When I was eleven and the world was still new and exciting things started to change in ways that confused and challenged me to this very day.
In the summer of 1954, I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of my best friend in the whole world, my cousin Emma, from her boarding school in Richmond, Virginia. Emma has spent the summers with me and our grandparents for as long as I can remember. And as a special bonus prize, I got to see Ellen, Emma’s mom, and my favorite aunt.
Emma’s six months older than me, and she never lets me forget that fact. She claims that her six months head start is equivalent to two “Boy years” because boys are so retarded. She’s what grandma calls a “tomboy and a rascal too.” Grandpa calls her “my partner in crime.” Uncle Andrew calls us “The A&E Express.” Zack, our other favorite cousin, now calls us the ‘Shake and Rattle twins” from the Joe Turner song. Zack’s the “Roll” from that song. He used to call us the Bobbsey twins, but we related more to Sam and Dinah in those stories.
Two of the really great things about Emma’s coming home to South Carolina is, one, she helps with the farm chores and, two, she brings good books. Last summer she brought Native Son. Bigger Thomas makes me so glad to be me. I’m a little antsy as I wait for my best friend and helpmate. I’ll hear their car coming down the mile-long curvy dirt road that connects our farm to the County road long before I see it.
When their green Hudson Hornet, the big V8 not the little rinky dink six cylinder, finally glides into our yard out of a cloud of dust, it’s like magic to me.
A tall, I mean really tall, girl, in her school uniform, climbs out of the car. She looks like Emma, but she’s so tall and funny looking. I’m shocked to a standstill.
“Emma, Emma God, Emma you’re so tall.”
The skyscraper girl looks down, squints her eyes and slashes back at me, “And you’re so short.”
It’s definitely Emma. I recognize the voice. “You, you grew.” I say it like she has violated some pact we’ve sworn a sacred oath to.
The new Elm tree tall Emma’s not in a good mood. “Or you shrunk.” She brushes past me and hits me with her suitcase as she goes by. What a sourpuss.
She hugs our grandparents and goes on in the house. I don’t have time to worry about her. Aunt Ellen has me in a bear hug. I kiss her cheek and taste her powder and makeup. She feels warm and soft like something good from the oven.
Aunt Ellen and I are sitting on the front porch in the two seat glider. Grandpa claims Emma and I try to fly the glider right off the porch.
“Andrew you look so handsome and strong. Are you hitting any better?”
“Yeah, a little.” I fudge that a little. “But I cover left and center field. I’m like a golden glove fielder.” And that’s the truth, but I don’t mention my weak throwing arm.
We sit there for a spell listening to a woodpecker drumming and watching two of our chickens scratching for bugs.
“Aunt Ellen, What’s wrong with Emma? She’s still in her room.”
My Aunt smiles at me and turns to face me. “Aww, you noticed. I was hoping you wouldn’t notice the changes, Sherlock.”
“She’s tall, way tall like she grew two feet. Has she been eating magic beans or something?” If she has I hope she shares some with me. I’m not growing at all.
“Maybe a little less than that, Andrew, Emma is becoming a young woman now—“
I’m excited at that news, “So she’s getting boobs and stuff? Wow!”
Aunt Ellen laughs and touches my face the soft way she does. “Yes, yes she is but, she’s also getting some other changes that make her moody and angry. These changes can be scary, and sometimes they happen so fast that it’s hard to adjust. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, I think so. She’s getting periods right? I mean, that’s what she said in her letters. Do they hurt a lot? Is there anything I can do?”
“Andrew, periods can be so different from time to time, but yes they can be painful sometimes. You can be patient with her. She’s so sensitive about being so tall so fast. Maybe, if you didn’t tease her for a while?”
I suddenly have a real important question, “Will she be able to do her chores?”
“Of course, she can, maybe one day a month she… you’ll see it’ll work out I promise.”
I’ve seven cousins I see every week, but they’re all boys. This is all new stuff to me. I’m glad Emma’s letters kinda prepared me for this. I wonder if Emma’s going to go all soft and girly. I don’t think I would like that.
I get my answer the next day when we’re tussling for the good bucket to slop the hogs. The good bucket’s the one without the hole that leaks slop on you. I reach it first, but she just pulls me back and takes the good bucket. I think that’s enough of her mean ways. I grab for the bucket. I end up on the ground from one solid push. God, she has gotten stronger. It takes a few more attempts to seize my rightful bucked to see that not only is she bigger and stronger, but she has better coordination and a big reach advantage too.
