Mattie Sue & Bizby

All said, it probably took an hour for the boat to meander across the glassy lake. A few times she’d tried to use the tree branch as an oar–but that threatened to send her in endless circles. She’d opted to search out constellations instead. Which is why, when she reached the other side of the lake, she was snoring softly. And why she didn’t realize she’d drifted aground until she heard her own name.

Mattie Sue plodded out to the boat. Splash. Splash. Splash. Her galoshes squished on the muddy lake bottom. Just when the lake threatened to overtake her galoshes, flooding her feet and weighing her down, she clambered aboard the little craft. It was a sturdy little boat, not given to capsizing. And she was a slight girl–wispy, folks called her. But she was strong, too. She took the piece of tree branch she’d carried from the shore with her and pushed the boat out off the sandy bottom and into the lake.

She considered starting the motor, but then thought she might draw attention to herself. She wasn’t sure if anyone was awake to hear it or not. Based on the brilliant explosion of stars above, she guessed it was close to 10p.m. She didn’t really need to crank up the motor to get where she was going, though. Better to take it slow and just let the water move her.

All said, it probably took an hour for the boat to meander across the glassy lake. A few times she’d tried to use the tree branch as an oar–but that threatened to send her in endless circles. She’d opted to search out constellations instead. Which is why, when she reached the other side of the lake, she was snoring softly. And why she didn’t realize she’d drifted aground until she heard her own name.

“Mattie Sue?” a timid whisper of a voice called out to her. She shook the sleep off, grabbed her bag from the boat and hopped out. Immediately, her galoshes filled with water.

“Oh, hellfire,” she hissed.

Almost imperceptibly, a giggle came from somewhere along the shore.

“Bizby! Where you at, Bizby?,” Mattie Sue whisper-yelled.

A mess of blond hair popped up over the blackberry bushes. Bizby had obviously been busy with the blackberries; his freckles–which usually stood out like constellations themselves–had all been obscured by sticky, purple juice. “Bizby!” Mattie Sue fussed, “you’re gonna make yourself sick. All them blackberries.” She shook her head. She trudged out of the lake, stopping to empty her galoshes at the shoreline.

When she finally made it over to Bizby, she glared at him and muttered, “I ought to give you a whoopin’ for laughin’ at me.” Then, quickly, before he could get his feelings all hurt, she flashed him a smile and ruffled his hair. She knew she kinda babied him, but she couldn’t help it. Bizby’d had a hold of her heart since he was just a little guy. He still wasn’t all that big, if you really thought about it, his being 5 and all.

“Brought you some supper,” Mattie Sue said, plunking the sack of food down on the ground. Bizby grabbed it, in search of a peanut butter sandwich no doubt. This kid was gonna turn into peanut butter, sure enough, if he didn’t lay off.

He turned to Mattie Sue. “Fank ooo,” he choked out, over the sticky peanut butter and white bread.

“Welcome,” Mattie Sue said solemnly. They liked to try to keep things light, but the reasons Bizby was out here weren’t no joke. Mattie Sue pulled back her blonde hair into a ponytail. “Now you wait til I holler at you to come back, you hear? I don’t want you wandering up while he’s still there.”

Bizby nodded without looking at her.

“Pinky swear me, Bizby. C’mon. I need to know you’re takin’ this serious.”

Bizby stuck out his pinky, and Mattie Sue looped it in hers. “Promise I’ll come fetch you when he leaves tomorrow. This one’s a long haul–probly 2 weeks on the road at least. Reckon that’ll give us enough time to build you a little lean-to out here for the next time he comes through town.”

Bizby wrapped his arms around Mattie Sue and squeezed. She felt tears sting her eyes. She swatted at them with the back of her hand before Bizby could see.

“You sleep good now, hear?” She whisper-yelled over her shoulder, as she pushed the boat out into the lake.

As soon as she’d cleared the sandy bottom, she closed her eyes, bowed her head, and whispered earnestly, “God, if you’d keep Bizby safe, I’d be real, real grateful. And please, God, gimme the strength not to kill that mean ol’ sonofabitch ‘fore he leaves town tomorrow. Amen.”

 

 

 

Photo: https://unsplash.com/@emsbabee

Tetherball & Sprinklers…And a Black Eye

Percy’s mom was real cool—I mean, other than the fact that she’d given him the name Percy. That was a pretty big goof up. He was always getting into fights over it. But otherwise, she was a real nice mom. She didn’t even get mad when we came skidding into the house, all sweaty, and dropped our stuff by the front door. And she always had popsicles in the freezer. The red ones were my favorite. Which was great because Perc liked purple (yuck.) but hated red. So, there were always plenty of reds left when I came over.

Whap! The ball flew up at a 45-degree angle, then caught at the end of the tether before it came whizzing back around at me. I was ready. I’d perfected my tetherball stance this summer.

