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Me & Emma

"Nothing is sinful to us outside of ourselves,
Whatever appears, whatever does not appear, we are beautiful or sinful in ourselves only.
(O Mother-O Sisters dear!
If we are lost, no victor else has destroy'd us,
It is by ourselves we go down to eternal night.)"
-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1900


The first time Richard hit me I saw stars in front of my eyes just like they do in cartoons. It was just a backhand, though-not like when I saw Tommy Bucksmith's dad wallop him so hard that when he hit the pavement his head actually bounced. I s'pose Richard didn't know about the flips I used to do with Daddy where you face each other and while you're holding on to your daddy's hands you climb up his legs to right above the knees and then push off, through the triangle that your arms make with his. It's super fun. I was just trying to show Richard how it works. Anyway, I learned then and there to stay clear of Richard. I try to stay away from home as much as I possibly can.

It's impossible to get lost in a town called Toast. That's where I live: Toast, North Carolina. I don't know how it is anywhere else but here all the streets are named for what's on them. There's Post Office Road and Front Street, which takes you past the front of the stores, and Back Street, which is one street over-in back of them. There's New Church Road, even though the church that sits at the end of it isn't new anymore. There's Brown's Farm Road, which is where Hollis Brown lives with his family, and before him came other Browns who Momma knew and didn't like all that much, and Hilltop Road and even Riverbend Road. So wherever you set out for, the street signs will lead the way. I live on Murray Mill Road, and I s'pose if you didn't know any better you'd think my last name's Murray, but it's Parker- Mr. Murray passed on way before we got here. We didn't change a thing about the Murray house: the way in from Route 74 is just grass growing up between two straight lines so your tires'll know exactly where to go. The first thing you see after you've been driving till the count of sixty is the mill barn that's being held up over the pond by old stilts. We still have the board with peeling painted letters that says No Fishing on Sunday nailed up to the tree on the edge of the pond. Just to the side of that, taking up a whole outside wall of the mill, is Mr. Murray's old sign that shows a cartoon rooster cock-a-doodle-doing the words Feed Nutrena...Be Sure, Be Safe, Be Thrifty. It's getting hard to read the words of the poster now that a fine red dust from the dirt outside the mill has settled over it top to bottom. But you can see the rooster clear as day. Tacked up to the door of the old mill is this: "WARNING: It is unlawful for any person to sell, deliver, or hold or offer for sale any adulterated or misbranded grain. Maximum penalty $100 fine or 60 days imprisonment or both." I copied that down in my notebook from school.

"Whoa!" The notebook goes flying out of my hands into the dirt.

"Betcha didn't see that coming!" Richard laughs at me as I scramble to pick it up before he gets ahold of it. "Must be something pretty important, you grabbing at it like that. Lemme see there," and he pulls it out of my hands before I can make a squeak about it.

"Give it back."

"'Collie McGrath isn't talking to me on account of the frog inci-dent'...what's the frog incident?" He looks up from my diary.

"Give it back!" But when I go to try to get it back he shoves me away, flipping through the pages, scanning each one with his dirty finger. "Where am I? I can't wait to see what all you write about me. Hmm," more flipping, "Momma this, Momma that. Jesus H. Christ, nothing about your dear ole dad?"

He throws it back down to the ground and I'm mad I didn't listen to my own self when I thought I shouldn't reach down to pick it up until he leaves, 'cause when I do bend down again he shoves me into the dirt with his boot.

"There! Gave ya something to write about!"

I live here with my stepfather, Richard, my momma, and my sister, Emma. Emma and I are like Snow White and Rose Red. That's probably why it's our favorite bedtime story. It's about two sisters: one has really white skin and yellow hair (just like Momma) and the other one has darker skin and hair that's the color of the center of your eye (that's just like me). My hair changes colors depending on where you're standing and when. From the side in the daytime, my hair looks purple-black, but from the back at night it's like burned wood in the fireplace. When it's clean, Emma's hair is the color of a cotton ball: white, white, white. But usually it's so dirty it looks like the dusty old letters Momma keeps in a shoe box on her closet shelf.

Richard. Now there's a guy who isn't like anyone we've read about at bedtime. Momma says he's as different from Daddy as a cow from a crow, and I believe her. I mean, wouldn't you have to be likable to make everyone line up to buy carpet from you like Momma says they did for Daddy? Richard's not half as likable. I told Momma once that I thought Richard was hateable, but she didn't think it was funny so she sent me to my room. A few days later, when Richard was back picking on Momma she yelled out that no one liked him and that his own stepdaughter called him "hateable." When she said it I just stood there listening to the tick-tick-tick of the plastic daisy clock we have hanging in the kitchen, knowing it was too late to run.

Momma says our daddy was the best carpet salesman in the state of North Carolina. He must've sold a ton of carpet because there wasn't any left for us. We have hard linoleum. After he died Momma let me keep the leaf-green sample of shag that she found in the back seat of his car when she was cleaning it out before Mr. Dingle took it away. The sample must've fallen off the big piece of cardboard that had lots of other squares on it in different colors so folks could match it to their lives better. I keep it in the drawer of the white wicker night table by my bed in an old cigar box that has lots of colorful stickers of old-fashioned suitcases, stamps and airplanes (only on the cigar box they're spelled aeroplanes) slapped on every which way. Sometimes if I sniff into that shag square real hard I can still pick up that new carpet smell that followed Daddy around like a shadow.

