Part I

1.

Ginny Paserella covered her head with her pillow in an attempt to drown out her brother's pretend snoring down on the bottom bunk. Having recently turned sixteen, he still was not beyond doing whatever he could to get under her skin. Her mother stuck her head through the doorway.

"Ya'll get up, now."

Ginny flung off the cover and rushed down the ladder in hopes of beating Kody to the outhouse but being on that bottom bunk gave him the advantage. She groaned as he slipped out the back door in front of her; there was much to be said for being the first to use the outhouse in the morning. After she'd had her turn and washed up and gotten dressed she wandered into the kitchen, where she found her brother staring into a pot on the cookstove.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Oatmeal."

She knew that in those days they were fortunate to have oatmeal, or anything, for breakfast, but she couldn't fathom why Mama insisted on continuing to serve what neither of her children liked. Kody seemed to be genuinely debating eating it or not; Ginny's eleven-year-old mind was already made.

About that time came the familiar rapping on the screen door and her cousin Jack let himself in.

"Mornin'!" he chimed.

"Good mornin' Jack, " Mama said as she joined them in the kitchen.

He tousled Ginny's mess of short, brown hair on his way to the cabinet to help himself to a bowl. Mama laughed and put her hands on her hips.

"Don't yer mama feed you?"

"Oh she does. But don't nobody make up a pot of oatmeal quite like you, Aint Susan." He grinned as he ladeled out a generous portion. Mama shook her head and laughed to herself once again.

Jack's acceptance of the oatmeal had convinced Kody to stomach a bowl himself. Maybe oatmeal had some miraculous growth-stimulating power to it. Though the same age, Jack was considerably bigger than Kody. Besides being cousins, they were the best of friends and made for an odd looking pair when out together. Both tan with dark hair, Jack was broad-shouldered and nearly a head taller than Kody. His dark brown eyes danced when he laughed (or cackled, it could be argued), he was always wearing a toothy grin, and he generally looked to always be up to something. He was the funniest person Ginny knew, whether he meant to be or not. Kody, on the other hand, was the masculine version of Ginny. Scrawney with gray eyes, he barely passed for his age and only occasionally smiled. He thought a lot and was smarter than most on Mabry's Ridge, which was probably why he seemed to Ginny to be irritated most of the time.

When the boys had finished eating, they and Ginny told Mama goodbye and headed toward town. The Passerellas lived about a mile outside the town of Mabry's Ridge, and Jack lived on the ridge behind their small house; a steep, well-worn path ran through the woods between the two houses. Ginny still attended the one-room schoolhouse in town, which was where the boys boarded the bus that took them across the mountain to the county high school. It just so happened that this was the last day of school before summer break.

2.

After school, Ginny walked home with her friends Tommy and Danny Montgomery, J.D. Williams, and Becky Kelly. They all lived in town: the Montgomerys and J.D. in company houses and Becky in the apartment above the company store, which her father managed. Ginny's mother also worked at the store and she waved to her as they passed. The group was missing Becky's cousin Rowdy Riley who had left the day before to spend part of the summer helping some of their huge Irish family on their farm in some other part of Appalachia that somehow managed to sound more rural and underpriveleged than the small coal- mining town in which they themselves lived. Ginny regarded Tommy and Rowdy as her best friends. Tommy was a year older than the rest of them but had been held back a year in school. For him, summer meant one thing: baseball. It was all he could talk about; planning their entire summer around "practices" and "games" with whatever other scruffy bunch of kids they could round up. Danny went along with anything Tommy did, like a puppy, quietly following him everywhere. J.D. and Becky lingered behind the other three, holding hands and whispering and giggling to one another. Ginny wasn't entirely sure whether she was Becky's friend because she was J.D.'s girlfriend, or if it was to convince her mother that all her friends were not, in fact, boys. Whatever the case, Becky was as girly as Ginny was tomboy.

The others went home but Tommy walked Ginny all the way to her house.

"I dunno what we're gonna do without Rowdy," he said, still babbling on about baseball. "Maybe I can get my brothers to play" (there were two older than Danny and him). "Think Jack and Kody'll play this year?"

Ginnie scoffed. "Psht. What's in it for them?"

She noticed Tommy's excitement suddenly died as he began to realize he didn't have anything close to a whole team put together. "But I'll ask anyway," she added quickly.

Early next morning, Ginny climbed the path to Jack's house. He was feeding his parents' three hogs when she got there. She leaned on the fence and watched the hogs for a minute before asking, "Hey, Jackie, whatcha got planned for the summer?"

He sat the bucket down, wiped the sweat from his brow, and thought a minute. "Well I reckon I'll work around here, get some fishin' in, maybe see if anybody else needs some help around their farm, make me a lil' money."

"Ain't ya gonna play ball with us any?

"Mmmm I dunno, kid. I'm 'bout gettin too old for that kinda stuff."

"Kody said he's gonna."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yep."

He thought another minute. "Well I reckon I could get my glove out some."

"Great! Well, see ya later."

"What? Uh, bye...I...guess." He shook his head. "Weird little kid."

She rushed back home and slipped through the back door, taking her seat at the kitchen table just as Mama put a plate of hot sausage on it.

"Already out and about this mornin', Ginny?" she asked.

Ginny smiled sheepishly but didn't answer. Mama took no notice.

"I saw ya'll after school yesterdey," she went on, sitting down with a cup of coffee.

Ginny laughed. "Well I waved when we passed the store."

Mama didn't say anything, just stared into her coffee cup as if deep in thought. Finally she resumed. "Those poor little boys of Doyle Montgomery's. That littlest one looked like his clothes was 'bout to just fall right off 'im, not even any patches to cover the holes. And didn't neither one of 'em have on decent shoes. I can only imagine havin' to provide for four boys but it's a shame those kids do without while Doyle gambles and drinks and Lord knows what else his paycheck away."

Kody and Ginny frowned.

"Sorry," she said. "I just ain't been able to get that outta my mind since yesterdaey." She sat her coffe down, got up, and headed toward the kids' room. The sound of digging through a closet could be heard while she was gone and when she returned she had a pair of boots Kody had outgrown.

"Either of you goin' into town today?"

They both nodded reluctantly.

"These should fit one of the younger ones. See to it they get 'em, Ginny."

"Mama!" She argued. "Do you know how embarassin' that'd be for them? They don't wanna be nobody's charity case."

"It's not charity."

"What is it,then?"

She hesitated. "Relief for my conscience."

Ginny looked to Kody for backup, but he only looked back, obviously intent on keeping out of this argument. She tried a different approach. "But it's summertime. They don't even need no shoes til September."

"They could wear 'em to church."

"They don't go to church."

"Well maybe they would if they had shoes to wear to church."

"But Mama -"

"Virginia." She cut her off and the stern look on her mother's face silenced her.

"Kody, walk your sister into town and see to it that these boots get where they need to be."

He glared at Ginny with contempt, annoyed to have gotten dragged into this business entirely against his will. After they had eaten and Ginny had washed the dishes, Kody went into the bedroom and reemerged with a fishing pole, looking impatient. Ginny grabbed her baseball glove from the bedroom and hurried out the door. Mama cleared her throat and she turned back to retrieve the boots; she tied the laces together and carried them like a lunchpail.

They walked in silence for a while and when Ginny felt her brother had had sufficient time to stew over the task that had fallen upon him, she said, "So,we need a few more people to make a team this year."

"No."

"No what? I didn't even ask anything."

"Well you were gonna. No I'm not spending my summer playing stupid baseball with you and your stupid friends."

"It wasn't stupid last summer."

"I'm not arguing with you."

She was quiet for a bit before she remarked, "Well don't mention to Jack how stupid it is. He may take offense."

"If Jack wants to spend his time playin' a dumb game that's his business."

Her scheme wasn't working out quite like she'd hoped. She knew she'd end up winning him over so long as he didn't talk to Jack before she had succeeded because, honestly, he didn't have anything better to do. So she went straight to desparation. "Well, so, are you gonna at least let whoever else we get to play use your catcher's mitt?"

"Of course not."

"Who else has a catcher's mitt?"

"Somebody, I'm sure."

"Nobody that I know. What do you need it for anyway if you're not gonna use it?"

"I had to save up a long time for that mitt!"

"So you should use it!"

He groaned and rolled his eyes.

About that time, she realized they were approaching the rows of company housing. Her train of thought shifted quickly.

"Give these boots to Tommy amd Danny," she commanded.

"Mama told you to."

"They were your boots."

"They are your friends."

"Kody, I just can't. What am I supposed to say? 'Hey, my mama feels sorry for ya'll so here's a pair of my brother's old boots, since our hand-me-downs are better than yours' ?"

"Nothin' wrong with hand-me-downs. You're wearin' 'em."

Any day she wasn't attending school or church, Ginny was in a pair of her brother's outgrown overalls or jeans. Dresses were a punishment to her.

"Yeah, but they've only been through one brother, not two or three."

"They'll be grateful."

"They'll be ashamed."

"How will it be any different if I give them to 'em instead of you?"

"I dunno. It just will."

The Montgomery's house came into view, Tommy and Danny sitting on the front step.

Kody sighed. "Give me the boots."

Ginny handed them to him and he threw them over his shoulder. His walk became more brisk and his demeanor more cheerful.

"Mornin', Tommy, Danny," he said.

"G' mornin'," they both replied.

He took the boots from his shoulder and said, "Hey, I was goin' through some of my old stuff and come across these. They're 'bout ugly as sin, I know, but they still got a lotta wear left in 'em. Ginny'll probably never grow into 'em and I figured since I's headed over here anyway, I'd see if maybe one of you might want 'em. If not, I understand. They are really ugly. I just hate to throw 'em away."

"They ain't ugly," Tommy replied. "They look like they'd fit one of us."

"So you'll take 'em?"

"Sure. Thanks!"

He handed Tommy the boots and they each immediately slipped a foot in to see who they would fit. They could hardly contain their excitement.

"Are Andy amd Freddy inside?" he asked.

"Yeah," they both answered, never looking up from the boots. As he stepped up onto the porch, he glanced over his shoulder at Ginny and smirked. She was right. His giving them the boots had made all the difference.

3.

Ginny was filthy when she got home. Mama was frying potatoes in the kitchen.

"Did them boys get them boots?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Good. Go warsh up. There's already water in the tub."

Ginny noticed a tri- folded piece of paper opened up on the table; she approached it and as she put out her hand Mama snapped, "Warsh up!" She dropped her hand and slumped off to the back porch to clean up.

By supper, the paper had disappeared from the table and she had forgotten all about it until Mama said, "Got a letter from y'all's Uncle Kent today."

"How is everbody?" Kody asked.

She sighed. "Could be better, I suppose."

"Granny?"

She nodded. "Yeah. He says she's gettin' worse."

Ginny stared at her plate and pushed her food around on it. She didn't know her mother's family very well, as they had moved to Cleveland shortly after the stock market crashed. What she knew came in the letters, and recently the ones written by her great-grandmother had stopped and they only got updates from Mama's younger brother, Kent. Her great-grandmother had been ill for some time and the passing of her husband few years ago seemed to have expedited the process.

They sat in silence a moment then Mama cleared her throat and began, "I think maybe I should go help Kent with her. Reckon I'll talk to Mr. Kelly Mondey 'bout takin' some time off."

"So...How long do you think we'll be gone?" Kody asked.

More than anything, Ginny wanted to protest. The only thing that could possibly make this summer worse than her best friend being gone for its duration was being dragged away from her other friends to go care for an old lady she barely knew. But she understood her mother's thinking and thus kept her mouth shut.

Mama hesitated. "Well, that's the part I need to talk to you two about. Ya know, as wonderful as the extra help'd be, that apartment's just so small. Kent and Adam share a room as it is. There's just no space."

"Hey, yeah! What about Adam? He's what, my age? Cain't he help Uncle Kent?" Kody asked.

"He's a year younger than you, and yes, Kody, Kent tells me your cousin is a big help. But it ain't just a matter of havin' enough warm bodies around to take care of things. It's more than that. If I don't go out there, I'll...I might..." Her voice was shakey.

"Regret it," Ginny finished for her.

Mama looked down and nodded.

"So we'll stay with Aunt Betty and Uncle Bill?"

"Actually, Kody's pretty responsible and you're both pretty grown up, so I was thinkin' y'all could just stay here. Of course, you'd be checkin' in with Betty and Bill pretty often. And Ralph'll be here when he's in so it's not like you'd be totally unsupervised."

"Can't you at least take Ginny with you?!" Kody pleaded.

"No. There is no room unless somebody sleeps in the floor the whole time we're there and I'm not havin' that. I'm also not takin' one of you and leavin' the other here alone."

What she meant was she really didn't trust either of them and leaving both of them ensured they would stay in line, as their contempt for each other would compel one to rat out the other. Always. She was a smart woman.

"But Mama, I planned on workin' at the station this summer, if I can. How am I s'posta do that if I gotta babysit?"

"Your sister will require no more of your attention while I'm gone than she does with me here."

Ginny was secretly thrilled about the prospect of being virtually unsupervised and simultaneously stricken with guilt about it, given the circumstances. Kody would have been excited too, had he been an only child. There wasn't much more to the conversation. After supper, they cleaned up the kitchen and retired for the night.

The rough, gravel road crossing the mountain made for a bumpy ride for Ginny, sandwiched between her mother and brother in the family's truck as they headed home from church. Her mother, to her right, was tranquil, obviously uplifted by the service. Kody kept his eyes on the road, deep in thought. She knew when Mama left that church on Sundays would be the first thing to go; he hated going to church possibly more than she herself did, for reasons all his own, she supposed. She hated it because it meant they were different. They couldn't attend one of the many churches in town but rather had to drive this awful road weekly to attend Mama's home church. It would, however, she reckoned, ultimately work out for the better, since not attending a church in town would make skipping church when Mama was gone ridiculously easy.

Both Ginny and Kody were anxious to deliver the bitterweet yet serendipitous news they had received the night before to there friends; they would be so jealous. But it would have to wait. Deeply religious, Mama took Sunday seriously. After church there would be no chores, but there wouldn't be any fishing or swimming or baseball either.

4.

"Whoa whoa whoa. Lemme get this straight," Jack said, taking a sip of his Coke float. "She's just leavin' you. No adult there at all. Just my folks near-by?"

"That's correct," Kody affirmed.

"I think I'd be a little more excited than you seem."

"Well it is because my grandmother is dying," he said matter -of-factly.

"Yeah...I guess I could see how that could put a damper on it."

Just then, Peggy, the diner's ancient waitress asked in her raspy smoker's voice, " Will you boys be needin' anything else today?"

"No, ma'am," Jack answered with a grin. "We're ready for the check."

And then he winked at her. She giggled a little and waved him off as she walked away.

Kody stared wide-eyed across the table. "What was that?"

"What?"

He leaned across the table and spoke under his breath and through his teeth. "Peggy is probably older than my dying grandmother!"

"And?"

"You just flirted with her."

"I did no such thing! Lettin' a woman know you 'preciate her and flirtin' are two very different things. You, my boy, have much to learn from the master."

"I doubt she knows the difference either, Master."

Jack shrugged. "Oh well. Probably been a while since anybody flirted with her. Consider it my good deed for the day."

Kody rolled his eyes and finished off his float. "Anyway, besides my Granny bein' sick, there's Ginny. She's stayin' too."

Jack shook his head. "Nah, man. That's no problem at all. It dresses itself, bathes itself, feeds itself, keeps itself entertained. Your sister is the ideal roommate. Besides, she's gonna be on her best behavior because she don't wanna face the wrath of Aint Susan when she gets back."

Kody sighed. "I don't think she fears anybody's wrath."

Peggy returned with the ticket and gave it to Jack, along with a suspicious glance. "I got this," he said after she walked away.

"You got the tip, too?" Kody asked.

"What? Tip? That's what the wink was all about. Gratitude!"

Kody opened his mouth to speak, but changed his mind. He shoved his hand in his pocket in search of some change while Jack paid at the counter. He was, in many ways still a little boy, a collector of useless trinkets that all made their home in his pockets. He came to this realization as he emptied his pockets onto the table, knowing there was at least a nickel or a dime somewhere in there.

The bell on the door jingled and he looked up to see Jack holding it open for three girls he knew from school. They all greeted and thanked him then turned to seat themselves. Kody searched frantically for that coin, then at last, he'd found it! He placed the dime on the table and leaned down to gather his treasures back up. When he stood straight, he backed into the prettiest of the girls.

"Oh, excuse me," she said meaningfully.

"I'm so sorry!" he gasped.

"No, no. I really should have been lookin' where I was goin'."

She smiled as she quickly glanced at the paperclip, broken watch, three washers, marble, baseball card, gum wrappers, pocket knife, and small, folded paper he was clutching. "How are you today, Kody?"

He began stuffing items into his pockets as quickly as possible. "I'm fine, thank you. And you, Miss Leslie?"

"I'm well."

He nodded. "Well, good day!" he choked and darted for the door, still held open by Jack, wearing a smug face.

"Good day to you, too!" she called.

In the safety of outside, he could feel them watching him from behind the diner's plate glass windows; he couldn't take his eyes off the ground. Jack considered him for a moment as they walked back toward home then surmised, "Yeah. You need some education."

A few moments later Mama's voice called to them from across the street. She was getting into the green truck she and her children affectionately referred to as "Lilly" outside the company store.

"Y'all want a ride home?"

They crossed the traffic-less street to join her. "Ya leavin' work early, Mama?" Kody asked, a bit confused.

"Yes. Mr. Kelly was so nice about the whole thing when I spoke with him about Granny. He's lettin' me go early today so I can get packed and leave first thing in the morning'. We'll have to leave pretty early since it'll take us a good hour to get to the bus station."

"You're not drivin' to Cleveland?" Kody asked, a bit more confused.

She looked confused, too. "What? No, of course not! That would be a horrible trip to drive alone. I'm leavin' the truck here for you to drive, and Ralph when he's here."

Kody's obsessive mind became hyper with activity. Was it a trick? It seemed too easy; there had to be a catch. Was she trying to test him? To catch him doing something he shouldn't? If so, why? He stayed out of trouble, made good grades, and obeyed her completely; he didn't even strangle his sister when provoked. And Ginny was a particularly skilled antagonist. He had certainly never earned such a privelege before either. If that was the case, what had so abruptly changed?

