Authors: Krista Van Dolzer
Disappointment curdled in my stomach like a cup of spoiled milk. I'd always liked Chester. He'd always seemed different. Apparently, though, he wasn't as different as I'd thought.
While I watched Chester backpedal, Takuma just stared at the spot where Chester had been standing, eyes down, shoulders hunched, like he was carrying a heavy load. He might not have followed the conversation, but he knew a retreat when he saw one.
I wanted to pat his back and tell him things would be okay, but I couldn't decide if it was more of a truth or a lie, and lying to myself wasn't something I was keen to do. I was still trying to decide when Mrs. Leavitt scurried out from behind the old curtain.
“Anna!” she said delightedly. “How wonderful to see you.”
Mama sniffed. “You saw me yesterday.”
She patted Mama's arm. “Oh, Anna, you never let me get away with anything!”
“Were you trying to get away with something?” Mama asked.
Instead of answering, she cleared her throat. “Chester said you'd like to buy a shirt?”
At the sound of his name, Chester pushed the curtain back, though he didn't leave the relative safety of the archway. I tried to catch his eye so I could glare at him properly, but he kept his gaze glued to the floor.
Mrs. Leavitt clucked her tongue. “I'm afraid we just sold our last one.”
Mama motioned toward a nearby rack, which was drooping beneath the weight of several dozen ugly shirts. “Well, then, what about those?”
“Oh, you wouldn't want one of those,” she said. “They're awfully out of season.”
The shirts looked just fine from here, but Mama didn't fight her, just made a beeline for the pleated pants that were hanging on another rack. “Well, then, we'll just buy these and order another of those shirts you mentioned.” She checked the waist size on the nearest pair. “I think he'd look nicer in gray, but this brown will have to do. Takuma, will you tryâ?”
“I'm afraid you wouldn't want those, either,” Mrs. Leavitt interrupted as she ripped them off the hanger and tucked them under her arm. “This twill's too coarse for our climate.”
Mama threw her arms up. “Is there anything in this whole store that you might let me buy?”
Mrs. Leavitt winced, then mumbled, “No.”
Behind her, Chester flinched, though he didn't disagree. On the far end of the store, the only other shopper set a casserole back on the shelf, then darted out the door. Her hat was angled low, so I couldn't see her face, but she was obviously a coward. The door wheezed shut on her heels with a tired sigh.
White-hot anger zigzagged across my field of vision, but luckily, Daddy's boxing lesson had included a few pointers on punching with both eyes closed and one arm tied behind your back. I used Mrs. Leavitt's heavy breathing to triangulate her position, but before I could cock my fist, Takuma touched my arm. When I squinted up at him, he shook his head.
I knotted my arms across my chest. Why Takuma didn't want me to teach her a lesson, I had no idea. She'd ignored him, insulted him, and ultimately denied him pants (albeit pleated ones). But I didn't have a chance to outline these injustices before Mama cleared her throat.
“Very well,” she said majestically. “A thousand apologies, Virginia, for burdening you with our business.”
“Oh, Anna, be reasonable. I mean, how would it look if we did business withâ?”
“Don't say it,” Mama said. “I can't stop you from thinkin' it, but I
stop you from sayin' it, at least when we're around.”
Mrs. Leavitt blinked. “It's what he is.”
Mama hooked one arm through Takuma's and took my hand with the other. “He's a human being,” she replied as she steered us out the door, “just like you and just like me.”
The drive home calmed me down, but it stirred
Mama up. At first, she only glared and muttered hexes on the Leavitts, but once we passed the post office, she started dictating a letter to the Honorable James P. McGranery, the attorney general. She wanted him to prosecute all the ninnies in St. Jude.
By the time that we got home, Mama was fit to be tied. She took one look at the kitchen, then burrowed into the junk drawer.
“Jed was right,” she growled. “We can't just stick him in a suit and pretend that he belongs.” She pulled out a meat cleaver, then stuffed it back into the drawer. “He's got to learn how to talk. If he's gonna be a part of this town, he's got to speak for himself.”
“That's fine, Mama,” I said. “But what does that have to do with ladles?”
“I'm gonna teach him,” Mama said, but after taking one look at the ladle, she returned it to the drawer. “But I suppose that âladle' might not be a useful word.”
Takuma tried to grab it, but I gently closed the drawer.
“Why don't you let me do this, Mama?” It seemed like she could use a breather. “You could make yourself some sweet teaÂ .Â .Â . or boil some potatoes. You like boilin' potatoes, don't you?”
Mama squinted at me, then, finally, nodded. “But I expect him to be talkin' by the time I finish my first cup!”
“Come on,” I told Takuma. “I want to show you something.”
