Twin brothers Andrew and Christopher Willett are born to a poor cotton farmer and his wife. When their father dies, and the boys are left to care for their mother and tend to the farm, their relationship becomes strained. When they both fall in love with the same girl, it propels their relationship to a shocking conclusion.
And these other exciting plotlines:
Christopher takes advantage of his girlfriend while she is drunk, and she gets pregnant. Will she keep the baby or not?
Christopher runs away from home and takes up with a ne'er-do-well and dangerous crowd in seedy New Orleans. Will he be able to survive life in the crime capital of the United States?
The draft is on for the Korean War. Will Andrew and Christopher be called up for duty? If so, will either of them return home safely?
When Christopher leaves his girlfriend, she becomes enraged and vows to seek revenge. How will that showdown end?
Molly's plain-Jane sister, Catherine, becomes infatuated with Andrew, but he only has eyes for her sister. Will she be able to win his affections?
Molly must choose between Christopher and Andrew, both to whom she is attracted. Which brother will win her favor?
Sibling rivalry at its most dangerous and extreme is what you will find within the covers of Conrad (Xlibris, 2003).
Screams resonated from the wooden shack and into the humid night air. A panicked husband paced on the sagging front porch, pulling at his beard. Tessie Woods, one of the neighbor ladies, came up behind him and touched his elbow. Jeremiah Willett jumped and then laughed when he realized it who it was.
"I'm sorry about that," Tessie said. "I just wanted to let you know that the boys have arrived."
Jeremiah did not speak for a moment.
"Boys? There's more than one?"
The lady smiled.
"Twins. Sweet little baby boys. Come on inside and see them."
Jeremiah took a step backward, almost falling off of the porch. He jerked his head toward the house.
"Is she decent?" he asked.
"She's all cleaned up, and I've got her in a fresh nightgown."
Jeremiah followed the lady into the one-room shack. Ruth Anne sat back against a stack of pillows, their tattered wedding quilt pulled up to her waist. She cradled one baby in each arm. The neighbor lady who had summoned him carried a pile of bloody linens and towels to the washtub in the backyard.
Jeremiah stepped closer and peered into the babies' faces.
"For twins, they sure don't look much alike," he said.
"They're not those twins that look the same," Ruth Anne said. "Which is better, I think, so we don't get 'em mixed up."
"Did you know you was carrying twins?" Jeremiah asked.
"Nope. But it makes sense, since my grandmother was a twin, and it skips a generation. At least that's what I heard."
Jeremiah sat on the edge of the bed and reached for his wife's hand.
"How are we going to feed two babies?" he asked suddenly. "I was worried about one."
"We'll manage," Ruth Anne said. "I'll be breastfeeding them for awhile, so we dont have to think about it yet."
Jeremiah reached out to grab the closest baby's hand. The baby was asleep, but he instinctively squeezed his father's finger.
"Christopher and Andrew," Ruth said. "Them's the names I want. I already picked them out."
"Fine then. Which is which?"
"The one that just squeezed your finger -- that's Andrew. He's got a good grip. Just remember that Andrew is the one with the darker hair, and you wont have any problem."
Jeremiah leaned in to kiss his wife. He pushed away a strand of hair that hung in her face.
"We got a nice cotton crop this year," he said. "I wish we could make them boys grow up ten years or so overnight so they could help me with the picking."
"These boys won't be cotton farmers," Ruth Anne said. "My boys are going to get a proper education and find themselves some decent-paying jobs."
The neighbor lady returned and set about straightening the quilt. When Ruth Anne yawned, she hurried to take the babies and hand them to Jeremiah.
"She needs some sleep," Tessie said. "You can set the babies in the trundle bed or rock them in your chair on the porch."
Jeremiah went out to the porch and sat down. He looked out over the cotton fields washed in moonlight and then back at his sons faces. Andrew scrunched his face and wiped his nose, and Jeremiah smiled. Christopher lay motionless.
"With the three of us working, we might even be able to turn a profit," Jeremiah said. "Its a ways off, I know, but theres no harm in dreaming."
Two boys sat on one gnarled limb of a live oak at the rear of their property. They looked nothing alike. Christopher was skinny and blond; Andrew was meaty and strong, and his hair was dark. The boys swung their legs and stared across the fields in silence. The air was cool and still.
"I wonder if well get those bikes this Christmas," Andrew said.