Whack! I smacked it hard. With my face.

“Oooff!” I yelled, covering my eye. Lights zipped back and forth underneath my eyelid like fireworks.

Percy came running over. I could tell right away he was trying not to laugh. Which really got me steamed.

“What the heck, Perc?” I shouted at him. I knew he didn’t mean it. But, gah, I hate to be laughed at.

“I… didn’t… mean… it… Stella,” it took him forever to get it out already between all his laughing.

“Whatever,” I said, still mad. “Let’s just finish playing. I’m gonna smoke you.”

“That black eye you’re gonna have is gonna have your mom smokin’ mad for sure,” Perc said, looking maybe a little more sorry than before.

“Oh for real?!?” I said, quietly, gently touching my eye. My mom was always on and on about me acting more like a girl. Trying to explain to her that there are all kinds of girls that act all kinds of ways had gotten me nowhere quick. Now I was going to have to explain a black eye? At least I hadn’t gotten it fighting. Whew. She’da really lost it them. I’d probably have to wear a dress and bows for the rest of the summer if that had happened.

“Maybe my mom’s got a steak we could put on it,” Percy said, grabbing his canteen and knapsack off the ground. “And I know she’s got popsicles, either way.” Percy looked real hopeful, but probably more about the popsicles than fixing my busted eye.

“Okay…” I said slowly, throwing him off the scent of my next move. “Race you there!” I took off running. Poor Perc was never gonna catch up. I was faster than him, even when I didn’t get a good head start.

Percy’s mom was real cool—I mean, other than the fact that she’d given him the name Percy. That was a pretty big goof up. He was always getting into fights over it. But otherwise, she was a real nice mom. She didn’t even get mad when we came skidding into the house, all sweaty, and dropped our stuff by the front door. And she always had popsicles in the freezer. The red ones were my favorite. Which was great because Perc liked purple (yuck.) but hated red. So, there were always plenty of reds left when I came over.

We ate our popsicles in a hurry. It was hot. And we wanted to go play in the sprinklers, which Percy’s mom always let us do. My mom woulda had a conniption, not so much because of the sprinklers but because I just stripped down to my underwear & ran around like that. I mean, I don’t carry around a bathing suit everywhere I go. And besides, people wanna make a big deal of stuff, but it’s not like I have boobs or anything like that. I’m 9, for the Pete’s sake. Besides, if boys don’t have to wear shirts, girls shouldn’t either. What’s fair’s fair.

Percy and I chased each other round and round until I finally called Uncle because I couldn’t catch my breath. I flopped down on the wet grass, with the sprinklers still going, and closed my eyes. The thing about being with Percy was that I could just be. If I wanted to close my eyes, I did. Just like that. He never asked what I was doing or why. I like that in a person. People should just let other people be sometimes.

After I’d caught my breath, I sat up and took in my surroundings. Judging by the sun, it was already late afternoon. I might as well go home and face the music about this stupid black eye. With any luck, Mom would be over being mad by dusk, when I was supposed to meet Perc at the hidden hammock to catch fireflies. If she was still mad, I’d have to climb out my bedroom window and shimmy down the tree outside my window. I mean, I’m all up for tree climbing adventures, but sometimes it’s just easier to walk out the front door, you know?

Perc & I went inside so I could dry off. I put back on my clothes (minus my underwear, cuz it was wet from the sprinklers) and towel dried my hair. Percy’s mom helped me squeeze out the ends real good so I wouldn’t be dripping all over the floor when I walked into my house. My mom’s real particular about that kind of stuff.

When I got home, I took a little pause on the front porch before heading inside. I took a deep breath and pushed open the front door real slow. I really wanted to make it upstairs without Mom seeing my black eye. I tiptoed up the stairs. Just when I thought the coast was clear, I heard Mom call out, “Stella Louise? Is that you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said as cheerful as I could muster, still hoping to avoid the Black Eye Talk.

“Well, come on in here. I want to hear about your day.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I mumbled. Mom hated it when I mumbled, but she was gonna hate this black eye even more.

It took her all of two seconds to let loose. “Stella Louise! What happened to your eye?!” I knew enough to know she didn’t really want an answer, so I let her keep going. “How many times have I told you that you need to get some decorum, young lady? I mean, Lord have mercy. How many times can you get a black eye? Or get stitches? I mean, when I was your age, I was playing hopscotch every afternoon, neat and clean as can be. But you? You’re all a mess! And what happened to your hair?”

“Hopscotch?” I said hopefully.

“Get on out of here, young lady! You go upstairs, take a bath, and run a comb through your hair. I want you to look presentable by the time your father comes home for dinner. And don’t ask me about going back out tonight. No, ma’am. Don’t you dare.”

