The sun had long set, and night lay over the valley when Katelin tiptoed down the dark stairs to the closed door of her father's room. She lay her ear against the door, listening. Though she heard nothing, she doubted he was asleep. Neither of them had slept the night before, after her mother's funeral. She and her father had come home to a house that was empty and eerily cold, and when it grew dark, they sat in unlighted rooms, alone with their grief.
Katelin crept into the kitchen, put on her heavy winter coat and went out the back door. The air was cold and the sky was black, as if the moon and stars had fallen from it, and the wind was strangely quiet and carried a smell of snow, like sheared metal, and the conflicting odors of burning wood and wet creek stones.
She hurried on to the tool shed at the back of the house and pulled open the door. Rusted hinges squealed. Something like an empty bucket fell, making a terrible racket and setting off the neighbor's dog. She ducked inside and kept still until the dog quieted and she felt certain her father was not coming out to see what the noise was about, then she felt along a shelf and found a box of matches and the railroad lantern. She shook it to see how much kerosene was inside. It sounded almost full. She gathered up a crowbar and shovel, and set out for the cemetery south of town.
Hours later, she returned home, her face, coat, and shoes covered with dirt and clumps of clay-like mud. The smell of it was in her nostrils. A hundred years of living could never take it away. She had failed. She found herself locked in some nightmarish hell and could not find a way out.
She put the lantern and tools back in the shed and entered the house through the kitchen's back door. As she eased the door to and turned, her breath caught. There, in the dark, sitting at the table and facing the door was the figure of her father.
"Katelin, I've been worried nearly to death," he said, striking a match and lighting the lamp on the table. "Where have you been?"
Her insides trembled so hard she felt like she would break to pieces. She could never tell him what he was asking. "I . . . I was walking. Just w . . . walking."
His deep set eyes, dark as the black sky, stared at her. "If you was just walking, how come you're covered with dirt?"
She looked down the front of her tan coat. "It w . . . was dark. I fell down."
"I will not have you lie to me."
"I . . .I'm not lying, father. I couldn't sleep and went walking." The way he looked at her, she just wanted to die. She never wanted ever to lie to him, but she had to this time. She took off her coat and dropped it on the chair next to him.
"Get cleaned up and go to bed. And don't come out of your room until you think you can speak the truth. I don't care when that may be."
Katelin went to the sink, and set the wash pan under the pump's spout, then began pumping the handle. What she did tonight was right, or so she had thought, but if she had to tell about it, it would sound like she'd taken leave of her mind.
Maybe she had. Gone plum crazy. She hadn't even told Walter what she had planned to do for fear of what he would think. Tears welled up in her eyes. All the pain in her seemed to be fighting to find a way out. She stood there, unconsciously pumping the pump's handle as hard as she could, fighting not to let go and cry, but at the same time wanting to rid herself of her agony more than anything. She looked at the water spilling over the sides of the wash pan, then let out a screaming sob as she slid to the floor.
"Katelin!" Jeremy raced to her, dropped on his knees and held her. "What's wrong? Tell me, please."
"Oh, father," she cried, "I can't. I don't know what's wrong with me. I couldn't bear knowing Mother was all alone . . . there at the cemetery."
Jeremy grasped her shoulders and held her at arms length. "K, what have you done?"
"I just wanted her to hold her baby. She never got to hold her."
Jeremy's eyes widened. "Wh---for the love of God, Katelin, tell meB what have you done?"
"I couldn't do it. I couldn't get the lid off Mother's coffin so I could put Baby Angela in her arms."
Jeremy let out an agonizing cry that ripped through her. He drew her back into his arms, telling her over and over that it was all right. He began to pray in Tsalagi, the way he had when he left to go bury Baby Angela just hours before her mother died, and now as then, Katelin felt his soul was on the edge of hell, as hers had been for days, and most assuredly his, too.
When he finished his prayer, he gathered her in his arms and carried her to a chair at the table, then bathed her face and hands with a cool cloth. She stared at the front of his shirt, all stained from where her tears had mixed with the dirt on her face. She would soak it in lye soap, like she had her dress.
