Chapter 5: The Strangers’ House
Clara: - August 1906-
When I woke up the next morning, I squinted as the blinding sunlight beamed through my open windows. I was hot underneath the blanket and I tried to fall back asleep but the noises downstairs, coupled with the sun’s unwanted rays, kept me awake. Curious, I rose from the bed and dressed for the day, though I knew my mother would disagree on my choice of wardrobe. We were wealthy, and she didn’t understand my need to dress down. I would’ve argued that we never went anywhere and no one important would see my clothes. In truth, I didn’t understand her at all. My sluggish legs hardly moved and each motion was a labor.
Loose strands of my black hair hung lifelessly beside my face, and she swiftly pulled it all into a French braid, baring my weary face for all to see. I grabbed another diary from my grandmother’s trunk and packed it into a bag. I felt like I was reading a novel, anticipating each new line on the page, curious to read what happened next. Though I’d always preferred writing to reading, each word brought me closer to her. But it was too late and I would never be able to talk to her about any of it.
When I arrived downstairs ready to abandon the house, I overheard my parents talking and eavesdropped from the stairs.
“William and Adeleine have decided to move to New Orleans,” I heard my mother say.
“That might prove difficult with a baby on the way,” replied my father. He followed up with, “Clara you can come in here, you don’t have to hide.”
I entered the room and tried to act interested as they discussed my brother’s new job in the city, but my notice was drawn to the window and their voices faded out. Perhaps the news should’ve captivated my attention more, but I gradually stopped listening to the conversation completely. I don’t know how many minutes I was not paying attention before my mother touched my shoulder.
“Are you alright Clara?”
“Yes, I’m fine thank you,” I coldly responded. My mother grimaced at my tone and walked away from me, leaving me alone with Ben. He was sitting at our piano, pressing the keys, though his playing was far from adequate.
“Clara, do you know how this thing works?” he humorously asked.
I turned my full attention to him. “Not really, no,” I admitted.
Our piano had been neglected for years. He moved down the bench and created an open space for me. I’d never practiced the piano a day in my life and the keys were foreign. I never had a talent for instruments and we’d never been enrolled in lessons. My father joined us and cheerfully sat on the chair closest to the instrument. The wood was tinged with red hues, and it was smooth as I ran my hands along its sides.
“Ah, a concert! How lovely,” my father exclaimed, revealing his teeth. They were cigarette stained, and I saw patches of yellow blending with the ivory. Ben and I glanced at each other, desperately trying to stifle a laugh at the thought of giving a “concert.”
“This piano is out of tune. I don’t even play and I can hear that,” Ben said, as he pressed the keys. We both cringed at the horrific sounds.
“Well it’s quite old, you see.” My father walked to us and opened up the top, revealing dusty, aged strings. We stood in unison and examined the piano, intrigued by its inner workings.
“It was your grandmother’s,” he said, reaching his hand into the depths of the piano’s innards. “Your grandmother, Elise. Perhaps it’s a bit more special now that she’s gone, isn’t it?” His face was buried in the instrument, and Ben held the top open, gazing in.
“This piano?” I suddenly felt the urge to protect it and ask them to stop prodding. Ben pricked one of the dusty strings, and it created a loud, dull sound.
“I didn’t know that.” I wondered how much I didn’t know.
My dad lifted his head and took his arms out of the piano. “I supposed she hoped we would teach you girls but we never did. Your mother was set on teaching you all how to embroider,” he said as he closed the top. An image of my mother teaching me to embroider formed in my head. What a waste, I thought. I can’t embroider either. It was then that I envisioned my grandmother playing. Did she play well? Distracted, I didn’t hear my dad say my name. It was only after Ben tapped my shoulder that I was brought back to the present.
“Just so you both are made aware,” my father began, “I’ve hired a new stable hand. With William gone, Henry going back to school, and Benjamin being so busy in town I will need help around the field and stables. Don’t be alarmed to see a stranger,” he warned us.
The words left my mouth before I could stop myself. “But Emma and I are here. Why hire someone to help when we are perfectly capable?”