Back to me and Emma. Our hair is different colors but our skin is where you see the biggest difference. Chocolate and vanilla difference. Emma looks like someone got bored painting her and just left her blank for someone else to fill in. Me? Well, Miss Mary at White's Drugstore always tilts her head to the side and says, "You look tired, chile," when she sees me, but I'm not-it's just the shadows under my eyes.

I'm eight-two years older than Emma, but because I'm small people probably think we're mismatched twins. And that's the way we think of each other. But I wish I could be more like Emma. I scream when I see a cicada, but Emma doesn't mind them. She scoops them up and puts them outside. I tell her she should just step on them but she doesn't listen to me. And she never gets picked on by the other kids. Once, Tommy Bucksmith twisted her arm around her back and held it there for a long time ("until you say I'm the best in the universe" he told her at the time, laughing while he winched her arm backward higher and higher) and she didn't make a peep. Emma's not scared of anything. Except for when Richard turns on Momma. Then we both go straight to behind-the-couch. Behind-the-couch is like another room for me and Emma. It's our fort. Anyway, we usually head there when we've counted ten squeaks from the foot pedal of the metal trash can in the kitchen. The bottles clank so loud I think my head'll split in two.

Richard starts bugging Momma after about the tenth squeak. I don't know why Momma doesn't stay out of his way from squeak eight on but she doesn't. Me and Emma, we've started a thing we call the floor shimmy where, when we hear squeak eight we start to scoot our behinds real slow from the floor in front of the TV toward be-hind-the-couch. With the volume up you can't hear us, and Richard's concentrating real hard on Momma so he doesn't notice that we're inching toward behind-the-couch. By squeak nine, we're about two Barbie-doll lengths from the front of the couch, and just before squeak ten we're sliding between the cool paint on the wall and the nubby brown plaid back of the couch. We used to think it was stinky behind-the-couch, but we don't even notice it anymore. I brought some of Momma's perfume there once and squirted it twice right into the fabric so now it smells just like Momma on Sunday.

We live in an old white house with chipping yellow shutters. It's three floors high, if you count the attic where me and Emma sleep. We used to have our own room across the hall from Momma and Daddy's room, but after he died and Richard moved in we had to go up another floor. But here's the worst part: Richard's making us move. I cain't even think about that right now. When I don't want to think about something I just pretend there's a little man in my head who takes the part of my brain that's thinking the bad thing and pushes on it real hard so it goes to the back of all the other things I could be thinking about.

Momma says it's trashy to have stuff out front of our house like we do so she goes and plants flowers in some of it so it'll look like we've got it there on purpose. Here's what we've got: three tires- one of them has grass already growing from the pile of dirt that's in the middle of it; a cat statue that's gray like a sidewalk; Richard's old car that he says will come back to life one of these days, but when it does I think it'll be confused since it doesn't have any tires on it; Momma's old tin washtub with flowers planted in it; a hammock Emma and me liked to swing in when we were really young, but now one side's all frayed because we never took it inside in the winter; a bale of hay that smells bad on account of rain rot; a metal rooster that points in the direction of a storm if one's coming; and Richard's old work boots. Momma up and planted flowers in them, too. I've never seen flowers in boots before, but she did it and sure enough there're daisies pushing up out of them right this minute. Oh, I almost forgot, Momma's clothesline is out there, too.

We don't have a front walk to get to the door to the house. I wish we did. Snow White and Rose Red have a front walk that takes you through an archway of roses. We just have grass that's been walked on so much it's dirt. But then you get to the front porch and that's the part I like best. It makes a lot of noise when you walk on it but I like being able to look out over everything.

"What're you doing?" Emma asks. Where she came from I don't know. I didn't even hear her.

I'm standing here on the front porch, surveying our yard and all the things we've got. Sometimes I pretend I'm a princess and that instead of things they're people, my subjects waving up to me on the balcony of my castle.

"What do you mean what am I doing?"

"Who're you waving at?"

"I wasn't waving."

"Were, too. You're pretending you're a princess again, aren't you?" Emma sits in Momma's old rocker that's missing most of the seat. She's smiling 'cause she knows she nailed me.

"Was not."

"Was to. What color dress you wearing?" I can tell by the tone in her voice because she isn't making fun of me anymore, she just wants to hear me talk my dream out loud so she can dream it, too. She's all serious now.

"It's pink, of course," I say, "and it's got sparkly beads sewn all over it so it looks like the dress is made of pink diamonds. And I have a big ole lace collar that's made by hand. It's not scratchy at all. In fact it's so soft it tickles me sometimes. The sleeves are velvet, white velvet. They're even softer than the lace. But the best part is my shoes. My shoes are made of glass, just like Cinderella's, and they have diamonds on the tips so they can match my dress."

Emma's eyes are closed but she's nodding.

"And here are my loyal subjects." I sweep my arm across the railing toward the yard.

"They all love me because I'm a good princess, not a mean one like my stepsister. I give them food and money-and I talk to them like they're in my family. My loyal subjects..." I say this last part to all the stuff in the yard. Oh, yeah, we also have an old iron bed out there. It's rusted now but it used to be bright metal. It's right up front so I pretend it's the river of water that runs in a circle around my castle and that the front steps are a drawbridge. I wish the drawbridge could stay up and keep Richard from coming into the castle.

