Authors: Varian Johnson
To the Quills, with love
I would like to thank my friends, classmates, and advisors at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, especially Sharon Darrow and Rita Williams-Garcia, as this novel would not be what it is today without your guidance. Thanks to my editor, Stephanie Lane Elliott; editorial assistant Krista Vitola; and my agent, Sara Crowe, for your tireless work and dedication. Thanks to Helen Hemphill, Frances Hill, Julie Lake, April Lurie, Brian Yansky, and Cynthia Leitich Smith for your advice, support, and friendship.
And always, thanks to my wife and family for letting me do what I was born to do.
In the Beginning
(Five Years Ago)
urry up,” she yelled, dust blowing in her wake as she ran down the dirt trail. “You’re slower than a three-legged dog.”
I did my best to keep up, but even in her long yellow dress and slip-on shoes, Maddie Smith was easily outpacing me—just like always. Of course, she didn’t pay any mind to her clothes, while I tried my best to keep my white button-down shirt clean. How would it look, us sneaking back into the church during the offering, our clothes looking like we’d crawled through a pigpen? Our mothers would have a fit, if they didn’t die of embarrassment first.
Maddie stopped at an old, worn wooden fence at the end of the path. The trail continued as a gravel path to
both her left and right, but Maddie didn’t seem interested in going in either direction.
Red-hot flashes of pain raced up the sides of my body. “You sure we should be skipping out like this? Won’t they notice we’re gone?” I wanted to lean over and brace myself against the fence, but I wasn’t about to be shown up by Maddie. She might have been my best friend, but she was still a girl.
“Since my daddy became assistant pastor, do you know how many church services I’ve missed?” She formed her hand into a zero. “I think God’ll forgive me for skipping one little service.”
“But your dad … I don’t want you to get into trouble….”
“How about you let me worry about that.” Maddie placed her hands on the top rail and pushed herself over the fence. “Well? You coming or what?” she asked.
“That’s Mrs. Watson’s property.”
“We’d be trespassing. It’s against the law.”
Maddie jutted out her hip and crossed her arms. “Joshua Wynn! It’s not like anyone’s going to haul us off to jail.”
“I swear, if you don’t get over here right now, I’m going to pick you up and toss you over.”
I knew Maddie well enough to know she was telling the truth. Even though she was nothing but skin, knees, and elbows, she was unusually strong for a thirteen-year-old.
I took a running start and leapt over the fence. As soon as I landed, she started running again. “Now come on. It isn’t much farther.”
Maddie had promised to show me her secret hideaway—where she snuck off to when our parents were stuck in a meeting at church, or when she wanted to get away from her house, or when she was just plain bored. I guess she figured that since she’d be leaving in a couple of days, she might as well pass her secret place on to me.
I felt another pain in my chest, but I knew this didn’t have anything to do with running. Now who was I supposed to joke with about how Mrs. Martin always sang off-key, or how Deacon Fisk always smelled like liquor? Who else was I going to hang out with when my father was stuck in a three-hour meeting at church? Who else’s long brown legs was I going to stare at when I was supposed to be reading my Bible?
Maddie stopped at the edge of a thicket filled with lush green leaves and chocolate-brown tree branches. She grabbed my hand, even though it was hot and sweaty. “Watch your step. It’s dark in here.”
She led me out of the sunlight into the overgrown brush. We walked in silence, sidestepping decaying tree trunks and thorny shrubs, until we arrived at an old, decrepit shed surrounded by a huge blackberry bush.
I raced over to the bush, dropped to my knees, and plucked a handful of blackberries from the twisted, thorny stems. The blackberries were warm and soft, and I was afraid they were going to burst if I even touched them the wrong way.
Maddie crouched beside me. “I figured this would be better than any gift I could buy.” She popped a few blackberries into her mouth, then showed me her purple tongue.
I laughed in between chewing. “Why didn’t you tell me about this place earlier? You know how much I love blackberries.”
