One for the basket of colors, one for the basket of whites. Ceejay sat in the middle of the living room floor and sorted through a mound of dirty laundry. While most people abhorred this kind of chore, she found a soothing cadence in all things mundane. If only navigating her way through life were this simple—one for the basket of colors, one for the basket of whites.
“Babe.” Matt sauntered into their tiny living room. “Toss me your keys. I’ll pull your car around and meet you out front.”
Her heart tap-danced against her rib cage. Maybe it would be best to wait a few more days before telling him about the baby. She glanced up at him. “Why don’t you carry the laundry, and I’ll pull the car around?”
“You’re not done sorting yet, and I’m itchin’ to go.” Reaching out a hand for her keys, he flashed his dimples, a sure bet for getting his way. Faded jeans and a tight black T-shirt emphasized his lean, muscular frame, while his chestnut waves and sexy brown eyes made him look like he’d just rolled out of bed. Matthew Wyatt looked like her downfall.
“You know where my latest issue of Motor Sport is? I wanna bring it along.”
“It’s on the bedside table, right where you left it.” Ceejay snatched up the rest of the whites and shoved them into one of the baskets. Rising from the floor, she pulled her keys out of her back pocket. “Here.” She nudged the basket toward him with her foot and dropped the keys on top. “Take this one with you so I don’t have to carry both. I’ll get the magazine on my way out.”
“Thanks.” He leaned in and gave her a peck on the cheek, and a moment later the apartment door shut.
She hefted the remaining basket to her hip and retrieved the racing magazine from the table next to his side of the bed. Grabbing her purse from the couch, Ceejay slung the strap over her shoulder and made her way downstairs to the exit. They rarely locked their second-floor apartment. Crime was mostly nonexistent in their small town. Besides, who in Perfect, Indiana, would want their secondhand crap anyway?
Maneuvering through the heavy doors to the street, she noticed the basket of laundry Matt had taken sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. She scanned the street for her old Honda Civic and frowned. Her boyfriend and her car were nowhere to be seen. Ceejay placed her load next to the other basket and sat down on the concrete steps in the hot July sun to wait.
Matt had probably run into one of his buddies in the parking lot. Most likely he’d forgotten all about her in his rapture over a discussion about motors and racing. What a relief it would be once he gave it up. Her insides always knotted up when he raced, and she couldn’t relax until he emerged unharmed from whatever souped-up late-model stock car he raced around the oval track.
Sweat trickled down her left temple. Lifting the damp curls off the back of her neck, she got up and moved closer to the street to sit in the shade of the large boulevard oak. The tick-tick- tick-tick-whirr of a sprinkler across the street marked the passage of time, and the electric hum of a cicada in the still afternoon heat made her edgy.
What could be taking him so long? Ceejay glanced at her watch. Nearly twenty minutes had passed. Fuming, she left the laundry and walked around the building to the parking lot in back. Matt wasn’t there. Neither was her car.
Ceejay walked all the way around the block, peering down every street for a glimpse of him, until she’d come full circle. The two baskets of laundry caught her attention, and dread lodged itself in the pit of her stomach. She stopped in the middle of the sidewalk while her mind ran through all the possibilities, coming at last to an unhappy conclusion.
No, Matt wouldn’t do such a thing. He wouldn’t. Ceejay dug through the baskets until clothing, towels and sheets were strewn all over the lawn. Other than a pair of raggedy jeans, some briefs and a worn T-shirt, none of it belonged to him. Why hadn’t she paid more attention? Oh, yeah. Because she had other things on her mind, like an unplanned pregnancy.
She tore back into the building, raced up the stairs and through their apartment to the cramped bedroom they’d shared for the past six months. There were two small closets in opposite corners of the room. One was his, the other hers.
Ceejay approached his closet as if it harbored all the dreaded monsters from her childhood nightmares. Her hand froze on the doorknob. It took a supreme effort to open the door, and once she did, she regretted the act. All that remained of their love story were a few empty hangers and a pile of old racing magazines on the dusty floor. Well, not quite all. She took a few steps back and placed her hand over her abdomen. He had left her with something to remember him by. Only he didn’t know it.
Replaying the past few weeks in her mind, she searched for clues. Why would he leave? It had been his idea to move in together, not hers. She’d never put any pressure on him other than to suggest he quit racing and find a real job.
