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Crouchin down to peer through the smudged window, I could just about make her out through a fog of heat risin across the front porch. Heat as thick as cotton that day. I stretched my neck high as it would go without givin myself away and saw her rockin in that chair – the one Ma Rachel tried to sell in the yard sale but nobody bought. Sat there stale and stiff, brown hair mopped across her face. But I could see her eyes – how she stared straight in front of her, like she wasn’t seein nothin or nobody no matter how long she looked. And like nobody was seein her neither. There was somethin else funny about her, but I couldn’t put my finger on what.
Heavy steps and the screened-door slammed when Ma Rachel walked past. Ooh, I knew she meant business. Short and stout as a potbelly pig, Ma Rachel was never quiet. And when she got caught up in some sort a business, it was like a herd a cattle who just figured out what the slaughterhouse was for.
She spied me in the corner and hollered, “You get on outta here! Ain’t none uh’yur business what that girl’s here for, you hear me? You better move that skinny bee-hind now!”
I didn’t need no second warnin from Ma Rachel, I’ll tell you that much.
I scurried as fast as my feet could take me through the livin room, slidin on cool tiles and headed straight to my secret listenin spot cause I knew there was gonna be somethin worth hearin today. You see, it wasn’t scorchin outside but it was mighty hot. Sweat drippin down your panties hot like you only get down South. And it was hot enough for me to figure out, even only being eleven, that this girl wasn’t sittin out there for her health. The only reason people waited like that outside Ma Rachel’s was when they needed help. I knew she’d be tellin Ma Rachel somethin and doggone-it, I was gonna hear it. Not much happened round here so when it did, it was in your interest to know more than everybody else.
Creakin open the back door, I snuck down stone steps into the yard. I winced as sun flamed my face and the grass scrunched underneath my feet. Stickin straight against the house, I edged as slowly as I could round the corner til I was spittin distance of Ma Rachel on the front porch. But she couldn’t see me now. Stock-still behind her favorite Gardenia with blooms so sweet and ripe I could nearly taste them. She’d be none too pleased about that but she was gone now. Too busy wrapped up in helpin.
You see, Ma Rachel was the helper. People lost their dog? She’ll find it. Run outta hay? She may not have much but she’s got extra when it counts. Even little ones that needed lookin after, she’d take them in as babies. She helped people or animals alike – it didn’t matter so long as she thought you were worth it. My Momma called it a blessin and a curse.
Momma, in the meantime, or at least as long I remember, was on her own. Never threw any pity party, too proud for that. “Keep your head down, don’t mind what anybody says and you’ll be just fine.”All I’ve ever seen of Momma was her workin hard and stayin outta trouble. I guess after havin me she decided she’d had enough trouble.
Before I was even outta diapers Momma took a job workin down at the prison and I started stayin at Granny’s. Things went on like that just fine right up until the day I turned up and found Granny stone-cold and solid propped up on her salmon-colored sofa.
“Granny?” I called, wipin my shoes, lettin myself in through the back door. I was only little then but I still knew how to mind myself. I walked through to the livin room and plopped down on what used to be Papaw’s recliner that still smelled of Old Spice.
And there she was. Still as a cow in rush-hour traffic.
“Granny?” She looked like somebody had done flicked the off-switch right when she was in the middle a sayin somethin. I Love Lucy came from the TV and it seemed like Granny might keep watchin that show for all eternity. I don’t remember much else after that except for Momma showin up and huggin me as tight as she could. I still don’t know how she died but after the funeral Aunt Carla said, “That poor woman had as many crosses to bear as any Saint. Her heart just wasn’t strong enough to do it anymore.” I reckon I was one a those crosses she was talkin about.
Things got real hard after that. I’d count Momma’s cigarette butts in her ashtray to tell how upset she was. Ma Rachel musta known Momma was too proud to ask for help. So one day after Sunday service, I heard a commotion and saw Ma Rachel headed in our direction.
“Suzie!” she hollered and Momma stopped.
“Suzie, your Momma’s service was real nice.”
“Thank you, Ma’am. It sure meant somethin for you to be there.”
“Listen here, we need to talk about what you’re gonna do.” Ma Rachel looked me then.
“Go’on to the car, I’ll be there in a minute.” Momma gave orders in a way so you were sure to listen the first time. The next mornin, we woke early. Momma drove me down a gravel road and we parked up beneath the oak tree. Ma Rachel came out to meet us, walkin and talkin at the same time, sayin “Don’t you worry Suzie.” I guess I’ve been runnin with Ma Rachel’s pack ever since.