“Clara, I can think of no reason for young ladies to get their hands dirty. Can you imagine Emma working in the yard? Also, your mother advises against it, especially you. You’re twenty,” he said, walking out of the room into the pantry. I followed him. We stared at each other, and I couldn’t hide my frustration. “You’re of marriageable age Clara.” He paused and stared at me, and when I responded with silence and a sharp glare he continued. “Do you want to be a spinster?” The question hurt my feelings more than I wished. “I love you, but I do not want to take care of you for the rest of your life. Maybe if you weren’t so reclusive you’d find a suitable match.” I winced, and my pride was wounded by his blunt honesty. He wasn’t wrong, I was reclusive and quiet. But it did not make me incapable. And how did the conversation turn into a strike against me?
“That means I can’t help my father with work around the house or outside? Am I useless now? Meant only to be groomed for marriage?” I asked, dramatically throwing my hands up in the air. The idea of marriage had, of course, crossed my mind several times, and I enjoyed the thought of eventually marrying and starting a family. However, I’d never been courted nor did I have admirers.
“Dad, I have no suitors. I never leave the house often enough to meet anyone. Maybe if I traveled-” I said, slumping down onto the nearest stool. My dad looked at me apologetically.
“Clara, really, this conversation is meant for your mother, not me.”
I internally scoffed at his offhand comment about my mother who had done absolutely nothing to help me find a suitor or even introduce me to people. For such a wealthy and well-connected family, we hardly left the house. My thoughts retreated to my grandmother.
“You’re beautiful just like your mother, Clara. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.”
I hugged my stomach as I recalled my grandmother’s kind words, but falser words had never been spoken. I never doubted my physical appearance, though I wouldn’t have called myself a beauty like Emma. It was my inner self I had doubts about. I was not beautiful on the inside anymore. At only twenty years old I was already growing bitter and lonely. I knew it. Everyone knew it. I felt my father’s eyes on me as I left the room in a frustrated huff. I grabbed my bag from the parlor and walked downstairs, intent on spending the day by the live oak near my grandmother’s house. At least, what remained of it.
I don’t know how long I was asleep as slow, steady droplets of rain woke me. My grandmother’s diary was open, and her words were smudging from the rain. I immediately closed it, gathered my bag, and ran to the house. Much of the debris was cleared, but half of the house was still standing, the large tree trunk lying resolute in the middle. As I ran, the moist air clogged my lungs and I gasped for breath. The veranda was demolished in the storm and the only remaining shelter was the dining room and my grandmother’s upstairs bedroom. I quickly ran up the exposed staircase and found that the remnant of the roof kept me dry. I propped myself up against the wall and watched as water poured into the floor of the bedroom. The house was virtually emptied, with only the bare floor and the skeleton of the bed frame. Thunder rumbled above me as the light rain transformed into a violent storm. I couldn’t admit that I was afraid of the rain, for I loved it. But the sky, grumbling, and darkening was intimidating and I was alone. I listened to the rain, but within minutes, the water was flowing onto my dress soaking me further. I moved farther across the room and found myself backed into the corner. I pressed my hand on the floor to regain my balance and as I did, the floorboard shot upward, disengaging from the other wooden planks. Hidden under the floor was a large stack of letters bound together with a string. Had I not been there, they’d have been flooded within the hour. Destroyed and lost. I removed the stack, and curiosity once again got the better of me. The top letter had my grandmother’s address but no address to the sender. Each letter was bound and sealed. I loosened the string and counted forty-five letters. Though I was curious, a pang of guilt crept up on me as I began tearing open the seal of the one at the top of the stack. I broke the seal and pulled open the letter.
January 6, 1862
My dearest husband René,
We have a strong, healthy baby girl and I have named her Renée in honor of her most beloved father. She resembles you so, and I see you every time I look at her. She longs for her father as I do. I fear you have left this Earth, and if you have, please watch over us and find eternal peace with God. I pray to him every day it is not so, and for your safe return to us. I have found refuge in New York City, and remain in the North as war ravages our country. It is snowing, and I revel in the thought of sharing this new experience with you. I think of you every moment, and dream of being by your side, as your loving and devoted wife. I have faith that when this war is over, I will be welcomed into your arms again, and you will hold and cherish your daughter, as is meant to be.
