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All the Colors of My Soul
All the Colors of My Soul
All the Colors of My Soul
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All the Colors of My Soul

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What could drive a loving wife and mother to commit cold-blooded murder?


Growing up in the 1930s Santa Clara Valley, California, Neva Holiday wanted nothing more than to reach eighteen, have a beau, get married and mother a houseful of kids. Simple, quiet, peaceful.


As she blossoms into a young woman during high school, she finds herself torn between a life-long bond with the boy next door and her growing love for a handsome newcomer escaping the destitution of Dust Bowl Oklahoma. Before she can discover the desire of her heart, WWII tears her world apart, plunging her into years of fear and dread of receiving the telegram beginning, "We regret to inform you."


A son brings joy, purpose and focus to her life until an insidious influence creeps into the family unawares, creating an unspeakable tragedy, forever shattering Neva's dreams of quiet happiness, and forcing her to confront whether she will turn the other cheek or deliver cold-hearted retribution.


In a dizzying exposé of the human spirit, Leta McCurry weaves a riveting tale of a young woman's descent into darkness. Emotionally gripping and magnificently crafted, this rich and heart-wrenching novel will keep you on the edge of your seat as you race to its extraordinary conclusion. — Heidi Thomas, Award-winning author of the "Cowboy Dreams" series.


All the Colors of My Soul is a sweeping twentieth-century historical fiction. If you like captivating character studies, poignant moral quandaries, and vivid snapshots of the past, then you'll love Leta McCurry's mesmerizing story. — Sally Bates, Award-winning author of Western fiction and poetry.


PublisherEmbers Press
Release dateSep 29, 2021
All the Colors of My Soul
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Leta McCurry

Tale-spinner. Revealer of secrets. Bailey, the rescue pup's best friend. (Great buddy, but she can't hold her likker.) Cornbread and fried okra country girl. Lives in Arizona, and enjoys writing, reading, good food, travel, genealogy, a large, fun-loving family and a precious handful of solid gold friends. Favorite destinations: Ireland and Singapore. Author of Introduction to Commercial Real Estate, High Cotton Country, A Shadow Life, and Dancing to the Silence. Presently writing her fourth novel, All the Colors of My Soul. Leta says she loves the fascination of new characters and the fun of getting acquainted with them and seeing what they will do as the story develops. Sometimes they're just entirely too frisky. Come on over to the website to read a free chapter. Sometimes free books, too. http://www.leta.mccurry.com

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    All the Colors of My Soul - Leta McCurry



    My parents raised me right. I’m a good person. I love God. It’s important you know that because I’m about to kill someone.

    It is a certainty. Nothing will stop me other than my death. 

    What kind of person is capable of cold-blooded, premeditated murder, you ask? Well, first, I don’t view it as murder. It’s an execution. Second, there is nothing cold about it. Dedication to this purpose inflames my blood with the searing heat of an erupting volcano. It consumes me.

    You’re obviously stunned by my words. I’m stunned myself. But I am what you see, an ordinary mother and grandmother, and about as peanut butter, apple pie, and puppy dogs as you can get.

    As a child, I never thought about whether we were rich or poor. I only knew there was food to eat when I was hungry, clothes on my back, a roof over my head, and presents for birthdays and Christmas. 

    My parents would’ve been labeled the salt of the earth, and that’s how they raised me. They taught me to respect and be kind to all living things, to expect nothing more than I worked for, and to be grateful for any blessing above that. And mainly that I was responsible for the consequences of my choices. I accept that in this decision to kill. It terrifies me, but I accept it.

    We went to every Wednesday night prayer meeting and twice to church on Sunday. I could sing Jesus Loves Me before I could say my name. Throughout my youth, I was active in Teens for Christ and for many years I taught Sunday School to first and second graders.

    I’m acquainted with the commandment, Thou shalt not kill. A more accurate translation is, Thou shalt not murder. And I’m not. I’m merely an instrument of applied justice.

    This decision to take a life was not sudden. It crept over me, like a living thing, a dark, gray fog that hovered in a thin layer under my bed at night while I lay awake, clutched in the sharp talons of worry and dread. It overtook me so quietly, lying first on my skin with the whisper softness of a spider web. Then it seeped into the blood of my veins. It became the beat of my heart and the very breath that sustains me. 

    Oh, don’t think I wasn’t shocked, even appalled, when my mind understood and endorsed what I must do. I struggled with it, tried to persuade myself I could let it go. Find another way. I can’t tell you the nights I spent on my knees, begging for release from this horrible task.

    I prayed God would grant me the grace to forgive her, but every time it seemed possible… maybe… thoughts of Danny and those children flamed hot and demanding in my mind. A searing sense of duty and purpose — and, yes, justice — overtook any idea of forgiveness.