Lucky for me that day when the girl arrived, all those other young’uns had already gone home. It was one a those long summer days and Momma was on late shift. The mutts were worn slap out in the yard too hot to move, and Moses the cat was scratchin up against the woodpile, so I distracted myself watchin him.
I waited. It seemed like hours. Keepin so quiet I could hardly hear my own breath comin and goin. Ma Rachel waited too and I’ve never seen her so patient. Then, a voice cut through—
“I killed him.”
Nothin seemed to move.
Her hair muffled the words but they still hung in the air. I wasn’t sure I’d heard them right til Ma Rachel started pacin across the porch.
“I killed him, Ma Rachel.” Her voice louder and relieved.
I didn’t move a muscle. My legs hurt but I planted myself to the ground and prayed I didn’t make a sound, even though my body swayed back and forth towards that Gardenia. If Ma Rachel saw me now, my hide would be raw.
“Honey, what’ve you done?” Ma Rachel’s voice broke and her hands raised up like she was praisin Jesus but I knew she wasn’t.
I expected her to rage and holler like she does when we break somethin or make a mess. But instead, I saw her do something I’ve only seen a couple a times, like when Kurt broke his arm and the bone showed through. Her shoulders hunched over til she knelt right in front a the girl. She reached her hand out, lifted her chin and stroked her cheek. I knew she was lookin right at her.
“Honey, tell me what’ve you done.”
The girl lifted her head and I saw her lookin up to meet Ma Rachel’s eyes like she was ready to meet her maker. You could tell she was afraid but when she looked at Ma Rachel a stillness seemed to come about her. Her hair tumbled down and I could see that she’d been pretty once, maybe even beautiful. Goosebumps went straight up my arms and I knew she meant what she said. But it almost seemed like her problems had gone just by tellin Ma Rachel. I could swear there was somethin familiar about her so takin a chance, I leant forward. I could see her hair like buttered toast, freckles across her nose, and then it hit me.
When I first came to Ma Rachel’s, Tiffany was just one of us young’uns. I should say though, she was never quite like us. One dry summer our only relief came from the sprinklers in the backyard. The boys would push their way to the front while us little ones got sent to the back, at least until Tiffany would appear.
She’d slam the back door open, runnin straight up to the front like she deserved to be there just as good as anybody. Elbowin the boys outta the way – she didn’t give a hoot what anybody thought. First, she let us have our turn. Then she’d fly – bare feet on wet grass as fast as she could go, legs like grasshoppers straight over the water that sprayed her face and nipped her calves. That was as happy as I’d ever seen anybody.
Everybody always said there was somethin about Tiffany. She had more sense and charm than the rest of us combined and we knew it. She was Ma Rachel’s favorite, but we didn’t mind cause she was everybody’s favorite. Now, it all seems so long time ago and that girl sittin on the porch – I barely recognize her.
“Aw honey, what did he do to you?” Ma Rachel could barely get the words out.
Tiffany sat in her chair, just rockin til finally the words came out. “I don’t know how it happened. I loved him, but he just wanted everything for the takin. We were gonna get married. You remember how charmin he could be? But other days, he’d come home and I knew by the sound of his boots across the floor there’d be hell at the end of it.”
“The worst days,” she stopped now and lifted her head from her hands. “The worst days he’d leave. Lock the door on his way out and take the keys with him. Come back long after midnight. I never knew what I did to make him that mad.”
By now the whole night smelled like honeysuckle. Crickets echoed over Ma Rachel’s yard against the kudzu. I remembered how Momma told me once that only the males made that noise callin for a mate. The sun was drawn in but I could still see a pair of Blue Jays flittin through the Dogwood tree. It depressed me how dull the girls looked compared to the boys. Then I thought of Jimmy and how he ran so fast you woulda thought he was goin barefoot over hot coals when we raced in the backyard. I couldn’t ever keep up and I asked Momma one day after our races, “Why don’t God give us girls the upper-hand once in awhile?”
She smiled at me, “Oh Birdie,” she said, “It don’t matter how fast you run. When God means us to fly, he gives us wings.”
Even back then, there was always a winner and a loser. Jimmy was the nicest and we all looked up to him but Tommy was the one in charge. I was just little when I first came to Ma Rachel’s, so they treated me like I was their babydoll. I was one of the weaker ones too, if I’m bein honest. That was how I got my name Birdie. Ma Rachel used to say I was as tiny as a bird and chirped like one too.
