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Whither Thou

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After the sermon, I was in the church yard talking to Mrs. Buchanan, who'd brought a casserole round to Mama last week when she and Tess visited. She was telling me about the rabbits getting into her garden, and I listened and nodded in all the right places and looked over her shoulder at Tess, who was chatting with Tom over to the side, her hair done up all pretty and her dark blue dress covering her legs just so.

Right as Mrs. Buchanan was winding down, Billie Joe came up and took my arm, and we went over by the side of the church, where he let go of me.

"We're still meeting out by Choctaw Ridge, right?" he said, all quiet-like, and when I nodded, he pursed his lips.

"Tom ‘n me are gonna go down to the store this week, get the ring," he said.

I clasped my hands together. It wasn't any kind of excitement, not really, but Tess'd painted my nails the night before, and it'd been so sweet, the two of us, talking about the weddings and all. Tess was gonna wear her mama's dress, since they were both leggy, and it would only need a little altering.

"I'll see you, then," he said, and touched my shoulder.

--- 

Tess came over that night and she was all smiles. Brought a magazine with the fashions in New York printed in it, and we looked at all the dresses, the pretty shirts, and Tess sighed over the pants, too, even though her daddy wouldn't have let her wear them.

We didn't paint our nails, that time.

"I think lavender," she said, "for the flowers, you know? For devotion."

I stopped and looked at her and then looked away. "Wouldn't be right."

She giggled and cupped my face and said, brown eyes all big and smiling, "Lilies, then."

"That'd be more proper," I said, and she hugged me, and I put my hands on her back, holding her in return.

"You big embarrassed softie," she said, and turned her face to my neck.

--- 

I went down to Choctaw Ridge on Tuesday like Billie Joe and I had planned, and since he wasn't there yet, I walked around a little.

He and Brother and Tom had played there a lot when they were smaller, and I'd tagged along, because I'd wanted to follow after them, even though they did their best to make little-girl me leave. And Tess always came along, even though she didn't much like Choctaw Ridge, what with our folks always telling us it was too dangerous for little ones to be playing on.

It was pretty late by the time he arrived – had nearly been a half an hour I'd been waiting, and it was getting on hot, the sun burning down close to summer even though it was still May. I was as near as on angry as I ever get when he arrived, but I looked at his face and it all went quiet in me, and he stood there looking away with his arms crossed over his chest, sweat starting to stand out on his face from the heat and his eyes all red and wet like he'd been crying all the way here.

"What's wrong?" I said.

"It's over."

My stomach got all cold, and I put my hands on my hips, just to have something to do with them, only what I really wanted was for Tess to be there so I could hold her hand. "What?"

"Tom doesn't wanna do it anymore."

"What do you mean?"

"He doesn't wanna go through with it – not you and me and Tess and him, not Savannah, not nothing." He gulped, and brushed his nose with the back of his hand, and looked away. "I guess you'd say we had a – a fight."

"It'll break Tess's heart," I said, which was pretty inane, considering.

Billie Joe hiccuped, all sad and his shoulders caving in. "I'm sorry, I just don't know. We got to talking and got angry and he doesn't want to, anymore."

"What are we gonna tell Tess?" I asked, but he was too busy blinking and staring at the sky pretending not to cry to answer. So I said, "I guess I'll tell her something." I tried not to think about what Mrs. Buchanan would say if Tom really wasn't gonna marry Tess. She'd be pretty heartbroken, too, liking Tom as a future son-in-law so much.

Billie Joe didn't say anything to that, so I touched his elbow, the way Tess would've done, and I said, "You leave it be a few days and talk to him again."

He gulped and nodded, and we went back to his car. He drove me home, and let me off a little ways from the door, and I walked back, let myself in, did some chores even though Billie Joe being late had taken away my time.

---

I met Tess the next day, out by the Gibsons' place, and she listened grave-faced the whole time, eyes getting bigger and sadder, until finally she fell into hugging me. I hugged back as best I could, and let her shed a couple of tears on my shoulder. She didn't deserve to be told like that, when it'd all been her idea in the first place. I didn't blame Tom for not telling her, not a bit, because he'd always been more afraid of himself than the rest of us, but leaving it to Billie Joe and me had been cowardly.

--- 

I was walking by the post office on Thursday, saw Tom there, and he stopped me and said, "I've been wanting to give something back to Billie Joe."

And since Al Hobson was right there smoking in the sun I didn't say what I wanted to say, which was You give it back to him yourself, since you oughta talk to him anyway and I just held out my hand.

It was an envelope sealed shut – fresh envelope, all crisp and white and clean, with Billie Joe's name and address written right on the front, but no postage. He must've been about to mail it.

I took it. Went to Billie Joe's house and asked his mama where he was, and she called him in, and we went walking down to Choctaw Ridge, for the privacy maybe.

He was walking quick, and he didn't always listen to me when I said anything, so I think he was wondering what was in the letter. I was hoping it was an apology that Tom had been too cowardly to say in person, but I didn't say anything.

We got to Choctaw Ridge, finally, and he opened it up and looked inside and his whole face went sad suddenly, and he sat down right there on the ground and curled up and cried, so I sat down beside him and patted his back, not knowing what had broken him up so but knowing it was bad.

"You can look," he said, in between hiccups, so I did, and it was a page ripped out of one of the Bibles in our church – I Samuel, I saw, with 18:1 through 18:4 circled in pencil, and I didn't know what that meant except I said, "Isn't he sayin'-"

But Billie Joe shook his head and said, "I gave it," a gasp, "to him," and that was why, then.

"Well," I said, and even though I knew he was hurting real bad, I tapped his shoulder and said, "Stand up, Billie Joe, no point in dwelling on what isn't gonna happen now."

He hiccuped and got up and took the piece of paper and held it soft in his hand, and that's why now I think I did wrong, what we did next.

I took him to the bridge and told him to throw that piece of paper off into the water, let the river wash it away to where it wouldn't hurt him anymore.