Uh-oh. Richard's noisy truck is pulling into its parking space to the side of the house. I cain't tell for sure but it looks like he might not be in too bad a mood right now. I'm keeping my fingers crossed on that one.

"Whatchoo up to on this fine North Carolina day?" He's walking toward us, but I can tell by his speed that he isn't interested in our answer.

"Nothing," Emma and I say at the same time, both of us backing up to put more space between us and him. Just in case.

"Nothing," Richard mimics us with his chin sticking out extra far. But he keeps on walking past us into the house. "Libby? Where you at?" I hear him call to Momma once the porch door slams behind him. "It's payday and I'm in need of in-ee-bree-ation!" A second later I hear vacuumed air pop from a bottle and then the sound of a tin cap pinging onto the counter in the kitchen. Momma's voice is murmuring something I can't make out.



"Hey, Pea Pop, how'd you like a nice cold orangeade?" Daddy rustled my hair like I was a pet dog. "Lib? It's payday! Getchur bag, we're going shopping."

Payday was always the best day of the month when Daddy was alive. I'd hear orangeade and it was all I could do to fit the tiny metal fork into the hole in the strap on my sandals, I'd be so excited.

"Can I get a large, Daddy?" I called out from the back seat, loud enough to be heard over the wind blowing in through all the open windows in our car.

"You can get a jumbo, pea." He smiled, and caught my eye in the rearview mirror.

Our first stop was the grocery store. Momma pulled a cart from the stack all folded into one another by the glass entrance. The cold air gave me gooseflesh at first but by aisle two I was used to it.

"Stop swinging your feet, Caroline," Momma tsked at me, "you're kicking me in the stomach." So I tried to keep my legs still while Momma threw food into the cart over my head.

"Momma? Can I pull from the shelves?"

"I guess," she answered, checking her list, which was long since we hadn't been to the store in a while. Maybe even since Daddy's last payday.

"Whole oats. No, not that one. The red label. That's it," she said, moving the cart before I could even drop the tin into the cart. "Flour. The big sack. Yes, that's the one."

Daddy popped up from behind Momma, startling the both of us. "I'm going over to the meat counter. What you want me to order up for supper?" he asked her. "How 'bout some liver?" He winked at me since he knew I hated liver.

"No!" I whined to Momma.

She was still studying her list. "Be sure to get the ground chuck. Four pounds."

"Now, what do we need four pounds' worth of meat for?" he asked her over his shoulder.

"I'm freezing it for later," she said, pulling a box of cereal from the shelf that was high up over my head.

Seven aisles later, the cart was filled to the brim and Momma wheeled us over to the checkout stand. Daddy was already there, talking with Mr. Gifford, the store manager he played cards with from time to time.

"Time to settle up," Daddy said to him, slapping him on the back.

"'Preciate it," Mr. Gifford said. "You'd be surprised how many people-now, I'm not naming names-I got to turn away, they so overdue on the bill. Your credit's always good here, Henry. 'Sides, might as well take your money here than at the card table!" Mr. Gifford laughed, shaking Daddy's hand. "You got yourself a fine family here, Culver." And he tipped an invisible hat on his head to Momma and me and went over to talk to Mrs. Fox, an old lady who dressed in her Sunday best every time she left the house.

"C'mon, Pea Pop." Daddy lifted me out of my seat in the cart while Momma unloaded the groceries onto the moving belt. "Let's you and me pack up these sacks."

After we got everything on our side of the belt, and then after the cash register, Daddy squeezed behind me to count out bills for the cashier, Delmer Posey.

"What'd we owe you from last time?" he asked Delmer.

Delmer Posey went to my school when he was little, but he stopped going right after the seventh grade. No one knew why until he showed up at the grocery store asking for work. Momma said the Poseys were strapped worse than us, so every time I'd see Delmer I pictured him with a saddle tied to his back.

Delmer ran his finger down a long list of names on a page in a thumbed-up ledger that was kept behind the register. "Thirty-four fifty-seven, Mr. Culver," he said.

Daddy let out a slow whistle and added that to the amount we just spent. "Here's an extra five for the books," he said, smiling his smile at Delmer, who looked confused. "Just put it down as credit so Mrs. Culver can come grab whatever it is I'm sure we forgot today."

Whenever you'd say anything to Delmer Posey, it'd take a minute or two before he could understand it, like he spoke foreign and was waiting for someone to tell him what it meant in English. But soon he got what Daddy said and we wheeled the cart to a spot alongside other carts by the glass door with the bright red Exit sign above it.

"You keep an eye on this for us," Daddy winked back at him. "We've got some business over at White's."

Momma and Daddy held hands down the sidewalk to White's Drugstore. They never used to mind when I ran ahead to put in my order at the counter.

"Hey, Miss Caroline," Miss Mary called out after the bell over the door jingled to let her know someone's inside.

"Hey, Miss Mary," I said. "May I have a large orangeade, please?"

Miss Mary put her paperback book down so the pages were splayed out on either side of the middle. "I don't see why not." She waddled over to the countertop. Miss Mary was always fat. Fatter than fat. Daddy used to say there's more of her to love.

