Hand in Hand Part 2: Easter
Note: the following story is part 2 of a series. A different part is included under each holiday story list in the bard's challenge. The parts are: Part 1 Christmas, Part 2 Easter, Part 3 Thanksgiving, Part 4 Halloween, and Part 5 Valentine's Day. You don't necessarily have to read the parts in order, but it might help. Feel free to read one, all, some, or none.
"Louise Elaine, if you don't get down here right now, you're not getting any breakfast!"
Verna Atkins stood at the foot of the stairs, her hand resting on the banister. She heard a thump and then a drawer slamming shut. Deciding that was a positive sign, she returned to the kitchen to pour the pancake batter onto the griddle.
She placed a few strips of bacon on a plate when she heard her daughter's footsteps pounding down the stairs. She smiled and shook her head. Her little girl had ended up to be a good two inches taller than her tallest brother, and just as inelegant.
"I don't want any bacon," Louise announced as she sat down at the table. She was pulling her ebony hair into two braids, tying two red ribbons into bows at each end.
"Don't do your hair at the table," her mother admonished. "And you'll eat the bacon and be glad you have it."
"It's fattening," Louise complained.
"Good. Then you'll have a little meat on your bones to last you through college. I still worry about what you're going to eat."
"Mom, I keep telling you, they have a dining hall. They aren't gonna let us starve."
"Well, I suppose." Verna frowned as she flipped the pancakes. She turned back to her daughter. "And another thing - no one is going to be there to shout at you to wake up and get a move on when you're in college. You'd best learn to get up on your own, young lady."
Louise rolled her blue eyes. "Mom, I'm not a baby."
"Then stop acting like one when it's time to get up and get off to school."
Louise opened her mouth to argue but was interrupted by a shout from outside.
"Hey, Weez, you're gonna be late for the bus!"
Louise looked at the clock above the kitchen sink.
"What's she talking about? We have loads of time."
"Tell her to come inside and get her breakfast."
As Louise got up to go to the back door, Verna lifted the pancakes off the griddle and slid them onto the plate beside the bacon. Then she poured some more batter on the griddle for her daughter's best friend. She counted on twice as many pancakes for Gin as she'd made for her daughter. The little girl could sure eat. Verna often worried that her breakfasts were the only meals the child was getting.
"Get inside, Gin!" Louise shouted from the mudroom door.
"No, we don't have time!"
"Yes we do! I don't know about you, but I'm having my breakfast!"
Verna sighed, not in the mood to listen to a shouted conversation this early in the morning. She joined her daughter at the back door.
"Come inside, Ginny. I'm making your favorite - pancakes and bacon." She looked out at the girl, who was standing by the big elm tree, holding her schoolbooks under her left arm, her coat draped awkwardly over her right shoulder.
"That's OK, Mrs. Atkins. I already ate." Ginny didn't move from her place near the elm tree, several yards from the back door.
"Suit yourself, runt," Louise said, with a smile and a shrug, "but I'm gonna eat."
Louise turned to go, but her mother grabbed her elbow, stopping her. "Go out and see what's wrong," Verna whispered to her daughter.
"What's wrong is that she's nuttier than a fruitcake," Louise replied good-naturedly. Louise loved her best friend, but Gin was nearly thirteen, and puberty was making her completely and utterly insane.
"There's something wrong when Ginny Steadman turns down pancakes and bacon." Verna gave her daughter a little nudge. "Go bring her inside."
Louise sighed and walked down the steps and across the yard toward her friend.
"What's up, Gin? Come on inside, for goodness sake. And put your coat on. It's freezing out here."
Gin hesitated, looking at Louise, then the house, then back to Louise.
"Naw. It's all right. I'll just wait here till you're ready."
"Don't be stupid." Louise reached out and grabbed her friend's arm. Pulling her hand back suddenly at Gin's painful whimper.
"What the heck is wrong?" Louise asked, her blue eyes clouding with concern.
"It ain't nothin'," Gin replied, taking a step back.
Louise could see sweat form on the girl's upper lip and watched her body start to tremble. The color drained from Gin's face, and she became as white as freshly fallen snow.
"Mom!" Louise yelled as Gin fainted.
Verna had been waiting at the door, and moved quickly at her daughter's cry. She began to run as she saw Louise catch Gin and lower her carefully to the ground.
"What on earth?" Verna cried as she knelt beside her daughter.