    Oh, I know. Leave her to heaven for retribution, if not in this life, then in the next. That’s not enough. Danny’s beyond it all now, but there’s nothing but suffering ahead for those poor children. If something isn’t done, and soon, they’ll be destroyed in the here and now.

    Believe me, in those long, dark hours of the night, as I cried out for mercy, I held up to the Lord all the colors of my soul. You know me, Lord, I said. You’ve known me from my mother’s womb. I’m a good person. Cleanse my mind and soul of this burden, Lord, and set me free. All I heard was silence.

    So. I will kill her. Soon.



    I’ll tell you the whole truth of Danny’s story to the best of my knowledge and memory since I’ve chosen you to share the burden of my journey.

    This is Danny’s story more than mine, but without Royce Alan Colbert, there would be no Danny, so I must start with Royce.

    Gazely Creek, California – 1937

    Are you crazy? I squinted my eyes and gave Royce a look I hoped let him know exactly how I felt about his goofy idea. 

    But, Butter Bean, how will we know if we don’t try? My glare apparently didn’t deter his foolishness, for he flashed his lopsided grin. 

    I don’t know. I patted myself dry and then draped a towel over my arm. 

    Even though she thought it barely appropriate for a fifteen-year-old, I had persuaded my mother to let me spend the outrageous sum of $1.79 for a new Catalina swimsuit with drawstring back straps. I had earned the money myself cutting apricots for the drying shed during the summer, but that didn’t cut any mustard with Mama when it came to being sensible. 

    It took a lot of apricot cutting to buy that hot red number, and there was no way I would cover it up with a towel. At least as long as Mama couldn’t see me. Besides, I kinda liked the way Royce looked me over when he thought I wasn’t watching.

    Stop calling me Butter Bean. I gave him my best glare. He grinned.

    "Okay, Neva, but don’t be such a stick in the mud." He kicked a rock, sending it skittering along the trail that led from our swimming hole in Gazely Creek to our side-by-side houses on the north end of the town of the same name.

    I plopped down on a flat-top rock under a big walnut tree I’ll have to think about it.

    Don’t think too long or I’ll get old and gray. He sat on the rock beside me.

    I turned my head and studied him. It wasn’t that I hadn’t thought about kissing before. It was the middle of August, the summer we were fifteen, and consumed with curiosity about a lot of things. High on the list was kissing. Royce and I had speculated for hours on end about what the fascination with such an odd activity could be. 

    I expected to tolerate the practice one day as I intended to marry and knew from observing my mom and dad that kissing was part of the deal. I had never entertained the thought that Royce Alan Colbert would be the one to give me my first. 

    Growing up awash in the unrealistic romanticism of Hollywood, I pictured my dream man tall, dark, and looking a lot like Clark Gable. 

    That was not Royce. He was red-headed, blue-eyed, freckled, and always a head taller than the other boys. Gangly and gawky, Mama said he could break ten things just walking from the front door to the back in your house. All that lumbering around didn’t seem to bother him, though. He was always grinning, showing square, white teeth that looked a little too big for his mouth. He was goofy and funny, and, while he fell far short of my specifications for a future husband, he was perfect as a best friend.

    Royce was four months and twenty-four days older than me, and we grew up next door to each other. From before memory, we played together, cried, quarreled, spit up on each other, hit each other over the head with toys, pulled hair, and loved each other. It was entirely too squishy for a boy to even think the word love, much less say it, but I knew Royce loved me best as a friend. 

    He called me Butter Bean, he said because I was a chubby baby. That nickname lived on long after I lost my baby fat, if I ever had any. When we entered high school, I threatened to never speak to him again if he called me that dorky name one more time. He stopped for three days, and then was back at it again.

    One advantage of Royce as a best friend was that I could out-run and out-maneuver him for many years. That meant I won most athletic challenges until he got into his teen years and had more brute strength. He was good at math, though, and I excelled at English and history, so most nights found us doing homework together.

    As I studied him that day, I had to wonder, once again, what the kissing fuss was all about. It had to be nasty to put your mouth on somebody else’s. What if they had cooties?

    Are you chicken? His grin got bigger. He knew that would get me. I could do anything he could do and do it better.

    I had to admit, he was right. So many people kissed. Maybe there was something to it. How could we know if we didn’t try it ourselves? Who better to investigate the matter with than a best friend who keeps your secrets?

    Okay. I stood and faced him, looking both ways along the trail. My mother would confine me to the house for a month if she found out I let a boy kiss me. Any boy. Especially Royce.

    Royce and I were only children in our families. Our parents had grown up together and were best friends. The two mothers were in and out of each other’s houses every day. Our fathers and Royce listened to baseball on the radio on Friday nights while the women and I went to the movies. Every Saturday evening the six of us had supper together and played Monopoly until bedtime. We sat in the same pew for every church service and our parents belonged to all the same clubs.