Forever thinking of you,
Your wife, Elise
I stared at the faded, neatly written script and was immediately overcome with emotion as I envisioned my grandmother, patiently awaiting René’s return, only for it to never happen. My eyes brimmed with tears as I placed the letter back in the envelope and tightened the string. I had never experienced such heartbreak, and I felt like my problems were childish compared to the loss of a loved one.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the rain stopped. I put the tightly packed letters in my bag and climbed down the stairs, carefully evading the mass of branches and leaves that had accumulated since the hurricane. The air was clear, but the sinister gray clouds above made their presence known. I hurriedly rushed to my house, but only minutes after leaving, the rain was pouring on me again, filling my lungs with mist. Struggling to see, I ran to the porch of the nearest house, and checked the bag, relieved that none of the letters nor the diary were ruined. I awkwardly peered into the front windows of the small home but saw no one. The wooden house had two small windows carved into the sides with wavy glass panes shielding the interior from the torrential rain. The porch was crowded by a wide staircase that led to the top floor. The mist edged onto the porch, and before long I was no longer protected. Reluctantly, I knocked. Within seconds a small plump woman opened it and stared up at my wretched state, followed by a young man who towered above her.
The woman looked at me with saddened eyes as she noticed my shivering body, and my arms clutched at my waist. “Oh, my dear, are you alright? Come in, come in.” She gestured for me to follow her and I did.
“Ezra, please, put on a pot of tea,” she requested of the young man. Dressed in very plain working clothes, he was unusually tall, and his brown hair, lacking in discipline, fell every which way into his face. He glanced at me but I saw only a glimmer of his striking blue eyes, though they only met with mine for a brief moment. His gaze was swift, but I thought I saw him glare at me.
“Let’s get you dressed in something warm. You’re quite tall,” she said, examining me and shuffling into the next room. I stood silently by the front door, marveling at the small cabin. Though I’d noticed the house in passing on the visits to my grandmother’s, I never inspected it closely. I should’ve been more embarrassed, but I found the experience to be exhilarating, and a change of pace from my dull, repetitive life. For once, something new had happened and I’d met other people outside of my family. Though living in the country was beautiful, it was also isolating. I confused people, claiming to be lonely but rejecting anyone’s company. I confused myself. What my family didn’t understand was that, to no intended insult to them, I needed new company. Different. I heard the young man preparing the tea in the next room, but before I took a step forward, the small woman came bouncing back to me holding garments.
“You’re very tall dear, so I don’t know if these will fit you but please, try. You’re dripping.” I heard her say ‘poor girl’ several times before entering what I supposed was her bedroom and disappearing. I stood silently, clutching the clothes and unsure what to do. Did she expect me to change in the doorway?
“You can change here, dear.”
I was led to the next room over but she closed the door before I could thank her. I examined the room. It was meant for guests, with an untouched bed, empty cabinets, and closed windows. I squeezed into the dress the woman provided, and while it hugged my body a little too tightly, it was an upgrade from my saturated clothes. Though I was slender enough, the dress was just a little too short and I felt exposed. I grabbed the blanket from the bed and wrapped it around my shoulders. I needed some cover. I heard the rain pounding on the house as I exited the room, and though I wasn’t necessarily happy to be inside a stranger’s house, I was grateful for her hospitality. The moment I walked through the door, the young man was standing directly in front of me with a cup of tea. The steam rose to his face, and his steady breath blew the steam toward me.
“Oh, hello,” I said, taken aback by his closeness.
He eyed me suspiciously as he handed me the cup. His voice was unusually deep for a man of his age, which I assumed was close to mine. What surprised me more was the subtle condescending undertones I heard when he spoke those mere two words. We locked eyes and I awkwardly moved past him after thanking him and taking the cup from his hands. The sofa was small and felt out of place in the compacted room, and when I took a seat my body didn’t move. It was hard and dreadful to sit on but I saw no alternatives.