Jack's eager face gave away the fact that the few wheels inside his head were turning. Mama gave him a stern look then looked back to Kody. "To be driven only when needed, of course," she clarified.

"Yes, ma'am," he agreed. She smiled and looked back to Jack, who was now smiling innocently. She shook her head and walked around to get in the driver's side. The boys hopped onto the back of the bed, Lilly roared to life, and they were off. Jack gave Kody a quick jab in the arm and grinned wildly, hardly able to contain his excitement. Kody was only able to muster a half-hearted smile in return. Yep, he thought. She's going to catch me doing something I shouldn't.

By the time Ginny got home Mama's suitcase was already packed and sitting by the door. This day she had been swimming, and when Mama looked up from the stove to instinctively command, "Bath. N-," she stopped mid-sentence. "Oh. Jist change outta them wet clothes."

"Yes, ma'am."

When the bedroom door closed, Mama sighed and spoke low to Kody who was working the crossword puzzle in the newspaper at the table. "Please take her to church so she's in a dress at least once a week." He nodded, feeling guilty for having already plotted to skip church.

"Did you go by the service station today?" she asked, completely switching the subject.

"Yes. Mr. Grant said he could use me a few days a week."

"Good. It'll be good for you to have yer own money."

Ginny returned to the kitchen in her cotton nightgown. "Ginny, set the table, please," Mama said as she pulled a pan of cornbread from the oven. Ginny obeyed and Mama continued, "It'll be good for you to have some money and bein' at work will at least put ya around people. I worry about you and your...books"

Kody nodded, never looking up from the crossword. "You're just so quiet and backward..." she went on.

Now on this subject, Ginny disagreed with Mama. If there was anything worth liking about her brother it was his extreme introversion. Though they tended to be at each other's throats at home, he never did or said anything in public that would embarass her in front of her friends; the only other people she knew who had such a luxury didn't have any siblings. And though she would never admit that she had learned anything from him, she had. She had learned that you learn a lot more by listening and keeping your mouth shut than by running it. She might have even spoken in his favor before Mama went into all the "nice girls at church" he should talk to...if he hadn't eaten the last biscuit that morning. She had really wanted that biscuit.

When she had finished shaming Kody for his awkwardness, Mama let loose on Ginny.

"If I hear about you gettin' into any more fights while I'm gone, Virginia, you better pray I don't come home 'til you're married and off on yer own."

"Yes ma'am."

She hoped she hadn't seen her gulp; Mama sounded pretty serious. She had been in four fights that school year alone. She just couldn't help it. Once provoked, she couldn't stop herself. And moreover, she didn't see where she was in the wrong in any of those fights- those kids had gotten what they had coming!

"Not only is it not lady-like, it's just not the Christian thing to do."

"Yes, ma'am."

Mama sighed and closed her eyes. "And please, please don't kill each other."

5.

It was a quiet ride the next morning in the foggy half-light before dawn, aside from the ever-present jostling of the truck along that bumpy mountain road. Once off the mountain, the road smoothed as they entered the city that served as the county seat. Kody sped past the high school but slowed down as he drove through the town square, past the statue of the unnamed, long rifle-weilding frontiersman, the courthouse, and the library. When they passed their church, a twinge of excitement went through Ginny- she had never been this far. The bus station was another twenty minutes along the smooth, paved road and as they traveled she strained her eyes to see all the houses and brick buildings in the dim morning light.

When they arrived at the bus station, Kody parked the truck, pulled the suitcase out of the bed, and headed for the nearest bench. Ginny slid out the passenger's side and accompanied Mama to the ticket window. She stared at the fancy register, much nicer than the one at the company store, and marveled at the fact that the clerk was wearing Sunday clothes at work. It was still a little while before the bus departed and Mama and Ginny joined Kody on the bench, nearly the only people to have yet arrived at the sleepy little station this morning.

The time on the bench was as silent as the ride over had been. Eventually the sun came up, more people arrived, and the clock over the ticket booth read five til eight. People were beginning to board the bus and Mama stood up hesitantly.

"Well, I guess I'm off!" she said, voice breaking and eyes misty. She hugged both her children, holding them for what seemed to them an unnecessarily long time. They walked with her to the bus steps and Kody handed her her suitcase.

"We'll be fine, Mama, " he assured her. "Really."

She smiled and nodded, sniffled, and wiped the tears from her cheeks. She looked down at Ginny, who smiled up at her with the most comforting, innocent smile she had ever seen from the little demon, then turned to go up the steps, the last person to board the bus. She found a seat just as the bus was pulling away, threw down the window, and shouted, "I love y'all!"

"Love you, too, Mama," they returned, not in unison.

They stood at the terminal until the bus was just a dot in the distance, then Kody pulled the keys from his pocket and headed back to the truck. Ginny followed, several paces back, unable to keep up with his stride.

When they had been driving for a while without even a word, Ginny broke the silence.

"So what're you gonna do today?"

"I'm gonna go back to bed. Then when I get up again...none of your business," his eyes never leaving the road.

She rolled her eyes and resumed gazing out the window.

A few moments later he cleared his throat and laid down the law. "OK. This is how it's gonna be. You're gonna stay outta my hair, and I'll stay out of yours. I don't care where you are or what you're doing so long as it doesn't land you or any of your victims in the hospital or worse, and you're asleep in your bed at night."

He looked over at Ginny now, his brows raised.

"Fair enough," she answered, and returned to her window gazing. She considered bringing up the possibility of him playing catcher for a few games but decided this wasn't the best mood to work with. She would bide her time. There was always time.

When they got home, true to his word, Kody went back to sleep. Ginny grabbed her glove and headed for the ball field next to the schoolhouse. The sun had been up for a while now so Tommy and Danny would have been at the field for a while. When she got there, not only were they there, but J.D. and Becky were, too. To her relief, they stopped playing when they saw her coming; seeing four people trying to make a baseball game work was even more pitiful than five.

"Everthing OK?" Tommy called as they all walked to meet her.

"Yeah. Just had to take my mama to the bus station."

"Well you could have let us know!" Becky snapped, her hands on her hips. "We might have worried, ya know." She said this in the Irish accent she and Rowdy only let slip when they were excited or angry. It always made Ginny smile.

She shrugged. "Didn't know 'til last night."

Becky narrowed her eyes then smiled wide. "Well...OK then. You're forgiven this time." This was spoken in an entirely American accent.

"Well, let's not waste any more time," Tommy commanded enthusiastically.

The field was, in reality, merely a flat patch of dirt. There were no lines, bases, dugouts, or pitcher's mound. During school, bases could be borrowed; during the summer bases were usually folded pieces of newspaper. This made calling safe or out particularly tricky when someone slid into the base that ended up getting caught in the wind and blown to another part of the field. Tommy drew a circle in the dirt in the middle of the in-field to represent the pitcher's mound, and two mostly rotted wood benches sat in the spots where dugouts should be. Perhaps at one time this had been an actual playing field, but if it had, it had been a very,very long time ago.

Ginny took her place on first, with J.D. in the outfield, Tommy pitching, Becky catching, and Danny up to bat. After the batter hit the ball and ran, they rotated positions; with only a pitcher and an in-fielder and one out-fielder there were a lot of homeruns. They went on this way until the majority complained of hunger and a break had to be taken. Then they picked right back up until dusk. As they disbanded for the day, Tommy sighed and turned back to look back at the field.

"What is it?" Ginny asked.

He shook his head. "We gotta do somethin' about this field. And get some people." They agreed en masse.

Grateful her legs had managed to carry her home and covered in dirt and grass stains, Ginny dragged in just as the katydids were beginning their nightly song. Kody, reclining on the couch, briefly glanced up from his book when she shut the screen door behind her. Something seemed off. It wasn't that no one ordered her to bathe immediately or even that Mama wasn't there at all . It was the smell; or more accurately, the lack thereof. There was no smell of a warm meal being prepared. She stepped cautiously toward the kitchen in hopes her brother had gotten a late start on supper and the aromas of glorious food had simply not yet permeated the small house. But alas, nothing on the stove, nothing in the oven. She returned to the living room.

"What are you makin'?" he asked, sounding disinterested and keeping his nose in the book.

The long silence created by her confusion prompted him to momentarily lay the book down.

"To cook? What are you gonna cook for supper?" he elaborated.

She furrowed her brow and shook her head. "I can't cook."

"Of course you can cook. You're a girl," he said, like it was common knowledge.

She looked down at her glove, still in hand, and briefly considered throwing it at him for that remark. How dare he suggest that she, or anyone for that matter, came into the world with a standardized skill-set, as if the ability to cook, clean, and look pretty came stock for girls. But she abstained. Mama hadn't even been gone 24 hours and he was sure to have a letter exposing her actions penned and mailed to Cleveland in an instant. Or he might just throw it back at her, which would not bode well for her either.

"I don't know how," she explained.

"You're ten years old! That's ten years of watchin' Mama cook. Surely you've picked up a thing or two."

Her stomach growled angrily, reminding her how long ago it had been since she ate that leftover biscuit Becky's mother had provided her for dinner. Kody was right. She'd had plenty of opportunity to learn, and Mama had made the effort to actually teach her to cook on occasion, but her attention had always wandered. She wouldn't need to know how to cook until she was grown and had a family of her own; until then, there would be Mama.

"I'm almost twelve," she corrected. "And you mean to tell me that in sixteen years of watchin' Mama cook, you ain't learned a thang?"

"Course not! 'Cause I don't watch. Why should I? I shouldn't need to know how to cook."

It was then that reality dawned on them. They were going to starve.

It was too late to go see what left-overs they could scrounge off Aunt Betty and Ginny's stomach felt like it was turning itself inside out at this point. She began searching the cupboard for a can of beans, peaches, anything she could open right up and eat as-is. When Kody accepted that he would not be receiving a hot meal he groaned and joined in her can-hunt; he was miserably hungry.

Ginny found and downed a can of peaches and went straight to bed. Part of her was already wishing her mother had taken her with her.

6.

This is ridiculous, Ginny thought as she swayed idly to and fro on the rope swing by the creek where her brother was fishing. She was clad in her Sunday dress, minus her shoes which she'd left in the truck. Kody had driven out the mountain road and pulled off to a creek he liked to fish; This was how they were to spend the time they weren't spending in church. When it was time for church to be over, they would return home and go to Jack's house for dinner, still in their Sunday clothes. Kody had insisted that the truck needed to be gone during church hours and they needed to be in church clothes "in case" Aunt Betty and Uncle Bill dropped by their house. Meanwhile, Ginny was struggling to not get her dress dirty and blow their cover. She wondered what would happen when Mama returned and the first time she went back to church some well-meaning parishoner greeted her with, "Welcome back! We missed y'all." She supposed, hoped, Kody had it all figured out.

The sky was beginning to fill with gray clouds and the breeze seemed to be picking up. "Looks like rain," she observed.

"Maybe," he replied, his focus on the fishing pole. He had no intention of bringing home anything he caught this day because though he could clean fish, he doubted his ability to cook them. They had survived the remainder of the week on bologna sandwiches and were looking forward to Aunt Betty's cooking later today, but it really was a shame he couldn't bring home a mess of fish.

Ginny's soft, pendulating motion was the most serene she was capable of being. She could not find it in herself to sit still long enough to enjoy an activity that revolved around patiently waiting for a subtle tug on a string; She wondered how anyone could. Her brother certainly could, it seemed, and looked to be rather enjoying it.

She noticed the leaves on the trees turning up in the wind, and the tree tops swaying in the distance. It wasn't about to rain; it was about to storm.

She swung quietly for a few more minutes before she decided to take advantage of the calm, content mood Kody appeared to be in today.

"You really oughtta come play ball with us sometime, ya know," she said.

"Thought I'd already agreed to it," he replied, his eyes still on the fishing line. "Least that's what Jack tells me anyway."

He turned his head now to look at her, a sarcastic grin spreading across his face. "Thought you were slick, didn't ya?"

She shifted her weight to slow the rope swing, the realization that her scheme had failed a punch in the gut. She searched for a worthy come-back but none came to her; she would have to accept defeat. Tommy would have to find some other people to fill the holes on the team himself; she could provide no further assistance in the search.

The wind was getting louder and stronger and thunder rolled off in the distance.

"Should church be out yet?" she asked, thinking only of the mud that was sure to splash up on her yellow dress when the rain started.

Kody looked up at the sky.

"Gettin' there." He pushed himself off the ground, reeled in his line, and dusted off his pants.

"May as well head home," he said, walking toward the truck. The thunder rolled again, this time louder, closer. Ginny leaped from the swing and raced to the passenger side, sliding in just in time to beat the first fat drops that fell from the sky.

The storm blew through as quickly as it had moved in, leaving the ground moist and the air hot and sticky. Ginny was for once grateful to be inside an hour later as she sat at her aunt's kitchen table breaking pole beans while Aunt Betty peeled potatoes. She had resolved to watch every detail of her aunt's kitchen activities today because, frankly, she wasn't entirely sure how many more bologna sandwiches she could take.

Uncle Bill was on the porch smoking his pipe and the sweet smell of the pipe tobacco smoke wafted in the open kitchen window. Aunt Betty wrinkled her nose.

"I wish he'd quit with that thang!" she griped. "Smellin' up the whole dang house." She began peeling more furiously.

"Makes his breath stank and it's a'turnin' his teeth yeller, too," she went on. "Me and yore mama was talkin' 'bout it just last week. She said she best not ever catch you or Kody smokin' no tobacca' or she'd wear your tails out. I told Jack the same thang. I said, 'I don't care how big you get, I'm still your mama and so long as you live under this roof, you won't be smokin' none 'a that nasty tobacca 'less you want me to beat you black and blue'."

Ginny just nodded in reply. Aunt Betty wasn't usually so passionate about, well, anything. She and Uncle Bill had a laid-back, light-hearted way about them that typically put everyone around them at ease and she usually let Jack get away with murder, but Ginny could tell she was pretty serious about this whole smoking business. She decided she would never smoke, or at least, never get caught smoking.

Aunt Betty moved on to cutting up the potatoes and putting them in a pot to boil, then dipped chicken pieces in buttermilk and dredged them in seasoned flour. She heated oil in a skillet and dropped a few pieces of chicken in at a time, then put the beans in a pot to boil. The way she moved around the kitchen was almost like a dance, certainly an art of some form. Like Mama, all her recipes were stored in her mind- neither woman owned a measuring cup.

"Oh! Ginny, would you thow together some cornbread?" she asked as she tended the chicken.

Ginny had worried this might happen if she hung around the kitchen too long. She felt like she knew the basics of cornbread; she'd just ask Aunt Betty's advice when she got stumped. She dumped what looked like should be enough corn meal in a bowl then cracked an egg into it. The one egg looked lonely in the big bowl of corn meal so she asked, "Aunt Betty, do you use one aig or two in your cornbread?"

"Oh, honey, I always use two," she answered, dumping the water off the potatoes.

"OK."

She cracked another egg then poured some buttermilk into the bowl and started mixing. It looked a little dry but she was afraid to add more buttermilk with two eggs in the mixture. After all, it was cornbread not cake. She greased a cast iron skillet, poured in the mixture, stuck it in the oven, then watched Aunt Betty whip up a bowl of mashed potatoes. Aunt Betty sat the mashed potatoes on the table then bustled back over to the stove to remove the last few pieces of chicken from the skillet.

"Go see if you can find them boys and tell 'em dinner's ready," she instructed.

"Yes, ma'am."

Ginny went out the back door and looked around both sides of the house, but there was no sign of Jack or Kody so she headed toward the barn. When she reached the weathered, wooden structure she stepped inside, looked around and up in the loft but they weren' t there either. As she descended the ladder from the loft, over the smell of the hay, she faintly caught a whiff of what she thought was the sweet fragrance of Uncle Bill's pipe smoke. Aunt Betty must have sent him out in search of the boys, too. The smell got stronger as she neared the door and when she was back outside she was sure Uncle Bill was nearby. She followed the smell around the side of the barn and called out, "Uncle Bill?"

As she turned the corner to the back of the barn, she halted, surprised because she hadn't stumbled upon her uncle at all, but instead Jack and Kody, frantically trying to stomp out a couple of rolled up cigarettes. They looked more surprised than her, anxious even. Some wicked little part of her relished the frightened looks in their eyes; she had never held such power over them as she did in this moment, never made them feel so small. More than anything, the sting of defeat she had felt earlier in the day was suddenly soothed. They knew her silence wouldn't come without a price.

They all stood tense and silent until Ginny cleared her throat and announced, "Dinner's ready." She looked the boys over disapprovingly and sniffed the air.

"But y'all might wanna take your time. Air out. She'll smell it on ya."

She smirked as she turned to saunter back to the house, amazed at how quickly and effortlessly the tables had turned in her favor.

A few minutes later, they were all squeezed in around the table, Jack leading them in grace:

"Dear Lord, thank you for the food on this table. We are so grateful to get to eat it so we don't starve to death. And thank you for the family here with us, because I shore couldn't eat all this by myself. Amen."

They began filling their plates with food and Aunt Betty made small talk about the morning's church sermon. Jack and Kody looked uneasy; if they were found out, not only would they be in hot water with their mothers, they would also have to answer to Uncle Bill for thieving from his tobacco arsenal. Their fears, however, were unfounded. Ginny had no intention of revealing their transgression as yet, and it would have been impossible for Aunt Betty to differentiate the smoke smell on them from the intense stench of tobacco eminating from Uncle Bill.

"How was y'all's service?" Aunt Betty asked.

Kody hadn't been listening to a word of what she was saying, his mind only on the possible punishments awaiting him.

"It was really good," Ginny lied, knowing Aunt Betty wouldn't require any details.

Uncle Bill bit into a piece of cornbread with a loud CRUNCH. His eyes widened and he scrutinized the cornbread for a moment, then looked across the table to Jack's equally animated face. Jack tapped his own piece of cornbread against his plate and it thudded like lead. He raised an eyebrow and looked at Aunt Betty, who was trying not to laugh.

