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A Treasure of the Heart

A Treasure of the Heart by Valerie Hansen
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There were times when days, even weeks, passed without a thought of her past. Then, some little thing would jog Lillie Delaney's memory and her mind would flit back to Gumption, Arkansas, and the idyllic life she'd once led as a child growing up in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains.

Today, the trigger was a scrap of paper resembling a dry leaf being carried along by the rainwater in a curbside gutter. As Lillie watched, her make-believe leaf became a homemade boat, the gutter a meandering creek and Lillie a seven-yearold seeing her tiny craft sail out of reach.

"Catch it!"

"You catch it. It's your boat."

Squealing, Lillie had jumped feetfirst into the stream, slipped on a mossy rock and landed on her back pockets in the icy water while a neighbor boy and his sister had giggled over her plight. She'd been sure she'd be scolded for coming home all wet that day. Instead, Gram had found the incident so funny she'd hugged little Lillie and they'd laughed together until tears had run down their cheeks.

Lillie sighed. Breathed deeply. Brought herself back to the present and hurried across the busy city street as the traffic light changed in her favor. There was something refreshing about the air after a storm, even though the wind off Lake Michigan was cutting through her heavy coat and chilling her to the bone. Here in Chicago she welcomed showers because they cleansed the atmosphere and left behind a temporary respite from the pollution of the bustling city.

Back home in Gumption, the rain always gave the air a heavy sweetness as it nourished the forested hills. This time of year, redbud trees would be finishing their display and dogwoods would be spreading creamy-white four-petal flowers in the dappled shade of the soon-to-leaf-out oaks. Yellowish-green buds would make the forest shimmer in the rain's aftermath, glistening with the promise of the coming canopy; a roof of coolness beneath the arching azure of a cloudless Southern summer sky.

Shivering, Lillie pushed her way through the revolving door into the imposing stone office building where she'd worked for years. Her heels clacked against the polished marble floor of the crowded lobby. Concerned about the time, she hurried to the elevator and pushed the up button again, even though it was already lit. Slick streets had made her late, not that anyone upstairs would believe that excuse. No one employed there had a passion for his or her job. They simply reported in the morning, put in their required hours behind a desk and went home as soon as possible. That blasé attitude had been hard for Lillie to understand until she'd spent a few months walking in their shoes—or rather, sitting in their desk chairs.

She huffed as she stepped onto the elevator. Months, nothing. She'd been stuck in basically the same job for much longer than that and she was now at the top step in her department. Granted, medical insurance records and ordered the authorized payments but if there was a more boring job in the world she couldn't imagine what it could be.

Three men wearing raincoats and a middleaged woman carrying a folded, dripping umbrella followed her onto the already crowded elevator. Pressed into a rear corner, Lillie felt nearly as uncomfortable as she had the time she and her girlfriends had crammed together into the janitor's closet at school, meaning to scare him, and had panicked and nearly suffocated when they'd accidentally locked themselves in. To this day, being in total darkness gave her the willies.

There was no accident involved with her present position, however. She'd come to the city to seek excitement and glamour and had found, instead, boredom and dingy sameness masquerading as job security.

Part of her loneliness was admittedly her own fault. Though she did attend church occasionally, she had never become fully involved in the kind of social life that would bring her into contact with many like-minded people. A few friends from work had invited her to go clubbing with them, years ago, and she had given it a try. In retrospect, she realized they'd meant well but she'd felt about as comfortable in that situation as a newly landed catfish flopping around in the bottom of a fishing boat. Both were clearly out of their element.

The mental picture made her smile. As she removed her scarf and fluffed her shoulder-length light brown hair, she glanced at the woman with the umbrella, wishing she could share her good humor with someone. She was rewarded with a scowl.

"If I wanted to live in a city, I should have gone farther south instead of coming this direction," Lillie mumbled.

"Beg your pardon?"

Lillie's smile waned, her blue eyes misty. "Never mind. I was just talking to myself." The elevator stopped at Lillie's floor. "Excuse me, please." She edged toward the open door, bumping shoulders with others in spite of efforts to take care. "Excuse me. I have to get off."

Someone held the doors long enough for her to exit. They slid closed behind her with a hiss while her last words echoed repeatedly in her mind. I have to get off. I have to get off.

Instead of rushing to her office, she stood in the cavernous hallway, blinking as reality seeped in. Her heart was the only part of her that was still racing and it was galloping laps around her muddled brain. What was she doing here? Why hadn't she admitted her mistakes long ago, gotten off this figurative treadmill and headed home where she belonged?

The answer was pride. Except for the occasional visit when she had lauded city life as if all her dreams had come true, pride had kept her from going back to Gumption. And pride could keep her locked in the same dead-end job for literally a lifetime if she let it.

She didn't want to run home to Grandma Darla Sue and admit defeat but she didn't want to waste what remained of her life, either. There had to be more to a worthwhile existence than she'd found so far. Maybe she was expecting too much. Then again, maybe she'd once lived in the perfect place and had been too dense or stubborn to recognize it.

Lillie squared her shoulders and strode toward her office. There was only one way to find out. She was going to muster her courage, give the two weeks' notice and head for the only place that had ever felt truly like home.