    We called each other’s parents aunt and uncle although we weren’t blood related. So, Royce was like a brother. The thought of kissing him made me queasy, but I had to do it if for no other reason than to prove I was no clucker when it came to a challenge.

    He leaned in and planted his warm, dry lips on mine for a couple of seconds. It wasn’t as bad as I expected, but it wasn’t anything to brag about either. I didn’t feel a thing.

    Jiminy Cricket, Royce! What’s the big deal? I stepped back and looked closely at him to see if maybe he felt something.

    He shrugged. Beats me.

    A few days later, we were sitting on my back porch after supper, going over the list of supplies we needed for school starting in a couple of weeks when Royce said, Neva, we didn’t do it right.

    I was born Geneva Clarice Holiday, but Royce was the first to call me Neva when he was learning to talk, and it stuck.

    Did what wrong? I chewed on a pencil eraser, trying to decide if I should try to talk my parents into buying a new book satchel. No, probably not. We were better off than many people in the hard times of the thirties, but Mama said even in good times, Daddy could squeeze a nickel until Jefferson cried for mercy. 

    The kiss. He stood and looked through the kitchen window. Apparently satisfied nobody was in there, he flopped back into the swing beside me.

    What are you talking about?

    I heard a couple of the fellows talking yesterday. We did it wrong. He leaned closer.


    Let’s try again. He put his hand on my arm.

    I don’t know… A waste of time if you ask me.

    I think we missed something. He grinned. I’d sure like to know what it is.

    That did it. Not one to be left out of anything new to know, I leaned toward him and closed my eyes. Same as before, he put his lips against mine. Nothing. My mind was on the chocolate cake I knew was sitting on the counter in the kitchen. Then Royce flicked out his tongue and touched my lip. I squeaked and jumped back.

    What are you doing? That’s gaggy. I wiped my mouth on my sleeve.

    He popped up like a Jack-in-the-box, peered into the kitchen again, and then dropped back down.

    No. That’s what we did wrong. Open your mouth.

    Are you batty? I’ll do no such thing! I stuck my tongue out, shook my head, and made vomiting noises, just to be sure he understood how disgusting I found the whole idea.

    We have to try it the right way, or we’ll never know. He held my hands, and I knew by the look in his eyes he wanted to try this nasty thing again. He did a lot of things for me, so turnabout was fair play.

    Okay. I nodded. Just this once. Then we’ll know.

    He reached out and cupped his hand behind my head, pulling me gently toward him. He hesitated. Close your peepers this time, nut case.

    I did, but wondered — how do you do this? When do you open your mouth? Before the other lips touch yours? Or do you open after touching? And what happens after you open your mouth? Do you sit there like fish with your faces stuck together?

    Before I could decide whether I should approach the kiss, open or closed, he placed his lips on mine.

    Okay. What now? He opened his mouth a little and took my lower lip between his, softly. Not too bad. Then he ran his tongue slowly from one side to the other between my lips. My mouth seemed to open on its own, and his tongue touched mine.

    It was like a wet snake was trying to slither into my mouth. I jumped, but he was holding me close with his hand behind my head. The kiss lasted maybe half a minute, his tongue moving in my mouth. At first, I thought I would gag, but it felt kinda good, and then I turned into one big tingle, like somebody was tickling me from the inside out. How sappy was that?

    Royce let go of me and leaned back, eyes wide. Well? His face was as red as mine felt.

    I caught a quick breath. Nothing. I didn’t know what it was, but it definitely was not nothing.

    Me, either. By the look in his eyes, I was pretty sure he was lying, too.

    I wanted to try it again and leaned against him. I think he wanted another shot, too, because he moved toward me. Then I heard the sounds of the Amos ‘n’ Andy show on the radio from the parlor and knew one of my parents had opened the door into the kitchen behind us.

    We jerked apart. Royce grabbed his notebook and pencil, and jumped off the porch. See ya.

    We might have evolved from best friends to sweethearts later, but before either of us could gather the courage to suggest another experiment, we met Willis Childen.

    He transferred to Gazely Creek High School from Oklahoma, one of the rag-tag Okies that came to California to work the crops and escape the Dust Bowl. He and Royce became instant friends, despite the fact Royce was sappy and bookish, while Will was Clark-Gable-gorgeous, and the best baseball pitcher to darken the doors of Gazely Creek High School, ever.

    I fell head over heels for Will the first second I saw him. We flirted and kind of poked at each other for a while. My parents wouldn’t hear of me having a beau before I was eighteen, so Will and I weren’t exactly a couple by our junior year, but my fires were already smoldering just under the surface. I was pretty sure his were, too.



