I live in the saddest house, on the loneliest dirt road, surrounded by the most pathetic fields you ever saw. It’s a lopsided two-story that looks like the second floor is just itchin’ to become the first. The outside is scarred wood covered with scales of greyish paint that might have once have been sunshine yellow, barn red, citrus orange or sky blue in a past life. The house reminds me of a confused old lady who doesn’t notice that she’s lost her coat and is standing buck naked in the bright sunshine.
The only way to get to the house is down a long winding dirt road. Riding in the bed of my daddy’s beat up Ford truck, I’ve memorized every bump and pothole so I can brace myself and clench my teeth so I don’t bite my tongue. The old dirt and dried out cornstalks are just the color of sad. My eyes are dried out from sad. Once I saw a red bandana on the side of the road and my eyes drank it in like the 7-11 Slurpee I once had when I was four. That was the best thing I ever tasted and I watched that bandana till it turned to a speck. But it didn’t wash the sad away.
Our big old dog Ben’s the first thing I see when we get home. He’s always sleeping in the shade of the one pecan tree in our front yard. I climb up our creaky front steps, pull open the crooked screen door and let my eyes adjust to the colorless gloom inside. The only bright thing in the whole place is hidden in a box in my closet. I try not to open it too much because I’m afraid the dust and darkness will seep in and suck all the bright right out of it. I always sit on my bed to open it. I close my eyes and reach in to feel the silky material. Even when it’s a hundred degrees out, it feels cool under my fingers. I’m careful that my rough hands don’t catch and make a pull in the fabric. Then I take it out and smell it. I only take a little sniff because I’m scared that I’ll sniff up all the sweet and it’ll start to smell like nothing. I open my eyes but keep them squinted so the colors run together in a yellow, red and purplish blue puddle, kind of like when Daddy’s filling the truck with gas and some leaks onto the ground and makes a rainbow. I wrap the scarf around my shoulders. I used to be able to pretend my mom was hugging me but it’s not working very well anymore. I keep trying ‘cause it’s all I’ve got.
I wander out to sit on the porch steps to wait with Ben for Daddy’s truck. He’s gone to pick up my Aunt Louise at the airport. She’s coming to stay with us for the summer ‘cause Daddy says I need some supervision when I’m out of school, and also he says now I’m not a little girl anymore I need some motherin’ and he don’t know how to do it. I’ve only seen Aunt Louise two times in my whole life. I wonder what could possess her to come spend three whole months in this hot, dusty, colorless Texas town.
“I think that’s them,” I tell Ben, who’s of course sleeping.
I stand and brush off my jeans as the truck parks, and a tall, thin woman in a dress pops out calling, “Oh my goodness! Elizabeth, my sweet girl. Look how you’ve grown!” She tries to run over to hug me, but twists her ankle as her heel catches on a bone Ben left lying in the dirt. She hobbles over with a smile and squeezes me tight. Dad climbs out of the other side of the truck and walks around the back to get Aunt Louise’s suitcases. As Aunt Louise lets me go, I see a face peeking out of the windshield. Who the heck is that? I walk to the car and look in. A little brown chestnut of a face is peeking back. “Aunt Louise! I think you forgot something!” I back away as a little boy bounds out of the truck. He is moving so fast that I’m afraid he’s gonna set off a spark that’ll set this whole place on fire.
“Elizabeth, meet Isaiah. Isaiah, this is Elizabeth.”
“Hi, hi, hi, hi,” Isaiah says as he continues to leap around like a little puppy.
“Isaiah is living with me for a bit and I thought he would enjoy getting away to the country for a little while,” explains Aunt Louise.
“Are there snakes here? I want to catch a snake!”
I put my hands on my hips. “You don’t know the good snakes from the bad. If a bad one bites ya, you’ll be dead quicker ‘an a duck on a Junebug.”
“Elizabeth, don’t scare the kid,” says dad.
“I don’t want our company to die on the first day! I’m just bein’ helpful.”
Dad gives me “The Look.”
As we walk toward the porch steps, I lean down and whisper to Isaiah, “And watch out for Ben ‘cause he hates kids.” Ben, who has moved three whole steps away from the porch and fallen back asleep in the dirt at our feet, opens an eye for a second and goes right back to sleeping. I don’t think Isaiah even hears me, he’s so busy trying to hop up the steps on one foot.
I come downstairs the next morning and hear Aunt Louise humming in the kitchen. Everything looks different but I’m not sure why. Then I realize she’s been busy as a bumblebee. The curtains are open, dust stirs where it’s been happily sitting quiet for a year. Bright purple flowers are in a vase on the kitchen table. Now I remember when all the color went out of this house. It’s when Mom died. I thought I wanted color but now I’m surprised how mad I feel to see some seeping back in. It feels like the world has up and decided to go on without her.
