September. Fifth Grade.
Butler Cove, SC
“Hey. Wait up,” I called to the dark-haired girl who’d climbed down off the bus before me. We’d all dumped out and moved in a big mess of chattering and neon socks along the path that led to the school doors. Except the new girl. No neon socks there. That’s how I’d known she was new. And a ways more interesting. She now stood to the side scuffing the toe of her shiny black Mary Jane shoes over socks as white as baby lambs against the sidewalk. She was watching the other kids warily.
“You gon’ ruin your shoes,” I said. I brushed my own blonde strands out of my eyes and grabbed two handfuls of my pony, yanking them apart to pull my hair tight. It didn’t matter how many rounds my mom did with the elastic, my crazy hair just never stayed up.
The new girl turned at the sound of my voice, maybe not sure if I was speaking to her. I smiled. Friendly as. “Hey,” I repeated. “I’m Jessica. Jess. Well, Jazz, says my pa, but he ain’t ’round much, so who knows if it’ll stick. And if we’re getting specific: Jazzy Bear.” I rolled my eyes. “What’s your name?”
She said nothing. Nada. Zip.
“Yeah, yeah, I can yap the tail feather off a rooster, or so my ma says. You new?”
Still nothing. I wondered if maybe she had a talking problem, like little Jake Singleton. He hung down by the marina with his pa, Big Jake, who worked for the harbormaster sometimes, even though they lived over on Daufuskie Island. I loved Big Jake. His ropey dark brown arms always helpful when I wanted to sneak out to my daddy’s boat in one of the kayaks. Little Jake came with me sometimes—it was nice to have a quiet shadow on the days when I needed to feel less lonely. And those were the days I needed to go to my daddy’s boat anyways.
“You talk?” I asked. “It’s fine if you don’t. I have a friend who don’t neither.”
The brown-haired girl with big blue eyes lifted the left side of her mouth. I think she was gonna try to smile.
“Doesn’t either,” she said softly.
She shook her head. “Never mind.”
“Anyway, I’m guessin’ you’re new. You an’ me are the only ones what ain’t wearing those stupid neon socks.” I hushed my voice. “Truth is, I want to, but my ma won’t buy ’em for me. Told me I’m spoilin’ as it is.”
I twirled around in the sunshine, my arms flung out at my sides, my Lisa Simpson book bag sliding off my arm and yelled, “Do I look like I’m spoilin’?”
“Miss Fraser!” A deep voice barked like a dog, making us both jump. I giggled and grabbed the new girl’s arm, yanking her along with me as we tumbled through the doors into the school. She was laughing too, and for a moment I felt like I’d done an impossible thing, making her laugh. There were some kids who didn’t laugh as easy, and I was guessing she might be one o’ them.
“I’m Keri Ann,” she said, real quiet like.
“So you wanna be friends?” I asked, casual as. Truth was plain, there were some snotty bitches in our grade, and it was time I got a new friend. A real one. I thought of the meanest—Bethany Winters. She’d picked on Lizzie last week, leaving her barefoot in the girls’ restroom and tossing her shoes over the middle school fence. I was done being her friend.
Keri Ann’s face flushed bright pink all the way down to her neck. “Sure,” she mumbled with a small smile that quirked up the side of her mouth. At least I thought it was a smile.
“It’s mighty nice ta meet you, Keri Ann.” I nodded like I saw Momma do when she met someone new.
We walked side by side down the hall. Her backpack was making an awful racket. “What in the bejeesus are you carrying in your bag?” I finally asked.
She stopped in her tracks and went pink all over again. Turning, she showed me the side of her pack that had about a gazillion key chains hanging off the zipper.
“What are they?”
“Duh,” I said smiling.
“They’re from every place I’ve ever been.”
“Well, shit,” I said. “That’s cool. I ain’t been nowhere. Me? I guess I collect postcards . . . but sent from my pa.” Keri Ann’s eyes were surprised, then they shifted over my shoulder and grew round as saucers. I felt a heavy hand tap my shoulder. “And, shit again,” I whispered.
“Miss Fraser,” came the low rumble of Mr. McCaskill’s voice. I turned slowly to see the stern face of one of our homeroom teachers. His eyes were massive behind the lenses of his glasses, tan jacket hanging like a scarecrow’s from his tall bony body. “Detention at three p.m. I’ll let your mother know.”
My shoulders slumped. If I didn’t get the bus, then Mom would have to get me. She’d have to leave work early if they got ahold of her. Here was hoping they couldn’t track her down. I’d just walk home.
“Shit!” said a soft voice behind me. I turned about in shock to see Keri Ann staring at Mr. McCaskill. Then she gave me a quick wink and dropped her eyes.
Well, I’ll be ...
“Detentions for both of you?” He pursed his lips. “I see. I’m sure that’s exactly what you were hoping for. Well, not today. What’s your name?” He looked past me.
