Authors: Sharon Creech
“Bingo!” Aunt Jessie would say, bending down to point out a buttercup or a fern. She'd pick up a plant fossil and tell me how it got there, millions of years ago. “What a wonder!” The only things she didn't think were wonders were snakes. She'd flinch at the sight of a crooked twig, mistaken for a snake. “That's one thing I can't abide,” she'd say. “A snake is not a wonder to me. I don't know how God could have made such a creature.”
At the end of our health walks, we'd pass the family cemetery where Rose was buried, but they never went too close to her grave. It was a strange thing about Rose. It was as if they'd erased her. All her toys were gone, all her clothes, all her pictures. I was having trouble remembering her. It was as if everything to do with Rose was put away in a drawer in my mind, and I couldn't open that drawer.
Sometimes I'd go to the cemetery by myself and drape flowers on Rose's headstone. I'd talk to Rose, telling her what had been happening, and asking her how she was doing. This was a major accomplishment for me, because I hardly ever spoke to live people.
It wasn't that I was stupid (although a lot of teachers thought so when I first entered their classes), or that I didn't like people. It was just that there didn't seem to be a lot to say that someone wasn't already saying. I liked listening.
ur Aunt Jessie was snatched away from us six months ago. In the middle of a cool spring night, she up and died. It was a terrible, terrible time.
Her death, so sudden and unexpected, left us all dazed and jittery, as we stumbled around trying to get our bearings. It was as if we'd all been slapped, hard, by a giant hand swooping down from the sky.
Uncle Nate took to wandering around the whole live-long day and sometimes the night, taking photographs and talking to himself and to invisible people. One of them was his Redbird, Aunt Jessie, and he spent most of his time trying to catch her. Sometimes he'd chase her through the field, only we couldn't see her, just him, loping along with a gnarled stick in his hand. He wasn't trying to hit her. He always carried that stick.
The stick was to beat the snakes with. I'd only ever seen one snake on our farmâa snake
had brought down from my trailâbut still, Uncle Nate kept in practice. He whacked at anything that remotely resembled a snake. Once I caught him beating a belt, which was lying on the floor, nearly half to death. Another time I saw him beating the clothesline. I don't know what he thought a snake would be doing strung up in the air like that with shirts hanging off it.
And me, I figured Aunt Jessie's death was all my fault, because of things I'd done and said. There I was,
Zinnia Taylor: agent of doom.
I felt as if someone had tied me up and dropped me in the middle of a swamp, where I was in danger of sinking like a discarded meatball. I was like a walking mummy, all sealed up against the world, sinking, sinking, sinking.
It was about a month after her death that Jake Boone came back. We've always known Jake's family, just as we've always known everyone else around here. Four or five years ago, Jake's parents split up, and his mother took Jake and moved away, leaving Jake's father all by himself. Then, shortly after Aunt Jessie died, Jake came back and tried to get me out of that swamp. He sure had an odd way of going about it, though.
ake Boone used to be a skinny little kid (“as skinny as six o'clock,” Aunt Jessie said), and all I remembered about him was that once he cried at church when my sister May pushed him into a hedge because he'd tried to give her a daffodil. When Jake moved away, I forgot all about him, and that is the up-and-down truth.
The next time I saw Jake was after Aunt Jessie died, when I went into Mrs. Flint's store one Friday afternoon. Behind the counter was a tall, broad-shouldered boy, who looked about sixteen years old (which is how old he was). He was wearing a white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, which is not the way boys wear their T-shirts in this town. His hair was short and dark, and he smiled a big smile at me.
“Howdy,” he said. “Which one are you?”
I'm used to this question, but I didn't answer.
“I know you're a Taylor,” he said, “because you look like a Taylor. But which one are you? Gretchen? May?”
“Zinny.” I was surprised at the sound of my own voice, which I hadn't used much lately.
“Naw! Can't be! You were just a scrawny little pipsqueak when I saw you last.”
“And when was that?” I asked.
“HeckâI haven't seen you since the hogs et Grandma.”
Hogs didn't really eat his grandma. That's just a Bybanks expression.
“Don't you know who I am?” he said.
“Maybe I do and maybe I don't.” (I didn't.)
I looked him over. “Jake Boone?”
“Yep.” He put both hands against his chest, as if he were making sure he was still there. “That's me, all right.”