Another sinking feeling hit her, and she dashed back to the living room. Falling to her knees in front of their ratty old couch, Ceejay slid her arm underneath to where the lining hung loose from the wooden frame. Frantic, she reached around in all directions. He’d taken it. All the money she’d saved for nursing school, her way out of Perfect, gone.
Crap. He was halfway to somewhere else by now—with her car.
Nausea hit her hard. She pushed herself up from the floor and dashed to the bathroom. Once nothing was left inside to come up, she rinsed her mouth and grabbed some tissue to blow her nose. Turning to toss it into the trash, she spotted Matt’s reason for leaving.
There it was. Mystery solved.
The early pregnancy test she’d taken the day before lay on the bottom of the empty can, dead center with the +yes facing up. No mistaking that message. He must’ve found it when he took out the trash. While she’d been waiting on tables at her aunt’s diner, he’d freaked out and packed up.
Sinking down to the cool tile floor, she stared at the plastic wand for a long time—long enough for all of her dreams to sputter out like a wet match. How could such a tiny piece of plastic have such an enormous impact on her life?
She got up and dragged herself to the phone. Once her car and money were reported stolen, all the sad, sordid details of her bad judgment would be a matter of public record. Might as well rent a billboard, because the news would be all over town by tomorrow noon.
“Warrick County Sheriff’s Office. How may I direct your call?”
“Hello, Inez. This is Ceejay Lovejoy. Is Sheriff Maurer around?”
“Hold on a minute, Ceejay. I’ll put you right through.”
A bad Muzak rendition of “Free Bird“ filled her ear. And here she thought her day couldn’t get any worse.
“Hey, Ceejay. How’s your aunt?”
“Oh, she’s fine, Sheriff. I’m calling to report a theft.”
“A theft? Hold on a tick.”The sound of a drawer opening and paper shuffling came over the line. “All right, tell me what’s missing.”
“My boyfriend, five thousand dollars in cash and my car.” The other end of the line went quiet. “Sheriff Maurer?”
“Where’d you get that kind of money, Little Bit?”
“I’ve been saving all my tips from the diner and everything I earn selling beadwork at the craft fairs.” She fought hard not to cry. “It was for nursing school. I’ve been accepted at the University of Evansville. Classes start at the end of August.”
“Why on earth didn’t you keep your money in the bank?”
“That’s a very good question, Sheriff, and if I had it all to do over…” Her voice went wobbly, and the sheriff cleared his throat as if he were the one choking up.
“Did you and Matt have some kind of fight? Maybe you’d like to wait awhile. Could be he’ll cool down and come on home tomorrow.”
“No. We didn’t have a fight, and he’s not coming back.” The image of the pregnancy test flashed through her mind. Ceejay bit her bottom lip to keep from blurting out the real reason her boyfriend had hared off.
“You’re certain this isn’t just a misunderstanding?”
“I’ll need the year, model and make of your car and your license plate. Do you have the VIN number?”
“I do. Hold on, and I’ll go get it.” She set the phone on the kitchen counter and ran back to the closet, where she kept the cardboard box full of important documents. Ceejay returned with her car registration, gave him all the pertinent information and then hung up. Her mortification complete, she made for the one piece of furniture worth squat in their entire apartment—the rocking chair that had once belonged to her mother. The mother she barely remembered.
Setting the chair in motion, Ceejay started counting the cracks in the living room ceiling. As long as she focused all of her attention on the numbers, she could ignore her breaking heart and pretend she wasn’t pregnant, alone and scared shitless. When the light began to fade, she counted the forward and backward movements of the rocker.
Footsteps in the hall brought her to a halt. Sucking in her breath, she went still. He’d come back. Matt had come back for her. She listened and watched. The knob turned, and the door opened a crack.
“Ceejay, come on now. Let’s go home.”
“Aunt Jenny?” Disappointment pressed her hard against the wooden spindles of the chair. “How did you know?”
“I had a feeling.”
“Huh.” Ceejay blew out shaky breath. “Sheriff Maurer called you, didn’t he?”
Jenny switched on the lights and came toward her. The pity in her aunt’s eyes forced her to turn away and start the chair rocking. Where had she stopped? Oh, yeah, 299, 300, 301.