You see, I liked to spy and then go tell on the rest of em. I reckoned if I wasn’t strong and I wasn’t big, I needed to keep up somehow. Sometimes it got me into trouble but usually everybody refused to point the finger back at me. Ma Rachel ain’t no fool though and she’d say “Well I guess you musta heard that from a little birdie?” So Birdie just stuck.
One late afternoon, Ma Rachel was away to help a neighbor. I was up a tree when I fell straight down onto the log pile propped up for winter. Usually we kept our distance because we knew the rattlesnakes liked it there, so I was in a hurry to get gone. I only had a few scratches and that woulda been alright, but as I was rushin to get down a log come loose. One by one, the logs started rollin and comin straight for me. I didn’t know what was happenin and before I could stop em, I ended up with one leg stuck underneath that busted pile.
I tried to move my leg and it wouldn’t budge. Splinters spiked my calf and a pain like I never knew went straight up my thigh, blood tricklin from the bark cuttin into my leg. I was still little so you can bet I hollered as loud as I could. I wasn’t worried about my leg or the blood but all I could think of was those snakes.
I spotted Tiffany across the field but she was far away. I kept hollerin until a shadow stood over me. The sun glared in my eyes but I could tell it was Tommy.
“Get me outta here,” I said.
I knew I needed out quick before things got worse.
You see, Tommy would get nasty if you let him. Usually when that happened Jimmy kept him in line. But that day, I saw the way his eyes went funny – just a slit across his face and still grinning. It set my nerves on fire.
“Ain’t that a funny way of askin for help,” he said, lookin down at me.
“Come’on now, I’m stuck!”
I was gettin desperate and my leg hurt somethin rotten.
By this time, he was makin his way around the log pile like he was on the lookout for somethin.
“You just wait right there.”
“My leg hurts somethin awful!”
“Holy Shit! That’s disgustin!” he shouted. “I’ll bring it over so you can see.”
“What is it? I don’t wanna see it – I just want outta here!” I craned my neck, but I still couldn’t see what he found. “That better not be no snake!” I struggled again to get free but I was too weak to move the logs by myself.
I could hear him as he tossed logs from the other side, one by one thuddin to the ground. “You better not make any more topple on me – I’ll tell Ma Rachel,” I warned.
“You shoulda thought about that before, little Birdie.”
I thought about yellin again but didn’t want to upset him even more. He’d been mad ever since I told Ma Rachel how he hurt Lacey. Lacey was Ma Rachel’s favorite dog and about a month before, I found Tommy playin this game with her. Throw a ball out, wait for her to bring it back, then as soon as she was reachin distance, he’d grab her collar, squeeze so hard it looked like her eyes might pop straight outta her head. Countin while he did it and every time he’d count up a second higher. Then he’d stop, give her a treat and do it again.
Now through the stacks, there was silence and Tommy appeared over me with that same grin.
“Look, I’ve got a gift for you. A birdie for a Birdie.”
I reached my head up and saw the outline of a small carcass, twisted with feathers, matted and stuck. It looked like a Robin’s head and he cupped the poor bird in his hands as he squatted down closer to me.
Sweat ran down my back and my eyes darted around lookin again for Tiffany.
“Come on, Birdie. What’s the matter? It’s just you and me now.”
He opened his palms and inched closer to my face. I squirmed, tryin to put more space in between us. I woulda crawled underneath that blasted pile by now if I could, snakes be damned. Then I could see exactly what he had – that bird musta been dead a good few days and it was so close I could smell its rotted stink. A thick oozing maggot slipped through his fingers onto the logs beside me and all I could see was the edge of that bird covered in a pile of grubby maggots.
I thought I’d throw up right there.
“Wha’d you say?” He looked at me, mean as sin.
“Nothin,” I replied, my eyes down. Momma always said there’s no use makin deals with bullies.
Then he whispered, his breath so close to my ear it made me feel even sicker, “Birdie, I’ll get you outta here, but first I need a favor.”
Tommy raised up the maggots and the bird til it was inches from my face. I couldn’t tell if the warmness comin down my cheek was tears or grime drippin off those maggots.
“I’m gonna put this bird right here, so you don’t get lonely,” he said, and I saw him place it to the right of my face on top of the logs. Then he cupped my jaw with his hand and I felt his fingers dig into my cheeks, squeezin my mouth so slow and so careful. I clamped down til my teeth cut into each other, but I didn’t know how long I could hold it.