I stomp right back upstairs and bang on Daddy’s bedroom door. “C’mon in.”
“Dad,” I say flinging open the door and flopping face down on his bed. “We don’t need Aunt Louise and Isaiah here. I’ll be good this summer, I promise.”
Daddy sits next to me on the bed. “It’s not about you being good, kid. Macy is off to college and you’re too young to be home alone all summer.” I feel his hand on my back. “You’re alone too much, honey.”
“I like to be alone,” I say my face still squashed into the bed.
“Just give ‘em a chance, okay?” I feel the bed lift as he rises. “I’ve got to get to work. See you at dinner?”
I hear Daddy smile even though that’s not a sound.
I lay still, pretending I’m a dead fish. That’s a game my babysitter Macy used to play with me when I was driving her crazy. She would yell, “Dead fish!” and we would both drop to the ground wherever we were and lay still. Whoever could be still the longest was the winner. I always lost though ‘cause I would start laughing and rolling around and yell, “It’s a miracle! The fish has come back to life.”
My stomach is growling so I decide to follow the smell of pancakes downstairs.
“Morning Elizabeth. How are you?” asks Aunt Louise.
“Yes please.” Aunt Louise calls Isaiah who comes twirling in like a dust devil. I half expect his chair to lift off the ground as he sits on it. The three of us eat blueberry pancakes dripping in syrup. I focus on popping the warm blueberries with my fork, painting my plate with purple juice as Isaiah babbles on about something. I finally notice that Aunt Louise is saying my name. I look up.
“I was thinking you could take Isaiah and show him around a bit today.”
“There’s not much to see,” I say, thinking I’d much rather hide in my room and read a book.
“Pleeeeaaase Lizbeth!” says Isaiah standing on his chair.
“Fine,” I say.
Isaiah jumps down and I put my hands out to ward off his sticky fingers.
“I’ll clean up,” says Aunt Louise.
Isaiah and I walk down the front steps. “C’mon Ben,” I say.
We walk side by side down the middle of the road. There aren’t any cars this early. Well there usually aren’t many cars ever. “Where we goin’ Lizbeth?”
“Do you want to see where my daddy works? It’s a ranch ‘bout a mile down the road.”
“Are there animals?”
“Some horses and cows.”
The sun is growing hotter and I feel the dirt sticking to my sweaty cheeks. “What’s that?” asks Isaiah, looking ahead into the pasture to the right of the road.
“That’s Jones the bull. Dad says he’s a mean son a bitch. But I’m not allowed to say that so don’t tell, okay?”
We walk over to the fence and climb up, looking at Jones who’s standing across the pasture under a tree.
“Why is he mean?” asks Isaiah.
“Maybe he’s just lonely. I can be a mean son a bitch sometimes too. Maybe we can RE-habilitate him. I learned that word in school. Means we can make him nice.”
“How do we do it?
“I think he has to learn to trust us. So we’ll come every day and sit here and talk to him and tell him he’s a good bull.”
We both look at Jones. He’s dark brown with big horns. He looks over at us and then looks away swatting flies with his tail like he doesn’t have time for such foolin’ around.
Isaiah looks like he’s wilting a little. “Want to go put our feet in the creek?” I ask him. Ben’s ears perk up. He knows that word. We say goodbye to Jones and walk across the road to a path through the dried-out cornfield. We reach the water and Isaiah copies me as I take off my shoes. I walk in the slowly moving water up to my knees and Isaiah follows almost up to his waist. Ben lays right down in the shallow part and takes a drink. Little fish swim around our legs and Isaiah giggles. I reach down and cup some water, pouring it on my head and letting it drip down my face. Isaiah splashes me and I try to look mad but he’s laughing so hard he falls down into the water and I have to save him.
We sit on the bank and can almost see the water evaporating off us. “Maybe don’t tell Aunt Louise we went in the water. She seems like the type to worry about drowning and stuff.”
“Ready to head back?”
We stand and Ben pulls himself out of the water. We crunch back through the stalks and scuff off down the road.
“I love it here!” Isaiah yells, twirling around.
“How come you’re livin’ with Aunt Louise?” I ask him.
“My daddy’s in jail. Mommy had to leave too.”
“Oh.” I look at him. “My mom’s gone too.”
Isaiah all of a sudden hugs me like he’s a sticker burr clinging to my pants. By the time we get home the sun has sucked all the water off of us. We collapse on the steps and Ben takes up his spot under the tree. “Hey there. Did you have fun?” Aunt Louise comes out and sits with us, handing us each a glass bottle of Coke. It tastes so good: bubbly, sweet and cold.
“It was great!” says Isaiah. “We met the son a bitch Jones and got all wet in the creek.”
“Isaiah!” I say sneaking a look at Aunt Louise to see if she’s mad. But she just smiles. The three of us sit on the porch for a while as a tiny breeze tries hard to be bigger than it is.
