Page 10

My friends and my social life didn't interest me nearly as much as the baby. I pushed Carrington in her stroller, fed and played with her, and put her down for naps. That wasn't always easy. Carrington was a fussy baby, just shy of being colicky.

The pediatrician had said that for an official diagnosis of colic, the baby had to cry three hours a day. Carrington cried about two hours and fifty-five minutes, and the rest of the day she fretted. The pharmacist mixed up a batch of something he called "gripe water," a milky-looking liquid that smelled like licorice. Giving Carrington a few drops before and after her bottle seemed to help a little.

Since her crib was in my room, I usually heard her first at night and I ended up being the one to comfort her. Carrington woke three or four times a night. I soon learned to fix her bottles and line them up in the refrigerator before I went to bed. I began to sleep lightly, one ear pressed to the pillow, the other waiting for a signal from Carrington. As soon as I heard her snuffling and grunting. I leaped out of bed, ran to warm a bottle in the microwave, and rushed back. It was best to catch her early. Once she started crying in earnest, it took a while to settle her down.

I would sit back in the slider rocker, tilting the bottle to keep Carrington from sucking down air. while her little fingers patted mine. I was so tired I was nearly delirious, and the baby was too. both of us intent on getting formula into her tummy quickly so we could go back to sleep. After she had taken about four ounces I sat her up in my lap, her body folded over my supporting hand like a beanbag toy. As soon as she burped, I put her back in the crib and crawled into bed like a wounded animal. I had never suspected I could reach a level of exhaustion that actually hurt, or that sleep could become so precious I'd have sold my soul for another hour.

Not surprisingly, after school started, my grades were not impressive. I was still okay in the subjects that had always been easy for me, English and history and social science. But math was impossible. Every day I slipped farther behind. Each gap in my understanding made the next lessons that much more difficult, until I went to math class with a sick stomach and the pulse rate of a Chihuahua. A big mid-semester test was the make-or-break point at which I would get such a bad grade that I would be doomed to fail the rest of the semester.

The day before the test, I was a wreck. My anxiety spread to Carrington, who cried when I held her and screamed when I put her down. It happened to be a day when Mama's friends from work had invited her out to dinner, which meant she wouldn't be home until eight or nine. Although I had planned to ask Miss Marva if she would look after Carrington an extra couple of hours, she had greeted me at the door with an ice bag clasped to her head. She had a migraine, she said, and as soon as I took the baby she was going to take some medicine and go to bed.

There was no way to save myself. Even if I'd had time to study, it wouldn't have made a difference. Filled with hopelessness and unendurable frustration. I held Carrington against my chest while she screeched in my ear. I wanted to make her stop. I was tempted to cover her mouth with my hand, anything to make the noise go away. "Stop it," I said furiously, my own eyes stinging and welling. "Stop crying now. " The rage in my voice caused Carrington to scream until she choked. I was certain anyone outside the trailer could hear and would assume someone was being murdered.

There was a knock on the door. Stumbling toward it blindly, I prayed it was Mama, that her dinner had been canceled and she was back early. I opened the door with the writhing baby in my arms, and saw Hardy Cates's tall form through a blur of tears. Oh. God. I couldn't decide if he was the person I most wanted to see. or the absolute last person I wanted to see.

"Liberty..." He gave me a baffled glance as he came in. "What's going on? Is the baby okay'? Have you been hurt?"

I shook my head and tried to talk, but suddenly I was crying as hard as Carrington. I gasped with relief as the baby was lifted from my arms. Hardy propped her over his shoulder, and she began to calm down instantly.

"I thought I'd stop by to see how you were doing," he said.

"Oh, I'm just great," I said, dragging my sleeve across my streaming eyes.

With his free arm, Hardy reached out and drew me against him. "Tell me," he murmured into my hair. "You tell me what's wrong, honey." Between sobs I babbled about math and babies and lack of sleep, while Hardy's hand coasted slowly over my back. He didn't seem at all disconcerted at having two wailing females in his arms, just held us both until the trailer had quieted.

"There's a handkerchief in my back pocket," he said, his lips brushing my wet cheek. I fumbled for it, flushing as my fingers brushed against the hard surface of his backside. Raising the kerchief to my nose, I blew it with a gusty snort. Right after that, Carrington burped loudly. I shook my head in defeat, too tired to feel shame at the fact that my sister and I were disgusting and troublesome and completely out of control.

