“Lily’s fat,” Annabeth, Lily’s mother, remarked to Julia, Lily’s grandmother. The conversation never varied much. Lily’s shortcomings graced a good one-half of the mother/daughter conversations that took place when the older women gathered for Saturday coffee. Lily’s weight was the newest topic, a subject they didn’t hide from Lily, who hunched on the back porch and could hear them jabbering through the kitchen window. The fact that her mother and grandmother could eat anything and did, without gaining an ounce, gave Lily scant comfort.
They were right, and Lily knew it. She knew it only too well, because Maridon Strange, who was named after her mother Mary and her father Don, a fact that Lily found absurd, told her that Todd Lucas had invited her to the fall dance. Lily wanted to strangle the bitch, and Maridon knew it. Maridon told everyone flat out that Lily wasn’t even in the running with Todd, the boy Lily had known and loved all her life, because over the summer Lily had put on the pounds.
She’d bloomed from a gawky, skinny girl into a busty freshman who couldn’t get through a door without bruising her hips. The fact that all her clothes were so tight she literally popped buttons didn’t help.
Papa told her it would be all right, that girls like her were painted by the best Renaissance artists like Reuben and Titian, and that her red hair would have made her the perfect model. That she’d be the one slamming the door in Todd Lucas’ face when he realized what a real woman looked like.
But then, Papa had married Mama, and Mama had never had a fat roll hanging over the back of her brassiere in her life, not even when she was pregnant with Lily. Lily had seen the pictures, and Mama looked like she’d swallowed a pumpkin but the rest of her was normal-sized.
The worst came when she’d looked up Reuben and Titian on the internet and studied the women Papa had been describing. Time to give up, she figured, and hit the donuts with a big glass of whole milk. Which was what she was doing while Mama and Geemaw added to her humiliation.
She told herself she didn’t care a rat’s ass for Todd Lucas, even if he had kissed her last year after his mama drove them home from the spring hop. He was already a freshman in high school while she was still in eighth grade, but he’d promised her when they were ten and eleven that he’d escort her to every dance she wanted to go to, after she’d told him she had nightmares about being the only girl in school who never got asked to a dance.
Todd had been like that his whole life, thinking of others, especially her. They never had a falling- out until he got a car. He’d turned sixteen just before school started, and his daddy had bought him a gorgeous ‘68 Camaro, dark green, already restored. Mama said it was because Todd’s father had always wanted a car like that, and he was just living his youth all over again through Todd, but Lily didn’t care. She’d wanted so much to go to the first dance of her freshman year with Todd driving that cool car.
Wasn’t going to happen, so she may as well get on with what was left of her sad, pathetic, hopeless life. She knew exactly how it would proceed down the lonely roads of the hills of western Virginia. She’d start jerking her red hair back in a scrunchy, wear sweatshirts with Virginia Tech logos she’d buy in the thrift store, and her jeans would get tighter every year. If she was lucky, she’d land a job at Wally World, drive a dirty white Corolla with a hundred dings and scrapes from its twenty years on this earth, and buy frilly polyester dresses for her stupid little dog who weighed all of five pounds.
Cramming in the last bite of donut, Lily decided she’d had enough of feeling sorry for herself. Scooping up the donut crumbs from the front of her T-shirt, Lily licked her fingers. This was going to be her last donut for the rest of her life. Until she could wear her clothes, at least.
She stood on the porch and studied her options. Papa was working on the tractor, Mama and Geemaw were still yammering away, but at least they’d moved on from her as the victim of their conversation. Her homework had been done for hours, and she still had the rest of the weekend to fill with something. She didn’t have a cell phone because the hills blocked any signal, and the computer was for Papa’s business, so she was only allowed to use it for homework, and besides, it was so slow it was impossible to play any games.
Then she thought of how she’d spent hours when she was little, building a fairy world out in the woods. With plenty of ferns and pinecones, she’d play for hours, making up stories for the little people she conjured from bark and twigs and some scraps from mama’s quilting leftovers. As long ago as it had been, the idea of just pretending pulled her like a jelly donut singing her name from the box. Even if she was fifteen.
The woods were just as dense as ever. Papa refused to sell their timber rights, even though they had some huge old hardwoods that would fetch a small fortune. Mama argued until she ran out of words that they should sell, but Papa said trees were all that kept the air clean, and he wasn’t going to choke to death on car fumes if he could help it. Lily was on Papa’s side, but mostly because she couldn’t imagine looking out any window in their house without a view of the trees. Change was not her forte’ and she knew it.