Our backyard in the spring was a magical place. The spring break after Theo and I had celebrated our ninth birthdays, we'd spent most of a morning nailing boards to the oak trees that lined the back of my property. Then Auntie Mildred had caught wind of what me and Theo had been up to and made us take them down. She said that we were lucky we hadn't nailed ourselves to those oak trees, but I hadn't thought we'd been in danger. As soon as Daddy had come home, I'd told him the whole story, and he'd spent the rest of the night nailing the boards back up. He'd probably done it just for spite, but it had made me and Theo happy.
I breezed past Mama's swing and skipped across the grass to the oak trees. At the bottom of the biggest one, I pointed up and said, “Guess I'll see you at the top.”
Auntie Mildred seemed to think that girls just shouldn't climb trees, but Mama had more practical advice: make the boys go up ahead of you so they can't see up your skirt. I didn't think that boys were as interested in that as girls seemed to think they were, but I did want to see how he handled the fifth rung.
Regrettably, his climb was nowhere near as interesting as I'd hoped it would be. Takuma went up, up, up, without faltering once. The fifth rung did give him pauseâit spanned the gap between two branches and was set off to the sideâbut he ended up sticking his boot through the opening and boosting himself to the top.
Grinning, I kicked off my Mary Janes and pulled myself onto the ladder. Shimmying up tree trunks was one of my specialties, so it only took a minute for me to reach the main platform.
“That was impressive,” I admitted as I dusted off my skirt, “but you should try doin' it in a dress sometime.”
Takuma chuckled softly, and I leaned back against the trunk. Me and Theo had worn the boards smooth years ago, so the wood felt like silk on the backs of my legs. Takuma sat down across from me and dangled one leg over the edge, swinging it back and forth like the pendulum in Gramps and Gran's grandfather clock.
I drew a deep breath through my nose. The air smelled like the ocean on the other side of the hills. “It's nice up here, ain't it?”
Takuma nodded. “Nice.”
“You understood that!” I replied. “And you understood that last bit about climbing in a dress!”
He didn't have to respond. His blush gave him away.
“Have you been playin' dumb just to throw Dr. Franks off, or have you really learned English in the last couple of days?”
But apparently, this question was too complex for Takuma, because his forehead furrowed doubtfully. I couldn't decide whether he looked more confused or more thoughtful, but after a long time, he said, “I like talk.”
“You like talking?” I asked.
Takuma nodded eagerly.
I snapped an acorn off a nearby branch. If this conversation was going to be our next lesson, then I wanted to make it an especially good one. I played with the lidâno, the cupuleâas I considered what words of wisdom I might share with Takuma. Eventually, I decided on one of my favorite memories.
“There was this one time me and Theo played hide-and-seek in the hayfield. Theo's the boy I was with when you picked me up from school. Now, I know what you're thinkin', but he's not that kind of boy. He's my cousin, that's all, so stop smilin' at me like that.” I chucked my acorn at his forehead. “Anyway, we decided to play hide-and-seek in the hayfield. Gracie offered to count, so me and Theo scampered off, but what we didn't know was that Uncle George was about to hay.
“I leaped to my feet as soon as I heard the tractor, but Theo's deathly afraid of sudden noisesâand beetles, bullies, and badgersâso when
heard the tractor, he curled up in a ball. When Gracie came around the barn, she mouthed,
and I mouthed back,
and the blood drained from her cheeks. She started flapping her arms like a duck, but Uncle George had his back turned, so it took her a full minute to catch his attention. Once he turned off the tractor, we fanned out to look for Theo, searchin' row by row and hollerin' his name. When I finally found him, he was covered with snot and blubberin' like a baby, but me and Uncle George cleaned him up with the hose in the barn.”
At some point during my story, Takuma had turned toward the Clausens', and I wondered if, somehow, he could see what I'd seen. Could he picture the hayfield, hear the tractor's steady growl, smell the freshly cut hay? Did he know what it felt like to worry about losing someone you loved?
But I didn't know how to ask the question any more than he knew how to answer, so I pretended to duck behind a branch and asked, “Have you ever played hide-and-seek?”
“Caw-coo-wren-bow,” he replied, then added quietly, “Caw-coo-say.”
It took me a few seconds to realize he wasn't speaking English. “What does that mean?” I asked eagerly.
“Hide,” Takuma said.
I shivered despite the warm spring breeze that ruffled the new leaves. The way he said it made it sound more like a memory than a random fact. I wasn't ready for Takuma to remember things about his past. If he remembered how he'd lived, would he remember how he'd died?
Me and Takuma practiced English as soon as I got
home from school, trading words like baseball cards as we swung our legs above the trees. My words sprouted into stories, but his were more like photographs, isolated sounds that only captured single thoughts. I didn't ask him what they meant or how they fit together, and he didn't explain. I liked to think we both preferred it.
On Tuesday, I decided that we needed a field trip. Our legs were getting tired, and some pictures had to paint themselves.
