I said I didn’t care. That was when Lark told me a new kid and his family moved in beside her. But it wasn’t quite true. I wanted to meet the kid that flew down the street on his bicycle; no hands. I wanted to be him. Meeting him was the next closest thing.
“Addi, this is George. George, this is Addi,” Lark said.
He sat astride his bicycle in a DC t-shirt and gym shorts. His shoes were untied and I wondered how his laces didn’t get caught in the pedals.
George looked at my outstretched hand, ready to shake, and wrinkled his nose. It pulled his eyebrows down and the bill of his Vikings cap shifted.
I whipped my hand back. Lark spoke up fast. “Hey, Addi, I was telling George about the creek behind your house. All the bottles and old shoes.”
“He doesn’t want to see that stuff.”
George shrugged. “You’re right. I don’t. My mom made me come with Lark. But I don’t need friends here. All my friends are in Minnesota.”
“That’s really far away,” Lark said. I noticed she was swishing her new skirt around her knees and her arms weren’t crossed.
I narrowed my eyes at George. “Why’d you move here, then?”
“My dad got a job working in the city. He helps inner city kids.” George turned his cap around and grasped his handlebars tight. He thunked the front tire of the bike up and down on the pavement.
“Helps them do what?”
“Get homes and families. Get into colleges.” George watched his tire bounce.
“He’s a social worker,” I said. Not many kids knew what that was, but I did.
George glared at me. “He’s a lawyer. He makes a lot of money and he helps people. What does your dad do?”
Lark stopped swishing her skirt. She stood very still.
“What does he do?” George insisted.
I heard Miss Rhonda’s strong voice calling me from the porch. Lark looked relieved that we didn’t have to go through this again. I had told so many people, it was easy for me not to react anymore. “I gotta go,” I said.
I ran down the street. Like I did every time I climbed Miss Rhonda’s porch steps, I glanced at my old house next door.
“Adelaide,” Miss Rhonda said.
“What’s wrong?” Something was. Her voice sounded the same as when she said, “No foster home. Addi can live with me.”
“Come into the kitchen,” she said.
In the kitchen a tall man stood in a suit by the sink. He held his sunglasses and squinted at me like he was decoding me.
“Addi, this is Officer Ford.”
He winked at me, quickly, like he just thought of it and hoped it would help. I didn’t like this Officer Ford in his suit and crooked sunglasses. His fingernails were too clean and there was no hair on the top middle of his head.
The words exploded out of me. “She killed someone else.”
Miss Rhonda clapped her brown, paint-streaked hand over my mouth but it didn’t matter because the question was out.
Officer Ford looked at me, not so sure he’d decoded me right. “Not someone else, kid. Herself.”
I didn’t go to school the rest of that week. Miss Rhonda let me stay home and paint with her. It helped, being in Miss Rhonda’s studio. There were never any dark corners in her studio; all the colors from her paintings were lit up so bright from the sun it almost hurt your eyes to keep them open and look. I told her once it was like a bear hug from a rainbow and she laughed. Miss Rhonda thinks I’m funny. Mom and Dad never thought that.
Even though I loved that Miss Rhonda laughed, I whizzed inside. Like I spun so fast I couldn’t slow down. Painting couldn’t slow me down. Doing the homework Lark brought me couldn’t slow me down. It was like when Lark and I used to put our ears to the fence that was designed to keep the sound of the highway out of our neighborhood. We tried to listen to the cars whizzing past, but the sound just vibrated through you. I imagined a car running through the fence right where my ear was. I had nightmares for a long time so we stopped doing that. That was the side where Lark lived, and George, too. I lived on the side where the woods were and a creek and a little dumping ground where the partyers came and hung out at night. Miss Rhonda wouldn’t let us go in the woods after dark. She said crazy people were all kinds and she didn’t want me to learn about any more crazy any sooner than I had to.
I guess Miss Rhonda thought Mom dying was another of those kinds. But it wasn’t too much different from Dad dying. Maybe it was different; I didn’t know. Mom didn’t ever make much sense to me, but what she did made her feel better. What she did made them take her away and put her in prison. I knew she wanted a perfect life so bad that it made her go out of her mind trying because some things in life you can’t control. Like a spot of toothpaste in the sink or one warped porch board in the middle of straight ones.