The woman walked toward me and took a seat before speaking to me. “Ma’am, what were you doing in the storm?”
I was a walking contradiction and shifted uncomfortably around the thought of being around strangers when all I wanted was to meet new people. I was inconveniently shy. I suddenly wanted to go home, but I pushed my pride aside and answered her question.
“I was at the debris of my grandmother’s house, just there down the road and I lost track of time. You know, the big white house, maybe a quarter of a mile that way. It was destroyed in the hurricane earlier this month,” I said, taking a sip of the delicious, hot tea and pointing in the appropriate direction. The two of them looked at each other.
“You live in the big house don’t you?” the young man inquired, walking toward me without breaking his gaze. He was leaning against the doorway the entire time, eavesdropping on our conversation. I had never heard anyone refer to my home as “the big house” but as I glanced around the room, I realized that their entire house was the size of our parlor. The walls were bare and wooden, lacking in wallpaper and plaster molding, something in abundance at my house.
“I live at Deveaux Grove. My name is Clara Deveaux,” I told them with an unintentionally supercilious tone.
“Oh, ma’am... do your parents know where you are?” The short woman had concern in her voice.
“I don’t believe so. I walked to the house hours ago and fell asleep. I only woke up when it started raining. I tried to walk home quickly, but it was pouring and I saw your house... I had no intention of knocking but there was too much rain.” I took another sip. They were both quiet. “That reminds me, I must extend my gratitude to you for taking me in. It is much appreciated. I hope I won’t be intruding too long,” I said with a polite smile. The woman returned the gesture.
“Well Miss Clara, my name is Bethany LaBarre and this is my son Ezra,” she said, waving her hand toward the young man. “And my dear, it’s no intrusion, we’re happy to help.”
Ezra looked at me judgingly. With a condescending tone of voice, he said, “I can’t imagine you’d sleep so long in the blistering heat. What exactly were you doing? Isn’t that house a pile of rubble now?” I stared at him, holding my tea. His tone offended me but before I even constructed an answer, Bethany stood up and informed us that dinner was almost ready after shooting Ezra a nasty look.
“Miss Clara I’ve been cooking up a cabbage soup. You won’t be leaving anytime in this rain, so you will be eating with us. I hope you like it.” She scrambled into the kitchen, brushing Ezra’s shoulder and violently shoving him sideways on her way through the door. I smiled at the action. Like my house, the kitchen was located outside and as she opened the door I felt a strong, cool, breeze pour into the house. The “blistering heat” as Ezra kindly put it, had long since drifted into a chilled evening. I awkwardly sipped my tea, not answering Ezra’s questions or meeting his gaze. Never in my life before that moment had I felt so out of place, and my stomach twisted each time I heard a loud howl outside. I wanted to meet new people but not by intruding uninvitedly into their home. Ezra was rude and boorish and I wanted nothing to do with him. I couldn’t recall the last time I felt so judged. I let the steam and heat from the cup fill my senses and warm my chilled hands and nose. When Bethany returned, I followed them both into the dining room and as we ate dinner she probed me with questions. On the rare occasion that I glanced at Ezra, he was rolling his eyes or sighing in frustration at his mother’s questions but they didn’t bother me. I’d never met anyone more curious about my father’s occupation, our house, or my family. For the first time in a long time, I felt important and interesting.
Bethany glanced out of the window with a worried expression. “Oh, dear, it doesn’t look like this storm is stopping anytime soon.” The rain wailed outside, and my thoughts reverted to the hurricane. Though this thunderstorm was gentle compared to the beastly hurricane, it was still heavy and too dangerous to travel.
She turned to me. “You are more than welcome to stay the night. It’s quite a long walk back to Deveaux Grove.” I was touched by her kindness, but at that point, I wanted nothing more than to go home.