    It was all because of the kiss. Royce shook his head as he loped down the school hallway toward his locker. Until he and Neva locked lips a couple of weeks earlier, he had never defined her by gender. If he thought about it all, he probably would have had some vague notion of her as not-quite-a-boy, but not a sappy girl, either. Post kiss, she was all girl. No question.

    How could she not feel anything when he felt like a bomb exploded in his crotch as soon as his tongue touched hers? And his good buddy still stood up and saluted when he remembered the warm wetness and how she tasted a little like Red Hots, the spicy cinnamon candy she always carried in her pocket.

    Don’t think about it. Of course, every time he reminded himself not to think about it, he did. He was constantly shaking one leg and then the other to ease the tightness of his pants and rearrange his equipment, which seemed to bulge at the worst possible time. Last night he had to sit at the dinner table a full ten minutes after his mom began clearing the dishes. She thought he was just enjoying her company.

    Nodding and smiling at passersby and trying to appear casual and not trip over his own feet strolling down the hall, he found his way to his locker. A boy he’d never seen before piled books in the next open cubby.

    Hi, the youth said. I’m Will Childen.

    I’m Royce Colbert. Royce put his lunch sack in the cubicle and closed the door. You must be new.

    Yeah. Transferred from Milo, Oklahoma. His voice was thick with a warm, slurry accent.

    Royce must have looked blank because Will laughed. That’s okay. Nobody has ever heard of it. The boy turned and kept pace with Royce.

    How long you been here? Royce grinned. There was something about Will, an exuberance, like a squirming puppy that’s just found his new master. Royce liked him immediately.

    We got here in the spring. Been following the crops all around the valley. Will matched Royce’s stride with his long, lanky legs. I’d be hauling buckets of walnuts right now instead of in school if it was up to Pa.


    Yeah. He says school's wasted on a growed boy, but Mama pitched a hissy fit. Will laughed. When she gets all wound up, you best figure that butter has done been churned and give up. She said I’d never amount to a hill of beans if I lay out of school to work the crops, so here I am.

    Royce laughed. You’ll like it here.

    Gotta be better’n hanging about the walnut patch. Will raised his dark eyebrows. I’m fixin’ to try out for the baseball team after school. You going?

    Nah. Not much of a player myself. Royce nodded at a boy walking by. You’re lucky they even have the team.

    How’s that?

    They cut a bunch of the clubs and stuff from school because times are so hard. The only reason they kept baseball is because all the men on the school board are such diehard fans. Babe Ruth is like a god to them.

    You think y’all have hard times? Will snorted. This here is the land of milk and honey. You want hard times, try eating dust in Oklahoma.

    Well, here’s my first class… Royce opened the civics classroom door.

    Well, gig a frog and call it supper if we ain’t got the same class. Will grinned.

    Hey, Will. Royce smiled as he walked out the schoolhouse back door with his lunch box. He glanced at the Karo syrup bucket with the label still attached that Will carried. I eat lunch at the picnic tables over by the creek if you want to come.

    Sure do. Will grinned. I’m so hungry my belly thinks my throat’s been cut.

    Royce burst out laughing as they walked toward a big oak tree just past the baseball field. That’s pretty hungry. Hey, there’s Neva.

    She looked up and waved.

    What’s up, Butter Bean? Royce slid onto the bench beside her as Will took a seat on the opposite side.

    I told you don’t call me that! She punched Royce on the arm.

    Ouch. Okay. Okay. He opened his lunch box. This is Will. He’s new.

    Hi, Will. Neva smiled.

    Will ducked his head. Ma’am… Miss… Ma’am. His face turned so red he looked like he had been scalded with boiling water.

    Neva, she said, laughing.

    Yes, ma’am… Neva, he stammered.

    So, Will, are you a sophomore or a junior? She unwrapped an egg salad sandwich.

    Last time I was in school back home, we all were in the same room, not separate like here. He opened the syrup bucket and took out a knotted red bandana. I reckon I must be a sophomore. I’m in some of the same classes as Royce here.

    Where you from?


    Well, I’m glad you’re here. Neva put two chocolate chip cookies beside her sandwich. I love your accent.

    Royce hadn’t thought it possible, but Will’s face flushed even redder.

    Yes, ma’am.

    Neva. She smiled.

    Neva. Will untied the bandana and spread out a piece of cornbread and a couple of slabs of cold bacon.

    "Say, we’re going to see Call of the Wild with Clark Gable and Loretta Young Saturday afternoon. Neva looked at him. Want to come?"

    Royce shifted on the bench. It had always been the two of them doing everything together, including the occasional Saturday matinees. He wasn’t at all sure he wanted Will tagging along. He glanced at the other boy, who was looking at Neva. But then, he really liked the fellow. It should be okay… probably.

    Will opened a Mason jar and took a drink. Want some sweet tea? He tipped the jar toward Neva.

    No, thanks. How about the film? Want to go?