The next morning, Aunt Louise has packed a picnic lunch for me and Isaiah. “I thought you two might want to go out on an adventure again today. What do you think?”
“I think YES!” says Isaiah, hopping on one foot and then the other. His arms are spread like wings and I figure I better get him outside before he takes off.
“I guess,” I say.
“But be safe,” Aunt Louise says giving me a look.
I pick up the bag with our sandwiches, apples and soda. “Let’s go, y’all,” I say to Isaiah and Ben. We retrace our path from yesterday, Isaiah popping down the road like a corn kernel in a hot pot. “What do you think Jones would like, Isaiah?”
“What do Joneses like to eat?” asks Isaiah.
“Let’s feed him hay.”
When we get to the fence, I set our lunch down and lead Isaiah around to the right of the fence where there’s a field. We walk out to one of the giant rolled bales and each try to grab a handful of the prickly grass. We have to pull so hard we fall over when some finally comes out. Then we walk to the fence and hold out hay to Jones who’s off in the distance living his life, full of flicking his tail and looking grumpy. “Hey Jones, we’re here to RE-billy-tay you!” calls Isaiah. Jones doesn’t seem to care. We stay up on the fence holding out our offerings until my stomach starts to growl.
“Let’s eat,” I say.
We jump down, and I grab our lunch and go join Ben in a sliver of shade under a scraggly tree. Isaiah and I eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and toss the crusts to Ben. We sip our Cokes, which are warm but still sweet and bubbly. “Mom used to buy me Cokes at the store under our apartment,” says Isaiah.
“You must really miss her,” I say. “I miss my mom too.”
Isaiah looks at me and smiles a little bit. “My mom smelled good.”
“Mine let me sleep with her if I was scared.”
“My mom made really good cinnamon toast when I was sick.”
“My mom read me Goodnight Moon a million gazillion times.”
“My mom sang me silly songs about our day.”
That brings on another sticker bur hug from Isaiah and I fall backwards onto the ground. “Okay, okay. Let’s try to feed Jones hay again before we go.”
We pack up our stuff and climb the fence holding out hay to Jones who has moved a little closer. We wait but Jones stays where he is. “Well, we’ll see you tomorrow Jones,” I say.
“Yup! See you tomorrow Jones! We’re going to RE-billy-tay you!”
Isaiah and I keep up our campaign over the next few weeks. We get into a routine of Jones, picnic, wading in the creek and back home for dinner. I even teach Isaiah to play dead fish and it’s pretty funny when we both flop down on the ground. I actually win because Isaiah is even more squirmy than me.
I wake up one morning to the sound of rain thundering down on the roof. It doesn’t rain a lot here but when it does, it really and truly does. I decide to read one of my summer books I’m supposed to read for school. Aunt Louise tries to keep Isaiah busy inside but finally lets him go run outside in the rain. He comes in dripping and Aunt Louise sends him upstairs to change into dry clothes while she makes lunch. I’m still curled up reading in the living room when Aunt Louise calls for us to come eat. I sit at the kitchen table and pick up a potato chip. “C’mon, Isaiah!” calls Aunt Louise sitting down across the table. “Isaiah!”
“I’ll get him,” I say and run upstairs. I peek in his room but he’s not there. My door is open a little bit so I go there next. Isaiah is standing on my bed holding mom’s scarf. I can see he’s gotten it wet and muddy as he waves it like a flag. “Isaiah! No!” I scream and jump toward him trying to snatch the scarf away. I knock into him and he falls off the bed onto the floor. I hear him start to cry. I grab the scarf where it landed on the bed. “Don’t ever touch my stuff! Don’t come in my room!” Aunt Louise comes running into the room.
“What’s going on?” She hears Isaiah crying and goes to scoop him up. She wipes he tears and after she makes sure he’s okay sends him downstairs. “I’ll be right there.”
I sit on the bed clutching the scarf and the tears that will never fall, finally do. Aunt Louise sits next to me quietly. “It’s my mom’s. It’s all I have. He ruined it! It’s all muddy.” Aunt Louise takes my hand softly. I cry. And cry. Probably enough tears to make the corn grow again.
“It’s been so hard for you. I’m sorry I haven’t been here more for you and your dad. I’m really glad to be here now.” She puts one arm around me and with the other hand wipes my hot cheeks and tucks my wild brown hair behind my ears. I lean into her shoulder.
“I’m glad you’re here now too.”
“We’ll clean your scarf, kiddo. It’ll be okay.”
“I didn’t mean to push Isaiah.”
“I know,” says Aunt Louise.
After some more sniffles I say, “I’ll go tell him I’m sorry.”