Her smile faded. “Sometimes you need a place of your own, you know. Between my parents and my sisters, I can’t ever get any peace and quiet at home. This is the only place where I can think.”
I munched on another blackberry. “Well, you won’t have to worry about that pretty soon. Your dad says that y’all’s new house is even bigger than the one y’all have now.” Maddie never mentioned it, but I heard enough gossip from the ladies at church to know that her mom had been born into money. “I hear y’all are getting a swimming pool and everything.”
Maddie shrugged. “I don’t even like to swim.” She stood back up and crossed her arms, and I couldn’t help but notice that her dress was getting a little snug around her chest. Maybe she wasn’t
skin and bones.
A leaf floated from the sky and landed on her collar, right where her freckled skin met the edge of her yellow dress. She brushed the leaf away, but in the process smeared blackberry juice on her top.
I rose to my feet and pointed at the three purple blotches. “Your dress …”
Maddie looked down. “Shoot. This is the third dress I’ve messed up this year.”
I reached for her. “Here, let me help—”
She swatted my hand away. “Joshua Wynn, I’m not about to stand here and let you cop a feel.”
“I didn’t mean—I wasn’t going to …” I stumbled a few steps backward. “I was just trying to help.”
She broke into a grin. “I’m joking, Joshua. Calm down.” She stuck her thumb into her mouth, then tried to rub out the blackberry stain. “I know you’d never try to do something like that. You aren’t like those stupid boys in my gym class. You know how to treat girls with respect.”
thought I was respectful, but the guys at school didn’t see it that way. They said I was scared. Actually, they called me worse names than that, but according to my parents, good Christian boys like me weren’t supposed to repeat such abominable words.
Even if I wasn’t scared, it really didn’t matter, because Maddie was a full year older than me, and it was common knowledge that girls didn’t date down. Plus, she had been my best friend for as long as I could remember, and she’d think it was weird.
More importantly, it didn’t matter how I felt about her because she was leaving for Virginia the day after tomorrow.
“I guess I’m going to be stuck with a blackberry stain on my dress.” All Maddie had succeeded in doing was making the stain even bigger. Her thumb was dark from the blackberry juice.
I nodded toward her dress, careful not to focus too much on her chest. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it; it’ll just give my parents something new to complain about.” She picked at her fingernails, trying to get out the blackberry juice. “So, you’re not going to forget about me as soon as I leave, are you?”
“Of course not. I’ll e-mail you every day.”
“E-mail is so … impersonal. I like letters instead. You can tell so much about someone from the way they write their words. Plus, Dad won’t let us get the Internet. He thinks the Web is a playground for the devil.”
“Okay, then. We’ll do letters.” I would write her, e-mail her, telegram her—whatever she wanted.
Maddie stopped picking at her fingernails. “Come on. You know the drill.”
I laughed. Then I spit on my palms, rubbed them together, and crossed my heart.
I’ll write you. A lot.”
Maddie spit in her own palm and repeated the pledge. “And I promise to write back.” She looked down at her hands and laughed. “We’re getting too old to be doing that, aren’t we?”
I tried to memorize every freckle on her nose. “Some things never get old.”
The wind picked up around us, pushing her scent toward me, and I took in a deep breath. The smell of her vanilla shampoo seemed right in place with the sweet taste of blackberry in my mouth.
Maddie tilted her head to the side, burrowing her big brown eyes into me. “I’m really going to miss this place,” she said. “I’m really going to miss you.”
I’d swear Maddie’s eyes were big enough to swim in. There wasn’t a lot of light filtering through the branches, but somehow just enough of the sun’s rays hit her face, almost causing it to glow. This was the image of Maddie I wanted to remember—smiling and sweet and pure.
“Joshua …” Maddie stepped closer, moving a little out of the light. “There’s something else I want to give you before I go.” She took another step, and I lost her gaze in the shadows. “You ever kissed a girl before?”