To Lillie's surprise her superiors had decided that two weeks' notice was unnecessary, had accepted her resignation and had told her she was free to leave immediately.

So much for being indispensable!

She'd said a somber if relieved goodbye to coworkers in nearby cubicles and had been on her way home to her apartment to start packing within the hour.

Some of her friends had wanted to throw a going-away party but Lillie talked them out of it by promising to return for her stored furniture and let them have a get-together then, if they still wanted to.

Two days later she was on the road, driving south in a mental haze and wondering what had come over her. There she was, too close to thirtyfive for comfort, unemployed and heading for the only place that had ever felt like a real home. The notion of plunking herself back into Grandma Darla Sue's and Grandpa Max's lives and making their house her home again, the way she had been forced to as a lonely child, gave her colder chills than the gales off Lake Michigan.

If she used up her savings before she found another job, there was always the value of her furniture to fall back on, she reasoned. She knew her friends would sell it for her and send her the money if she them her to. At least she knew they would if they still lived there. If there was one thing Lillie had learned about life in the big city it was how fast everything could change.

All she really wanted was to reclaim the peace she'd so foolishly left behind when she'd moved North. If that meant she had to bite the bullet and spend a few weeks staying with her grandparents till she got back on her feet, then she would. She figured, as long as she explained to stubborn, reclusive Grandpa Max that she didn't intend to stay for more than a few weeks he wouldn't pitch too big a fit about sharing his peace and quiet with her again. Now that she was older and hopefully wiser, she could see that one of the reasons she and Max had butted heads was that they were so much alike under the surface.

Passing through Serenity and entering Gumption on Highway 62, Lillie noticed little difference since her last brief visit, at least not on the surface. The courthouse in the town square and its bordering stores were still the center of activity. Tall, silveryleafed poplars had replaced some of the old maples on the courthouse lawn and the streets looked narrower than they had when she was a child, but other than that the place seemed pretty much the same. The entire area was sort of stuck in a time warp, which in her case was exactly what she craved.

She sighed. It was truly good to be home. She just hoped her favorite resident wasn't going to be too disappointed in her for quitting a steady job. The work ethic was strong in Darla Sue Howell. She'd kept her little café going in spite of Max's lack of encouragement and had made room for Lillie when her parents' marriage had self-destructed and the ensuing divorce had sent her mother into a bottomless pit of self-pity. Lillie loved Darla Sue more than anything in the world and there wasn't anyone she wanted more to please.

Eager to surprise her grandmother at work, she parked her blue sedan in one of the spaces surrounding the courthouse, grabbed her purse and a sweater and slid out, resisting the urge to lock the car door. Folks in Gumption trusted their neighbors. If she were to lock the door she'd immediately demonstrate that she no longer fit into this lifestyle. Better to chance losing whatever inconsequential items she'd left piled on the car seats than to be immediately ostracized as an outsider.

Smiling and feeling amazingly free, she slipped the sweater on and crossed the street to the café. The sign over the door had once read, Darla's Deli, but the red paint on the smaller letters had faded until all that remained were the two capital Ds. For as long as Lillie could recall, the place had simply been "DD's" and so it still was.

During her Christmas visit she'd offered to climb up and repaint the sign in spite of the freezing temperature but her grandmother wouldn't hear of it. Darla Sue had said, if folks didn't know who she was or what she served in the café, they didn't need to be coming in, anyway. Since business had always been good enough to keep her busy and employ a small staff, Lillie had had to agree.

The aroma of fresh-brewed coffee and homemade biscuits filled Lillie's senses as she pushed open the restaurant door. Original decor that had remained unchanged for so long that it was now referred to as retro prompted a rush of nostalgia. Framed pictures of old film stars and even older cars lined the walls. Paper place mats and packets of silverware rolled inside white napkins graced the tables and a vase with a single silk flower was carefully centered behind each set of salt-and-pepper shakers. Come summer, when Darla Sue's garden was in full bloom, the flowers in those milk-glass vases would be real.

Lillie sighed. Coming here was so much like stepping back into childhood she immediately craved a warm oatmeal-raisin cookie and an equally warm hug from her darling grandmother.

Pausing at the entrance to scan the sparse crowd, she garnered a few amiable nods but saw no one she recognized outright. That was the way it had been the last few times she'd visited. Many of the old-timers who'd known her as a child had either passed away or moved to condos in Florida, bless their hearts. Every trip home had made her feel less and less a part of life in Gumption. Perhaps that was one of the reasons she'd felt such a strong pull to return for good.

She crossed the room, heels clicking on the black-and-white checkerboard-tiled floor and peeked in the kitchen door, fully expecting to find her grandmother standing at the grill, wearing a chef's apron and wielding a spatula.

Instead, she saw a stranger. The middle-aged woman's washed-out blond hair was pulled back by a rolled blue bandanna and escaped curls were plastered to her forehead and neck by perspiration.
Steeple Hill; September 2007
248 pages; ISBN 9781426806063
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: A Treasure of the Heart
Author: Valerie Hansen
 
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