I wake up early today to the sounds of her whimpering. I stare up at the blades of the ceiling fan spinning slowly, trying without success to push around the humid Georgia air.
Mama cries in the room next to me. I close my eyes, wishing I could block out the sounds. After a few moments, I decide I cannot stand another day of sittin’ around, listening to her moan about how difficult her life has become.
I push myself out from under my thin blanket, and I pull on my tattered t-shirt and blue jean shorts. Slipping my feet into a pair of sandals, I slowly creep out of my room and past Mama’s door. I pause to take in the sight of her. Stringy hair hangs over hunched shoulders. The tarnished gold knobs of her once lustrous bed match the mood in the room: bitter, defeated, used, once grand but now quite dull.
Shaking my head, I turn and make my way soundlessly down the wooden stairs, careful to miss the creaky spots that I know so well. I wish I felt sorry for Mama, but I lost that feeling a while ago. Probably around the time Mama quit ironing her dress and fixing her hair.
Daddy left six months ago, right after the New Year when I turned thirteen. Here I am, a teenager in 1962 and all I have to show for it is a weepy Mama and clothes that are too tight. I’ve heard Mama tell the story of Daddy’s leavin’ so often that I can now quote it for any stranger who asks, though there haven’t been many strangers in our town since Miss Millie’s niece came to visit from Tennessee two months ago.
“Oh, he loved Mama, alright,” I like to tell inquirers. “He loved kissin’ her and huggin’ her. But he loved kissin’ other ladies, too. And Mama had to respect herself. She had to. So she told him to stop his wanderin’ ways and choose her, or choose his ladies. So Daddy chose the ladies, even though he loooooved Mama.” I always drag that last part out for effect. It makes the following silence just a little more awkward.
I quietly slip out the door, taking off down the back path before Mama can realize I’m gone. It’s a perfect summer morning – the kind that used to make Daddy so happy that he’d come whistling down the stairs early to make us breakfast before leavin’ for work.
“Come help me cook the bacon, Lucy Jane!” he’d call up the stairs. I could be dead asleep, but when Daddy called me, I went to him because Daddy was irresistible.
I run until I reach the cement drain that winds down the back edge of town. Finally far enough away, I slow to a walk, catching my breath. The sun is low in the sky, just now telling us all hello. The air is already thick, and I can tell it’s going to warm up fast.
We’ve had a lot of rain lately, so the water in the drain sits about halfway up. My friend, Jimmy, and I used to love to splash and play in the drain when we were younger. That was before little Louisa Johnson drowned while swimming with her brothers. After that, Mama wouldn’t let me swim in the drain anymore.
I see the boy up ahead, and I slow my pace so that I can study him for a minute. He sits on the side of the drain, dangling his legs over the edge, feet kicking at the water.
He holds his fishing pole in front of him, tilted down just slightly, and he reels in the line, checks the worm on the hook, then drops it back in. I slowly approach so as not to scare him.
“Hey, Benji,” I say softly. He looks up and gives me a half smile. Benjamin Johnson comes often, fishing pole in hand, and sits right at the spot where his sister fell under the water and didn’t surface again.
“Hey, Lucy,” he replies.
“Drain fishin’ again today?” I ask. He nods, and then looks back into the water. I take in the sight of him, his reddish brown hair matted on one side as though he rolled out of bed and left without looking in a mirror. His entire body is dotted with light freckles, making it appear that someone splashed him with muddy water.
“You okay?” I ask. Benji shrugs.
“Good as any day, I guess,” he says. The silence between us is awkward for a moment before I tip my head to him and walk quietly past.
Benji has been sittin’ and fishin’ in the same spot almost every day since the accident. As far as I know, he’s not yet caught what he’s lookin’ for. Nobody ever says anything to him about it, though, because we all know he’s torn up with guilt over losin’ his sister. He was supposed to watch her that day, but he fell asleep. When he woke up, she was gone. They found her body hours later at the end of the drain.