My heart jumped up in my chest, and my knees buckled. “I … I …”
She smiled. “I don’t even know why I asked. You’d have told me if you did. You tell me everything.”
A surge of energy rushed through my veins. “Well, almost everything.” I moved toward her.
Maddie placed her stained fingers on my white shirt. I couldn’t have cared less if they left a mark. “Well …”
She closed her eyes and I closed mine. I took in her scent again—I didn’t think I’d ever eat another scoop of vanilla ice cream without dreaming about her.
I started to lean in, but seconds before I was about to connect with her, I heard it.
Barking. Lots and lots of barking.
I flashed my eyes open and saw that Maddie was staring at me. Her eyebrows had furrowed into tight bunches on her forehead. “I can’t believe—”
“What’s going on over there?”
Maddie and I jumped away from each other. I kept my gaze glued to the ground as the sound of footsteps crunched toward us.
I looked back up to see Mrs. Watson planted a few feet away from us, her dogs howling at her feet. “Maddie Smith? Joshua?” She narrowed her eyes. “Shouldn’t y’all be in church?”
I nodded, my neck stiff and tense.
The Labrador retrievers struggled to reach us, but Mrs. Watson kept a firm grip on the dogs’ leashes. Huge veins snaked underneath her pale, thick arms. “Y’all know better than to sneak out here by yourselves,” she said, her cheeks puffing as she spoke. “Think what kind of example y’all are setting for the rest of the children.”
Maddie cleared her throat. “But we weren’t—”
“I may be old, but I ain’t blind. I know perfectly well what y’all were up to.” She shook her head, causing her stringy white hair to cascade in front of her eyes. “There’s no telling what y’all would have done if I hadn’t caught y’all,” she said. “With y’all’s daddies being preachers and all, y’all should especially know better.”
Maddie marched toward Mrs. Watson. “Now wait a minute. Just because—”
“We’re sorry,” I interrupted. I ran after Maddie, grabbed her hand, and pulled her away from Mrs. Watson and her killer dogs. “We’re heading back to church now.”
The dogs howled behind us. “Don’t think this means I ain’t gonna tell y’all’s parents,” she called out. She yelled something else, but her words got lost in the dogs’ barks and yelps.
All the way back to the fence, I was too ashamed to look at Maddie. I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other, and prayed that my face wasn’t turning colors.
Once we reached the fence, Maddie shook my hand loose. “That old cow!”
I looked at Maddie. Her cheeks were dark red, but I figured it was less from shame and more from anger.
I shrugged. “Well, we
Maddie snorted. “Listen, Joshua. Some rules are just plain stupid. Some rules shouldn’t even be rules in the first place.” She pulled her hair off her neck and twisted it into a bun. “And some rules … well, some rules are made to be broken.”
I nodded like I understood what she was saying, even though she was making absolutely no sense. Rules weren’t supposed to be broken. That was why they were called
And if you broke them, you had to deal with the repercussions of your actions. It was that simple. That was what the Bible said.
“What do you think your dad’ll do to you?” I asked. I knew he could be pretty strict sometimes.
The skin around her eyes creased. “Don’t know. I imagine I’ll find out soon enough.” Then she grinned, showing off that blackberry smile. “Come on. I’ll race you back.”
Not waiting for my response, she leapt over the fence and sprinted back to the church. I laughed and took off after her, even though I knew full well I was going to lose.
s. Regina Howard, our older-than-Moses choir director, had a set of rules we were all supposed to abide by on Sunday morning. Don’t chew gum. Pay attention to the sermon. No talking. You know, the usual stuff.
Being the only son of the Reverend Isaiah P. Wynn, I was expected to never break the rules. Ever. Which was why I grew more and more irritated as Tony and the rest of the guys in the choir stand kept whispering to each other. Of course, I hadn’t been included in the conversation, even though I was sitting smack dab in the middle of the group.