Fiction by Bre Lillie
I met my best friend the day my brother Keen came howling back to our family’s home with blood pulsing from his nose in short bursts.
Even in his pain, he knew better than to walk on Mom’s carpet with muddy boots, so he stood on the rug just inside the door, attempting to remove his boots with one hand and clutching his nose with the other. Behind him I heard our neighbor Jimmy, who was Keen’s age, saying, “Hurry up. The dogs are still mad at me from last time I was here.” Above the scuffle going on in the doorway, I could hear our dogs growling in the front yard.
I wasn’t too good around the sight of blood, so after my initial inspection of the scene, I buried my head back into the pages of my book, gathering my legs up to my chest in the green suede recliner where I sat.
My mom emerged from the kitchen where she’d been clipping coupons. She was so used to things like this she’d leapt up from the kitchen table the second my brother’s dirty, blood-covered fingers grasped at the screen door. She hauled him across the unblemished beige carpet of the living room and onto the linoleum of the kitchen, where she set him loose and grabbed a paper towel to shove under his nose while he hiccoughed and splattered specks of blood onto the floor.
It had only been a few seconds since the boys arrived, and Jimmy had barely made it inside the door before Mom looked out from the kitchen with a glare that informed him he’d better keep his soiled shoes on the rug while she dealt with my brother. “One crisis at a time,” was something I’d heard her mumble occasionally under her breath, though I prided myself that I’d never heard her say that in regard to anything I had done. Well, except for the time us kids had buried a time capsule under the house, which later got ravaged by possums, but I considered that a joint effort, so the blame didn’t rest solely on my shoulders.
After a few minutes of cooing and care –a pile of bloodied paper towels accumulating on the counter– my mom finally spoke. “Jimmy, take off your shoes and you can sit on the couch. I’ll get a new shirt for Keen and then you two can split a ginger ale.”
Jimmy said, “Yes, ma’am,” and carefully stepped out of his ragged tennis shoes and placed them on the shoe rack, turning to stick out his tongue at the dogs from behind the safety of the screen door. The growl he received in return made him jump, so he slammed the wooden door and waltzed over to the couch like nothing happened. He said, “Hey, Olive. Where’s the TV remote?” I pointed to the basket on the coffee table.
From my perch, I could hear my mom returning from Keen’s room with a fresh shirt in hand. Once in the kitchen, she yanked my brother’s ruined grey striped shirt over his head and handed him the black one with Star Wars characters on it, saying, “It’s a shame you weren’t wearing this one. The stains wouldn’t show so much.” She walked out of my line of sight and I heard her rinsing the shirt in the sink, then the spritzing sound of the Shout Stain Remover spray bottle, and finally she slammed the door of the stacked washer and dryer set on the far side of the kitchen. She came back into view and resettled herself at the kitchen table, picking up her scissors.
Mom seemed to understand something that I didn’t about how boys communicated. When Keen wandered out to the living room carrying his soda and two plastic cups, flopped down next to Jimmy, and started watching Scooby Doo –they didn’t dare watch the shows they actually liked while Mom was around– she didn’t say anything at first. I could see her and the boys from my angle in the recliner, but they couldn’t see each other. My mom waited until commercials started on the television, and then said from the kitchen, “Alright, mute the TV and tell me what happened.” Her scissors went snip, snip, tear.
My brother wasn’t inclined to speak, since he was still snuffling as he grabbed the remote from Jimmy and silenced the Duval’s Used Cars ad as it aired. I guessed he was embarrassed for crying. He was almost twelve years old, after all. At first I was a little bit gleeful about his tears, but then I felt bad and tried to set my eyes on the pages of Tom Sawyer again.
Before I could find my place on the page, Jimmy’s love of hearing his own voice overcame the silence. He was perhaps emboldened by the sugar coursing through his veins and he said, “We were down at the creek.”
“With who?” my mother asked.
“Greg, me, and Keen . . . and another kid.” “Who was he?”
Jimmy’s eyes darted over to my brother and he started to say something when my brother chimed in. “Some kid who just moved into the park.”