    Will snorted a short laugh. Can’t. I’m so broke I couldn’t jump a nickel to save a dime.

    Oh. Neva chewed a bite of sandwich for a minute and swallowed. Her eyes widened. I know! Why don’t you guys come to my house Saturday night, and we can listen to my new Benny Goodman platter.

    Awww… come on, Neva! Royce cleared his throat, but she didn’t notice.

    Platter? Will raised his eyebrows.

    A new record. Can you come? She leaned a little forward over the table.

    Will grinned. I reckon I could do that.

    Royce looked at Will and then at Neva, but they were looking at each other.

    Next thing they’ll be yowling like a couple of cats on the back fence. Royce slumped and gave a big sigh. Sure as shootin’, it could end up being a cold day in a hot, low down place before Royce Colbert got a chance to kiss Neva Holiday again.


    Dance Party

    Ipaced between the two big windows at the front of the house, trying to peek out the curtains without making it obvious I was watching for Will.

    The rug in the parlor was already rolled back. The Victrola was wound just right, not too tight; and the new record was on the turntable, ready for the needle to be lowered. A plate full of Mama’s secret recipe butterscotch-peanut butter cookies waited beside a pitcher of lemonade.

    I pulled my brown hair into a high knot with a few curls cascading down my back, all the while wishing I were a stunning blonde beauty like Carole Lombard. But I would have to make do with my cliff-hanger cheekbones, and lips that looked like they could kiss a fish. Mama said I had a Clara Bow mouth, but I figured she was stuck with me and my poochy lips, so what else could she say?

    Maybe my eyes — which Daddy said looked like fine brandy caught in the glow of a candle flame — would detract from my other features which distressed me. But at least I had a noticeable bosom; some of the girls at school were still as flat as a pancake.

    I took a deep breath to still my fluttering heart and opened the door before Will Childen could knock. He stood tall and magnificent on my front porch. All I could think about was that he looked as delicious as a pineapple popsicle on a hot summer day.

    Come in, I said, trying to sound like a sultry movie star, which wasn’t easy with a chorus line of butterflies doing the cha-cha-cha in my stomach.

    Hey, Neva. He grinned, and my butterflies did a kick so high it almost bruised my tonsils. Boy, does it smell good in here.

    Cookies. I made them, I said like I was auditioning for chief cook and bottle washer. How dumb was that?

    Mama and Daddy came in from the back parlor to meet my new friend. They insisted they had to know anyone I spent time with.

    Ma’am, Will said when I introduced my mother. Thank you for having me in your home. His voice was as warm and thick as honey right out of the hive. Mama’s cheeks pinked prettily, and I could tell she was as taken with him as I was.

     Sir. Will shook my father’s hand. Happy to meet you.

    So. Daddy smiled. You’re new around here.

    Yes, sir. From Oklahoma.

    I hear things are pretty bad back there. Daddy peered at Will over the top of his glasses.

    Yes, sir. It’s so sorry, the buzzards done give up and left the country.

    Daddy raised his eyebrows for a second and then burst out laughing. Well, that sounds pretty bad. Are you and your family finding work here?

    Yes, sir. We been following the crops in the valley.

    You must be doing some work for Old Man Luzatto.

    Yes, sir. We contracted his prune orchard off Hollister Avenue and picked apricots for him down on Railroad. We’re gathering walnuts for him now.

    I peered more closely at Will.

    Daddy said I had to earn my own money if I was ever to value a dollar, so every summer since I was twelve, I cut apricots at Mr. Luzatto’s fruit drying sheds. Leave it to me to have a parent that was progressive in that way. Females didn’t work outside the home unless it was an absolute necessity, but my father thought laboring for money was good for my development. He said I had to be prepared to take over his business one day. There was no son to take on the duty and he sure as shootin’ wasn’t leaving this world unless somebody could assume control. That would be me.

    He owned All Harvest Cannery in Gilroy. We processed all kinds of fruits and vegetables for other labels as well as our own. It always gave me a little burst of pride to see our cans of green beans or peaches or other products on the grocery store shelves.

    College was never in the picture for me, not only because few women went, or my parents couldn’t afford to send me, but because it wasn’t in my plans or theirs. Beginning the previous year when I entered freshman year of high school, I started reporting to Daddy’s office manager, Mrs. Foxmoor, after school and half-days on Saturdays to begin my training in how to run the business.

    During the harvest rush between my freshman and sophomore year, I worked on the floor of the cannery, first on the conveyor belt sorting fruit, and later at the boxing belt where I had to put the cans into cartons, twelve to the case, as they came out of the labeling machine. Let me tell you, those cans came out fast.

    Now, in my sophomore year, I was back in the office with Mrs. Foxmoor in off-school hours. I had graduated from filing and go-for duties to answering the phone and typing a few letters. I was taking all the math classes I could, and next year, I would graduate to working under Mr. Arcroft, the head bookkeeper. Someday, I’d be boss of the whole shootin’ match. That was a big responsibility, and I took it very seriously.