Racing for the forest, she was grateful she didn’t split a seam in her jeans. They were tight enough to squeeze the stuffing out of her, but Mama refused to buy her any new clothes until she started to lose weight. Without thinking, Lily kicked off her shoes, unzipped the old denims and shucked them off. Reaching under her T-shirt, she unhooked her bra and slid it down her sleeve by the straps. Finally, she could breathe unfettered. Flopping on the forest floor, soft with pine tags and leaves just starting to fall, she stared at the blue sky peeking through the tree branches. If she didn’t blink and didn’t try to focus on any one thing, the air shimmered with motes of dust that sparkled as if the fairies were tossing silver confetti from the very tops of the oaks. She pulled into her mind the pictures of the fairies she’d concocted when she was a kid and let her imagination run with it.
Sure beat sitting around getting criticized. So far she’d held back the tears, but now, they fell faster than she could wipe them from her cheeks. Todd would never look at her again, her Mama and Geemaw thought she was ugly, and her future held nothing but sorrow and disappointment. Weeping bitterly, Lily cried herself to sleep.
The dream was vivid and wonderful and sad all at the same time. Todd and she were married, living in a trailer behind her parents’ house. It was a nice one with no rust and had air conditioning and everything. Todd still had that Camaro, and she’d wait on the front stoop for its rumble every evening when he came home from work. Their two little boys fidgeted beside her, anxious for daddy to jump up the steps two at a time and scoop them up for a hug. When she looked at her legs, one foot tapping impatiently for his return, she felt the same clenching in her stomach she’d felt forever when she knew he was near. Her one true love was coming home, to her and to their boys. All was right with the world.
She popped inside the trailer to check on the crock pot dinner simmering away. Catching a glimpse of herself in the window glass, she saw that she was as thin as her mother. Nothing pinched, nothing wobbled. In fact, she was downright skinny. Too skinny. Chasing after two kids under the age of four must have run every ounce of fat off her, she mused as she corralled the boys into their chairs. They were hungry, Todd was late, so she may as well feed them before they got too cranky to go to bed without dire threats.
“Where’s daddy?” Her eldest, Will, had a tendency to whine. She’d have to get that under control sooner rather than later.
“He’s running a little late, is all. Come on, let’s eat. Dinner’s ready.” She spooned up the pot roast and potatoes, making sure everyone got the same number of carrots, or she’d never hear the end of it.
“Daddy’s going to learn me to drive when he gets home.” Her baby, Danny, loved to sit on Todd’s lap as he circled the yard in the Camaro, letting Danny’s hands rest on the steering wheel.
“Not if it gets too dark,” she warned, glad she had boys and not girls. Girls had it so much harder.
The children picked at their food, eventually swallowing enough she wouldn’t feel guilty for putting them in their bath early. She kept glancing at the phone on the kitchen wall, but no one called. Not Todd, not the state police. She was glad for that, but it wasn’t like Todd to not let her know if he was running late. Picking up the phone, she punched in the number for her parents, wondering if they’d heard of any accidents on the interstate that could have kept Todd snarled in traffic. I-81 was notorious for jackknifed trucks.
No one picked up. Strange, she thought, then realized it wasn’t so strange. Her parents regularly fell asleep in front of the evening news or Wheel of Fortune. She hung up.
The children fell asleep after only two Dr. Seuss books tonight. She almost wished she’d kept them up, so she’d have someone to talk with. She couldn’t take off and leave them, not with her parents comatose after seven p.m., but she really needed to find her husband. He was never this thoughtless, not since her freshman year in high school when he’d taken another girl to the fall dance. He’d come to his senses, of course. They’d been born to be together.
Dread built in her by the minute, until it was an avalanche she was helpless to stop.
The sound of the dinner bell wakened her. Only it wasn’t a bell, it was more like a siren, a screaming wail that stabbed through the muddle in her brain like ice picks. Trying to put her hands over her ears, she found she couldn’t move her arms. Every inch of her was bound like a mummy. Her throat flamed with pain, her eyes felt glued together.
“Lily! Lily! We found you! Hold on, honey!”