Mom said. “Keen, don’t mumble. I can’t hear you when you mumble.”
Keen was silent. Jimmy said, “We were all over at the creek. We were betting on who could get across it without getting wet or getting any mud on their shoes.”
Mom said, “Yes, and what happened?”
“Well,” Jimmy said, launching into full story mode, “like I said, we were taking turns jumping across the shallow part of the creek down at the base of the hill. Then this other kid showed up and asked to play.”
“And I assume you boys had some manners and let him?” Mom said.
“Well, yeah, we did,” he said. Since I anticipated this story taking a while to tell, I returned to the one in my hands, only coming back to the present as Jimmy said, “Then she –I mean he– he just ran over to the bridge and walked across it, like that was allowed.” Keen glared at Jimmy as if he were a traitor to the cause and gave him a sharp jab in the side so he wouldn’t keep speaking.
Mom, said, “You just said she. Was it a girl you were playing with?”
Jimmy glanced warily at Keen and said, “Yeah, it was a girl.”
Mom said, “The bridge is up at the top of the hill, where the creek is in a ravine.” Jimmy said, “Well, yeah I guess we’d kind of worked our way up the hill, where the water was wider.”
“And deeper,” my mom said in a low voice that Jimmy didn’t seem to hear.
“Well, Keen had just jumped across the creek.” The snipping sound of Mom’s scissors stopped. Keen sat up straight and craned his head toward the kitchen, a nervous expression on his face. “He was the last one of us and he made it the furthest, so then it was the girl’s turn. Like I said, she just went across the bridge and then wanted us to pay up.”
“Did your rules say she had to jump across or that she just had to get across?”
“Well, I guess we didn’t really say for sure,” Jimmy said.
“That doesn’t explain why Keen has a bloody nose,” Mom said.
“Oh, that’s because Keen and what’s-her-name started arguing about whether that was fair and when he told her that she was being such a girl, she, well, she up and decked him.”
I usually adhered to a vow of silence whenever Keen’s friends came to visit, but at that moment I simply could not repress the snicker that burst from my mouth as I hid behind my book. I tried to change it to a cough as it came out, but to no avail. No one was fooled, least of all Keen, who shot me a look that told me he wouldn’t soon forget my outburst.
“I see,” Mom said into the reigning silence. “Did you at least catch her name?”
Jimmy opened his mouth to speak, but Keen gave a firm “No,” that told us all he was finished talking about the incident. My mom looked thoughtful for a moment, like she was considering asking another question, but she was not a woman easily riled and went back to clipping coupons. The boys went back to their vigil of the screen. I could tell they weren’t really paying attention to the show, however. Keen was almost vibrating with anger and Jimmy seemed afraid to move, like it would cause the predator sitting next to him to pounce.
Looking back, I know my mom was trying to spare her son some embarrassment by not pushing him to tell the whole story. Crying in front of his friends was enough shame for one day.
For a few minutes, I contemplated the two of them from behind my book, and afterward I got up and grabbed my shoes from the rack, going outside to sit at the picnic table and tie my laces. One of Dad’s bulldogs glanced at me when I went tripped down the front steps, but put his head back on his paws when he saw that I didn’t have any food scraps for him.
My house sat a in a valley below Duval’s Mobile Home Park. The entryway to the park was at the crest of the hill, and the trailers rested on the plateau spreading out from it. A forest surrounded this open space, making it invisible to those who didn’t already know its location. In my small town, though, everyone had at least one set of relatives living in the park.
I headed around to the backyard, ambling to the far end of the property and climbing through the two wooden beams of the old fence that marked our boundary line. Before me in the grass was a narrow dirt pathway strewn with cigarette butts and vague imprints of my dad’s work boots. I knew he took this path almost every day as he went to work as the overseer of the park, collecting rent or fixing a leak in someone’s doublewide. This little path angled up to meet the gravel road to the park. As I reached the road, I saw Jimmy’s mom, Miss Shally, just getting home from the beauty shop in her beat up powder blue Buick Century. Her newly done up hair flounced as she waved, but other than her I didn’t see anyone else on the way.
