By early December, just over two weeks into rehearsals, the sky was winter dark before Miss Garber would let us leave, and Jamie asked me if I wouldn’t mind walking her home. I don’t know why she wanted me to. Beaufort wasn’t exactly a hotbed of criminal activity back then. The only murder I’d ever heard about had occurred six years earlier when a guy was stabbed outside of Maurice’s Tavern, which was a hangout for people like Lew, by the way. For an hour or so it caused quite a stir, and phone lines buzzed all over town while nervous women wondered about the possibility of a crazed lunatic wandering the streets, preying on innocent victims. Doors were locked, guns were loaded, men sat by the front windows, looking for anyone out of the ordinary who might be creeping down the street. But the whole thing was over before the night was through when the guy walked into the police station to give himself up, explaining that it was a bar fight that got out of hand. Evidently the victim had welshed on a bet. The guy was charged with second-degree murder and got six years in the state penitentiary. The policemen in our town had the most boring jobs in the world, but they still liked to strut around with a swagger or sit in coffee shops while they talked about the “big crime,” as if they’d cracked the case of the Lindbergh baby.
But Jamie’s house was on the way to mine, and I couldn’t say no without hurting her feelings. It wasn’t that I liked her or anything, don’t get the wrong idea, but when you’ve had to spend a few hours a day with someone, and you’re going to continue doing that for at least another week, you don’t want to do anything that might make the next day miserable for either of you.
The play was going to be performed that Friday and Saturday, and lots of people were already talking about it. Miss Garber had been so impressed by Jamie and me that she kept telling everyone it was going to be the best play the school had ever done. She had a real flair for promotion, too, we found out. We had one radio station in town, and they interviewed her over the air, not once, but twice. “It’s going to be marvelous,” she pronounced, “absolutely marvelous.” She’d also called the newspaper, and they’d agreed to write an article about it, primarily because of the Jamie– Hegbert connection, even though everyone in town already knew about it. But Miss Garber was relentless, and just that day she’d told us the Playhouse was going to bring in extra seats to accommodate the extra-large crowd expected. The class sort of oohed and aahed, like it was a big deal or something, but then I guess it was to some of them. Remember, we had guys like Eddie in class. He probably thought that this would be the only time in his life when someone might be interested in him. The sad thing was, he was probably right.
You might think I’d be getting excited about it, too, but I really wasn’t. My friends were still teasing me at school, and I hadn’t had an afternoon off in what seemed like forever. The only thing that kept me going was the fact that I was doing the “right thing.” I know it’s not much, but frankly, it was all I had. Occasionally I even felt sort of good about it, too, though I never admitted it to anyone. I could practically imagine the angels in heaven, standing around and staring wistfully down at me with little tears filling the corners of their eyes, talking about how wonderful I was for all my sacrifices.
So I was walking her home that first night, thinking about this stuff, when Jamie asked me a question.
“Is it true you and your friends sometimes go to the graveyard at night?”
Part of me was surprised that she was even interested. Though it wasn’t exactly a secret, it didn’t seem like the sort of thing she’d care about at all.
“Yeah,” I said, shrugging. “Sometimes.”
“What do you do there, besides eat peanuts?”
I guess she knew about that, too.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Talk . . . joke around. It’s just a place we like to go.”
“Does it ever scare you?”
“No,” I answered. “Why? Would it scare you?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “It might.”
“Because I’d worry that I might do something wrong.”
“We don’t do anything bad there. I mean, we don’t knock over the tombstones or leave our trash around,” I said. I didn’t want to tell her about our conversations about Henry Preston because I knew that wasn’t the sort of thing Jamie would want to hear about. Last week Eric had wondered aloud how fast a guy like that could lie in bed and . . . well . . . you know.
“Do you ever just sit around and listen to the sounds?” she asked. “Like the crickets chirping, or the rustling of leaves when the wind blows? Or do you ever just lie on your backs and stare at the stars?”
Even though she was a teenager and had been for four years, Jamie didn’t know the first thing about teenagers, and trying to understand teenage boys for her was like trying to decipher the theory of relativity.
“Not really,” I said.
She nodded a little. “I think that’s what I’d do if I were there, if I ever go, I mean. I’d just look around to really see the place, or sit quietly and listen.”