Hardy chuckled. Easing my head back, he looked into my reddened eyes. "You look like hell," he said frankly. "Are you sick or just tired?"

"Tired," I croaked.

He smoothed my hair back. "Go lie down," he said.

It sounded so good, and so impossible, that I had to set my jaw against another flurry of sobs. "I can't...the baby...the math test..."

"Go lie down." he repeated gently. "I'll wake you in an hour."

"But—"

"Don't argue." He nudged me in the direction of the bedroom. "Go on."

The feeling of relinquishing responsibility to someone else, letting him take control, was a relief beyond words. I found myself trudging to my bedroom as if wading through quicksand, and collapsed to the bed. My bruised mind insisted I shouldn't have dumped my burden on Hardy. At the very least I should have explained about how to fill the formula bottles and where the diapers and wipes were. But as soon as my head sank into the pillow, I fell asleep.

It seemed that scarcely five minutes had passed before I felt Hardy's hand on my shoulder.

Groaning. I shifted to look at him with a bleary stare. Every nerve in my body screamed in protest at the necessity of waking up. "It's been an hour," he whispered. He looked so fresh and self-possessed, radiating vitality as he bent over me. He seemed to have such inexhaustible strength, and I wished I could have just a little of it. "I'm going to help you study," he said. "I'm great at math."

I replied with the surliness of a punished child. "Don't bother. I'm beyond help."

"No you're not," he said. "By the time I'm finished with you. you'll know everything

you need to know."

Realizing the trailer was quiet—too quiet—I raised my head. "Where's the baby?" "She's with Hannah and my mother. They're looking after her for a couple of hours." "They...they...but they can't!" The thought of my fractious baby sister in the care of

Miss Judie "spare the rod. spoil the child" Gates was enough to give me a heart attack. I lurched to a sitting position.

"Sure they can," Hardy said. "I dropped Carrington off with the diaper bag and two bottles of formula. She'll be fine." He grinned at my expression. "Don't worry. Liberty. One afternoon with my mother is not going to kill her."

I'm ashamed to admit it took some coaxing and even a threat or two before Hardy could get me to leave the bed. No doubt, I thought sourly, he was far more accustomed to talking girls into bed rather than getting them out. Staggering to the table, I plonked down on the chair. A pile of books, a stack of graph paper, and three freshly sharpened pencils were laid out neatly before me. Hardy went into the kitchenette and returned with a cup of heavily creamed and sugared coffee. My mother was a coffee drinker, but I couldn't stand the stuff.

"I don't like coffee," I said crabbily.

"You do tonight," he said. "Start drinking."

The combination of caffeine, quiet, and Hardy's ruthless patience began to work magic on me. He went down the study list methodically, unraveling problems so I could understand how they worked, answering the same questions over and over. I learned more in one afternoon than I had in weeks of math class. Gradually the mass of concepts I had found so overwhelming became more understandable.

Midway through, Hardy took a break to make a couple of phone calls. The first was for a large pepperoni pizza that would be delivered within forty-five minutes. The second call was a lot more interesting. I huddled over a book and a piece of graph paper, pretending to be absorbed in a logarithm while Hardy wandered to the main room and spoke in low tones.

"...can't make it tonight. No, I'm sure." He paused, while the person on the other end ofthe line replied. "No, I can't explain," he said. "It's important...have to take my word for it..." There must have been some complaints, because he said a few more things that sounded soothing, and said "sweetheart" a couple of times.

Finishing the call, Hardy returned to me with a carefully blank expression. I knew I should have felt guilty for interrupting his plans for the evening, especially since they had involved a girlfriend. But I didn't. I acknowledged privately that I was a low and petty person, because I couldn't have been more delighted with how things were turning out.

As the math study continued we sat with our heads close together. We were coccooned in the trailer while darkness unfolded outside. It seemed odd not to have the baby nearby, but it was a relief too.

When the pizza arrived we ate it quickly, folding the steaming triangles to contain the gooey strings of cheese. "So..." Hardy said a little too casually, "you still going out with Gill Mincey?"

