The Sweet Gum Tree
Author:Katherine Allred

That insight made me even more determined to keep him there.

“You can’t leave.” I took his hand. If I’d thought it would help, I’d have wrapped my arms around his legs and hung on for dear life to keep him at the park. How was I going to save him if he wouldn’t cooperate? “I have something for you.”

“What?” He tried to shake me loose, but I refused to let go. His hand felt good in mine. Strong and warm.

“I brought you some of my books.”

Longing flowed from him even as he denied it. “I don’t take charity.”

“It’s not charity. I’m not giving you the books, I’m loaning them to you. Just like a library does. Besides, I’ve already read them, so they were sitting there gathering dust.” That wasn’t exactly the truth, but I was hoping God understood the deception.

After two hours of anxiety-ridden deliberation, I had made up my mind to give him the most treasured jewels on my bookshelves, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I didn’t understand back then that most kids weren’t at my advanced reading level, but even if I had, I would have trusted Nick to grasp the concept behind the stories. I’m not sure why I believed in him so strongly. I only know that I did.

He hesitated, his gray eyes moving over the crowd of people filling the park. I could almost read his mind. I don’t belong here, he was thinking. They’ll make me leave.

“Mama said to make sure you stayed,” I tempted him. “Her feelings will be hurt if you don’t eat with us. She and my aunts have been cooking for days.” In the south, we absorb polite manipulation and velvet-edged diplomacy with our mother’s milk.

“You told her you invited me?”

“Yes. And she said you’re welcome in our house any time you want to come.”

“You wouldn’t be lying just to get me down there, would you, Peewee?” His eyes were as soft as his voice when he looked at me.

“I don’t lie.” My free hand behind my back, I crossed my fingers. Just in case God had been listening when I’d told Nick about the books. “You go to hell for lying.”

“She really said that?”

“Yes. And the Judge said it was okay for you to come, too.” 16

The Sweet Gum Tree

Visibly, he braced himself, then nodded.

When I stepped out of the trees, tugging Nick along behind me, every kid in the park stopped what they were doing and gaped at us. There was no doubt my reputation had just risen another couple of notches, or dropped, depending on your point of view, but for once I didn’t care. The only thing I cared about was his grip, getting tighter and tighter on mine the nearer we got to the picnic tables. Part of him couldn’t believe he would be accepted as easily as I made it sound, and he was waiting for the axe to fall.

The hum of adult conversation rippled to a halt as I led Nick to my mother. A dull red flush tinted the skin on his face and neck, and sweat made his hand slick on mine.

“See, Mama? I told you he’d stay.”

“So you did.” She smiled at Nick. My mother was always beautiful, but when she smiled you could almost hear a heavenly choir break into song. “Nick, I’m glad you made it. Our table is right over there and I expect you to join us, you hear?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

He must have heard the choir too, because he was looking at my mother as through he’d seen an angel. Behind Mama, Helena Morgan’s lips thinned to a tight line and she shared a disgusted look with Gretchen Treece, the mayor’s wife. I hoped Nick hadn’t seen them.

The two women, along with my mother and aunts, were the core of high society in Morganville. The town had been named after one of Ian Morgan’s ancestors, and they owned the lumber industry that employed most of the people in the area. Mr. Howard, my best friend Jenna’s father, worked for them. Hugh, the Morgan’s only child, was the same age as me and because our mothers were friends, we had been forced to endure each other’s company since we were in diapers. Hugh was always pulling my hair or taking advantage of my competitive nature by challenging me to feats both dangerous and stupid. Most of my scars were the result of dares I couldn’t resist. But I never looked on Hugh as malicious. He was only a boy who liked to tease me, and while it was aggravating, I could live with it.

Piggy Treece, known to everyone but Jenna and me as Peggy, was a different story.

The overweight blonde daughter of Mayor Tim and Gretchen was spoiled rotten. If ever a child was born hateful, it was Peggy. She hung around Hugh constantly, making snide remarks about the other kids in general and me in particular. We hated each other with the fervor of born enemies. At the moment, she was standing near Hugh, hands on her chunky hips as she smirked in my direction. I turned my back on them.

“Mama, where did you put the books?”