"Katelin," he said, taking off her muddy shoes, "I'm going to get Doc Broadus. He'll give you some---"
"No, Father! Please don't tell anybody about this. I'm really all right now. I don't know how, but . . . I understood what you said in Tsalagi. Not the words exactly, but I understood just the same. I know now that they're together; Mother is holding Baby Angela in her arms."
Jeremy swiped his shirt sleeve across his eyes. "Yes, yes she is, dear sweet Katelin."
The last of October, Indian Summer left the valley of Reeds Crossing, and a chill wind howled through the leaf-stripped trees of the mountainsides. The three weeks that passed since the raincrows' warning seemed like an eternity to Katelin; a beginning of a life without her mother, and there didn't seem to be much left of her father nowadays, as empty as the hard shell of a seventeen-year locust stuck tight to a fence post.
Katelin, sitting at the kitchen table, looked toward the sitting room doorway. She could hear him wondering around, walking the floor, breathing out heavy breaths, like he was trying to rid himself of his anguish. The kitchen had become her place of comfort. Here, she felt closer to her mother than anywhere in the empty house. She could close her eyes and see her; cooking, baking, ironing, and she could hear her voice, talking to her as she did homework or sketched a new design in her sketchbook. The table was where they unrolled the butcher paper Grace had given her for making patterns, and where Katelin's mother had taught her how to translate a sketch into a pattern, then showed her how to put it together.
Katelin picked up her sketchbook from in front of her. There wasn't a blank page in it, and all were filled with sketches, clothes she had designed, even detailed fabric prints. She leafed through the first few pages, then the last ones, pleased with the improvement she had made over the past year. She closed the book and let it fall open, not surprised at the page it opened to. The day after her mother died, Katelin found the book laying on the floor beside her mother's chair opened to that very page, the page where her mother had written the same words she had said to her while they waited for Doctor Broadus. "Katelin, don't disappoint God and most of all don't disappoint yourself. Hold onto your dreams." Her mother knew she was going to die, that's why she told her those things. If Katelin believed anything, she believed that.
The edge of the day crept through the windows, darkening the kitchen, the tick-tock of the clock on a wall shelf near the cook stove the only sound. She couldn't hear her father anymore. She should be doing her homework, or trying her hand at cooking up supper for him, not that he would eat. An apple worm ate more then he did these days, and she doubted either one of them could choke down anything she might cook, since she didn't know the first thing about cooking. The closest she ever got to the wood-burning cook stove was where she set the basket of wood. Her mother wanted her to study, sew, draw new designs, said there would be plenty of time for her to learn how to cook.
Neighbors had kept food on the table, bringing all kinds of things, and there was still some potato salad and fried chicken in the icebox, and some cold biscuits. Grace McCormick showed up everyday with a basket of food, and even Peggy and Frank Hudson brought food.
One time the Hudson's daughter, Rachel Bowling, Nathan's mother, came with them. Katelin had been so taken by the dress Rachel was wearing she supposed she forgot her manners and stared. She had seen that very same bias-cut dress, a Vionnet, in the Vogue magazine. The body-clinging crepe de chine was the French designer's chief hallmark, and Katelin had to say that Mrs. Bowling did the dress proud. Katelin doubted it was her staring that made Rachel appear uncomfortable, but rather supposed it was being in their small house that wasn't decorated with all the fancy fineries as the Bowling's home must be.
The Bowling's home was a Queen Anne Victorian-style house on Maple Street, behind the courthouse. The lawn took up most of the block, and the grass stayed green even when it never rained for weeks, and there never was a leaf or a twig on it. Katelin had thought of telling Mrs. Bowling about Nathan drowning the kittens, but decided against it. In the short time the woman was there Katelin decided she liked her about as much as she did Nathan.
Katelin struck a match and lit the lamp on the table. Walter should be there any minute. He was at the store working, but as soon as he finished, he would come over, as he did every night, always trying to cheer her up or just sitting quietly and listening to her, comforting her.
She closed her sketchbook and pulled her school books in front of her, stared at them, then with a quick shove, knocked them to the floor. School didn't matter anymore. Nothing mattered anymore. She laid her head on her folded arms and closed her eyes to the emptiness of the kitchen without her mother.
She raised her head to her father who stood in the doorway.