I hadn't spoken to Gill in months, not because of any animosity, but because our fragile connection had dissolved as soon as summer had started. I shook my head in answer. "No, he's just a friend now. What about you? Are you going with someone?"

"No one special." Hardy took a swallow of iced tea and stared at me thoughtfully. "Liberty...have you talked to your mom about the amount of time you're spending with the baby?"

"What do you mean?"

He gave me a chiding glance. "You know what I mean. All this babysitting. Waking up with her every night. She seems more like your baby than your baby sister. It's a lot for you to handle. You need time for yourself.. .have fun.. .go out with friends. And boyfriends." He reached out and touched the side of my face, his thumb brushing the pinkening crest of my cheek. "You look so tired." he whispered. "It makes me want to—" He stopped and bit back the words.

A groundswell of silence moved between us. Trouble on the surface and even deeper currents beneath. There was so much I wanted to confide to him...Mama's troubling distance from the baby, and the guilty question of whether I had somehow taken Carrington from her or if I had just stepped in to fill a vacancy. I wanted to tell him about my own longings, and the fear that I would never find anyone I loved as much as him.

"It's time to get the baby," Hardy said.

"Okay." I watched as he went to the door. "Hardy.

"Yes?" He stopped without looking back.

"I—" My voice wobbled, and I had to take a deep breath before I went on. "I'm not always going to be too young for you."

He still didn't look at me. "By the time you're old enough, I'll be gone."

"I'll wait for you."

"I don't want you to." The door closed with a quiet click.

I threw away the empty pizza box and plastic cups and wiped off the table and counters. The weariness was coming back again, but this time I had reason to hope I might survive the next day.

Hardy returned with Carrington, who was quiet and yawning, and I rushed to take her. "Sweet baby, sweet little Carrington," I crooned. She settled into her usual position on my shoulder, her head a warm weight against my neck.

"She's fine," Hardy said. "She probably needed a break from you as much as you did from her. Mom and Hannah gave her a bath and a bottle, and now she's ready to sleep."

"Hallelujah," I said feelingly.

"You need sleep too." He touched my face, his thumb smoothing the wing of my eyebrow. "You'll do fine on the test, honey. Just don't let yourself panic. Take it step by step, and you'll make it through."

"Thank you," I said. "You didn't have to do any of this. I don't know why you did. I really—"

His fingertips came to my lips with feather-light pressure. "Liberty." he whispered. "Don't you know I'd do anything for you?"

I swallowed painfully. "But.. .you're staying away from me."

He knew what I meant. "I'm doing that for you too." Slowly he lowered his forehead to mine, with the baby cradled between us.

I closed my eyes, thinking, Let me love you, Hardy, just let me. "Call me if you ever

need help." he murmured. "I can be there for you that way. As a friend."

I turned my face until my mouth touched the shaven smoothness of his skin. His breath caught, and he didn't move. I nuzzled into the pliancy of his cheek, the hardness of his jaw, loving the texture of him. We stayed like that for a few seconds, not quite kissing, suffused with each other's nearness. It had never been like this with Gill or any other boy, my bones turning liquid, my body shaken with cravings that had no previous reference point. Wanting Hardy was different from wanting anyone else.

Lost in the moment, I was slow to respond when I heard the door open with a rattle. My mother had come back. Hardy pulled back from me, his face wiped clean of expression, but the air was weighted with emotion.

Mama entered the trailer, her arms filled with a jacket, keys, and a take-out box from the restaurant. She took in the scene with a single glance and shaped her mouth into a smile. "Hi. Hardy. What are you doing here?"

I jumped in before he could reply. "He helped me study for a math test. How was your dinner, Mama?"

"Just fine." She set her things on the kitchenette counter, and came to take the baby from me. Carrington protested the change of arms, her head bobbing, her face flooding with color. "Shhh," Mama soothed, bouncing her in gentle repetition until she subsided.

Hardy murmured goodbye and went to the door. Mama spoke in a carefully calibrated tone. "Hardy. I appreciate you coming here to help Liberty study. But I don't think you should spend any more time alone with my daughter."

I drew in a hissing breath. To deliberately drive a wedge between me and Hardy, when we had done nothing wrong, seemed an ugly hypocrisy coming from a woman who'd just had a fatherless baby. I wanted to say that, and worse things.

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