“Gather some of your beadwork and whatever else you need. We’ll send your cousins over tomorrow for the rest. I picked your laundry up off the lawn and loaded it into my car. Did you know you left your purse right there in the middle of the sidewalk?”
Her aunt stopped the chair’s motion with a hand on the frame. “Come home, Little Bit. I never did understand what you saw in that boy. He rolled into town from God knows where, and after a year, you still don’t know much about him. I swear you were just wearing that boy for his looks.”
“He was good-looking.” Hysteria rose like a bubble, bursting out in a laugh that took a turn for the worse. “He stole my money. He…he took the money I saved for school.”
“I know.” Jenny nodded. “I’ve been thinking—”
“When did you have time to think about this?” Ceejay’s eyes flew to her aunt. “It just happened.”
Jenny patted her shoulder. “You have your job at the diner, and once you get too far along in your pregnancy to wait on tables, you can take over the register.”
Ceejay’s eyebrows shot up. “You…you know about…?”
“You think I didn’t notice those quick trips to the restroom with your face all pasty green? I’ve decided to turn the carriage house over to you. If you clean it out and fix it up, maybe you can find a renter. Along with the craft fairs, it’ll give you a little extra income.”
Not enough for college. Not nearly enough to make her dreams of leaving Perfect come true. Ceejay started counting her heartbeats. The plans she’d made for the future slipped through her fingers like water through a rusted bucket. “You’ve…you’ve already done so much for me. I can’t accept it.”
“Nonsense. You’re family.” Her aunt circled the room, picking up her basket of beadwork and other small items, tucking them into the basket as she went. “You and the baby will live with me in the big house, of course. It’s way too much for one person, and I don’t like rattling around in that big old monster by myself.”
“Oh…Jenny…” Pushing her hand against her mouth, she tried to hold herself together. No use. Grief spilled out in great, gasping sobs.
Ceejay sprayed Windex on the windowpane and rubbed at the stubborn dust and grime hardened by years of neglect. Boxes full of Levolor blinds awaited installation, and the wood plank floors smelled like lemon cleaner and wax. Next, she planned to give the walls a fresh coat of paint.
The toilet in the tiny bathroom didn’t work properly, and the faucet in the kitchen leaked, but her uncle had promised to look at both when he returned with the truck full of her belongings. Once she had everything in working order, she’d place an ad in a few of the local papers and stick a “for rent” sign out alongside the highway next to their mailbox.
She’d always loved the old brick carriage house. She and her cousins had played there on rainy days when they were children. Sometimes she’d hidden there with a good book when she needed to get away. Now it was hers, and she meant to take good care of the place.
“Ceejay,” her aunt called from the back door of the big house. “Sheriff Maurer is here to see you.”
Her heart took a nosedive. She walked slowly across the yard and into the kitchen, stopping by the sink to splash cold water on her overheated face before entering the foyer. “Sheriff Maurer,” Ceejay greeted the burly man she’d known all her life. “How are you?”
Perspiration beaded on his upper lip and forehead. He fidgeted with the uniform hat in his hand, turning it around and around by the rim. “Hey, Little Bit. I’m fine.” He used his hat to gesture toward the living room. “Why don’t we all go have a seat while we talk?”
Ceejay followed his stocky frame into the living room. His short-cropped hair had turned mostly gray now, and his middle hung over his belt. He took a seat on the couch, and Ceejay sat in her rocker. She’d insisted they load it into her aunt’s car before agreeing to return home.
“Would you like some iced tea, Harlen?” Jenny swept into the room with a plastic tray holding a pitcher and three glasses filled with ice. She wore a denim skirt that made a whooshing sound with each step and a blue cotton blouse that matched the color of her eyes. Her silver-streaked blonde curls made a bid for freedom from the clip at the top of her head.
“Thank you, Jennifer.” Sheriff Maurer smiled. “I could do with something cold to drink.”
Jenny set the tray on the coffee table and poured a glass for the sheriff. Ceejay shook her head when her aunt turned her way in question. Her stomach was kinked with tension, and she couldn’t take anything right now.
The sheriff took a long drink. His Adam’s apple bobbed away, and the sound of his swallows filled the room. With a satisfied sigh, he put the glass on the coaster set before him and turned to Ceejay, all business now that his thirst had been slaked. “We found your Honda just this side of the Kentucky border. Matt left it parked at a truck stop.”
“What do I have to do to get it back?” She studied her folded hands.