"She's hurt, I think." Louise moved the books to the side, and then the coat. She gasped when she uncovered the girl's right arm. It was obviously broken. Bruises were already forming, showing where a hand had grasped the forearm and twisted.
"Lord have mercy," Verna gasped.
"That bastard!" Louise hissed. "I'll kill him."
"Louise Elaine Atkins, I won't have you using that kind of language."
"You shush now," Verna interrupted. "Run down to Doc Perkins and tell him we need him."
Louise hesitated, brushing the red bangs off her friend's forehead. Louise knew that Gin's father was beating her. Heck, the whole town knew. But Gin would never tell on him, no matter how much Louise worked on her to admit it, and no one had managed to catch him in the act. He rarely left the little shack behind the feed silo where they lived and he very infrequently worked.
"Go on, child," Verna said, interrupting her daughter's rambling mind. "She'll be all right." She gave Louise a gentle push to get her moving, and then picked up the little girl, heading toward the house.
Louise took one more look back, her forehead wrinkled with concern, then quickly headed off down the street. Verna carried Gin up the steps to the mudroom and carefully maneuvered her through the door.
"You'll be all right, little one," Verna whispered to the girl in her arms. "We won't let this happen again. I promise."
She carried Gin through the kitchen and turned to the front room. "I'm too old to be carrying children up stairs," she said to the still unconscious girl. She took Gin into the front room and placed her on the sofa, carefully moving the girl's broken arm to rest on her stomach. Tears prickled the corners of her eyes when she heard a faint whimper of pain. She quickly ran up the stairs and grabbed the quilt from Louise's bed, returning to Gin and tucking it tenderly around the little girl.
Louise was out of breath by the time she reached the Perkins' house. She shivered in the cold morning air. She hadn't had time to grab her coat before hurrying off for the doctor.
It's nearly Easter, and it's still freezing, she moaned to herself.
Stop worrying about yourself and help Gin, her other internal voice answered.
She obeyed, ringing the Perkins' doorbell, and then knocking frantically.
"What do you want, freak?"
She let out a frustrated sigh. Why did it have to be Johnny who answered the door?
"I need your dad at our house," Louise answered carefully, not wanting to give the boy any details.
"You'll have to be more specific than that," Johnny replied with a cocky grin. His eyes reminded Louise of coal: black and lifeless.
Anger began to build inside Louise, and she felt the familiar prickling of her palms. She knew that if Johnny could see he'd gotten to her, it would only intensify his teasing and taunting. And she just didn't have time to deal with it now.
"Gin broke her arm," she said, as succinctly as possible.
"Ouch." Johnny winced with fake sympathy. "That's gotta hurt. Guess she shouldn't have been hanging on to you so tightly."
"I need your dad," Louise said, trying to keep the frustration from her voice.
"Well, let's see..." Johnny paused dramatically. "That would be the right course to take in the case of a broken arm."
"Johnny..." Louise trembled with the effort to keep herself from lashing out at the boy.
"Unfortunately, Dad is away at Mrs. Beaumont's. She claims she's dying. However, I saw her buying a jar of sauerkraut on Monday, and I predict she's just suffering from severe gas pains."
Louise wanted to smack Johnny. She had never wanted to do anything so bad in her life. The effort to hold her temper in check caused a noise in her ears like a hundred bells ringing at once.
"When will he be back?" Louise asked through gritted teeth.
"Oh, shortly, I would imagine." The teen stepped back, sweeping his arm toward the inside of the house. "Please come inside and wait."
Louise hesitated. She could just go back home and wait for the doctor. But she didn't trust Johnny to give his dad the message - at least not right away. So she climbed the front steps and entered the parlor.
"I'd love to stay and chat, but I need to prepare for school," Johnny said with fake politeness. "Do have a seat and make yourself at home."
Louise didn't respond and didn't sit down. Instead she turned her back to the teen and paced to a cabinet on the other side of the room. She feigned interest in the ornaments that were displayed inside, a little grin of satisfaction lifting her lips when she heard Johnny finally sigh with frustration. Her grin grew when she heard his footfalls leave the room.
Guess you didn't get a big enough rise out of me, Louise mused.
The ornaments really were pretty, if you liked that kind of thing. Louise figured they must be expensive, and probably came from somewhere in Europe. Mrs. Perkins came from a rich family in Madison, and she was renowned for bragging about her many expensive possessions.
