IF ONLY MY BACKPACK WERE larger it would be easier to hide the presents I got today. It was sweet of the boys to think of me. I especially loved the pink teddy bear with the “Be Mine” red heart in its hand. Its fur was so soft and pretty. I’d never been given anything like that before. The chocolate candies and heart-shaped necklace were also nice, but the bear was my favorite.
Tucking them all close to me to hide them while I rode the bus home was the hard part. I had to because I was afraid someone would take them. I’d already prepared myself to hand over the necklace and chocolates first if Harriet Boyd came after my things. She was six inches taller than me and tough like a boy. I was pretty sure the bus driver, Ms. V, was scared of Harriet too.
Getting home with the pink teddy bear Davey Eaton gave me was my goal. The other presents I could part with.
Davey was cute. He was also rich and popular. I imagined the bear cost a lot. It didn’t look like the ones I’d seen at the pharmacy or grocery store all month. It was special—the kind of special I’d never gotten and would likely never get again. So, I was keeping the bear close.
Out of the three boys who gave me Valentine’s Day gifts, I didn’t like one any more than the other. All the boys were nice to me and seemed to like me. I knew that before they gave me gifts.
Momma told me not to worry about boyfriends in the third grade. But after getting the presents, I thought I might need to pick one. Maybe it would stop them from fighting over who got to sit by me at lunch.
I took a quick glance around me. I never made eye contact with Harriet if it was at all possible. Her voice was so loud, I knew she was only a few rows behind me. She was taunting someone about their hair.
My bus stop was next. I needed to make it to my stop, and then I’d be free. Safe from her bullying and possibly stealing my gifts.
Harriet hadn’t bothered me too much this year. There was a girl who sat three rows back on the bus that had red hair and her teeth poked out a little too far in the front. Harriet was mean to her. I wished I was bigger. Or older. That way I could take up for the girl three rows back. But I was smaller than Harriet, and younger. Nothing I said would sway her. And today I had a teddy bear that needed to get home safely.
The bus slowed to a stop in front of my trailer park.
I glanced back at the girl Harriet was harassing. I wanted to say something to help the other girl. But the bear in my hands kept me from doing anything. Not that anything I could have done would have helped anyway.
I quickly exited the bus, hurrying down the gravel road that was lined with oak trees and random empty beer cans. The grass was overgrown, and there were ant beds piled high on both sides of the road. I didn’t study any of it long because I was in a hurry.
The blue single-wide trailer that I called home was faded from the sun. I’d imagine it was pretty at one time, but that had to have been years ago. Now it was old, and most of the siding was broken or missing. Momma said the trailer was all she could afford in rent. It had window units that cooled us in the summer, and we had a cranky heater that warmed us in the winter. The roof worked just fine. I figured we had it good.
When I stepped onto the overgrown grass in front of our trailer, the front door swung open.
“Beulah!” My sister’s high-pitched voice carried across the yard when she shouted my name.
Heidi didn’t go to school yet, even though we were only three minutes apart in age. Momma said she would be ready for school in a few years. I’d worried a lot that Heidi would never start, but Momma said there were special classes for her. I hadn’t seen these special classes and hoped Momma was right.
“I have you a surprise,” I told Heidi as I met her halfway when she ran out to hug me like she did every day. Heidi was my favorite person—even over our momma. She was happy no matter what. She loved you even when you were having a bad day and acted ugly. She was the perfect person and I wished everyone was like Heidi. I wondered why Momma said she was slow and she didn’t fit in with everyone else.
She clapped her hands and squealed in delight. “What?” she asked.
I liked making her happy. I knew the moment I was given this bear today that Heidi would love it. I slipped my hand into the book bag and pulled out the bear.
Just like I had imagined, her eyes lit up as she grabbed it, hugging it tightly. Because of the look on her face I would tell Davey tomorrow that I would be his girlfriend—he’d made my sister smile.
I nodded. “Yes. For you. Happy Valentine’s Day,” I told her. Although I knew she didn’t understand, like she didn’t understand or care how I got the teddy bear.
She hugged it, tucking the teddy bear under her chin.
“I love you, Beulah,” she said against the ears of the bear that was pressed to her mouth.
Her smile was so big that I smiled too. It was a smile that only Heidi could give you. The one where no matter what was wrong with the world, you knew it was okay. I didn’t have a memory that Heidi wasn’t in. She was my twin. My sister. My other half. But she was different. She couldn’t live life the way I did. She had to do it differently. All because she was a special angel God had sent to earth. I knew that was true. And I knew I’d always do anything to take care of her.
TODAY SHOULD BE SPECIAL, BUT it was like any other day. Just another day that I existed, like all the others for the past six months. Keeping my head down and doing all that was asked of me was the one way I could make sure everything important to me was safe. Protected.
I woke up each day with a mission and hope that eventually my life would get better. That my current situation wasn’t forever.
“Beulah, for God’s sake, could you hurry with my coffee and get started on Jasper’s room before he gets home? I haven’t seen him in over eight months. His room needs to be perfect. Not that he’ll stay long,” Portia Van Allan called from the dining room.
Portia didn’t eat food. At least, she didn’t eat often. She drank coffee and she drank wine. Because of this, I wasn’t expected to cook for her. The list of duties she had me do daily were enough to keep me busy from the time the sun came up to well after it went down.
“Yes ma’am,” I replied as I finished making the French press coffee she preferred. It took time to brew the coffee unlike a regular coffee maker. The glass contraption also only made a cup with each press. It was one of the many things I hadn’t ever heard of until I was forced to take the position as a maid in her home. When my mother gave me Portia’s name and address on a piece of paper only a day before she passed away, I never asked who Portia was. I was so scared and in denial because of my mother’s illness that it wasn’t important at the time.
The day after my mother was buried, the landlord came to tell us we owed two months’ rent on the trailer we lived in, and although he was very sorry for our loss, we had to pay or move out. I’d taken Heidi with me to Portia Van Allen’s address that day, not knowing what to expect. Her home, where I now lived and worked, was not even close to what I had ever expected.
“I know he won’t stay at the house long, but while he’s here you’ll make him breakfast. I’ll ask him to leave you a list of what he eats. I can’t remember because I never cooked for him. We had someone do that. His father liked French toast, I do remember that.” Portia’s words trailed off.