This whole conversation struck me as strange, but I didn’t press it, and we walked in silence for a few moments. And since she’d asked a little about me, I sort of felt obliged to ask her about herself. I mean, she hadn’t brought up the Lord’s plan or anything, so it was the least I could do.
“So, what do you do?” I asked. “Besides working with the orphans or helping critters or reading the Bible, I mean?” It sounded ridiculous, even to me, I admit, but that’s what she did.
She smiled at me. I think she was surprised by my question, and even more surprised at my interest in her.
“I do a lot of things. I study for my classes, I spend time with my dad. We play gin rummy now and then. Things like that.”
“Do you ever just go off with friends and goof around?”
“No,” she said, and I could tell by the way she answered that even to her, it was obvious that no one wanted her around much.
“I’ll bet you’re excited about going off to college next year,” I said, changing the subject.
It took her a moment to answer.
“I don’t think I’m going to go,” she said matter-of-factly. Her answer caught me off guard. Jamie had some of the highest grades in our senior class, and depending on how the last semester went, she might even end up valedictorian. We had a running pool going as to how many times she would mention the Lord’s plan in her speech, by the way. My bet was fourteen, being that she only had five minutes.
“What about Mount Sermon? I thought that’s where you were planning to go. You’d love a place like that,” I offered.
She looked at me with a twinkle in her eye. “You mean I’d fit right in there, don’t you?”
Those curveballs she sometimes threw could smack you right between the eyeballs.
“I didn’t mean it that way,” I said quickly. “I just meant that I’d heard about how excited you were to be going there next year.”
She shrugged without really answering me, and to be honest, I didn’t know what to make of it. By then we’d reached the front of her house, and we stopped on the sidewalk out front. From where I was standing, I could make out Hegbert’s shadow in the living room through the curtains. The lamp was on, and he was sitting on the sofa by the window. His head was bowed, like he was reading something. I assumed it was the Bible.
“Thank you for walking me home, Landon,” she said, and she glanced up at me for a moment before finally starting up the walk.
As I watched her go, I couldn’t help but think that of all the times I’d ever talked to her, this was the strangest conversation we’d ever had. Despite the oddness of some of her answers, she seemed practically normal.
The next night, as I was walking her home, she asked me about my father.
“He’s all right, I reckon,” I said. “But he’s not around much.”
“Do you miss that? Not growing up with him around?”
“I miss my mom, too,” she said, “even though I never even knew her.”
It was the first time I’d ever considered that Jamie and I might have something in common. I let that sink in for a while.
“It must be hard for you,” I said sincerely. “Even though my father’s a stranger to me, at least he’s still around.”
She looked up at me as we walked, then faced forward again. She tugged gently at her hair again. I was beginning to notice that she did this whenever she was nervous or wasn’t sure what to say.
“It is, sometimes. Don’t get me wrong—I love my father with all my heart—but there are times when I wonder what it would have been like to have a mother around. I think she and I would have been able to talk about things in a way that my father and I can’t.”
I assumed she was talking about boys. It wasn’t until later that I learned how wrong I was.
“What’s it like, living with your father? Is he like how he is in church?”
“No. He’s actually got a pretty good sense of humor.”
“Hegbert?” I blurted out. I couldn’t even imagine it.
I think she was shocked to hear me call him by his first name, but she let me off the hook and didn’t respond to my comment. Instead she said, “Don’t look so surprised. You’ll like him, once you get to know him.”
“I doubt if I’ll ever get to know him.”
“You never know, Landon,” she said, smiling, “what the Lord’s plan is.”
I hated when she said things like that. With her, you just knew she talked to the Lord every day, and you never knew what the “Big Guy upstairs” had told her. She might even have a direct ticket into heaven, if you know what I mean, being as how good a person she was.
“How would I get to know him?” I asked.
She didn’t answer, but she smiled to herself, as if she knew some secret that she was keeping from me. Like I said, I hated it when she did that.
The next night we talked about her Bible.
“Why do you always carry it with you?” I asked.
Now, I assumed she carried the Bible around simply because she was the minister’s daughter. It wasn’t that big of an assumption, given how Hegbert felt about Scripture and all. But the Bible she carried was old and the cover was kind of ratty looking, and I figured that she’d be the kind of person who would buy a new one every year or so just to help out the Bible publishing industry or to show her renewed dedication to the Lord or something.