On Monday when I went back to school, Miss Rhonda said I could stay after with Lark and watch her brother Trevor at baseball practice. Lark came home with me after school most days for a few hours until her parents got home from work. When Miss Rhonda couldn’t keep her, she and I took the bus to the high school and sat on the bleachers until Trevor was done with baseball practice. Lark hated it, but I thought it was fun.
George followed us to the bus after school. He was dragging his bike.
“Why’s he here?” I hissed at Lark. She was picking sandwich crumbs off her skirt.
“I asked him if he wanted to come.” She shrugged. “He doesn’t have any friends.”
“He doesn’t want any friends here,” I said.
“Hi, George,” Lark said.
“Hi.” He pushed the bike into an empty seat and sat in another.
“Do you even like baseball?” I asked.
I punched Lark’s arm. She ignored me.
George jumped off the bus with his bike when he got to the high school and rode it to the bleachers. Lark and I walked slow.
“Are you mad your mom killed herself?” Lark asked.
“No,” I said.
“I would be.”
“I’m not.” I pulled the cuffs of my sweatshirt around my fists.
We climbed the bleachers and George stopped doing tricks on his bike to come up with us.
“My brother is number fifteen,” Lark told George, pointing.
“That was my hockey number,” he said.
“I have fifteen sparkly pencils,” Lark said.
They looked at me. The only thing I had ever used fifteen for was counting the months of Mom being in prison, and I wasn’t going to say that.
Trevor was at bat and before he kicked his feet in, he turned to us in the stands and saluted. Lark and I saluted back. He hit a double; they weren’t supposed to run bases during practice, but Trevor liked to. It was almost over anyway so he jogged around the bases and threw a handspring in. Lark rolled her eyes but I grinned, and when I looked at George, he was grinning, too.
“I wish I could hit like that,” he said.
“Sometimes he lets us bat after practice,” I said. We leaned on the fence, me and Lark sandwiching George in between us. Numbers two and twenty five hit homeruns, and Trevor bunted one, but the coach yelled at him, so he smacked another double. Carter, Trevor’s best friend hit a line drive that got stuck in the outfield fence and no one could pull it out. After team huddle and the coach left, Trevor waved at us. Lark shook her head, but George and I flew down the stairs and jumped the fence.
Trevor tossed his Truxton Rangers cap on my head. “Look at you, Addi Magee,” he said. “Perfect match.”
I looked down at my red Rangers sweatshirt and tugged the cap snug on my head. I introduced him to George. “He wants to hit a couple.”
Trevor looped the baseball under his knee and caught it behind his back. “Sure.”
“Go, George!” Lark yelled from the bleachers.
George gripped the bat and he hit most of the ones Trevor pitched, but he wasn’t too good at the curveballs. Then he handed me the bat.
“Pitch me a good one,” I said to Trevor, kicking my feet into the ruts at home plate.
“Go, Addi!” Lark yelled.
“Eye on the ball,” Trevor said, winding up.
I gripped the bat.
I’m not mad. I’m not.
The bat met the ball with a crack that I felt all the way down to my heart. As fast as I hit it, he threw another one. I hit every ball he pitched to me. When I was done, Trevor put his hands on his hips. He looked at the balls scattered in the outfield, and then turned to me. “Something lucky will happen tonight, just you wait, Addi Magee.”
I dropped the bat. Miss Rhonda said there was no luck but I hoped there was something out there that kept things right-side up. Luck seemed the closest thing. I could still hear that crack inside me like an echo in a canyon.
“Yeah, Addi!” George yelled at me from the stands. He was straddling his bike already and bouncing the tire. I took off Trevor’s cap and held it out.
“Keep it; that’s my old one,” Trevor said.
I ran over to the bleachers. “Wanna learn how to ride a bike, no hands?” George asked.
“Sure,” I said. It was supposed to be a lucky night.
Lark shook her head at me. I tilted my head at George. In this cap, I could do just about anything. Maybe I could even conquer the world, and my troops wouldn’t have to march in sharp, ruler-edge lines. “Miss Rhonda might not like it,” Lark said. She looked around for Trevor but he had left for the locker room.
