The days following Daddy’s departure passed by uneventfully, one much like the other. I came to know and love Granny as I worked along beside her. She taught me how to do things I’d only read about it books: canning vegetables from the garden, milking a cow, washing clothes on a wringer washer, plus numerous other things I had never done before. It was all hot, hard work, but even so, it was fun. I felt as if l had stepped back into an earlier, simpler time, and was living a grand adventure.
Granny seemed to enjoy being my teacher. Her bright eyes shone with pride at each of my new accomplishments.
Early one morning about a week after my arrival, she announced that we were going berry picking. “I know where there’s a fine patch of blackberries, big as your thumb!” She waved said appendage under my nose.
With both of us carrying a clean, metal bucket, we set off down the road, back toward the highway. We walked in companionable silence along the dusty trail for about a quarter of a mile, until we came to the place where the road forked.
“Does anyone live out that way?” I asked. “Daddy told me some Indians used to live down there. He didn’t like them, and told me to stay away.”
“And with good reason.” She grabbed my arm and wagged her finger in my face. “You listen good, Chloe Walker—them no-account Jamisons ain’t nothin’ but trash, pure and simple. The man stays drunk pret’ near all the time and is meaner’n a snake to boot. Now the boy, he’s a strange one, sorta queer like. He stares at a body like he’d just as soon kill you as look at you. You steer clear of ’em. They ain’t nothin’ but trouble.” She spun on her heels. “Come on, gal. We got berries t’pick and jelly t’make.”
Trailing along behind, I wondered about the Jamisons, why Granny and Daddy were so hostile toward them. Was it because father and son were Indians? Or was there something more?
“Dirty, stinkin’ Injuns,” Granny muttered.
When we reached the bridge over Eddy Creek, Granny led me down a footpath running parallel to the slow-moving water. High upon the sloping bank, shaded by towering maples, cottonwoods, and willows, we picked the juicy blackberries. They were wonderful. I probably ate as many as I put in the bucket.
That afternoon, we put up two dozen pints of jelly. Another skill learned, another accomplishment. Another adventure.
It was a hot steamy night. I lay in bed for what seemed like hours, tossing and turning and sweating, unable to sleep. Granny insisted on going to bed as soon as the sun sank behind the hills. Between the early hour—at least to me—and the lack of air conditioning or even a fan, sleep was a battle for me every night. And tonight was the worst yet.
The creek’s cool image trickled through my mind. Its waters beckoned.
It wasn’t far. Why not go? What would be the harm? Granny would never know.
I slipped out of bed, and hiking up my white cotton nightgown, crawled out one of the screen-less windows. I ran across the dew dampened grass and down the rock steps to the road. A full moon lit the way as I hurried along the pale dusty ribbon. The soles of my feet soon became tender—should’ve worn shoes—but the thought of the cool, soothing water urged me on.
Reaching the bridge, I bypassed the berry bushes and trudged through the thick undergrowth, wincing when briars snagged my skin, until I stood on the edge of the creek bank. A short distance away, I spotted a fallen log that extended over the water. I walked out to its end, sat down, and dangled my throbbing feet into Eddy Creek. I sloshed them around.
Heaven. Pure heaven.
“Hey, angel, better watch out for the water moccasins!”
What . . . who was that?
Heart tripping in my chest, I scrambled to my feet–almost falling off the log in the process–my eyes searching the darkness for the owner of the deep voice. There, on the bridge, leaning up against the railing, the dark silhouette of a man.
Soft laughter floated down to me.
So, he thought it was funny to scare the living daylights out of me. Fright turned into anger, an emotion I had very little experience with, and the distance between us gave me courage. “It’s not nice to scare people, you . . . asshole.” Even though I didn’t shout, my voice carried well across the moonlit water. “And I’m no angel.”
“Nope, you definitely ain’t no angel, not with that mouth.” He chuckled again. “But if you ain’t no angel, where’d you come from?”
“I could ask you the same thing.”
“But I asked first. Who are you?” I didn’t answer. “Hey, you ain’t mad, are you?” I kept my lips pressed together. “I didn’t mean to piss you off, angel.”