“I suppose I have no choice,” I said, trying not to sound ungrateful.
“You may stay in our guest room. I do hope your parents understand.”
I had not even considered how my parents would feel if I didn’t return home for the night.
“But, I do think I will retire for the night.” She stood from her seat. “Ezra will clean up, please make yourself comfortable. I will set out new linens for you.” She was so kind, and I wished I’d expressed my gratitude better.
“Goodnight, both of you,” she said. She walked to her son and hugged him, and his long arms engulfed her in a darling hug between mother and son. My heart warmed at the sight. She kissed him lightly on the cheek after whispering something in his ear and bounced into her bedroom, closing the door. The moment she disappeared the noises from outside seemed to grow even louder. I found myself watching Ezra. As if feeling my eyes on him, he glanced at me. His presence annoyed me, and I was eager to see him leave but I was in his home.
I stood and walked around him before going to my room, rudely avoiding a goodbye or a goodnight. I didn’t care and I doubted that he’d have shown me the same courtesy. I closed the door to the guest bedroom and opened the curtains, flinching at the loud screech of thunder outside. Darkness was slowly encroaching around me, and the only possible source of light in the room came from a small lantern near the windowpane. But when I managed to light the wick I saw nothing but droplets of water striking the glass. Lantern in hand, I took it to the small bedside table and plopped myself heavily on the hard, depleted mattress. I kept glancing at the clock on the table, and after forty-five unbearable minutes I sat back up. The thin wooden walls let in every sound and groan from outside and I eventually heard each gust of wind and every droplet of rain. I grabbed the lantern and made my way to the main room to search the bookshelf. If I wasn’t getting any sleep, reading was the only other viable option. The outside commotion distracted me, and I scanned the titles without actually reading any of them. How do these people sleep? I wondered. As I shifted through the book titles, I heard a noise. Startled, my eyes landed on a shadow in the doorway.
“Not used to a wooden house?” His voice annoyed me to no end. I ignored his question and kept looking through the books. I wanted nothing more than to be left alone.
“You know, miss, it’s quite rude not to answer someone who has spoken to you. Particularly one who is letting you stay in their home in your time of need.” Despite my irritation, he was right.
I stiffly turned to face him. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate your gracious hospitality,” I recited as if reading from a boring pamphlet. I hadn’t even finished the sentence when my back was turned to him. He didn’t respond, but I knew he was looking at me. What was it with this “gentleman?” He quietly took a seat in the large chair near the opposite corner, lit the lantern, and began reading. I let out an unwarranted, exasperated sigh to make my feelings known and he looked up from his book and stared at me. His deep blue gaze was almost intimidating.
“Do you need help?”
I shot him a look of disgust. “No, I do not need help.” But I struggled to find an interesting title and grabbed a random book from the shelf. I had considered reading my grandmother’s diary, but I didn’t want to risk him reading it. Though I had no interest in conversing with him, words slipped out of my mouth anyway.
“Is your mother asleep? Dinner was lovely. Thank you again.” I glanced at him. “Very nice for you both to let me stay here.”
He looked over at me and sighed. “Yes, my mother is asleep. I don’t sleep well during storms.” He looked me over. “Seems you don’t either. Scared when you’re not in your strong, brick mansion?” he slyly remarked. I scoffed at his deriding words. I didn’t understand what I had done to warrant such rudeness from him, but my short fuse was already lit.
“You’re quite rude to me for no reason,” I said as I straightened my back and held my eyes on him. He put his book down and leaned forward in his chair.
“And I get the feeling that you don’t like me.” He was right, but saying so would be improper. Though my feelings toward him were ill, his mother was a wonderful and gracious house guest. His comment seemed unnecessary, seeing as he didn’t like me either. Why did he care if I liked him?
“I’m hardly acquainted with you. What is your name again?” I asked, walking around the sofa, taking a seat across from him. In truth, I hadn’t forgotten his name. Before he could answer, I continued. “However your comment this afternoon was quite rude and unneeded. Have you ever met my grandmother? Do you know anything?” I felt the heat rise to my cheeks when he responded with a smirk.