"Dont count on it. Mom was scraping around for change just to buy groceries. When I asked for a new pair of pants because the ones I have got a hole in the crotch, she told me that shed patch them up. Ive got to walk around school now with a big red patch between my legs."
"Maybe next year, if the crops any good," Andrew said.
"Maybe never," Christopher said. "The crop aint ever the problem. We dont have enough people to work the fields and pick it all. About half the crop goes to waste every year. And Dad cant hire anybody, since hes never got any money."
"Theres people a lot worse off," Andrew said. "At least we got food in our bellies and a roof over our heads."
Christopher shook his head.
"And youre happy with that?"
"I guess so. What else do we need right now?"
Christopher jumped to the ground and looked up at his brother.
"I dont get you," he said. "First chance I get, Im going to New Orleans and make some real money. Im going to buy me a big house and a shiny sportscar and Im going to hang out at the jazz clubs every night. Dont you want any of that?"
"Not really," Andrew said. "I mean, a little walking around money would be good. Enough to go out to eat or catch a movie once in a while. Aside from that, I cant think of anything else I want."
Christopher whistled loudly and slapped his thigh.
"Country through and through, thats you," he said.
He turned and started toward the house. Andrew reached into his pocket and withdrew a piece of fishing line. He wound the line around his hands and stared across the fields at nothing. He listened to the crowing of a bird in the tree above his head. He drank in the smells of spring and thought about the conversation with his brother. He hadnt meant to upset his brother. What he had said was true. He didnt care about all that junk that meant so much to Christopher. Maybe it would be more important when he got older.
* * * * *
In late May of that year, Christopher and Andrew were exploring the woods bordering their property. They had been playing hide-and-seek for much of the morning, and they sat down to rest in a clearing. They had not been there for more than five minutes when Andrew cried out in pain. He had inadvertently sat on a fire ant hill, and he was being attacked by a small army of the angry creatures.
Christopher jumped up and ran a few paces away, brushing off his clothes and shaking his arms and legs and hair.
He looked over at Andrew and saw that his brothers face was covered with the ants. Andrew was curled into a ball, rocking and crying.
"Get up and shake em off like I did," Christopher yelled.
It was not long before Andrew stopped moving. Christopher stepped closer to look at him, and he saw that his brothers face and hands were red and swollen. He could hear Andrews voice coming in shallow gasps.
"You all right?" Christopher asked.
"I dont feel so good. I feel like Im going to pass out."
"I told you to get up and shake em off. This is just great. When Mom sees you, shes going to blame me. Shes going to say that I didnt keep an eye on you and you hurt yourself. When something like this happens, she always blames me. Not this time, though. Youre on your own with this. As far as Im concerned, I wasnt with you today. You got that?"
Andrew had rolled over onto his side. His eyelids were swollen shut now, and it looked like even his lips had puffed up.
"Do you hear me?" Christopher said. "I wasnt with you today."
Andrew managed to nod his head.
"Now get up and walk your ass back to the house. Ill follow a little later."
"I cant," Andrew whispered. "I dont think I can stand up."
"Fine, then. Lay there and get eaten. Im going home. You remember what I said though. If you tell Mom I was with you today, Ill beat you senseless."
Christopher turned and bounded toward the cotton fields, silent and quick as a jackrabbit.
When Andrew did not show for dinner, Ruth Anne sent Jeremiah and Christopher to look for him.
They spent nearly an hour combing the property and calling his name. As they approached the woods, they heard a soft moan. Jeremiah hurried in that direction and found his son, barely conscious and clutching his stomach.
Christopher rushed over to help him lift Andrew to a standing position. They each placed one of Andrews arms around their shoulders and started toward the house.
"Looks like a llergic reaction to something," Jeremiah said. "The way his face is so swole up, I mean."
Christopher did not answer. He looked at the ground.
"It was those ants," Andrew whispered. Even his throat had swollen up in reaction to the hundreds of stings.
"Fire ants," Christopher said. "That must be what hes talking about."
He made sure to stay out of Andrews line of vision.
Ruth Anne was standing on the porch, shading her eyes from the setting sun. When she saw her family struggling across the field, she lifted her skirts and dashed out to help them. Between herself, Christopher and Jeremiah, they managed to get Andrew into the house and they lay him on the same bed where he had been born. His breathing was still raspy and his lips were still puffy and chapped.
"We need to get a doctor," Ruth Anne said. "Jeremiah, lets put him in the truck and drive him to Dr. Fletchers place."