I sighed and trudged up the stairs. Looked like I’d be shimmying down that tree after all. No matter, though. Percy’d be happy to see me, even if I’d likely show up wearing some stupid dress.

Photo by Piotr Chrobot on Unsplash

Late Night Cuban Coffee

It didn’t matter anyway. In 10 minutes, she and Mom would be out of here. Headed west on Highway 58. Toward whatever it was that kept drawing Mom in. Or was she running away from something? Dani honestly didn’t know.

Dani tapped her fingers on the counter, waiting for the guy who was supposed to be taking her order to stop flirting with the waitress long enough to do his job. She’s way out of his league, anyway,Dani thought absently, pulling her hair back into a quick bun on the top of her head. Some people chewed their nails when they were nervous. Dani put her hair in a bun. Then took it back down. Then put it up again. It was her biggest tell, not that she had a great poker face anyway. But what did it matter? No one knew her well enough to know her tells anyway.

When Flirtypants finally wandered over to Dani, she gave him her best aloof glare. She’d been practicing it in the mirror for the last 200 miles. She thought she had it down pretty good. But instead of being stunned by her iciness, he smiled.

Huh. Need to work on the glare, I guess. She noticed a scar above his top lip. Probably had it since he was a kid,she thought. As she continued to examine his face, she accidently found herself staring into his eyes. Damn it, she thought. He looked at her curiously. In this intense way that made her feel seen. She wasn’t used to being seen, not really.

It didn’t matter anyway. In 10 minutes, she and mom would be out of here. Headed west on Highway 58. Toward whatever it was that kept drawing mom in. Or was she running away from something? Dani honestly didn’t know. It’d been a year. Always on the move in their beat-up RV. One campground after another.

This boy behind the counter was just one in a long line of people that she shouldn’t bother getting attached to. She fixed her gaze back on him and stared him down. He looked away first. Dani felt pleased for a second. Powerful.

“What can I get you?” he asked, wiping the counter while he spoke to her.

“A Cuban coffee.”

“It’s 10 p.m.” the boy pointed out, sensibly. And maybe a little bit intrigued.

“It’s for my mom. We’re on a road trip,” she lied. Not about the coffee. The coffee was for her mom. But a road trip was too sunny a name for what they were doing. This was more like an epic quest. And it was getting exhausting.

“Cool,” the boy said, looking more interested than Dani wanted him to. Now there were going to be a million questions about where she and mom were going and what they were doing. And Dani hated, more than anything, to admit that she had no idea what was going on, where they were going, and that she didn’t know how to get mom to stop moving long enough to figure out the truth.

“Yeah,” Dani said, dismissing him with an eye roll. “Whatever.”

Dani drummed on the counter while the boy painstakingly made the Cuban coffee. It wasn’t that she wanted to get out of there. Or maybe she did. Was forgetting how to be a regular person that had regular conversations with people? Ugh. She felt fidgety inside, like she was waiting for something to happen all the time.

The boy slid the coffee toward her. He nodded. “Have a good trip.”

Dani wasn’t exactly sure why, but she reached out and touched his hand. “Thank you,” she said, earnestly.

“For what?” he asked, surprised by her sudden intensity.

“For giving a shit,” she said. “A lot of people don’t, you know.”

She pushed the door open with her forearm and let it swing shut behind her. The warm, Florida breeze blew strands of her hair in front of her face. Dani hardly noticed. She barged through the door of the RV to find her mom inside, starting intently at a map. She shoved the coffee toward her.

“I’m going back to the diner to get my own coffee. And when I come back, we’re going to decide together where we’re going. Not just to pass through. But to stay. Because, if we don’t Mom, I’m going to forget how to be one of those people who actually gives a shit. And I can’t let that happen, Mom. I can’t.”

Without waiting for an answer, Dani jumped out of the RV and walked purposefully back toward the diner. She felt a tentative smile spring to her face. Maybe it’d work better than her glare. For now, at least.

 

 

Aubergine the Kind & Brave

Aubergine knew the rule about being kind to others, even if they weren’t kind to you. And she hadn’t been mean. In fact, she hadn’t said anything at all. Then why did she feel so awful?

Abergine’s day started like every other day. She got dressed for school in a rainbow tutu, a shirt with glitter stars, a sequined cape, and her favorite tiara. Mom sent her back into her room to change into something “a little less festive.” Aubergine tried again. This time, Mom exclaimed, “Holy guacamole, Aubergine!” Aubergine wasn’t sure what her outfit had to do with squished up avacados. But she was happy that she got to wear her favorite princess dress, cowboy boots, and reindeer antlers to school. The worst thing in the world a person could be, according to Aubergine, was boring.

