Jillian put down her suitcase on the porch of her Uncle’s craftsman style home, gazed at the front door, and thought, this is my future. Her feet froze on the bottom step. Her knees locked. She tried to will herself forward, but couldn’t move.
“Darling,” her Uncle Will called from inside the open doorway, “come on in! What’cha waiting for?”
Jillian planted a smile on her lips, picked up her suitcase, and pushed her way across the porch.
Uncle Will shuffled through the darkened foyer and pushed open the screen door to welcome her in. Reaching for her bag, he took it from her before giving her a one-armed hug.
Jillian pulled away as soon as it was polite to do so. “Where’s Auntie Darrel?” Her nose wrinkled from the cooked cabbage smell coming from the kitchen.
“Still at the dad-burned school. Since they started rehearsals for the fall play, I hardly see hide nor hair of her.” He nodded sagely. “She’ll be right glad for your help.”
“I’m not really sure how much help I can be,” Jillian said, apprehension fluttering in her belly at the thought. She had been home-schooled so public schools both fascinated and terrified her.
Uncle Will squeezed her arm reassuringly. “You’ll be fine. It’s more about herding cats than teaching music.”
Jillian nodded and tried to look buoyed up by his words. Uncle Will shared her malady, so he should understand her concerns, but since he worked the farm for his living, his interaction with the outside world was very limited. Which was just the way he liked it.
And that was the just the way Jillian planned on living, too. She followed Uncle Will up the stairs that led to the guest bedroom. He climbed slowly, his breath labored, making her wonder how long he’d be able to spend the long hours the farm demanded. Aunt Darrel worked at the school teaching music and acting as the nurse, but Jillian didn’t know if that income could support her aunt and uncle. She felt a twinge of guilt and promised herself that she wouldn’t contribute to their financial burden. She prayed that she’d be able to help, rather than hurt. But given her condition, she didn’t know if that was a prayer Heaven could answer.
Uncle Will dropped her bag in the doorway of the guest bedroom and brushed his hands on his Dickies. “Take all the time you need to settle in. I better get back to picking the apples. If I don’t, the deer will do it for me.”
“Thanks, Uncle Will, I’ll come and help you.” She looked longingly at the crazy quilt on the bed. “I don’t need to settle in.”
“Nope. I promised your aunt that I would get you behind the piano first thing. I’m under strict instructions that you’re not to be out in the yard…with me. She wants you to learn the music pronto.” He turned to leave. “You’ll find the score on the dresser,” he said over his shoulder.
Jillian picked up the score and flipped through it. Much like her aunt, the songs were predictable and bordered on boring.
Jillian lugged her bag to the closet and pushed it inside. Her case wasn’t very big—not because she didn’t plan on staying very long—but because she didn’t own a lot of clothes. It didn’t take her long to hang up her four dresses, stow her three pairs of pants and five tops and collection of underwear in the dresser. She placed a framed photo of her mom and her Bible on the nightstand. That done, she sat down on the bed, closed her eyes, and tucked her feet beneath her. As much as she wanted to, she didn’t allow herself to lie down. She breathed in through her nose, pushed away homesickness, and reminded herself of her plan.
Earn enough money working at her aunt’s school to buy her own laptop and then start teaching English to foreign students via the internet. She only hoped that the light from the computer wouldn’t trigger episodes.
Travis Grant pulled his Range Rover down his Aunt Mae’s bumpy drive. The scent of burning brush that always reminded him of this time of year hung in the air. He parked near the barn, shut off the engine and climbed out. The tinkling from a piano escaped the windows of the neighboring farmhouse. In the distance, a man in overalls pulling a wagon plucked apples from gnarled trees. Travis tried to place the music, it sounded like a familiar tune, but—like the trees—twisted somehow, as if the pianist had chosen a familiar tune and had decided to change it.
He closed the Range Rover’s door and went to find his aunt and her cat, Ragamuffin. A once white picket fence surrounded the gray-blue farmhouse and kept the daisies as well as the chickens in the yard. Ragamuffin perched on a branch of a maple tree and stared down her nose at him.
“You look fine to me,” Travis said. “What’s wrong with you now?”
Aunt Mae banged through the back door. “Don’t you be fooled by him,” she told Travis. “He might be acting all la-dee-da, but he’s not eating his kibble.”
Since Aunt Mae called him at least once a week to come out and check on Ragamuffin’s health, the cat’s lack of appetite didn’t worry Travis. He suspected that the frequent house calls had more to do with his aunt’s loneliness than with the cat’s well-being.