Ruth Anne was nearly hysterical. Her voice had gone all high and quivery.
"Who wouldve thought those little buggers could cause so much damage?" Christopher said.
"Like I said before, I believe hes llergic," Jeremiah said. "Ive been bit a million times by them critters and I never blew up like that."
Christophers voice dropped to a whisper.
"He aint going to die, is he?"
"I dont think so, but we got to hurry," Jeremiah said. "You grab his arms and Ill grab his legs. Well lay him in the bed of the truck."
Ruth Anne stood by the front door, chewing her fingernails. She watched dear, sweet Andrew being hauled out to the truck like a slab of meat. She waited until Jeremiah had gunned the engine and the old Ford was halfway down the driveway before bursting into tears.
Luckily, Dr. Fletcher was at home and able to see Andrew right away. He gave the boy an unknown injection from an enormous syringe.
"Thisll make the swelling go down," the doctor said. "Leastways, itll make it easier for him to breathe. His throats about closed up on him. Not all the way, though, and thats a lucky thing."
He turned to Christopher.
"Where were you boys when he got stung?"
Christopher looked at the doctor, at his father, then back at the doctor.
"I wasnt even with him," he said. "I was down at the creek trying to catch me some minnows. I was waiting for Andrew to show up, but he never did. I got a little worried and came back to the house. Thats when I found out he was missing, and me and Dad went looking for him."
"When we found him, he was all curled up in a ball on the ground," said Jeremiah. "Wont nobody around to hear him call out. I guess we got lucky."
Jeremiah turned away and coughed loudly.
Dr. Fletcher nodded.
"A couple of years ago I saw a young lady who got stung by bees. Tessie Woods daughter, Gladys?"
Jeremiah nodded, indicating that he knew the family.
"That was a terrible thing," said Dr. Fletcher. "There was no saving that girl. No amount of medicine in the world seemed to help her. She died in less than an hour. Its amazing your boy hung on as long as he did."
"Hes strong as an ox," said Jeremiah. "A lot stronger than his brother here."
He slapped Christophers shoulder playfully, but the boy jerked away from him.
"Dont get all huffy," said Jeremiah. "Its true. You got the brains and your brother got the brawn Not to say Andrew aint smart, because hes got good common sense, but he aint really into school."
"Hes got that disease where he sees words backwards," said Christopher. "He told me when he tries to read something, the words start swimming all over the page."
Jeremiah offered his hand to the doctor.
"Wed best be going," he said. "Should we leave him here with you?"
"Thats a good idea," said Dr. Fletcher. "I reckon hell be fine, but no harm in being safe. Ill get the Missus to look in on him occasionally to see if he needs anything."
All eyes turned to Andrew, who was asleep on the sofa in the living room. The doctor had covered him with a light blanket.
"Well take good care of your boy," said Dr. Fletcher. He clapped Christopher on the shoulder, and their eyes met. "And you stay away from the woods for awhile. Its bad this time of year."
"Yes, sir," said Christopher, before ducking out the door.
The next morning, Jeremiah and Christopher came by the doctors house again to pick up Andrew. Andrew was awake and dressed, and the swelling in his face had gone down considerably. While Jeremiah and Dr. Fletcher stood in the living room making idle conversation, Andrew followed his brother out to the truck. They sat down on the steps of the doctors front porch and waited for their father. Christopher felt his brother staring at him, and he turned to look at him.
"What?" he asked.
"I guess I was just wondering why you left me like that."
Christopher looked away and stared silently ahead.
"I told you why," he said.
"But I could have died. Did you plan on coming back to get me, or did you come because Dad told you to?"
Christopher pushed him playfully.
"I knew you were going to be okay," he said.
"How did you know that? You couldnt have known that."
Christopher stood and walked toward the truck. He leaned against the cab and looked up at the sky.
"What are you getting at?" he said.
Andrew opened his mouth to speak and then shut it again.
"Nothing. Forget it."
Their father and Dr. Fletcher came out onto the porch then. Jeremiah pumped the doctors hand vigorously.
"Thank you again," he said.
"Thats what Im here for," Dr. Fletcher said. He came over to Andrew and ruffled his hair. "And you stay away from those anthills."
Dr. Fletcher looked over at Christopher. Their eyes met, but neither said a word for a moment.
"You keep an eye on your brother," he said.
Christopher went around to the passenger door of the cab and climbed into the truck without acknowledging the doctors comment.
