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March 4th – Twenty-seven years ago
Eden Hill, Kentucky
Her cries woke me. They always did. Maybe the reason was after my sister’s death, I had become a light sleeper, or perhaps the promise I’d made my mother when we moved here—I would watch over the baby—kept me alert.
“I have to keep her safe,” I’d said as Momma placed the newborn in her pillowy bassinet, “I can’t let anything happen to her.”
She smiled softly, hugged me, and whispered, “Thank you, hijo. I need my big boy helper,” then kissed my forehead. Turning to go, her, “Don’t worry anymore, Alfonse is in the past,” drifted to me. I nodded, but I’ve never stopped worrying he’d find us, even though we left everything behind following Mariana’s funeral, clothes and all, running away from our home in rural Texas like fugitives in the middle of the night.
Scrubbing a palm down my face, I glanced at the time on my alarm clock—1:13 A.M.
My mother was the Whitfield’s nanny and had a lot of responsibility, especially since they weren’t home much. But earlier, she wasn’t feeling well when she tucked me in for the night. It was in her eyes and the weary way she held her shoulders and not the usual sadness that clung to her. No, this was different, like she was coming down with something. If I didn’t quiet Lyric, she’d wake Momma, and I couldn’t let that happen. Both of them needed their sleep. Besides, I was eight now and the man of the house when Mr. Whitfield was gone. I could handle everything.
I took a breath, flipped the cover back, got out of bed, and went across the dimly lit hall to the nursery, though I wasn’t sure we should call it that anymore since the baby had turned three and no longer slept in a crib.
Twisting the knob, then opening the door, I stepped into the room made for a princess, with a spindled canopy bed draped in antique lace tied back in swooping swags. A pink-velvet wingback sat by the large window. Shelves of stuffed toys and pretty dolls in frilly dresses took up another wall. A teeny table and chairs with the miniature tea set was over by the walk-in closet, a wooden rocking horse in the corner, and the bedside table with the spinning nightlight that shot twirling stars onto the arching sky-blue ceiling was on.
My attention shifted to Lyric, curled into a ball, sucking her thumb, her snowy nightgown twisted across her thin legs with shimmering tears flowing down her little face.
“Shh…don’t cry.” I quickly crossed the room. “I’m here.”
She sniffed, lifted, and glanced at me with watery blue-gray eyes. “Riel…”
I sat next to her, one leg bent on the mattress, my bare foot on the thick carpet, wondering when she’d ever get my name right, but I didn’t care she said it all wrong.
Ly scrambled into my lap. “Bad.”
“The monsters again?”
I knew about them, they visited me often in my thoughts, but my tormentors couldn’t be allowed to torture her.
Wrapping my arms around Lyric’s delicate frame, I kissed the top of her honey-blonde head. Her curls smelled of baby shampoo. “I’ll scare them away, okay?”
Rocking Lyric back and forth, I started humming one of the lullabies Momma would sing to her, feeling her rigid body relax. It wouldn’t take long for her to fall back to sleep—it never did.
Arm lifting, Ly wound her small fingers into the hair that brushed the collar of my T-shirt and tried to mimic the tune.
I kept humming and rocking, rocking and humming.
Eventually, her breathing slowed, and she went quiet as I transitioned into singing softly.
“Las niñas bonitas se duermen aquí
Con una estrellita que empieza a brillar…”
I knew the moment she had drifted off because her twirling fingers went still, then her hand slackened and slowly slipped down the material on my chest.
Taking Ly with me, I stood, turned, lay her down, tugged the quilt over her, tucking it under her chin, brushed some super soft spirals from her forehead, and whispered, “No more bad dreams now. The monsters are gone. I promise you are safe.”
I was at the door when her sleepy “Riel” caused me to flip around. “No go, prease?”
I scrubbed the back of my head with my palm, then went to the bed, pulled the corner of the quilted blanket down, scooted next to her, and took hold of Ly’s tiny hand. “I won’t leave.”
Her murmured, “’K,” drew my gaze, but her eyelids were closed.
I studied her face, those pink bow lips, and long lashes. They curled at the ends and created shadows on the top of her rosy cheeks. She was so pretty, like those baby angels on the painting downstairs in Mr. Whitfield’s study.
Looking up, I stared at the underside of the white canopy, releasing a long-ago vow, “I will keep you safe, Lyric. Always.”