Jolene Hightower stretched her arms high in the air, freckles gleaming against skin that she was sure looked a lot like the underbelly of a frog but that her mama said was beautiful as fresh-fallen snow. Her fingers reached toward the sky, then fluttered back down. She smushed her palms together and held them up to her third eye. Namaste, she breathed so quietly that not even the cicadas buzzing in the sweltering Georgia summer could hear.
Now, before you get all to thinkin’ that Jolene was an alien or some other nonsense, you should know that her third eye wasn’t something you could see on the outside. In fact, when you looked at Jolene, she looked pretty much like a regular girl, I suppose. Except for her hair. It was the color of a fresh copper penny, rubbed shiny. Folks said maybe she had a family of mockingbirds nesting up in that mess. But no one could know for sure. She always kept that curly hair piled up on her head. Except for one curl that kept escaping, which she quickly tucked behind her ear.
Jolene wasn’t the kind of girl that had a lot of time for fussing over hair. In fact, just this past school year, her teacher had accused her of having ants in her pants on account of that she moved around so much. She bounced her leg so hard during math class her spiral notebook and pencil case clattered to the floor. Happened about every day. Then during reading, which she always finished first on account of that she pretty much ate books for breakfast, she’d jump up and twirl around until Ms. Frisbin suggested that maybe a trip to the library for a new book might be just the thing to keep her busy. And Jolene would take off, skipping down the hall, getting a pretty good bounce in because Jolene was strong, too. Because of all the trees she climbed and the chickens and goats she was always running after on Grandmother’s farm.
But this summer, something was different about Jolene. Her eyes, which were the same color as fresh sprung grass, still jumped from place to place, even when she promised she was listening to you. But that buzz of energy that she always used to put off, that made you feel like the whole world might just go up in flames if Jolene was forced to hold still any longer, well that was gone.
Maybe it was the yoga that was helping Jolene get ahold of her energy. But more likely, it was that her mama was back after 5 years being gone. Which ain’t a small thing to an 11 year old. And when her mama came back, she was what Jolene started calling Zen. Which seemed to the rest of the town like a blessing, because even if they thought maybe she shoulda found Jesus instead of spending time meditating. But, really, the town was pleased as punch to see Jolene’s mama come home. Which she did during church supper on a Wednesday night.
Folks were eating big slabs of red velvet cake baked by Ms. Juanita. And when you ate one of Ms. Juanita’s cakes, it was kinda like a religious experience all in itself–if you listened real quiet, you could hear the flutter of angel wings.
But all that was interrupted by a hush that descended on the room. 50 people standing totally still, some of them with forks still in mid-air. Then Pastor Lamar broke the spell with a hearty, “Well, look what the cat drug in!” Then suddenly everybody was shouting “Mandy Mae!” and muttering “Bless her heart” and rushing up to Jolene’s mama.
Except Jolene, who stood holding her piece of cake, her hands shaking so hard her fork clattered off the plate and onto the floor. And then, something happened that not a soul in Horsefly, Georgia had ever seen.
Jolene Hightower burst into tears.