As the family sat down to dinner that night, there was less conversation than usual. Ruth Anne dished out collard greens and steamed crawdads. Jeremiah sat quietly with his hands in his lap and staring at the floor.
"One of Bob Fosters kids said he saw you both playing near the woods the morning that Andrew got stung," he said.
Tension thickened in the room suddenly.
"What of it?" Christopher said.
Jeremiah leaned across the table toward him.
"Dont you take that nasty tone with me, or Ill take the strap to you. You was with Andrew when he got stung, wont you?"
"Is that right?" Ruth Anne said.
Christopher pushed back his chair and stood.
Ruth Anne looked over at Andrew, who was twisting his napkin in his hands and staring intently at the plate in front of him.
"Was your brother with you when got stung?" she asked.
Andrew did not answer.
"What is the big deal?" Christopher said. "Okay, so I was with him. Why do you always treat him like hes so precious? He got stung by some ants. Big deal."
Jeremiah stood then, so quickly that he knocked his chair to the ground. He reached across the table and grabbed Christophers arm.
Christopher struggled, but he could not escape Jeremiahs iron grip. Andrew and his mother sat in silence.
"You go on and eat your dinner," Ruth Anne said.
"Is Dad going to beat him?" Andrew asked.
"Dont you worry about it. Eat up."
As Andrew took his first bite of collard greens, he heard his brothers shrieks coming from the darkness outside. He and his mother finished their dinner in total silence, and then he helped her wash the dishes.
Christopher did not come to bed until late in the night. When he did, Andrew was wide awake. He waited until Christopher was settled under the frayed quilts beside him.
"Are you mad at me?" he asked.
Christopher rolled onto his back and put his hands behind his head. He did not answer.
"Huh?" Andrew said. "I didnt say anything at the table. I didnt get you in trouble."
Christopher laughed, but it sounded harsh and forced.
"Not on purpose, you didnt," he said.
"What do you mean?" asked Andrew. He sat up. "They asked me was I with you, and I didnt answer. Just like you told me to do."
"It dont matter," Christopher said. "They get mad at me whatever I do. They wouldve found a way to blame me if I was a thousand miles away. And somehow it always comes out seeming like Im screwing you over. Like Im so mean and Im such a bad influence on you."
Andrew had nothing to say to that.
"They made up their minds a long time ago that I was the black sheep," said Christopher. "Nothing I do is going to change that, so I might as well run with it."
Andrew lay down again and pulled the covers up to his chin.
"I know what it is," said Christopher. "Dad likes you better because youre bigger and faster and stronger than me. He can work you all day long and you wont fall over. He knows I cant stand working outside, and he holds that against me."
"I dont think so," said Andrew.
Christopher rolled back onto his side so his back was facing Andrew. Andrew knew that he was finished talking for the night. He lay still, listening to his own breathing, until he fell asleep.
Christopher and one of his friends walked ahead of Andrew on the dirt road leading into Conrad. Occasionally, Andrew would jog a few steps to catch up. He attempted to join into the boys conversation, but his attempts were ignored. Christopher and the boy laughed and passed a cigarette back and forth.
At one point, Christopher turned to look at Andrew, and held out the cigarette to him.
"Go on, take a drag," he said.
Andrew looked at it for a moment and shook his head.
"Why not?" asked the other boy. "Afraid Mommyll smell it on you and whup your tail when you get home?"
"No, I just dont like the way it smells," Andrew said.
"Hes scared," said the other boy.
"I aint scared," said Andrew. He reached for the cigarette and inhaled deeply. Christopher and his friend laughed at him when he started coughing.
"He dont drink or smoke and he reads his Bible every night," said Christopher. "Two pages every night. He mustve been through it two or three times by now."
"Youre shitting me," said his friend. He looked at Andrew, who was wiping his eyes after his coughing fit. "Hes a regular goody two-shoes."
"It helps me fall asleep," said Andrew.
"It helps me fall asleep," mimicked the boy in a screechy falsetto. "And then I say my prayers. Dear God, please save my brother Christopher from a life of sin."
Andrew stopped walking and let the boys go ahead of him. He turned and cut across a field toward the woods. He knew a shortcut that would get him home. He felt blood rushing to his cheeks. He heard Christopher and his friend calling after him, taunting him, but he ignored them. It was always the same thing with Christopher and his friends. They did not want him around. No matter what he said or did, he wound up humiliated. One day he would learn his lesson and stay away from them. Andrew stopped in a clearing in the woods when he saw a doe behind a clump of pines. She stepped gracefully through a pile of pine needles. Andrew watched until she disappeared.