“My name is Ezra, as my mother told you before. And I meant no offense, of course,” he said, his voice lacking in genuine remorse. He ignored my sounds of disapproval by picking up his book and blocking the view of my face. I stood up in a snit, and without saying anything I walked back to the bedroom and as I did so, I heard him chuckle. What was his problem? I kept thinking about his smug face, and his messy hair. I blew out the lantern and lied down in silence. I don’t know how long I fumed until I finally drifted to sleep.
“Miss Deveaux?” I heard as I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Excuse me, but I am to walk you home.” It was Ezra, gently tapping at my shoulder. I winced and glared at him. I had never, in my life, been woken up by a man other than my father and brothers. My face turned five different shades of pink. I noticed that he did as well.
“My apologies,” he said with a hint of annoyance in his voice, “but my mother is in the field cleaning up after the storm. It was a bad one. I need to walk you home before your parents worry.” The genuine concern in his voice surprised me and I gave him a nod of acknowledgment. I tied my hair into a loose braid and as I coiled the strands a painful feeling rose from the pit of my stomach as I remembered where I’d spent the night. I shuddered at my parents’ reactions. I wanted to thank his mother, but she was nowhere to be seen. Though their house was small, their private piece of land was massive in comparison. The walk was long and awkward, and it was obvious that neither of us wanted to address the other. All I could think about was what my mother was going to say when she found out that I slept at a stranger’s house. I was so anxious and distracted that I missed the large puddle blocking my path. My foot sank into the mud, taking the bottom of my dress with it. I let out a loud gasp and grabbed Ezra’s arm vigorously as I tried to regain my posture.
“Thank you, Mr. LaBarre,” I said, grasping both of his arms to get myself out of the mud.
“Please, I think you can call me Ezra,” he laughed. His laughter annoyed me.
“Fine, thank you, Ezra. But please stop laughing at me.” Much to my dismay, my shoe was still stuck in the mud and I dreaded the thought of walking the remainder of the way home with one shoe. Frazzled and embarrassed, I looked away from him when he glanced at me. When I turned back to him his arm was elbow deep in the puddle.
I gasped. When I did, his hand rose out of the mud, revealing a brown, dripping shoe. He responded to my disgusted look by laughing profusely. I blushed in extreme embarrassment at his mocking and desperately avoided his gaze. He must have noticed because he stopped laughing and found a different unstirred puddle. He rinsed off the shoe and handed it back to me, smiling.
“Thank you,” I said reluctantly, taking it from his hands. He nodded in response. I took off my other shoe and silently enjoyed walking down the path on bare feet. It was incredibly improper but I didn’t care. After walking half a mile to my house his presence was at least tolerable and I appreciated his help. Soiling his arm for my benefit was kind, and I wasn’t sure if I liked the favor or not.
“See,” he observed as we turned the path.
“I told you it was the big house,” he said, grinning. It was then that I noticed how grand my house was, particularly in comparison to his. I’d never considered my family to be overly wealthy, but it was true. We lived in the most luxurious house for miles.
“Well,” I said with hesitation, “thank you for walking me home, Ezra.”
“You’re welcome, Miss.” He turned to walk back.
“My name is Clara,” I said without thinking. He circled back to face me and smiled. It was different that time. Genuine.
“You’re welcome, Clara.”
I walked to the house, nearly blinded by the newly risen sun. In truth, I didn’t know what time it was or what to expect from my parents. I crept into my house, only to be confronted by my mother. She looked at me with disgust.
“What is that dress, Clara?”
“Uh-” I stammered. “I found it at grandma’s house. I, uh, it started raining and my dress got wet. I changed into this,” I lied.
“It’s horrendous. And you look ridiculous,” she said, judgingly. “You are small dear, but not as slender as your grandmother was.” She was still in her nightclothes with her long hair delicately braided. The braid swung to her side as she shifted past me. Her hair was immaculate, even right out of bed, and I envied her. Even more so, I resented her for keeping it hidden beneath a bun and a sour expression.