One ornament in particular captured Louise's eye. It was two little elves. They were fishing, both holding little fishing poles. She smiled, remembering the fishing trips she and Gin had taken the previous summer. Sitting out on the lake, life seemed perfect. No one could hurt them or call them names or make them do things they didn't want to do.
"That cost over two hundred dollars, so I'd keep my mitts off of it if I were you."
Louise took a guilty step backward.
Oh great, now I have to deal with Holly too? She groaned internally.
Johnny's sister was as insufferable as her brother. She was two years younger but loved to talk down to Louise.
"Johnny tells me that Ginny broke her arm," Holly said. Her concern was just as faked as her brother's. "However did she do it?"
"Don't know." Louise shrugged, feigning indifference.
"I suppose she fell down. That seems to be how she usually ends up hurting herself." Holly paused, waiting for a reaction. "You know, ballet lessons have helped my poise and balance immensely. Perhaps, as her best friend, you could suggest that."
Louise allowed an angry scowl to escape. She blanked her features as quickly as she could, but was dismayed to see a victorious smile plant itself on Holly's face.
"Holly, school bus is on the way," Johnny announced, rushing through the room without acknowledging Louise. Louise peered out the window and saw the lights of the bus approaching up the road.
"It was lovely chatting with you, Louise," Holly said with a little wave.
Louise waited for them to leave before closing her eyes tightly. Anger crashed through her like a tsunami, leaving her swaying and dizzy.
I can't wait to get away from here, she thought to herself. Away from this horrible place and these horrible people.
Away from Gin, too? Her other voice asked very faintly.
She pretended not to hear.
"It's a bad break," Doc Perkins announced as he carefully examined Gin's arm.
Louise bit her lip in worry. She wanted to sit next to Gin and stroke her head, but her mom had told her to stay well back and let the doctor work.
"Why is she unconscious?" she asked nervously.
Doc Perkins turned and smiled reassuringly. "It's just the pain more than anything. It also doesn't look like Ginny's getting enough to eat, so her body's defenses aren't quite up to par."
"I try to feed her every chance I get," Verna said, shaking her head in dismay.
"I know you do your best, Verna," Doc Perkins replied. "But the child needs three square meals a day. She's obviously not getting that."
Gin seemed to sense that people were talking about her and started to stir. She began to whimper and the doctor reached for his bag.
"I'm going to give her a shot for pain," he explained. "And then we need to get her to Madison. I can't set the arm. She needs an orthopedist to take a look at it. She might need surgery."
"Lord have mercy." Verna exhaled and walked to her daughter, giving her a hug. Louise wondered who was comforting whom.
"Weez?" Gin whimpered. She blinked her eyes, looking confused when Doc Perkins came into focus instead of her friend.
"It's OK," Louise said from the other side of the room. "You're gonna be all right."
"Come on over, Louise, and hold her hand while I give her the shot."
Louise didn't need to be asked twice. She rushed forward and knelt beside the sofa, grabbing Gin's left hand and putting her face down into Gin's line of sight. Gin smiled and relaxed when her green eyes locked on blue. She tensed again, frowning and whimpering when she felt the prick of the needle.
"Hang on, little one," Doc Perkins said. "You'll feel much better in a minute."
Louise smiled at the doctor, wondering not for the first time how such a nice man could raise such horrible children.
"We'll just give this a minute to start working, and then I'll carry her out to the car," the doctor explained.
"Where are we going?" Gin asked, her fingers tightening around Louise's hand.
"You get to go to Madison," Louise replied, wincing at the strong grip. "They're gonna make you feel all better there."
"I don't want to go," Gin said, struggling to sit up. The motion jarred her broken arm, and she cried out, tears running down the sides of her face and into her ears.
"It's OK," Louise said, stroking the red bangs from Gin's forehead.
"If you can stand to take the rest of the day off school," Doc Perkins said, "it might be a good idea if you came with her. I know she'd feel much better with a friendly face beside her."
Louise looked to her mother and was pleased to see a reluctant nod of agreement.
"You hear that, runt? I'm coming to Madison with you."
Gin's eyes had closed and she seemed to be drifting in and out of awareness.
"Don't leave me," the girl whispered. "Please don't leave me."
Louise squeezed the small fingers and leaned down. "Never," she whispered into a delicate pink ear.
April 11, 1963.
"It's a chocolate rabbit," Gin explained. "But I ate its ears off."