He looked at the books on the floor, then moved to a chair beside her and sat. He leaned forward and clasped his hands on the table. "Andy Fowler finished up the house today. I've been thinking it'd be best if we moved out there come Satur---"
"No! I done told you, I won't leave here."
"I know how you feel, but can't you see that would be the best thing for us? I loved your mother more than anything in this world. Just like you. Living here, reliving the memories we had here- day after day . . . ." His eyes swept over the room. "I see her everywhere, hear her voice, her laughter."
"Then it seems to me you wouldn't want to be leaving here. I was born," she glanced toward the sitting room, "right in there. All those years of memories right here, and you want to leave 'em behind. I won't leave this house."
"You're getting a mighty sharp tongue on you these days. Not one I mind to listen to. I do what I see as being best . . . for both of us. Memories are carried in ones heart. They'll always be with you no matter where you are. We're moving Saturday." He rose, picked up her books and put them on the table. "You done your homework?"
"Walter's going to help me." That wasn't exactly a lie, not if he did help her, even just a little bit. At that moment, she hated herself. In all her fourteen years, she had never, ever lied to himB not until lately. And now she was being disrespectful, something she had promised her mother she would never do. What was wrong with her?
"Good," he said, nodding, looking at the floor like he was thinking. "Walter's a bright young man, a good head on his shoulders." He looked back to her. "I saw him today at the store. He said you all was making plans for after he graduates high school. Asked me if he could marry you."
Katelin knew her face must be as red as the paisley handkerchief in the pocket of his striped coveralls he wore to work at the L & N round house. "You're not mad? I mean that I'll be moving all the way up to New Yor---you did tell him he could, didn't you?"
The corners of Jeremy's eyes wrinkled up a little as he gave her a faint smile. It was good to see he still could. "After he said you were going to finish high school up there I told him I would think about it." He looked away, somewhere distant. "I promised . . . your mother I'd see to it you graduated." He let out a long ragged breath. "I promised her a lot of things." He turned and went back into the sitting room.
Several minutes passed before Katelin took her eyes from the doorway. The new house on Cow Creek was really nice; electric, a telephone, and two bathrooms, and running water. Her mother had said it was her dream home, and included her to help pick out paint colors and wall papers, the curtains, furniture and such. Still, she would rather have the memories here than all the modern day conveniences and things there. A knock on the door gave her a start. Who in the world would come around back instead of knocking on the front door? Hesitantly, she got up to answer it.
A plump, colored woman stood there, a covered black iron pot in her hands. Her huge chest rose high with her breathing, and Katelin figured she had come a ways.
"Why, Miss Katelin, I'm a guessin'. Last time I saw you, you was no higher than a jack rabbit. Anyways, guess you don't remember me, but I'm Maggie Walker."
"I sort of do. Please come in, Mrs. Walker, ma'am."
The woman's dark eyes lit up, but she remained on the stoop. "You jus' as kind and polite as yore mama, God rest her soul." She dropped her head, her eyes all sad now. "I'm a sympathisin' fer you all, Miss Katelin. I got to be a gettin' back." She handed the pot to Katelin. "Jus' some ham hocks and soup beans I cooked up fer you and Mister Jeremy. Would'a made cornbread to go with it, but I worked late at Miss Rachel's---I mean, Mrs. Bowling's. I keep house for the family."
"That's kindly of you, Mrs. Walker. Thank you."
"It ain't much, but a body needs to know they's got friends in times like these." She turned and walked into the night.
Katelin closed the door and carried the pot to the stove, thinking about Maggie Walker, the kindhearted soul who knocked on people's back doors because she was colored, like she wasn't good enough to come to a white's front door. She wondered if heaven had a back door.
Rachel Bowling leaned from her chair, held back the green brocade curtain, and peered through the fogged-up window. The cold November afternoon held a haunting thick gray sky, low enough to touch. Winter was up to its old tricks again, giving no more than brief phantom glimpses of the wet russet street.
For more than a month, since the day she mailed her letter to Damon, her worry mounted. She fidgeted with the lace collar of her white blouse, wondering why she had done such a stupid thing. Should the letter fall into the wrong hands, her life would be destroyed, her family devastated. Why put in writing the secret that had been hers alone for so many years? Her stomach began to tie in the familiar knots. She let the curtain fall, then slid her hand over her Chanel jacket into the pocket of her pleated skirt and pulled out the letter she received from Damon two days ago. As she began reading, parts of words seemed to jump, and became lost, sentences came and went. Her eyesight was getting worse, and so were her headaches.
