I know I shouldn’t. But I can’t stop. Besides it’s a gift. And Momma says I should cultivate the gifts I got. I always had a thing for tell’n tales. Good at them. That’s right. Gets me outta trouble. But not this time. Jack came straight over and he tattled on me, shame on him. And I thought we were friends. Some friend huh? Blew my cover just like that. I even got glasses just so I could be like him. He doesn’t know it though. He doesn’t know that when we were playing cowboys and robbers that I fell in love with him. He was standing over me on his make believe horse in his cowboy hat, and I, the dirty robber at his feet, look’n up at him. Well I fell in love. I did. But I didn’t tell him. Cause tomboys don’t cry and they don’t love. And he doesn’t know that time I saw him and Ginnie Mae kiss for the first time out by the birdbath in the tangled honey-suckle weeds. He doesn’t know I turned so green with envy, greener than those tangled vines that I climbed over the cement block wall into the poison ivy forest just to find a black widow to bite me. I don’t know why. I just wanted attention I guess. Then when I heard Old Man Scruffer Jensen raking about his yard with his tree trunk feet I guess I got scared and decided Black Widows was a bad idea. I’d just pray to the evil Poison Ivy Fairy King to put a curse on Ginnie Mae that night so she would wake up with a mouthful of pox.
But I loved Jack. And I’d do anything go get him to notice. Even steal his sister’s teddy bear and sparkly chapstick. The teddy cause it smelled like Jack’s House and the sparkly chapstick so he could notice my lips. Just cause I was a tomboy didn’t mean my lips couldn’t look better than Ginnie Mae’s. So it was absolutely rotten for him to go and turn me in. His sister Lindsey had to be a big rat mouth and tell Jack he had to get them back for her. He had to tell my mom or they’d both tattle on me with their Momma Price. But Lindsey knew it’d be worse for me. So she made Jack go and do it. Well I’ll say. Momma was so mad.
“First the rocks!” she says. “Now this!? Shaylee how COULD you? She is our neighbor!” She was talk’n about the time we went to Yellowstone two weeks ago. I stole two whole handfuls of polished rocks. And the crystal ashtrays and the white towels from the hotel. Momma didn’t notice ‘til Whiskers had to get all scared and run under my bed to reveal my hiding place. I don’t even like cats. But I have to say that the brilliant thievery was beyond my level of maturity. If I knew two things in this world it was how to lie and how to steal. Born with it. I remembered the long walk from the souvenir shop up to the camper. Black pavement and tapered leg jeans—tight in the pockets—but I tied my jacket around it to hide the bulges. I stared at the wet black pavement and I told it what I was doing and that black pavement held my secret like a dry sponge hides the smallest amount of water. We had a pact you see. And the trees too. They whistled my way back to camp with Momma right by me and she didn’t even know. I even lined my dirty laundry with the polished rocks just so the jostling in my suitcase wouldn’t awaken the suspicious beast inside my momma’s mind. All the way home from Yellowstone and nobody ever knew. I could have got’n away with it if not for stupid Whiskers. But I suppose I needed a better hiding place anyways.
“Shaylee!!” Momma snapped. Back to reality. I musta been day daze’n again. I remembered to tell myself to remember to get a different hiding place for next time before I answered, “What momma?” My tone was getting as impatient as hers was.
“Child! You weren’t even listen’n to me!” I shrugged. I never had a good sorrowful attitude. “What with God look’n down on you. You oughtta be ashamed! You know you’re not supposed to steal and lie! I KNOW I taught you better!” I just pursed my lips in defiance and stared at her. She stared back. “Jail. NOW!”
“AWE, Ma! Not there again! I just did my ti—“
“Shaylee! Now. I told you it’d be worse next time. 2 hours! GO!”
“But I was gonna make lemon shaved ice with Ginnie Mae and Suzanne. I told them I’d make the lemondade stand signs!”
“You’re lucky I don’t make you sit there all summer long, now git!”
And there she goes talk’n to me like a cat again. ‘Git you delinquent!’ ‘Scat!’ she says. Sometimes I pretend like I’m an orphan and nobody loves me and Momma’s the mean orphanage keeper lady who never lets you go free and takes away all your meals, gives you gruel and dregs of her backwashed fermented apple juice. I would roll up extra biscuits from Sunday dinner just to survive the dry spell of food. And drink from the cat bowl and birdbath cause there was no other water source. Miss Scratton. That’s her name. Best do as Miss Scratton says, says a fellow orphan, just as dirt faced and forlorn-looking as I was. It’s a wonder she’s not married! I retort. 12 licks with the yard stick for that comment.
