Dirty Faces

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Chapter 5: Reality

It was a quiet ride the next morning in the foggy half-light before dawn, aside from the ever-present jostling of the truck along that bumpy mountain road. Once off the mountain, the road smoothed as they entered the city that served as the county seat. Kody sped past the high school but slowed down as he drove through the town square, past the statue of the unnamed, long rifle-wielding frontiersman, the courthouse, and the library. When they passed their little white church, a twinge of excitement went through Ginny; she had never been this far. The bus station was another twenty minutes along the smooth, paved road and as they traveled she strained her eyes to see all the pretty painted houses and brick buildings in the dim morning light.

When they arrived at the bus station, Kody parked the truck, pulled the suitcase out of the bed, and headed for the nearest bench. Ginny slid out the passenger's side and accompanied Mama to the ticket window. She stared at the fancy register, much nicer than the one at the company store, and marveled at the fact that the clerk was wearing Sunday clothes at work. It was still a little while before the bus departed and Mama and Ginny joined Kody on the bench, nearly the only people to have yet arrived at the sleepy little station this morning.

The time on the bench was as mum as the ride over had been, the silence only ever interrupted by the occasional rumble of a passing car. Ginny was sad and excited at the same time, and to combat her conflicting emotions, as she so often did, she let her mind wander.

"Mama?" she asked.

"Yeah, sugar?"

"What do you know about that old house in town?"

"The one by the boarding house?"

"Yes, ma'am."

Mama looked down at her, her brows furrowed and concern in her eyes. "I know it's been empty so long that a little girl could easily fall through a rotten floorboard inside or out and break her neck."

Ginny didn't pursue the subject any further lest Mama deduce that she already knew more about the floorboards than she ought, and thus the silence continued.

Eventually the sun came out, more people arrived, and the clock over the ticket booth read five to eight. People were beginning to board the bus and Mama stood up hesitantly, smoothing out the wrinkles in her nicest brown skirt; it was rather unimpressive compared to the dresses worn by the majority of the ladies climbing onto the bus.

"Well, I guess I'm off!" she said, her voice breaking and her pale, blue eyes misty. She hugged both her children, holding them for what seemed to them an unnecessarily long time. They walked with her to the bus steps and Kody handed her her beat-up, leather suitcase.

"We'll be fine, Mama, " he assured her. "Really."

She smiled and nodded, sniffled, and wiped the tears from her cheeks. She looked down at Ginny, who smiled up at her with the most comforting, angelic smile she had ever seen from the little hellion, then turned to go up the steps, the last person to board the bus. She found a seat just as it was pulling away, threw down the window, and shouted, "I love y'all!"

"Love you, too, Mama," they returned, not in unison.

They stood at the terminal until the bus was just a dot in the distance, then Kody pulled the keys from his pocket and headed back to the truck. Ginny followed, several paces back, unable to keep up with his stride.

When they had been driving for a while without even a word, Ginny broke the silence.

"So what're you gonna do today?"

"I'm gonna go back to bed. Then when I get up again...none of your business," his eyes never leaving the road.

She rolled her eyes and resumed gazing out the window.

A few moments later he cleared his throat and laid down the law. "OK. This is how it's gonna be. You're gonna stay out of my hair, and I'll stay out of yours. I don't care where you are or what you're doing so long as it doesn't land you or any of your victims in the hospital or worse. And you're asleep in your bed at night."

He looked over at Ginny now, his brows raised expectantly.

"Fair enough," she answered, and returned to her window gazing. She considered bringing up the possibility of him playing catcher for a few games but decided this wasn't the best mood to work with. She would bide her time. There was always time.

When they got home, true to his word, Kody went back to sleep. Ginny grabbed her glove and headed for the ball field next to the schoolhouse. The sun had been up for a while now so Tommy and Danny would have been at the field for some time. When she got there, not only were they there, but J.D. and Becky were, too. To her relief, they stopped playing when they saw her coming; seeing four people trying to make a baseball game work was even more pitiful than five.

"Everything OK?" Tommy called as they all walked to meet her.

"Yeah. Just had to take my mama to the bus station."