The little girl was sitting up in bed, her arm held up in the air by a thick wire. She'd had one operation already and was stuck in the hospital while she waited for another. When she'd been brought in, she was anemic and malnourished, just as Doc Perkins had suspected, and the doctors at Madison General were waiting for all that to stabilize before performing the second surgery.
"Mr. Murphy gave me the rabbit," Gin explained. "And he sent me this card. Feel it; it's fuzzy."
Louise dutifully reached out and ran her finger over the picture of the yellow chick. It was indeed fuzzy.
"And I got this chocolate from Mrs. Beaumont." Gin held up two foil-wrapped shapes. Louise looked closer and recognized a sleigh and a wreath. "I guess it's leftover from Christmas, but it still tastes good."
"I guess everyone ate the Santas and reindeer, and left the boring shapes," Louise said.
Louise walked to the wall, where a nurse had pinned up all of the Get Well and Easter cards from their fellow townsfolk. She lifted her eyebrow when she saw a card from the Perkins kids.
So much love and concern now, she though cynically, but where were they when she was nearly starving to death and being beaten up?
Where were you? The answering question whispered through her mind.
A child' shrill scream interrupted her thoughts. She glanced across the ward with trepidation, but was pleased to see it wasn't a medical emergency, just an argument over toys.
"I wish I didn't have to be put in the children's ward." Gin sighed dramatically, puckering her mouth in an expression she must have thought looked very grown up. It unfortunately had the opposite affect, and Louise smiled affectionately.
"Listen, I won't be able to come visit you for a few days." Louise tried to ignore the girl's hurt eyes. "Tomorrow's Good Friday, and then we have to get the church ready for Sunday, and then it's Easter Sunday. I think we'll be in church for the next three days straight. I'm planning on taking my sleeping bag with me."
She grinned, but was met by a solemn gaze.
"Oh," was Gin's only reply.
"And then it's back to school on Monday," Louise continued. "So I'll plan on getting the bus up next weekend. But don't worry, you'll be home before you know it."
"Yeah, before I know it," Gin repeated tonelessly.
"Remember, you'll be staying with us. Like Mom explained. Everything's going to be all right."
Gin had refused to place blame for her broken arm on her father, but her physical condition had spoken for itself. The sheriff and welfare got involved, and there were lots of discussions in the Atkins' front room. Louise hadn't been allowed to join in, but she'd eavesdropped enough to know that things were going well for her friend. She still wished Cletus Steadman's sorry carcass had ended up in jail, though.
"You know, Weez, you don't have to worry about all this," Gin said. "It won't ruin our plans."
"What are you talking about?" Louise's ebony eyebrows lowered in confusion.
"The doctor told me my arm would be pretty close to normal by the end of summer."
"That's great," Louise smiled and sat down carefully on Gin's bed. "We can take it easy over the summer. I can cast your fishing line for you."
"That's nice. But it's not what I meant. I'm talking about going to Chicago with you. When you start college. I can still do it, no problem."
Louise's mouth fell open, but no words managed to make their way out.
"I thought I could sleep on the floor. And I don't eat much. But maybe I could get a job. Mrs. Beaumont's teaching me how to knit."
"You can't," Louise said, interrupting the girl's flurry of words.
"Sure I can. I don't mind if times are a little rough for a while. You can just concentrate on your studies, and I'll take care of our room."
"Gin, I'll miss you loads, but you can't come to Chicago." Louise reached out and took her friend's left hand. "There's just no way."
Gin's smile wavered, and she put it back in place with a struggle. "It won't be easy, but we can manage."
"No," Louise said firmly. "You are staying here. My folks will take care of you. Everything will be all right."
Gin pulled her hand out of Louise's grasp. "You said you'd never leave me."
Louise looked down at the rough white sheet, unable to meet the look of betrayal in her friend's green eyes. She'd only seen it once before, and she'd vowed never to be the cause of it again.
"We will be together." It took all of Louise's strength to lift her head and meet her friend's pain-filled eyes. "I'll be home for Christmas and summers, and in four years, I'll be done and we can be together again."
"OK," Gin said, tears pooling in her eyes.
"You'll be a senior then. Probably heading off to college yourself."
"I'll wait for you," Gin vowed, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.
"I'll come home for you, I promise."
"Do you pinky swear?" Gin asked, holding out her hand tentatively.