I passed the old but sturdy sign that read “Duval’s” in big red letters with “Mobile Home Park” printed in small black lettering beneath, and turned my steps to the right. The park mostly consisted of lines of doublewide trailers in untidy rows that fanned out from the entrance. Each residence seemed like its own little ecosystem, though I knew from years of observation that the people living there had interdependent relationships with their neighbors.
The first trailer to my left had two recliners –one occupied by old Mrs. Stinson– in the front yard and pink plastic flamingos spread over the sparse grass of the plot. I waved to the grey-haired woman and she said, “What? I can’t hear you, child. Speak up.” I just waved again and kept moving, knowing that if I stayed I would be mistaken for one of her grandchildren and get stuck listening to her for hours, but that if I just kept walking she would forget I had been there within thirty seconds.
The next trailer up on the right had three motorcycles and a four-wheeler parked just to the left of the front door. The yard was mostly dirt, and strewn with car parts. Laid against the dogwood tree was a red door belonging to a Nissan of some sort. Stacks of bald tires leaned against the side of the trailer. A car battery propped up one of the support poles of the misshapen swing set. A rottweiler stuck his head out of a doghouse made of sheet metal with the hood of a car for a roof, but he knew me and didn’t bark. This was Jimmy’s house.
I continued down the row and saw what I guessed were my dad’s legs sticking out from the Rollins’s crawl space, while the sallow-looking Vernon Rollins stood languidly behind him holding a flashlight in one hand and a beer in the other. His drawling voice, speaking to my father, wafted slowly across the way to where I walked, but I couldn’t make out the words and I didn’t feel much like drawing attention to myself, so I kept on.
I was on a mission. I was a detective. I was looking for evidence of some new happening as I wandered the park. I searched for proof to corroborate Jimmy and Keen’s story. On my third row of trailers, I found what I sought. This trailer was a faded blue with navy shutters, and it looked like a dump truck had deposited the personal belongings of an entire village in the front yard. Of the larger objects, there was a the tabletop of a ping pong table, a yellowed mattress propped up against a pickup truck, a pile of red plaid couch cushions without the couch itself, and a towering fortress of cardboard boxes labeled with names like: dishes – Fragile, Tara, dog/kid toys, Pete, curtains and blankets, Melody-Lynn, and Mason. Two basset hounds and at least three children under the age of six were running in and around the stacks of stuff, the dogs sniffing and the kids giggling and screaming.
From inside the house, I could hear the authoritative tones of a woman in her element. She came to the door a moment later, looking behind her and saying, “Move it two feet to the left and then y’all come get the kitchen table off the truck.” Turning to face the children in the yard she asked, “Has anyone seen Della?” and then turned around, disappearing back into the house as she loudly said to someone inside, “Oh good grief, Pete, just put the TV there for now. We can set it up later. Let’s make sure the kids have a place to sleep first.”
Having completed my research in the park, I decided to return to the scene of the crime and search for clues, so I wended my way through the remaining rows of homes, cutting over to the side opposite to where I had first entered Duval’s. It made the most sense for me to start at the top of the creek and work my way down the hill so I would wind up where the creek veered toward my house. For a while, I meandered next to the creek without actually being able to see it because I was wearing shorts and I didn’t want to get caught in the thorns of the blackberry bushes. I knew the path of the stream was set deep into the ground, the ridge rising high above the water.
After a time of only hearing the slow gurgling sound of the creek, I began to also hear a muted plunk every few seconds. Tiptoeing around a few more trees, I saw in profile a girl about my age, wearing a lime green dress with a too big orange and purple baseball cap on her head. She had long light gold hair and sat with her feet dangling over the side of the embankment, swinging them above the water. Beside her sat a pile of acorns. I stepped on a twig and she jerked around to look at me –she had a peppering of freckles sprayed across her face, I noticed– but didn’t say anything.
“Are you the one who punched my brother?” I asked.
“Are you going to tell on me?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Want to sit?” she asked. “I’m bombing the water bugs.”