He was different, and he knew that. He was not interested in the same things that interested Christopher and his friends. Booze and cigarettes and trashy magazines held no interest for him. The same for fishing and hunting and throwing rocks at peoples windows. He had really tried to fit in with Christopher and his buddies, but they made it very difficult. At some point, he had to accept the fact that he was never going to be one of them.
He wondered if it was because of his fits.
It had started sometime last year. Andrew had been seated at his desk in the back of the classroom when the bad feelings had come on him. It was a feeling that he would never be able to describe to anyone, because it was like nothing he had ever experienced before. He had this sudden, overwhelming sensation that something terrible was about to happen. Seconds later, from what he had been told, he had fallen out of his chair and he was writhing and convulsing on the ground. Some of the other students thought he was being funny, but luckily the teacher knew better. She had recognized that he was having a seizure and she had sent one of other students to get the school nurse.
Andrew was epileptic, it turned out, and that had been only the first of many fits.
It seemed like that was when Christopher and his friends had started shutting him out. Andrew was embarrassed about his fits, and he was frustrated, because he had no control over when they would come on. When he came out of them, he had a horrible headache and frequently he vomited afterwards. His father would pick him up from school and drive him home and he would spend the rest of the day in bed. His parents never spoke about his epilepsy. Andrew did notice that his mother seemed to be a little bit more careful around him, speaking more softly and advising her husband and Christopher never to leave Andrew alone for too long.
After one particularly humiliating fit on the basketball court after school, Andrew made the decision to quit school.
Two of the other boys with whom he had been playing walked him back to the school building and they called his parents. After placing the call, they left him in the school office and went back outside to resume their game.
Andrew attempted to fight back his anger and frustration with himself, but it was a battle he lost. As he sat on that wooden bench in the school office waiting for his parents to pick him up, he had cried. He could see the basketball court outside the window. The other boys were running and laughing as if nothing had happened. Andrew tried to stop his tears, but it was as if something inside him had broken. His seizure had been just an interruption in their game. The school secretary was sitting behind her desk, watching Andrew. She never asked him what was wrong. She never offered him a glass of water. Nothing.
When Jeremiah appeared in the doorway, Andrew stood and brushed the tears from his eyes. He did not want his father to see him crying.
Jeremiah had surprised him by pulling him into a bear hug. He squeezed the boy tightly against his chest before letting go. He placed a hand in the middle of Andrews back and led him out to the truck.
It was the last time that Andrew set foot in that school as a student.
Jeremiah was up late into the night again, coughing loudly. He had gone out to the porch so that he would not wake his family, but Andrew heard him. He slid out of bed and cracked the front door. He saw Jeremiahs silhouette leaning over the railing of the front porch, spitting and coughing.
"Are you okay, Dad?" he asked.
Jeremiah did not turn around. He just waved an impatient hand at his son.
"Go on back to bed. We got to get up early tomorrow and tend to the fields."
Andrew disobeyed. He came out onto the porch and touched his fathers shoulder. Jeremiah turned around to look at him, and Andrew saw the blood on his fathers lips. Jeremiah reached into his shirt pocket for his handkerchief and quickly wiped his mouth.
"Did you go see Dr. Fletcher?" Andrew asked.
Jeremiah thought about it a moment before answering.
"I did," he said.
Andrew did not ask for details. Jeremiah placed a hand on Andrews shoulder.
"Its been a big help having you at home," he said. "We could get even more done if that worthless brother of yours gave a damn, but I dont see that he does."
Andrew shoved his hands into his pockets and looked down at his bare feet.
"Someday, youre going to be the man," he said. He waved his hand in the direction of the cotton fields. "Hopefully, youll be able to make a better living at it then I did."
Jeremiah reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew a pack of cigarettes. He placed one between his lips and lit it. He and Andrew stood in silence for a moment, looking out across the land. Jeremiah inhaled deeply and coughed loudly.
"This is a good piece of land," Jeremiah said. "And youre young and strong. I think you could make a go of it."
Andrew stood beside his father while he finished his cigarette. When he finished and stubbed it out on the sole of his shoe, Andrew followed him back into the house.
Jeremiah passed away two days after Christmas that year. It was a blessing, really, because he had spent the two months prior to his death bedridden and weak. It had come sooner than Dr. Fletcher had predicted, but still it was no surprise.