“I'm takin' Takuma to the pond!” I shouted through the open window in the kitchen.
Mama's face materialized behind the crisscrossed screen. “Stay off the roads!” she shouted back.
Good thing traveling cross-country was another of my specialties.
The pond was on the edge of Uncle George's lower field. He only used it in the summer, when his sheep slept beneath the stars, so the rest of the year, we used it as an impromptu fishing hole. The pier had better fish, but the pond was a nice substitute when Daddy couldn'tâor wouldn'tâtake me.
“You'll like the pond,” I told Takuma as I squeezed between the fence posts that separated our yard from the empty field that curved south toward the Clausens'. “Uncle George built his own fire pit, and Robby and Daniel hung a tire swing when they were my and Theo's age.”
Takuma nodded dutifully as we hopped over clumps of sage and skirted the ravine that dipped down to Traitor's Creek. I couldn't decide whether it was an understanding nod or just a courteous one, but I didn't stop talking. If he liked listening to me talk, then talk was what I'd do. I was just finishing my explanation of how Traitor's Creek had earned its name, which was much duller than it sounded, when we reached Uncle George's fence.
“This way,” I told Takuma as I climbed over the rails. Only lamebrains ducked between them. “The pond's just over here.”
Takuma didn't move.
“We're not trespassin',” I said, blowing a string of hair out of my face. “This is Uncle George's land, which means it's practically ours, too.”
“Out,” Takuma said as he pointed at the fence.
“Well, yeah,” I said, “you're out. But I just said you could come in.”
He still just stood there pointing.
I sighed. “If Uncle George gets mad, I swear I'll take the blame. But Uncle George doesn't get mad, so it won't be a problem. Well, there
this one time, but me and Theo left the gate openâand all of Uncle George's sheep escapedâso we probably deserved it.”
He thought about that for another second, then ducked between the rails. I tried not to hold that against him.
“You're gonna love the pond,” I said as I led him up the rise that bordered the ravine. “Maybe when it's warmer, we could come back and go swimmin'.”
When we finally reached the top, Takuma's eyes widened. I couldn't say I blamed them. The pond looked spectacular. The sky was blue, the clouds were white, and the leaves were that electric green they only got this time of year.
Takuma's eager gaze darted from one end to the other. After turning a full circle, he smiled and said, “Home.”
I smiled back. “I think so, too.” I kicked off my Mary Janes. “It might be too cold for swimmin', but we can always stick our feet in.”
Takuma didn't even glance at me. He was too busy studying the clouds.
“Do you need help?” I asked. “I could untie your laces for you. Daniel always used to untie my laces for me.”
He batted that away.
“Suit yourself,” I said, trying not to be upset. I dug my toes into the dirt to distract myself. The ground was chillier than I'd expected, but my toes didn't mind. They were tired of being cooped up in those awful Mary Janes.
While Takuma squatted down to inspect a ring of mushrooms, I sat down on the bank and plunged my legs into the pond. The temperature of the water shocked meâif the ground had been chilly, then the pond was downright frigidâand my immediate reaction was to pull my legs back out. But I didn't want Takuma to think I was a wimp, so I forced myself to keep them in.
“Feels good,” I said through gritted teeth. At least they hadn't chattered.
He looked up from his mushrooms just in time to see me wince. I tried to laugh it off, but Takuma wasn't fooled. Still, he didn't back away, just sat down, took his boots off, and dipped his feet into the water.
“Saw-moo-ee,” he said, gasping.
“Saw-moo-ee,” I replied, rolling each sound around my mouth.
Takuma made a show of shivering. “Saw-moo-ee water,” he explained.
I didn't have to make a show. “Yeah, the me-zoo is cold.”
Before he had a chance to answer, something tumbled from the trees. It wouldn't be the first time a dead branch had knocked me flat, but it wasn't a dead branch.
It was Theo.
“What are you doin' here?” I asked, jerking my legs out of the pond.
He knotted his arms across his chest. “I could ask you the same thing.”
I glared at him, but really, I was more nervous than upset. There was nowhere to hide Takuma and no way to keep Theo from remembering this run-in. Guess I had no choice but to grab this bull by the horns.
“Takuma, Theo,” I said. “And Theo, Takuma.”
They didn't dip their heads, just sized each other up.
you doin' here?” I asked to keep the conversation alive.
“Fishin',” Theo said as he offered up his pole. Somehow, I hadn't noticed the line dangling from the trees. “Or at least I
until you two came along.”
I ducked my head. “I'm sorry. I didn't think anyone was here. We really didn't mean to scare away your fish.”
“That may be,” he said, “but that's exactly what you did.”
I folded my arms across my chest. “Don't get high and mighty, Theo. If you'd told me you were fishin', I would've brought my pole.”