A warm cinnamon smell wafted through the open door. Apple pie. If Travis wasn’t careful, Ragamuffin’s lack of appetite would make him fat.
Travis nodded at the neighbor’s house. “Sounds like a musician moved in.”
Aunt Mae huffed. “That racket has been going on day and night ever since that scrap of a girl moved in.” She held the door open from Travis and he followed his aunt through the mudroom to the kitchen. A pie sat on the counter. Steam escaped through the lattice crust. His stomach rumbled just from looking at it.
“Ragamuffin?” he asked in a strangled voice.
“He’ll come in when he’s done with his adventures,” Aunt Mae said. “We might as well enjoy ourselves until then.” She slid him a glance. “Do you want ice cream with your pie?”
Did she really need to ask? “Always. But here, let me get it.”
She didn’t argue as she selected a knife and sliced up the pie while Travis went to the freezer and pulled out a container of homemade ice cream. His shoulders screamed a complaint while he scooped up the ice cream.
Aunt Mae must have noticed, because she asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing much,” Travis said after he placed a scoop of ice cream in a bowl. “I helped Midge McGee’s mare deliver a colt this afternoon.” He had spent almost an hour with his arm inserted into the back-end of the mare and this hadn’t been pleasant for any of them. He flexed his hand, grateful it still worked.
“Where’s Teague today?” Aunt Mae asked as she took a seat in the ladderback kitchen chair and poised her spoon above the pie.
“With his mom.” Travis couldn’t help it, he moaned in pleasure as soon as the pie crossed his lips.
Aunt Mae made a noise that was a cross between a grunt and snort. “What about school?”
“He’s having a hard time,” Travis admitted. “Jackie wants to send him to a private school, but—”
“And where would that be?” Aunt Mae huffed.
“Exactly,” Travis said. “I’m not willing to give up custody just so he can attend—”
The sound of drums interrupted his sentence.
“What in the tarnation?” Aunt Mae bounced to her feet and went to the window. She pulled back the lace curtain and stared through the window at the neighboring farmhouse. “I have had just about enough of this!” She rested her ample butt against the kitchen counter and pushed her hand through her gray curls. “All this noise has upset my girls.”
“The chickens,” Travis murmured.
“They’re so upset, they’re molting! The yard looks like there’s been a pillow fight and the pillows lost.”
“All chickens molt in the fall. Are they still laying?”
“Yes, but…you should see that girl. Pale, skinny as a broomstick with a shock of bright red-hair. She looks like a cherry tootsie pop!”
Travis continued eating his pie, amused by the thought of a tootsie pop playing the drums.
“Will you go and talk to her? Tell her she has to take it down a knot or two?”
“Why me?” His aunt had never been shy.
“You know Darrel hates me.”
“Mrs. Poole hates everyone,” Travis said.
“But she especially hates me, and if I tried to suggest that her niece stop her infernal noise, I just know the woman would be urging the chit to ramp it up.”
“You’re being silly.” Travis licked his spoon, sad that he’d taken the last bite.
“No, I’m not. I need you to go over there and talk to her…the niece, not Darrel.”
Travis set down his spoon. “My visit had nothing to do with Ragamuffin, did it?”
Aunt Mae blushed. “Just go over there and speak to the girl. I’m sure she won’t be as difficult as her terrible aunt. Just ask her to close her windows when she practices.”
Travis rolled his eyes, but he didn’t dare say no. His endless supply of baked goods depended on his staying in his aunt’s good graces.
An avocado orchard and a couple of split rail fences separated Aunt Mae’s property from the neighbor’s. The music stopped before Travis even got halfway through the trees.
He knocked on the door and peered through the window. The piano stood in a shaft of sunlight. He couldn’t see the drums. Maybe they were set up in the barn. Thinking that that was where he put a set of drums, he went in search of them and the girl that may or may not look like a cherry tootsie pop.
“Can I help you?” The man he’d spied earlier in apple trees stopped him and ran his gaze over him.
“I’m Doctor Grant.” Travis extended his hand and the man took it. His hands were calloused and his skin weather-beaten. His thin hair blew about in the breeze. “My aunt sent me to ask if whomever is playing could turn down the volume, she and her chickens would really appreciate it.”
The man didn’t respond, but stared at Travis with cold eyes, one of which wasn’t looking directly at him. “Her chickens?”
“Yes. They don’t like the noise. They’re molting.”
“All chickens molt this time of year.”
“Could I speak to your niece?”
“No.” The man turned on his heel and strode away.