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Authors: Jodi Lynn Anderson

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BOOK: Love and Peaches
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Leeda swung her legs against the bed frame, but something pricked her right in her calf. She bent to see what it was, lifting up the thin white bed skirt. It was an envelope, maybe a letter.
Probably from President Reagan
, Leeda thought drily. She tugged it out of its spot and studied it.

It was yellowed, and it had no address or postmark, only Eugenie's name. On the back, where the seal met in a triangle, someone had drawn a little heart. It was a love letter.

Leeda felt a prick of tenderness and sadness that her grandmom was gone, her annoyance evaporating.

Leeda considered a moment, feeling guilty. And then she opened it. The date was written in a sloppy hand—May 31, 1938. The date had significance to Leeda. Her mother had a plate on the wall commemorating her parents' wedding date above one commemorating her own marriage. This letter had been written a couple of weeks before Eugenie's wedding.

Genie,

You've really outdone yourself this time.

Edgar will be fine, though the doctor was worried at first that he had a concussion. Who would have thought a flying hymnal could knock a boy down like that? I know you don't like “Hosanna in the Highest,” but at least you could keep yourself from flinging the words into the choir.

Emmaline at the Pop ‘N' Shop says that you're a menace. She says you're like a rubber band, constantly propelling your body this way and that. I stood up for you and told her that her body was like a zucchini squash. I said you couldn't help it if you're more alive than she is.

When you were getting the talk from the reverend after church today, you looked so sorry and so defiant at the same time, and I just wanted to kiss you. But I'll wait for the moonlight under the trees for that.

The trees are beautiful. You are beautiful. I'll see you tonight.

Leeda smiled gently. Leeda's grandfather had died when she was a little kid. She had never thought of him and her grandmom as being in love. She had never imagined anyone, even her grandfather, as being so free and informal with the formidable Eugenie. Eugenie had been the kind of person you didn't feel comfortable discussing anything deeper with than the state of the weather and how you were doing in school. But here Leeda's grandfather was, pouring out intimate observations.

Finally Leeda's eyes reached the bottom of the page. Her heart skipped a beat. She pulled the letter to her chest, irrationally, and looked out the window, as if someone might be looking in, spying. She held the letter out in front of her again, as if it might sort itself back into what she'd expected, even taken for granted. She checked the date again—it had been written right before her grandparents' wedding.

And there, at the bottom of the page, signed next to a tiny heart, was a simple letter
M
.

Leeda's grandfather's name was Frank.

M
urphy sat cross-legged on the floor of the women's dorm, pulling her nubby red sweatshirt over her bent knees. She stuffed her hands into her suitcase and pulled out a stack of T-shirts, flinging them onto the bed. Already the room looked like it had been hit by a tornado, even though everything had come out of her tiny suitcase.

Murphy's mom, hurt at first when Murphy had announced her plans, had eventually agreed to let Murphy move into the orchard dorms as long as they hung out on the weekends and had dinner during the week as often as she could. The truth was that they both knew living at the orchard would keep Murphy occupied and happy—instead of restless and bored. When Murphy got restless and bored, she got creative and a little deviant.

Once the workers arrived—only a week away—the nights would be full of chatter and laughter and stories and card games. And even now, when it was empty, the dorm house—situated as it was in the middle of nature—was exciting and different. The dorms had been built just that year. The paint smelled fresh.
The floors smelled like plywood. But the view out the window by her bed was the same as it had been: some scrubby gatherings of trees, the trail to the garden, and the occasional bird, hunting worms and bugs in the grass.

Finished packing, she hopped up and bounced a little on her heels, wondering what to get into. Poopie and Walter had gone into town for food supplies. No doubt they'd return with body-sized sacks of rice and beans and gallons of orange juice. Birdie had retreated to her tree house and was hammering away, unwilling to come down.