"It looks like cornbread," Uncle Bill observed. "But it's crunchy like bacon."

"Bacon ain't hard as a brick," Jack reminded him.

Kody looked accusingly, but silently, at Ginny, who was looking down at her plate, pushing the beans around with her fork. Aunt Betty regained her composure and said, "Oh! I forgot to heat the pan before I poured the batter in. It'll do that ever' time."

Uncle Bill shook his head. "Oh well," he sighed. "Least the chicken's crunchy and the taters is creamy."

They discovered that if the cornbread was slathered in enough butter it didn't hurt their teeth as bad, and conversation continued as it did any other Sunday. Ginny helped Aunt Betty clean the kitchen afterward and then they joined Uncle Bill, Jack, and Kody in the living room for a gospel music radio program. Uncle Bill and Aunt Betty were obviously uninterested in the program that followed and went out to sit in the rockers on the porch. When they were out of earshot, Ginny informed the boys that they could expect to be at the ball field from just after dawn until dusk.

"I work tomorra," Kody said flatly.

"Then when you don't work," Ginny replied. She looked at Jack expectantly.

He looked at the floor. "I'll be there. Soon as my chores're done."

Ginny grinned. "Fantastic."

That night, just as Ginny was about to doze off, Kody started randomly snickering.

"Wow" he said.

"Wow what?" she groaned

"You weren't lyin'. You really can' cook!"

She leaned down over the top bunk and hit him in the face with her pillow. He continued laughing.

"Bet you won't be laughin' tomorrow when you're eatin' that baloney sandwich for supper again," she snapped.

7.

Kody leaned on the counter at the service station, reading the newspaper. The morning had been slow and he had been able to catch up with most of the updates on world events. There were horrible things going on in other parts of the world, things of which his family and neighbors were blissfully ignorant. If they didn't hear about it from the local gossips or see it on the church bulletin board it didn't matter to them. But he knew that if he ever planned to escape this little town, and he most certainly did, he would need to be cognizant of what was going on elsewhere, so he read the paper every time he got his hands on one and listened to news broadcasts on the radio every chance he got.

Behind the counter, Andy, the eldest of the Montgomery boys, sat playing a game of solitare with a deck of cards covered in black smudges from greasy hands. Andy had quit school last year to work and help make ends meet at home since his father was known to sporadically disappear for days on end and the money he made working in the mines had a similar reputation for disappearing before food was bought or bills paid. It was a mystery to everyone why the coal company didn't get rid of him; it was speculated he either knew somebody important or knew something about somebody that kept him employed. Too young to work in the mines himself, Andy was at the station nearly every day pumping gas, changing oil, airing up tires, and washing windshields to make enough to barely feed his brothers.

World news was getting depressing so Kody rummaged through the pages until he found the funnie papers. He was only one box into Lil' Abner when the driveway bell chimed and a sharp bergundy Plymouth coupe pulled up. Andy went to get up from his game but Kody said, "I'll get this one," as he folded the paper and laid it on the counter. Andy followed him out anyway to gawk at the car.

Kody hustled around to the driver's side window, expecting to speak with some coal company executive but his heart skipped a beat when the pretty feminine face of Leslie Williams smiled up at him instead. Her freckle-faced, gap-toothed kid brother grinned over on the passenger's side.

"What can we do for y'all this mornin'?" he asked, his stomach all a-flutter.

"We'd like an oil change, please," she replied.

"Alright, then. If ya don't mind, just pull around into the garage."

She and J.D. got out of the car when she'd shut the ignition off in the garage and she handed the key to Kody. Her long, flaxen hair lay in a thick, loose braid over one shoulder today.

" 'S a nice car," Andy admired. "Is it yore's?"

She laughed. "Oh, no no no. It belongs to my grandaddy. He let me drive it today...to get an oil change."

"Is it a '39?"

"It's new!" J.D. asserted.

"Well, not brand new," she corrected. "He's had it long enough to need an oil change."

"But still a pretty new car," Kody marveled. "He must really trust you."

She smiled and rolled her eyes. "I don't think it has anything to do with trust per se. We're just his only two grandchildren so he tends to spoil us."

Kody and Andy nodded, still appraising the car. "Well," Kody said, snapping out of the trance held on him by the shiny car, "Y'all can have a seat inside. I won't be too long."

"Is it OK if we sit on this bench outside?" she asked. "It's so nice out today."

"Of course."

"Can I watch?" J.D. asked enthusiastically.

"Um, yeah, I guess so," Kody answered, unsure.

"J.D.," Leslie hissed.

"What? I might wanna work here one day."

"Really, I don't mind if he watches," Kody lied.

"Are you sure?"

"Mmhm."

"Well, ok then. J.D., just don't get in the way."

"I won't."

When she was seated outside, Kody slid the jack under the car and began cranking it up.

"Shouldn't you be playin' baseball with my sister about now?"

he asked.

J.D. flashed that gap-toothed grin. "Leslie's gonna drop me off at the field. Ya know, in the car."

"Oh, I see."

The kid seemed genuinely interested, watching intently and only asking pertinent questions, always careful to keep out of Kody's way, as previously instructed. He decided he didn't mind the little audience after all.

While he was draining the oil pan, a faded Model A flatbed truck loaded with crates of squawking chickens chugged up to the gas pump. Smoke poured from the exhaust and the reek of chicken droppings and gasoline was stifling, choking Kody and J.D. even in the garage. Leslie tried to politely ignore the smell but was soon overwhelmed. She pulled a handkerchief from her skirt pocket and covered her nose and mouth as Andy, face buried in his arm, hurried to fill the tank and get the truck away from the station.

Kody was nearly finished with the oil change when the smell and smoke finally cleared. He wiped his hands on his navy blue coveralls and closed the hood then slipped in the driver's side to back the car out of the garage. J.D. hopped in, ready to leave and impress his friends with his snazzy ride.

"All done?" Leslie asked when he got out.

"All done."

She stood from the bench and the handkerchief she'd forgotten to put back in her pocket fell to the ground. He instinctiveley reached down to pick it up.

"Thank you," she said.

He noticed a prominent black stain on the white cloth when he handed it back to her. He mustn't have wiped his hands very well; there was probably oil on the steering wheel, too.

"Oh no. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," he gushed.

"It's nothin', really. It'll come out," she said.

But he could tell she was upset. He glanced at the handkerchief in her hand. It had surely been a gift, with it's intricately embroidered purple flowers all along the edges. She stuffed it back into her pocket and stuck her hand in her other pocket, pulling out the money that her grandfather had given her. She handed the money to him and he found that it contained an extra fifty cents.

"Let me go get you change, " he said, turning to go inside.

"No change," she said.

"I can't accept a tip when I just ruined a piece of your personal property," he insisted.

"Then consider it payment for services rendered. I think you gave my brother a thorough lesson on car...stuff today."

He opened his mouth to argue but she held up a hand, shushing him and indicating that the conversation was over.

He stared at the ground. "Well, thank you." They stood in awkward silence until Leslie asked, "Sooo...can I have the key back?"

He had completely forgotten he still had the key in his hand. He dangled it over her hand and narrowed his eyes. "Are you even old enough to drive?" he asked jokingly.

She smiled and shrugged. "I'm fifteen."

He hesitated, then smirked and dropped the key in her hand. "Well alright. Y'all be careful. "

She smiled and got in the car and turned over the ignition.

"I'm really sorry about your handkerchief," he reiterated.

She was still smiling sweetly as she pulled out of the service station. "Don't be."

He sighed and walked back inside to put the money in the register, his mind trying to fathom how someone with a face like hers could be so incredibly nice as well. It just seemed like too much for one person. Pretty face or kind heart, one or the other; never both.

Andy was once again seated behind the counter, playing solitaire.

"That kid is a walkin', talkin' freckle," he said, never looking up from the cards. "But Leslie, now, she's somethin' else."

Tommy had tried in vain the last couple years to get Kody and that arm of his on third, but he was stubborn and Tommy just wanted nine warm bodies on the field. When Kody showed up with a catcher's mit he didn't even bother to put up a fight. Jack and Kody were pleasantly surprised to learn that Freddy Montgomery had started coming to the field and that Andy would, too, when he had days off work. Andy and Freddy had been eager to play, as anything that didn't involve working or being home sounded like a good idea to them.

With more people there it was exciting. Things happened faster. Jack and Freddy in the outfield caught fly balls that wouldn't have been caught with just one outfielder. Kody catching meant Danny could play third, thus adding another infielder. Most days afforded only seven or eight of them because of work and other obligations, but the one day that week there were nine playing was just wonderful; they hadn't even disbanded for dinner, just played right on through until dark.

Ginny was grateful for her brother's stubborness. Playing first, she rarely had to catch a ball that he threw. She hoped his arm had gotten rusty since last summer but the day he fielded J.D.'s chopper, she realized that it had not. Her left hand stung like fire and when she took her glove off, shaking her hand, her palm was bright red. She agreed with Tommy that that arm would be better utilized on third, but she was entirely content with only having to risk breaking her hand once in a while. As far as she was concerned, he could stay behind the plate as long as he wanted.

No one else quite shared Tommy's passion for the game but his enthusiasm was at least moderately infectious. His euphoria when they were playing pleased Ginny because she knew that he didn't have much else to smile about.

She had expected to hear much complaining from Jack and Kody but she had heard virtually none; they would never admit it, she knew, but they were actually enjoying themselves. They talked and laughed about plays and bragged on their own athletic prowess each day as they walked home from the field. It was apparent they had quickly forgotten they were there in the first place as a result of blackmail.

8.

Another week of bologna sandwiches and another glorious Sunday meal compliments of Aunt Betty had come and gone when Kody came home from work on a rainy Monday to find the house filled with smoke and the odor of something scorched.

"Damn it, Ginny!" he roared when he found her pulling a pan of black cornbread from the smoking oven. Two pots and a skillet sat on the stove. He tried to wave the smoke away from his face as he approached the cookstove to see what else she had destroyed. Both pots and the skillet contained navy beans and a different putrid, scorched smell emitted from the general vacinity. He grabbed a spoon and stirred the pot on the right front burner.

"Ugh," he groaned. "You even let the beans stick!"

She shoved him out of the way and snatched the spoon from his hand.

"I'll take care of it!" she snapped.

"Like you've took care of it so far!" he snapped back.

The smoke was stifling despite all the windows being open. He stormed off and propped the back door open with a chair.

"What were you thinkin'?"

"I was thinkin' I was sick of baloney so I made supper."

"You made a mess."

"Least I tried. More'n you can say!"

He closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, and took a deep breath.

"Why'd you make so many beans?"

"I just filled up the pot and covered 'em with water. How was I supposed to know they grow when you cook 'em?"

He couldn't even come up with a response for that.

"If you don't want it, don't eat it," she mumbled.

He sighed. "I'm not touchin' that cornbread. But we can't waste all those beans."

He washed up at the sink while Ginny ladeled herself out a bowl of beans and filled a mason jar with sweet tea. He dried his hands and did the same, then sat down at the table and blew on a spoonful of steaming beans to cool them. When the spoon stopped steaming, he took a bite and his entire face twisted into a hideous grimace.

"Good Lord, Ginny, that's horrible!"

"Yeah," she said quietly. She couldn't disagree. It truly was horrible.

He tooik a big gulp of tea. It wasn't bad; certainly good enough to wash the bean taste out of his mouth. If they weren't going to waste all those beans they were definately going to need more tea.

They each struggled to finish their bowl. When they had, Kody resolved that the next day they would go to the store and buy things that didn't require much, if any, cooking, excluding bologna. This, Ginny thought, was the best idea he'd had all summer.

While she washed up the dishes, he picked up the cornbread pan, stepped out the back door, and headed up the path through the woods to Jack's house. When he got to the yard, he crossed the property over to the pig sty and chucked the black cornbread over the fence then stood, waiting. After a while, one of the pigs finally wandered over to check out the black clump. It sniffed it, turned it over with its snout, sniffed the other side, then turned and walked away, never so much as licking it. Kody shook his head. Most people would have to try to be as bad at something as his sister was at cooking. The porch light flicked on and Jack crossed the yard and they talked about nothing of any particular importance until it was fully dark.

Ginny was already asleep in mama's bed when Kody returned home. The smoke had cleared but the stench still lingered. He kicked off his boots and picked up the copy of Crime and Punishment he'd been reading, which was still laying on the couch where he'd left it the night before. As he sat down, he thumbed through the pages in search of the folded piece of notebook paper he'd been using to mark his place, but it wasn't there. He remembered well enough where he'd left off but the disappearance of his book mark bugged him too much to start reading just yet. He checked between the couch cushions and underneath the couch itself, as well as the chair cushions and underneath. He looked all around the front room but came up empty.

He walked to the kitchen and there it lay, unfolded, on the kitchen table. A pencil-sketched portrait of what could only be his mother now filled the formerly blank space. It was pretty good, he had to admit, especially consideriing it it was all from memory, as there weren't any pictures of Mama around the house. He folded it back up and returned to the front room to read.

The next afternoon, Kody parked Lilly in front of the school house after work, walked to the edge of the ball field, and whistled through his fingers. Tommy, Danny, J.D., Becky, and Freddy all froze and jerked their heads in that direction. He waved to the others as Ginny trudged toward the truck. She slammed the door when she got in.

"Hey, now! Easy on Lilly," he scolded.

"You just whistled for me. Like a damn dog."

"AND watch your mouth!"

She rolled her eyes and looked out the window. "Psht."

"Just don't take it out on the truck. Geez."

He drove to the store and Ginny slammed the door again when she got out. Kody shot her a menacing look. "Just go. Go find yourself some cold cereal or somethin', " he sputtered. She pushed the glass door open and let it shut on him, releasing a series of muttered obscenities behind her as she headed for the aisle that contained Oreos.

She wandered around idly after picking up a box of Oreos, trying to both avoid Kody and not look like she was trying to steal something. She meandered to the aisle where the boxes of cold cereal were kept and considered her options; the little elf on the Rice Krispies box seemed to be calling her name. Then someone actually did call her name. It was a rough voice she knew well but didn't like. She spun around to find her step-father, Ralph, standing behind her, wearing the same smug face he always did.

"Get some Corn Flakes," he ordered.

She hung her head and reluctantly removed a box of the cereal she least liked from the shelf. Just then Kody rounded the corner with a basket full of soups, soda crackers, canned meats, and peanut butter. One look at Ralph and he looked like all the air had been let out of him, but he quickly recovered.

"Ralph...hey," he said, friendly enough.

"Hey."

"How was the run?"

"Okay."

There were two good things to note about Ralph, the first being that he drove a freight truck and was usually gone for weeks at a time. The second was that he wouldn't pry into what they had or had not been up to in Mama's absence since he really didn't care. But those were the only good things about him. The possibility of him trying to take the place of their father simply didn't exist, as he made it perfectly clear that they were not his kids and he would not treat them as such, rather, he treated them with contempt. They were an annoying little side note to his marriage with their mother and he made sure they knew that.

"How long ya home for?" Kody asked after an uncomfortable silence.

"Couple days, I expect."

Ginny's eyes remained downcast during the entire exchange.

"Well, see ya at the house," Kody said.

"Yeah," Ralph grumbled. "See ya."

Two days, Ginny thought. Just two days of walking on eggshells. That was doable.

Ralph was sitting in the chair in the front room listening to a radio broadcast of a baseball game when they got home with the groceries. They slowly put them away, lingering for as long as possible in the kitchen.

"What's for supper?" he finally called.

"Leftovers," Kody answered, leaning on the kitchen doorway.

"Leftover what?"

"Ginny made some soup beans last night. And we got some light bread to have with 'em."

"Oh. Well heat 'em up, then."

"Yes, sir."

When the beans were reheated, Ginny set the table and Kody notified Ralph that supper was ready. After Ralph had filled his bowl she filled hers and quietly sighed, thinking of the unpalatable slop she was about to ingest and the degradation she was sure to get from Ralph because of it. She was at least glad Kody had thought to make a fresh pitcher of sweet tea.

They sat at the table, that same uncomfortable mood filling the kitchen that had filled the breakfast aisle a while earlier. Ralph dropped a piece of lite bread atop his beans and pushed it down below the soup with his spoon, then took the first bite, contorted his face, and spit it right back into the bowl. He gave Ginny a nasty look and shoved his chair away from the table.

"I'll eat at the diner," he grumbled as he got up and headed for the door.

The door slammed and Lilly started up with her characteristic roar, backed up, and thundered off. Kody snorted and went into a full-on snigger that Ginny couldn't resist herself, despite the shame she'd just felt. They were still trying to return to seriousness and intermittently bursing out in laughter a few minutes later when Jack let himself in the back door.

"I thought I heard the truck, figured I missed y'all...What's so funny?"

"You want some bea-he-he-ns?" Kody offered, failing miserably at keeping a straight face.

Jack narrowed his eyes and walked over to the stove. He lifted the lid off the pot and winced. "That don't even smell good!"

"Ralph didn't think so either!" Kody sputtered between giggles. "He-he-he's eatin' at the diner."

"Oh, that was him that peeled outta here in the truck?"

Kody was convulsing with laughter and could only nod. And then Jack's high pitched cackle started up.

"Dadgum, Ginny," Jack choked. "Don'tcha know your cookin' ain't sposed to run men off ?"

The next morning as Ginny headed sleepily into the front room she noticed a pair of big feet hanging off the end of the couch; the big feet belonged to Jack, she discovered as she passed on through to the kitchen. She pulled a bowl from the cupboard and the new box of her least favorite breakfast cereal and sat them on the counter. As she fumbled with the top of the box a big mason jar that looked to be filled with water, also on the counter, caught her eye. Looks like 'ol Ralph paid Tommy and Danny's daddy a visit, she thought. She knew that water was not, in fact, what filled that jar, but corn likker. And as unpleasant as Ralph normally was, he was not a man who could hold his liquor.

She must have been making more noise than she realized because a moment later Jack, his hair messier than hers, wandered into the kitchen, got a bowl, and poured himself some corn flakes. He eyed the jar for a minute once he noticed it, then sat down at the table with Ginny and poured milk over his cereal and took a couple bites.

"Mama wants y'all over for supper this evenin'," he said.