“Open your mouth, Birdie. It’s an early supper tonight.”
I felt like I might pass out from the heat, the throb in my leg and the thought of those maggots two inches from my face. His fingers started to pry my mouth open and I thought again about Tiffany. I brought my head back ever so slightly and all I could think was, let’s get this over with. Waiting til he turned his attention to the maggots, I turned my chin and reared my head back just so. I opened wide and sank my teeth as hard as I could around his fingers until his flesh turned into bone.
He hollered so loud and I saw him swing his other hand back and I knew what was comin. Just as he lunged forward, I saw another figure over us and Tiffany appeared, pushin him off the top of me and down onto the ground. I looked up, sticky tears on my face and the taste of copper from blood in my mouth. She had one arm around his neck and he squatted down to get against her but he was no match. She held her ground. Him in a headlock, and with the other hand she grabbed the logs and managed to shift them off me, clearing them away as fast as she could.
Tommy was pitching a fit by then, shoutin “You nasty bitch!”
But Tiffany’s eyes met mine, she pushed the last log off my leg and shouted, “Go Birdie, go!”
Back on that porch, I couldn’t help but think how small Tiffany looked now. Like at some point she started shrinkin instead of growin. Ma Rachel had been quiet longer than I could count until finally, she stood up and started to pace. I knew her well enough to know she’d be hatchin a plan already. When she was like that she furrowed up her brow and stared down at the floor, not lookin at nobody til she settled on what had to be done.
“It’s gonna be alright.” Ma Rachel sounded like she nearly believed herself.
“What are we gonna do, Ma Rachel?”
She asked the same question I wanted to. Ma Rachel could fix just about anything but I had no idea how she’d get outta this one.
“We gotta fix this mess, don’t we? I’ll go tell Birdie I gotta run out.”
Ma Rachel’s words lit a fire under my bottom like you wouldn’t believe. I ran towards the back field, alongside the house, across the yard until I was right next to the fence by the ponies. The whole way back I saw bits of memories comin back – how Tommy apologized and started kissin up to Tiffany after she head-locked him. How a couple years later she started lettin him put his arm round her in the yard. How they borrowed Ma Rachel’s truck to go to the movies, and how before I knew it life had turned upside down and Tiffany was lookin at him like he was some gift from God.
Now, running through that yard I thought about how this never woulda happened if it weren’t for me, if it weren’t for that afternoon. How the only reason he wanted to break her was because all those years ago, she broke him first.
I dried the sweat off my forehead and tried to look normal so Ma Rachel wouldn’t suspect nothin. When she reached me, she was so distracted I don’t think she woulda noticed if I only had one arm attached.
“Birdie, I’m fixin to go out” she said. “Get yourself to bed, your Momma’s workin late tonight.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” And she turned to walk away.
“What Birdie?” she asked, turnin towards me.
I thought of Momma and how she says it helps to say the hard things out loud. “I saw Tiffany, Ma’am. She helped me outta trouble once.”
Ma Rachel looked at me now and her eyes were so heavy. “I always knew Birdie was a good name for you.”
The summer night hung between us.
“Ma’am I might be young, but I could still help.”
She looked at me like she was sizin me up. “Yes, Birdie. I know you could. I tell you what, if anyone comes round later this week and asks what you got up to tonight, you just say we fixed a nice dinner and went to bed early. You say Tiffany came round to celebrate her birthday. That I made her favorite chicken and dumplins.” And without another word Ma Rachel turned back up the hill, huffin harder than I was by that point.
The next minute, I saw Tiffany and Ma Rachel headed to the old Oak tree and ducking into her truck. I ran to catch up. I felt somehow like I was part of if all, chained to this moment, this night sky for better or worse. My feet dug into burnt grass and I’d nearly caught up when my legs tripped. I fell straight down into hot gravel, my knees scraped and sore.
Then I heard the engine sputter and crank. I looked up. Tiffany’s head turned and she stared right at me. I stood up straight as I could and looked right back at her. I felt like I needed to show her that I could be trusted. At first, she looked at me like I was a ghost. Then her eyes flickered and I wondered if she remembered everything from that afternoon so many years ago. Just before her head turned, she placed her hand on the back windshield towards me and I saw her smile. I knew Momma was right – ain’t no use tryin to bargain with a bully. Now Tiffany knew it too. As she turned, the wind caught her hair, waving wild out the window and I felt a judder in my belly. Ma Rachel revved the throttle to gather speed and I watched them haul ass down that driveway, turnin up dust like I never seen.