The jingle up front told me Momma and Daddy had come into the store.

"Miss Mary, how are you?" Daddy said from the stool alongside me. Momma was picking out a few things from the shampoo shelf. "Isn't that a pretty dress."

But it didn't sound like a question.

"Thank you, sir," Miss Mary said shy-like, smiling down at herself so hard her cheeks almost folded over the corners of her mouth. "Mrs. Culver here, too?"

"Oh, don't mind her," Daddy said, "let's you and me run away together. Let's really do it."

"I'm over here, Mary," Momma called from behind the only aisle in the place. "Just picking up a few things we been needing for a while. I'll be right over." Momma was used to Daddy asking Miss Mary to run away with him. He did it every time he went into White's. I reckon she smiled so hard and blushed 'cause no one'd ever asked her that before. She's about a million years old and lives alone with two tomcats and a rooster named Joe.

"What about me, Daddy?" I asked him. "You gonna run away without me?"

"I'm gonna put you in my pocket and take you with me," he said. Then he leaned over from his stool and kissed me on the head like he always did.

"Orangeade for you, too?" Miss Mary asked Daddy, still smiling.

"You bet."

Miss Mary cut each orange down the middle until there were ten halves. I counted each one. Then-and this was the best part-she put each one in the big metal press and leaned all her weight onto each orange rind until nothing more dripped into the glass jar underneath it. Then she poured sugar into the jar, added some soda water, screwed a lid on and shook it good and hard until it was fizzy and frothy. The glasses were kept in the icebox so there'd be a nice cool film of cold all over them. I wrote my name in the frost on the side of my glass. White's had bendy straws so I never lifted the glass off the counter, and that was how Daddy and I'd drink them: without hands.

Ping. Another tin beer bottle cap hits the kitchen counter.

"What do you want to do now?" Emma asks me. She's been leaning against the porch railing, counting the pings of the bottle caps just like I have-both of us wondering how many it'll take to turn Richard into Enemy Number One.

"I don't know."

"How about we walk down to the fence out back and do the balance thing?"

The balance thing is something Emma and I like to do when we're superbored. Actually it's kind of fun. The top logs on the fence that used to separate our land from the neighbors, back when we all cared about that sort of thing, are all missing. So Emma and I walk on the lower logs between the fence posts and see who can stay up the longest without falling off. The loser has to do whatever the winner makes her do.

"I'll start, you count." Emma is already on top of the first log. It's the easiest since it's so old it's split long ways in the middle so it's wider than all the rest. The tricky one is the newer one that's next.

"Go," I say, and I start counting out loud. Emma can do this without even extending her arms and that makes me mad for some reason so I count slow.

"You're counting too slow!" Emma says. She's concentrating real hard on the next step she's going to take.

I don't speed up, though. Not much she can do about it while she's trying to stay on the log. Instead of saying the word Mississippi in between numbers like Momma did when she used to play hide-and-seek with us, I spell it all out and it takes twice as long to get to the next number.

She's on to the next log and I can tell she's not going to make it to twelve. For once I may even beat her.

Yep, there she goes. She's off the log.

"Eleven!" I say as I pass her, and hop up onto log number one.

"Cheater. You counted so slow I felt my hair grow," she grumbled. And before I could even prove I'm the Queen of the Log Fence she added, "Let's go over to Forsyth's."

Forsyth Phillips is a friend of ours who lives in the house that's as close as we're going to get to having a neighbor. Forsyth's a cure for boredom if I've ever seen one. If the Phillips's house were a flower it'd be a sunflower, all smiley and warm with lots of clean windows and white tablecloths for fancy occasions.

Before I can even balance my way along the log to the post, Emma's lit out for Forsyth's.

"Wait up," I call out to her, but it's no use. I'll have to hurry to catch up to her.

"Well, hello there, Miss Parker." Mrs. Phillips talks that way to kids: like we're the same age as her. "Forsyth's upstairs. Y'all can go on up." Once again, it's Emma who's gotten to the door first, so I have to let myself on in.

"Hey, Forsyth," I say, all breathless from taking the stairs two by two.

"Hey, Carrie," she says. Emma's already called the spot across from Forsyth, who's playing with her Old Maid cards on her single bed that has its own legs, like it's on a throne. Her room has matching fabric all around, daisies on a sky-blue field hang from either side of her window, on a cushion just underneath it, and stretched neatly across her proud bed. I cain't imagine what it'd be like to fall asleep every dag-gum night with my head on soft daisies. I guess I'd never have nightmares at the Phillipses'.

"Y'all hungry for some cookies?" Mrs. Phillips pokes her head in the room, smiling above her apron that must just be there for show since it's never been smudged not once since we started coming over. "Come on down when you feel ready, they're just coming out of the oven."

Momma hasn't baked us cookies in, well, forever. Mrs. Phillips bakes so much that Forsyth doesn't even look up from her cards, doesn't even seem to be in a hurry to get 'em while they're good and hot, the chocolate chips melting on your fingers, making it two desserts in one when you lick it off once the cookie's gone.

"Aren'tcha gonna go on down for a snack?" I ask her. Please, Forsyth, say yes.

"I reckon," she says, but she still doesn't budge.

"What're you playing?"

"Old Maid, silly. You blind?"

She must've woken up on the wrong side of her daisies.