Annoyed, she reached to the Tiffany lamp on the table beside her and switched it on. Though the additional light did little to help her vision, it brought a brilliant sparkle to the crystal dragonfly embedded in the green glass of the shade. Damon had sent her the lamp last year, all the way from New York for her thirty-first birthday. Rachel closed her eyes, leaned back, and pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to rid the twinge of another headache. She looked back to Damon's letter, just noticing he had forgotten to date it. Not that it mattered. Dates and passage of time meant little to him, she thought, feeling the bite of bitterness. As a Marine, he was living a good life, traveling, seeing the world, free to love anyone he pleased, and pledging honor, loyalty, and service only to his country. She focused again on the letter.
|My Dear Rachel,|
I will arrive early afternoon November the twenty-second. This may be my last chance to see you for a very long time. I am being shipped on special assignment to Nicaragua. It seems things are not improving with Sandino as we had hoped. His army has taken over the American mines. Americans were killed. I am not at my regular post, can't tell you where, but before I leave up here I'll be stopping by headquarters to pick up mail and my official orders, then I am off to you. I can't wait to see you. I've missed you.
Rachel let her head rest against the rich tapestry of the chair's back, and clutching the letter to her chest, she thought back sixteen years to the day Damon ran off and joined the marines. He was twenty-one. She was sixteen, her wedding day, the day she married Tom. She had no choice but to marry him. Back then, Tom was so good to her then, kind and gentle. Hardly a day went by that he did not bring home some little trinket for her. She was so happy, believed Tom when he said he loved her, and she quickly grew to love him. Then Nathan was born and everything changed, changed horribly, living their lives with a passionate hate, like a festering boil. Rachel stiffened. So young, so stupid to even believe in love, she thought, and her eyes narrowed with hatred. She hated Tom, and she hated that part of her five-year-old daughter, Iwana, that was Tom.
In Rachel's kitchen Maggie Walker, the housekeeper, hurried about tidying up after seating Missy Iwana at the table with a bowl of chicken soup. For sixteen years, since the day Miss Rachel married Mister Tom, Maggie had been tending to their needs, cleaning and cooking. The job was not to her liking, but being colored and living in a small town, Maggie was happy to get the work. She saved every penny she could, to see to it that her sixteen-year-old daughter, Lizzie, would get an education and not have to follow in her footsteps.
Maggie put two oatmeal cookies on Iwana's plate, and took a quart bottle of milk from the refrigerator and filled her glass. She put the milk back in the refrigerator and went to the table. As she straightened one of the chairs, Nathan's slingshot fell from the seat onto the floor. She squatted, and as she curled her fingers around the black rubber strap that spanned the fork, memories of her childhood flashed through her mind.
Maggie never went to school. What learning she had came from her mother, who taught her to read and write from the Bible. She learned the facts of life from listening and watching the goings on at the River Club, the gathering spot for coloreds who wanted to drink, gamble, and have a good time. The River Club was on the west side of Reeds Crossing, within sight and earshot of the shanty Maggie then called home.
Loud music, talking and laughter, drifted through the paper-thin walls of her bedroom. Night after night, she listened to her father's laughing voice above the high-pitched giggles of his women. Maggie would kneel on her bed at the open window, and watch through tattered but clean curtains, the antics of the sinful lot.
Seldom did a Sunday morning pass that Preacher Brown's sermon did not end with the condemnation of the River Club, with its adulterers, coveters, and fornicators. The veins in his neck stood out, and he would shout with such might that white foam gathered at the corners of his mouth. Maggie didn't have to ask the meaning of adulterer, or coveter, or fornicator. No, sir-ree. The words came out of his mouth with such a vile force, she knew they were terrible sins committed by a man and a woman who weren't married to each other. Preacher Brown had a lot of lost flock at that River Club. Seemed like everybody was fornicating, adultering, and coveting.
Maggie never told her mammy that she watched them, certainly not that she watched her pappy's adulterous fornication.
