"It's not my decision, Willie," Julie said, tossing her briefcase onto the passenger seat of her old Ford compact. "I'm not in charge of the Winter Pageant this year."
He gave her the impish, thoughtful grin of a male who knows instinctively that a female is soft on him—and Julie was. She loved his spunk, his pluck, his spirit, and most especially his innate kindness toward a particular handicapped boy in her class named Johnny Everett. "Well," he croaked, "if you was, I mean were, in charge, would you let me sing?"
"Willie," Julie said, smiling as she turned the key in the ignition, "the day that I get to decide who sings, you'll sing."
Julie nodded. "Try coming to church someday and I'll prove it. I'll let you sing in the children's choir."
"My folks don't hold with too much preachin'."
"Well there you have it—a real dilemma," Julie said as she began to back slowly out of her parking space in the teacher's lot, talking to him through the open window.
"What's a de-lemma?"
She reached out and rumpled his hair. "Look it up in the dictionary."
The route to her house took her through the center of "downtown" Keaton, four blocks of shops and businesses that formed a square around the stately old county courthouse. When she first came to Keaton as a child, the little Texan town without boulevards or skyscrapers—or slums—had seemed very odd and foreign to her, but she'd quickly come to love its quiet streets and friendly atmosphere. It hadn't changed noticeably in the last fifteen years. It was much as it had always been—picturesque and quaint, with its pretty white pavilion in the center of the municipal park and its brick-paved streets surrounded by shops and immaculately kept homes. Although the population of Keaton had grown from 3,000 to 5,000, the town had absorbed its new citizens into its own lifestyle, rather than altering to suit theirs. Most of the citizens still went to church on Sunday, the men still assembled at the Elk's Club on the first Friday of each month, and summer holidays were still celebrated in the time-honored way—in the grassy town square, with the Keaton Municipal Band playing in the bandstand, which was draped in red, white, and blue for those occasions. Original Keaton residents had arrived on horseback and in buggies for those festivities. Now they came in pickup trucks and compact cars, but laughter and music still rang out on the summer breeze, just as it always had. Children still played tag among the ancient oaks or strolled about, holding onto their parents with one hand and an ice cream cone with the other, while their great-grandparents sat on park benches and reminisced. It was a town where people clung tightly to old friendships, old traditions, old memories. It was also a town where everyone knew everything about everybody.
Julie was a part of all that now; she loved the sense of security, of belonging, that it gave her, and from the time she was eleven, she had scrupulously avoided doing anything whatsoever that might bring down the censure of the gossips. As a teenager, she dated only those few boys of whom her parents and the entire town approved, and she only attended school-sanctioned activities and chaste church socials with them. She never broke a deadline or a traffic law or a serious rule; she lived at home while she attended college, and when she finally rented her own little house on the north side of town last year, she kept it immaculately neat and made it a policy not to allow any males who weren't family members into it after dark. Other young women growing up in the 1980s would have chafed under such restrictions, self-imposed or not, but Julie didn't. She had found a real home, a loving family who respected and trusted her, and she was determined that she would always be worthy of it all. So effective were her determined efforts that, as an adult, Julie Mathison had become Keaton's model citizen. Besides teaching at Keaton Elementary and volunteering her time to the handicapped program and her reading program, she also taught Sunday school, sang in the choir, baked cookies for church bake sales, and knitted afghans to help raise money for a new firehouse.
With absolute determination she had eradicated all traces of the reckless, impulsive little street urchin she had been. And yet, every sacrifice she'd made brought her such rewards that she always felt as if she was the one who was blessed. She loved working with children and she got a thrill out of teaching adults. She'd carved a perfect life for herself. Except that sometimes, at night and alone, she couldn't quite banish the feeling that something wasn't quite right about all this. Something was false or missing or out of place. She felt as if she'd created a role for herself and wasn't certain exactly what she was supposed to do next.
A year ago, when the new assistant pastor, Greg Howley, had arrived to help out Julie's father, she realized what she should have considered long before: She needed a husband and family of her own to love now. Greg thought so, too. They'd talked about getting married, but Julie had wanted to wait until she was certain, and now Greg was in Florida with his own congregation, still waiting for her to decide. The town gossips, who thoroughly approved of the handsome young assistant pastor for Julie's husband, had been disappointed when Greg had left last month after Christmas without putting an engagement ring on her finger. Julie approved of him, too, objectively. Except sometimes, late at night, when those vague, inexplicable doubts set in…
Leaning her hip against her desk, Julie smiled at the seven women between the ages of twenty and sixty who were learning to read. Her heart had already been won over by their determination, their courage, and their intensity, and she was only beginning to learn to know them. She had less than twenty minutes before she was due at her parents' house for dinner, and she hated to end the class. Reluctantly she looked at her watch and said, "Okay, everybody, that about does it for tonight. Are there any questions about the assignment for next week or anything that anyone wants to say?"
Seven earnest faces looked up at her. Rosalie Silmet, twenty-five and a single mother, raised her hand and said shyly, "We—all of us—want to say how much it means to us that you're doing this. I got elected to tell you because I'm the best reader so far. We want you to know what a difference you're making just by believing in us. Some of us," she hesitated and looked at Pauline Perkins, who had recently joined the class at Rosalie's urging, "don't think you can teach us, but we're willing to give you a chance."
Following the direction of her gaze to the dark-haired, solemn woman of about forty, Julie said gently, "Pauline, why do you think you can't learn to read?"