Birdie had been mum about what had happened in Mexico, though. Murphy knew it had to have something to do with Enrico. When she asked Birdie if they'd broken the engagement, she had only said, “Not really,” and had asked if they could talk about something else. Poopie had been beside herself about Birdie living in a tree, and she could often be seen standing at the bottom of the ladder, holding some food she'd made. Murphy assumed Birdie hadn't opened up to Poopie either. But she knew that would have to happen in time.

Murphy walked down the hallway and out onto the grass, deciding to head to the house and use the computer. She could e-mail some friends, order some new sneakers. She trudged across the grass, waving to Birdie on the way, and walked inside. The house was muffled and silent. Murphy walked into Walter's office, the walls paneled in wood, the floor covered in an old, thick rug. She sat on the chair in front of the desk with a creak and powered up the computer, then logged into her Yahoo! account. She had a bunch of e-mails from New York, a couple of them from guys, which she ignored.

When she'd read them all, her hand hovered over the mouse for a minute and then moved, maybe as she had been planning all along, to the
Blah Blah Blah
folder.

She opened the first e-mail.

You won't believe it, Shorts, but Bridgewater misses you. The lady at Dunkin' Donuts asked about you the other morning at the drive-through. And Mrs. Hobbes at my dad's store said she misses your “high spirits.” I think that's a euphemism for delinquent behavior. The point being, I'm not the only one who thinks about you here. But I may be the only one who thinks about you last thing before I go to sleep.

So how's New York? What have you done so far? Have you seen anyone famous? Does it make you feel big? Small?

Drop your small-town ex a line and let me know how well you've moved on. I won't hold it against you. Back here in Bridgewater, there's some giant black hole on my porch where you used to be. But I'm happy for you, Shorts. I'm just happy.

R.

The e-mails were all similar. Simple and sweet and undemanding. She read them in order. Rex asked a bunch of questions about what she was doing, what her classes were, what things she loved most about the city. He told her small snippets of his life—that he had gotten really into building furniture;
occasionally he mentioned his dad and how he sometimes asked about her. Murphy felt a pang now that she couldn't understand. Nowhere did Rex mention leaving Bridgewater or anything that might draw him and his dad away.

Finally she was at the last e-mail, the arrow hovering over the icon. She let out a small sigh and let her finger click it, like it was the last part of a conversation she didn't want to end.

Murphy,

This is my last message. I wonder if you've read any of them. I wouldn't put it past you not to. You're a little messed up like that. But I don't feel like I've wasted my time.

I like to picture you in New York. I like to think you found everything you wanted. I like to think of you laughing a lot with all these people you meet. Maybe even with another guy. It doesn't matter about the other guy, if he exists. I want happiness for you.

I can't stop picturing your face. Picturing it when you're looking at paintings at all the museums. Picture it after a long day of studying. Picturing it when you and Leeda are cracking up about something. It makes it impossible to be mad at you. It makes me happy that you're free, like you always said you wanted.

I guess maybe I'll see you when you get home. But I think we'll both be different. I think I will have let you go. I think you will have done the same. I just hope that we
don't feel like strangers. I don't ever want to feel like I don't know you.

See you, maybe.
R.

Murphy stared at the e-mail. She read it twice more, wanting to hold on to it, not wanting it to be something from a time that was gone. She heaved a deep, shuddering sigh.

“This is stupid,” she whispered to herself. She lowered her head against the keyboard until it started beeping. She shut the computer down and stood up, her legs tingling and asleep, the pang inside deeper and bigger and indescribable.

She walked out onto the porch of the house and leaned on the railing. She looked toward the tree house, a big wooden box in the branches made of plywood and cloth like a little nest. The sound of Birdie's hammer echoed across the grass.

Murphy slid indecisively down the stairs, stared at her bike where it lay on the grass that met the gravel drive, and finally climbed on and pedaled out onto Orchard Road.

All she could think was that she had been betrayed. The thing she remembered most about all of the e-mails was that Rex hadn't said good-bye.

 

The trailer glittered dully in the afternoon light. She could hear her mom in the shower. Jodee always liked to rinse off after a day at the office.

