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Sweet Caroline

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Summers in Chickasaw have always been hot. Worse, they’re humid.  The air hangs sodden and still, like a wet woolen blanket weighing you down.  Right about June, it gets so that you can’t breathe, children and dogs sprawled out on the porch, longing for a breeze.  When I was a kid, we didn’t have air conditioning, not really.  Lazy ceiling fans pushed the air around but didn’t cool it, and in the afternoons, my sisters fought over who got to sit in front of Mother’s metal fan that rattled and hummed in a futile war against the heat.

Daddy worked long hours to keep us fed.  Well, he did when he had a job.  Every six months or so, he had to find a new one, and the more jobs he lost, the fewer he could find, and the further he retreated into his bottles.  

Mother stayed busy with the Ladies' Auxiliary at the church, gathering clothes people had outgrown and donating them.  We'd had a few "Auxiliary clothes" ourselves.  They always fit just a little irregular, but Mother would take them up with her sewing machine and we'd wear them until we outgrew them or wore holes in them.

I helped her sometimes, and as many times as she said "Idle hands are the devil's playground," nobody had ever thought to warn me that busy hands weren't always safe.  I never thought I was a wicked child, but I must have been, because only the wicked could steal from charity.

At first I didn't take much -- a string of plastic pearls, scuffed so that they wouldn't be of use to anyone.  They might have even been thrown away, but I tucked them into my pocket before anyone could.  After that it was a pair of clip-on earrings, the emeralds so obviously made of paste that the green paint was chipping off.  But then it got worse, and I had to find somewhere to hide it.  I didn't have anywhere at home that I could keep a dress, a silk-flowered Easter hat, and a pair of shoes with pretty little bows on them.  

I felt bad for stealing them, but I told myself it wasn't like we didn't sometimes get outfits from the Auxiliary, and someone was going to be getting them, anyway.  The only reason I took them without asking was because Mary Alice would have gotten them instead.  They fit her better than they did me, and she was the oldest so she always got the nicer things.  

The stealing wasn't my real sin.  Maybe my real sin was wanting to keep for myself what should have been my sister's.

It didn't take me long at all to work out where to keep my contraband.  The old gray house at the end of our street had been abandoned since the Great Depression, and twenty years is a long time for a house to be empty.  It was huge, with boarded up windows that stared like empty eyes and walls that slumped to one side like a tired old woman at the end of a long day's work.  Spanish moss hung from the spreading water oaks around it like torn veils.  A swamp in the back was home to bullfrogs and cicadas that sang all summer long, making a racket so loud you couldn't hear yourself think over the sound.

Everybody was scared to go near the place.  Grown-ups said it was "structurally unsound."  Kids said it was haunted.  My little sister Daisy said she thought it was a robber’s hide-out.  I thought it looked lonely and like the perfect keeper for my secret.

One afternoon in mid-July, while Mary Alice and Daisy were sharing an uneasy truce in front of the fan, Mother was patching clothes with the Auxiliary Ladies, and Daddy was helping the preacher do some repairs on the roof of the church -- it wasn't a real job, but it kept him out of the bottle, and Reverend Mason wanted to do what he could to help -- I sneaked into the old gray house and into the room that held my treasure.

I closed the door behind me, took off my clothes, dropped them in the corner, and shimmied into that dress. It was a little loose in the front -- my chest was much flatter than my sister's -- but the skirt flared out just perfectly above the bow-tied shoes, and the brim of the hat dipped down gracefully over one of my eyes.  I wished my hair was longer, maybe in pretty ringlets like Mary Alice's, so I could look just like a storybook princess.  I put on the plastic pearls and the chipped clip-on earrings, and I twirled.

Mother didn't approve of twirling, said it wasn't ladylike.  She'd rapped Mary Alice's fingers for it once, told her to stop showing her unmentionables to all the boys.  But there was no one to see me in the old gray house, so I twirled until I was dizzy and sick.

When I stopped, too breathless for the giggle hanging in my chest like a prism in the sun, shooting rainbows of happiness all through me, I imagined that I was a princess trapped in a tower.  The witch who’d put me here had cut off all my hair so I couldn’t lower it for a prince to climb up the tower, but he would come anyway, his boots dusty from riding miles and miles to find me.  He would kill the witch and run up the stairs. I would hear his footsteps and know --

The stairs creaked.