"Can we play?"


"Me and Emma."

"I'm tired of playing with Emma," she sighs. She always does this…refusing to play with my baby sister like she's got the plague. Emma doesn't seem to mind, but I think it's mean to say it right in front of her like that.

"Come on," I whine.

"Aw-right," she says, scooting over on the bed to make room for me, too. "Y'all better take your shoes off, though, or my momma's gonna tan your hide."

I don't think Mrs. Phillips has ever tanned a hide, though.

It's a hot day, maybe that's why Forsyth just ends up being as bored as the two of us. This kind of hot sucks out all your life blood and then expects you to be able to breathe and not suffocate. In the middle of Forsyth's ceiling she's got her very own ceiling fan that beats the hot air back out the window and brushes our skin with a nice breeze instead. Seems like every room in this house has one of those fans.

"Didja do your homework yet?" I ask her, hoping she'll lose interest in her game and notice she's hungry.

"Mmm-hmm. Momma makes me do it the minute I come in the door from school," she says. "Did you?"

"Mmm-hmm," I lie. I don't do my homework till it gets dark and then I hurry through it like it tastes bad. Emma's still too young to have homework.

"Let's get some of your momma's cookies," Emma says, and I glare at her 'cause it's rude. Momma would tan her hide if she heard her ask outright for food from someone else.

Momma and Mrs. Phillips have talked on the phone, but I don't think they like each other much. Momma always says she ruins Emma and me for anyone else. I guess she's talking about all the food we eat when we come over-we're never hungry for dinner when we finally drag ourselves home.

Forsyth is my best friend outside of Emma. We been going to school together since we were smaller than beans. We sit together at lunchtime and then we play on the jungle gym at recess when I'm not getting hit by a dodgeball. Usually she's in a better mood than this.

"What's the matter?" I ask her, trying to ignore Emma.

She shrugs just like Emma always does.

"Tell me."

She shakes her head. She has curly red hair with freckles to match.

"Is it your momma?"
She shakes her head again.

"Your daddy?"

Again, no.

"It's gotta be school, then," Emma says.

"It's Sonny, isn't it," I say.

Sonny's the school bully. If someone falls down the stairs, Sonny's usually up at the top, laughing. If something's gone missing, it's usually in Sonny's backyard. And if somewhere in the recess yard a fire breaks out, Sonny's usually the one holding the lighter.

For the first time since we came into her room, Forsyth looks up from her Old Maid cards. She nods and the mop on her head shakes like Momma's Christmas Jell-O mold.

"What'd he do?"

Tears spill past her rims onto her freckled cheeks. "He's meaner than spit, is all," she cries, the way you would if you were choking.

"Tell me something I don't know. He's our second cousin, don't forget." Sonny's the one who short-sheeted our bed last summer. Sonny's the one who made me put my tongue to the bottom of an ice tray and then led me around his house laughing. Sonny truly is meaner than spit.

"When God gave out brains, Sonny thought he said trains and he ran for it," Emma says, flipping through the cards, trying to shuffle.

"What'd he do this time?" I ask Forsyth.

"He pulled down my pants at band," she cries, "and everyone saw."

This is worse than I thought.

"What?" I ask her, but I'm glaring at Emma, who's trying real hard not to crack up. I think Emma secretly likes Sonny but I couldn't tell you why.

Forsyth is nodding her head, assuring me that I have indeed heard correctly. "I stood up to play." Forsyth plays the recorder. "And just like that he reached from the row behind and pulled on my pants and the next thing I know everyone was laughing at me," she cries even harder. "And I didn't even have my good panties on." See, there's another difference between Forsyth and us. There're no such things as "good panties" in our family.

"You want me to talk to him?" I ask her. Please, Forsyth, say no.

"No," she practically screams at me. "Carrie, promise! Promise you won't talk to him about it. Promise." She's clutching at my arm like I'm a log in the river she's drowning in.

"I won't," I say. And that's the God's honest truth.

"Honor bright?"

"Honor bright."

I get to thinking and it hits me. "You know what?" I pause to make sure they're listening real good. "Sonny needs to taste his own medicine."

"Huh?" Emma says. Even Emma looks interested in what I'm going to say.

"Seriously, we've got to get Sonny back for everything he does to us all the time," I say. Forsyth isn't looking away so I keep going.

"What can we do to get him back?" I think. Emma thinks. Forsyth thinks. "There's got to be some way to get him…."

"We should sic Richard on him, is what we should do," Emma mumbles. Forsyth pays no attention.

"We could pull his pants down," Forsyth says, all excited-like.

I shake my head. I don't know what these two would do without me sometimes, I'll tell you what. "It's got to be something no one's done before. Something he won't expect. But it's got to be good."

"What're you thinking?" Forsyth asks. She's leaning forward, waiting to catch my idea as it leaves my mouth.

"We could take his G.I. Joe and get one of Jimmy Hammersmith's firecrackers, take G.I. Joe's head off, put the firecracker in his body and watch him explode!" Emma shouts out.

Forsyth looks like this might be the way to go but I have my doubts, and once she sees the look on my face she starts acting like she doesn't like the idea, either. She's sort of a copycat, if you want to know the truth.

"It's got to be even better than that," I say. "But that's good, though." I sound just like our teacher when he doesn't want to make us feel stupid.