    Anyway, one of the things we canned at the plant was apricots, and that night, I was wondering if Will had been around the facility unloading trucks during the summer.

    Did you haul apricots to the cannery in Gilroy? Surely, I would have noticed if he had crossed my line of vision.

    No, but Pa took a couple of loads when one of the drivers was sick. He grinned at me. Why?

    I work there part time, and I thought I might’ve seen you around.

    Nope. I haven’t been driving very long. Pa still won’t turn me loose by myself.

    Royce came lumbering in through the kitchen from the back door. He snatched a cookie from the platter; it disappeared into his mouth in two bites before he said, Evenin’, Aunt Madge… Uncle Albert.

    Daddy nodded. Mama gave Royce a hug. We’ll leave you young folks to your dancing. She followed Daddy from the room, adding over her shoulder, Let me know if you need more lemonade.

    Hey, Royce said to Will and me, and we said Hey’ back as I picked up the phonograph arm and lowered it carefully onto the outer edge of the record to activate the turntable. After a couple of seconds of a sandpapery sound, Benny Goodman’s Tiger Rag filled the room.

    As I turned to ask Will to dance, I glanced at Royce. He stepped toward me, his hand extended, so I grabbed hold of him instead, and we cut loose with a fast shag. Almost without taking a breath, we swung into Stompin’ at the Savoy.

    One thing strange about Royce. He could fall all over his own feet when walking around, but put him on the dance floor and he turned into Fred Astaire. I had a hard time keeping up, and I considered myself a good dancer.

    By the end of the second set, I was a little breathless, so I bent over, put my hands on my knees and inhaled deeply a couple of times. When I raised up, Royce was holding out a glass of lemonade. I took it and gulped down the contents while looking at Will over the rim of the glass.

    He was staring at us wide-eyed, mouth agape. Well, slap my mouth and call me stupid if that ain’t the dangest thing I ever did see.

    Royce and I burst out laughing. What? I managed to say between guffaws. 

    I ain’t never seen no dance like that. Will shook his head. It were like a couple of dogs trying to get away from a mess of fleas.

    Royce and I laughed even harder.

    The phonograph spun into Ida! Sweet as Apple Cider. I held my hand out to Will. It’s not that hard. Come on, I’ll show you.

    He looked as scared as a three-year-old on Halloween night, but he grabbed hold. A jolt shot up my arm like I had grabbed a hot wire instead of Will. I swallowed. See, it’s like this. Hop on the left, hop on the right, down left, slow, slow, quick, quick.

    I demonstrated the steps, and he moved his feet, trying to follow. One big boot landed on top of my foot.

    Ow! Ow! I hobbled a couple of steps.

    Will flushed red and stammered, Well, shoot a monkey! I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

    No, it’s okay, I said but still hobbled about the room. Let’s stop for a minute and have some lemonade and cookies.

    Sit down. I’ll get it. Royce picked up the pitcher and filled three glasses. He handed one to me and one to Will, who was hanging his head and wouldn’t look at me.

    Will, I said. He looked up. I really am okay. You wouldn’t believe how long it took Royce and me to learn these steps. You’ll catch on.

    You think I might learn before I break your foot? He grinned and took a sip of lemonade.

    You will, Royce said. She lived through me learning, she can live through anything.

    We all laughed as Mama walked in the door. Sounds like you youngsters are having entirely too much fun in here. I cringed when she called us youngsters. She leaned back and called down the hallway, Albert! Come in here and let’s show these kids a thing or two.

    She put on a different record. Tommy Dorsey’s Marie filled the room by the time Daddy came in and spun her into a Charleston swing.

    Royce, Will and I clapped in time to the music until the song ended, and Daddy gave Mama one last spin, pulled her close, and gave her a kiss right on the mouth.

    I glanced at Will; he was watching my parents with such a forlorn, hungry look, it took my breath away and made me wonder about his folks.

    Mama laughed. Now that you see how it’s done, we’ll leave you to it. She and Daddy left the room holding hands.

    The phonograph circled to Tommy Dorsey’s sweet and sultry trombone playing "I’m Getting Sentimental Over You."

    Will pulled me against him and whispered in my ear, Now, this is the way to dance with a girl. He held me close, his body hard and warm against mine. I put my arm around his neck and lay my head against his chest. Our heartbeats pounded in rhythm as we barely moved our feet in a small circle, his breath a feather whisper on my forehead.

    I didn’t dare open my eyes and look up at him. I was afraid I couldn’t control a crazy urge to grab his face and kiss him senseless, tongue and all.

