Dirty Faces

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Chapter 19: Ballads

Thursday evening, Ginny followed the path between Jack's house and her own. It had rained off and on all day and she had stuck around the kitchen helping Aunt Betty can strawberry and blackberry preserves. With Tommy grounded, it hadn't been a bad way to pass the time.

She decided that if Lilly was parked in the yard when she got there, she'd just turn right back around and wait on Kody to get off work before going home to wait on Mama's phone call. She despised being around Ralph at all, but it was generally more bearable when there was someone else there to share in the tense misery.

She hunched over and kept low as she crept around the side of the house. To her relief, only Ralph's rig was parked in the yard; he'd probably gone to the diner for supper. She straightened back up and entered through the front door, heading straight for the radio once inside. This time of day usually offered a decent show, and if nothing else, a ball game. When she settled on a serial mystery, she sat down on the near-threadbare chair and let herself get lost in the story.

As the episode reached its climax, she wished she'd thought to bring her drawing pad with her so she could illustrate the intense scene for herself. Just then, the roar of Lilly's loud engine distracted her thoughts. She considered sneaking out the back door and making a run for Jack's house, but Mama would be calling soon, and Kody should be getting there any minute. She could handle Ralph on her own until then.

Ginny stared straight ahead as the screen door slammed behind her. Ralph glanced at her out the corner of his eye as he seated himself on the couch and pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. Tapping the top of the pack against his palm, he observed, "I don't much care for this here show."

"Would you like me to change it?" she offered.

"I'm perfectly capable of doing that." He stood up and crossed the front room over to the radio. After adjusting the dial to an acceptable station, he turned to look at Ginny. He lit a cigarette and took a long draw, all the while staring at her, then watched as the smoke he exhaled dissipated.

"I ran into that priest at the store today," he stated, before taking another draw, his eyes never leaving Ginny's face. She was silent, staring down at the floor.

"He said he caught you poking around that ol' place next to his."

Her eyes stayed set on the scuffed-up floor boards. She knew what to expect.

"Look at me when I talk to you, girl!"

She raised her gaze to meet his green eyes; they might have been pretty if they hadn't been his.

"If you're smart, you'll keep away from there."

She nodded. "Yes, sir."

"But you and me both know you ain't that smart."

Ginny kept an eye on his hands, dreading what was certain to come. He took another drag off the cigarette, exhaled, then stuck it it the corner of his mouth. "Lucky for you, I'm nice enough to give ya a little reminder," he said, taking off his belt.

"What'd you get in trouble for?" Kody asked as they climbed up the path back to Jack's house. Ginny had had that air of defeat about her since he got home, that same one she always had when she got in trouble. It was like Ralph's belt dealt a harder blow to her pride than to her body.

She turned and looked back him with an expression he couldn't even begin to read. "He found out I'd been in that old house."

"Ginny, I didn't tell him, I swear. I haven't even been there to tell him."

"I know. The Priest did. He caught Tommy and me there the other day."

She turned back around and continued up the path. He wanted to ask her what all she had seen in that house, but he dare not let her know he'd been in it himself, or that he even cared. It was a small wonder Ralph hadn't torn into him, too, for letting her be in the old house, and he supposed that if he'd been there while Ginny was receiving her punishment, he probably would have. And he felt terribly guilty about that.

"Did he take the belt to you?" he asked as they neared their aunt and uncle's yard.



She turned around again, this time with one corner of her lip ever-so-slightly curved upward. "I've had worse."

That ominous little smile and the defiance in his sister's tone made Kody exceedingly grateful that Mama had told them she would be home some time the following week. He was pretty sure he would be unable to keep Ginny away from that old house once Ralph left back out, despite the threat of another beating when he returned. And he wasn't confident he could keep himself away from it, now, either.

Jack's dreams hadn't been a problem this week, but he must have been dog-tired this night because as soon as his head hit the pillow, he'd started snoring; and he hadn't stopped. The little room was partially lit by the nearly full moon, and Kody lay staring up at the ceiling from his makeshift bed in the floor. Even if it had been completely silent and dark, though, he wouldn't have been able to sleep; not with the thoughts running around in his head like they were.

For one thing, he had conflicting opinions about Mama coming home, because she wasn't coming home to stay. She was coming home to get a few things to take back to Cleveland, including Ginny and him. She had said she'd already been away too long, and that the doctors had told her and Uncle Kent that Granny could linger a few more weeks or even a few more months. If the latter was the case, that would mean she would still be in Cleveland when the new school year started.

Though guaranteed decent meals and not really having to worry about what Ginny was getting into was a welcome relief, he wasn't too keen on going to join in the on-going death vigil. And he didn't know how to tell Leslie. And the fact that he was even worrying about that made him uncomfortable because it meant that he'd allowed himself to get close to another person.

Then, of course, there were the twelve million questions he had about the old foreman's house. He wanted to believe that his kid sister was just chasing shadows, but he couldn't now.