I trail along behind her with the leaky bucket trying to figure out how I’m going to deal with this giant bully all summer.
Goddamn it, I need a period if it makes you bigger and stronger.
“Emma if you keep acting mean I’ll hit you up side the head with this slop bucket.”
She sneers down at me, “I would like to see you try it.”
“See, Emma, that’s the problem, you won’t.”
“Andrew, you would hit me from behind, ambush me? That’s chicken shit.”
I stretch up to look her in the eyes, “As hard as I can.”
“Andrew, you’re a sissy. You know that?”
“Yeah, the sissy that’ll put a dent in your hard head.”
It’s a stand-off. I don’t think I could really hurt her like that, but I’m not going to be pushed around in my own house.
It takes a few days to work our way back to friendlier ways, but things is still a little off between us.
We talk. Talk about everything we usually talk about. We don’t talk about what’s happening to her. She has brought me The Lord of the Flies. I thank her.
I try to be patient.
Emma has always been taller than me, but now she’s so much taller. It’s strange now that Emma can eat soup off my head things have changed in our house. Grandma and Aunt Ellen and Aunt May, Uncle Eddie’s wife, all seem to admire even envy Emma. They’ll not interfere when Emma’s bullying me in little ways. They stand back, even Aunt Ellen, who’s always in my corner.
And Grandpa and Uncle Eddie let them. They turn away and let the women handle it as they will. It’s all very strange.
Our favorite cousin, Russell, the “Roll in our “Shake, Rattle and Roll” team is 14 and works at the apple orchard across the street from his house. He’s the smartest kid in my school and the best athlete.
His dad, Uncle Andrew, I’m proud to be named after him, is the coolest adult we know. I mean, even cooler than Aunt Ellen. He told us about Kush and other ancient African kingdoms. He has explained the Brown Supreme Court decision to us. He’s the only adult that will talk with us kids about the A and H bombs.
Emma and I are crazy about Uncle Andrew and Russell. But, Russell is our future. All the old folks see him as the next Ralph Bunch, Thurgood Marshall or Jackie Robinson. He’s the pride and joy and hope of our community.
The three of us are always looking for some new kind of mischief or adventure. Emma thinks up crazy stuff for us to do. Russell figures out a way for us to do it and not get caught. And me, I try to figure out if we should even do it. I think I’ve the least influence in our trio.
The three of us are off on an adventure. I’m glad Russell’s here. I want him to see how strange Emma’s acting. Together we may be able to straighten her out. But, damn it, he treats her like he always does. Of course, he’s still taller than she is. He teases her about her little boob buds. I think Emma is going to try and knock his block off but she doesn’t. She blushes, a rare sight that is.
And things are different in our trio. I can feel it. We love Russell, but we don’t let him get away with anything. Emma and I stop him cold when he gets all full of himself. We shift alliances to keep each of us in balance. It works. Except, now I don’t know, it just feels different.
We have cane fishing poles to cover our real mission, to go to an abandoned cabin about a mile into the woods. It’s our secret headquarters. We hide our poles and pick up stout walking sticks for protection and for stick fighting. We’re crossing a meadow when Emma sees the black snake on a log shedding his skin, an easy target. None of us like snakes. But for the longest time I was terrified of snakes, but not anymore.
Emma readies her stick and creeps toward the snake. I grab her arm, “No, let him be. He’s not bothering us. Let him alone.”
They both turn on me in startled amazement.
Russell grabs my shoulder, “What? You, the Saint Patrick of Sumter County, are now protecting snakes? Are you all right Andrew?”
Our tall cousin adds her opinion. “He’s been acting strange every since I got here. He threatened to hit me in the back of the head with a bucket.”
Emma shakes her head and heads for the snake. I step in front of her. “No. Leave it alone.”
Emma looks to Russell. “See what I mean.”
As I turn to talk to Russell, she pushes me down and steps toward the snake.
I trip her with my stick. The snake finally glides away.
In seconds, she has me pinned to the ground sitting on my chest with her knees on my shoulders.
Russell is squatting by my head. “Andrew, have you gone crazy? Nobody likes snakes man.”