I continue on toward Jimmy’s house. I hear him before I see him. He crashes through the trees toward me, eyes wide with terror.
“Run,” he yells, plowing by. His shoulder hits mine, and I fight to steady myself.
“Hey!” I yell. “Jimmy, what the…”
“Just run, Cowhead!” he calls.
With a growl, I tear after him, and it doesn’t take me long to catch him on account of the fact he’s slow as a snail on Saturday.
“Hells Bells, Jimmy! What’s the matter?” I huff as we continue to tear through the trees. We come to the edge of the Georgia woods and skid to a stop on the sidewalk. Jimmy turns around frantically, eyes wild.
“Is he followin’ us?” he asks. I notice the blood on Jimmy’s knuckles.
“Jimmy, what happened?” I grab his hand and look close at the purple bruises. He pulls away from me.
“Drunk again,” he mumbles, crossing his arms. “He was comin’ after me, so I hit him. I hit him real good with a metal pipe I stole from one of the cars he was workin’ on. He’s mad, Lucy. Looked like a snake.” Jimmy looks up at me with wounded eyes.
“I ain’t goin’ back,” he says softly. “Not ever.”
I look back to where the tall pines meet the broken asphalt of our scrubby, red town, and I listen intently for the sound of Jimmy’s drunken father, but I’m met with nothing but the peaceful rustle of the summer breeze and the piney scent of home. Taking a deep breath, I meet Jimmy’s gaze.
“Fine. I don’t wanna go back to my Mama, either. Let’s both of us run away. We’ll just start on our own.”
A slow smile spreads across Jimmy’s face. “That’s a bang up idea, Lucy Jane!” he says with a wink. I roll my eyes. He knows I hate it when he calls me by my full name. That’s reserved for Daddy alone.
“So let’s go,” I say, turning toward the road that will lead us through town, and right on out into the big, waiting world.
I turn back to him with raised eyebrows. “You’re not scared, are you?” I ask. Jimmy pulls himself up tall till he’s almost eye level with me, and gives me a hard stare.
“No, stupid,” he replies. “But we can’t just go walking on outta here without some food and water. We need supplies.”
“Where’re we gonna get supplies?” I ask. Jimmy smiles, and my heart sinks, because I know that smile. It’s the smile that always gets us in trouble.
“Miss Mary Pritchard’s,” he says.
“Forget it, Jimmy. That’s dumb. Let’s just go.”
“Now who’s scared,” he says with a snort.
It’s true. If there is one person in this world who scares me, it is Miss Mary Pritchard. She is known to be the meanest woman God ever made. In fact, there’s a rumor that she lets the devil himself come stay in her guest bedroom when he’s passin’ through town. Preacher says that’s not theological, but I’m not sure if that don’t make it true.
“Why Miss Mary Pritchard, Jimmy?! If she catches us, she’ll sic the devil on us!”
“Pshaw!” Jimmy is full out laughin’ now, slappin’ his knee in glee.
Stomping my foot in frustration, I reach over and hit the back of Jimmy’s head. “Fine!” I huff. “I’ll do it, but if the devil shows up, I’m leavin’, and you can follow him to hell all on your own.”
Jimmy wipes his eyes and nods, then lays out the plan as we quickly make our way to Miss Mary Pritchard’s house. The dew is still fresh on the ground, but the sun is racing over the horizon. We need to be quick.
When we arrive, Jimmy motions for me to follow him around back to the fence that surrounds her property. “Okay, follow my lead,” he whispers. “Don’t make a sound and stay low.” I nod my head reluctantly.
In one quick movement, Jimmy hoists himself over the fence. I follow him and drop soundlessly into the grass. We both dash, crouched down low, to the chicken coop. Moving toward the back, Jimmy motions me forward.
“I’ll sneak in and grab as many eggs as I can. You keep an eye out for her.” I nod, sweat dripping down the side of my face.
Jimmy slowly opens the door to the coop and eases inside on his hands and knees. The chickens, all walkin’ around and peckin’ at the ground, look at him curiously, then go about their business.