“Don’t call me that!” The name conjured up memories of Daddy. Unpleasant memories of him drinking, his narrowed, bleary eyes watching me.
“What should I call you then?”
“My name is Chloe.”
“Okay, Chloe it is. And Chloe, I wasn’t kidding about the snakes—they’re pretty thick around here. Most folks have better sense than to run around barefoot at night, especially around the creek.”
“Are you saying I’m stupid?”
“If the shoe fits . . . that is if you had one.”
My temper spiked again. “Oh, just go away.”
“And leave you here all alone with the snakes? I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Well, if you won’t, then I will.”
I had turned toward the bank, but at his shouted command, halted and looked up at the bridge. He wasn’t there! Then I spied his dark shadow stamping down the hill through the underbrush toward me.
And I was trapped. He’d be on me before I could get off the log and run. I glanced at the dark water below. Maybe I should jump.
“Unless you can swim, I wouldn’t recommend it. Water’s over your head here.”
Slowly, I raised my eyes. He stood on the bank by the end of the log. Lord, he was big, tall and wide-shouldered. How was I going to get away from him? I’d had the chance while he was still up on the bridge. When he had first spoken, I should have hurried away as fast as I could; but dumb-as-dirt me had talked to him—and called him an asshole, no less.
He braced one booted foot on the log.
I took a step backward, my heel hanging over the water. If I was gonna jump, now was the time.
“I’m not gonna hurt you,” he said, his words spoken so softly I could barely hear him. “I promise.”
His face was cloaked in moon-shadow, so I couldn’t make out his features. But his voice sounded sincere, and for a reason I couldn’t explain—even to myself—I trusted it.
I inched toward him.
When I was about halfway to the bank, the moon slipped from behind a cloud, bathing his face in light.
Why he’s about my age. He was a lot taller of course, but then, everyone was aside from Granny. I couldn’t make out the color of the gentle eyes holding mine, only that they appeared as dark as pitch, swallowing all light falling into them. Moonbeams danced upon his straight, collar-length hair, twining blue glints through the strands. Must be black.
“Come on and I’ll carry you up to the road.” He held out his arms, and bewitched beyond all logic, I walked straight into them. He swept me up and settled me against his chest, then turned and started up the hill. “Hang on.”
Part of my mind aghast at what I was doing, my arms came up and circled his neck. I didn’t know why I let this boy, a complete stranger, carry me, as trusting as a babe in its mother’s arms, up the hillside. Me, Chloe Walker, the girl who had never met anyone in her whole life she wasn’t scared of. Strangely, I felt secure and safe, protected, that I had something solid in this world to hang on to.
When we reached the road, he set me on my feet. “I wouldn’t recommend you coming down here again without shoes. Next time, I might not be around to rescue you.” He smiled, his teeth a slash of white upon the darkness of his face. “I didn’t mean to make you mad, but you did look like the pictures of angels I’ve seen in the Bible. All that blonde hair and the white clothes. At first, I thought I was seeing things. There’s sure nobody lives in these parts that looks like you.”
I glanced up at him with a timid smile of my own. “Well, there is now.”
“Just who are you anyway?”
“I done told you—Chloe Walker.”
“Walker . . . you some kin of old Nora Walker’s?”
“Yeah, she’s my grandma.”
“You sure you didn’t fly down here outta heaven, Chloe Walker? I know you ain’t been here all along, and I’ve overlooked you.”
I giggled. “I’ve just been here a little over a week. Daddy brought me here from West Memphis when Mama . . .” Happiness burst like a popped balloon.
What’s wrong?” The concern in his voice brought tears to my eyes.
“My mama, she’s the reason I’m here. She . . . she died.” I paused. “Actually, she killed herself. It’s just been two weeks. It still seems like a bad dream sometimes, that I’ll wake up . . .”
“I’m sorry about your mama. I know how you feel.”
“Really. My mama’s dead too.”
“Yeah, but she’s been gone over twelve years . . . an accident.” His eyes narrowed, skittered away from mine. “I’ve had a lot more time getting used to it than you have.”