I clambered, against my will, up the 13 stairs in our house to Momma’s room and out to her balcony. She followed me and closed the sliding glass door behind me. Through the glass she yelled, “Two hours! And any complaint from you and you’ll get another hour added on!” I waited ‘til she closed the blinds then stuck my tongue out nice and long. Then folded my arms in a huff and sat down against the wall and railing. I was an African child void of any privileges. The kind with the exposed rib cage and stretchy skin and gaunt eyes; pretty eyes, wanting eyes. Drums in the corrugated roofed villages ground kept my heart a-beat, an occasional flute made my eyes flicker open. I’d suck the moisture from the women’s skirts saturated by puddles. They didn’t care either. They had kids for sale in colorful slings around their sagging breasts, one for each arm. “How much you buy my baby?” I couldn’t move. I was weak with hunger but strong willed to survive. A mangy dog was killed again. My best friend Jack gave me some its charcoaled meat on a stick.
I sighed. Jack. Jack was always good to me. Why’d he have to go and turn me in? Me n Jack used to pray that we’d get to switch places with the black African children just for a day. Then I could feel their pain and suffering and they could have a warm home with a momma that cooks potato soup and muffins any night you ask. Surely I’d be doing my service then. But I’d have to come back of course. I couldn’t be a saint forever. Maybe Jack could. Maybe that’s why he tattled. “Can’t get into heaven with a filthy conscience” he’d always say.
I sat there in boredom remember’n all the good times. I remembered when we first decided to go to Old Man Scruffer’s and spy on him. His wife died before we were born and he was the grumpiest man in the wood. The older kids told us his place was haunted and you couldn’t get closer than 5 feet of his house or else you’d be haunted by ghosts forever. We never went near it. Until one day Jack dared me to touch Old Man Scruffer’s house. Well of course I had to get him to love me. It was a lazy hot summer day and the lemonade stand had been frequented too much that week for the passerby to feel any pang of guilt for not stopping. Homemade popsicles had been dripped into our mouth and hands and tricycle racing wasn’t what it used to be. We were getting too old for Cowboys and Robbers and even the Mr. Sketchy scented markers had lost its flare for our interests. Boredom had set in as we had nothing better to do than to sit on the lower tar-shingled roof of the lean-to shed above the half court and watch the younger teenage boys play ball on a net-less rim.
“Hey, Shaylee! Dare you to eat a worm!”
“I did that last week and you chickened out Henry Jack Price!” He hated it when I called him by his full name. He did look more like a Henry than a Jack. “And I told you! Don’t call me Shaylee! Call me Billie Jo. It’s way better!”
“Well don’t you ever call me Henry again then!” His eyes got wide under his already magnified glasses.
“Fine,” I muttered. “But I’ll call you that when you’re be’n a sissy.” He gritted his teeth. We sat for a few long moments in silence. Pondering what to do with the rest of our summer.
“I know!” he said excitedly. Like he just invented the game of football or something. “I dare you to touch Old Man Scruffer’s house!”
“Uh-Uh!” I said. “No way!” But my stubborn toughness got the best of me and soon we found ourselves with the white iron antique garden chair in the corner of the cement block wall that divided the haunted forest fairy world from real world, our. Twisted maple trees and poison ivy covered floors, all a-buzz with the clicking, spizzing life of bugs and passing deer crack’n twigs. Ghosts haunted—that forest. But mostly just around Scruffer’s house.
“You’re my best friend Jack. But you gotta go first!”
“Shaylee!” It strained from his throat in a stretched whisper like he was going to pee his pants or pass out from fear.
“I told you! DON’T CALL ME—“
“Okay, okay! Billie Jo! I dared you! And besides you know I’m allergic to poison ivy!” I knew it wasn’t a myth. I’d seen it before. I didn’t love Jack when he had poison ivy blotches. Or when he got short haircuts. But those are the only times. Even when he was kiss’n on Ginnie Mae I still loved him. That’s the day we became blood brothers. “Fine!” I said. “I’ll go and touch the house! But you gotta promise me one thing!” He was trembling now, “what” came shakily from his dry throat. I think he really did have to pee. “You gotta promise me that if anything comes out and gets me that you gotta come and save me!”
“Like spirits, Jack!”
“You mean they’ll come and fly off with you?”
“That’s what Jackson Neville said—don’t you remember?”
