By: L.M. Pruitt

The room was laughably small, the dishes scattered everywhere only emphasizing the lack of space. People had brought food, the way they always do when something tragic and gossip-worthy happens. I wasn’t fond of tuna casserole or Frito Pie but I was less fond of cooking and, as I’d been told often enough growing up, beggars can’t be choosers. Granted, I wasn’t exactly a beggar these days but it just seemed rude and wasteful to turn down free food.

It took a few tries but I finally found the Tylenol. Ignoring Tammy’s impatient sighs, exaggerated in the way only a teenager can do, I poured myself a glass of Mrs. Sheriff Underwood’s—and Lord was that a mouthful—sweet tea, using it to wash down the medicine. It was cold enough and sweet enough to make my teeth ache but I was sick of coffee and water. Sitting down at the table opposite Tammy, I said, “You want to know what’s going to happen next. I wish I had a simple, clear-cut answer but the truth is I don’t.”

“Mama always said if anything happened to her you would take care of us.” Tammy pressed her lips together, widening her eyes and blinking rapidly. After a moment, she let out a long, shuddering breath. “I guess that means we’re moving.”

“Well, yeah.” I glanced around the kitchen, not quite able to hold back a grimace. “I mean, I know Loretta did her best but I’m sorry, if I’m moving back to this place I’m not living in a single wide trailer with no air conditioner a good thirty minutes from town.”

“So we’re staying here? In Cotton Creek?”

“I would swear I said that earlier and I know I said it just now.” I took another sip of tea, sighing at the cool, refreshing taste. I hadn’t missed a lot of things about Cotton Creek—probably less than a dozen, truth be told—but I’d missed Betsey Underwood’s sweet tea. “I know what Loretta wanted. Providing there isn’t an issue with the judge or whoever, I’ll do what she wants.”

I knew I didn’t have to worry about any of the fathers—Loretta had gone to court and had their parental rights terminated once they skipped town. I’d had a lawyer look over all the papers for guardianship when Loretta had sent them to me and he’d promised me everything was on the up and up. There was still a chance the judge would decide to send the kids to foster care but it was a slim chance. People didn’t like to break up families in Cotton Creek.

“But you said we’re moving.”

“Hmm?” I stared at Tammy for a moment, trying to remember what we were talking about before I let my mind wander. “Right. We are moving. I’m looking at the subdivision on the north side of town. If not there, then maybe somewhere near the school.”

I had an appointment with a realtor—or rather the single realtor in town—in the morning. I’d had Allison take care of all the paperwork to get approval for a home loan and I could use about half of the money left in my savings for a down payment. I’d been tucking money away with the idea of purchasing a loft in Savannah for when I got tired of traveling so I wasn’t entirely opposed to the idea of home ownership.

Just the town in question.

“The houses in the subdivision have really small yards.” Tammy dragged her teeth over her lower lip, worrying away at the lipstick I’d let her borrow for the funeral. I’d heard a few whispers about makeup on someone so young but a few hard glares had the talkers shutting their mouths. I wouldn’t cause a scene at Loretta’s funeral but I’d be damned if I let anybody talk trash about her or her kids, either, regardless of the time and place. “Mama always said we’d have a yard one day.”

“So we’ll look at the neighborhoods close to the school.” The houses there were older but they were also bigger, with good sized yards and plenty of privacy. “Hopefully we can find something with five bedrooms but I’ll settle for four.”

“Five?” Tammy’s eyes went wide. “Why so many?”

“One for each of you and then an office for me.” When she continued to goggle at me, I said, “You guys do want your own rooms, right?”

“I guess.” Some more chewing of her lower lip before she blurted out, “I’ve always had to share with someone.”

“Yeah, me, too, until I left Cotton Creek.” I drained the last of the tea and sighed. “So I’ll go look at houses tomorrow. I might be able to convince the seller to let us move in while we’re still in escrow, depending on who the seller is.”

And on what kind of information I had on them. One of the few upsides to being poor was people didn’t pay too much attention to what they said around you. When I was a teenager, I’d known more about the so-called upright citizens of Cotton Creek than either of the two ministers and Loretta had felt the need to keep me up to date on the juicier tidbits. I wasn’t above using dirty secrets to get what I wanted.