Prelude – Little boys and little girls
Laney looked around her classroom as she slipped on her spring jacket. Strung from one window to the next was a thin cord with multi-colored clothespins. Each pair held a painting that someone had worked on that afternoon during art. Today she’d drawn her grandfather’s barn just as she remembered it. From where she stood, the big doors seemed slanted, and the windows on each side were too small. All the same, it reminded her of Sarah the pig, Henry the Beagle, and all the chickens she used to feed. Laney shook her head, refusing to feel sad as she adjusted her almost empty backpack, And then she grinned, thinking about the big smiley face her teacher had drawn on her math homework. It was the first thing she’d show her parents at dinner. Even though she really didn’t like numbers, each of her addition and subtraction problems had been correct.
School was five blocks from home and only a short walk, but today for some reason she missed Meg who always walked a little less than half way with her. Their eyes had locked the first day of school, they’d smiled at each other at the same time, and at recess they’d become best friends. For a moment, she thought about the bag of unopened jelly beans and whether or not they’d cure Meg’s cold.
Nope, she told herself, they were for Easter which was only a week away. She wasn’t even supposed to know they were there, hidden behind a big can of coffee; along with some peeps and a chocolate bunny with giant ears and bright blue eyes.
Three blocks down the road Laney spotted the first pinecone sailing through the air just before she heard the tiny pop as it hit her backpack. She looked toward the large elm tree across the street, knowing good and well it came from that direction. The boy wasn’t visible but she could see his long shadow sticking out from behind the same tree. He pestered her constantly and she hated him because he did. He pestered his brother too. More than once she’d watched as he walked behind him, bopping him on the head with a Nerf football while he laughed at the younger boy who tried his best to bat it away without turning around.
The next item hit her finger right on the knuckle and she winced for only a minute, watching as it landed in the tall weedy grass beside the gutter. Picking up the larger than normal glass marble, she peered at the perfect blue cat’s eye and then turned around and held it up so he could see what she had. For good measure, she stuck her tongue out as far as it would go, hoping he’d see that too. What she really wanted to do was yell at him. She didn’t have the nerve to do that; not yet anyway but she was working on it.
The next morning Meg knocked on her door with a smile. It wasn’t her normal giant grin, her nose was still a little red, and they didn’t hold hands the whole way to school. Not even while they waited for the crossing guard to blow his whistle and escort them across the street. Germs lived in sneezed on hands for maybe weeks Laney thought to herself even though her hand felt a little empty. She ought to know because she’d already had two colds that year.
With summer was just around the corner, she wanted nothing to do with cough syrup or tissues. She knew it was coming because her mother had said so a few days earlier. When Laney had asked her just which corner it was coming from her mother had laughed while her eyes sparkled like they always did. It’s just an expression people use, she’d explained, and only meant that it would be here very soon.
After passing the flag, walking up the wide steps in front of the school, and then going through the big glass doors, they sat in the hallway, waiting for the bell. As the two of them talked quietly about whether to have tacos or a sloppy joe for lunch, they shared one lone cheese cracker from the bottom of Meg’s green backpack. And when it finally rang they parted ways, lining up with their class.
They had different teachers, but both of them kept their fingers crossed, hoping that next year they’d be in the same room. Meg’s teacher was a man; a man with big hands and a deep voice that could holler all the way across the playground. He also had chin hair and a mustache. Meg had told her not long ago that he ran his hand down it grinning when he listened to each of them read.
At recess Laney spied Chris near the monkey bars. Yep that’s him, the younger brother of the pine cone thrower she told herself as she eyed him with a wicked little grin. One tiny kick in the shin and then he could pass it on, just like they did with the eraser on rainy days. It didn’t take long to reach him because she hurried. He turned toward her, looking more than a little startled as she picked her foot up, aiming to do a good job with her toes. He moved and she missed.
“You have my marble, the big one with the blue cat’s eye and I want it back.” he stated with a very mean scowl on his face.
Even though he really hadn’t done anything to her, all the sorry feelings she’d had about him being hit on the head melted away. “You can’t have it because it’s mine now. I found it in the gutter. And you can tell that stupid brother of yours to leave me alone!” she stated with her best angry glare.
“I’ll trade you,” he said, eyeing her with his lips poked out.
“For what?” she questioned, with her hands fisted at her sides.
“A finger game; you know the one you wiggle, pick a number, and then open to see what it says. My brother made it and I took it because he wouldn’t let me see what he wrote.” His eyebrows jiggled up and down as if he knew a secret when he spoke.
Laney thought for a minute, wondering whether it was a good trade. She also wondered if the meanie would be able to see it from across the street. Of course, he’d also have to come out from behind the elm long enough to look.
“Okay, it’s a deal. Marbles are for boys anyway.”