I want to explain my conversion to them. I want to talk this out like we always do. But their faces are closed against me. I never seen this before. I don’t know what to say. I just look from one to the other.
I finally wheeze out, “We won’t kill any more snakes that ain’t bothering us, OK?”
They laugh at me. Not in fun laughing, but mean laughing like we laugh at people outside our little tribe. It hurts like being ripped apart.
I walk away from them. They can’t see my tears. I’m way too old to cry about stuff like this. I walk to the Shortcut. It’s the shortcut path up to Frederick Douglass Lane where Russell and other colored families live. It’s a little less than a mile on this path compared to a little more than two miles by the County road.
Grandpa and I were the only ones to use this shortcut. The trees overhead are so thick that the path is always in shade or near darkness. The path is narrow, slippery with roots and vines to trip you. Grandpa’s eyes are going bad. Now, I’m the only one who uses this shortcut. The other folks, black and white, avoid it. No one will come looking for me here. Even Emma only uses the path with me, and I have to shame her into that. I can rest there and try to calm down and figure things out.
I stay out way too long. When I get home, they are sitting on the front porch waiting for me. They nod at me, but they don’t look me in the eyes. They’re in trouble for coming back without me. I’m in trouble too for not coming back with them.
We’re grounded. We can’t leave the farm for a week not even to just walk into town. Russell will be grounded too. We’ll not see Russell for a week. This summer’s not going so good. The worst part of it is grandpa holds me responsible for the whole mess.
Emma and I do our chores together, but we don’t talk that much. We don’t even squabble or fight. That throws everybody else off a bit. Summer is, by definition, Emma and I getting into mischief and falling out with each other, but not like this. This is anything but normal.
We have a special place back in the forgotten corner of the basement. There’s a three-legged stool, a wooden chair with a missing back, two horse blankets and an old wool U.S. Army blanket. We have two good flashlights to supplement the poor light from the naked bulbs that lights the basement. There’s a deck of worn cards, an old canteen; a checkerboard ripped in half and checkers and bottle caps to replace missing checkers.
This is our storm shelter; the place we go when life is rubbing us raw or when big personal or family storms threaten.
Most of the time, Emma and I come here together to pout or share secrets or to plot our minor insurrections. Sometimes we come here to just get out of the way.
We have possession rules. Whoever gets there first can turn the other person away. Sometimes we just need to be alone.
I’m reading Lord of the Flies when she looks in. Instead of telling her to go away like I should, she looks so miserable; I nod for her to come on in.
She pulls five dollars out of her jeans and tries to hand it to me. During the summer when we get cash money like birthday money we always split it fifty-fifty. I don’t even remember when or why we started this sharing, but we do it every summer.
Her real father sends her money here sometimes. I ignore her. I already regret letting her in. She kicks at my feet in a halfhearted way.
I put down my book. “Don’t do that Emma. I’ll hurt you. Honest I will.” And I will too. I don’t care how big or strong she is; I’ll hurt her bad. She sees it in my eyes. She sits as far away from me as she can. I go back to Ralph and Jack.
I hear the sobbing. I can’t believe it. I leave Ralph and Jack to witness the miracle of Emma crying something I’ve not seen since first or second grade.
She has twin creeks coursing down her cheeks. That crying scares me more than her threats. I wonder if this is period stuff.
I don’t know what she has to cry about. She’s bigger and stronger than me, smarter than me. She’s taking biology and trig. She’s getting boobs, and our folks are letting her bully me. Worst of all, she and Russell are against me and grandpa has lost trust in me. What does she have to cry about? I should be the one crying.
I go put my arm around her shoulder. I don’t know what else to do. I can’t say it’s going to be alright like grownups do. I don’t even know what her problem is. She cries on my shoulder for a while. She stops at last and wipes her eyes. She holds my hands and looks all serious.
“Andrew, do you love me?”
God, what’s wrong with her? She should go back to crying. I don’t even understand the question. She’s my best friend. How could I not love her? This period stuff is worst than I thought.
I kiss her on the cheek. That’s the best I can do. If she don’t know I love her what could I say to make her believe me? I’m confused.
The kiss must have been the right answer because she laughs and hugs me real tight.
The sparkle is back in her eyes now. She whispers in my ear, “Andrew do you want to see my boobs?”