“How long does it take till it quits hurting so bad? Does it ever get better?” I gripped his arm, felt his muscles tense beneath my fingers. “Does it?”
“Yeah, it does, with time. One morning you’ll wake up and realize that thinking about her don’t hurt as much anymore. And after a while longer, it’ll hurt a little less. But every bit of hurt never goes away—least it ain’t for me.”
“You were just a kid when she died.” For some reason, his loss seemed bigger than mine.
“I ain’t never been a kid, little girl.”
“You have so,” I said. “Everybody’s been a kid.”
“Let me put it another way—I ain’t ever felt like a kid.”
“Why haven’t you ever felt like a kid? And how old are you anyway?”
“Boy, you sure are full of questions.” He took my hand in his larger warm one. “Come on. I’ll walk you back to your house.”
Silence fell between us, stretching out as we made our way along the dusty road.
Everything seemed surreal—the night, the boy who held my hand and walked beside me, my bizarre behavior. Why hadn’t I run—or jumped into the water? Why did I trust him? Why did I feel as if . . . as if I already knew him, and had for a long time—on some level.
But there was still a lot I didn’t know.
“You didn’t answer my question,” I said.
He laughed quietly. “Which one?”
“Why you don’t feel like a kid.”
“It’s a long story.”
“I’ve got time.”
“No, you don’t. Your grandma’s probably wondering where in hell you are right now.”
“No, she isn’t. She’s asleep. I sneaked out.”
“That’s where you ought’a be too, little girl—in bed asleep.”
“I’m not a little girl. I’m fifteen.”
“You look awfully little to me. Why a good puff of wind’d blow you plumb away.”
“And you’re so god-awful big, an elephant would seem small up next to you.”
His only comment was a soft chuckle.
We continued on, silent once more, and a couple of minutes later, Granny’s house came into view.
“This is where we part company.” He stopped, gave my hand a little squeeze, and dropped it.
“You didn’t answer my other question,” I said.
“There was another?”
“Yes. I asked how old you are.”
“Almost seventeen. Go on, now,” he added when I failed to move. “Don’t worry. I’ll watch till you get in the house.”
“I’m not scared. That’s not it . . .”
The words tumbled out in a rush. “Would you be my friend? I don’t have any and I like talking to you—even though you scared me and made me mad. I could come see you, and you could come see me.”
“I don’t think that’d be a good idea.”
I felt like my heart had been stomped on. “You don’t want to be my friend?
“No, that ain’t it. Coming to see each other ain’t gonna work.”
“Why?” I was close to tears. I had found a friend, then turned around and lost them.
“For one thing, your grandma wouldn’t allow it. And for another, my pa . . . well, let’s just say he wouldn’t like it.”
Tears, always so near the surface anymore, sprang into my eyes. “You don’t like me.”
“Yeah, I do.” He sighed. “Hey look—we can be friends. Anytime you want to see me, just come down to the bridge about the same time you did tonight. I come through there a little while after dark every night.” He used the tail of his white T-shirt to wipe my face. “Come on now, don’t cry. I’ll be your friend. But don’t tell your grandma about me. It’ll be our secret.” He stepped back. “Get on home now. It’s getting late.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow night—maybe?”
“Maybe,” agreed. “Wear shoes.”
I’d gone just a short distance when it hit me—I didn’t know his name. I turned back. He was still standing where we had parted. “What’s your name?” I called softly.
“Your name . . . you didn’t tell me your name.”
“It’s Ira. Now goodnight, Chloe.”
“Goodnight, Ira.” I whirled around, clutched the hem of my nightgown, and ran the rest of the way home.
I felt happy for the first time since . . . since . . .
For the life of me, I couldn’t remember a time when I had ever felt happy. But no matter, I had a friend now. Even my sore, aching feet couldn’t take away from that.
Before climbing back in the window, I dipped some rainwater out of the barrel at the corner of the house and cleaned the road dust from my feet. Then I slid between the crisp sheets.
My last thought before sleep came was of Ira, my friend.
To be continued . . .