I scrambled down beside her. We didn’t talk much, but pretty soon we had to get up and collected more acorns so we could continue our deluge.
When the sun started sinking, blinding us as it reflected off the water, I turned and said, “Oh yeah, I’m Olive.”
“Della. I’ve got to go or my mom will start yelling for me. Bye.”
The next morning, I watched my brother explain his bruised nose and eye to my dad over a bowl of cereal, a happening that probably afforded me more enjoyment than it really should have. I could see my dad trying hard not to smile and almost laughed outright when he picked up the newspaper and hid his face behind it. Keen noticed none of this as he was pouting into his Cocoa Puffs.
Later that afternoon, I retraced my steps to the creek and found Della curled up at the roots of an oak tree, reading a weathered-looking book. I laughed, saying, “I’ll be right back,” and raced back to my house. In five minutes I returned and waved my book so she could see it, our matching copies of Tom Sawyer. She grinned at me and asked, “How far have you gotten? I always get lost halfway in the middle of stories.”
“Halfway in the middle?” I said.
“Yeah, right at the point in the story where things are just going along, but everything hasn’t gone all wrong yet,” she said.
The most intelligent response I could come up with was “huh” as I sat down with a thump on the smooth dirt of the creek bank. I wished I could have said something smarter, but my love of reading did not afford me the right string of words to utter in that moment.
“So how far have you gotten?” she asked.
“Oh, um, just a few chapters in,” I said.
“Well I just started a little while ago, so maybe I’ll catch up to you,” she said.
“Yeah, maybe so,” I said, doubting the truth of my words. I was the best reader in my class. Though I didn’t care much for answering questions, I always got called on to read things out loud because I rarely stuttered over the long words.
We settled into our reading postures. She sat with her feet curled up underneath her and her back leaned against the tree, balancing the book on her knees. I slumped cross-legged, with the book cradled in my lap. The sun shining through the trees, the breeze whistling through the leaves, and the words on the page drew me in, and I didn’t think of a bigger world than the one dancing across the page. The minutes passed undefined in my little space of being.
Occasionally, I noted the sound of our pages turning in unison, and I was surprised by it, by how quickly she read. Almost as good as I do, I thought. Distracted now, I realized that her pages were turning a hair before mine, then a few seconds, then ten, then thirty. I had no idea what I was reading anymore, but I determined that I would win, feverishly letting my eyes touch the words, but not taking them into my mind to decipher any meaning. Della sat still, like she was connected to the tree, like the bark was her skin and the branches her limbs. Her mouth moved with murmured words as she turned pages with tranquil absorbedness.
She never looked up at me, though now I was barely reading at all. My eyes wandered to every bird that darted. I caught the sound of two squirrels rustling through the leaves like a dog catching a new scent. I saw the ants that avoided climbing the mountain that I was to them. I slapped at a mosquito –out earlier in the day than usual– and wiped my hand on a protruding root from Della’s tree.
Finally, Della closed her book and looked up, stretching her arms above her head with a sigh. As she lowered them, I was reminded that she was just a girl, though she smiled like she’d been enlightened by something she read, whereas I felt only hot frustration at the thought of my book.
“What grade are you in, Della?” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant. “I’ll be in the fifth grade when we start back to school,” she said.
She’s older than me. That explains why she reads faster, I thought, looking for anything to ease my annoyance at being bested.
“But I’m only turning ten in January,” she said. “Mama got tired of having me around the house asking ‘Why?’ to everything, so she started me in school early. I’m in the same grade as my brother, Mason, but he’s a year older than me.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, I should get home to dinner.” I knew dinner wouldn’t be ready for another hour or so, but my pride was hurt and I was grasping for a means of escape.
“Okay, well, I’ll see you tomorrow though, right?” Della asked, her voice sounding uncertain and a little resigned.
“Yeah, sure. See you.” I said.