As everyone buttoned up their jackets at the end of the day, the two of them traded while Meg watched, eager to play with the numbered and neatly folded paper. They never had a chance because Meg’s mom grabbed her hand as they headed out the front doors of the school, smiling while she looked down at the two of them. Meg had forgotten about her dentist appointment, probably on purpose.
Laney felt sorry for her best friend although she was sure that one day she’d end up there too. It gave her icky goosebumps when she thought about someone’s fingers poking around in her mouth while she tried her best to open WIDE. As a matter of fact, she was positive she’d rather eat a whole plate of lima beans that go through anything involving a dentist.
“Shall I drop you off at home Laney?” Meg’s mother asked as she tugged lightly on one of her pigtails.
Laney shook her head and smiled back. “No thanks Mrs. Weston. I like the walk and besides it’s easier to sit and do homework afterwards.”
Laney stopped three blocks from home, anxious to read what the stupid brother had written. After all, she told herself, she could read most of Dr. Seuss and the dumb boy wasn’t smarter than him because after all, he was a doctor. She accented the word dumb in her head because boys were dumb. They didn’t care if they got dirty crawling around as they raced cars across the driveway. Dolls were so much better. You could dress them, make them talk, and pretend they did things like shop or even go to school. Cars didn’t talk. They just made noise.
The first triangle she opened had a number one written on it. Inside was a little picture of a cat, drawn and then shaded in with a pencil. The cat held his paw up as if he were cleaning it and was all black with a white nose like Bandit, the kitten she’d be given for her birthday. The second triangle only had one letter; a very big H. Under the third one was the letter I. H I, Hi, HI, ran through her head until it clicked. Oh, she said out loud, hi like in hello. Lifting the last triangle, she almost but not quite grinned. Her name was written on it but he’d spelled it L a n i e, which of course was wrong. Above the lower case I, sat a small star instead of a dot, filled in with gold glitter.
Laney did a little dance right there on the sidewalk while she wondered whether he’d throw a twig today or another pinecone. Even better, he didn’t know what she had in her hand. She danced her way down another half block and then slowed, looking toward the elm from the corner of her eye. She could see his black hair and the dark blue jacket he had on but not his face. She laughed as she turned, waiting for him to look at her. It didn’t take long and as soon as he did, his face went from a big grin to wide eyes because Laney held the decoder in her hand, waving it back and forth.
Immediately he thought of his little brother and what he’d do to him. But then he looked at her and smiled because he had to. He liked her blond hair and he liked her pigtails. He even liked the way she walked, although it wasn’t the way he walked. He took a few more steps away from his hiding place and grinned while he waved back at her. Then he ran; he ran as fast as he could around the house and up the steps, slamming the back door as he slid inside.
Girls, he whispered to himself. They play with dolls. All the same, there was something about her that made him feel strange. Almost like goosebumps were walking up his arm, but not quite. No, it was more like the way he felt the moment he tasted his mother’s homemade sugar cookies...but still different somehow. He just couldn’t quite figure it out and it made him feel funny inside.
Two days later a box of Skittles flew across the street and landed at Laney’s feet. She spent an hour picking through the cupboard that afternoon and ended up choosing her last two giant jaw breakers. She wrapped them in paper after drawing her best rendition of a mouth saying ‘yum’. She even remembered to make a bubble around the word with a little point near the lips.
When she was done, she looked at the picture for a long time, realizing that the teeth were all wrong and the lips were crooked. She wrapped them up anyway and lobbed it across the street the next day. She wasn’t a very good thrower, but because she wasn’t he had to come all the way to the edge of the grass to get it. He looked up at her as he bent down and then shook his head, grinning. She liked his grin. She liked the way he walked too. He took big steps compared to her small ones.
For weeks they played the same game almost every day. Laney was kind of glad Meg’s house was more than a block away. She didn’t like to be teased and she was sure that Meg would do just that if she ever found out.
One day he tossed her a baggie full of Sweet Tarts while she tossed him a little bag of chocolate kisses. Another day she rolled him a picture of a rainbow that she’d painted in art, wrapped around an old tennis ball. He made an airplane out of the paper in his hand and the two of them watched it catch the wind and land in her hand. It was a sketch of the elm tree with a heart carved on the trunk.
When summer vacation came around, Laney realized she was a second grader now and wondered whether it was okay to have a boyfriend. But then she thought about the fact that he stayed across the street and never came over to her side of the road. Right then she made up her mind to ask him why.
After finishing her Saturday chores, she marched outside with her hands on her hips and immediately stopped dead in her tracks. She knew what a moving van looked like. They looked like the big truck that had brought all their furniture from the farm last year. Laney sat down on the grass for an hour and then another hour until it pulled away. A few minutes later a blue car came down the driveway and slowly passed her.
She could see him watching her as one by one tears trickled down her cheeks. His lips were turned down, but his fingers waved at her as he said her name silently through the window.
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