    I sighed and glanced at Royce. A look of raw pain in his eyes made me miss a step. I wasn’t certain what his distress was about, but it was clear that maybe this threesome wasn’t going to work as well as just Royce and me. I knew right then I had to do something. I didn’t know what, but my heart told me there was no way I could choose between them.



    For the first time in his life, Royce fought to control a hot urge to punch somebody right in the kisser, that somebody being Will Childen. But he couldn’t hit anyone, especially somebody he liked.

    His heart pounded as he watched Will and Neva sway, feet barely moving, their bodies glued together so tight you couldn’t put a broom straw between them. He had never felt Neva close like that. His good buddy couldn’t stay still in his crotch and did a fast little rhumba of its own as the desire to take Will’s place holding Neva set his body on fire. He groaned.

    He’d just leave. They’d feel like jerks when they noticed he was gone. No, wait. He couldn’t do that.

    If he left them alone, Will might kiss Neva. If he did, it would all be over. Will would be a goner for sure. Just like Royce.

    Just then, Neva came out of her daze enough to look at him. Her eyes widened, and she stepped away from Will.

    Royce — She extended her hand toward him.

    The music changed to Dorsey’s The Dipsy Doodle. Royce grabbed Neva and swung her into a frenzied Big Apple.

    He made sure he chose the next two records with fast music, so Will tapped his foot, drank lemonade, and ate cookies as he watched.

    Okay, guys. Aunt Madge stepped into the room as Count Basie’s "One O’Clock Jump ended. Church comes early tomorrow, so I think we need to wrap up this party."

    Royce didn’t move. There was no way he was leaving ahead of Will. He ate a couple more cookies as his friend said his thanks and goodbyes.

    You’re welcome to go to church with us tomorrow. Neva’s mom wrapped a couple of cookies in a napkin and put them in Will’s hand.

    Aww, come on, Aunt Madge! Royce poured a half-glass of lemonade and held his breath.

    Appreciate it, ma’am. Will grinned his Clark Gable smile. But my mama sets great store on me warmin’ a pew every Sunday morning in the Pentecostal Holiness Church south of town.

    Anytime, son. Madge patted Will on the shoulder. And call me Aunt Madge.

    Royce groaned aloud. What? Would the fella be moving into the spare bedroom next? 

    Neva glanced at him and raised her eyebrows. You okay?

    Yeah. Yeah. He drained the glass of lemonade and shifted from one foot to the other. Was that Oklahoma cowboy ever going to leave?

    Well, goodnight, then, and thanks for a good time. Will finally walked out and closed the door behind him.

    Royce sighed and snatched two more cookies before turning toward the back of the house. See you at church. He waved over his shoulder in response to Neva and Aunt Madge’s good nights.

    One thing was dang sure; come Monday he would have a little man-to-man with Will and let him know Neva Holiday was not up for grabs.

    Royce was primed for a confrontation with his competitor at the first opportunity on Monday, but Will didn’t show up.

    He didn’t come to school on Tuesday either. At lunch, Neva said, We should check on him.

    No use getting all twisted over nothing. Royce unwrapped two roast beef sandwiches. It hasn’t even been two whole days. He’ll show up.

    Something’s wrong. A frown made a little ‘V’ between her eyebrows. I can feel it.

    I wouldn’t know where to start looking. Royce wolfed down the first sandwich in four bites. Besides, maybe he wouldn’t want us checking on him.

    If he isn’t at school tomorrow, I’ll find him myself. She wrapped a half-eaten sandwich and put it in her lunch box. I know something’s wrong.

    Royce sighed. Okay. If he’s not in class tomorrow, I’ll see what I can do. Maybe we could find out where he lives from the office.

    At the last minute on Wednesday morning, Will rushed into the first period class and slid into a seat across the aisle.

    Royce’s eyes narrowed as he noticed the fading yellowish-purple coloration under Will’s right eye, a still-dark bruise on his left cheekbone, and a red, puffy lower lip.

    You look terrible. He swung into step beside Will as they strode toward their second class.

    Yeah? Well, I feel like I been rode hard down ten miles of bad road. Will grinned and pressed a fingertip to the side of his lip.

    Royce laughed in spite of himself and then frowned. What happened?

    Pa. Will’s jaw muscle clenched.

    Your father did this to you? Royce raised his eyebrows. He was vaguely aware things like this happened, but not to anyone he knew. Why?

    Why? Will stopped walking. Royce stopped, too. Because he’s a mean son of a bitch to begin with, but he gets a gut full of whiskey, he can’t keep his fists to hisself.

    My, gosh, Will —

    Hey, don’t get your britches in a wad about it. Will shrugged. I’m used to it. Besides, it ain’t gonna be long till I’ll be big enough to give as good as I get. He turned and started walking again. I can’t wait to see that old bastard’s face the first time I knock him on his butt.