Murphy poured herself a Mountain Dew from the fridge
and stared around listlessly, then began rifling through the mail sitting on the counter, looking for something shallow and absorbing—a
People
, an
Entertainment Weekly
—to take away the needy feeling she had inside. She flipped through a Victoria's Secret catalog. Then she moved on to the pile of older papers lodged between the ceramic cookie jar and the George Foreman grill.

The papers in the pile were mostly bills, with the occasional late payment notice, and flyers for local business openings that Jodee hadn't bothered to throw away. Murphy breezed past an envelope and then, curious, came back to it.

It was from Dooly County Memorial Hospital, and it had her name on it. It was addressed to her mother, but the line beneath that read
Re: Murphy Ann McGowen
. It was also paper-clipped to another letter.

Murphy opened the envelope and unfolded its contents, scanning them.

The allele sizes of the different DNA markers examined and used in the statistical analysis portion of the test…

It was all Greek to her. Had her mom had Murphy's hair tested for some horrible disease? Murphy tried to picture her mom stealing hair off her brush like a witch doctor.

She unclipped the attached paper and read that. It said something about legal proceedings, a date—June tenth at 3 p.m.—and a meeting with Judge Abbott at the Bridgewater Courthouse.

She turned back to the hospital notice, a possibility taking
shape in her mind, her heart pounding as she read more thoroughly. There were index values. A 99.99 percent probability. She felt a wave of nausea. The paper began to tremble, and Murphy realized her hand was shaking.

And then there was a step behind her, and the pile was being snatched out of her grip.

“That's my mail!” Jodee said, standing behind her with her hair half dry. Murphy turned to face her.

“Mom—”

“Didn't anyone ever tell you to respect other people's privacy?” Jodee was making a show of only being peeved as she tucked the papers under her arm. But her lips, pulled tightly together, trembled.

“Mom, what's that paper?”

“Nothing. I'm going to be late; I made plans for dinner tonight,” Jodee said, turning on her heel and heading back to the bathroom, where she checked herself in the mirror, or at least pretended to. She grabbed her purse. The papers remained firmly lodged under her armpit.

“Mom—”

“Murphy, it's my mail and none of your business.”

Before Murphy could do anything, Jodee was outside.

“Mom!” Murphy flung the door open to follow her, feeling desperate, like something huge and important was slipping out of her fingers.

“Mom, that's a paternity test, isn't it?”

Murphy's head was spinning. She felt too small for the throbbing in her gut.

“Mom…?”

Jodee slammed the door of the Pontiac and started the engine. Murphy yelled after her even though the windows were up, the engine was blasting, and there was no way she could hear. “Mom, does this mean you found my dad?!”

The tires peeled in the driveway, and Jodee was gone.

 

Judge Miller Abbott had not been an adventurous teenager. He always stayed after school to help clean the erasers. He was a member of the Bridgewater High School Debate Team, the Dooly County Dapper Dans, and the Young Republicans. He met his wife at a cotillion. For weeks after his wedding, he woke feeling like he was forgetting something, like maybe he'd forgotten to pay the caterer or had a library book that he hadn't returned. For some reason this feeling was always accompanied by a desire to drive to the orchard and howl at the moon.

B
irdie and Leeda sat at the decrepit picnic table behind the women's dorm, kicking each other's feet under the table and picking at the peeling wood. Murphy stood over the outdoor sink, running her hair and the back of her neck under the faucet. Majestic pounced around the yard a few feet away, chasing a bee.

Leeda was on her BlackBerry, looking like she was about to spontaneously combust. Birdie was thinking about the lostness that had snagged inside her. There was no other way to describe it. She had felt it since the day she had come home and gotten the news about the farm from her dad and Poopie. Maybe she had even felt it before that. Maybe it had been the lostness that had caused Birdie to send the letter about Enrico's pants.

“What? No, I need to leave the return flight open-ended.” Leeda tapped Birdie's feet with her own. She pulled the phone away from her ear to stare down at the screen, and then put it back to her cheek and mouthed to Birdie,
The reception sucks.