"It's Wensdey," she reminded him.

"And?"

"We eat at your house Sundey after church."

"We go to church Wensdey evenin', Ginny."

"Oh...right..." she trailed off.

He cut his eyes toward the jar on the counter. "She'll probly want y'all to stay the night, too."

Ginny nodded. The promise of safety at her aunt and uncle's house immediately relieved the tension in her shoulders and the worries in her head and she quickly changed the subject.

"Will you be at the field today?"

A sly grin appeared on Jack's face. "Nope. I'll be spendin' most of this day with one Ruby Macafee..."

"What about Sally Tate?"

"What about her?"

"I thought you were..."

"That's been forever ago. I've moved on."

"Last week?"

"It wasn't last week. It's been longer. Mind yer business."

"It was too last week!"

"What are you two arguin' about?" a sleepy-eyed Kody mumbled as he shuffled into the kitchen, scratching his head of rat's-nest hair.

"Sally Tate," Ginny offered.

"Hm. That girl you're goin' with?" he asked, now pouring a bowl of cereal.

"I'm not goin' with her anymore," Jack corrected.

"That was last week," Ginny teased.

"Hush up, Squirt. It's been longer than that."

"You took her to the movie Fridey night," Kody added innocently.

"It was a Fridey. Not last Fridey."

"It was last Fridey 'cause I heard all about it Sairdy. Man, you already broke up with her? I can't keep up with you."

"Just drop it, both of yuns."

"Ah. I see," Kody said, a hint of a smile on his lips. "She broke up with you."

Jack's face reddened.

"It's OK, Jack, " Ginny said sweetly. "I'm sure Ruby'll make it all better."

"Ruby Macafee?" Kody asked.

She nodded.

"Yeah, she's a dish. You'll forget all about Sally Whatsername," he went on.

Jack glared at his cousins, both stifling smug grins. A few minutes later he regained his composure and informed Kody that they were to have supper at his house, then poured himself another heaping bowl of cereal. And they all cleared out of the house before Ralph could get up and find out his corn flakes were all gone.

9.

The tell-tale sign that Tommy's father had returned from his most recent hiatus less than pleased was written on his face in the form of a red, swollen left cheek. And Freddy was conspiculoisly absent from the ball field. With only five present, Tommy had suggested batting practice this day- "bat 'til ya strike out," he had said. He had had no problem striking the rest of them out aside from the grounder Danny had managed, but now Ginny was pitching to Tommy and he was on a roll. There was no variety in his hits; they were all going way out into the outfield, where Danny, Becky, and J.D. had now permanently stationed themselves.

One strike and eight hits in, he smacked one beyond what would have been the outfield fence if there had been a fence there at all, all the way to the old official's house across from the school house, right through a window. The sound of shattering glass should have been their signal to scatter and go to their respective homes, but seeing as it was their only ball, it wasn't. Tommy dropped the bat and headed toward the abandoned gray house with the broken second story window, the others reluctantly trailing behind.

"Tommy!" J.D. hissed. "The priest! What if the priest sees us?"

"So what? I didn't knock out his window. Besides, we have Becky with us."

"And it's a darn good thing it wasn't his window you knocked out, or you better believe you wouldn't have Becky with you!" Becky added.

Becky's uncle, Dr. Riley, and Rowdy, lived in the house next to the gray house. It was bigger than the gray house and Dr. Riley let out the spare bedrooms to itinerant miners. For reasons unknown to Ginny, though Becky's uncle served as the town's doctor, her friends all insisted on referring to him as the Priest. True, he was also a priest and held Mass in the parlor of the big house on Sundays for the Catholic community in Mabry's Ridge (most of which was related to him), but every run-in most of them had had with him was as a doctor. Maybe it was the black garb he was always wearing, or his near-silent, mysterious demeanor, or the usual suspicion of the papists (though nobody seemed to have a problem with Becky or Rowdy) that made him the Priest and not Dr. Riley. No matter what anyone called him, Becky and Rowdy indicated that he was strict and tolerated no nonsense.

No one really knew why the gray house had been abandoned; it seemed like a nice enough house. It was certainly bigger and nicer than Ginny's little house and the company houses in which the miners' families lived. On closer examination, they found that it wasn't gray but white, like the rest of the company houses. The illusion of a gray exterior came from years of coal dust settling on the siding, but unlike the rest of the company housing it never got cleaned or a fresh coat of paint.

The mystery surrounding the old gray house had always been a source of great curiosity for Ginny and she was a little bit excited about finally having an excuse to trespass; she just hoped it wasn't inhabited by ghosts or vagrants, and, of course, that they didn't get caught by the priest.

Both doors were locked so Danny and J.D. hoisted Ginny up to one of the back windows and to her surprise, it was unlocked. Years of being tightly shut made it difficult to open, though, and she struggled to slide it up. When she had finally worked it open far enough for her to fit through she slithered through the opening, landing with a thud on the wood floor. She dusted herself off and looked down at her hand which was suddenly throbbing; her palm was angry and red around the huge splinter she must have picked up from the windowsill. She shook it off and set to work trying to get the window open far enough for Tommy to fit through.

"That looks good," Tommy whispered after she had worked it up another couple inches. She stepped back as Danny and J.D. boosted him up and he stealthily climbed through. Once Tommy had joined her, Ginny finally looked around the intriguing old house. The room they were in contained a dust-covered walnut table and eight chairs and a matching china cabinet. Just off of the room was the kitchen, and through an archway she could see the still-furnished front room. It was like the mine official and his family had just up and left one day, not even bothering to take their belongings.

"Come on," Tommy said. "Let's find the stairs."

She took one last peek out the window at Danny, J.D., and Becky, patrolling the corners of the house and on the look-out for detection by the priest or passer by. Tommy walked by her side into the front room, his eyes on the ground.

"How bad does it look?" he asked, almost too quiet for her to hear.

She looked around the room and shrugged. "My mama'd have a fit over all these cobwebs but I reckon it's pretty nice."

His eyes moved from the floor to meet hers. "Not the house, Ginny."

"Oh," she whispered. His face. That blaringly obvious inflamed left cheek of his. "I hardly noticed."

He sighed. "You're a terrible liar."

She bit her lip, not knowing what to say next. She supposed suggesting a solution was the best direction to steer the conversation. "You could stay at my house after tomorra. Ralph's there now, but he'll be leavin' back out some time tomorra."

He shook his head. "I don't need a place to stay. I have a home. Pap was just...I deserved what I got."

She doubted that, but she let it go. A rustling upstairs offered a distraction. Tommy's foot was on the bottom step now and he froze in place, Ginny standing wide-eyed right behind him. When the noise stopped he continued up the steps but she grabbed his shoulder.

"What was that?" she whispered.

"Your imagination. Now come on."

"You heard it, too!"

He ignored her and moved silently up the stairs and she reluctantly followed behind him. She expected the old staircase to creak beneath their feet but the house was solid and they didn't make a sound. Once atop the stairs, they heard it again- that scratching and rustling that seemed to be coming from a back bedroom. Tommy gestured with his head in the direction from which the noise had come and Ginny nodded. They weren't likely to find the ball in that room since the broken window was on the front of the house, but they had to investigate.

They tiptoed into the back bedroom, the scratching growing louder the closer they got to the closet whose door was open just a crack. They cautiously approached the closet and Tommy put his arm out to grasp the doorknob. He swallowed hard, his heart hammering away in his chest in sync with Ginny's, the only sound louder than the scratching at this point. He let his hand hover just above the doorknob and looked over his shoulder at Ginny who nodded in encouragement, then he took a deep breath and threw open the door.

They both squealed and Tommy jumped back, falling into Ginny and knocking them both to the ground. In the closet, staring back at them with beady, black eyes, a huge possum hissed viciously, baring its dozens of sharp teeth and twitching its ugly pink nose. When he realized what it was, Tommy placed his hand on his chest and let out an uneasy laugh which Ginny mimmicked. The possum seized the moment and scurried off as they sat on the floor laughing at themselves.

Tommy, still laughing, stood and put out a hand to help Ginny back to her feet then walked over to the window and knocked on the glass. The others looked up at him with alarmed faces. They had heard their cries and the ensuing clammer and were now arguing over who should be shoved through the window to check on them. He gave them a thumbs-up and they looked relieved, then turned back to Ginny.

"Well that was fun," he said. "Now whataya say we go find that ball?"

"I say that's the best idea you've had all day."

They walked back out into the hall and into the large front bedroom. The lace curtains over the broken window billowed eerily on the light breeze blowing in. They scanned the room but didn't see the ball anywhere. Tommy got down on all fours in the dusty floor and looked under the rusty metal bed. Just then, they heard a creaking on the floor from one of the other bedrooms and the fine hairs on Ginny's arms stood on end. And then the bedroom door slammed shut. Tommy's arm shot out and he snatched the ball out from under the bed then jumped to his feet, grabbed Ginny by the wrist, threw open the door, and dragged her out of the bedroom.

They rushed down the stairs making no effort to be quiet as they barrelled down them like a herd of elephants. Whatever made the noise may well have been as trivial as the possum in the closet and maybe a gust of wind had blown that door shut but they weren't about to stick around to find out. They ran through the front room and were back at the open window in a blur. In an instant Ginny had slid out the window and hit the ground hard, tearing up both knees and shins in the process. By the time she was back on her feet, Tommy was out, too, screeching, "Boost me up! Boost me up!"

A bit confused, Danny and J.D. complied and Tommy slammed the window shut with much less effort than it had taken Ginny to open it.

"What happened? What did you see?" the others asked anxiously.

"That's enough baseball for today," was Tommys only answer. "Y'all wanna go down to the river?"

A little girl lay on the riverbank, a frightened little boy crouched over her. Her jet black hair was matted on the side of her head with bright red blood that ran over the slippery river rocks and continued on out to tint the muddy water. Her eyes were shut and she looked to be sleeping peacefully. It was quiet there on the river bank except for the sound of the water rushing over the rocks here and there. He shook her.

"Wake up," he said. But she didn't stir. He shook her again. "Julie, wake up," more panic in his voice than before. But she slept on. He shook her harder, more violently. "Wake up! Please wake up!" he cried, eliciting no response from her lifeless little form. He kept on, though, shaking her and beseeching her to awaken.

"Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!"

"Wake up! Jack, wake up!" came Kody's voice in a whispered hiss when he finally shook him awake. "You're gonna wake the whole house up."

Jack swallowed hard and looked around his little bedroom, then down at his cousin in his pallet on the floor. This was not the riverbank and he was not a little boy. "Thanks, man. Sorry about that."

"Yeah, no problem." Kody laid back down and turned his back toward him. The familiar tossing and turning and thrashing and moaning and little whimpers that would ultimately progress to loud, frightened cries had alerted him that Jack was having those dreams.. It had been a long time since he and Jack had last slept in the same room and he'd hoped those dreams had stopped by now but they obviously had not. Jack had been having them since he was six years old, when he'd found his twin sister who'd hit her head on a rock and drowned in knee- deep water.

Everybody, everybody, knew Jack wasn't right, but probably only Kody knew just how much so, knew that the confident, happy-go-lucky demeanor was a facade to a young man teetering on the brink of madness most days. There were places for people like Jack, he knew, but he didn't think he belonged there, nor did he want him to go, so he kept mum. Jack liked to think that he did a pretty good job of looking out for his smaller, weaker cousin, but Kody knew who was looking out for who.

He covered his head and tried hard to drift back off to sleep, all the while hoping that Ralph wouldn't stay longer than he had said he would. He wanted to sleep in his own bed. He hated the dreams not just for Jack's sake, but for his as well. They made him think about things he didn't want to think about. Sometimes, he didn't want to think at all.

10.

Ralph kept his word and left back out on Thursday. The rest of the week had gone on pretty uneventfully and here it was, Sunday again. Kody looked up from his locked gaze on his fishing pole and over his shoulder at his sister on that ratty old rope swing, catching a glimpse of her scraped up shins below her yellow Sunday dress. "You get in a fight with a mountain lion?" he asked.

She looked down at her legs and shrugged. "Somethin' like that."

He turned back to his fishing pole, satisfied with her nebulous explanation. As long as it wasn't a person she got in a fight with, it's fine by me, he thought.

She hopped down off the swing and walked over to the creek side, and seated herself beside him. She picked up a stick and started drawing in the mud, acting very nonchalant; he could tell she wanted something but she didn't say anything for a long time. Maybe she didn't want anything after all, maybe she was just tired of the swing. But then, just when he was sure she was content doodling in the mud, without ever looking up from her work of art, she asked, "What was Daddy like?"

It took him by surprise but he tried to hide it by continuing to stare at his fishing pole. She'd never asked anything like that before and he wasn't entirely sure exactly what she was asking or how to answer. When he didn't say anything, she elaborated. "Do you remember him?"

He furrowed his brows and looked at her, still drawing in the mud. "You don't?" he asked. She shook her head. Of course she didn't. How could she? She'd been so young. But it had never occurred to him like that. Of course she'd be curious. She couldn't remember and she couldn't ask Mama; even after all these years and despite Ralph's presence in her life, it still upset her. Who could she ask? Uncle Bill? Maybe, if she wanted to know what kind of little brother her father had been or what he'd been like as a boy. But that's not what she wanted to know, he knew. How sad for her, he thought, to have only Ralph in mind in the role of father; Ralph, who was nothing like a father in any way, Ralph, whose mere presence in the house in their mother's absence had caused them to take shelter elsewhere.

He cleared his throat. "Yes, I remember him. Maybe not a lot, but enough, I s'pose."

She looked up at him beseechingly, abandoning her mud art.

He sighed. He didn't talk about his father, never had. The subject was like Jack's dreams, made him think thoughts he'd rather not, of memories best left in the past. But she wasn't going to let him off the hook. And maybe she shouldn't, maybe she deserved to know what little he remembered. And he was surely her only source for the information she sought, which was certainly information she should know. Where to start?

"Um...he laughed a lot. He had a laugh that was deep and real, like you'd never forget, and he made Mama laugh a lot, too. And music. He loved music. I don't think the man could even write his own name but he could play the strings off a fiddle- not to say he wasn't smart- he was. He was smart in ways that mattered. And he could dance like you wouldn't believe. He'd turn on the radio and sweep Mama up and dance her all over the house. Sometimes he'd dance with her to no music at all."

Ginny listened intently, soaking up every word. Kody didn't usually speak with such passion and she wasn't about to interrupt him with a question. She'd just let him keep going because the way he was reminiscing, she could tell she'd learn all she wanted to know and then some.

He chuckled a little. "Now, he couldn't sing a'tall but that didn't stop him. He was always singin' some little ditty whenever he was busy doin' somethin' and he'd take me with him fishin' and sing songs I can't remember and've never heard since, but if I heard 'em now, I'd know they were Daddy's songs. He'd carry you around and sing little songs to ya that didn't make a lick of sense. I guess he just kinda made 'em up as he went along. He loved to tell stories and he was really good at it. He could take the most humdrum thing and make a fantastic tale out of it, such that folks would say, 'David, tell us about such and such,' and it wouldn't be about anything of any importance but they'd all just laugh and laugh and ask him to tell it again and again. He'd tell us stories at night after supper or whenever I asked him to, really."

He stopped to take a breath and Ginny feared he was finished. "What kind of stories did he tell us?"

"Fantastic stories, nonsence stories, about unlikely people and places. Some were fairy tales but most were stories he made up or had been told by his mama and daddy. I would say, 'But, Daddy, that ain't real,' and he would look at me all sad-like and say, 'It's as real as you let it be'. He said he wanted us to see the wonder in the world and to believe in magic and miracles and in things we couldn't see or touch, said once you stopped, then it was all over for you."

"What did he mean, it was over for you? You just...died? There wasn't any reason to keep on livin'?"

"I don't know, Ginny. Maybe he meant he just wanted us to stay little for as long as possible. Daddy said a lot of things I didn't really understand. I was really young, too, ya know."

But now that he said it aloud, not a little boy, it did make sense. His sentimentality faded back to sadness, not for Ginny this time but for himself. He didn't see wonder in the tired, black faces of the miners or the dirty faces of the destitute children or the hopeless faces of the women in the suffering little town in which they lived. He knew from the newspaper that the world outside it was just as ugly. And he didn't believe in magic or miracles or in anything he couldn't see or touch. It was probably for the best that his daddy wasn't around to see that it was already over for him. Then again, maybe if he was, it wouldn't be. Maybe everything would be different.

He had been quiet too long and Ginny was afraid he was done. She didn't want him to stop. "What did he look like?" she goaded.

He snapped out of his melancholy and back into the present moment. "Ya know," he said thoughtfully, "To be honest, I don't really even remember. Me, I'm told. And you, too, I guess. Makes sense. We sure don't look much like Mama."

She nodded in agreement.

"He seemed taller, though. Then, too, I was very small..." he trailed off for a moment but was clearly thinking of what to say next. "I do remember how he smelled," he said when he picked back up. "Like coal dust. Even on Sundey mornin'. It musta lingered in his hair or somethin'. I guess I can't remember really what he looked like 'cause he was always covered in it, like a talkin', laughin', singin', dancin', fiddle-playin' shadow. It was always late, after dark, when he would get home from work, and he would walk across the yard with this big, wide grin on his black face and he looked like the Cheshire Cat comin' at us."

"What's that?" Ginny interrupted. "The chester cat?"

"The Cheshire Cat," he corrected. "You don't know the Cheshire Cat?"

She shook her head. He frowned at her and continued reminiscing.

"And once he was home, he just wanted to play with us. Whatever we wanted to play, he was in...I only remember one good spankin', and I don't remember what I did to earn it but I'm sure I deserved it because he was always fair about everything, and he always talked to us the same way he did Mama and every other adult, even if we didn't really understand."

He bit his lip and Ginny knew he was through.

" 'S all I got for now," he lied.

She went back to drawing in the mud.