"Well, what, then?" they both ask at the same time.

"Cookies are ready!" Mrs. Phillips calls up from downstairs and I cain't take it any longer. I stand up and I know they'll follow me since I'm Miss Idea.

"Thank you, ma'am," I say, making sure I don't grab, like Momma always warns us.

"Help yourself, sweetie." Mrs. Phillips smiles while she shovels two more from her pancake turner onto the plate in the middle of the kitchen table, just like a television commercial. This kitchen is already tidied up-wet measuring cups and mixing bowls lie next to the sink air-drying in the V-shaped rack made just for that purpose.
We carefully wait for her to leave the room so we can plot our revenge.

"I've got it!" I say, with my mouth full.

Forsyth practically jumps out of her chair, which, by the way, has its very own cushion on it so you never get uncomfortable sitting on hard wood. "What? What?"

"How about," I say real slow-like, drawing it out 'cause it's fun to be the center of attention every once in a while. "How about we go into the boys' washroom before he goes in to use it and we grease the toilet seat so he slips in when he goes to the bathroom!"

Two sets of huge eyes blink back at me.

"My mom has Crisco," "I can scout it out and give a signal when he asks permission to go," "I'll guard the bathroom door so we know it's him who's going in and not anyone else," "I'll spread the word that something really funny's about to happen in the bathroom so everyone can go in and see him all dripping wet!" We talk all at once and whammo! We've got ourselves a plan.

After we eat so many cookies I can feel the dough rising in my stomach, we go back upstairs to Forsyth's room and work it all out so we're sure it's foolproof. You've got to be foolproof with a boy like Sonny.

"He's in room 301 second period," Forsyth says. "I know 'cause that's across the hall from me. After second period he's bound to have to go to the washroom."

"Yeah, they have snack period after first, right?" Emma asks. She looks like she loves this plan as much as Forsyth does, which is funny considering she's the only one Sonny hasn't picked on. Truth to tell I think Sonny's a little afraid of Emma since he knows she has no fear whatsoever.

"Yup," I say. "Okay. So, Emma will scout him out and make sure he heads to the bathroom down the hall next to the gym. Forsyth, you have to come get me when Emma gives you the signal."

Forsyth looks confused.

"Oh, yeah," I say, "we've got to come up with a signal."

"How 'bout I call out 'My favorite color is blue!'" Forsyth says.

"You can't yell that down the hall," Emma sneers at her. "He'll know something's up our sleeves."

Forsyth nods.

"I know," I say, "the signal will be that Emma will scratch her chin when she sees Sonny ask Mr. Stanley for the key. Then I'll run down ahead of him with a pat of the Crisco in a bag under my shirt and, Forsyth, you watch the washroom door and make sure no one's in there when I go in."

"Wait! How're you going to get into the boys' washroom without a key?" Emma asks. And she has a point.

I think on this for a minute.

"Well," I say out loud, but in my head I have no idea how I'll finish this sentence. Then it comes to me. "I know! I'll go to the bathroom right when I get to school 'cause that's when the janitor cleans them and leaves the doors open for them to air out! I'll click that thingy in the middle of the doorknob that keeps it from locking when it closes and that way I'll be able to slip in when you tell me he's coming!"

Now, that's a darn good plan, if you ask me. Foolproof. Emma and Forsyth look like they're thinking the same thing. They're both smiling like cats that ate canaries.

"Okay, then how're we going to get everyone in there so they can see him after he falls in?"

I'm thinking again. How come I've got to come up with the whole dang thing?

"How 'bout we count to ten so we're sure he's falling in and we tell anyone who's around us in the hall that there's a bag of free candy in the boys' washroom." Emma shouts this out she's so excited. "Everyone loves candy. Especially when it's free!"

That's my little sister for you. She always comes through in the clutch.

"That's it, then," I say as Forsyth falls back on her bed of daisies. "Don't forget to bring the Crisco in tomorrow morning," I remind her.

"I won't." She smiles up at the ceiling. "This time tomorrow Sonny Parker'll be the laughingstock of the whole entire school."

Emma stands up and stretches her arms up over her head-after leaning back on them for so long I expect they're stiff. "We better go on home before Richard gets to five."


"You asleep, yet?" Emma whispers, knowing full well there's no way I'm sleeping.


"You reckon it'll work for real?"

"It cain't not," I say, but inside my head I've been thinking it over and now I'm not so sure.

"What if he doesn't have to go to the bathroom?" she asks.

"He's got to go sometime," I say. "Besides, say he doesn't go after second period. We just scoot the plan up and do it after fourth."

"You think?"

"It's foolproof."

"You're right," she yawns. "It's foolproof."

I don't remember sleeping, but I must have because the next thing I know Momma's calling up to us from the landing. "Rise and shine!" She sounds like she's in a good mood, but we won't know for sure till we get downstairs and see what's waiting for us in the kitchen. When the cereal bowls are already out on the counter we're home free. Sometimes, though, she says, "You got arms to reach up, don'tcha?" And other times she's not there at all…still sleeping. Sure enough it's a breakfast-bowl-on-the-counter morning. Phee-you. One less thing to think about today.