"I pinky swear," Louise replied, reaching out and locking her pinky finger with her friend's. They shook solemnly.
"Cross your heart and hope to die?" Gin added for good measure. "Stick hot pokers in your eye?"
Louise nodded, and drew an X with her index finger across her heart.
"I'll see ya next weekend," Louise said, getting up from the bed and picking up her coat from the visitor's chair.
Louise waved to her friend and promised herself that she'd do anything to keep that smile on Gin's face forever.
August 21, 1963
After a freezing Easter, it had been a warm spring and a blissful summer. Louise and Gin spent all their free time together. Living in the same house had been an added bonus. Verna had given up telling the girls to stop talking all night and go to sleep. They'd known each other all their lives, but still managed to have things to talk about until long past midnight.
On this, their last night together before Louise left for college, the Atkins parents had agreed to let the girls sleep out in the tree house. The older Atkins brothers had built it years before. It was showing its age a bit, but should hold for one more sleep out.
"Pull the sheet over the window," Louise instructed as she pulled out a box of matches. "I don't want Mom to see the light. She'll think we're going to set the place on fire."
Gin did as she was asked, and Louise carefully lit the candles that she'd placed in an old pie tin.
"That's nice," Gin said with a pleased grin.
Louise watched the candle's light flicker in her friend's eyes, reflecting off golden specks. She'd never really noticed how beautiful Gin's eyes were.
"I...um..." Gin looked suddenly nervous. "I got you something. A going away present." She pulled a package from under her pillow and handed it shyly to Louise.
"Wow. Thanks." Louise looked down at the package. They hadn't mentioned her leaving for months. Whenever the subject was brought up, it was quickly changed. It just seemed easier to pretend it wouldn't happen.
"Go ahead," Gin urged. "Open it."
Louise carefully undid the tape and unfolded the wrapping paper, revealing a pair of red mittens.
"I knitted them myself," Gin said proudly. "I did a pair of stockings first. They were different lengths, so I kept them for myself. The mittens were hard. Mrs. Beaumont helped."
Louise put the mittens on, and carefully hid the fact that the left thumb was half an inch too long.
"I love them," Louise said, smiling broadly.
"I heard that Chicago is really cold," Gin said with a blush and a pleased grin. "So even though it's hot now, you'll probably need 'em. I've always wanted to replace the pair you gave me when we were kids."
"You didn't have to do that."
"I know." Gin shrugged. "Just wanted to."
"They're fantastic," Louise said, pulling Gin into a hug. "I'll always think of you when I put them on."
She started to pull away, but Gin held on, burying her head into her friend's shoulder. Louise squeezed her friend tight when she heard faint sniffles.
"Don't cry, runt," Louise whispered. "It's gonna be all right."
Gin didn't let go, and her body jerked as a sob tore through her.
"Please don't cry," Louise said, rocking the girl and rubbing circles on her back. She looked around, desperately trying to figure out how to comfort her friend. Gin had rarely cried in front of her, and each time she did, Louise felt as if someone had stuck a knife through her heart.
"Hey, Gin, I want you to look at something." Louise waited until Gin slowly lifted her head. Louise felt another stab of pain when she saw the tracks of tears running down her friend's soft cheeks.
"What?" Gin asked in an anguished whisper.
"Look up in the sky." Louise pointed up through a hole in the tree house roof. "You know that constellation?"
"Orion," Gin replied, nodding her head.
"You see the bright star in his belt? That's really a nebula, a huge cloud of gas. It's called the Horsehead Nebula."
Gin squinted her eyes. "I see it."
"That's gonna be our star," Louise said. "Every night before you go to bed, you look up in the sky and find that star. And every night before I go to bed, I'll do the same thing. Is it a deal?"
Gin gazed silently at the star. A thousand emotions danced across her eyes: fear, doubt, sadness, hope, love.
"It's a deal," she whispered. Then she held out a trembling hand. "Pinky swear?"
Louise smiled and locked her pinky around her friend's.
Louise pulled her friend in for another hug and they held each other as the candles burned down and the stars twinkled overhead. Louise looked at the sky and thought about her future. She itched to get away from her small town. She wanted to see the world and meet new and interesting people. She wanted to make new friends and impress people and have an important and exciting career.
But if a genie sprang up in front of her and offered her a choice, she wouldn't hesitate. She'd ask for the night to last forever.
To be continued in Hand in Hand 3: Thanksgiving
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