He didn't look anything like that skinny little dirt dauber that May had stuck in the hedge.
“What are you staring at?” he asked. “Don't you believe it's me?”
I didn't. I thought maybe he was an impostor. You never know. In a movie I once saw, a lady's husband came back from the war, and it took her two years to figure out that the man wasn't her real husband after all. “You look different.”
“Well, so do you,” he said. “How's your family? Sorry to hear about your aunt. How's Uncle Nate taking it?”
“How's May and Bonnie and Will? And Gretchen? Ben? Sam?”
He sure had a good memory. “Fine,” I said.
“And Sal Hiddle? You two still best friends?”
“She's gone,” I said. “Ohio.” That was another big empty hole in my life. My best friend Sal had been forced to move to Ohio with her father. Sal insisted that she was coming back to Bybanks, but I wasn't convinced. That's what her mother had said once, and her mother sure hadn't returned.
“Who's living at their place? I saw a car thereâ”
“People named Butler. Renting,” I said.
“Your sister Mayâshe still have that hot temper?”
“Hotter than a boiled owl,” I said.
Jake picked up the flour I'd put on the counter. “This all you need?” He rang it up, put the flour in a bag, snatched a package of cookies from the shelf behind him, and dropped them in the bag too.
“You didn't charge me enough,” I said, “and I didn't ask for cookies.”
“You're sharp as a fence post, Zinny Taylor.” He pushed the bag across the counter. “Flour's on sale today. And when you buy flour, you get a free bag of cookies.”
“Mrs. Flint never does that.”
“New policy,” Jake said. “It's a one-day special.” Just before I left, he added, “Maybe I'll come on up and see you sometime.”
“Somebody's always there,” I said, figuring he meant my whole family.
At dinner that night, my mother said, “Where'd those cookies come fromâthe ones on the counter?”
I explained about the one-day special.
Dad said, “Mrs. Flint did that? A special?”
“No, Jake Boone.”
My sister May, who is sixteen and proud of it, said, “Jake Boone? He's back? That skinny little doodlebugâ”
Dad said, “I heard he and his mother are both back.”
“For good?” Mom asked.
“Back home with Mr. Boone?” Gretchen asked.
“That's what I hear,” Dad said.
In the middle of this, Uncle Nate sat quietly at one end of the table. He was waving at the gravy bowl, so I passed it along to him.
May pressed on. “What's that doodlebug Jake like?”
“Different,” I said.
Gretchen, my oldest sister, said, “Is he handsome?”
Everyone looked at me. I shrugged. “Don't know.” (I did know. He was.)
May said, “Well, is he gonna come up and visit us?”
I said, “Maybe.”
“Honestly, Zinny,” May said, “you ought to learn how to talk in complete sentences. When's he coming?”
“Don't know. Sometime.”
You might just as well roll over and die when May sets her sights on someone. She gets all the boys.
of them. You get mashed flatter than a fritter if you get in her way.
he center of the town of Bybanks is about a mile away from our house. There are three small school buildings and a grocery store, gas station, church, and post office. That's it. There are a hundred and twenty-two people spread out in Bybanks, according to the sign at the town limits, and nearly everyone lives on a farm. Kids from nearby towns go to our schools; otherwise there'd only be about a dozen students, and most of them would be Taylors.
Stretching out behind our farm are hillsâthirty, forty, maybe fifty miles of nothing but hills and trees and rivers. People around here say that you can slip up into the hills and wander for days, weeks, months, and not see another living soul. They say there are places back in the hills that have never been trodden by human feet.
Our farm has always belonged to Uncle Nate, who is Dad's much-older brotherâor maybe it belonged to Dad. It was a steady argument as to whose farm it was. Uncle Nate would say it was Dad's farm, and Dad insisted it was Nate's until the day Nate kicked the bucket.
Uncle Nate was a restless man, as frisky as a flea on an old barn dog, and sometimes he used to drive Aunt Jessie crazy, getting in her way. During these times, she would suggest he take one of his mountain treks or else work the farm more. He'd usually choose the mountain trek, and he'd say, “Sure you won't come with me?” Sometimes she'd relent and join him, but increasingly she'd heave a big sigh and tell him to go on alone. She always said she had a weak heart, and she had diabetesâwhich she called her
. “My sugar's acting up,” she'd say.