnight, fishing some dried fruit or cookies or chocolate out of the cupboard. When Trudy tried to talk to her on those lonely nights, Gayla would put a hand up and shake her head, then slip away into her bedroom without a word, taking the snacks with her on a shiny porcelain plate.
The young man, Amrid, had left the city in a rush almost two months ago in the cunning and voluptuous arms of Cherie Maylee Palmer, a busty girl of only seventeen out to get her hands on whatever wealth she could find that wasn’t her father’s. Gayla had trusted the girl; they had been good friends. Not the best, but good friends enough. It was unfortunate that Gayla hadn’t the slightest clue that her husband-to-be was so fickle with his heart and so careless with his mind… and, apparently, so eager with his pants. Had she known she would have kept her eyes open, her heart closed. Perhaps she wouldn’t have agreed to his proposal; knowing that about him would have changed everything, she realized. What kind of man, after all, leaves only a small note to his fiancé, slipped idly underneath her front door the morning of his departure, as his sole parting farewell?
You are so beautiful, so smart. You must know I love you in all practicality. But I have met with an impulse that is beyond practical. I must follow it. I hope you don’t hate me. I will care for you always, but we cannot be married now. I am sorry.
Though she was only twenty-one, Gayla felt very old.
“I wish you’d stop thinking about him,” Trudy whispered. Gayla blinked, pulled from her thoughts, and stared blankly at her sister. Trudy’s grey eyes widened as she spoke, eventually betraying her as one let loose a massive tear. Trudy was not one for crying and, when she did, she never bawled like those prissy girls in school, weeping at every little thing and making a scene of it. No, Gayla thought. When Trudy cries it’s for important things, and the crying comes in powerful, landslide kinds of tears that plummet to the ground with a statement to be made; they’re not slight, misty tears that do nothing but mess a girl’s makeup.
When Trudy spoke again her voice shook. “I can tell when you think of Amrid,” she said. “You get this look on your face like you’d like nothing in the world except to die.” As Trudy went on she gestured madly as if she were grasping for hope out of the air. “I don’t want you to feel that way, Gayla. What can I do? Tell me what I can do. I can send Daniel out to beat that stupid Amrid senseless, if you’d like? I can help you find someone new, maybe? There are so many nice boys I know who would never do to you what Amrid did. I’m certain we can find…”
“Hush, Trudy.” Gayla held up a hand. Trudy quieted, her lip trembling a little, another tear falling from her eye. It rushed down the crest of Trudy’s high cheekbone and fell with a soft tap onto the yellow cotton of her skirt. “It’s alright,” Gayla said, tapping her sister’s knee gently with the tips of her fingers. So fragile, Gayla thought. She’s so young and fragile. “I’ll be OK. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’ve been so selfish. I just… I just had to have some time—” she paused to look her sister in the eye, “—alone.”
Trudy’s hands fidgeted more as she stared at her older sister expectantly, fearfully. Another gigantic tear dove from her cheek.
Gayla paused a moment, making sure of her words, making sure she would be able to follow through with such a promise. She didn’t want to continue on with life. Her heart had been torn from her without so much as a ‘goodbye’; ripped away passively by the love of her life as if there were nothing of essence to it to worry about anyway. Still, Gayla knew she had to move past it, knew she had to fight the desperate despair billowing up inside of her and growing with the passing of each day. Each very empty day. She shook her head to herself, pulling out a grain of self-worth left at the bottom of that black pool. She had made a mistake, that’s all. Just a mistake. Never to make again, she vowed. She had to stick to this promise to save herself. And, if that weren’t enough, she had to stick to it to rescue Trudy from the debilitating loneliness she had come all the way out to this countryside to escape.
“But, I think I’m done now,” Gayla said, decidedly. Hope lit Trudy’s face. “Really. I think… I think I’m done now.”
They finished tea in the quiet of the den, Trudy doing most of the talking and chattering about her boyfriend, Daniel, and how he had promised to teach her to fish next Sunday with Father’s old cane reel. Gayla was surprised to find how grown up her little sister was. They hadn’t ever spent this much time together that she could remember. Ever. Their time together had always been in passing. The years between them were not many, but they were separated by the experience of their father’s death. Gayla had been there riding in the Model T with her father into town to pick up a load of feed for the animals when a pin popped out of place from the steering column and caused them to careen off the road over a ten-foot-high ledge and into the stream below, swollen from a recent rain. It was an early morning in November and the water was cold. The rescuers—simple men passing by on their way to working the fields—got to Gayla first, who was hanging desperately onto a limb of a fallen tree. By the time her father had been fished from the water a little farther downstream he’d already succumbed to hypothermia and was passed out from the cold. They couldn’t warm him fast enough, or wake him. That night he died in bed beside Gayla, who had been shivering, but was alive. She felt his last breath and cried silently to herself until morning, when her mother came to check on them.
Gayla was eight; Trudy was two.
As the tea was finished they heard a heavy knock at the front door. The sisters looked at one another: they weren’t expecting anyone. They couldn’t hear the shuffling of their nanny’s feet moving down the hall to answer it.
The knock came again, louder.
“Greta must be busy,” Gayla said. She set down her teacup and stood up, brushing crumbs of cookie off her skirt. “I’ll answer it.”
She walked down the hall towards the front door as the knocking came a third time, again more angry and forceful than the first two. “I’m coming!” Gayla shouted, touching on her hair to re-pin a strand that had wiggled loose and was hanging in her face.
When she opened the large, wooden door the angry face of Mr. Palmer glared back at her. Gayla only knew him from photos she’d seen while visiting Cherie’s house. Back when they had been friends, of course. Mr. Palmer was a busy man, often too busy to meet his daughter’s playmates, and therefore wouldn’t recognize Gayla at all.
“Are you Gayla Masterson?” he barked. She stood there, staring at him wide-eyed. Finally she cleared her throat and nodded.
“Yes. And you’re Mr. Palmer. What can I do for you?”
He harrumphed, obviously annoyed she’d recognized him. “I’m here to talk about your fiancé,” he said. His thick, black eyebrows clenched low over his dark eyes and he glared at her while licking his lips. A wolf ready for the kill, Gayla thought.
“He’s no longer my fiancé, Mr. Palmer. Whatever business you have with him, you’ll have to speak with him directly. Have a nice day.” Gayla nodded to him as gracefully as she could and stepped back to close him off. Mr. Palmer was quick to jam his heavy boot on the floor in the way of the swinging door.
“I’ll not be disrespected, girl,” he growled, licking his lips again. Gayla’s blood nearly ran cold. The man’s gaze was a frigid as the river water had been on that far-off November morning. “You’ll help me whether you like it or not.”
Want more? Read PART II.