As I reach the bottom of the stairs, I notice it’s way too quiet. I look in all the rooms. “Aunt Louise! He’s not here.” Aunt Louise and I take one more look to make sure he’s not hiding. Then we go out on the front porch and call into the rain. “I’ll go find him.”
“I’m going to call your dad,” says Aunt Louise.
I run into the rain and down the road, until I reach Jones’ pasture. Daddy’s truck pulls in just as I get to the gate panting and trying to catch my breath. Daddy gets out and we both freeze as we see little Isaiah and giant Jones standing, facing each other, only about ten yards apart from each other. Everything slows. Even the raindrops seem to be falling in slow motion.
Daddy says, “Stay here, Elizabeth!” He runs along the fence away from us. I watch as Jones tosses his head, staring at Isaiah. Daddy jumps over the fence yelling and waving his arms. It’s hard to hear him through the noise of the rain. Jones lowers his head and Isaiah starts to jump from one foot to the other. Daddy is getting closer and trying to get Jones’ attention but the bull is still focused on Isaiah.
“Dead fish! Isaiah, dead fish!” I yell as loud as I can. I see Isaiah’s head turn. He didn’t notice us before. He drops to the ground just as Daddy reaches them and smacks Jones on the flank, turning to run, yelling and waving his arms, away from Isaiah. Jones wheels around and chases Daddy who barely gets to the fence and leaps over seconds before the big bull reaches him. Jones tosses his horns and kicks his back legs before turning to run away down the pasture, having had enough of us. As soon as he’s far enough away, Daddy jumps back over the fence and runs to scoop up Isaiah. He brings him to where I’m clutching the gate and climbs over. Once we’re all safe I hug Isaiah and Daddy is hugging both of us. Isaiah is sobbing and shaking and Daddy leads us to the truck. We all climb in the front and I put my arm around Isaiah while Daddy checks to see if he’s hurt. “I’m so sorry, Isaiah. I’m so sorry I yelled at you.”
“I think he’s okay,” says Daddy letting out a big breath. We’re all soaking wet and muddy and I notice Daddy’s hands are shaking on the wheel as he drives us home. Aunt Louise runs down from the porch and flings the truck door open.
“Are you okay? Is he okay?” Aunt Louise asks.
“He’s scared but okay,” says Daddy.
I climb out and Aunt Louise picks up Isaiah and carries him into the house. We go into the living room and Daddy goes to grab some towels. Aunt Louise bundles Isaiah up and sits snuggling him on the couch. Daddy and I dry off and sit together in a big chair across from the couch.
“Isaiah, why did you run away?” asks Dad.
“I wanted to RE-billy-tay Jones for Lizbeth.”
“That was so dangerous, Isaiah!” says Aunt Louise. “You could have really gotten hurt.”
“I’m sorry,” says Isaiah.
“I’m sorry too, Isaiah,” I say.
“Lizbeth, I think Jones really is just a mean son a bitch,” says Isaiah.
Daddy’s and Aunt Louise’s eyes get big and I start to laugh. “I think you’re right.”
Before we know it, summer is almost over and it’s time for Isaiah and Aunt Louise to go back to New York. Me and Daddy help pack up the truck as Isaiah makes a dust storm in the yard. Aunt Louise gives me a long hug. “We’ll be back next summer, but I think you and your daddy should come visit us in New York for Christmas too. What do you think?”
“I think yes,” I say hugging her back tight.
Isaiah gives me his signature sticker hug. “Bye Lizbeth. I’ll miss you.”
“Hold on a second,” I say running inside. I run back out to Isaiah and pulling my hands out from behind my back, show him the scarf. I wrap around his shoulders. “This is for you. It’s a hug scarf.”
Isaiah wraps the scarf around himself even tighter, covering his mouth and taking a deep sniff. The scarf’s almost as big as him. He gives me a side bump hug since his hands are busy holdin’ the scarf tight. I see the grin lighting up his eyes. I bend down to his ear and whisper. “Hey, I hear there’s a mountain lion that’s been seen ‘round here lately. Maybe next summer we’ll try to RE-habilitate him.”
“Okay!” answers Isaiah, hopping in the truck.
As they drive off, I sit on a porch step and Ben flops in the dirt. He puts his chin on my foot, which means he’s feelin’ sad to see Isaiah go. “It’s okay Ben. It’ll be Christmas before you know it.” I look to where the truck has gotten as small as a dot. The scarf must have spilled some color on its way because I notice that the world doesn’t look so empty and sad anymore. And it feels okay, because I know Mom is lovin’ me through all those colors. I feel green grass kissin’ me on the cheek, blue sky tickling my toes and purple and orange flowers wrapping their arms tight around me like they’ll never let go. Ben must feel it too because he stands, shakes and scratches behind his ear, before going back to sleep, and that much activity pretty much means Ben’s ‘bout bustin’ with joy.
by Trista Wilson
Honorable Mention, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature