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Fiction #172
(published March 25, 2004)
Borrowed Time
by Ann Hite

Liz Hawkins stood on her brother's doorstep; her mind whirled, Jilley's little hand tight in hers, sweet, trusting. Fire danced in her brain as she searched for courage.

Two weeks earlier typhoid fever had claimed the life of her baby son, and a week later the sheriff brought the news of Allen, her husband. "We found him hanging from a big oak on the edge of town," He lit a cigarette, "There ain't no softness to death. At least not when a person takes his own life. It's good you have your brother."

"Oh yes, good old Ernest, my loving brother." Two days later, without a preacher or tears shed, Liz had watched the gravediggers put Allen in the ground next to his parents. That afternoon Ernest had requested the bank to foreclose on the farm, removing anything of value, even the few remaining farm animals.

The door opened. "Come in, dear sister." Ernest rubbed his big belly and glanced over round spectacles with a washed out stare. "We have much to discuss." He nodded to the room where his two daughters played. "Have the little one go play with the girls."

Liz encouraged three-year-old Jilley to release her hand. "Go on now. Play for awhile."

"Tell me, Lizzy. What's in that flour sack?"

"A gun to kill you."

Ernest stomped past the kitchen to his office in the front of the house. "I find that hard to believe." His face sneered into a rock hard glare. He beckoned her to sit in a chair in front of his desk.

"I'll stand, thank you." The flour sack, which held her and Jilley's belongings, rubbed her hands with scratchy threads.

"So, be it." He looked at his papers. "I told you Allen was trash when you married him. If you listened to me, you'd have a farm today. You have nothing because the man misused every penny he made." He leaned back in his chair. "What do you want?"

"I want money. I want to be compensated for my farm equipment. You stole my farm. I want a fresh start."

The man sitting before her wore her father's nose, but all similarities to their kindhearted father stopped. "I'll tell you what." He slapped his knee and nodded to three-year-old Jilley, who played in the next room. "You sign her over to me, and I'll let you live here and take care of the girls. I'll treat her like my own. Rose is down in her back and could use a girl to help."

Liz turned her back to Ernest; she swallowed burning tears, fought the beating of her heart in her cheeks, and took Jilley's hand. They walked straight out of the house, through town, past the big oak tree, looming in her side vision, branches like claws; behind lay her history; the only history she knew, but she walked, walked until her legs ached, her mouth went dry, until the sun slid behind the trees and touched the roof of a building, setting the roof on fire, or so it seemed. The barn sat on a ridge high off the road. Jilley, a wisp of a thing, clung to Liz as they climbed the embankment. To call the building a barn was too kind. It leaned sharply to one side and part of the roof was missing. Liz gathered Jilley into her arms and took her to a pile of moldy hay.

"I'm hungry, Mama."

"Shh." Liz nestled the child in the crook of her arm, burying her face in the strawberry blonde hair. The light left the room and the first stars appeared in the sky like magic. "See." Liz pointed at a pattern of stars. "That is the big dipper. See how it looks like a cup."

Her small daughter nodded. "I like the stars."

Jilley removed the "s" from most words, and this fact alone reminded Liz that life was precious. "I do too, Sweet Pea." The small, warm body snuggled into Liz, possessing her soul.

"Where is baby brother?" Jilley spoke with small bird chirps like a nest of tiny birds swaying in a high tree.

"He is gone to a better place." Every nerve in Liz's body stood at attention, straining to believe her own words.

"What better place, Mama?" Jilley plopped her thumb into her mouth.

"Some call it Heaven." Liz tried to smooth the edges from the words. Let the child believe in dream worlds. Too soon, she would discover the truth.

"With Daddy?"

"I can't say, Jilley." Liz traced the child's sprinkle of freckles across her pug nose. "It's just me and you. We are the only family either one of us have." Jilley sucked louder on her thumb as if to drown Liz's words. "You go to sleep."

The next morning, Liz hoisted Jilley on her shoulders. "We're going to keep walking." Emptiness gnawed at her stomach.

"I'm hungry, Mama."

Dizziness swept over Liz with a strong enough force to sway them both. "I'm doing my best, sweetie. We'll find some food." God! All she wanted was a warm bed, a full stomach, and a good roof over their heads. Liz sang a silly made up song, which produced a laugh from Jilley.

Jilley hung her face down in front of Liz. "I'm upside down." Her hazel eyes reflected the responsibility weighing on Liz's shoulders.

Tears escaped Liz, "Yes you are, honey."

"Are you sad, Mommy?" Jilley touched a tear with her finger.

God, if you are up there, send me a chance. I won't waste it, I promise.

The day seeped away on the lonely road. When the evening sun rode low on the horizon, Liz heard a rumble. Jilley clutched her hand. A big dump truck topped the hill and came to a stop with a loud squeal of brakes. A man—hair so blonde it looked white—hung his head out the window. "Can I give you two a ride?"

"We're okay, thank you." Liz tried not to think.

"Come on, that pretty little girl looks tired, and I bet she would love to ride in this big truck." Jilley hid behind Liz's dress.

This was her chance, taking a ride from a stranger? "Okay."

"Good! Get on up here." He motioned them to the passenger side. The man drove the dirt road; dust billowed behind, coating the trees and bushes with red Georgia clay.

"Where are two lovely ladies, like yourselves, headed on this fine evening?"

"Atlanta, to find work." There, she said it; put a real plan in motion.

"Lots of folks out of work. I'm lucky to have my job with state highway." He tossed a piece of taffy into Jilley's lap. Liz watched her child rip the paper from the candy, shoving it into her mouth. The driver rubbed one hand up and down the steering wheel. "I think we'll stop for a little dinner. What do you say to some steak and potatoes, little one?"

"I like pancakes." Jilley spoke around chewing.

The man threw back his head. "By gosh, pancakes it is!"

His laughter opened a fresh wound in Liz's pride. "That's not necessary."

"Excuse me, Miss, but you got to let someone help you; it might as well be me." He turned his attention to Jilley. "What is your name?" Jilley hid her face in Liz's shoulder. "I am William Cove. Most folks just call me Cove."

"This is Jilley, and I'm Liz Hawkins. I'll pay you when I get a job."

"Liz, there ain't no jobs in Atlanta."

The air, thick and hot, settled on Liz's chest. "I'll find work. I have to, Mr. Cove."

"Just Cove and I know a rooming house that will work. The landlord is an old poker buddy and owes me some money. Now, don't say no. You'd do the same for me if I were walking down the road with my kid."

Liz knew this was true about herself, but with the agreement, freedom fell away like the road under the truck. Allen's image appeared in her mind, but Allen was dead by his own hand. Fuck Allen. Liz wrapped her arm around Jilley. Cove fed them and arranged for a room. Later that night, Jilley slept the innocent sleep of children, and Liz paid Cove for his trouble. She rushed the inevitable. After all, nothing came free. As she stepped out of her dress, a silent whisper filled her head: I will do whatever it takes to feed my child. I will do what it takes to find a good life. She lay down next to the stranger, her savior, and allowed her mind to go blank.

Later, Cove opened the door to leave, fumbling with his words. "I have to be honest, Liz. I'm married. I can't make any promises. You deserve more than living on borrowed time."

Her harsh laugh echoed through her head. "Promises are like snowflakes in the summer; they don't really exist." Her words hit the closed door. Tomorrow was hours away. She closed her mind to anything but the thrill of a full stomach and a warm bed. As she walked the edge of sleep, a thought barged into her mind: What if William Cove didn't come back? The rent was paid for a month. She would find a job, somewhere.

Cove did return every other evening with food, and Liz paid him as the first night. Jobs were nonexistent, but she searched everyday, anyway. Numbness changed to a strong, lethal, emotion, which promised to strip her of protection. Sometimes, when Cove came into a room, her heart leapt into her throat. They took walks through the neighborhood just like a real couple; Jilley skipping ahead; Cove and her speaking about some his day. Folks watched without smiling. On one occasion, she looked into the eyes of an old woman sweeping her porch; the woman wore sarcasm creased into lines around her mouth. Liz's shoulders drew into knots of pride, flushing her face with heat; she wanted to yell, scream, point the woman's accusations at the mirrored sky. Never did Cove speak of his real life, the life lead when he left her asleep on the small daybed. Jilley thrived in the small room, stomach full, color in her cheeks. Soon, Cove came every evening as if he lived there, as if they were a couple. His poker buddy and her landlord, John Sawyer dropped in to drink a beer or a little moonshine at least once a week. His stare bored into her. He wore his good looks in a rugged way like an outlaw robbing a bank.