The evening that he died, Ruth Anne was in the room with him. She had begun taking in work as a seamstress, and she sat beside his bed sewing a torn shirt sleeve. Andrew was walking the fields, and Christopher and his friends were more than likely hanging out at the hamburger stand in Conrad. When Jeremiah passed, Ruth Anne came out onto the porch and called for Andrew. He loped across the fields, and when he reached the porch, Ruth Anne collapsed into his arms. At twelve years old, he was already taller than his mother. Andrew did not know what to do except to wrap his arms around his sobbing mother. He helped her back into the house and had her sit down at the kitchen table while he called Murphy Whitcomb, owner of the towns sole funeral home. After he had placed the call, he walked over to his parents bed and covered his fathers face with the bedsheet.
"Should I go into town and find Christopher?" he asked.
Ruth Anne shook her head.
"Stay here," she said.
Andrew put the kettle on the stove and made a cup of tea for his mother. As he handed the cup to her, she reached out to grab his forearm.
"Youre a good boy," she said.
Andrew smiled and pulled away. He sat across from her at the table, and they stared at the lifeless form under the sheet.
"At least he wont wear himself out with all that coughing anymore," Andrew said.
Ruth Anne nodded.
Murphy Whitcomb arrived at the house with one of his sons. Murphy was a short, balding man with a large paunch and bowed legs. His son, who was now in his late twenties, had a similar build and a crown of curly red hair. They carried a stretcher. Murphy and his son removed their hats and approached the table.
"Im so sorry," said Murphy. "Jeremiah was a good man."
"The best," said Ruth Anne.
Andrew stood and helped the two men load his fathers body onto the stretcher. He helped them to carry the body out to the battered hearse that was parked in the drive. Ruth Anne stood on the porch and watched the proceedings. The men talked quietly amongst themselves. After they had placed his body in the rear of the vehicle and closed the doors, the three men approached the porch.
"Thank you, Murphy. About the services " said Ruth Anne.
Murphy held up a hand.
"Weve got it worked out," he said. "Dont you worry about anything."
"Its not the services, really, that I was worried about," said Ruth Anne.
"Payment?" asked Murphy.
Ruth Anne nodded.
Murphy reached over to clap Andrew on the shoulder.
"Andrew has agreed to help us out down at the parlor," said Murphy. "Sort of a bartering system, I guess youd call it. Payment will not be a problem."
"I dont know what to say," said Ruth Anne. "Except thank you."
Murphy and his son replaced their hats on their bald heads and they were gone.
Christopher did not get home until late that night. He found Andrew sitting at the kitchen table with a stack of bills in front of him. Ruth Anne was asleep in the chair beside her bed, a pile of unfinished sewing in her lap. Christopher opened the front door loudly, and leaned against the doorjamb. He nodded toward the empty bed.
"I guess the old man finally passed, huh?" he said.
"Yes. It was around five or six oclock," said Andrew.
Christopher stumbled into the room, leaving the front door open. He fell into the chair across the table from his brother. He reeked of alcohol and cigarettes.
"Thats good, I guess," he said. "He was pretty sick."
Andrew did not meet his eyes. He continued to sort through the bills.
"Whats all that?" asked Christopher, waving a hand toward the papers.
"Bills, mostly, and theyre all past due," said Andrew. "I dont even know what Im looking at."
Christopher reached over to take a stack of the bills and he studied them in silence for several minutes.
"Im pretty good with math," said Christopher. "Ill take care of the bills and stuff if you want to take care of the fields."
This time Andrew did meet his eyes.
"Really?" he asked.
"Really. Ill see if I can make some kind of order out of this mess. Im also going to need bank statements, check books, all that good stuff. I can figure out how much we owe, and I can get Mom to write out the checks."
Andrew sat back and exhaled. He slid the rest of the bills across the table to his brother.
"I dont know anything about that kind of stuff," he said.
"But you know about planting and growing and harvesting," said Christopher. "Like I said, you handle that end of things, and Ill handle this."
Andrew stood and stretched.
"Im going to bed," he said.
Christopher did not answer. He had pulled his chair closer to the table and he was hunched over the bills, pencil in hand.