I held my breath, my heart beating against my chest like a moth in a glass jar. I waited, but there was nothing -- nothing but the cicadas buzzing outside and the thumping in my ears.  I let my breath out slowly, still listening.  

My hands shook as I smoothed down the skirt of my dress, as I regarded the walls of the lonely house, my old friend.  Had someone seen?  Was someone watching?  Ice in my stomach made me go cold all over, shivering in the summer heat.

There was nowhere to go.  I wanted to put my own clothes back on, not my stolen princess dress, but I was afraid to undress.  What if someone could see me?

But there were no more sounds, and eventually I began to relax.  It was just an old house, settling in the heat.  There were no peepers, no robbers hiding out, no ghosts, just me and my silly imagin--

--the door to my secret room opened, swung slowly inward on a whisper.  My breath caught in my throat, my vision went bright around the edges, and as I watched, a dusty brown shoe appeared.

My scream caught in my throat, strangled and nearly soundless, but that brown shoe took a quick step back and the owner gave a quick shout of surprise.  The door swung the rest of the way open, and Billy Ray Mason, the preacher’s son, stared at me like a scared rabbit, cowering against the opposite wall.

I let out the rest of my breath in a shaky rush, but a new fear settled in my stomach.  The dress -- the hat -- the shoes -- What would he think?  His daddy was the preacher.  Surely --

“You scared the livin’ daylights outta me!”  He bent over at the middle, gasping for air, and I slid down to sit on the floor, the skirt of my dress pooling around me like a puddle of sin.  “What on earth are you doin’ up here?”

I couldn’t answer, too full of trembling and fighting back tears.  He would tell his daddy, and then my daddy would get angry, and he’d start drinking again, and --

“Hey, are you crying?”

“No.”  I scraped my knuckles over my face, shoving away the tears.  “S’just sweat.”

“I didn’t mean to scare you.”  He hovered over me, standing stiff and awkward.  “I... Uh, that sure is a pretty dress.  Where’d you get it?”

My eyes started leaking again and I ducked my head farther.  Guilt and shame pounded in my chest and I muttered, “I stole it.”

“Oh.”  He sat down in front of me, crossed his legs, and offered me the handkerchief out of his pocket.  It was dirty, and I stared at it.  He looked embarrassed but didn’t take it back, and I gingerly took it from him.

“From the Ladies' Auxiliary.”  The confession spilled out of me so fast I couldn’t even hold it in.  “I took the pearls first, then the earrings -- they’re not real pearls, and the earrings are just clip-ons, see? -- but then the hat was so pretty -- and the dress was perfect for being a princess, and --”  I snapped my mouth shut so fast I nearly bit my tongue.

“So you come up here to be a princess?”  He looked around the room, no doubt seeing how I’d swept the floor with an old straw broom, my clothes in the corner, the old broken coat rack I used to hang the dress when I wasn’t there.

He didn’t seem angry, didn’t seem scandalized to be sitting with a sinner.  Maybe he wouldn’t tell his daddy after all.  Maybe I could tell him more.

“Princess Caroline.”  It sounded stupid when I said it out loud, and I ducked my head.  I was too old to be playing stupid games, putting on dresses and twirling --

“It suits you.”  His grin was big and wide in his face.  “You make a great princess.”  He didn’t look like he was making fun of me, and something fluttered in my belly, something bright and erratic, like fireflies.  He laughed, and the fluttering started to turn sick before he took my hand.  “For a second, when I heard you, I really thought the house was haunted!  I ’bout wet my pants.”

I laughed, surprised, and tried not to look at where his hand was gripping mine.  Maybe if I didn’t look, he wouldn’t notice, and he wouldn’t stop touching me.

“What are you doing up here, anyway?”

He shrugged, looking away for a moment.  “Lost a game of ring taw, didn’t want to give up my shooter.  Paul and Harry said they’d let me keep all my marbles, not just the shooter, if I came in here and stayed for five minutes.”