I didn’t intend to go back to the creek the next day, but I did. It was late afternoon and I was in the living room giving Tom Sawyer another shot, but I kept glancing at the clock to see how fast I was reading. I could barely focus, too, because Keen, Jimmy, and our other neighbor, Greg, were all scrunched up about eighteen inches from the TV screen, fighting monsters on the Sega Dreamcast. I dropped my book closed onto the coffee table with a thud that did nothing to rouse them from their stupor.
“I think we need to take a more conservative approach,” Keen said as he mashed buttons on the controller.
I sighed and walked through the kitchen, grabbing a pen from our junk drawer next to the sink and scrawling a note for Mom on a napkin in case she got home from work before I returned.
At the creek, I saw Della carving her initials in the trunk of her reading tree with a pointed rock.
“Oh good, you’re here,” she said brightly.
I didn’t say anything, but I went searching for a rock to carve my own initials into the tree. We worked silently for twenty minutes before stepping back to review our work. The letters she’d wrought flowed with ease through the harsh bark of the tree, like she’d spoken softly to it and the tree had parted its skin for her. My own letters were stubby and looked like the cave drawings of a toddler.
She said, “Yours look great. O.C. ”
What does the C stand for?”
I said, “It says, O.L. Olive Lee.”
“Oh, well, it looks great, like I said.”
“Thanks. I should get back.”
“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
I was equal parts annoyed and astonished when I heard myself say, “You want to come to my house for dinner?”
Della said, “Sure,” almost before I’d finished speaking. “Can I use your phone to call my mom and let her know? She might not even notice if I wasn’t home for dinner, but I feel like it’s always better to call. If she did notice I was missing, she’d have the police out looking for me before I could even run back to the house.”
She rattled on as we rocked down the slope toward home, and I barely had to do more than nod and say “yeah” every now and then until we reached the house. We went in the back door into the kitchen, where Mom was looking up the number for pizza delivery.
I introduced the two of them and after exchanging pleasantries, Mom asked, “So where were you girls today? You look a little swampy and hot.”
“We were down at the creek,” I said.
“I see,” Mom said, glancing past Della to the living room where the boys were still saving the world from alien invasion. “I’m going to order pizza since your dad is still helping Mr. Rollins with that burst pipe. You two go hang out in the living room. Unless you want to help me with the dishes, that is.”
We both muttered a hurried, “No ma’am,” and after Della called and left a message for her mother, we fled before my mom could change her mind and make us help. Once on the couch, we sat casting shy glances at each other, afraid to speak now that the boys were nearby. After a particularly emphatic outburst from the boys at some happening in their beloved game, we looked at each other and grinned. We started mimicking the movements of the boys’ avatars on the screen, aiming imaginary guns at imaginary enemies.
The boys didn’t notice our presence until the pizza arrived and their need for sustenance pulled them from the raging battles they were fighting. Mom was sitting out in the backyard with a glass of sweet tea and a magazine, and Della and I were already seated at the table, stacking slices of pizza on our paper plates, when the boys rushed in. Jimmy and Greg came in first, stopping short at the sight of Della. Keen bumped into the both of them and tried to shove past them, only to stop and stiffen when he caught sight of our dinner guest.
“Keen, this is Della,” I said, wiping my mouth with a napkin to hide my grin. Unconsciously, Keen reached up to his face to rub his eye, wincing as he encountered the bruises there.
Della made as if to stand –a reaction that caused the boys to leap backwards a full foot. She paused with a hand outstretched toward a can of root beer and looked at them for a moment, cocking her head to the side before grabbing the drink and pushing back into her seat. She looked over at me like she was afraid I might run too, but my smirk caused her face to light up with a smile and she began chatting away through bites of cheese pizza, glancing over at the boys as the scent of the feast slowly brought them nearer to the table, though they were wary of getting too close. Gaining brief confidence, they snatched a pizza, cans of soda, and a bag of potato chips before an evil grin from Della caused a swift retreat back to their war room. I could get used to this, I thought.
Bre Lillie is a native of Charlotte, North Carolina. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. Her stories and poems have been published in River and South Review and The Journal, Wofford College’s literary magazine. In her spare time, she enjoys sewing wacky throw pillows using recycled fabrics, as well as complaining about hiking while hiking.