Three days later, a simple service was held for Jeremiah at the Baptist church in Conrad. Jeremiah had obviously been a beloved member of the community, because every seat in the church was taken, and another crowd of people stood against the back wall. The funeral was an open casket service, and Jeremiahs body was dressed in his dingy, black suit. It was the only suit he owned. Ruth Anne and her sons sat in the left pew at the front of the church. Neither of the boys had a proper suit of their own, and they had borrowed clothing from neighbors. Because Andrew was so large, the suit he wore was too small and the pants did not hang below his ankles. Ruth Anne had only one Sunday dress, and it was a pale yellow color. She wrapped a black shawl around her shoulders to disguise it.
The service was brief, and then the casket was taken back to the Willetts property. Jeremiah was buried just ten feet from the live oak at the back of the property where Christopher and Andrew had spent so many hours when they were younger. There was no headstone; a crudely-fashioned wooden cross marked the spot where their father was buried.
After the service, neighbors gathered at the Willetts home, bearing dishes of food. There were no tables available, so people sat cross legged in the grass in the front yard or stood in clusters, balancing paper plates in their hands.
Andrew and Christopher were seated on the front steps of the house when they heard the news about the new neighbors.
Two of the towns busybodies, Alma Fitch and Norma Peale, stood on the porch with Ruth Anne.
"Whos moving into the old Pritchett place?" asked Alma, jerking her head to the left. "I cant believe they actually sold that dump."
"I didnt know anyone was moving in," said Ruth Anne.
"Sure enough. I saw a whole brood of kids outside the other day. They was all carrying boxes into the house. I didnt stop to introduce myself, because I didnt see the adults anywhere nearby. I think I counted seven children, though. I was counting, because that house cant have more than three bedrooms. I was over there a long time ago about something. Five boys and two girls, thats what I saw. There could be more."
"Goodness, thats a lot of mouths to feed," said Norma.
Christopher leaned over to whisper in Andrews ear.
Andrew smiled and took a bite of three-bean salad.
Christopher turned around to look up at the women behind him.
"Were they little kids?" he asked.
"Two of the boys looked like they was a little younger, but the others looked like they was your age or older," said Alma.
"We ought to stop by and welcome them to town," said Norma.
Christopher leaned toward Andrew again.
"Count me in," he whispered.
The next morning, after Christopher had left for school, Ruth Anne went out to the fields to find Andrew. She found him standing by Jeremiahs grave, his hands in his pockets and looking up at the sky. Thick, smoky clouds blocked out the sun.
"Looks like rain," he said.
"Ive got to go into town to deliver some clothes," said Ruth Anne. "I was thinking you might come with me, and we could stop by to welcome the new family. I made them a cake, so well need to take the truck."
Andrew would have to drive, since driving was something that Ruth Anne had never learned how to do. Andrew did not have a drivers license, but the towns two policemen had both been friends of Jeremiahs. They looked the other way when they saw Andrew behind the wheel.
When Andrew pulled the truck into the new neighbors dirt drive, he spotted two girls in the front yard. They had hung a carpet on the clothesline and they were beating it with brooms.
Both girls were fair and blonde, and one of the girls was noticeably more attractive than the other. They both wore loose, flowing dresses and their feet were bare. They stopped beating when the truck pulled into the drive, and they shaded their eyes from the afternoon sun to get a look at their visitors. Andrew raised a hand in greeting and held out the cake with his other hand. Ruth Anne managed to climb down from the cab and came around to join her son.
"Afternoon, girls," said Ruth Anne. "Im Ruth Anne Willett, your neighbor from the next farm over, and this heres Andrew."
The girls introduced themselves as Molly and Catherine Claussen. Molly was the prettier sister, but both sisters were undeniably attractive. Molly did most of the talking. She reached out to take the cake from Andrew and invited him and his mother into the house. Andrew and his mother followed behind her into a decent-sized entry hall. Catherine stayed outside and continued to beat the rugs.
The house was spacious. At the moment, it was cluttered with boxes and furniture that had not yet been arranged.
Molly led Andrew and Ruth Anne into a large living room, where an older woman was dusting off knick-knacks and arranging them on the mantle over the large fireplace. The woman was large and rosy, and she clapped her hands delightedly at the sight of her new neighbors. Mrs. Claussen ushered Andrew and his mother back into the kitchen for iced tea and cookies. Mrs. Claussen and Ruth Anne took a liking to each other instantly, and were soon immersed in conversation. Andrew stood uncomfortably in the doorway, unsure of his next move. Molly handed him a glass of tea and invited him outside, where they sat on the front steps. They watched Catherine beating the rugs for a while before speaking.