“Keri Ann Butler. Sir.”
“Well, Miss Butler, I guess you’re the new girl in my class. I’m Mr. McCaskill. What a wonderful introduction to your language skills. Come along.” Then he turned back, giving me that evil eye. “I’ll see you at three after dismissal, Miss Fraser.”
Keri Ann shot me a look, real sorry like. I smiled but couldn’t believe she’d done that for me. No matter it hadn’t worked. Maybe I’d found a best friend. “Ain’t nobody done shit like that for me before.”
“Miss Fraser!” McCaskill whipped around, his skinny lips smashed into a white line. His comb-over flew forward and he smacked it back in place. Then his hand shot out and snagged my ear. I yelped, pitchin’ my head in his direction to stop the hurtful tugging. I guess this was a trip to the principal’s office. I’d rather stick a hot needle in my eye.
“How can it be this dammin’ hot in February?” We were waiting under the long canopy, lined up by bus number. I turned to my new friend, Keri Ann. “So whatcha think of your first day?”
“Fine. How come you didn’t get detention?”
I groaned. “Coz Principal Devere called my momma. And that’s way worse. Anyway, Momma was workin’ and couldn’t come get me, so I gotta take the bus home. She’s gonna tan my hide.”
Keri Ann ’s eyes widened. “For real?”
I nodded. “For real. His name’s Sparky. He’s a wooden spoon what sits up high on the kitchen door frame waitin’ on me to be bad. My daddy don’t like Sparky, but my daddy ain’t here right now.” Looking at Keri Ann, I felt icky inside for saying all that. It just was what it was, but she was looking at me like I was a puppy or somethin’. “Stop it,” I snapped.
“Stop what?” she asked.
“You can just stop lookin’ at me like that.” Maybe best friend was a bit of a stretch.
“Oh, sorry. I, uh, was just thinking that my daddy’s gone a lot too.”
“Oh. Oh yeah?”
Then she was peering over my shoulder, eyes searching the field on the other side of the fence next to us. A pick up game of soccer by some middle school boys riled all up into a frantic scrimmage, with yelling and cursing.
I turned fully to the field to see what was so dang interesting about a bunch of stinking boys. Nu-othing, far as I could tell. Lots of yelling, shoving, and sweaty pieces of hair over their red faces. One of the taller boys was real good and seemed calmer than the others. His hair was the color of wet sand and he had awkward features. He dipped the toe of his tennis shoe into the tangle of feet and stole the ball real slick-like and was gone in a flash, scoring a goal before the others even noticed.
I laughed in surprise.
The boy turned and looked right at us. His small grin was lopsided, and his nose might have been slightly wide for his face, but maybe his features were’t too awkward. Maybe they were jus’ growing at different paces. Like my momma said my teeth were. And his eyes were nice, especially that one on the left that just winked at me.
My face instantly burned from being caught staring, and I whipped around back to Keri Ann, hoping she hadn’t seen that. But she had. And she was smiling, like the boy just winked at her, and she was waving as the line for the bus started moving forward.
We took a few steps, and I felt something against my ankle in the same instant I was face down on the concrete, having barely broken my fall with my hands. Pain shot up my body from my knee, and my palms burned. My eyes prickled as I gritted my teeth, trying not to cry out.
“Watch where you’re going,” the high-pitched voice of Bethany Winters came from above me, followed by the giggles of her group.
I looked up, blinking back tears, to see her smile, showing her new braces with neon pink bands to match her socks.
Then she turned away. “You’re holding up the line,” she tossed over her shoulder.
A hand came under my armpit and helped me to my feet. Keri Ann was grim-faced, her cheeks splotchy and red. “Are you okay?” she whispered.
I’d probably embarrassed her too. “Sorry,” I whispered back.
“Hey,” a voice called. It was one of the boys standing at the fence. The tall boy. The winking boy. He was resting his forearms over the metal pole that ran atop the fence around the whole field. But he wasn’t looking at me or Keri Ann. He was staring at Bethany. “Hey you,” he called and pointed. He wore faded jeans and a black Star Wars t-shirt.
People nudged each other and Bethany until she turned around. “Me?” She smiled, all shy like.
“Yeah, you,” he answered. But he didn’t seem mad at her. He was smiling.
I didn’t like this boy at all. And he’d seen me sprawling on the ground.
“Come here,” he called to Bethany.
Bethany’s friends giggled, and she gave them knowing looks and quickly glanced both ways to check for teachers before she scampered over the few feet of patchy grass separating our bus waiting area from the middle school fence.
“Typical.” I rolled my eyes and looked at Keri Ann, but her arms were crossed as she watched Bethany.
My new almost maybe best friend tilted her head close to me, and whispered, “That’s my brother.”