She thought she heard her father’s voice. Papa. Why was he yelling? Where was Todd? Had something happened? Remembering Will and Danny, she tried to sit up to check on them. Maybe the trailer was on fire, but she couldn’t smell smoke. And she couldn’t move.
A strip of light fell across her face. Total darkness lay thick around her. Impossible. She left a night light on for the kids so they could find her if they stumbled out of bed with bad dreams. Attempting another call to the boys, she found her throat hurt so much she wanted to scream, but couldn’t. What the hell was happening?
The heat of the light on her face grow stronger. Her eyes ached with the effort, but she forced a peek. Above her bloomed cracks of light, as if they were being filtered. A tree? No. Boards. Boards laid side by side with small cracks between them through which she saw the light.
“Papa?” she croaked, the effort astounding her. She tried again. “Papa?”
Sounds like feet running above her. Shattering wood. Men yelling. More sirens, for that was clearly the source of the wailing noise. The trailer must have been hit by a tornado, she reasoned when she was able to calm the pain in her head.
Then hands were lifting her, cutting away what bound her arms to her sides and strangled her throat. Through the many hands she saw her father’s face, then her mother’s, but not Todd. Not her boys. What had happened? Were they okay? She wanted to ask, but her parents were crying too hard. The men in uniform that surrounded them were still yelling at each other, darting out of her line of vision one by one, and she knew they wouldn’t be able to hear her, anyway.
“It’s okay, baby girl, it’s okay. We’ve got you. He can’t hurt you anymore.” Papa said the words over and over. “As soon as I found your clothes in the woods, I called the police. We’ve been searching for you day and night, honey. You’re safe. It’s all going to be fine, just you wait and see. I’m just so sorry it’s taken this long.”
What was he talking about? Her mother was sobbing so hard all she could do was pat Lily’s face with both hands and rain tears on her.
“Ma’am, we need to get her to the hospital. Please, ma’am.”
Lily watched her mother collapse in a heap in Papa’s arms. What on earth had happened? Why was no one telling her where the boys and Todd were?
“Can I ride with her?” Papa was holding her hand, even though it hurt. The medics, Lily assumed, were her lifting her onto something stiff.
“Okay,” the medic mumbled, “but stay out of our way.”
Lily sank into all-consuming hurt and pain as they carried her into the ambulance, her mind screaming for answers no one thought to give her. A policeman got into the ambulance with her father, and began asking her questions. She didn’t give a damn about what he wanted to know, could she identify the man, how had he hurt her, did she know his name.
“Todd,” she croaked. “My kids?”
“Damn that boy. I knew he was behind this,” her father burst out. “Let me out of here, I’m going to find the son of a bitch and kill him.”
“I’m going to have to arrest you if you say that again,” Lily heard the policeman admonish her father. “Now sit down and let these folks do their job.”
“She’s suffering from dehydration and starvation, of course, and there’s evidence of abuse and torture. That said, she’s in remarkable shape. Lily’s a fighter, that’s why she’s still alive.” The doctor stared at Lily, lying in the hospital bed, as he spoke to her parents.
“The issue is mental. The physical will heal. But wherever she went mentally when she was abducted, and during what happened later, is a deep, dark place. I don’t know if she’ll come up for air, but that’s not my bailiwick.”
“You mean she might stay like this? Not saying a word?” Lily’s mother clutched her husband’s hand until her knuckles whitened.
“I mean, it’s a process. Give it time. She saved herself by going where she was safe. We just don’t know where that is and if she’s ready to leave there. There’ve been studies. . . .”
“Will the one name she said when we found her be used in court? Will that bastard Todd Lucas go to prison? That’s what I want to know.” Lily’s Papa could barely say the name of the man he knew had kidnapped and abused his only daughter.
“I’m not a lawyer, Mr. Slater. I have no idea. I’m only concerned with Lily’s recovery.” The doctor made it sound as if he doubted Lily would ever come out of the place in her mind she’d gone to hide.
Lily didn’t hear them. She was busy getting Todd’s lunch and the children their breakfast. Todd had gotten home at midnight, explaining a logging truck had overturned and the highway was frozen going both ways. “You need to get a cell so you can call me,” she complained. “At least when things like that happen.”
“I will, honey, I promise. Soon as we can afford it.” Kissing her on the cheek, he took the lunch bag from her hands and gave her a playful pat on the fanny. “Any way you look at it, hon, we’re wealthy. We’ve got each other.”
She couldn’t argue with that.