Moving to the back where their nests lay hidden by a long box, Jimmy reaches his hand into the first hole and begins pulling out eggs. He rolls up the bottom of his shirt and stacks them inside, then moves to the next hole. We both hear the squeak of a door and freeze.
Peeking up over the top of the coop, I see Miss Mary Pritchard walking out with a basket in her arms. She’s dressed in a tattered robe, and her grey hair is rolled in pink sponge curlers. Her face is pinched, her mouth drawn into a tight, downward scowl. I’ve never seen a more frightening sight.
“Run,” Jimmy hisses, and I take off. I hear her shout, but I don’t look back to see if she’s comin’, or if she’s called on the devil to take us out. I reach the fence and pull myself over.
“Lucy Jane, catch!” I turn around to see eggs flying up and over the fence. I reach out my hands and manage to catch two of them. The others fall to the ground with a crack.
Second later, Jimmy is over the fence and we’re tearing back into the trees with Miss Mary Pritchard’s screech ringing in our ears. I reach the worn path that runs between our houses before Jimmy, and I run into the man so hard that the remaining two eggs in my hands break, the sticky, yellow yolk of the egg squishin’ through my fingers and staining my shirt.
“Ow! Hey, watch it!” I say to the intruder, then look up and stop short. Jimmy pulls up beside me, chest heaving.
“Daddy!” I cry. My father looks down at my egg-covered hands and raises one eyebrow.
“What are you doing, nugget?” he asks. He glances at Jimmy and nods.
“Daddy, you’re here! Oh this is perfect. It’s just perfect, Daddy! We were just goin’ to run away, but now that you’re here, we don’t have to! Mama will be better with you home, and Jimmy can just come live with us, can’t you Jimmy?” I glance at my friend whose eyes have fallen downcast.
“Oh, Daddy! I’m so glad you’re back!” I throw my arms around him and inhale deeply, taking in his scent. He smells like aftershave and a woman’s perfume. I wait for the warmth of his returned embrace, but he only reaches down and pulls my arms away from him.
“Lucy Jane,” he starts. I step back in confusion. “Nugget, I’m only back for a few minutes. I had to give something to your mother. Some…papers. I’m leaving now, and…” his voice trails off as he glances skyward.
“You’re not comin’ back again, are you?” I ask. I feel a numbness push against my chest and throat. It’s hard to breath.
Daddy looks at me evenly and shakes his head. “No, baby,” he says. He reaches out for me, but I push his hand away and take off running.
“Lucy Jane!” I hear his voice, but I don’t stop. I’m pushing up the path as fast as my legs will carry me until my lungs feel as though they’ll burst. I run alongside the cement drain until I come upon Benji once again. I start to run behind him, but something pulls me to a stop.
“What’s wrong, Benji?” I ask, my chest rising and falling as I gulp at the air. Benji’s face is streaked with tears. I follow his gaze to the end of the fishing pole where a small fish flops helplessly in the air.
“I caught one,” he whispers.
I drop to my bottom next to him and look in wonder at the fish. “You caught one,” I repeat.
We sit in silence for a long time, just watching the fish as he slowly gives up the fight.
“Well don’t just sit there, you dopes! Throw him back so he don’t die!”
I turn to see Jimmy standing behind us, hands in his pockets. Benji pulls the fish toward him and pries the hook out of its mouth. He takes one last long look, then throws it back into the drain. Jimmy sits down beside me.
“I can’t go with you, Jimmy,” I say softly. “I can’t run away. I just…I can’t leave my Mama.”
Jimmy nods. “I know,” he says. “But I still can’t go home.” We glance at one another, and I reach over and grab his hand.
“Ah, don’t worry about me, Lucy Jane,” Jimmy says with his signature wink. “I’ll figure somethin’ out. If old Benji can catch a fish in a drain, then I can surely find some way outta this mess.”
“You could always go live with Miss Mary Pritchard,” I say with a grin.
All three of us laugh as the sun takes her place on the highest perch of the sky.