He kept his most vivid memory to himself. It was this memory that kept him from talking, and often even thinking about his father, the scene that any reference to his father always brought to the forefront of his mind. The sirens, the officers blocking the entrance to the site, the anxious people of the town all around, the look of dread on Mama's face, clueless baby-faced Ginny on her hip. He was too little to see over their heads so he pushed between the tightly-packed onlookers, making his way to the front of the crowd. Intermittently, a miner or two or three would emerge, walking, limping, being held up by another man, sometimes carried out, and their loved ones would rush forward praising Jesus. Every man that came out was a relief because he knew most all of them; Daddy had a lot of friends.

The roof had fallen on the No. 3 Mine. The mine officials were talking a mile a minute to police officers and members of the rescue team and there was talk that the mine's owner and even the governor himself were on their way. He strained his eyes to try to make out the faces of the men who emerged but the sun was setting and their black faces all looked the same. He knew, though, that his daddy would see him right up front when he came out.

But he never did.

He hadn't thought about it in so very, very long. And then, from the chaotic scene outside the mine, his mind took him to a quieter place: their house, that same morning. He was sitting cross-legged in the kitchen floor taking inventory of his marble collection; Ginny was curiously looking over his shoulder at the many, pretty, different colored marbles he meticulously dropped into the bag after he counted them. He'd tried to shoo her off but she wouldn't go away. She toddled around to face him and plopped down on the floor, reached out her little hand, scooped up his best shooter, and shoved it in her mouth. He dropped the bag and grabbed her face, stuck his finger in her mouth and commanded, "Give it back! Ginny, give it back!"

Mama responded just as he wrestled the shooter from her mouth. "Kody, what's goin' on, here?"

"Ginny was tryin' to eat my shooter! But I got it back." He wiped the slobber off on his shirt and stingily dropped the big marble into the bag.

Daddy joined them in the kitchen to top off his cup of coffee. "What happened?"

"Kody stopped Ginny from gettin' choked on a marble," Mama answered.

"Is that right?" He picked Ginny up and kissed her on the head; she wrinkled her nose in true Ginny-style."Attaboy, son. You keep lookin' out for ye lil' sister like that an' she'll always have yer back."

He leaned on the counter with Ginny on one hip while he finished his coffee, then traded her off to Mama for his lunch bucket and kissed Mama goodbye. He squatted and offered his hand to Kody, who shook it enthusiastically.

" 'Til I get home, you take care of things, ya hear?"

"Yes sir."

11.

Tommy had graciously allowed Cricket McNabb and his buddies use of the field here and there to practice and over the weekend Cricket had suggested they play each other. Somehow or other, everybody was going to be available Thursday. Tommy canceled practice, though, on Wednesday, in order to "prepare the field"; the field, otherwise known as the patch of dirt by the schoolhouse. They were going to "prepare" the patch of dirt by the schoolhouse for a pick- up game of baseball. Nobody argued the case, though, because honestly none of them had anything better to do.

Tommy stood with his arms crossed at home plate, surveying the dirt patch with narrowed eyes. The bruise on his face had faded to a greenish-yellowish color and for some reason it reminded Ginny a little bit of Frankenstein's monster.

"You go to church with Miss Fulchum, right, J.D.?" he observed. Miss Fulchum was the school teacher.

"Yeah."

"You goin' tonight?"

"Yeah."

"Reckon she'll be there?"

"Only ever' time the doors is open."

"Think she'd go in the school and get us the bases to use, just for one day? So long as we give 'em back soon as we're done?"

"Wouldn't hurt to ask."

"Good."

Tommy chewed on his cheek as he scrutinized the dirt patch further. "Lines would be nice," he mused.

Ginny raised an incredulous eyebrow. "Lines, Tommy? Really? This ain't the World Series, ya know."

"I know that! But if we can't get the bases we could at least...draw 'em, if we had chalk."

"But we don't have that kind of chalk," Becky reminded him.

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "There's gotta be somethin' we can use."

"Flour?" Danny suggested.

Ginny did a double-take; Danny so rarely spoke.

"Nah, flour'll just warsh away," J.D. argued.

"No, no, that's good!" Tommy affirmed. "Flour'll work fine for just one day." He thought for another moment then asked, "Who has some money?"

Not surprisingly, nobody spoke up.

The wheels in Tommy's head were spinning; the rest off them waited silently for them to screech to a halt. "Well, where to get that much flour? I doubt we even have enough to make a biscuit at the house," he said finally, playfully elbowing Danny.

"We have plenty," Becky admittted. "But my mother won' t let us use it and she's home so we can't just swipe what we need."

"There's the store," Tommy observed.

Becky looked appalled.

"Sorry. No, you're right," he rushed to correct himself. "We're not shoplifters. Thieves, maybe. But not shoplifters."

"We have flour at my house," Ginny offered. "I dunno how much but nobody'll notice it gone."

"Nah, Ginny. You live so far outside town," J.D. said. "Look, we go through a lot of flour at home and we always have plenty. Mama's cleanin' the officials' houses today, won't be home 'til this evenin'."

"Your sister-" Becky attempted to argue.

"Is easily distracted," he cut her off.

Tommy mulled it over a minute before deciding, "That's probably our best bet...Can y'all manage that while I go home and grab a broom to sweep some of this coal dust off the field?"

They agreed and all headed toward the company houses. "Y'all girls handle the distractin'," J.D. instructed them as they walked. "Me an' Danny'll take care of the flour. Shouldn't take more'n two minutes."

When they reached the Montgomery's house, next door to J.D.'s, Tommy broke off from the group to retrieve that broom and J.D. and Danny slipped around the side of the house. Ginny looked at Becky gloomily and said, "You better do all the talkin'. I've been told I'm a terrible liar."

"Who told you that?"

"Tommy."

Becky rolled her eyes. "He just knows you too well. You're a fine liar, I'm sure."

Ginny wasn't sure that was a quality one ought to be complimented on.

The two girls, one fair with curly, red hair wrestled into two braids, the other tan with untamable, dark hair, both equally guilty-looking, continued walking, stoppng just before J.D.'s porch; J.D. appeared from around the back corner of the house and gave them the thumbs-up.

Ginny took a deep breath. "Here goes..."

They stepped up onto the porch and Becky tapped daintily on the door. A moment later it opened and Leslie greeted them with her characteristic friendly smile. Ginny already felt bad about lying to her.

"Mornin', ladies. How're y'all today?"

"We're fine, Leslie," Becky answered."You?"

"I can't complain."

"Glad to hear it. Is J.D. home?"

"He's supposed to be at the ball field...with y'all..."

"He never showed up," Ginny fibbed. "We just figured he overslept. But ya say he ain't here?"

"No, he isn't home."

Ginny and Becky exchanged puzzled looks. "Well that's strange," Becky observed. "Reckon where he could be?"

Leslie looked a little worried but deep in thought. "Ya know, yesterday was his birthday," she explained. "Our grandparents gave him some money and I'm sure it's just burnin' a hole in his pocket. He might've stopped at the store."

Behind Leslie, Ginny spied Danny and J.D. dart stealthily across the doorway that opened to the kitchen.

"You say he has money?" Becky asked, feigning surprise. She narrowed her eyes and looked at Ginny. "I bet I know where he is. I bet that fool's sittin' at the diner sippin' on a root beer float, while we're all out here sweatin' it tryin' to find him!"

"That's also possible," Leslie agreed.

"So we'll look there. And then the store if he ain't there," Ginny said. "Thanks for your help, Leslie."

They turned and started to descend the porch steps. "Um, could you..." Leslie began meekly.

Ginny looked over her shoulder. "Of course. We'll let ya know if we don't find him shortly. But I'm sure we will."

"Thanks."

They stepped off the porch and headed in the direction of the store. "Gosh dang!" Becky snapped once they were a few houses away. "That was horrble. She's so stinkin' nice and now we got her all worried."

Ginny was glad she wasn't the only one with a guilty conscience.

When they got to the end of the street Danny and J.D., heaving the huge sack of flour, emerged from around the side of the last house to join them in the return to the ball field.

The afternoon sun had prevented them from leaving the cool shade of the Montgomery's porch and now they all sat on its splintered wood floor playing poker. Andy was pretty good, they all knew, so the fact that Jack had won the last three hands had them pretty well convinced he was cheating. Feddy had just dealt the fourth hand and Kody was meticulously arranging his cards, attempting to keep Jack from stealing a peek because he knew that's what he was doing, when Andy muttered, "Three o'clock."

Leslie was walking toward the porch. They all looked up from their hands when she got to the bottom step.

"Afternoon," Andy greeted.

"Good afternoon. I'm so sorry to interrupt y'all's game, but would it be possible for me to borry some flour?"

Andy cast his eyes down. "No," he muttered, barely audible. "We ain't got none."

She laughed. "Well that's nothin' to be ashamed of. Obviously we ain't got any, either."

It made him smile a little.

"Kody does!" Jack crowed. "He's got flour at his house."

Kody looked at Jack, confused, but when Jack winked he caught on.

"Y'all live a good piece outside town, though, dontcha?" she asked, a trace of suspicion in her voice.

Kody jumped to his feet. "It's no trouble, really. 'S the least I could do for that nice handkerchief I annhilated."

She rolled her eyes. "That was nothin'. But if you leave to go home, it'll mess up the game."

He shrugged. "They can re- deal. 'Sides, Jack's cheatin' anyway."

Jack put his hand on his chest and his mouth dropped open. "My own flesh and blood..."

"Knock it off, Jack," Andy snapped. "We all know ya been cheatin'."

"Oh, a feller cain't hit a lucky streak?"

"Not that lucky," Freddy shot back.

Kody stepped off the porch, leaving the other three arguing amongst themselves. "I'll bring it by your house," he told Leslie as he passed.

"Wait!" she said, hustling to catch up to him and his brisk stride. "Least I can do is keep ya company for the walk. I am the one that come beggin'. If ya don't mind, that is."

He fought back the goofy grin threatening to overtake his face. "Don't mind one bit."

He slowed his pace, maybe so she could keep up, maybe so it would take longer. She explained that she'd had the chicken nearly cooked before she realized she didn't have any flour for dumplins, that she didn't suppose her mama and daddy would be too happy with just chicken and nothing when they got home. He nodded and agreed. She went on talking about the weather being so hot and other trivial things and he mostly listened, not because he didn't care about the subject matter; he just liked hearing her talk.

"So my brother tells me your mama went out of town and left you in charge."

"M'hm."

"She must really trust you."

"Never gave her any reason not to. I'm pretty boring."

She laughed. "I doubt boring is the best word."

"Oh, I assure you, it very much is."

"Must be so exciting to not really have to answer to anybody."

"Eh. I pretty much do what I would do if she was here. Like I said, boring."

She shook her head. "I think you're confusing boring with other words, like nice and trustworthy and responsible."

He looked down at his feet, hoping she hadn't seen him blush.

"For example," she went on, " I think it's really sweet of you to play ball with my brother and his friends like ya do. What happens at that ball field is pretty much all he talks about."

"It's just somethin' to do." He felt guilty knowing that this summer his involvement was only the result of blackmail.

"And it's nice that you do it. It really means a lot to those younger kids that you and Jack and Freddy and Andy go out there with them so they'll have a full team. It may just be a game to you, but talk to my little brother and you'll know it's a lot more than that to them."

He smiled sheepishly. Why argue? Let her think he was a saint.

She chattered on and he soaked up every word, speaking only when absolutely necessary. When they reached his house she noted the green truck sitting in the yard.

"Shame she didn't leave you the keys."

"She did. I just try not to drive it much 'cause it eats gas and gas costs money. And I'm tryin' to save up."

"Oh," she smiled. "Responsible."

She followed him onto the porch and he held the screen door for her. "I'll just stay out here. Don't think it'd be proper, nobody else home."

"Oh..."

"Oh no!" she spluttered. "I'm not suggestin' anything about you in particular. It's just..."

"No, no. Of course. I'll just be a minute." He shut the screen lightly, walked into the kitchen and squatted to pull the flour from its home in the bottom of the cupboard. He sat it on the counter and grabbed a coffee cup from the top shelf, thought, then put the cup back up, snatched the truck key off the table, and carried the half- full sack back outside.

"Oh goodness, I don't need that much!" she exclaimed.

"Well we don't need any of it. I can't cook and bless her heart, Ginny tries, but she can't either."

"Are you sure?"

He laughed. "I'm more than positive." He held up the key. "Can I give ya a ride back to town?"

The sun had already reddened her fair cheeks and wilted her bouncy, blonde hair, leaving strands matted to her forehead and the rest hanging limply down her back. "I don't mind walkin' back. Would prefer it, actually."

He figured she didn't want him to spend gas driving her home and he felt shamefully cheap for it, but he wasn't about to pass up the opportunity to listen to her a bit longer. He carried the flour sack back to town, purposely dragging his feet and absorng every word that poured forth from her pretty lips. She talked to him so easily, as though they'd known each other their whole lives. In a way, they had, but they really hadn't. Everybody knew everybody else in the little town, but they had never been friends or shared one another's company, only ever really speaking politely in passing.

As the company houses came into view, she started laughing at random.

"What is it?"

"Your ears must be bleeding I've been talkin' so much. Chatterin' on mindlessly like I have been."

"It hasn't been mindless at all."

She smiled. "You don't say a whole lot."

"I don't have a whole lot to say."

"I don't think that's true. I'm sure you have plenty of intelligent, observant things to say. I think you just choose not to because you prefer listenin', which, Mr. Passerella, is a particularly rare quality in the world today." She looked down at her feet, still smiling. "Though I think I'd like to hear those thoughts in that head of yours." She looked up just in time to catch him blushing.

He walked her up to her door and handed her the flour. "Thank you," she said. "For the flour, and goin' and gettin' it."

"Thank you for the company." He smiled that sheepish little smile. "And now, Miss Williams, I believe you have some dumplins to make."

He shoved his hands in his pockets and turned around, stepping off the porch and heading in the direction of his home. She stood at the door, flour sack in hand, watching the quiet, mysterious boy walk off until she realized she'd been standing there a bit too long and finally went inside.

12.

It couldn't have been a hotter, more humid day for a ball game Ginny was sure as she wiped the sweat from her brow. And the fact that it hadn't been an easy game wasn't helping matters; Cricket's gang was turning out to be a more formidable opponent than they had expected. She looked down the line at all the others and could tell they were just as worn out as she was.

She looked out to the field and appraised their handy-work from the previous day. Miss Fulchum had let them have the bases for the day after all so the stolen flour had just been used for lines, which were admittedly crooked but still managed to make the field appear less pathetic. Tommy's effort in sweeping up the coal dust had been in vain, though, because when they'd arrived that morning the field was once more covered, just like every other outdoor surface in town.

Now in the ninth inning they were ahead by two runs with two outs and no runners on base, and Freddy, who was certainly not among their strongest hitters, was up to bat. Cricket struck him out effortlessly. Ginny mentally groaned as she picked up her glove to head back out to the field and shook her head as she looked down at the beat-up right-handed glove. She could never understand Tommy's insistance that she play first. True, it was an ideal position for a lefty, but not one who threw right because she only had her brother's hand-me-down right handed glove.

The first batter, a big boy who Ginny believed was one of the Tates, hit the ball clear past the stakes Tommy had driven in the ground to mark the outfield fence boundary. Tommy's jaw tightened as the big boy trotted leisurly across home plate. The next to bat, a small boy with buck teeth, managed a single. Ginny had to turn her head to keep from laughing when he looked up at her and grinned with those big teeth. He was a nervous little thing, shifting his weight from foot to foot then jumping with each pitch. The next boy, however, was unable to advance him to second; Tommy struck him out.

Two strikes in on the next batter, the buck-toothed boy foolishly attempted to steal second. Tommy ducked out of the way just in time as Kody fired the ball to Andy who tagged the little guy out. As the defeated runner slumped off the field, Andy took his hand out of his glove and shook it, all the while shooting a disaproving glare at Kody.

The next guy hit a single and the next a double. Tommy looked to be sweating more than the rest of them and Ginny prayed he would strike Sam Green out when he stepped up to the plate. Sam was known more for his status as school-yard bully than for any particular athletic prowess so she felt confident the game was pretty much over. He swung wildly at the first pitch; strike. Tommy popped his neck and loosened his shoulders before the next pitch. Another wild, angry swing; another strike. Tommy took a deep breath and pitched what would certainly be the last pitch of the game. A split second after he released the ball, the bat cracked. Sam knocked a grounder between the mound and first, nearer to first. Ginny was taken by surprise and lunged for it, but moved too slow. Her glove grazed the ground just as the ball passed it and continued rolling into the outfield. Fortunately, Jack quickly retrieved it but not before the runner on third crossed home. He was close enough in to propel it home, but the next runner was fast. The ball landed in Kody's mitt a fraction of a second after he tagged home.

Ginny looked over at Tommy in the middle of the field, both hands atop his head. She knew the loss would be a hit to his ego, what ego he possessed, and she felt her cheeks flush with shame. She should have moved faster, should have got that last out, shouldn't have assumed anything. She had let her best friend down. Maybe that's what he got for letting girls play a boy's game.

Cricket's gang was cheering on the sidelines as they drug themselves off the field. Cricket jogged out to shake Tommy's hand for the well-played game and Tommy politely congratulated him. When they were all off the field, Jack complimented Tommy on his pitching. Tommy mumbled a half-hearted thank you.

"No, really. You pitched a good game. They were just really strong. Stronger than I expected, anyway."

Tommy nodded.

"So...same place tomorrow mornin'?"

"Nah. I think we could all use a break, if that's OK with y'all," Tommy mumbled some more.

They all let on like it was a good enough idea. J.D. and Becky went back out onto the field to gather up the bases to get them back to Miss Fulchum and Andy and Freddy started talking about going fishing for the rest of the afternoon, which seemed to sound like a pretty idea to Jack and Kody, too. Ginny had about as much to say as Danny. She moped about until Kody reminded her, "Hey, be home sorta early this evenin'. Mama's s'pose to call. You missed her last week."

"Yeah, OK."

"Alright then, see ya at the house."

"Yeah."

He wondered off to join Andy, Freddy, and Jack, leaving her with just Danny and Tommy. Tommy was standing with his arms crossed, obviously sulking, with Danny right beside him, awaiting the plan for the rest of the day. She bit her lip, not sure what, if anything, she ought to say, but the silence wasn't ending so she spoke what she felt.

"I'm sorry."