“Well get cleaned up!”
I stood there, shocked as she turned to walk away. They never noticed that I didn’t return overnight? I was unsure if the thought gave me relief or made me feel worse. Was I that invisible? I ran upstairs and took off the modest dress. It was plain. There were no jewels or embroidering and it paled in comparison to my others. I thought of my mother’s reaction to it and feared that I’d acted haughty toward the LaBarre’s despite their charity. It’s no wonder why he judged me, I admitted to myself.
I changed into a lovely olive green dress and felt much more like myself in the soft material. I fixed my hair and made myself presentable, though I questioned the point of it. My small interaction with the LaBarre’s gave me insight into how little I met new people, and I wondered again why I even bothered with my appearance. Suddenly unable to handle the stifling heat, a rush of cool air flowed into my bedroom when I opened the window. September was approaching, and it was the first brisk wind unaccompanied by rain that I’d felt in months. Though it was quick, I relished in it. I walked downstairs and saw my parents sitting quietly in the parlor. Their stares in my direction sent a pang of uneasiness to my stomach.
“Clara,” my father said, abruptly stopping me in my tracks. I panicked, thinking they’d discovered that I never returned home. My mother stepped in.
“I don’t think you should be walking to your grandmother’s alone anymore. She’s not there, and that house is in ruins. There’s nothing of value there anymore, and no reason for you to be going there in the rain, ruining your nice clothes. From now on I expect you not to travel there alone,” she stated, looking at me directly.
“What?” I asked, the heat rising to my cheeks.
“You heard me. You wander off for hours at a time. I don’t know why you are obsessing over that house, it’s gone. She’s gone! You have no reason to keep running back there! The sun is barely out and you’re already returning home. I forbid it.”
I stormed out of the room before she finished her sentence. I knew it was disrespectful but I couldn’t help myself. I had to get away from her, and out of that house and I found myself wandering to the coolie near the spare firewood at the edge of our property. The large weeds covered up most of the water but I didn’t care. I sobbed, unable to contain my frustration. I tried to stop crying when I heard footsteps approaching me, but they fell anyway.
“Dad, please. Leave me alone,” I whimpered. It was only when Ezra appeared in front of me that I realized I was not talking to my father. Mortified, I wiped the tears from my eyes. I examined him closely as he awkwardly stood in front of me, clearly unsure of what to say. He was the absolute last person I expected to see.
“What are you doing here?” It slipped from my mouth in the most impertinent tone possible. He winced from it.
“I’m your father’s stablehand. I was coming to pick up this loose firewood,” he said, pointing to the large stacks of wood pressed against my back.
“You’re the new stable hand? Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked, sniffling.
He sat next to me and crossed his legs. “I’m not sure if you noticed, but we could use the extra money. My dad died three months ago. We don’t have much income, though my mother takes care of the neighbor’s children much of the time. But even before he died we weren’t bringing in much. I needed to make myself useful without moving away and leaving my mom alone.” He shuffled nervously. I felt guilty for my rudeness.
“I apologize. I’m not having the best of days and the sun has hardly risen. Please accept my apology and my sincere condolences.” I gave him a genuine rueful look.
“Thank you. Don’t apologize. Your dad makes enough money to feed the entire town and he’s paying me well,” he said with a smile. “I should be going back, though. He won’t pay me for long if I don’t do my work.” He stood, and looked down at me, and I could tell that he wanted to help, though I didn’t have the slightest idea why.
“Thank you for sitting with me, even if only briefly. I’ve been in dire need of a friend.” My words dumbfounded even me. Ezra LaBarre was the last person on Earth I considered a friend. I rose from the grass and walked back to the house with him.
“I will gladly accept your friendship if you’ll take it,” he said.
I stopped and looked at him in disbelief. “Really?”
I never had many friends and kept to myself most days. I’d been nothing but rude to him and yet he offered friendship.
“Why the change in heart?” I asked.
He pondered my question for a moment. “You deserve a chance just like anybody else.”