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The Sweet In-Between
We’ve come out here to fish, me and Quincy and Daphne and Aunt Glo. Daphne’s got her lunch box filled with rotten chicken necks, the rottener the better for the crabs. So I move upwind, past the stench. I’ve got my daddy’s old rod and reel, the red one with the soft cork handle. It’s got dents from where his fingers used to go.
It’s September now, and we’ve come out here to fish. But Quincy brought his skateboard, and he’s riding it all the way to the end of the pier, pissing off the heron who was catching a nap. Quincy’s wheels thrum-drum through the cracks between boards, and that heron stretches out and takes off. If I could fly like that, I wouldn’t even mind looking so prehistoric. The heron settles on a channel marker out there in the bay and pulls his head into his shoulders like somebody cold.
Aunt Glo helps Daphne tie her chicken necks with string and dangle them down into the water. Daphne sniffs her fingers and says, “Ugh,” but she must like the smell, the way she sniffs them over and over. “Ugh,” she says and scrunches up her nose.
I’ve got my own cooler, and stashed inside it there’s a can of soda, a pack of saltines, a plastic bag with my still-frozen squid, and an army knife sharp enough to cut it. So I dig out a piece of squid and saw it right there, add my slashes to the thousand already carved into this wood. I choose a good-size hunk, the head, and hook it to my line. I hook it three times, through the flesh and through the eye, black juice squirting out at me, and when I cast, my line zings high and plops hard in the bay.
Now it’s the wait, the knock-knock of the line and deciding whether it’s a crab or something bigger, the reeling in sometimes, the breeze on my face, my face in the sun. It’s September, but the sun’s still hot, and when I close my eyes, I can pretend I’m on a boat sailing off to somewhere else.
On that boat, heading north with my face in the wind, I can forget the sounds I heard last night: the banging around, the giggles and high-pitched “shits!” I thought at first it was just a dream and those girls were at my door and making fun of me. It was late in the night, and when I woke up, I figured somebody was pulling a prank on old Jarvis Stanley right next door.
But that was yesterday.
With the water slapping soft against the wood, I pretend I’m a tugboat captain, pulling a barge loaded with gold all the way up to Annapolis, and I wonder if barges ever carry anything besides gravel or coal, if barges go to Annapolis at all. Annapolis is the farthest I’ve ever been, but someday I’ll go farther. I’ll go someplace where crazy things don’t happen, where girls don’t die like that girl died last night, right there in Jarvis Stanley’s living room.
Today I plan to catch a flounder. Maybe two.
This morning when the school bus came, we were all in our pajamas. Aunt Glo said, “Well, I swannee,” and waved the driver on. Weren’t none of us ready, not even me, and I’ve always got my book bag packed and sitting by the door.
Aunt Glo made us jelly toast and sat there looking at the jelly knife for the longest time and shaking her head, and I couldn’t stop thinking how jelly tastes sweet but blood does not. When I saw that dead girl, I bit my lip and didn’t even know it until I swallowed. My blood went down, her blood ran out, in the grooves of the floorboards behind Jarvis Stanley’s couch where she fell.
We didn’t get much sleep.
It was four in the morning, and the banging came first, then the giggling, then the sound I found out later was a window forced up. Then there was the hot sound, a shotgun cracking. And after that, the screaming, or maybe the screaming started at the exact same time. Then the galloping, but that was really us—all running down the stairs, and by then we were all right there, me and Quincy peeking out the window, and Aunt Glo on the phone with 911, Daphne crying hard as she could squall and her not even knowing yet what was going on. Then the other girl screaming and beating on our door. Then the police sirens, and the ambulance, and that other girl shivering and crouching on our porch, on our side of the duplex, till Aunt Glo finally let her in.
“You got a bite,” Quincy says. He scares me, and I jump. Sure enough, my pole tip’s kicking. I reel it in, but it’s too late. My bait’s gone.
“How come you’re not fishing?” I ask him. He’s got a newer rod and reel than me.
He shrugs. “Later,” he says and skates away like everything’s fine, like this day’s ordinary as butter in your grits.
I keep wishing for an ordinary day, but my stomach’s murky and sloshing around, and it feels like I’ve got little fish chomping at my guts. Even though the pier’s not really pitching, I’m queasy and can’t watch the water long.