Tommy furrowed his brow. "What?"

"I'm sorry I missed that ball and lost the game."

"You didn't lose the game."

"Yes...I did."

"No. It coulda happened to any of us. You played hard. Everybody played hard and good today. Like Jack said, they were just really strong. There'll be other chances."

"You think they'll wanna play us again?"

"I don't think they'd pass up the chance to beat us again."

But she still wasn't convinced that he wasn't upset with her. How could he not be? "I think I'm just gonna go home for the day," she half whispered.

"Ya sure? I'm sure we could find somethin' to do."

"Yeah. It's awful hot and I'm pretty tired."

"Alrighty. See ya tomorrah."

"See y'all."

13.

Saturday morning Ginny went up onto the Montgomerys' porch and knocked on the door, but no one opened it. She knocked again and waited, but no one answered. It was quiet, a rarity at this house. She knocked a third time and waited for what seemed an unusually long time before she gave up. When she turned to step off the porch, she was startled to find J.D. standing by the bottom step.

"Dang it, J.D.! You 'bout scared the tar outta me! How long you been standin' there?"

"A minute. They ain't there, ya know. Not none of 'em."

"Coulda told me that 'stead of standin' there all creepy like."

"Sorry."

"Well, where are they?"

He hesitated. "When we got home yesterdy, the Priest was sittin' right where you're standin'."

"The Priest?"

"Yeah. I reckon the sheriff told him."

"Told him what?"

"Ginny, the reveneuers found their daddy's still yesterdy. They come for him."

It took her a minute to absorb what he'd said.

"So...they went to live with Rowdy and Becky's uncle?"

"Stayin' there 'til the county comes to take 'em off somewheres at least."

"What about Andy and Freddy?"

"Dunno. They asked the Priest but he didn't know."

"How horrible. They must be so shook up."

"Yeah. They didn't say much yesterdy, kinda like it come as a shock to 'em."

"I'd say so...Don't reckon they'd wanna do much today, huh?"

"Doubtful."

"But we should go check on 'em."

"Yeah. Should probly swing by Becky's on the way over."

They headed into town, uncharacteristically solemn. When they reached the store, they went around back and up the stairs that led to the Kelly's apartment and knocked on the door. The noise coming from inside was in stark contrast to the silence of the Montgomerys', with the usual chaos that Ginny always associated with Becky's home. Her weary mother answered the door, a dirty-faced toddler on her hip. Several other children of varying ages, most with red hair, were sitting at the kitchen table or running around the apartment; Becky was among the well-behaved ones at the table, attempting to quiet a squalling baby.

"Good mornin'," Mrs. Kelly practically sighed.

"Mornin', Miz Kelly," said Ginny. "Can Becky come out?"

"She hasn't done her chores yet. When she has, yes she can play."

"Thank you, ma'am."

Becky frowned and waved to them pathetically as the door shut. They turned and went back down the steps and headed toward the houses across from the school house. The light blue one where the priest lived sat further off the road than the abandoned gray house with the broken upstairs window. They followed the shaded gravel drive up to the screened front porch then argued over who should knock on the door. As they stood bickering, the front door opened. They froze, expecting the priest to emerge, but instead Danny walked across the porch and pushed open the screen door.

"Did ya hear us?" J.D. asked, surprised.

"No. Been watchin' the winda. Reckoned y'all 'ud show up."

They stepped up onto the porch about the time Tommy appeared in the doorway. They all stood awkwardly silent for the next few moments.

"So, um, is the Priest nice enough?" Ginny finally asked.

"Reckon so," Tommy replied. "He don't say a whole lot. Made us read from the Bible before bed last night and before breakfast this mornin', but didn't nobody else in town offer to take in a bootlegger's boys, even if only for a little while."

Ginny noticed they had had baths and were wearing clean clothes without holes. She couldn't remember having ever seen them so before.

"Heard from Andy or Freddy?" J.D. asked.

Tommy shook his head.

"I'm sure ya will," Ginny assured him.

"Maybe."

Another uncomfortable silence passed before J.D. asked, "So...are y'all allowed to play outside?"

"Rowdy gets to. Don't see why we wouldn't." Tommy disappeared back inside the house and returned a few minutes later with two baseball gloves, one of which he tossed to Danny as he flung open the screen door and made a B line for the dirt patch.

Kody fiddled with the treasures in his pocket like he always did when he was anxious. Maybe he should knock again. That first knock had been rather soft; Maybe she hadn't heard it. A curtain pulled back and he caught a glimpse of a blonde blur before it was quickly pulled to again. He held his breath for what seemed like an eternity until the door opened and Leslie stood there smiling up at him.

"Afternoon. Come to talk?"

He shook his head. "Come to listen." A crooked little grin appeared on his face. "But I'll talk, if that's what ya want."

Her smile widened. "Would ya like some sweet tea?"

"No, ma'am, but thank ye anyway."

"Well, OK then."

She stepped out onto the porch and lightly closed the door behind her, then plopped down on the top step. He seated himself on the step just below her.

"What did you come to listen to?"

Her voice, anything she had to say.

"Whatever you choose to speak of."

"I don't have much of importance to say."

"Hate to argue, but I disagree."

She blushed, making no attempt to hide it, and sat quietly for a moment, as if in thought.

"The dumplins turned out pretty good, if I do say so myself."

"Next time you'll have to save me some."

"I hope there's not a next time I come beggin' to borry flour."

"Well, I'll keep a sack in the cupboard, just in case. But next time you make chicken and dumplins..."

"I'll bring you some."

He smiled and they both looked down at their hands, trying to think of where to steer the conversation. Her eyes drifted to the house next door. "How are your friends? Have you talked to 'em since, well..."

"I hope they're alright."

"So you haven't talked to them."

"Yes and no."

She raised an eyebrow. "How so?"

He hesitated then took a deep breath. "Right after it happened, the sheriff come by the station, told Andy what'd happened and told 'im the county'd be comin' to pick up him and his brothers. If he wanted to see 'em, he'd best do it then 'cause when the county come, they'd all be split up."

He leaned foreward, resting his elbows on his knees, and stared down at his clasped hands. "Andy asked me would I take him and Freddy across the mountain to the bus depot. He reckoned they could go somewheres and get a job in a factory or somethin', since they ain't old enough to work in the mines. And figured they could always lie 'bout their ages elsewhere.'

"And so you did?"

"Couldn't say no."

"Where did they go?"

"I don't even know. I just dropped 'em off and wished 'em well."

"Ya know, Dr. Riley took in the two youngest boys."

"The priest?"

She nodded.

"Wow. He's runnin' a doctor's office, a mission, a boardin' house, and a home for orphaned boys outta that house, huh?"

"Guess so."

"Well it's good they got to stay together." He stared off into space. "I'd 'preciate if you didn't share with your brother or anybody 'bout Andy and Freddy. I don't want those boys to get a second- hand account; rather tell 'em myself."

She made like she was locking her lips and tossed the invisable key over her shoulder. She waited for him to say something else but he seemed to be finished talking.

"Ya know," she offered, "Awful as it sounds, that really was the best thing that ever happened to those boys. I'm sure you miss your friends and that's understandable, but they're so much better off now."

He was watching his hands again.

"The sounds that used to come outta that house..." she continued with a shudder, "Daddy went over there with the shot gun many a night. Seemed to be the only thing to make the hollerin' stop."

She thought for a moment before adding, "It'll be nice to have new neighbors."

He looked up from his hands to catch more movement in the window. "I think we have an audience," he whispered.

She rolled her eyes. "My mama is so dang nosey."

He laughed. "I reckon it comes with the territory. If we were on my porch, my mama'd be sittin' right out there with us."

"Oh, is she home now?"

"No. But if she was that's where she'd be. Me outside talking to another human being instead of inside readin' would be a red-letter day for her."

"It's OK to like books."

"Yes, but I tend to like books more than I like most people."

She laughed. "I woulda guessed that about you. But that's fine, too, understandable even. People can be ugly but books are right lovely. They take you places you'd never see and let you know people you'd never meet without ever having to leave your house. In case you couldn't tell, I'm a bit of a lover of good stories myself"

He shook his head. "I don't know why that surprises me."

"So what is it you're readin' in lieu of interactin' with other people?"

"Anything really. History, the news, biographies, philosophy, fiction, even pure non-sense fantasy. Whatever I can get my hands on. What about you?"

"I like poetry, all those beautiful words. And fiction. Funny how it's sometimes easier to love people and places that don't even exist than it is to love those that do- oh my goodness! You must think I'm horrible."

"Not even a little bit."

They talked at length about their love of good stories and he was surprised to learn she was not only well-read in literature but that she also had a pretty good grasp on the ugliness that pervaded their very non-fiction world. They talked and talked, stopping only on the occasions that they noticed the conspicuous crack in the curtains, and lost track of time. When the first groups of coal-dust covered men appeared in the street Kody said, "Reckon I oughtta be gettin' on home"

"Goodness, I didn't realize it was so late!" Leslie gasped.

He stood and dusted off the seat of his pants. "Miss Williams, it's been an absolute pleasure-"

"Daddy!"

He looked out to the street to see a small, filthy, hunched man approaching the house. Mr. Williams stepped up onto the same step where Kody stood and gave him a good looking-over.

"Daddy, this is my friend-" Leslie began.

"David Paserella's boy," he cur her off. "Couldn't be none other."

"Yes, sir," he affirmed.

The door opened and Mrs. Williams finally showed her whole face, not the half of it they'd seen all afternoon peeking through the curtains. "Helen!" Mr. Williams exclaimed. "Would ye look here? David Paserella's boy, uh-"

"Kody," he said quietly.

"Kody," Mr .Williams repeated, "All growed up." He shook his head in disbelief. "Law, just the spittin' image, I tell ya."

"I get that sometimes."

Mr. Williams put his black hand out and shook Kody's. "I knowed year daddy right well. He was a damn fine miner and good man. I's proud to know 'im."

"Thank you, sir."

About that time J.D. appeared, bounding up the porch steps behind his father. "You was almost late!" Mrs. Williams scolded him as he passed her and slid through the door. "Sorry, Mama," he mumbled as the screen door shut behind him. She watched him through the screen with narrowed eyes then seemed to snap back to her previous train of thought after a moment. "Won't ye stay fer supper?" she asked, smiling at Kody. The savory smell drifting out the door made his mouth water and having not eaten since the morning, his stomach was growling.

"Thank you, ma'am, but I cain't impose."

"Son, it ain't imposin' oncet ye been invited," Mr. Williams informed him.

Whatever was cooking smelled amazing; he'd be a fool to turn down a decent meal. He looked at the three of them, all wearing the most welcoming smiles, and accepted.

14.

Ginny hadn't seemed quite herself Sunday morning, didn't show much interest in the swing, just sat on the bank, staring out at the water. She didn't seem to be be plotting, just lost in thought, and it made Kody more uncomfortable than if she had been her usual, menacing self. He'd offered to fashion her a fishing pole with his extra line if she could find a good stick but she said she didn't much care for fishing. That was probably the most she said all day.

He got up and ready for work earlier than normal the next day, early enough to catch Ginny before she left the house. She still seemed off.

"You not gonna eat any breakfast?" he asked as he finished off a piece of buttered light bread.

"Not hungry."

"Alright, then. I'll give ya a ride into town, if ya want."

"OK."

A few minutes later they were backing out of the yard and onto the dirt road that led into town. Ginny was pensively staring out the window.

"You sure are thinkin' awful hard. Ain't still beatin' yourself up over that ball game, are ya?"

"No. Maybe a little."

"You played well. There wasn't anything you coulda done to change the way things played out."

She was beginning to believe the inability to tell a convincing lie was an inherited trait.

"I just wish...if we wouldn'tve lost, maybe Tommy and Danny might've had a less horrible weekend."

"Meh. I think their weekend was doomed from the start. How are they, Tommy and Danny?"

"They don't say much about anything but I'm pretty sure they're worried about Andy and Freddy. They ain't heard anything from 'em or even about 'em."

" 'S understandable but look, don't feel so bad for them. They're really better off now than they were. Doyle Montgomery is a mean, horrible, rough man, a hundred times worse than Ralph even. And you know what a bundle of fun he is."

"I know. But tell them that."

"Yeah, it's tough, but eventually they'll see it, too."

Ginny stared out the window and kept quiet until they arrived in town. "How come you're bein' so nice to me?" she asked accusingly, just as the store came into view.

"Do I have to have a reason to be nice?"

"Usually."

Kody pulled off the street and parked the truck in front of the store. He bit his lip while she glared at him.

"I gave you a ride into town today because I wanted you to go to the Priest's house with me. Thought it might go smoother if you were there since you're their friend."

"Thought what might go smoother?"

"I'm not sayin' it was right or wrong, them leavin' like they did or my role in it; it's just what happened and I think those boys have a right to know what little I can tell them." He related to her all about the sheriff tipping Andy off and his plan to get work elsewhere, and about providing them transportation to the bus depot. And before she could ask, he assured her he didn't know where they had gone or when, or even if, they would return.

"I don't think you should tell 'em," she said when he'd finished.

"You think you should? I didn't want them to hear it from somebody else but on second thought, I can see - "

"No," she interrupted. "I mean I don't think anybody should tell them. At all. What you just told me'll just give them more questions that nobody can answer."

"Hm. Didn't think about it like that...but it at least let's 'em know their brothers aren't in jail or dead or anything."

"No it doesn't. All it tells 'em for certain is that you took 'em to the bus station."

He stared quietly at the steering wheel, processing his thoughts, then started the truck, backed out into the street, and drove toward the priest's house. He turned down the long gravel drive and pulled right up to the screened porch but didn't kill the engine.

"You gonna go talk to 'em?" Ginny asked.

He sighed. "No. You made a good point. Guess you're right this time."

"Don't ya just hate when that happens?"

She got out of the truck and Tommy appeared on the porch just as she shut the door. He waved to Kody when he opened the screen door and Kody nodded before driving off.

"Mighty nice of your brother to drive ya to town."

"I know, wasn't it?"

They sat down in the two white rocking chairs on the porch to wait for the rest of the gang to arrive.

"Danny'll be out in a minute. It was his turn to wash up the dishes."

Ginny nodded. "How was church?"

He shrugged. "Hard to judge, seein' as we ain't ever been before. But it was alright, I reckon. There were snacks."

"Snacks?"

"Yeah. Father Riley was talkin' and next thing I knew we were eatin' crackers and wine."

Ginny laughed. "It's called the Lord's Supper, Tommy. They do that at my church, too, ever now and then."

"Really?"

"Really."

"Dang. I'da been goin' to church a long time ago if I'd known there was food involved."

"Kody, I'm tellin' ya, she was all over me like stink on shit!"

"How charming."

Jack had been recounting his Saturday night for the past ten minutes. Kody's attention to the tale came and went intermittently as he stood over the stove reheating the leftovers Aunt Betty had sent over and he wasn't quite sure who "she" was this week.

They both looked up when the front door opened and Ginny walked into the kitchen. "Is that food I smell?" she asked excitedly.

"Yep. Aunt Betty sent it and it outta be just about heated up."

She slid into the chair across from Jack to wait.

"Anyway, like I was sayin', we had a real good time," he said, tying up his story.

"Who?" Ginny asked.

"Me and my girl."

"Who's that?"

"Sally. Who else?"

"But I thought..."

"She just cain't stay away, I reckon."

Kody snorted.

"What's so funny?" Jack snapped.

"Nothin'. Pepper up my nose."

Jack narrowed his eyes. "Talked to Leslie Williams after Sundey School yesterdy. She said you had supper at her house th'other day."

"I heard that, too, Ginny added. "From J.D. How come?"

"I was already there and they asked me to stay."

Ginny thought a minute and wrinkled her nose. "You're not...Noooo..."

"What?"

"You? A girl? She seems so nice...what's wrong with her?"

Jack had turned his head to hide the smirk he couldn't wipe off his face. Kody's cheeks burned hot. "I just like talkin' to her, that's all," he said quietly.

"You're right, Ginny," Jack said once he regained his composure. "She's a very nice girl, and pretty, too. I don't get it either." He grinned at Kody. "So ya gonna take her out sommers?"

"Yeah, Fridey," he admitted, still clearly embarassed. "Goin' to the diner."

"The diner?" Jack scoffed. "Aw, no, man. You cain't take Miss Leslie to the diner."

"Why not?"

"You gotta take 'er some place nice."

"I asked if she wanted to go somewhere Fridey and she suggested the diner."

"Well, OK, if you say so. But Jeb Payne's havin' a daince in his barn that night..."

"Yes, Jack. Because that would ensure a second date."

15.

Jack and Kody had been working in the fields with Uncle Bill since before daylight and had finished early enough to reward themselves with a late dinner at the diner. They were still incredibly thirsty and both their glasses had been sitting empty for some time; apparently Peggy was taking one of her frequent smoke breaks. The bells on the door jingled and more sweaty, sunbaked customers entered and seated themselves.

"Hope they ain't thirsty," Kody mumbled.

"Knew I shoulda winked at Peggy when she brought out out the food," Jack said, staring outside with his head leaning on the plate-glass window.

They were too tired to talk so they just sat silently in the booth, Kody leaning on the table, his head in his hands, and Jack gazing thoughtlessly out the window.

"Oh," Jack suddenly uttered, sitting straight up in the booth. "Uh-oh."

Kody jerked his head around to look out the window at the scene behind him. There was a group of kids on the dirt patch and two of them were fighting.

"Oh no."

He slid out of the booth and ran out the door, Jack following closely behind.

"No, no, no, no, no," he mumbled as he ran for the dirt patch.

"Hit 'im harder, Ginny!" he heard the little red haired girl yell.

His sister, who had been rolling around in the dirt with her opponent when he first looked out the window, now had the boy, who was considerably bigger than her, pinned to the ground. She had her arm drawn back, ready to strike the next blow. Becky Kelly and J.D. Williams stood by cheering her on, near enough to see the action in detail but far enough away not to be pulled into the scuffle themselves.

"Ginny!" Kody shouted.

Too late. Her fist came down hard on the boy's face.

"Nice one!" J.D. commended.

