Innocence

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The rubber sling grew taut in my fingers, and the itch to shoot something swelled as I aimed. This time, I couldn’t scratch the spot. I didn’t have a rock. I used up my supply last night after supper on the count of finding so many things in this world takin’ up space. Somebody needed to give them a way out and I happily obliged. Like my momma always said, I’m helpful like that. 

I would scout for more ammunition later, but now, my legs ached. They did that sometimes when moisture hung heavy in the hot air. I decided to rest for a spell on my grandma’s front stoop. My daddy had sent me here every summer since my momma died. I didn’t much mind. I liked being alone– no one watching what I do. Plus, I learn all kinds of things on my own, like the sound a bone makes when it cracks. Each one had a different tone. 

The coolness of the step raised goosebumps across my thighs. I remembered a warning about ants, so I bent down and inspected the cement where I sat. At first, I didn’t see anything but the crevices, time and footsteps had carved. So, I leaned down some more. Minuscule creatures scurried about, all aimless and such. I couldn’t decide what seemed worse; going on with my legs aching or having some bitty ants dancing all about my britches. 

I chose the ache of something I already had over the itch for something new. But I feared some of those pests found their way in. I sprang up from that resting spot and jumped around, smacking my own ass to smash those invading few. As I jigged and juddered in some primal dance, I spotted a boy out in the distance, crossing the open field. 

He carried something, maybe a branch from a hickory tree. They grow near straight. I scrutinized closer and reckoned it too perfect to be anything but a manmade rod. My grandpa, God rest his soul, told me about all the different kinds of aquatic life and all the sweet spots over yonder where the catching was easy. 

The entire surface of the water formed in my mind’s eye. On the far side of that field laid a pond all shiny and cool. The boy gotta be on his way to fish, that was if he carried a rod and reel. If it’s a stick, he just plain bad at fishin’.  

Either way, I figured watching the whole damn thing play out would bring me sheer joy. I headed in his direction, and I planned on sinking my legs deep in the water when I got there and the thought sent shivers through me. Who knows, might work his jaw for a bit of conversation, that was, if I got the urge. I snorted a little laugh at the absurdity– I might actually teach that boy how to fish.  

Tickle grass, high as my knees, brushed against me as I cut through to the field and headed toward my destination. The heat was almost unbearable now. My hair stuck to the sides of my cheeks as sweat trickled down like drops of melted sun itself. I hated the sticking part. Clumps of hair curled like snakes glued to my face and the back of my neck. No question, I was definitely going in and cooling off.  

As I reached the far edge of the field where the woods grew free, I no longer could see him, but I heard that boy. Pretty sure he ain’t no hunter because he whistled and tussled his feet the whole dang way. Noisiest boy ever, like he never been out in nature or snuck up on prey before.  

I figured when I got to the spot marked in my mind, I’d hide up in a tree. For fun, make some animal calls and scare the heck out of him. By the time I got down to the pond, my mind circled back to my slingshot and the glorious sound made upon contact. That dang boy was so loud, my thoughts turned again on account of him given other boys a bad name. YOU AIN’T NOISY WHEN YOU FISHIN’.  

But when I got to the last, real row of trees near the bank and saw him standing there, I froze. Maybe the heat got to my brain. Maybe it was the cool breeze off the water or the sound of leaves as they rustled. Heck, maybe I was plum crazy because I caught myself right then wishing I had a hairbrush instead of a slingshot in my back pocket. 

I lifted the edge of my t-shirt and wipe the sweat from my face and pushed my stuck hair back. For the first time in my life, I wondered if I looked okay– if I looked like a girl. I probably don’t look pretty. I had been barked at before. 

Then I pondered if I smelled clean or if my skin smelt sticky the way it did to me? I always wore old hand-me-down britches, cut-off because my brothers were all taller than me. I even had on a boy’s t-shirt. At least my hair was long, so I guess he knew I was a girl. 

This stupid daydream caused me to lose sight of my surroundings, and when I leaned a little too hard on my hiding branch, it gave way and snapped. I stumbled out of the trees and fell with a belly smack on the muddy bank. For a moment, I considered burying my nose in the wet, sloppy mud. One deep inhale, and my mortification would end. But that something extra in me, the part my daddy always said he was afraid would leave one day, stood and rallied me. 

The boy just grinned. He wasn’t startled. Didn’t come to help me up neither. I realized he had known I was behind him the whole damn trip. Normally, I would have been as mad as a cat trapped in a bin, but for some reason, I didn’t mind this time. I smiled back, got up, and brushed off my britches.  

“I ain’t following you,” I said, not sounding too convincing. “Just coming down to the water to slip my shoes off.” I cuffed my shorts up before sitting down. “I need to cool off for a bit.” 

He said it sounded good to him, and he joined me on the wooden pier.  

“Watch out,” I warned, “the planks are rotten. Some nails pushing out too, all rusty.” 

He nodded and watched his steps more carefully. I liked that– he was willing to learn. That was good because I ain’t like nobody else he would ever meet. Not ever. 

We sat there, the two of us, side-by-side on that summer day. Arms touched and sometimes kind of held together from the heat. Our feet played in the water, toes wiggled on the surface of the mud, and the glorious sun caressed our faces.  
I never felt more alive or more like a girl my entire life. I giggled when our eyes met, and I found myself hoping to see him every summer. Every single one of them, and one day, when I was older, fully grown out, I would share that milestone with him too. I wondered if a girl my age could be in love? I didn’t even know him, heck, I didn’t know his name, but he made something stir inside me.  

He leaned in until our shoulders pressed together and his face became close enough that his breath remained warm as it drifted over my lips. He never closed his eyes or blinked as he approached. My mouth parted, and a soft sigh emerged. I longed for his mouth to press against mine. 

All movement paused, suspended in time, as he stared deeply, searching for my soul. I liked it, and I stared back, losing myself in the dark recesses of him until I saw something I could never want. His eyes held a hunger within them, not for a kiss or even a feel. No, he harbored the salivation of a crow staring at carrion all ready to peck flesh. He wanted something from me. Something he didn’t have the right to take. 

“What’s the matter with you? You a girl, ain’t you? I thought you wanted this. You sure act like you did up until this moment when I’m ready to give it. You scared?” 

I pushed him back, my hand pressed against his chest, but he grabbed my arms. I turned my head down in disgust. I never felt so weak, so helpless as I did right then. But it made me realize what he wanted. He wanted my naiveness– my comfort– my sense of security. I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, let him ruin me. I needed a way out.

Unexpectedly, he provided it. I don’t know if it was how he jumped up or the smirk on his face when he did, but I’d been damned if I let him take anything from me. “I ain’t scared,” I screamed. He released me and walked away. 

The farther he went, the greater my urge to chase him– to jump on his back, wrap my thighs around his waist, and squeeze real hard. So, I did. After I caught my balance, I lifted my hands from his shoulders and secured them on his jaw. With a snap, I knew the sound a boy’s bone made intent on takin’ my innocence away.

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