"So, where are you from?" asked Andrew.
"North Dakota," said Molly, feigning nausea. "I am so glad to be out of there. Mississippi seems slow to me, but nothing compared to North Dakota. We lived in a little town -- smaller than this, if you can believe it. The town was called Mount Hope. Dad sells farm equipment for a national company, so we move every time he gets transferred."
Andrew took a sip of tea and nodded. He happened to look down and noticed how dirty Mollys feet were. Apparently she spent a lot of time barefoot.
"Are you on another break?" called Catherine. She dropped her broom and came over to where Andrew and Molly were sitting. She placed her hands on her hips and pretended to glare at her sister.
"Weve got compny," said Molly, putting on an exaggerated Southern accent. "Mistah Andrew has stopped by to pay us a visit."
Andrew smiled at her little joke.
"Youve got to ignore her," said Catherine. "Shes a little loony."
"So what do you think of Conrad so far?" asked Andrew.
"Its nice," said Molly. "It seems a little boring, but I think things will liven up a bit when we start school."
"How old are you?" Catherine asked suddenly.
"Twelve. Ill be thirteen in a couple of months," said Andrew.
"Im twelve, too," said Molly. "Catherine here is ten. Shes still a baby."
Catherine swatted her sister playfully.
"What kind of cake did you bring us?" she asked.
"Mom made it. Chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. She makes delicious chocolate cakes."
The sounds of Ruth Anne and Mrs. Claussens laughter rippled out through the screen door of the house.
"Do you have any brothers or sisters?" asked Catherine.
"One brother. Christopher."
"And how old is he?" asked Molly.
"Were twins. Im just ten minutes older than him."
Molly stared into his eyes for a moment before turning away.
"I guess wed better finish with these rugs," she said to Catherine.
Molly turned and started to pick up her broom from the grass.
"You go on," said Catherine. "Im going to give Andrew a tour of the house."
She grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the front door.
It was a cool January evening. Andrew was walking the fields again, plotting and planting in his mind. His mother was in the house, cleaning up from dinner. Christopher was at a friends house. Christopher was rarely home anymore.
He stopped walking and listened to the grasses rustling.
He loved this property. Walking the fields after dinner was his favorite activity.
Tonight, though, something was different.
He cocked his head and listened. It sounded almost like whispering, and it was coming from somewhere behind him.
He whirled around just in time to see two shadowy figures dive headfirst into the grasses not fifty feet from where he stood.
"Hey!" he called.
The whispering continued.
He was pushed from behind. He managed to catch his balance before he fell. He swung his arm backward and made contact with something hard.
"Ouch!" said a girls voice.
It was Molly. He turned and saw her standing behind him, rubbing the side of her head. She was laughing.
"Did I scare you?" she asked.
"That was you? I thought I saw two people," he said.
"You did. Me and Catherine." She cupped her hands around her mouth. "Come on out, Cats! Jokes over."
Catherines head poked up out of the waving grasses, and she was grinning.
"You got me good," said Andrew.
He noticed, then, that Molly held a picnic basket. She set it on the ground and withdrew from it a checkered tablecloth. She spread the cloth on the ground and sat down cross-legged.
"Have you had dessert yet?" she asked.
She looked up at Andrew, and the way that she looked at that moment was etched in his memory for many years. Golden evening sun washed over her skin and hair, and he was startled suddenly by her beauty. When he had first met her, he had thought she was attractive but no more so than many of the other girls in Conrad. The way she looked tonight, though Part of it was the dreamy look on her face.
Catherine shattered the moment by running over to her sisters side and falling onto the ground next to her.
Andrew came to sit with them at their urging.
"You didnt answer me," said Molly. "Have you had dessert yet?"
"Yes," he said. The words felt thick in his mouth. "But I can always eat again."
"Your mothers cake was delicious, so we thought wed return the favor. Catherine and I made fudge brownies."
Andrew and the two girls sat in the field, eating brownies and talking, for a very long time. Their mother had brought them to the house. She and Ruth Anne were drinking gin on the front porch. Andrew did not talk much; rather, he listened to the Claussen sisters cheerful banter. He found comfort in their excited voices.
"So how come you dont go to school?" asked Molly.
Andrew was caught off guard, and he tripped over his words.
"Somebodys got to take care of the farm," he said.
"Why does it have to be you?" asked Catherine. "What about your brother?"
Andrew shrugged. There was no answer for that...