The big boy threw her off him and got to his feet, but Ginny was on her feet just as fast. She ran at him and threw him back to the ground but before she could get another punch in Kody had pulled her off him. She struggled against him, trying to get back at the boy who didn't seem to mind Kody's presence in the least. He lunged at them with his arm drawn back but Jack caught his fist. He looked up at Jack, his broad shoulders towering over him, and released the tension in his arm. Jack let go of his fist and shoved him back, but the boy managed to keep on his feet.

Ginny was still trying to wiggle free of the hold Kody had on her but he managed to wrestle her arms behind her back and pin them there.

"Go home, all of ya," he commanded.

J.D. and Becky immediately obeyed and ran off, but the boy stood there heaving, staring at Ginny. She tried in vain to break free and get at him but Kody threw her over his shoulder so she couldn't see her provoker.

"Ya deaf?" he reiterated. "Get outta here."

This time the boy cracked his neck, turned, and walked off. Ginny still struggled against Kody as they headed back toward the diner.

"Put me down!"

"No."

"Put me down now!"

"Not 'til you settle down!"

She stopped squirming and after a minute he let her walk but held her tight by her upper arm. When they got back in front of the diner, he jerked the passenger door of the truck open and threw her in. "Don't bleed on the seats!" He slammed the door shut and stalked around to the other side and got in, slamming his door as well. Jack went back in the diner to pay for the half-eaten meal. They sat in the truck, both staring angrily straight ahead.

"What were you thinkin'?" he thundered.

She didn't say anything.

"Who was that?"

"Sam Green," she mumbled.

"What's yer problem with him?"

"Nothin'."

"You just punched him. Just because."

She crossed her arms and turned her head the other way.

"He needs to learn to keep his mouth shut."

"He needs to learn to keep -?" he spluttered. "You need to learn to act like a decent human being! What did Mama tell you about that?"

She stared out the passenger window. "Why should I be decent when he ain't?"

The bells on the diner's door jingled and Jack emerged. Ginny scooted over to accomodate him; Jack and Kody were a tighter squeeze than Mama and Kody. Once he was in Kody started the truck, backed up, and headed home. They rode out of town in silence.

"He was sayin' things about Tommy and Danny," Ginny finally admitted.

"And what concern is that of yer's?" Kody asked. " I didn't even see either of them around."

"That's just it. He was sayin' horrible, mean, awful things about them and their brothers and their daddy and their dead mama and they weren't even there to defend themselves."

"Where were they?"

"The Priest makes 'em eat supper. They weren't back yet."

Kody shook his head. "You can't do that. You can't just go around beatin' up whoever says anything about you and yours that you don't agree with."

" 'S not like I threw the first punch."

He slammed on the brakes. "He hit you first?" he and Jack repeated almost in perfect unison.

"Yeah...I wouldn't just tear into somebody so much bigger' n me."

"Jack?"

"What?"

"You watched the whole thing. Did he?"

"Hell if I know, things happened so fast. But if she says he did...Where does he live? Turn the truck around!"

"What? No!" Ginny insisted. "If any body's gonna finish 'im it's gonna be me!"

Kody rolled his eyes. "Nobody's gonna finish him." He pressed the gas again. "Gettin' whooped up on by a li'l ol' girl's bad enough."

When they got home he took his first good luck at Ginny. She was bleeding a little from a cut on her brow and she had a busted lip; he hadn't gotten a good look at that Sam character but he suspected he'd fared worse.

"Go clean yerself up," he said once they were inside. She headed right back outside to fill the galvanized tub on the back porch.

Jack watched her as she went out the back door. When he was sure she was out of earshot he said, " Ya know, I wouldn't mind havin' a friend like ol' Pit Viper there."

Kody shook his head as he plopped down on the couch. "I dunno what I'm gonna do with 'er."

" 'D you git a good look at that other kid's face?"

He shook his head. "No, I was too busy fightin' with her."

Jack grinned. "Man, she blacked his eye good!"

"Ugh." He buried his face in his hands. "And Mama's supppsed to call this evenin'."

"I still say that kid needs to be taught a lesson, hittin' a girl like that. We oughta go stomp his- "

"No, Jack."

Two long rings and a short one, that was their ring on the party line. Kody answered the phone and Ginny stepped outside as soon as he established it was Mama on the other end. She sat down on the front step to listen to the katydids instead of the retelling of the day's events.

Mama had insisted on calling to check in once a week instead of just writing probably because she could hear guilt and failed attempts at lieing in their voices, whereas she couldn't on paper. Those long distance calls weren't cheap though; Kody would have to compress the details. It wasn't long before he called for her and she dragged back inside to accept her fate. He handed her the receiver and walked into the kitchen.

The conversation was virtually the same as it had been the week before: Mama missed them, Granny wasn't doing any better or worse, Uncle Kent was putting in a lot of hours at work, Adam was remarkably helpful. Ralph had stopped by for a visit as he passed through, they could expect him to be home in the next few days. Kody had told her about Doyle Montgomery; it was bound to happen sooner or later, and that priest must be a nice fella for taking in Tommy and Danny like he had. But not a word about her fist-fight.

Mama said she supposed they'd talked long enough and Ginny hated to hang up because hearing her voice was so comforting, but she did. She walked into the kitchen where Kody was reading the newspaper at the table.

"Did you say anything to Mama about, ya know, today?"

He didn't look up from the paper. "Nope. Reckoned if you thought she should know, you'd tell 'er. Did you?"

"No."

"Didn't much expect you would. Probably for the best, too. Everbody in town don't need to know our business and them Easterly sisters ain't got nothin' better to do than listen in on other folks' phone calls and gossip."

16.

Ginny and her friends walked along the railroad tracks with no destination in mind at all. They did this sometimes. It was an easy enough game- set out walking, following the tracks, and see how far you get before you get tired and have to turn back. It was a great way to kill time when they were all burned out on baseball and swimming. J.D. and Becky were giving Tommy and Danny the play-by-play of Ginny's altercation the day before.

"I seen him after. I didn't go home," J.D. said. "He's gonna be sportin' that shiner for a while."

"He had it comin'," Becky added. "Good for Ginny."

Ginny wasn't quite as proud of herself as her friends were; she kept trying to change the subject, which Tommy picked up on.

"Got some good news this mornin'," he announced.

"You heard from your brothers?" J.D. guessed.

"No...not that. Actually, we fount out we ain't gotta go away anytime soon. Father Riley must have some connections or somethin'. We can stay there as long as we need; nobody from the county's gonna come out and take us away."

"That's fantastic news!" Ginny chirped. J.D. and Becky agreed and they were able to steer conversation away from Sam Green's black eye for the rest of the day. In the evening, when they were all tired and hot and hungry because they hadn't breaked to eat, they turned around and followed the tracks back toward town. When they got there, J.D. and Becky went straight home, while Ginny lingered on the priest's porch, talking to Tommy and Danny.

"Thank you," Tommy whispered. "For, you know."

"Don't mention it. Like Becky said, he had it comin'."

"Next time..."

She laughed. "I doubt there'll be a next time. I don't think he'll mess with any of us again and I don't think I'll be gettin' into any more fights. For any reason."

"Good. But I was gonna say next time, save it and let us have at him. Don't go gettin' yourself hurt or in trouble for our sake."

"Deal."

The porch light lit up at Leslie's house before Kody had even shut off the engine. He had her home well before the curfew they'd been given but he imagined her nosey mother had been sitting by the window since he picked her up, waiting for the first hint of the return of his noisy truck engine. Leslie shook her head. "If ya don't wanna walk me to the door, I wouldn't blame you."

"I don't mind talkin' to your parents."

"I think I mind you talkin' to my parents."

"They can't possibly embarass you more than my mama would me if she was here...Heck, my whole family seems to have a certain knack for embarassin' me."

"Oh, come now. They mean well."

"And so do your folks."

"I spose so." She looked up to watch the activity of the curtains, fully expecting the front door to open at any moment and her daddy to be standing there with a shotgun. "Speakin' of your family, did you know there was a barn dance tonight?" she asked.

He chuckled.

"What's funny?"

"Speakin' of my family... yeah I heard, obviously from the same source as you."

"I've heard Jack can really cut a rug."

"He can indeed."

"I'd like to see that sometime...he says you're quite the dancer, too."

"Does he, now?"

"Yep, told me so Sundey."

He said something under his breath that she couldn't quite make out but was pretty sure it included the word murder. Then he laughed and shook his head. "Oh, Jack, Jack, Jack."

"What is it?"

"You know why his eyes're brown, dontcha?"

She thought for a moment. "Because...your aunt and uncle both have brown eyes?"

"No. It's 'cause he's full of shit, that's why. I cain't dance."

She laughed. "Well that's fine, too, 'cause neither can I so far as I know."

"So far as ya know?"

"I've never actually tried. As I'm sure you've noticed, my mama and daddy are a bit...old fashioned. They think dancin's sinful."

"Then it's probably best we didn't go dancin' tonight, seein' as I can't and you ain't allowed, don't ya think?"

"I guess so," she sighed. "Had a nice time anyway, though. Thank you for supper."

"Thank you for the company."

She smiled and looked down at her hands folded in her lap as she tried to think of more to say to make their time together last a little longer. Just then, he leaned over, gave her a peck on the cheek, then quickly sat back up and looked out the driver's side window, like nothing had happened.

She was about to say something when the front door opened and J.D. stood in the doorway. She groaned. "I cain't believe they'd stoop to sendin' out my little brother. I should go. Goodnight."

He didn't want her to get out of the truck because he wanted longer with her, but he didn't put up a fight because the night had gone well - he hadn't even spilled his Coke on her at the diner like he'd feared he would. He wasn't quite sure how she'd taken his pathetic kiss and he assumed the longer they were together the more likely something would go wrong.

"Goodnight."

He waited until she was inside, the door was shut, and the porch light turned off before he started the truck and drove off.

Later that night Leslie lay in her bed with the lamp on. She had a book of Tennyson's poetry open but she wasn't reading it; she knew those poems all by heart anyway, just as well as she knew King David's psalms. Her mind was instead on that odd, swarthy boy she'd known all her life yet never really known at all, whose company she so enjoyed.

The boys who had courted her (or had tried) all made it a point to tell her how pretty she was, all except him. She wondered if he just didn't think she was attractive, but then she decided she didn't much care whether he did or didn't because he made her feel smart and significant and she found that she rather liked feeling that way.

Ping.

Something hit her bedroom window, or so she thought.

Ping.

It happened again and the noise was surely coming from the window. How convenient it was so late at night and she was the only person in her house awake to hear it.

Ping ping...ping.

Now that was deliberate. She kicked off the blanket and laid the book on the bedside table, snatched her robe off the post at the head of her bed and slipped it on then got up and walked over to the window. She pulled back the curtain and noticed the limbs of the crabapple tree outside her window were moving an awful lot for a relatively calm night.

Ping.

She threw open the window angrily but her mood changed imediately when she caught the glint her lamp light cast off his wide grin.

"What are you doing?" she whispered. "Are you crazy?"

Kody was balancing precariously on one of the crabapple tree's flimsy limbs, chucking the little fruits at her window.

"I wanna show you somethin'. Can you come out?"

She looked over her shoulder like someone was about to walk in her room, though she knew good and well her whole family was asleep; she could hear her daddy and J.D. snoring from where she stood.

"What do you wanna show me at this hour?"

"Don't you trust me?"

"Yes, but- why the tree?" she giggled. "Why are you in the tree?"

"Figured you could crawl out the winda on this tree, reckoned you might need some help."

"How very thoughtful."

He grinned again then caught himself, wide eyed, as he nearly lost his balance.

"So are ya comin' out or not?"

"OK, give me a minute. I gotta get dressed." She shut the curtain but yanked it right back open. "You git outta that tree 'fore you git hurt!"

"I'll be fine."

She shut the curtain again, took off her robe and was about to change out of her nightgown when she heard a violent rustling of leaves and a thud. She threw her robe back on and rushed to the window. The tree was no longer occupied. She looked down and was barely able to make out his shape, lying face-up on the ground.

"Oh my goodness! Are you OK?"

It had at the very least knocked the wind out of him because it seemed like an awfully long time before he insisted he was fine.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, just get dressed."

When she had changed back into the clothes she had worn to the diner and slipped her shoes on, she returned to the window and pulled back the curtain.

"Are ya ready?" he whispered.

"Yes. Now, how do you suggest I navigate this tree?"

"Forget the tree. The tree was a bad idea. Just jump and I'll catch you."

"That doesn't sound like a much better idea. Maybe I should just try to sneak out the back door."

"No, it'll be alright. I'm a good catch. I play catcher, ya know."

"Its not that. I just don't wanna hurt you."

"You won't hurt me! You can't possibly weigh much of anything."

"Don't take offence, but you're not very big yourself."

"I'm stouter than I look!

It wasn't a far drop from the first story window but it was high enough to sprain a joint or two on landing. She hesitated but she had said she trusted him, after all, so she crawled out the window, cinched her skirt, drew in a deep breath, and jumped, landing easily in his arms.

"See. Told ya I was a good catch."

He set her down and took her by the hand. "Come on. We've got a li'l ways to go and not much time to get there."

He led her away from the company houses and away from the paved streets out to the long, dirt road that led out to the holler where he lived. As they hustled along, he pulled an ancient time piece out of his pocket and looked at it, then put it back in his pocket.

"Will we make it?" she asked.

"Dunno. That one's broken."

He let go of her hand to dig in his other pocket, eventually retrieving another ancient pocket watch. He glanced at it, returned it to his pocket, then took her hand once more. "We'll need to take a short cut."

Before she knew it he had darted of the road and they were rushing through the woods. The moon was nearly full but the thick tree canopy made it so dark she could hardly see where she was going; he, however, seemed to know these woods well and for that she was grateful. He grasped her hand more tightly and said, "Try not to let go of my hand. There's some pretty steep drop-offs through here."

Briars and various bushes scratched at her legs and she prayed they wouldn't leave marks her parents could see. She had always been a good girl and she couldn't for the life of her fathom why she was doing this, nor why she didn't feel the least little bit bad about it. She supposed part of her should be worried that this boy was dragging her out to the middle of the woods so late at night with no one else around, but his warm hand in hers and that wide grin she saw each time he turned to look back at her assuaged every doubt. Expectation made every undulating step more exhilerating than the last with whatever it was he wanted to show her growing ever closer.

After a while, the moonlight revealed what she thought was a clearing up ahead and he slowed his pace. "Almost there."

"And what will be there when we get to it?"

"You'll see."

When they reached what she had thought was merely a clearing in the trees she found that they had in fact come upon the river. She noticed his truck parked at the end of a rough path she guessed led back to that dirt road they'd been on earlier. Nearby, a railroad bridge traversing the calm river passed overhead, the whole scene illuminated by the moon and the starry sky on the clear night. She looked up at him, puzzled. His lips curled into a half-smile.

"When I was a little boy, Mama always made me be in by dark. But once in a while my daddy would bring me out here, late at night just like it is now, and we'd sit on that riverbank and wait and I'd be so excited I could hardly contain myself."

He pulled the working time-piece from his pocket and inspected it. She waited patiently for him to continue.

"It's been so very, very long since I've been here, but if memory serves me right..."

He raised one finger as if to say wait for it, and looked off into the woods, in the direction of the low rumbling she was just beginning to hear.

"She oughtta be comin' through right about...now!"

The rumbling grew louder and louder until she could identify the distinct sound of a train moving along its tracks. As it got closer she could faintly make out a light shining through the trees, growing ever brighter as it approached. The rumbling soon became so loud they couldn't hear each other without raising their voices.

"You might wanna cover your ears!" he yelled.

"Huh?"

Just then the horn blew, filling the night with its long, low moan. She jerked her hands to her ears and gritted her teeth as the whole clearing lit up like day, set aglow by the engine's brilliant head lamp. She gasped in awe while he simply stood smiling, lost in the moment or maybe in some other moment of which she wasn't a part.

The light revealed the reflections cast on the water; the moon and stars, the trees, the bridge, and the train all appeared in the ghostly parallel world that was gone in a matter of seconds. Once the engine was over the bridge, the riverbank and the water fell comparitavely dark, lit only by the stars and moonlight. The train cars crossing the bridge continued to make talking an imposibility. He walked over to the truck, let down the tailgate, and hopped up in the bed, patting the spot beside him for her to join him. She obliged and they watched the train cars pass over the river without so much as a word.

When the last car had crossed the bridge, he said, "Well, it sure was somethin' when I was a li'l boy, at least."

"Thank you for sharin' it with me. It really was quite spectacular."

He stared down for a minute, debating whether he should say what he was thinking or not. When he'd decided, he said, still hesitantly, "I really hope I don't get you in trouble for bein' out so late. It's just that I want to know everything about you and there're only so many hours in the day."

"What is it you want to know?"

"Well...I got to thinkin' after I dropped you off tonight. You said you probably couldn't dance, but then you'd never tried."

"That's right."

"I just wondered if that was the case or not."

"I'm not sure I follow."

"And I said a li'l bit ago that I wanted to show ya somethin'."

"The train wasn't all?"

He hopped off the tailgate. "I wanted to know if you were a good dancer, and to show you that I truly am not." He held out his hand. "Will you dance with me?"

She laughed nervously. "But there isn't any music."

He put his finger to his lips. "Shh...don't ya hear that?"

She listened to the train, now off in the distance, and the sound of the katydids chirping and the bullfrogs croaking. "Ya know, I think I do." She scooted off the tailgate and placed one hand in his and the other around his shoulder. "Is this right?"

"Yes, good guess."

"So now what do we do?"

"You follow my lead, but remember, I can't dance."

"That sounds easy enough."

He lead her in a sort of awkward waltz to the symphony of the train, the katydids, and the frogs. He had never been this close to her, close enough to smell her soft hair and feel the warmth of her body. When she looked up at him he took in every detail of her deep, dark eyes and decided that the smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks in the moonlight were perfectly lovely. She laid her head on his chest as they gently rocked side to side.

"Kody?"

"Mmhm?"

"How come you never tell me I'm pretty?"

He stopped dancing or rocking or whatever it was he was doing and looked her square in the eye, disturbed. "I'm so sorry. I had no idea you didn't already know you're beautiful."

