The interlocked hands shifted to an even tighter grip in spite of slippery sweat from the summery day. This was the last stop for the orphan train and the last chance they had to find a family.
Tulip, Poppy, and Toby trudged along the dusty boardwalk to the church where the entire town was gathered for a picnic. Toby lifted his chin and their bag of belongings and dared to meet the stares of the town-folk. Tulip’s eyes seemed to guard her sister. Poppy clung to the hands of her older siblings and struggled to drag her leg over the rough planks.
They knew this beautiful little town would not be their home, yet Poppy prayed again that Toby and Tulip would change their minds.
The smells of fried chicken and apple pie flooded Poppy’s nose and rumbled her stomach. Tulip giggled and winked at her.
Poppy smiled back and inhaled the scents. The city air had never tasted so good. Trees lined the yard and vibrant green grass cushioned her steps.
“Ah-choo!” Toby eyed Poppy as if she had pew-moan-ya.
“The smells tickle!” Her nose scrunched up and made dimples as her eyes glowed with laughter. Another giggle bubbled and she was rewarded with a grin from her serious ten-year-old brother.
The group of seven orphans dusted off their best clothes and tried to shift them to hide the holes and frayed edges. Nothing could be done about the faded color or the poor fit… some hung loosely, some were too tight or short.
The three loaded their plates with food from the makeshift tables that bowed under the weight of the overflowing dishes. They settled at an empty table.
Poppy lifted a fried chicken leg and sniffed it. The crispy coating was dotted with herbs and dripped with fragrant juices. It seemed too pretty to eat. Her admiration of the leg was interrupted.
“Hey kid… how old you be?” Roughly squeezing Toby’s scrawny biceps was a set of dirt encrusted fingernails decorating an equally filthy hand. Toby nearly dropped his chicken on the ground.
Poppy caught a whiff of Toby’s seatmate on the breeze. She tried not to shudder or gag, and carefully, almost reverently, replaced her chicken in its special place on her plate and braced herself.
“Ten, sir.” Toby turned to his sisters and introduced them. “This is Poppy and Tulip… we’re family and we stay together.”
Poppy thought the man looked a bit like the straw doll she had left at the orphanage. All sticks and no stuffing. His face was as sharp as her toy’s twig face and his eyes were cold and hard.
He glared at her brother and snorted in disdain. Poppy thought that must be what pigs sound like.
A couple of other people wandered by and had much the same reaction (except for the pig sound) to her brother’s firm introduction.
Poppy ignored the people and dug into her dinner until a new smell… even better than fried chicken… caught her attention. She dropped her roll and closed her eyes to see the fragrance. Flowers, birds, and kittens were the thoughts she imagined. Poppy opened her eyes to find where it was coming from.
A lady sat across from her. Her eyes were as blue as the sky that framed her golden hair. The man sitting next to her was grinning at Poppy as if he had won a prize.
She stopped chewing when she realized these folks hadn’t been scared away by Toby. She listened to them chatting but none of their words registered. The lady just kept smiling into Poppy’s eyes.
Finally Poppy could stand no more. “My leg doesn’t work.”
“We know.” The blue eyes penetrated her heart.
“I am not strong and healthy like other girls.” Poppy’s stomach cramped.
“You look strong and healthy enough to be just the girl God wants you to be.” The man’s smile was pure kindness.
“Nobody wants me though… they don’t know…” Her voice quavered and her eyes dampened but theirs shone as if they really understood.
“We want you to meet our son.”
The lady waved to someone behind her. Toby’s eyes widened and Tulip‘s brimmed with tears. Poppy’s heart thudded as she slowly turned.
A muscled farm boy headed toward them, his smile already loving her. He barely seemed to need the crutch that nestled under his arm, but the pinned-up pant leg betrayed the truth.
Poppy turned back to beam at their new ma and pa.
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