She walked a few steps before answering.
“It was my mother’s,” she said simply.
“Oh. . . .” I said it like I’d stepped on someone’s pet turtle, squashing it under my shoe.
She looked at me. “It’s okay, Landon. How could you have known?”
“I’m sorry I asked. . . .”
“Don’t be. You didn’t mean anything by it.” She paused. “My mother and father were given this Bible for their wedding, but my mom was the one who claimed it first. She read it all the time, especially whenever she was going through a hard time in her life.”
I thought about the miscarriages. Jamie went on.
“She loved to read it at night, before she went to sleep, and she had it with her in the hospital when I was born. When my father found out that she had died, he carried the Bible and me out of the hospital at the same time.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again. Whenever someone tells you something sad, it’s the only thing you can think to say, even if you’ve already said it before.
“It just gives me a way to . . . to be a part of her. Can you understand that?” She wasn’t saying it sadly, just more to let me know the answer to my question. Somehow that made it worse.
After she told me the story, I thought of her growing up with Hegbert again, and I didn’t really know what to say. As I was thinking about my answer, though, I heard a car blare its horn from behind us, and both Jamie and I stopped and turned around at the same time as we heard it pulling over to the side.
Eric and Margaret were in the car, Eric on the driver’s side, Margaret on the side closest to us.
“Well, lookee who we have here,” Eric said as he leaned over the steering wheel so that I could see his face. I hadn’t told him I’d been walking Jamie home, and in the curious way that teenage minds work, this new development took priority over anything that I was feeling about Jamie’s story.
“Hello, Eric. Hello, Margaret,” Jamie said cheerfully.
“Walking her home, Landon?” I could see the little devil behind Eric’s smile.
“Hey, Eric,” I said, wishing he’d never seen me.
“It’s a beautiful night for strolling, isn’t it?” Eric said. I think that because Margaret was between him and Jamie, he felt a little bolder than he usually was in Jamie’s presence. And there was no way he could let this opportunity pass without sticking it to me.
Jamie looked around and smiled. “Yes, it is.”
Eric looked around, too, with this wistful look in his eyes before taking a deep breath. I could tell he was faking it. “Boy, it really is nice out there.” He sighed and glanced toward us as he shrugged. “I’d offer you a ride, but it wouldn’t be half as nice as actually walking under the stars, and I wouldn’t want you two to miss it.” He said this like he was doing us both a favor.
“Oh, we’re almost to my house anyway,” Jamie said. “I was going to offer Landon a cup of cider. Would you like to meet us there? We have plenty.”
A cup of cider? At her house? She hadn’t mentioned that. . . .
I put my hands in my pocket, wondering if this could get any worse.
“Oh, no . . . that’s all right. We were just heading off to Cecil’s Diner.”
“On a school night?” she asked innocently.
“Oh, we won’t be out too late,” he promised, “but we should probably be going. Enjoy your cider, you two.”
“Thanks for stopping to say hello,” Jamie said, waving.
Eric got the car rolling again, but slowly. Jamie probably thought he was a safe driver. He really wasn’t, though he was good at getting out of trouble when he’d crashed into something. I remember one time when he’d told his mother that a cow had jumped out in front of the car and that’s why the grille and fender were damaged. “It happened so fast, Mom, the cow came out of nowhere. It just darted out in front of me, and I couldn’t stop in time.” Now, everyone knows cows don’t exactly dart anywhere, but his mother believed him. She used to be a head cheerleader, too, by the way.
Once they’d pulled out of sight, Jamie turned to me and smiled.
“You have nice friends, Landon.”
“Sure I do.” Notice the careful way I phrased my answer.
After dropping Jamie off—no, I didn’t stay for any cider—I started back to my house, grumbling the whole time. By then Jamie’s story had left me completely, and I could practically hear my friends laughing about me, all the way from Cecil’s Diner.
See what happens when you’re a nice guy?
By the next morning everyone at school knew I was walking Jamie home, and this started up a new round of speculation about the two of us. This time it was even worse than before. It was so bad that I had to spend my lunch break in the library just to get away from it all.