“She won’t care,” I said. This was what I had been waiting for and Lark wasn’t gonna stop me. Just watch her.
Soon as I thought that, I went cold all over. Had Mom thought that? Could I do what she did? I shoved the thought out of my head and reached for the handlebars of George’s bike.
He pulled them back. “I’ll show you first.” He kicked off and pedaled real fast, holding on with both hands, then eight fingers, six…all the way to two fingertips. And then he let go. He rested his hands on his moving knees, still pedaling. His shoelaces flopped around like crazy spaghetti noodles.
“I don’t think you should do this,” Lark said, bunching handfuls of her skirt in her fists.
“I can do that, easy,” I said.
George came back and hopped off. “You try.”
I straddled the bike and took off pedaling, holding on. I slowly let one go one finger each hand until I was just fingertips, and then I let go. My hands hovered above the handlebars; I wobbled but I kept pedaling. George clapped and yelled. I grinned at the street in front of me.
Maybe it was that grin that unbalanced me; next thing I knew I was falling and my hands wouldn’t stop me. My head said quietly, you’re falling it will hurt. The street rose up and I fell down and we met in a big crash. My elbows and knees scraped hot on the pavement.
George and Lark ran up and pulled the bike off me. Without thinking, I bolted. “Addi! Wait!” Lark shouted, but I didn’t. I left the bike behind and ran. Was this how you felt when you did something you knew you shouldn’t? Was this how she felt?
I ran down a block and cut into the alley. When I came to the end I turned right and skidded on gravel, but I kept running. I ran and I ran. Past the post office. The Food Lion. Through the hollow sounding tunnel, up the hill. My name echoed behind me, faint, but I didn’t turn around. I turned into our neighborhood and ran right down the middle of the street. I almost hoped a car would turn out and slam on its brakes too late. Almost.
I ran and I ran and I ran and I ran.
Until I got to Miss Rhonda’s house, I didn’t stop.
My dad was a drunk. He was drunk all the time he was at home, which wasn’t a lot. I sat at school all day and he worked for the county: building roads and fixing roads and clearing roads.
Other kids were happy when their dads came home from work – I’d been at Lark’s house enough to know that. I didn’t like being around when my dad got home. He’d already have a beer in his hand and it was almost finished. He always went to the fridge for more. Maybe I did have another thing for fifteen. Once he had more than five, it wasn’t good to be around him. Mom didn’t like it when he came home either. He ruined her rows, and her happy singing and her arrangements.
Mom arranged flowers for the local florist. She alphabetized our cabinets and shelved our books in descending order, but she could make a vase of flowers look as carefree as the wind blowing clouds across the blue sky. When Dad came home, he left empty beer bottles and dirty socks in the living room, bottle caps on the kitchen table, and his neon highway vest in a heap on the porch like a beacon: The Neighborhood Drunk Is Home.
Those messes, they drove Mom crazy; that’s what Miss Rhonda said. I knew she was right because I remembered seeing it in her eyes whenever Dad left something somewhere it didn’t belong. Whenever he yelled and shouted and cussed and cursed. Sometimes I saw it when I spilled something or when I sang too loud. But mostly, it was Dad. And one afternoon, while I did homework at the kitchen table and Dad walked into the living room with his third beer, Mom just killed him. She stabbed the knife in his neck. She twisted it and he died.
She turned to me and said, “Now life will be perfect.”
That was why when I stopped on the porch in front of Miss Rhonda rocking, when I stopped all scraped and bloody and shaking, she took my face in her hands and asked me, “Honey, are you scared?”
I nodded. I was out of breath and I didn’t trust my voice. I was really scared. I got so used to pleasing Mom and not messing anything up that it might have messed me up, too, a little. I wasn’t sure and I hoped not, but sometimes I just got scared that I’d be like her. That I’d want to have a perfect life. That I’d kill people if they were messing it up.
“What happened, Addi?” Miss Rhonda pressed her sleeve to my bleeding knee. It stung. “Come with me. Cold water.” She nodded hard. Cold water fixed everything for Miss Rhonda. She pulled me gently into the house.