After morning announcements, Mrs. Wormly began the math lesson. Aubergine loved math. She liked examining the math problems and discovering how to solve them. In the middle of puzzling through a particularly difficult problem, she heard Crawley McFarley whisper, “Girls don’t like math.” Aubergine spun around in her seat. She glared at Crawley McFarley. When it was time to go over their math work, Aubergine raised her hand for every answer. She noticed Crawley McFarley didn’t raise his hand once. Hmpf, she thought.

On the playground, Aubergine climbed to the top of the monkey bars. She flipped upside down so that she hung by her knees. She liked how the trees looked as if they grew from the sky when she was upside down. Suddenly, she was looking at a pair of brown eyes, curly brown hair, and a mean scowl. “Girls don’t play on monkey bars,” Crawley McFarley said. Aubergine rolled her eyes and climbed back to the top of the bars. She closed her eyes, touched her middle fingers to her thumbs to make the shape of an O, and said more loudly than was strictly necessary “Ooooooommmmmmmm.”

After she had Om’d for a few minutes and was feeling much better, she opened her eyes to see Crawley McFarley sitting next to her on the monkey bars. “Meditating is dumb,” he said, still scowling. Aubergine sighed, flipped down off the monkey bars, and went to play with the kids on the seesaws.

At reading time, Aubergine pulled out her book slowly. The class was reading Charlotte’s Web together. Out loud. Aubergine always felt nervous about reading out loud. The words in her head didn’t always come out of her mouth right. Sometimes, she accidentally whispered when she read and the teacher had to say “Speak up, Aubergine. Be audible.” This made Aubergine feel even smaller.

When it was Aubergine’s turn to read, she got tangled up in the very first sentence. She tripped over the first few words, then she froze. Crawley McFarley saw his chance. “I can read, Mrs. Wormly!” he yelled, waving his hand in the air. After Ms. Wormly had nodded at him to go ahead, Crawley McFarley whispered under his breath, “Who’s smart now, Aubergine?” Aubergine didn’t know what to do. So she just rolled her eyes and stared down at her book.

By the time Aubergine got home, she felt sad and angry. Why was Crawley McFarley so mean to her? She was so upset that she couldn’t even eat the dirt & worms that Mom had made for her special snack. She finished her homework, ate dinner, and went to her room to read Charlotte’s Web. She read it just fine when she didn’t have an audience of meanies like Crawley McFarley staring at her.

Then next day, Aubergine didn’t feel as excited about school as usual. In fact, she felt yucky. She got dressed in an ordinary pair of jeans and a pale blue button down shirt. Mom saw Aubergine’s outfit and knew something was wrong right away. “Aubergine, do you need to talk about something?” Aubergine paused. She knew the rule about being kind to others, even if they weren’t kind to you. And Aubergine had been kind, even when Crawley McFarley acted like a big old poopy-pants. She sighed loudly. And then she recounted for Mom all the ways that Crawley McFarley had set about to ruin her day yesterday.

While Aubergine talked, Mom nodded and hmmmm‘d. When Aubergine finished the story, Mom gave her a big hug. “You are a good kid, Aubergine. Stellar, in fact. And I think I have some ideas for you that might make today a little better.”

Aubergine didn’t go to school in plain old jeans and a blue button down shirt after all. She proudly walked through the doors of Birdnest Elementary in a superhero costume with a cape, sparkly wrist bands, and a shield. Crawley McFarley snickered when Aubergine walked in the room. Aubergine ignored him. She knew she looked amazing. And, besides, she had a plan.

At recess, Aubergine headed over to the kids playing four square. She was practically a four square champion. She couldn’t wait to play. As she reached for the ball, Crawley McFarley appeared out of nowhere. He shoved her out of the way. Then he grabbed the ball. “Girls can’t play four square.”

Aubergine jumped up from the ground and grabbed her shield. She planted her feet firmly on the ground, looked Crawley McFarley in the eye and asked loudly, “What did you say?”

“I said girls can’t play four square,” he replied. But he said it more quietly this time.

Aubergine took a deep breath: “I can play four square! I am the best four square player at Birdnest Elementary! I am super good at math. I want to be an engineer one day! News flash: girls can do anything they want to do! And, for your information, I like to read. And it is MEAN to pick on someone because they get nervous sometimes. One more thing: meditating is AWESOME. It’s like my superpower. You should mind your own business and STOP being mean all the time!” Aubergine walked over to Crawley McFarley, took the four square ball out of his hands, and said, “I am playing first, because I was here first.”

Crawley McFarley didn’t say anything at all. He just stood there staring. Aubergine couldn’t remember anyone ever standing up to Crawley McFarley. Ever. But now she had. And she’d done it without being mean at all.

Aubergine smiled. Mom was right. It took a special kind of superhero to be kind AND stand up for herself. And now Aubergine knew just what kind of superhero she wanted to be.