“I’ll have Deputy Taylor drive it here for you. You don’t have to do anything but hand over a spare key.” He cleared his throat and patted her knee. “I’m afraid the money’s long gone.”
What did she want to count, the knotholes in the floor or the planks? “Can I charge him with anything? Auto theft, or…or…what about stealing my money?”
“I’m afraid not. It doesn’t work like that. Since the two of you were living together, it’s a civil matter, more a breach of trust than auto theft. That goes for the money too. You kept the cash in the apartment. There’s no way to prove who it belonged to.”
How many times can a heart break before it stops beating altogether? She probably would’ve learned the answer to that question in nursing school. One glimpse at the sympathy in the sheriff’s eyes set the refrain she’d heard all her life buzzing around her head like a big fat horsefly. Poor Ceejay, abandoned by her own mother. Poor Little Bit, doesn’t even know who her father is. At least now the refrain would change. Poor Ceejay, pregnant, unmarried and abandoned…again.
What is it about me that makes leaving so easy?
The desire to get away from Perfect sucked all the breath out of her lungs. She needed a new start someplace where no one looked at her like she was some kind of rescue puppy in a kill shelter. The floorboards drew her attention, and her lips moved without sound. Numbers never left, never took anything from you, and they didn’t judge.
“What’s she counting now, Jen?”
Poor little oddball.
“Hmm?” Jenny looked toward her. “The knotholes?”
Ceejay shook her head.
“Oh, it’s the planks then.” Jenny leaned toward the tray. “More tea, Harlen?”
“Naw. I’ve got to be going.” The couch creaked as he rose to leave. “The deputies will be here shortly with her car.”
Jenny rose with him. “Thank you so much for coming by personally. Will we see you at the diner for lunch tomorrow?”
“Of course. What’s Monday’s special?”
Her aunt accompanied him to the front door. “Meat loaf and mashed potatoes.”
“Any chance you’ll make one of your strawberry-rhubarb pies?”
“If we have any rhubarb left, I’ll make one just for you.”
The nextbest thing to counting was cleaning. She didn’t wait for her aunt to return to the living room. Ceejay slipped out the back door quiet as a shadow, heading for the grime on the windows of the carriage house.
Attached to the living quarters, the large bays that once housed the carriages and tack of her ancestors now held cobwebs, dust and the accumulated junk from several generations of Lovejoys, stretching all the way back to the Civil War. Here was a project offering an almost endless escape. If she played it right, paced herself, she’d have to emerge only for her shifts at the diner. She wouldn’t have to face the curious stares, the pity or the smugness any more than necessary.
Jenny stood in the doorway. “You’re not alone, honey.”
“You’re young, not even twenty yet. You’ll bounce back from this.”
“Just how does one bounce back from an unplanned pregnancy? Once this baby is born, is everything suddenly going to fall into place?” She rubbed harder at the windowpane. “How am I going to manage raising a child on my own? I have no education and no future.”
“You’ve got to make a plan.”
“I had a plan. I planned to go to nursing school, find a great job, move away, and maybe even get married and start a family of my own someday.” She swiped at the sweat on her forehead with the back of her wrist. “I wasn’t stupid like some girls. We used birth control.”
“What’s meant to be—”
“The condom tore.” She pressed her forehead against the cool glass and closed her eyes tight.
“That’s not fate, Jenny. That’s an unfortunate accident resulting from an inferior product.”
“You can still start nursing school.”
“How?” She rolled her forehead against the glass. “The baby is due in the middle of the second semester, and I’m fresh out of options.”
“You’ll find a way. At any rate, you need to track Matt down.”
“I have no intention of tracking that rat-bastard down.” The thought of any contact with the source of all this pain turned her stomach. “He stole from me. How likely do you think it is that he’s going to pony up any kind of child support? Besides, as far as I know, he’s never held down a regular job. All he ever wanted was to get picked up as a driver by a big name on the NASCAR circuit, race cars and drink beer with other motor heads.”
Jenny wrinkled her nose and waved her hand in front of her face. “Oh, Lord. The wind is shifting.”
The stench of hog farms to the west of Perfect permeated the carriage house. A wave of nausea roiled through Ceejay, and she made a beeline for one of the cleaning buckets.
The wind had shifted, all right, and it wasn’t going to shift back anytime soon. Maybe never.