Kody closed his eyes and thought hard. It wasn't entirely unlikely that Daddy would have known the foreman back then, maybe even well enough to be invited to his house, which could explain the picture. He felt foolish for not thinking of that before he went breaking and entering. And 'Addie' wasn't exactly an uncommon name, so the nightstand could have very well been a coincidence. But it was Ralph's interest in keeping Ginny away from the old house that made the least sense. Her safety certainly wasn't an issue for Ralph; if she fell through a rotten floor board and broke her neck, that would be cause for celebration.

Without warning, a song of sadness and longing invaded his thoughts and he figured he must surely be drifting into that place between consciousness and dreaming. But when he opened his eyes and looked around the moonlit bedroom and at the rise and fall of Jack's chest with each snoring breath, and still clearly heard the tune, he realized it was not coming from within his subconscious mind.

Kody got up and slipped out of the bedroom, following the seductive music that seemed to be calling out to him like a siren. He tread lightly through the front room and glanced down at Ginny, sleeping silently on the couch, as he passed. She had kicked the blanket off of her and even with what little moonlight filtered through the curtains, he could clearly see the ugly purplish-red welts on her skinny legs that weren't covered by her little cotton nightgown. The sickening guilt he'd felt earlier that evening reappeared in the pit of his stomach as he pulled the cover back over her.

He swallowed hard as he tried to get the unsettling thoughts out of his mind, and continued on into the kitchen, where the familiar, haunting melody grew louder. The sweet aroma of Uncle Bill's pipe smoke engulfed him as he stepped quietly out the back door.

Sitting on the edge of the porch, pipe in the side of his mouth, eyes closed, his uncle moved the bow up and down on the strings of the fiddle Kody hadn't seen in years. He moved as silently as possible to the porch step and sat down. It gave him goose bumps as the song rang out into the still night, and each note struck a chord in some part of him that was deeper than thought or memory or even his bones; the part a more superstitious person might refer to as the soul.

He let the old, familiar tune quiet his busy mind while Uncle Bill remained lost in the music, unaware he now had an audience. After the bow had caressed the strings one last time and the last note slowly faded into the night, Uncle Bill laid the beloved instrument down beside him and puffed on his pipe for a few minutes before finally addressing his nephew.

"Can't sleep, huh?"

Kody shook his head. "Jack's sawing logs in there."

Uncle Bill nodded. "Yep. He gets that from his mama." He took a swig from a brown jug that had been sitting by his feet, then offered it to Kody. "Here. Have ya some of this. It'll help."

Kody looked at him, unsure.

"It ain't the stuff Ralph drinks that makes him so mean," his uncle assured him. "The worst it'll do is give ya a good night's sleep."

He continued looking at Uncle Bill with uncertainty on his face.

"I won't tell your mama or Betty," he promised.

With that, though still reluctantly, Kody turned up the jug and took a sip. The sweet, fruity wine went down much easier than he'd expected.

"Good stuff, ain't it?" Uncle Bill said with a smile.

He nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, it is," he replied as he handed the jug back to him.

Uncle Bill set it between them and picked up the fiddle. "You can have this, if ya want. I've got my own; I just like to play his from time to time."

Kody shook his head. "Thanks, but I can't play."

"I could teach you, ya know."

He shook his head again. "No, Uncle Bill. You keep it."

Uncle Bill puffed on his pipe some more, and Kody occasionally felt his eyes on him. The only thing interrupting the silence was the eerie croaking of a lone tree frog nearby. Finally, the older man cleared his throat. "Your mama's ol' man wouldn't have it around, would he?"

Kody's eyes found the ground and his own bare feet. "No, sir."

"'Cause it was your daddy's?"

He nodded, eyes still downcast.

Uncle Bill took another drink from the jug. "Ya know, I never did resent your mama for marrying him. I reckon she done what she had to, times being hard like the was. Hell, they still are. But some things just ain't right."

He handed the jug to Kody, and he turned it up without a hint of reservation. The first sip was warm in his stomach now and he supposed that meant it was working.

Uncle Bill sighed. "I ain't saying that li'l girl in there don't deserve a good whipping once in a while, 'cause Lord knows she does. And if he acted like a daddy to you kids, it wouldn't bother me none, but he don't."

He had surely seen Ginny's legs. Kody hoped the alcohol would take full effect soon, and he reached for the jug, taking a big, long gulp once it was in his hands.

Uncle Bill was quiet another minute before he remarked, "You know Betty and me would do anything for you kids, dontcha? And for your mama, too. She'll always be family." He looked at his nephew expectantly.

"Yessir, I know that."

"That's good, son, 'cause this is a crazy, upside down world we live in. You never really can tell who ya can trust and who ya can't. That's why family has to look out for one another, ya see. What it comes down to, at the end of the day, is they're the only ones who have your back no matter what."

Kody's lips had begun to tingle. His senses were dulling and the warmth he had felt in his stomach was seeping into his bones. He stared thoughtlessly out at the hog pen. "Uncle Bill?"

"Yeah, son?"

"Would you play another song?"

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