The honesty in his voice took her by surprise. She felt like she should say something but she didn't really know how to respond to that answer.

"But I guess it wouldn't hurt to remind you from time to time," he added with that half smile she was beginning to adore.

When they decided mutually that he had stepped on her feet enough for one night, they hopped back up in the truck bed to watch the twinkling stars and lightning bugs. She laid her head on his shoulder and sighed contentedly.

17.

Leslie blinked awake as the robins began singing their morning song. She sat up and rubbed her eyes, then gasped. The first light of the day was beginning to brighten the night sky. Kody was sleeping so peacefully she hated to wake him, but she had to get home quickly.

"Kody, wake up."

"Mm?"

"I need you to wake up."

"Mm why?"

"We fell asleep and my parents'll be gettin' up soon. I need to get home."

His eyes flew open and he sat shot up. "Fell asleep? I can't believe I did that!"

He got to his feet, jumped off the truck bed, and helped her down, as if he'd never been asleep at all. "Let's get you home." They got in the truck and sped up the rough path and back onto the dirt road. An old farmer was taking a mule- drawn wagon loaded with watermelons into town to sell, moving at a snail's pace and tying up the road. Kody jerked the wheel and passed the wagon in the grass, then stomped the gas.

"Easy now," said Leslie. "Don't want folks to think we're out runnin' shine on a Saturdey mornin'."

"Well, your folks seem to like me but somethin' tells me findin' your bed empty 'cause ya been out all night with me might change that."

"Probably so."

When he came to the company houses, he parked the noisy truck at the end of the street and they jumped out and ran for hers. They darted around the side of the house and came to a stop below the opened bedroom window. The sprint left them panting and they laughed quietly at the ridiculousness of the situation as they tried to catch their breath.

"OK," he said once he'd caught his. "Up ya go."

He lifted her up off the ground to reach the window and she leaned down to whisper in his ear. "Ya know, Jack may well stretch the truth a bit from time to time, but for the record, I happen to think you're a fine dancer."

He smiled. "See ya later?"

"See ya later."

She reached up and got hold of the ledge and pulled herself into the window, stepping as lightly as possible onto the creaky wood floor. Once inside, she pulled back the curtain and saw him making a run for his truck.

Jack and Ginny had been sitting at the kitchen table when Kody came dragging in. When he'd been an hour late to help Jack and Uncle Bill bale hay, Jack had come to the house looking for him, expecting he'd simply overslept. But when he got there, he found only Ginny, who hadn't waited up and therefore had no idea he wasn't home until Jack woke her. Jack had tried to pry details about his night out of him but he had managed to brush him off. He'd had a hard time looking at either of them, felt like they were picking him apart, scrutinizing him, making up their own stories as to where he had been.

Now late into the hot afternoon, Jack and Kody sat on Aunt Betty and Uncle Bill's back porch, drinking ice cold sweet tea on a break from working. Ginny and Aunt Betty had gone in to fix supper and Uncle Bill was enjoying his pipe somewhere.

"So lemme get this straight," Jack was saying. "You took her to the crummy 'ol diner that cain't even serve up a decent hamburger, snuck her out and kept her out all night but didn't even do nothin', didn't even kiss the girl-"

"I kissed her. Kinda."

Jack shook his head. "Nah, son. Stealin' a li'l sugar on the cheek while she ain't lookin' does not count as a bonafide kiss."

He shook his head again. "I just don't get it."

"Don't get what?"

"It's like you're doin' everything wrong and she still wants to see ya. Don't make no sense." He thought for a minute then wrinkled his face in disgust.

"What is it?"

"Maybe I should be takin' datin' advice from you."

18.

Ginny stared at her reflection in Mama's vanity mirror. She didn't look any different than she had the day before, when she was only eleven. She decided she envied lighter-skinned girls like Becky, whose skin flushed when out in the sun; despite having scrubbed up well "for church", the long hours of sun on her already dark face left it looking perpetually dirty. She ran her fingers through her unmanagable hair in an attempt to get it to lay down but it still looked like she had lost a bet and been forced to let a five-year-old cut it. The little yellow dress she wore to church fit her the same as it had the week before. Nothing was any different.

"Ginny, let's go," Kody called from the front room. She slipped on her shoes and ran out to the truck, where Kody was already waiting. It was raining; it would rain on her birthday. She stared out the window at the soggy little town as they headed toward the mountain. It didn't look any different to her, either. The rain only seemed to be getting heavier and she didn't see how Kody actually thought he was going to get any fishing in, but she supposed they had to go somewhere to hide the fact that they weren't at church and that fishing hole out on the mountain was probably as good a place as any.

When they finally reached the spot, he parked the truck and shut off the engine. She prayed the rain would stop because she was sure she couldn't take being shut up in that truck cab with her brother for two hours. His lack of conversation had a tendency to make any situation awkward, even though it was precisely what she expected of him. After several minutes of mutual window-gazing, he leaned forward and pulled a package wrapped in the funnie papers from under the seat. He sat it on the seat and pushed it toward her.

"Happy birthday."

"You remembered."

" 'Course."

She picked up and examined the package. She hadn't expected any gifts today with Mama gone so she wanted to savor it as long as possible. "What is it?" she asked.

"Somethin' I think you need."

"A comb?"

"Nope."

"A cookbook?"

"No, but now that ya mention it, I sorta regret that it isn't."

She looked at the package some more.

"Well go ahead and open it!

She smirked and then meticulously removed the paper to reveal two bound books. The top, smaller book was a copy of Lewis Carol's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The bottom book was not really a book at all, just blank pages with binding, a pad of paper.

"A children's book, and an empty one? Do you know how old I am today?"

"You're twelve."

She flipped through the pages of the top book; there were illustrations.

"This book has pictures."

"And?"

"Don't you think I'm too old for that?"

"I said I thought you needed it."

She smirked again, tried to read his face, then laid down the book.

"What about this one?" she asked, holding up the pad of paper.

"What about it?"

"What am I supposed to do with it?"

"Whatever you want."

She flipped through the pages; the look on her face conveyed that she surely had plans for this one.

"Thanks."

"You're welcome."

He leaned his head back against the seat and watched the rain, which was showing no sign of letting up any time soon. Ginny likewise stared out the passenger window, but not for long. Her hands soon crept back to the books lying on the truck seat. She flipped through the pages of Alice and examined the many illustrations and noted the titles of the chapters typed across the top of the page. This book clearly included animals who talked and wore clothes, which she knew was utter non-sense. She couldn't for the life of her imagine why Kody thought she, who was supposed to be becoming a young lady, would benefit from this book of seeming madness. Maybe it was the cheapest book he could find. No matter the rationale, it was the first book she had ever owned aside from her access to the family Bible.

She laid down the novel and picked up the blank pad of paper. There was much she could do with this one. She no longer would have to scrounge for paper when she wanted to draw, for one thing. Maybe she would keep a diary of her life in it. No, that could be too incriminating. She would use this pad for drawing stuff. Her fingers moved almost uncontrollably over those blank pages; she couldn't wait to have a pen or pencil in them to fill all that empty space.

The rain never let up so Kody didn't get any fishing in. When it was time for church to be over, he started the truck and pulled back up onto the mountain road to head to Aunt Betty and Uncle Bill's house. Once in a while he glanced out the corner of his eye at Ginny, and every time she was looking through the pages of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. She was so absorbed in it that it came as a surprise to her when they pulled up in front of the old farmhouse where their aunt and uncle lived.

"You should probably leave those in the truck," Kody said, gesturing at the books.

She nodded and laid them in the seat before getting out and shutting the heavy truck door behind her. They ran through the rain, splashing in mud puddles all the way to the back door. The door was already open when they reached it; they slipped off their muddy shoe and let themselves in. The house smelled of pork chops and cinnamon and cloves.

"Y'all 'bout missed dinner," Aunt Betty announced as she put a plate of fried potatoes on the table.

"Sorry, Aint Betty. That rain slowed us up a bit," said Kody.

"I 'spected it might. Y'all go on and take a seat."

After dinner, and once small talk about how much the crops had needed this rain had been had, Aunt Betty brought the most beautiful, tall, apple stack cake to the table. Ginny hadn't even noticed it sitting on the counter.

"Happy birthday, young'un!" Uncle Bill exclaimed.

They had remembered, too. Ginny quite nearly blushed as she thanked them while Aunt Betty cut the cake.

"Don't seem like you should be this old already," she said. "Seems like you should still be a li'l baby."

After coffee and that wonderful cake and an hour or so of Aunt Betty and Uncle Bill spouting stories about the day Ginny was born and things that had happened when she was very little, she thanked them and she and Kody headed home. When they got there, Ralph's rig was parked in the yard. Great, we thought. So much for a decent birthday.

But to her surprise he was sleeping and would continue doing so for much of the day. She grabbed the first pencil she could find and began filling the blank space on the first page of the pad of paper

19.

"Ginny, guess what!" Tommy exclaimed when she met the rest of them at the dirt patch the next morning.

"What?"

"Rowdy'll be home next Tuesdey!"

"That's great."

"Figured you'd be a li'l more excited."

"I would be. If I wasn't goin' to Cleveland next Mondey."

She missed her mother terribly and had been glad to hear her voice on her birthday, but the news Mama had delivered hadn't set well with her. Mama missed them, too, and felt like she'd already been gone too long. The doctor said it was hard to tell with these things; it could be weeks, it could be months, and Uncle Kent couldn't afford to miss work to care for Granny. Mama wanted them to come to Cleveland, despite the cramped living conditions, so she could get them registered in school, should Granny make it the rest of the summer.

Mama supposed a week was adequate notice for Kody's job since she saw no need for him not to stay on good terms with Mr. Grant. Ralph would stick around until then and next Monday they would follow him in Lilly to Cleveland, then he would continue on his route. The fact that they would, ultimately, be returning home would have been comforting except that returning home required her grandmother's death. She would much rather just stay here and play baseball with her friends than go join her family's death watch hundreds of miles away.

Tommy bit his lip. "Goin' for good?"

"No, just 'til, ya know."

He nodded and thought for a minute. A weak smile crept across his face.

"Well, then. That gives us a whole week."

He was doing it again. Jack was talking to himself. Or to someone nobody else could see. Or to the voices inside his head. Kody could never really be sure but he smiled wistfully to himself as he sat there at the kitchen table pretending to ignore it. The conversations Jack had in his presence but not with him never made any sense but the twisted voice in his own head told him he was going to miss them.

Ginny was back in the bedroom packing her clothes; she had put it off until the very last minute in hopes that Mama would change her mind. Turned out, a whole week was not a very long time at all when approaching something you dreaded.

Jack's one-sided conversation ended abruptly when Ralph yelled from the front room, "Git the lead out, girl! We gotta git movin'."

"Y'all gotta stop somewhere to pick up his load?" Jack asked. It took Kody a minute to realize he was talking to him now.

"Yeah. I forget where he said, though."

"Talk to Leslie?"

"Yeah."

For once, Jack didn't pry. Kody had spent nearly every afternoon that week on her front porch, talking, listening; but she had seemed rather put off when he declined to join her and her family at the tent revival. When he headed back to the holler Saturday, he'd felt like he should part with some wildly passionate goodbye kiss, but he hadn't. She would probably never talk to him again.

Ginny emerged from the bedroom toting a box filled with her belongings. "OK," she mumbled. "I'm ready."

"Leavin'!" Ralph barked.

Kody and Jack hesitantly got up from the table and headed toward the door. "Lemme git that, kid," Jack said, taking Ginny's box from her. He carried it outside and loaded it in the back of Lilly along with Kody's things and the extra blankets Mama had asked them to bring.

"Don't git separated from me," Ralph called, already halfway in his truck. "But don't foller too close neither."

"Yessir," said Kody. He got in the truck with Ginny, who was already there, sulking.

"Y'all be careful," said Jack. He smacked the hood of the truck as he walked off to stand at the foot of the front steps. Ralph was already pulling out of the yard into the road. Jack threw up a hand and Kody and Ginny waved back as Kody backed the truck up and pulled out.

Ginny watched in the sideview mirror, through the dirt the truck kicked up off the road, as her big, goofy cousin, standing in front of her house with his hands in the pockets of his dirty overalls, got smaller and smaller. She gazed out the window as they drove through the dirty little town and then across the mountain on that bumpy road. She took in the green valleys and hills, and the mountains, the tops of which were still enveloped in that smokey, morning fog. It was beautiful, really. She'd seen it all with her eyes before but had never really bothered to appreciate any of it. Surely, when God looked down at it, he prided himself in his artistic ability because it had to be among his finest creations.

"Kody?" she asked, still looking out the window.

"Yeah?"

"How come you don't believe in God?"

She wasn't sure where it came from, she just sort of blurted it out without even thinking. Maybe it was because she couldn't see, with all this beauty around, how he couldn't believe in something bigger; maybe it was because she'd wanted to ask for a long time but had been afraid his answer might make too much sense, until now; or maybe she just wanted to learn that her suspicions were wrong.

"What?"

But she knew he'd heard her. No need to repeat herself.

"Who said I don't believe in God?" He was clearly taken off guard.

She turned her head away from the window and looked at him questioningly. "Well, do you?"

He hesitated. She could tell he was trying to carefully formulate an answer, and also that she'd made him terribly uncomfortable.

"I...I...don't really know what I believe. Why do you ask? What does it matter?"

"I just wonder. Ya know, we didn't go to church even once while Mama was gone and there was never any conversation about it. I just knew when she was away, we weren't goin'. And when she's home and we do go, you never sing the hymns or even bow your head to pray. And you used to read the Bible all the time, but ya never do anymore."

He sighed and thought some more, and she waited.

"You're right. I have read the Bible. A lot. And the more I read it, the more I take notice of things that just don't add up and I can't ignore 'em. It's more questions than answers."

"Like what?"

"Ugh. Dang it, Ginny, I ain't a philosopher."

She continued looking at him, that same questioning expression on her face, making him more uncomfortable.

"Well, at the very least, I cain't see how this loving, forgiving creator lets bad things happen to good people. And I have a hard time believin' in somethin' I cain't see or hear or even feel just because some really old book tells me I should."

She nodded. "Fair enough."

"You didn't put up much of a fight about not goin' to church yourself."

"I just hate havin' to sit in one place for so long when there's funner things to be doin'. And I don't much care for that new preacher. Always cryin' and carryin' on."

He laughed. "He does cry entirely too much."

"But I dunno," she went on, looking out the window. "Seems awful nice to've all just happened by chance."

"It is nice," he agreed, surveying the landscape they would soon be leaving behind. He looked across the truck seat at his sister gazing out the window, the wind doing her hair no more harm than nature already had.

"Hey," he said.

"Hm?"

"This conversation, it never happened, OK?"

"Of course. It would kill Mama."

"Yeah." He thought for a minute and furrowed his brow. "Ya know, speakin' of not tellin' Mama, we've talked to her several times this week and not once has she mentioned me not comin' home that one night."

Ginny shrugged. "Figured I owed ya one. 'Sides, you know how them Easterly sisters are."

Part II

1.

Adam sat on the bed watching as his uncle finished packing his duffle bag, 11fully dressed in his fatigues. His division had been activated and he was leaving this morning for Camp Shelby.

"Chin up," said Uncle Kent. "I'll be back before ya know it."

Adam smiled, for his sake. He had come to like his Aunt Susan and having his cousins around had been interesting, at the very least, despite the cramped living arrangement; but all he had ever known was Uncle Kent and Granny, and honestly, Granny wasn't really there anymore.

His cousin appeared in the doorway. "Breakfast is ready," she said, almost hesitantly, like she was afraid she was interrupting something.

Uncle Kent smiled. "Thank you, Ginny." He turned to Adam. "Get on in there. Tell Suz I'll be there in a minute."

"Yes, sir."

He got to his feet, assisted by his crutches, and went to the kitchen. His aunt was just sitting down to the table with his cousins. "Mornin', Sweetie," she greeted.

"Good morning."

"Kody, put that newspaper away long enough for us to eat breakfast."

"Yes ma'am." He folded the paper and slipped it under his plate.

Adam took the seat next to Ginny. Aunt Susan was watching his every move, every expression, reading him. She reached across the little kitchen table and put her hand on his.

"He'll be just fine." She smiled a weak smile that he could tell even she didn't really believe.

He returned the fake smile. "I know. He's tough."

She seemed convinced enough and withdrew her hand.

"But I don't get it," he lamented. "We're not even at war."

Kody rattled the corner of his newspaper. "We will be, soon enough."

Aunt Susan shot him a threatening look. "Where is Kent, anyway?"

"Still packing," Adam answered. "Said he'd be a minute."

Her jaw tightened. "Packin' can wait. He needs to get in here and eat his food while it's hot." She got up from the table and left the kitchen, smacking the back of Kody's head as she passed.

"I should probably be keeping up with all that stuff," Adam admitted after she'd left the room.

Kody was rubbing the back of his head. "Ya know, I'm no expert or anything. I just...it seems...from what I read..."

"Quite the ray of sunshine, ain't he?" said Ginny.

Adam couldn't help but laugh. She had become rather attached to Uncle Kent since she arrived in Cleveland so se was probably pretty upset he was going away, too, but she could make light of the situation, even now.

"No, no, you're probably right," Adam agreed. "The world isn't as big a place as we'd like to think. Those things happening elsewhere are bound to affect us sooner or later."

In truth, he was beginning to appreciate Kody's unbridled honesty and the comment hadn't rattled him at all. Having them around made things more interesting, better.

Aunt Susan returned to the kitchen, closely followed by Uncle Kent. Ginny and Kody greeted him before he sat down but otherwise the meal that followed was relatively silent. Relatively. A moan, then a scream, came from the back bedroom. Aunt Susan jumped up from the table and prepared another bowl of oatmeal. "Maybe she'll eat for me this mornin'," she said hopefully as she hastened to the bedroom to attempt to get her mother to eat something.

Uncle Kent leaned back in his chair and smiled contededly. "Looks like y'all have things under control 'round here."

He was still a young man, Uncle Kent, not yet even out of his twenties. His life thus far had been devoted to his family and his country. Adam hoped, prayed, war was not in his future.