Do I? Hell yeah, I do. But I remember I’m still mad at her and Russell. I shake my head no.
“You can touch them, OK?”
How can I resist that?
She unbuttons her shirt slowly like she’s opening a present. She peels back her shirt one boob at a time.
They are little pale hills with dark spots around the nipple. They are amazing.
“Wow! Gee, they are… Are… Cute, Emma… Wow…”
Emma is smiling like the sun. “You can touch em, just easy OK?”
I put a hand on each of them and I feel… I feel… Just tingly, not bad just kinda like shocked.
“God, Emma you have, have great boobs, you do. I could touch them all day.”
And I could too. And just like that Emma and I are good again, but a different kinda good, a new kinda of good.
That night, in my bed I think about Emma. My old friend’s fading away. I miss her, but this new Emma…. This new Emma… I don’t know… I just don’t know how I feel about her.
I’m straight with Emma; at least, I think I am. Right now I’m not sure of much of anything, except, I know I need to get right with Russell. I get Emma to cover for me. I streak up the Shortcut. I love this path and woods. I can run this path in the dead of night. My bare feet know the way.
Uncle Andrew and Russell are mending harnesses down by the mule shed. I’m moving toward them with purpose.
They both stop working and watch me approach. My cousin looks a little anxious.
“Uncle Andrew, I need to speak to Russell please.”
Uncle Andrew looks me in the eyes and nods his head yes. He turns to Russell. “You boys work it out behind the shed. Be quick about it.”
I follow my cousin behind the shed. There’s no way I can beat him, but I’ll fight if I have to. We’ve never exchanged blows in anger. We stand there toe-to-toe.
“What do you want Andrew?”
Before I can answer Russell speaks again.
“I was wrong. We were wrong. Andrew, we didn’t plan it, it just happened. I apologize.”
He holds out his hand. I shake it.
I collapse against the wall of the shed with a huge sigh.
Russell sits beside me.
“We’re changing Andrew… I don’t know… I miss last summer… I don’t know…”
“I know… I know… I got to get back.”
Russell helps me up, “Did she show you her boobs, Andrew?”
“Yeah, she did.”
“Me too, she told me she was going to show them to you.”
“Hey, I’m almost through with The Lord of the Flies. I’ll bring it up when I’m finished.”
I race back to the farm. I know that we’re doing some bad things. Our folks would skin us alive if they knew. It’s all messed up. Things are changing too fast for me.
I go to our storm shelter. I don’t want to disappoint my grandparents. I want things to not change so much…so fast… I think. I think if the three of us… if we can figure this out… we can work this out…I fall asleep thinking about it.
I think we have time. I think time is on our side. I’m wrong. Uncle Andrew farms two acres behind his house. It’s just corn fodder for his mules. He prefers the mules to his tractor. There is very little real farming left. Uncle Andrew works at Shaw Field to support his family. He has mules and a tractor because farming has always been part of his life.
Seven days after I talk to Russell, Uncle Andrew’s tractor hits a sink hole, flips, crushes him dead.
Crushes us too, all of us. I think it’ll destroy Russell we are scared to death for him. We’re all scared to death for him.
At the funeral, Russell sits with Emma and me, not with his mother. I know he wants to come home with us, but he goes home with his mother. He looks small, alone, lost.
After the funeral, we go home quietly. Emma and I sit on the flyer and listen to our own memories.
That night Emma crawls into my bed. I hold her all night with my hand on her little boob.
Grandma finds her there next morning. She sends Emma to her room, no fuss, nothing at all. I’m surprised.
I can’t keep up. It’s all moving too fast. What I do know is I want to sleep with Emma. The new Emma… the changing Emma… I know I want that. I want to change too and catch up with her to really be with her I want that awful bad.
I’m scared Emma will change again, or I’ll not change fast enough, or one of us will die. I just need things to slow a little, just a little so I can get my bearings. I need that so much right now.
Frederick K. Foote, Jr. has published over a hundred stories and poems including literary, science fiction, fables, and horror genres. A collection of Frederick’s short stories, For the Sake of Soul, was published in October 2015 by Blue Nile Press. Another collection of short stories, Crossroads Encounters, is scheduled for publication in May 2016 by Choose the Sword Press.
To see a list of Frederick’s publications, go to: https://fkfoote.wordpress.com/