It was midday and they'd been working hard all morning, snapping the linens onto the beds in the dorms, mopping the floors and scrubbing the cobwebs out of the sinks, dragging
the harvesting harnesses out to where they'd be ready to use first thing tomorrow. The workers would be arriving anytime this afternoon. What Birdie hadn't counted on was being ready for them and having nothing more to do but wait.

Cynthia Darlington had brought lunch from the teahouse—finger sandwiches, iced mint tea, macaroni salad—stayed for half an hour, and rushed back to work. They had chatted about the teahouse, about people in town, and about Walter's and Poopie's plans to move.

Birdie could tell she'd wanted to ask about Enrico too, but didn't force the issue out of respect for Birdie's privacy.

She kept thinking about what her dad had said when he and Poopie told her about the orchard. That she had her own life now. It had sounded like he and Poopie felt they'd been set free. If they did feel that way, Birdie knew they deserved it. But it made Birdie's heart ache. Because she didn't feel she had her own life at all.

“Okay, June tenth, that's fine.” Leeda rolled her eyes at Birdie. “Uh huh. Yes.”

The days leading up to the harvest had always been agonizing for Birdie. As a kid, it had meant waiting for Luis to give her piggyback rides so she was towering over the peach trees, or for Emma to sit gently beside her to show her needlepoint, or for Raeka to prop her up on the counter to watch while she boiled a bag full of black beans and got them ready to sauté. Because she was homeschooled, Birdie had always treasured the orchard filled with familiar friends. Waiting for summer was a lot like waiting for Santa Claus to come. Then, as she'd gotten older, the feeling had turned to one of restlessness for
activity and action, waiting for the chance to socialize and to wear her impatient body out with physical labor. But this year, she was like an inhaled breath. She had hung herself up on a question. Would he come? Wouldn't he? The wondering was almost a welcome distraction from thinking about other woulds and wouldn'ts. Like, what would her house sound like if they tore it down?

Leeda finally got off the phone, shaking her head. “I'm never gonna get out of here,” she said.

“What's the rush?” Murphy gurgled.

“No rush,” Leeda said, looking unsure. “Just…I told Eric I'd be back. I miss him.”

“Aww.” Murphy pulled back from the sink to make little kissy faces. Leeda stuck out her tongue at her.

“There are all these great things we're supposed to do,” Leeda said, defending herself as she took a sip of her lemonade. She looked funny, sweaty and red-faced, a cobweb stuck in her hair, holding her BlackBerry and sitting with perfect posture. Murphy pulled away from the sink completely, her hair dripping down her forest green tank top, and mumbled, “Your turn.”

Birdie and Leeda took turns dunking themselves under the icy cold sink water. With water dripping off her nose and gathering at her lips, Leeda looked like a forties pinup girl. Birdie pulled her own hair from where it stuck to her face. She probably looked like bigfoot.

“Let's get in the shade,” Murphy said, flopping her head across the picnic table as if across a soft mattress. A june bug landed on one of her curls, and then lit off again.

Birdie picked up Majestic, tucking her under her arm, and led
them out of the shade onto the lawn and across the grass to her tree house.

They climbed the ladder, cresting the landing and settling down onto the plywood floor and across the mattress Birdie had managed to haul up. Majestic lay down at Birdie's feet, her butterfly-like ears swiveling and twitching like satellites.

In the two weeks since Birdie had started building it, the tree house had started to feel like home. At the top of her bed, which was just a twin mattress from her room, stood her little wooden bookcase filled with favorite books:
501 Spanish Verbs, Birds of South America, The Book of Tarot,
and her collection of World Book Encyclopedias. On top of the shelf, she had put a little vase full of survivor flowers from Murphy's decrepit garden. Because it was nestled in the leaf-thickened limbs, it was gloriously cool and shady. The sweat was drying so quickly on Birdie's body that she was suddenly chilly. She ran her fingers through her long hair, reddish in the light coming through the leaves, and started to braid it.