We ride the bus to school and there isn't much to say about that except that Patty Lettigo (who everyone calls Patty Let-Me-Go and then runs away like she's holding on to them too tight for real) glares at us when we walk up the aisle to the back of the bus where there's an open two-seater. Patty Lettigo always glares. It's her job or something.

My stomach's in knots. Emma's clutching her books close to her chest even after she sits down so I'm betting she's as nervous as I am.

"Remember," I whisper to her with my hand up to her ear just in case anyone can hear over the loud bus engine, "get the bag of Crisco from Forsyth the minute you see her at your locker and then pass it to me when I come by after homeroom."

"Okay, okay, stop reminding me," she hisses at me.

"I'm just saying."

"I got it."

But after we pass three farms and the second flashing stoplight she leans over and whispers in my ear. "Where're we meeting up again after?"

"Jeez! We've been over this a million times! At the end of the hall that leads to the gym. You're going to be the signal girl."

"Right," she nods, remembering. "Got it."

"You sure?"

"Yes. Sure as manure."

I smile, thinking about how I told her that Daddy always used to say that to me. He'd rhyme the words and it made me laugh every time.

The bus lurches to the curb right in front of our school, squeaky brakes and smelly fumes. Emma hits my arm and I look to where she's looking and sure enough it's Sonny at the bike stand, pulling his books out of the trap that's fixed over his back wheel.

"Here we go," I say to no one in particular, and we head in through the front doors just in time for the first bell.

"Bye," she calls to me, which is weird 'cause we never say goodbye to each other at school-we just sort of walk away. But in a nice way. Yep. She's nervous all right.

Homeroom drags by so slowly now it's me who can feel her hair grow. Miss Fullman calls attendance and everyone's got to add their funny little thing they say back instead of "here" like boring old me. Mary Sellers: "Is the best!" (everyone laughs-she changes this every day). Liam Naughton: "Yell-oh!" (laughs). Darryl Becksdale: "Who?" (not so many laughs, but still better than "here"). The list goes slowly while Miss Fullman gives everyone the evil eye and says, "People. That's enough now, people," and waits for the laughter to die down before she calls the next one on the list.

The second bell rings almost as loud as my heart is beating. It just occurred to me that this whole thing is riding on me. I cain't chicken out now. I just cain't. Forsyth would never speak to me again.

First period goes by even slower than homeroom did, but the good thing is we're right on track. Forsyth passed a slab of Crisco wrapped in plastic to Emma, who gave it to me just like we planned. Now I'm sitting here in second period with Crisco grease in the space between the snap and zipper of my pants and my stomach. I wore a looser shirt than I normally wear for this exact reason. Planning ahead works every time.

Bzzzzzzz. Second period is over and as we file out of the room I bump into two desks because I'm concentrating on my heart, which is beating in my chest like a bird flapping its wings against a cage, trying to get free. Oh, Lord, please help me carry this out.

Out in the hallway in front of the gym Forsyth is standing in front of the boys' washroom like she should be but I cain't see Emma over the heads of the other kids in the hallway. I didn't think about how tough it'd be to see her in the crowd! Oh, God. Oh, God. Emma? Where are you?

And then she appears-standing in between Betsy Rutledge and Collie McGrath, talking to Perry Gibson and…there it is…she scratches her chin! That means Sonny's asked for the key and is about to head to the washroom. I whip around to see Forsyth shaking her head to someone who's trying to go in but then turns away after she whispers to him. Just like we planned, Forsyth is telling anyone who wants to use the washroom-who isn't Sonny, of course-it's "out of order." We practiced it dozens of times before we left the Phillipses' last night.

There's no time to waste. I push past people I barely recognize because I'm so nervous and feel up under my shirt for the packet of Crisco. In front of the boys' washroom I look over my shoulder quickly just to make sure Sonny's not right behind me. The coast is clear so I rush past Forsyth, who's mouthing something to me and waving her arms around, but I push through the door to the boys' washroom so I can carry out our plan.

Oh. My. Lord.

I hear the door shut behind me and rest my eyes on not one, not two, not three, even, but about twenty-twenty-boys! Boys from every grade. Boys standing with their backs to the door. Boys facing the wall. Boys with their pants practically down to their ankles. Boys combing their hair. Boys leaning against the tiled wall. Boys in every nook and cranny of this washroom!

"Lookee-lou, it's Scary Carrie," a hollow voice bounces off the tiled walls and mixes into all the laughing that breaks out like firecrackers on the Fourth of July.

Everything happens so fast I cain't even tell you what I said or how I got out of there. I just know that as I fly out the door I see Sonny, smiling and sauntering up to the door without a care in the world.

The girls' washroom is right next door but I want to get as far away from here as I possibly can. So I run. I run down the hall, past Emma, who's looking at me weird, past Mr. Stanley, past a million laughing kids I never want to see ever again, and out the double metal doors that lead to freedom. They can arrest me if they want, but I'm not going back into that school. I hear the door slam behind me and soon Emma's beside me on the second step of the rickety old bleachers by the baseball diamond.

"What happened?" she asks.

"Forsyth," I sob, "Forsyth…" It's all I can manage to say. I'm crying too hard. I'm the laughingstock of the school.

"Forsyth what? What happened?"

Then it comes back to me…oh, Lord! Forsyth's lips moving. Her arms swishing back and forth like windshield wipers. She was trying to warn me. She was trying to warn me.