    His face darkened. I’ll guarantee you one thing for dang sure. When that day comes, he’ll lay another hand on my Ma over my dead body. He opened the door to their next class.

    Did you get in a fight? Neva’s eyes widened as Will slid onto the bench opposite her at lunch.

    He shook his head, his eyes on his hands as he took bacon and cornbread out of the syrup bucket.

    You didn’t get in a fight?

    He shook his head, avoiding her gaze.

    Then who beat you up? She slammed her milk bottle onto the table, sloshing a little.

    His face flamed red as he hung his head.

    Neva. Royce’s voice held a note of warning.

    I want to know —

    Neva! Royce spoke sharply. Mind your own beeswax.

    She glared at him, grabbed her lunch box, and stomped off toward the schoolhouse.

    As soon as Royce dropped his books on the kitchen table that night and flopped in a chair, Neva demanded, We’re not doing one bit of homework until you tell me what happened.

    It was his Pa.

    Oh. She hesitated. So, why did you shoosh me?

    Neva, Will’s practically a full-grown man. Royce sighed. You think he wants to admit to a girl that his pa beat the crap out of him?

    Her shoulders slumped. Oh.

    Yeah. Royce opened his arithmetic book.

    Somebody should do something about it. She glared at Royce.

    Who? Royce raised his eyebrows. You?

    Well, somebody. She slammed her book open.

    Hell’s bells. Royce glanced at Will sitting across the aisle in their first class the following day. I won’t have any chance at all now. Nothing Neva liked better than hovering over somebody or something that’s been hurt. He put his elbow on the desk and rested his chin in his palm. It’ll be Will morning, noon and night. Crap.

    He sighed. It would be easier if he hated the guy, but he couldn’t bring himself to be mad. It would be like being upset at a puppy for being a puppy.

    Why did Will, even beat up, have to look like a movie star? It wasn’t just Neva. All the girls were gaga, eyeing him all the time, sidling up to him and simpering something stupid. They simpered nothing at all to Royce with his red hair sticking up all over the place and freckles that looked like he’d been splattered with specks of Tabasco sauce.

    He jumped at the sound of his name.

    Which is it, Royce?

    He looked at the teacher. Sorry, Mrs. Fielder. Which is what?

    A titter rippled through the room and his whole face turned the color of his freckles.

    Which constitutional amendment guarantees individual rights against cruel and unusual punishment?

    Oh, ummm… He blinked, trying to get his brain in gear. That would be the eighth amendment, ma’am.

    Very good, Royce. Now see if you can stay with us for the rest of the class, will you?

    Yes, ma’am. He ducked his head and focused on the open book in front of him.

    His mother was late getting supper on the table Saturday night, so he was the last to arrive at Neva’s. As he walked through the kitchen, he heard slow music and voices. Two girls giggling and chattering. Maybe Will didn’t come. Could he be so lucky? Who was the other girl?

    He pushed open the parlor door. Will sat in a chair, drinking iced tea, and watching Neva and Patsy Clawton as they sorted a stack of records.

    Patsy Clawton! Of course. A perfect match for Will. She was no bearcat, but she was pretty in a rice pudding kind of way, pale but sturdy. Royce didn’t know her well, but he saw her around from time to time. Bubbly and outgoing, she could talk the ear off a deaf mule. It drove Royce crazy, but she’d be Will’s problem. Maybe keep him busy and away from Neva.

    Hey. The door swung closed behind him. What’s shakin’?

    Royce! Patsy rushed over and put her hand on his arm. Would you like some tea?

    She grabbed a glass and filled it before he could answer. He said hi to Neva and Will and took the drink.

    I wondered if you were coming. Neva selected a record from a stack and put it on the turntable.

    Mom had some ladies’ meeting. She was late getting the chicken in the oven. He drained half the glass as Guy Lombardo’s September in the Rain warbled from the Victrola.

    Before Royce could turn to Neva, Patsy grabbed his arm, slipped it around her waist, and stepped close. He looked over his shoulder at Neva. She was already dancing, close and cozy with Will.

    He danced Patsy around the room while watching the other couple and trying to ignore Patsy’s chatter. A dozen songs later, one thing was clear; Patsy wasn’t there for Will. She was there for Royce.

    Well, he’d just see about that. Just because a chicken had wings didn’t mean it could fly.



    Royce grinned as Neva’s eyes widened in surprise when she answered the door to find him standing on her front porch on Saturday, August 6th, 1938. He never used the front door. Both families used a gate in the backyard fence and came and went to each other’s homes through the kitchen door.

    Royce, what…?

    He moved aside so she could see the Paquin Green ’32 Packard Light Eight rumble-seat coupe parked at the curb. Surprise!

    Is that yours? Neva’s eyebrows shot up and Royce’s chest almost popped the buttons on his shirt.

    Yep. He grinned so big it felt like his

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