Murphy lay back, making herself at home, and propped her feet up against the trunk of the tree. Up here, the orchard took on an orderly, geometric look. It fell into a pattern that couldn't be seen from the ground for all the chaos of leaves and colors and bugs and birds. Birdie, unable to sleep for the last few nights, liked to sit up in the dark, stretched out under the moon, and watch and listen to it all. She would swear she could almost hear the tree itself growing.

“Well, I should have known your grandmom was a ho.” Murphy's arms lolled to her sides as her feet stuck up in the air. Leeda had told them about the mysterious letter she had found in her grandmom's room.

“Hey, take it easy on the tree,” Birdie said, staring at where Murphy was chipping away at the bark with her heels.

Murphy looked down at her feet, and then laid them flat on the wooden floor.

“I wonder why she married my grandfather,” Leeda mused, “if she and this guy were so in love.”

“I wonder who he was,” Birdie said.

“I wonder who my dad is,” Murphy interjected, trying to sound jovial.

Leeda studied Murphy. “Are you gonna try to talk to your mom again?”

Murphy put her feet back up on the tree, absently digging off the bark again.

“She won't admit it.”

“How can she not admit something you actually saw?” Leeda asked.

Murphy's face looked bored. Only her violent, destructive feet showed any anger. “My mom is the queen of denial. One time, she was laying on the horn because the car in front of us was letting someone out on the sidewalk, and when I told her that was obnoxious, she said she wasn't doing anything. I said, ‘Mom, you're laying on the horn.' And she said, ‘No I'm not.' That's how my mom feels about denial. It's just something you do even when you know no one believes you.” Murphy blinked up at the sky. “Whatever. I don't care in this huge way. I mean, I want to know. I'm mad at her and everything. But I'm not like, ‘I miss my absentee dad,' or anything. I've never thought about him all that much.”

She sat up and perused the items on Birdie's shelves, clearly
wanting to get off the subject. Birdie's eyes trailed to the driveway, magnetized, as they had been doing all day.

“Birdie, why do you have Nicorette?” Murphy was looking at Birdie's shelf. Sure enough, a pack of Nicorette gum was sitting on the middle shelf.

Birdie felt herself blushing. “I'm taking up smoking.”

The way Murphy looked at Birdie, tucking her chin and looking up from under her eyebrows, made Leeda laugh. It lightened the mood.

“If you want to take up smoking, which is idiotic, why are you chewing gum instead of actually, um, smoking?” Murphy pressed.

“I hate the taste of cigarettes.” Birdie had just thought smoking would be a good, cynical thing to do, given the circumstances.

Murphy blinked at her for a moment, and then relaxed, laying her head back down. “I bet my dad smokes.”

Birdie stared at Murphy thoughtfully. They lapsed into silence. Birdie could hear the creaking of the pecan trees over beyond the dorms carried on the breeze. She twirled her ring nervously, like it was a kind of rosary.

A car came and went down Orchard Drive, the hum of the motor faint in the distance. Majestic's satellite ears followed it down the road.

Birdie had the feeling of teetering on a wire.

The sound of another vehicle echoed faintly across the grass. As it got closer, it wheezed. It could be a truck carrying rocks or lumber. But as it got louder, it squeaked and wheezed again, distinctly buslike. Murphy, Leeda, and Birdie looked at each other. Birdie's heart fluttered up to her throat. Then Murphy bounced
up and grinned at them, turning to slither down the ladder. Leeda followed her. Birdie grabbed Majestic and trailed Leeda, her hands unsteady on the rungs.

The bus chugged its way up the driveway, hands squiggling out of it to wave like the legs of a caterpillar. At the top of the driveway, it slowed with a squeal, let out a gasp of air, and stopped. A moment later, the doors came open with a hiss.

Out poured some of Birdie's oldest friends. Birdie let herself be swept into the group for hugs and kisses and pats on the back. She made her way through the crowd, searching the faces, looking for the one who would save her from whatever the lostness was.

When the last passenger had emerged and they were all moving forward to meet the crowd, Birdie kept her smile big. She climbed up the bus stairs, like she was making sure no one had left anything behind, and scanned the empty aisle, the empty seats, the places where he wasn't.

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