“Yeah, but Shay—Billie Jo….poison ivy!”
“JACK! Are we friends?”
“Then you’d come for me ‘f I was drown’n in a pool, you said so last summer and you HATE the water. And poison ivy ain’t any different! Swear it, Jack, swear it!” He was dancing now, up and down, feet crossed. Good land! He DID have to pee! “Jack…?”
“Okay! I swear it!”
“Not official til we’re blood brothers! Just like Huck and Finn.” I pulled out my pocketknife and before Jack could gasp and turn white I had sliced the smallest cut on my thumb. “Ugh!” I winced. “Now your turn,” I breathed. He had turned white. I checked to make sure the tops of his socks hadn’t turned yellow, he was such a pansy. He gulped and took the knife slicing his same left thumb.
“Gah!” He clenched is teeth, “kuh!” Breathing. “Okay, OKAY! Give me your thumb!” We touched thumbs together. It stung but we looked at each other’s eyes, he was sweating now.
“Repeat after me. I will swear to save my blood brother from any bully, hell, or high water.” He repeated. “Even ghosts and poison ivy.” We retracted our thumbs and I pressed mine hard against my pointer finger knuckle. Then I ran like I was run’n from the devil down through the thickly foliated maples and poison ivy without look’n back. The red wood slatted house was coming up fast but Old Man Scruffer was nowhere in sight. I took one last breath as I sprinted down the little mound toward the back of his house. I lost footing on the damp earth below me and almost fell, but caught myself and ended up run’n full on into the house, hands first. Touched it! Ultimate victory was mine but I knew I musta give’n that old man half a heart attack and it was hundredths of a second before I was up that mound again pump’n my arms as hard as they would let me.
“What in Sam HILL!” a muffled cry. And I kept run’n up hill as fast as I good.
I saw Jack peering nervously over the hillside and I yelled frantically, “Go! Go! Go!” Uncrossing his legs he took his hands from his crotch and ran to the corner to try and pull himself up over the concrete wall. I could hear Old Man Scruffer rant’n and rave’n about disturbing his peace but I didn’t look back to see if he had his rifle out or not. I just kept run’n and shoved Jack the rest of the way over the wall. I was longer than him and much more flexible. Plus I knew how to climb trees like a tree frog. I could jump like one too. I touched ground on the mowed grass just by the sissy fallen Jack and helped him up so we could run back to the birdbath. That was the meet’n place if anything ever went wrong. Too bad he had to spoil it with kiss’n Ginnie Mae in the same spot. But now that we were blood brothers that must mean he loved me some. More than a kiss.
That’s why I thought the chapstick would help. But no. Now I’m up here, sit’n all lonesome. Without Jack. And who got me here? Jack. I had to get out of here. This prison.
Momma was a seamstress. Just scrunchies and things. Hair ribbons and sweatpants with sashes. But it was good stretchy material and it had to be strong enough for my purpose. I was full of criminal ideas. I slowly opened the glass door and peeked through the blinds. Momma was at her computer, her back to me. She was talk’n on the phone. Wait, I thought. She always keeps that box of extra scraps under her bed. A few more minutes and she went downstairs. I could here her just below me on the cordless on the front porch. I crawled in on my stomach, not even a cobra snake had my kind of stealth, and I pulled the box from under the bed and put it by the door, then I snuck back onto the balcony and peeped down through the wood slats below me. Momma wasn’t suspicious. I started my work. I took the scraps and tied them in square knots just like daddy taught me before. Right over left, left over right. “That’ll hold anything!” Daddy said. Scrap after scrap. Knot after knot. Left after right and right after left. It was getting long, but not long enough. I had to make it down past the front porch to the lawn. One story above, that’s all. I kept tyin’ and Momma kept talk’n. I had to test its length but Momma would see. I waited.
“Shaylee, you can come down now!” She yelled. Then to the phone, “yes, she stole the neighbor’s teddy bear. I don’t know what to do with her.” I was slightly disappointed I didn’t get to use my brilliant contraption. But I knew there’d be a next time. I’d save it for then and evade my punishment at the beginning of its shift, not the end. I hid it under all the scraps of fabric at the very bottom of the box and shoved the box under the bed again.
“Shaylee! You hear me?”
“Yes, Momma!” I ran to the lean-to shed. Jack was there. He said he was sorry for bein’ a tattle mouth and he’d lie to keep me out of jail again. That’s how I knew Jack loved me. We never kissed by the birdbath, but I never went to jail again. Turns out he had the same gift I did.