I sat on the kitchen counter. She opened the first aid kit from the pantry. I told her everything: hitting all of Trevor’s pitches, trying to ride with no hands, how mad I was. I was spinning again, but it was different this time. It was angry and it thumped inside me like hammers or someone throwing rocks. I wanted my mom. I wanted her to tell me that she loved me. That I made her life perfect. We didn’t need to put the books back in order of author. We didn’t need to make the beds without wrinkles.
I clenched my fists and my eyes. My knee hurt bad. “She needs to tell me she’s sorry,” I said.
“Maybe she wasn’t sorry,” Miss Rhonda said.
“It’s not right,” I yelled. “You’re supposed to be sorry when you do something wrong. She messed up! I tried so hard not to so she would be happy but she was the one who messed up.”
Miss Rhonda covered my fist with her wrinkled, strong brown hand. Blue and green paint stained her fingernails. She must’ve been painting mountains.
I took a deep breath.
“Addi,” she said, real patient. “You know how a bicycle has wheel spokes? And if you jam a stick in the wheel while it’s turning it has to stop? It wasn’t your job to keep her wheel going. Your daddy put too many sticks in your mama’s wheel and she tried to keep going but she snapped in half.” She patted the Band-aid on my knee. “Sometimes, honey, you just have to find a new wheel.”
I walked home the next day because I missed the bus. Lark had to go to the dentist. George wouldn’t come to the creek because she wasn’t going to be there. So I walked home alone. Black bags with red X’s taped on them sat by the curbs. They made me think of Mom jamming Dad into a big black trash bag and hauling him out to our curb. Miss Rhonda was the one who called the police. They took Mom and the trash bag away and I went to live with Miss Rhonda, right next door to my old house. At first I thought it would be too hard, but it wasn’t so bad, looking at my old house. I never had to go into it.
“Addi?” Miss Rhonda came out of her studio. She was wiping purple paint off her brown hands.
I dropped my backpack in the middle of the floor. “Can I show you something?”
Her smile was like Christmas sneaking up on you. She held out her hand.
I took her to the creek; past the junk place where Lark and I played most of the time. We left the path and stood at the creek bank. The shade was cool, under the trees. The sand was warm on top and cold when I wiggled my toes in deep.
“I like this place,” Miss Rhonda said. She squeezed my hand. “I want to paint that willow; see there? How its branches are feeling the water, like when you put your fingers in and feel the water.” We bent and felt the water.
“My dad took me here one time,” I said. “He taught me how to skip rocks.”
Miss Rhonda picked up a flat stone from the edge of the water and wiped the sand off with the edge of her shirt. She threw it but it sank. “Are you going to teach me?”
“Maybe.” I took my time looking for a good stone. Dad said gather a handful and then skip just one. He said choosing that’s an art. He wasn’t drunk that day yet.
Miss Rhonda rolled up her pants and took off her shoes and socks. I looked at her blue-painted toenails on her brown feet. I looked at my toes the color of robin’s eggs on my sandy feet. “I’ve never shown Lark this place before. Do you think I should?”
“Isn’t she your best friend?”
“One time I showed Mom,” I said.
Miss Rhonda picked up another stone. It was almost perfect, but one corner was missing. Kinda like a fish took a bite out of it. “What did she think?”
“Well. She didn’t want to skip rocks with me.” I lined the rocks in my hand up in order of best choice to worst choice. “She told me I was getting sand on my shoes. She wouldn’t let me take off my shoes.”
Miss Rhonda studied me good. “Adelaide McGuigan, you are a beautiful young lady,” she said finally. “Show me what your dad taught you.”
I had only ever thought about what Mom taught me. Tidy rows, clean clothes. Perfection. What did Dad teach me? I picked a stone from the middle of the line-up on my palm. I felt it, tested it. Threw it.
It skipped fifteen times and then sank with a plunk. It was different from the crack of the bat, but I felt it inside just the same. Miss Rhonda grabbed me as I kicked at the water. She pulled me tight into her and I hung on. We sat on the wet sand. It didn’t matter.
Dakota Wilster currently writes from Pensacola, Florida, where she lives with her husband and a growing graveyard of house plants. She most enjoys bringing history to life through stories. Finally, finally, she is finished with her MFA from Chatham University, and you can now find her holed up in her air-conditioned apartment trying to recreate the Nordic environment in Florida so that she can finish her novel about Vikings.