So I go over to check on Daphne and Aunt Glo. Aunt Glo’s got her sunglasses on, and she’s leaned back in her beach chair, so I can’t tell if she’s awake or not. Daphne says, “Smell my fingers,” and shoves them toward my nose, but I slap her grubby hand away.
“Piss-head,” she says, pouting, and turns back to her string, teasing it up from the water, trying to hold on to the crab.
“Aunt Glo,” I say, “I’m going for a walk,” but Aunt Glo doesn’t move. “Aunt Glo,” I repeat. “I’ll be back in a little bit.”
And since she doesn’t stop me, I take off.
I walk along the beach awhile. It’s better when I’m walking. The tide’s falling, and there’s black seaweed along the edges where water used to be. It looks like the stuff inside a cassette tape, pulled out and curling all around itself. I think of all the tapes my daddy used to have, tapes his old girlfriends made. They said things like “For Greg. Play when lonely or sad” or “To Greg, on our two-month anniversary.” He kept them in the console of his truck, and when we moved up here, we listened to those songs all the way from Georgia to Virginia. But one night when Daddy and Aunt Glo got in a bad love spat, she tore out all the tapes and left them wadded on the floorboards, the plastic cases cracked from where she smashed them.
I kick through the seaweed with my sneakers.
After a while, Quincy comes up, skateboard under his arm, saying, “Looka here,” and he shows me the caps from tire stems in his pocket, the little black hoods he’s unscrewed. It’s his favorite hobby, next to skateboarding, stealing tire-stem caps. I don’t know why he does it. He has a whole sockful back at the house.
“Whose are they?” I ask, but he doesn’t know. He tells me he’s going to the post office, but what he means is he’s going to the parking lot behind it where he’s built a ramp out of an old piece of plywood leaned against the delivery dock. They opened a new post office last year, a big one out on the highway. They boarded up the windows of the old one with signs that say for lease or sale.
“What about Aunt Glo?” I ask him.
“What about her?” Quincy says and grins. He’s Aunt Glo’s baby son and gets away with a lot. He’s got stringy hair that needs cutting, hanging in his eyes, and a deep one-sided dimple that makes him look like he thinks the whole world’s retarded, even though I know better.
Last night he got ahold of my T-shirt when they took that girl away. They put her on a stretcher and rolled her through the porch light, the covers all bloodied from where they pulled them over her head. Quincy nearly strangled me, twisting my shirt so hard. I had to elbow him to make him quit. Quincy’s twelve, but he looks ten.
I tell him, “Aunt Glo’ll be pissed if you sneak off to the PO without asking.”
“She won’t even know it,” Quincy claims. “She popped an Oxy ’fore we left. She’s probably snoring by now. Scaring off all Daphne’s crabs. You coming?”
“Nah,” I say. “I better go check on ’em.”
“Whatever,” Quincy says, but he’s dragging as he crosses all that sand. I can tell he doesn’t want to skate any more than I want to fish. But sometimes you have to pass a day—in one way or another—just to get to tomorrow.
Back on the dock, Daphne’s pulled up a crab, and she’s squealing as she tries to catch it in her net. It drops into the water before I can help her. “It’s the third time that shit-sucker fell off,” she whines.
Aunt Glo’s not asleep after all, ’cause she says, “Girl, you better watch your language,” but there’s no threat in her voice. It’s like all her energy’s leeched out, and I feel sorry for Aunt Glo, having to put up with so much. Aunt Glo’s oldest boy, Tim-Tim, taught Daphne to cuss back before she even lost her baby lisp. Now she’s seven and a half and set in her ways. There’s nothing any of us can do about it. “I’m gone blister your hide,” Aunt Glo adds.
Daphne mocks her, mouthing back her words, but without making any sounds. Aunt Glo doesn’t see it. She’s still lost behind her sunglasses, and I wonder if she’s picturing Jarvis Stanley and how crazy he looked, just woke up and whiskery, waving that shotgun around, saying, “I thought they was burglers” and “What the hell they breaking through my winder for?” Even after the police arrived, Jarvis kept saying, “Anybody breaks in my house in the middle of the night deserves to get shot.”
But then there was that other girl, the screaming one, who waved around a piece of paper, saying, “We rented it. We paid!”
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