That night, the rehearsal was at the Playhouse. It was the last one before the show opened, and we had a lot to do. Right after school, the boys in drama class had to load all the props in the classroom into the rented truck to take them to the Playhouse. The only problem was that Eddie and I were the only two boys, and he’s not exactly the most coordinated individual in history. We’d be walking through a doorway, carrying one of the heavier items, and his Hooville body would work against him. At every critical moment when I really needed his help to balance the load, he’d stumble over some dust or an insect on the floor, and the weight of the prop would come crashing down on my fingers, pinching them against the doorjamb in the most painful way possible.
“S-s-sorry,” he’d say. “D-d-did . . . th-th-that hurt?”
I’d stifle the curses rising in my throat and bite out, “Just don’t do it again.”
But he couldn’t stop himself from stumbling around any more than he could stop the rain from falling. By the time we’d finished loading and unloading everything, my fingers looked like Toby’s, the roving handyman. And the worst thing was, I didn’t even get a chance to eat before rehearsal started. Moving the props had taken three hours, and we didn’t finish setting them up until a few minutes before everyone else arrived to begin. With everything else that had happened that day, suffice it to say I was in a pretty bad mood.
I ran through my lines without even thinking about them, and Miss Garber didn’t say the word marvelous all night long. She had this concerned look in her eyes afterward, but Jamie simply smiled and told her not to worry, that everything was going to be all right. I knew Jamie was just trying to make things better for me, but when she asked me to walk her home, I told her no. The Playhouse was in the middle of town, and to walk her home, I’d have to walk a good distance out of my way. Besides, I didn’t want to be seen again doing it. But Miss Garber had overheard Jamie’s request and she said, very firmly, that I’d be glad to do it. “You two can talk about the play,” she said. “Maybe you can work out the kinks.” By kinks, of course, she meant me specifically.
So once more I ended up walking Jamie home, but she could tell I wasn’t really in the mood to talk because I walked a little bit in front of her, my hands in my pockets, without even really turning back to see whether she was following. It went this way for the first few minutes, and I hadn’t said a word to her.
“You’re not in a very good mood, are you?” she finally asked. “You didn’t even try tonight.”
“You don’t miss a thing, do you?” I said sarcastically without looking at her.
“Maybe I can help,” she offered. She said it kind of happily, which made me even a little angrier.
“I doubt it,” I snapped.
“Maybe if you told me what was wrong—”
I didn’t let her finish.
“Look,” I said, stopping, turning to face her. “I’ve just spent all day hauling crap, I haven’t eaten since lunch, and now I have to trek a mile out of my way to make sure you get home, when we both know you don’t even need me to do it.”
It was the first time I’d ever raised my voice to her. To tell you the truth, it felt kind of good. It had been building up for a long time. Jamie was too surprised to respond, and I went on.
“And the only reason I’m doing this is because of your father, who doesn’t even like me. This whole thing is dumb, and I wish I had never agreed to do it.”
“You’re just saying this because you’re nervous about the play—”
I cut her off with a shake of my head. Once I got on a roll, it was sometimes hard for me to stop. I could take her optimism and cheerfulness only so long, and today wasn’t the day to push me too far.
“Don’t you get it?” I said, exasperated. “I’m not nervous about the play, I just don’t want to be here. I don’t want to walk you home, I don’t want my friends to keep talking about me, and I don’t want to spend time with you. You keep acting like we’re friends, but we’re not. We’re not anything. I just want the whole thing to be over so I can go back to my normal life.”
She looked hurt by my outburst, and to be honest, I couldn’t blame her.
“I see,” was all she said. I waited for her to raise her voice at me, to defend herself, to make her case again, but she didn’t. All she did was look toward the ground. I think part of her wanted to cry, but she didn’t, and I finally stalked away, leaving her standing by herself. A moment later, though, I heard her start moving, too. She was about five yards behind me the rest of the way to her house, and she didn’t try to talk to me again until she started up the walkway. I was already moving down the sidewalk when I heard her voice.
“Thank you for walking me home, Landon,” she called out.
I winced as soon as she said it. Even when I was mean to her face and said the most spiteful things, she could find some reason to thank me. She was just that kind of girl, and I think I actually hated her for it.
Or rather, I think, I hated myself.