"Well you could have let us know!" Becky snapped, her hands on her hips. "We might have worried, ya know." She said this in the funny half-Irish accent she and Rowdy only let slip when they were excited or angry. It always made Ginny smile.

She shrugged. "Didn't know 'til last night."

Becky narrowed her eyes then smiled wide. "Well...OK then. You're forgiven this time." This was spoken in an entirely American accent.

"Well, let's not waste any more time," Tommy commanded enthusiastically.

The field was, in reality, merely a flat patch of dirt. There were no lines, bases, dugouts, or pitcher's mound. During school, bases could be borrowed; during the summer, bases were usually folded pieces of newspaper. This made calling safe or out particularly tricky when someone slid into the base that ended up getting caught in the wind and blown to another part of the field. Tommy drew a circle in the dirt in the middle of the in-field to represent the pitcher's mound, and two mostly rotted wood benches sat in the spots where dugouts should be. Perhaps at one time this had been an actual playing field, but if it had, it had been a very, very long time ago.

Ginny took her place on first, with J.D. in the outfield, Tommy pitching, Becky catching, and Danny up to bat. After the batter hit the ball and ran, they rotated positions; with only a pitcher and an in-fielder and one out-fielder there were a lot of home runs. They went on this way until the majority complained of hunger and a break had to be taken. Then they picked right back up until dusk. As they disbanded for the day, Tommy sighed and turned back to look back at the field.

"What is it?" Ginny asked.

He shook his head. "We gotta do something about this field. And get some people." They all agreed.

Grateful her legs had managed to carry her home and covered in dirt and grass stains, Ginny dragged in just as the katydids were beginning their nightly song. Kody, reclining on the couch, briefly glanced up from his book when the screen door shut behind her.

Something seemed off. It wasn't that no one ordered her to bathe immediately or even that Mama wasn't there at all . It was the smell, or more accurately, the lack thereof. There was no smell of a warm meal being prepared. She stepped cautiously into the kitchen in hopes her brother had gotten a late start on supper and the aromas of glorious food had simply not yet permeated the small house. But alas, nothing on the stove, nothing in the oven. She returned to the front room.

"What are you making?" he asked, sounding disinterested, his nose in the book.

The long silence created by her confusion prompted him to momentarily lay the book down.

"To cook? What are you gonna cook for supper?" he elaborated.

She furrowed her brows and shook her head. "I can't cook."

"Of course you can cook. You're a girl," he said, like it was common knowledge.

She looked down at her glove, still in hand, and briefly considered throwing it at him for that remark. How dare he suggest that she, or anyone for that matter, came into the world with a standardized skill-set, as if the ability to cook, clean, and look pretty came stock for girls. But she abstained. Mama hadn't even been gone 24 hours and he was sure to have a letter exposing her actions penned and mailed to Cleveland in an instant. Or he might just throw it back at her, which would not bode well for her either.

"I don't know how," she explained.

"You're ten years old! That's ten years of watching Mama cook. Surely you've picked up a thing or two."

Her stomach growled angrily, reminding her how long ago it had been since she ate that leftover biscuit Becky's mother had provided her for dinner. Kody was right. She'd had plenty of opportunity to learn, and Mama had made the effort to actually teach her to cook on occasion, but her attention had always wandered. She wouldn't need to know how to cook until she was grown and had a family of her own; until then, there would be Mama.

"I'm almost twelve," she corrected. "And you mean to tell me that in sixteen years of watchin' Mama cook, you ain't learned a thing?"

"Of course not! Because I don't watch. Why should I? I shouldn't need to know how to cook."

It was then that reality dawned on them. They were going to starve.

It was too late to go see what left-overs they could scrounge off Aunt Betty and Ginny's stomach felt like it was turning itself inside out at this point. She began searching the cupboard for a can of beans, corn, anything she could open right up and eat as-is. When Kody accepted that he would not be receiving a hot meal he groaned and joined in her can-hunt; he was obviously miserably hungry himself.

Ginny found and downed a can of peaches and went straight to bed. Part of her was already wishing her mother had taken her with her.

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