I wish I could disappear.

"It'll be okay," Emma says. "Don't cry. It'll be okay. You'll see. It'll all be okay." Her hand rubs circles in the middle of my back.

"How?" I sniffle. "How will it be okay now?"

But she's quiet so I know she was just trying to make me feel better.

"If anyone makes fun of you I'll beat 'em up, that's how."

"You cain't beat up the whole school. And that's who's going to make fun of me." I wipe my runny nose on my sleeve.

"We'll think of something," she says, "but we better go on back. Mr. Streng's going to be after us if we cut out altogether. Come on."

The halls are empty when we go back through the double doors- everyone's in third period, I reckon. After my eyes adjust, I head toward my locker and Emma pads alongside me. Even in echoey halls she doesn't make any noise.

"Here's what you do when third period's over." She hurries up to in front of me so she can face me. "You pretend you're deaf so when anyone says anything-or even laughs at you-it doesn't make a lick of difference. Just pretend you can't hear a thing."

What she doesn't realize is I've been trying this all my life. It never works.

"Caroline, you knew this stuff backward and forward yesterday." Mr. Stanley's mouth is all twisted up, like it's fed up with talking to me altogether. "What I wonder is how on earth you could completely forget multiplication."

Am I supposed to answer him?

"Young lady? Young lady, I'm talking to you."

"Yes, sir?"

"If you forgot to do your homework, say so. But don't give me thislittle act like you think I don't know what you're up to. I'll see you after school."

When on earth did we learn multiplication? I swear I have no idea how an x between two numbers is supposed to change what they're worth. Mr. Stanley keeps looking over here like I'm going to make a run for it and I suppose I could, but where would I go? Home to Richard? Here's the thing Mr. Stanley doesn't get about me: I don't mind school. Mary Sellers, Tommy Bucksmith, Luanne Kibley and all them can pretend to love it all they want in front of the teachers, but I hear them in the lunchroom talkin' trash about it. I like everything about school-except for the other kids, a'course. I like getting out of the house all day long. It's like a field trip every single day.


Mr. Stanley's voice is louder than I've ever heard it.

"Yes, sir?"

"The bell rang five minutes ago. Don't you have somewhere youneed to be?" "Yes, sir." I swear I didn't even hear the bell ring. I'm the only one left in the classroom. Just before I get through the door his gravelly voice throws words at me: "Remember, after school."

"Yes, sir."

Emma's going to have to wait for me. I bet Momma won't even notice we're not home on time. She don't care. To tell you the truth, I bet she's glad to have us out of the house as we are to be gone. She's got to manage her piles and I reckon she can do it a whole lot better with some peace and quiet. All day she sits there folding letters into three sections, stacking them in tall towers until the envelopes all have the address stickers on them and then she stuffs those with the letters. We're not allowed to read what the letters say; Momma's sure we'll crinkle the paper and she'll get fired. I don't care what they say, anyway, since Momma looks so bored doing all this it cain't be interesting. Momma's so smart she didn't even have to go interview for the job. She answered an ad in the newspaper about working from home, making you a ton of money. They liked her so much on the phone the job was hers, they said. Emma and me try to figure out why it is we haven't seen the ton of money they promised Momma, but I think it's babyish to think a truck is going to pull up to the back of your house and unload bagfuls of cash like a bread truck delivering to the grocery store. Emma's still waiting for the truck.

"You're late, Caroline." Miss Hall looks about as happy with me as Mr. Stanley did. "That's the third time this week." She made a little mark next to my name in the book on her desk.

I don't ever set out to be late but my mind sometimes takes a detour. Like when I write with another kind of handwriting. I know which way the letter k is supposed to face but then, whammo!- there it is backward. And usually when there's a backward k, it's in the other handwriting I surprise myself with; it almost looks like I could be in Emma's class with this handwriting. It's really shaky and big and, like I said, the letters are sometimes mixed up. But most of the time I keep my brain focused on what I have right in front of me. Not today, I guess. Momma won't even know to look at the line on my report card that says I been tardy for classes. If she did see it she probably wouldn't care.

"What's the matter, Scary? You forget how to tie your shoelaces, you little baby?" Mary Sellers started this nickname, Scary Carrie. They all point at my hair, which is funny since it's not half as tangled up as Emma's, but they point anyway. My shoes have been bothering me all day. I hate it when you tie one side kind of tight and the other side doesn't match it. These are saddle shoes that look like my Momma could've worn them back when she was my age. That's how come I have them, she saw them at the store last year and practically started crying right there in front of Mr. Franks, who insists on sliding our feet into shoes with that metal shoehorn instead of letting us wriggle our heels into them, the way we do the rest of the time. What does he think anyway? That we use shoehorns every single day? The shoes are mostly white with a saddle of black across the middle and down the sides. That's how come they're called saddle shoes. The toes are rounded so you have plenty of room to grow, which is a good thing since Momma said she spent so much on these shoes that we wouldn't be able to get me new ones for a while. No one at my school wears saddle shoes. They're just another weapon Mary Sellers can use in her war against Scary Carrie. She calls them "domino shoes." I tell myself I don't care. And I don't. Really. I don't.

Me & Emma
by by Elizabeth Flock

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Mira
  • ISBN-10: 077831958X
  • ISBN-13: 9780778319580