Looking back at the fence, I saw Bethany leaning close to the boy. He reached down and held her hand as he whispered something. At once her smile dropped and she tried to pull away, but he held on tight still talking quietly into her ear. Her face got darker—from pink to red. Her eyes landed on me and Keri Ann for a split second before they began searching the ground at her feet. It seemed to go on an awful long time. When finally the boy was done and let her go, she stumbled away, catching up to the line. Everyone was whispering but I couldn’t hear what.
I looked up and Keri Ann’s brother was staring right at me. For sure me. And he winked again and turned around, back to his soccer game.
Keri Ann tugged me and my heavy feet forward, and we were at the black rubber stairs of the bus, the sound of the engine chugging away. Built up heat from inside the vehicle flowed out onto us. Great. I was gonna be thirstier than a dog in a hot car before we even turned out the lot. I followed Keri Ann up the stairs, pretending not to see or hear the looks and whispers, and onto a hot vinyl bench seat that instantly stuck to my bare legs.
“What’s his name?” I asked, staring straight ahead, keeping my voice low as I could.
“Joseph Walter Butler,” she said like she was announcing him on stage or something.
Names are funny things. Never paid them much mind. But this one flowed around my ears, easing into my mind and twirling ribbons through my brain that finally dripped down into my chest. I wanted to scoop up every warm drop.
“Do you always introduce him with all his names? One will do,” I said all discomfited, and then instantly felt guilty for my tone. “But I guess he’s officially my hero,” I whispered. “After my daddy that is,” I amended. Then I immediately stomped on my tongue coz it was the third time today I’d mentioned my pa. And normally I didn’t talk about him at all. I got to keep more of him that way.
It was also the second time today a Butler had stepped in to defend me. My eyes prickled up again and that made me mad. “But you can tell ’im I’ll fight my own battles, thank you very much.” I sat back, shoulders rigid.
Keri Ann grinned.
“What’s so funny?” I huffed.
“Joey letting anyone fight their own battles, that’s what.”
I scowled. “Well, tell ’im anyway.”
We rode in silence.
“He’s a good soccer player,” I said eventually.
“He’s good at everything he does. It’s annoying.”
I smiled. “Can you ask your momma if we can play sometime? But you’ll have to come to my place, so I don’t have to see him.”
“I’d like that,” she said. “But don’t worry, we can hang out in my room if you come to my house so we don’t have to see him at all.”
I rummaged in my backpack for a piece of scratch paper and wrote down my mom’s number. I liked Keri Ann. And she was shy. She didn’t talk much. So we were kinda like opposites that fit together just right, like a puzzle. My pa said I’d know my puzzle piece when I found it.
I knew in my heart, that we were going to be best friends. And I’d been waiting on a best girl friend for just, like, forever.
“Hey so, it’s weird that y’alls name is Butler and we live in Butler Cove. Is that why y’all moved here? I wonder if there’s a town called Fraser. I think we were Scotlandish once. That’s a country real far away. Like across the ’lantic far away. One day I should find out if there’s a Fraser Town or some such, and just, like, move there.”
Keri Ann stared at me.
“Sorry, I talk all the time, case you din’ notice. Can never shut up. So did you?”
“Move here coz of the name?”
“Kind of. It’s called Butler Cove because of my family. Named after them, I guess.”
I blinked. “You’re shittin’ me,” I managed.
“I’d get into such trouble if I said that.”
“Well, I don’t say it in front of grown-ups, silly. Well, except for Mr. McCaskill.” I giggled.
“Hope you don’t mind me saying, but you talk funny,” she said.
“Well, you talk fancy,” I answered, all prickly again.
“I like the way you talk,” she said. “It makes me feel like smiling.”
I shrugged, my heart feeling glad. “Well, I like the way you talk. Maybe I’ll start trying it out so I don’t sound like an imp from the boondockies. That’s what my ma says I talk like. Says coz I hang around the marina too much.”
Keri Ann raised her eyebrows. “What are the boondockies?”
“Somewhere where everyone talks like me, I guess.” I shrugged, and Keri Ann let out a small burst of a laugh.
The bus was slowing for its first stop. On the main street of Butler Cove, near the old Butler house. Oh. I didn’t know any kids lived in that big old house.
“This is my stop. See you tomorrow?” she asked.
I nodded and scooted over, snapping my bare skin painfully off the vinyl, so she could get out. “I’ll save you a seat.”
“Thanks. Bye Jessica.”
“Bye, Keri Ann. And don’t forget to tell your brother not to get in my business.”
She smiled. “Okay.”
So we were different, and maybe the designs on the puzzle pieces didn’t look like a match. Hers were from that fancy toy store by the lighthouse, and mine was a puzzle from the dollar store up near country road 170. I wasn’t sure we’d be best best friends. But I was hopin’.