Once she got past the hurt of her father's sins, she made a light-hearted game of revenge out of his infidelities. She kept her homemade slingshot and ammunition of small rocks hidden under her pillow. When she caught him fornicating in the shadows beneath the huge oak, she loaded the slingshot and fired. Her dead-eye aim always hit bulls-eye, his bare behind.
The game ended just after she turned eleven, when her drunken pappy died in the big fire that burned the River Club to the ground. For months after, she found herself still looking out her window toward the burnt rubble and repeating her made-up eulogy she had almost forgotten. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, there you'll stay forever in your place of lust."
The single chime of the grandfather clock in the sitting room struck sharply, breaking the chord of remembrance. "Seems like a hundred years ago," Maggie mumbled and held on to the table's edge, pulling herself to her feet. Even though she was only thirty-two, years of scrubbing floors had taken a toll. She figured she had spent most of her life on her knees, what with scrubbing and praying. Maggie straightened and smoothed her apron over her bosom and hips. As she turned she saw Iwana. "Why, Missy Iwana, you're as quiet as a mouse. I clean forgot you was a sittin' there," she said, playfully tweaking the child's upturned nose.
Maggie carried the slingshot to the corner cupboard that sat near the door of the large walk-in pantry and laid it to rest along with her thoughts of the past. She picked up the brown paper bag that held her old shoes. "Don't want to be forgettin' to take these to the shoe shop," she muttered. As she set the bag on the table beside Iwana, she drew back in happy amazement. "Why I declare, Missy Iwana, you done growed a mustache!"
Iwana laid the half-eaten cookie on the table and felt under her nose. "Where is it?"
Maggie took a napkin, wiped the milk from Iwana's upper lip, and held it out. "Here it is!"
Maggie loved to hear Iwana's giggle. It was like a dose of sunshine to her, and on a nasty-gloomy day like today, Maggie welcomed it.
Maggie swooped her arms around the child. "Missy Iwana, you finish yore cookies whilst I go see if you mammy wants me to do anythin' else 'fore I leave."
Maggie's mood turned sour as she tromped from the kitchen, mumbling to herself. "Beats me, when I want time off, Miss Rachel don't want it, and now I don't want it and she does, and on a nasty day like this. Who in their right mind wants to be a trompin' around out there? She's done got something up her sleeve. Ain't no way she's jus' bein' charitable. That woman ain't ever charitable unless she's a wantin' somethin'."
Maggie stopped at the sitting room doorway. Miss Rachel was in the chair by the window, had her head laid back like she was dreaming up something. "Miss Rachel, I'm through with the kitchen cleanin' now, so I guess I'll leave," she said, and walked on to the window beside Rachel's chair. She pushed the curtain back, peered out, and shook her head disapprovingly. "Umm-mm-mm, sure does look nasty out there. If 'en a body didn't know where they were a goin', they'd sure get lost."
She let the curtain fall straight, then walked to the fireplace, grabbed up the poker, pushed and prodded the burning logs. "Miss Rachel, you sure you want me to take this afternoon off? Thanksgivin's tomorrow. I got mincemeat pies and a jam cake I need to be a bakin.' Not much of a day to be gallivantin' around."
Rachel crammed what looked to be an envelope in her jacket pocket. "No, no. I want you to hurry and go, and be back at four to finish dinner. You can bake whatever needs baking then. Remember . . . you wanted to get some new heels put on those Sunday shoes of yours, and you can spend some time with your friend Stella."
"Stella? Stella's gone," Maggie said, with a wave of her hand. "She found her a man from Lexington. They up and got married. Yes 'um, he jus' ups and wisk her away. Works a trainin' those Thoroughbred horses. That's what I need."
Rachel laughed. "A Thoroughbred?"
"I guess that would be better than what I got . . . a horse's ass." Maggie threw her hand over her mouth to cover her giggle, embarrassed and surprised at herself for saying "ass". "Nah, Miss Rachel, to be wisk away."
A gloom filled Rachel's eyes. "Yes. Don't we all? Now go on, go."
"Yes 'um. I'm goin'." That girl's sure up to somethin', she thought, as she turned and headed back to the kitchen.
"Maggie, where's Iwana?"
"In the kitchen, finishin' her lunch."
"Isn't it time for her nap?"
"A little early fer that, ain't it?"