“I didn't think you'd want to,” Theo said, keeping his eyes trained on Takuma, “seein' as you've been avoidin' me.”
I started to say,
I haven't been avoidin' you,
then stopped when I realized that it was partly true. I'd been hurrying home to teach Takuma for the last couple of days. I just hadn't realized that Theo was paying attention.
“Well, I'm here now,” I said. “We could take turns with your pole.”
“I don't know,” he said, digging his toe into the dirt. “I've got some homework at the house.”
“I seriously doubt that,” I replied. “You don't care about your homework any more than I do.”
When Theo hesitated, I wiped my sweaty hands off on my skirt. The stakes were suddenly much higher than they'd ever been before. I could deal with Mrs. Leavitt's snub, and Chester's rejection wasn't unbearable, but I didn't think that I could handle the same treatment from Theo. I just wanted it to be like it had been before, when Theo was the Tonto to my stouthearted Lone Ranger.
“Stay,” I croaked like a bullfrog. I hadn't meant to beg, but that was how it had come out. “We can be the Three Musketeers.”
Theo's eyes hardened. “We're not gonna be the three
” he said, then thrust the pole into my hands. “Here, you can just have it. The fish ain't bitin', anyway.”
My heart felt like it was breaking, but instead of dissolving into tears, I sniffed. “Guess we'll see about that.”
It was no secret that Theo was as bad at catching fish as I was at keeping my nails clean. I had no doubt that I could catch one (and likely two or three). I'd even leave myself enough daylight to teach Takuma how to fish.
I expected Theo to leave, but he planted himself on the old log Robby had rolled up to the fire pit and plopped his chin into his hands. I'd wanted him to stay, but not like this. Like he was daring me to fail. At least his doubtful gaze made me more determined to succeed.
It took me a whole hour to catch one pesky fish. Takuma waited patiently, but Theo threw pebbles in the pond every time my line started to shudder. I told him to knock it off, but he pretended not to hear. When I finally snagged an eight-inch catfish, I tugged the hook out of its mouth and chucked it at the ground near Theo's feet. Its death throes muddied his new shoes, and I couldn't help but smile.
“Clean that,” was all I said.
Obediently, Theo pulled a Swiss army knife out of his pocket.
I returned my attention to Takuma. “The thing about fishing is that it's all in the wrists.” I plopped the pole into his hands. “It really ain't as hard as our poor Theo makes it seem.”
But Takuma wasn't watching me; he was watching Theo, who was using his Swiss army knife to strike the match he'd just produced. Uncle George always kept a stash of kindling and split logs by the fire pit, and Theo wasn't wasting any time. As his match flickered to life, Takuma flinched.
“Takuma?” I asked quietly.
Takuma didn't answer. In fact, he didn't even glance at me.
Theo looked up from his tepee of pine needles and twigs, which had just started to smoke. “What's wrong?” he asked Takuma. It was the first thing he'd said to him directly. “Haven't you ever seen a fire?”
Takuma clutched the pole like it was his only connection to this spot, this pond, this life. Except for his bright eyes, which were alive with terror, he looked like a statue.
Theo leaned back on his heels. “I don't like the way he's starin'.”
“He's not starin' at you,” I said. “He's starin' at the fire.”
Theo's little tepee was now fully ablaze. It was steadily consuming the leaves and bits of grass that had blown into the fire pit since the last time we'd made a fire, weaving trails of sooty smoke. The reds and yellows of the flames were reflected in Takuma's eyes.
“Put it out,” I said. A rising wave of panic gripped my chest, but it wasn't mine. It was Takuma's.
“Put it out?” Theo replied. “But how are we supposed to roast your fish?”
A tremor rippled through Takuma's shoulders, reminding me of Sunday morning, when he cowered by the fridge while Daddy went on his rampage. This time, I was brave enough to clumsily pat his back.
“It's gonna be all right,” I said. “It's just a little fire. And Theo's gonna
put it out.
Takuma didn't let go of the pole, but his shoulders did stop trembling. It was something, anyway.
Theo chucked the split log he'd been holding on the fire. “Put it out yourself,” he said, then dusted off his hands and retreated down the hill.
“Don't be a numbskull!” I called after him, but he didn't respond. He didn't even turn around.
Muttering hexes at Theo's back, I grabbed the dusty bucket that Uncle George kept next to the fire pit for just such an occasion, then dunked it in the pond and tipped it on the newborn fire. While the flames sputtered and died, I squinted down at Theo, who was now a distant speck at the bottom of the rise.
In the few seconds it took me to dry my hands off on my skirt, I arrived at my decision. Instead of going after him, I forced myself to turn away. Theo might have needed me, but Takuma needed me more. I grunted as I dragged him to his feet and led him carefully away from the smoldering remains. I looked for Theo one last time when we reached the split-rail fence, but he'd completely disappeared.