From her vantage point in the front room, Mary could see her young neighbors hard at work. The two little girls had finished pulling the brown weeds from her flower beds and spreading the bags of mulch Josiah had brought over. Taylor was sweeping off the front porch steps while her younger sister watched. Mary could see their little cheeks were flushed. They would be coming inside to collect their dollars soon.
A pitcher of lemonade and a tray of cheese and crackers waited on them. Mary had asked Josiah to bring her some lemons from the store when he brought the mulch. She had smiled as she made the lemonade; the task brought back so many lovely memories of making the drink for her own children.
Two quick raps on the door were Mary’s cue to struggle out of her easy chair. Before she was entirely upright, the door opened and Taylor stuck her head inside, calling, “Miss Mary?”
“Come on in, Sweetheart,” Mary called back. “I’ve made you a snack.”
Taylor stepped inside the house with Sidney right behind her. She looked around the living room. The girls hadn’t come in the house before.
“Come on in,” Mary encouraged them. She was afraid their apprehension was a sign they wanted to take their money and go home.
“We did a good job!” Sidney piped up.
“I saw that,” Mary agreed. “I peeked out the window ever so often, and could see you were doing a fine job.”
“You didn’t peek,” Taylor narrowed her eyes. “You watched us the whole time.”
Mary chuckled. “You don’t miss a thing, do you?”
“And you call it like you see it, don’t you?” Mary couldn’t help but smile at the girl’s spunk.
Taylor nodded, and then broke into a grin. “Grandma used to say I was too honest for my own good.”
Mary reached out and patted the girl’s bony shoulder. “I’ve been accused of the same thing a time or two.” Pointing toward the kitchen table, she said, “Come sit down and rest a spell. You two have been working so hard. I made you some lemonade and some cheese and crackers.”
“Thank you,” both girls murmured as they sat down.
Mary settled herself into a chair opposite them. Before she could start a conversation, Sidney pointed to a framed photo on the wall and asked, “Who is that?”
“That’s my family,” Mary answered. “That’s my son and his wife, my daughter and her husband, and all my grandkids and great-grandkids.”
“And you?” Sidney’s words were garbled from the mouthful of cracker.
Mary smiled. “Yes, that’s me.” She was three years younger in the photograph, but she looked quite different in it. She had aged a great deal since she had fallen and broken her hip.
“Do they live in Little River?” Taylor asked.
“No,” Mary shook her head, “they don’t live in Tennessee anymore.”
“You don’t have any family here?” Sidney asked, wide-eyed.
“Well, I have a sister and brother-in-law,” Mary answered.
“We just have Aunt Lexi here now,” Sidney sympathized. “She came here from Birmingham to live with us after Grandma died.”
“Is that so?”
“Uh huh.” Sidney gulped some lemonade and then added, “We had to move, though. Aunt Lexi didn’t want to live in Grandma’s house. She said it made her too sad.”
“Grandma died in a car wreck,” Taylor added. “It was very unexpected, and Aunt Lexi took it very hard.”
Mary wrinkled her brow over the girl’s comment. It didn’t sound like something a little girl would say. “I’m so sorry about your Grandma. I imagine it’s been very hard on you girls, too.”
They both nodded and Sidney said, “We were scared we would have to go live in an orphanage, but then the judge gave us to Aunt Lexi.”
Taylor rolled her eyes, “Siddie, I told you they don’t have orphanages anymore.”
Sidney stuck her tongue out at her sister, and assembled another cheese and cracker.
To Mary, Taylor said, “Grandma had custody of us, so Aunt Lexi had to go to court to be our guardian.” She shrugged. “I wasn’t as worried as Sid was. Once Aunt Lexi got here, I knew she would take care of us.” She paused and then said, “I thought she would take us to Birmingham with her. She doesn’t like Little River much. But she said she was going to stay here with us so it would be easier on us.”
“It sounds like your aunt loves you very much.”
“She does,” Sidney agreed. “She promised she won’t leave us.”
Mary’s old ears pricked up at Sidney’s choice of words. It sounded to her as if the little girl had experience with being left.
“What about your parents?” Mary was almost afraid to ask, but her curiosity overrode her better judgement.
“We don’t have any parents,” Taylor’s words were clipped and bitter.
“Yes, we do,” Sidney glared at her sister. When Taylor didn’t respond, Sidney told Mary, “Our mom lives in Knoxville, but she doesn’t see us much. She left us with Grandma.” She paused and bit her lip before saying, “Our dad . . . who knows?”
“He’s been gone a long time?” Mary asked.
“Since before Sidney was born,” Taylor answered. “He left, and then Mom left when we were really little. I think I was five and Sid was three.”
“She comes to see us sometimes,” Sidney said. “Not as much as she used to, but . . . sometimes.”
Mary’s heart hurt as she watched the little girl try to hang on to a little bit of faith in her mother. It was obvious that her older sister no longer tried. Trying to lighten the mood, she said, “It sounds like your Aunt Lexi coming to live with you is the very best thing for you. And I’m so glad you’re my new neighbors!”
Sidney smiled at her, showing a gap where her front teeth used to be.
Reaching into her sweater pocket, Mary pulled out four folded dollar bills and presented them to the girls. “An extra dollar for each of you, because you did such a good job.”
Taylor’s eyes lit up as she asked, “Do you have any more chores we can do for you?”
Mary’s heart soared. If she ran out of chores to pay the girls for, she would gladly make some up.
Rachel Holbrook writes from her home in Knoxville, TN. She is the author of the syndicated serial, Little River, Volumes 1 & 2. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Burningword Literary Journal, *82 Review, Ink in Thirds, Akitsu Quarterly, The Avalon Literary Review, The Society of Classical Poets, and various other literary journals. She recently won an Honorable Mention for her short story “A Slow Burn” at the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society’s annual convention. She also received the Springs of Helicon Award for Poetry, awarded by Tennessee Wesleyan University. When she’s not writing, she enjoys going on literal and literary adventures with her husband and six children.