So, when he knocked on her door one morning, she wasn't surprised, only annoyed. "I need to check the lock on your window. Cove complained." He smelled of sweat, hard, outside word, and wore an undershirt, which enhanced his muscles. With the door closed, he turned to Liz, ignoring Jilley, who sat on the bed with a pair of shears and a Sears and Roebuck catalog. "You want to spend some time with me?"

Liz's heart beat fast. "What do you mean, Mr. Sawyer?"

He touched her elbow. "Don't play stupid and insult both of us. I have money. You need money. Money would get you out of this stink hole." He looked around the room "How can a woman of your caliber keep playing second fiddle? You don't strike me as the type." He leaned against the window. "I'll give you plenty of money." He pulled a money clip of gold from his pocket. More money than she saw in her whole life. His eyes reflected a memory, comforting in its familiar harshness. "We'll go to my room."

She watched Jilley as she snipped. "Mr. Sawyer there is no way I will sleep with you for money."

His face mocked her. "Oh really, you're doing just that with Cove."

The anger blazed through her mind as she controlled her shaking hands. "Please leave. Cove wouldn't like it if you were here."

He strolled to the door. "If you tell Cove, I tell him you came after me. Who do you think he'll believe? Me, his long time friend, or you, the woman he picked up on the side of the road?"

She slammed the door after him and looked at Jilley. "We deserve a day out. Let's go to the city. I want to shop for your new shoes at Riches." Cove left her spending money, but she hid it in a shoe at the back of her cupboard, fifty-dollars.

The store was the highest building she had ever set foot in, twelve floors. Jilley stood beside her as she looked at the directory. "We want the third floor, Sweet Pea." Jilley twirled beside her, all smiles. Jilley laughed in the elevator. Liz felt the sad heaviness lift from her chest. In the children's shoe department, a woman with a small girl, around Jilley's age, waited for service. The small girls laughed and peeked at each other from behind their mothers. Liz realized Jilley had no real friends.

"Your daughter looks the same age as Cathy." The woman was soft spoken.

"Jilley is three." Liz held a shoe, a black patent.

"Cathy is too." The woman swiped her mousy hair from her face. "We're not from around here. We are from Marietta. My husband is busy looking for clothes.

Liz nodded, showing Jilley the shoe she held.

Cathy ran up to Liz. "I hate those kind of shoes."

The woman put her hand to her mouth. "Cathy Cove."

Cold water washed through Liz's heart. The small girl next to Jilley reflected a face she knew all to well. She took Jilley's hand. "We have to go, Darling."

"But, Mommy."

"No buts." Liz tried not to look at the woman. "I just remember something." Liz fled the store.

After depositing Jilley on the bed with the shears and her paper dolls, Liz knocked on the door. No one answered. She turned to leave and met John Sawyer head on. "You changed your mind?"


"Good." He fumbled with a key.

Liz found the numbness as she removed her dress. John Sawyer watched from his bed in the dingy apartment, a half consumed bottle of moonshine balanced on his stomach. "Take off everything." His voice broke with a roughness. "What made you change your mind?"

Her eyes locked on his hungry stare. "You're my chance." She closed her mind and descended into a turbulent dream. When she opened her eyes, on top, deep into the image, she saw Allen, Ernest, and Cove rolled into this man, this devil. She rode the wild nightmare horse until he no longer mastered her, but she owned him. As he drifted into a cloud of comfort, he smiled. "Get rid of the kid, and you can live with me forever." He closed his eyes.

"Just give me my money."

"It's in my pants pocket. Take it."

She stood naked in the afternoon light counting the money. With her fifty dollars, she now had a hundred, a fortune. "When can we do this again?"

He laughed, eyes still shut. "You're learning. I got to win some more money."

The fence she walked wobbled with rickety neglect, but a solid plan of survival formed in her mind. After all, a job was a job especially in hard times.

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