I jumped, letting go of his hand to grab my hat and pull it off, scared to death.  If Paul and Harry saw me, they’d for sure tattle, and --

“They ain’t close.”  Billy Ray must’ve read my mind.  He put his hand on my arm, stilling me.  “They was too scared.”

I relaxed, but only a little.  “I just don’t...”

“It’s okay.  I won’t tell.”  He looked at me kind of funny, and I wanted to put the hat back on, to hide behind its wide brim, but that would just be silly.  He shifted on the floor, stretching out one leg to the side.  I stared at the patch on the knee of his pants to keep from seeing his face.  The stitching was neat and even, but even the patch was starting to get worn through.  Maybe he wore Auxiliary clothes too.  I bet his momma --

--The quick press of his lips against mine was wet and startling and over before I knew what was happening.  I gasped, staring at him wide-eyed, and he looked as scared as I’d ever seen anyone look, like he thought I might deck him for it.

“Sorry,” he mumbled.  “That was stupid.  I just -- princesses get kissed, right?”  He looked up at me, and all the fireflies in my stomach glowed bright and frenzied, zooming around like they were trying to get out.  

“Billy Ray!  It’s been five minutes!  You still alive?”

The voice outside made me duck down as if they could see through the boarded-up windows on the second story, as if they could see my lips still burning from that kiss.

Billy Ray gave me a sad smile.  “I’d better go down before they get brave enough to come check on me.  Or worse, go find my daddy and tell him where I am.”  He got up and dusted his pants off, shouting down to Paul and Harry, “I’m comin’!  Keep your britches on!”

He looked down at me and hesitated.  “If you want... I’ll wait for you downstairs and walk you home.  I’ll yell up when Paul and Harry are gone.”

I didn’t want, not really, but I couldn’t say no without being rude, and he’d been so nice.  He hadn’t been mean about the dress, and he wasn’t going to tattle on me.  

“All right.”

He smiled and ran downstairs, his boots so loud on the creaking steps, so different from when he’d first come creeping in. As soon as he was out of the room, I scrambled out of the dress and back into my clothes.  I looked for a place to hide the dress and hat just in case Paul and Harry decided to be brave, but there wasn’t anywhere, so I just hung it back on the hat rack and hoped they wouldn’t think it had anything to do with me.

It seemed like forever before Billy Ray called up to me, and I crept down the stairs, still half-expecting to find myself facing a firing squad when I left the house.  It wasn’t possible for Billy Ray to just not tell anyone, was it?  Would he really keep my secret?

But he was alone, no one with him to ask why I’d been in the old house.  He didn’t say anything else about it as we walked to my house either, instead telling me all about how he’d told Paul and Harry the house was haunted.  

“I told them I heard a woman screaming when I got to the second floor, and footsteps on the stairs.”  He grinned at me, mischief in his eyes.  “You shoulda seen their faces!  They were so scared!”  He puffed up his chest like a rooster, and I tried not to laugh.  “And the best part is I didn’t even lie to ‘em!”

I faltered a little at that.  Of course Billy Ray wouldn’t lie.  What if he --

The sight of my parents standing on the front porch of our house, talking to Billy Ray’s parents, stopped my train of thought in a wreck of nerves.

“There you two are!”  My mother crossed her arms, but she was smiling.  “We’ve been wondering where you were.  We’re about to have lunch, so run wash up real fast!”

I darted a quick look at Daddy as I ran past, happy when I could tell he looked sober.  He seemed more relaxed, too, like working had made him feel good.  Maybe he’d even stay out of the bottle tonight.

Billy Ray and I jockeyed for the sink in the bathroom, laughing and splashing water on each other, and just looking at him made me smile.  I remembered in the old house, the way he’d touched my hand, the way he’d kissed me, and...

“Boys, hurry up in there!  Lunch is ready!”  

My breath caught in my throat, and I looked at Billy Ray in the mirror.  For a while, I had forgotten.  I had just been Caroline, maybe a princess, definitely a girl.  Maybe Billy Ray had forgotten, too.  Maybe now --

Billy Ray made a mock bow and gestured to the door.  “After you, m’lady,” he said, and all the fireflies inside me must have lit up all at the same time, because I glowed.