Ma always says, “The devil’ll find work for idle hands to do.” So I work from the second I roll off my old quilt to the last bit of light before it disappears behind the mountain. I sweep the uneven boards of our two-room house, stomping bugs as I go. I take the clothes down the stream and scrub till my hands are raw. In the winter, the wet clothes freeze to the line.
Some days, I don’t even wash. Ma don’t care much if I do. In fact, Ma and Pa don’t talk much ‘bout nuthin’. I’m too big to go to school anymore, ‘cause Ma tole ‘em she needed me ‘round the house. Only thing that makes life okay is Reenie next door. Reenie’s a little older than me, ‘bout eleven, but she’s small for her age. She’s got three brothers and six sisters and has to share a bed with four of ‘em.
I dunno know how to say this but I love Reenie. She gave me my favorite skirt, polka dot bright blue with big flowers painted on. When I wear it I forget how my shrunk ol’ top rides up my belly and the coldness of my bare feet. I stole my ma’s barrette for her soft brown hair. I braid it over and over again.
When Pa heads to the abandoned mine to hammer off enough for the stove, we run to the woods to collect horse chestnuts. We fling ‘em in the pond, then make clover chains and decorate each other. We scavenge from garbage heaps, then hitch a ride to town and smoke cig stubs from the ashtrays outside the courthouse.
In town, we walk hand-in-hand. People always stare, but I don’t care. We swore to love forever and never be done parted. I tole her I’d take a bullet to save her. Though we fight and she makes me crazy, every night I huddle under my thin blanket and dream of her.
Pa caught us kissing by the woodpile behind the house. He shouted, pounding his coal-grimed fist on the stovepipe. Reenie grabbed my hand and we backed against the clapboard siding, feet sinking in cold brown mud.
Pa grabbed up his shotgun – it was filled with birdshot – and cocked it, tole Reenie to git on home now and not come back. I know he just meant to scare her but the gun went off – too close – and a red flower bloomed on Reenie’s faded blue work dress.
I caught her – she jerked and shook in my arms, pale brown eyes staring up at me.
Pa ran for the doctor, but the nearest one’s in Greenville, two miles away, and I know he won’t get back in time. I hum little snatches of hymns I can remember.
I held her on that sawdusted floor till she went still. Pa found me there, two hours later, sticky-dried with Reenie’s blood, “I got the doctor. ”
“What difference does it make? “I said.