"I'll be the one to decide that."
"Yes 'um, uh-huh, guess you are." Maggie was used to Rachel's sharp tongue, not that she liked it.
Rachel waved her hand. "Don't mind me, Maggie. I've got another one of those headaches. I'll take a an aspirin or a B.C. powder. Now go on. I'll take her upstairs so things will be quiet for while . . . so I can lie down. Now go on."
Maggie went on to the kitchen, troubled by the way Miss Rachel was acting. Something had got her all worked up. Wasn't like her to apologize for anything she said or done. Maybe her and Mister Tom had been at it again last night. Lord knows something bad had been going on with them for as long as she could remember. She had never seen Mister Tom hit Miss Rachel, but from the bruises Miss Rachel tried to hide from time to time, she suspected he did. Miss Rachel was too prideful a woman to ever say anything to anybody about that sort of goings on, not even to her own mother. Maggie supposed they had lived together for all these years with whatever it was that was between them, and they would probably take it with them to their graves.
"No sir-ree," Maggie muttered. Rachel didn't want people to look down on her.
Maggie took a step inside the walk-in pantry, yanked her coat from the hook by door, and reluctantly slipped into it. Just as she was about to snap up her pocketbook from the corner cupboard, a loud crash startled her. Iwana stood looking at the milk and broken glass on the floor, her hands clasped over her mouth, eyes big and fearful.
"Mama's going to be real mad 'cause I done that."
Maggie laid her pocketbook down and went to picking up the glass. "No, she ain't. It was a accident. We all have accidents." Missy Iwana was right, Miss Rachel would be real mad. Seemed like little Iwana could do no right as far as Miss Rachel was concerned. She threw the glass in the trash can, and was sopping up the milk with a dishtowel when Rachel came in. "Looks like I done made a mess here, Miss Rachel. 'Bout all cleaned up now, though. Accidents, everybody has 'um," Maggie said quickly.
She finished cleaning the floor while Miss Rachel dragged Iwana from the kitchen, Missy Iwana was yelling she didn't want a nap, and Miss Rachel a saying she didn't care what she wanted. For the life of her, she couldn't understand why that woman was so mean to that little chile.
She tromped over to the cupboard, got her pocketbook, and went to the back door. She gave the doorknob a twist, wishing it were Rachel's neck, and left.
Nathan Bowling hid behind the thick trunk of an oak that grew between the sidewalk and street. He looked through the gray mist, past the black bars of the ornamental iron fence toward his house. The three-story Victorian house looked as cold as he felt. Water dripped from every irregular eave. He blew into his hands to warm them. That he could see, no one was about.
He dashed from the tree and ran along the fence until he reached the driveway's gate to the left of the house. He opened it only wide enough to get through. Just as he started off in a run down the puddle riddled driveway, a loud hollow clang sounded, startling him. He whipped around and looked toward the front gate at the end of the walk, seeing the gate striking against its latch, no one leaving or coming in.
He hurried on to the carriage house, actually the garage, but his mother called it a carriage house, as the house was built back when there weren't any cars, and horses pulled carriages, sort of a historical thing. Things like that were important to her, but to him, it made no difference. The building was a good place to hide and get out of the wet and cold, at least until school let out.
He slid the heavy wood door aside enough to squeeze through, then rested against the damp boards near the door's opening, every now and then peeking out toward the back of his house to see if anyone was around. Skipping school wasn't any big deal anymore. His teachers and the principal at Reeds Crossing High were probably happy he wasn't there; gave them a rest. He knew they tolerated him only because of his family name. Being Tom Bowling's son and Frank Hudson's grandson did have its advantages. They were important names in Reeds Crossing---big shots with a ton of money.
With a feeling of importance, Nathan straightened up tall. He took off his wet newsboy cap, smoothed his course dark hair, and peeked out again. Even if his mother caught him, no big deal. Her scoldings always ended with rewards rather than punishment.
But if his father found out, he would give him a good tongue-lashing, tell him what a no account he was, that he would never amount to anything. "Get out of my sight," he would always say. "You aren't my son. No son of mime would do that."
Nathan cleared his throat and slapped his cap back on, wishing he was not Tom's son. He tried to remember ever getting a kind word from him, a smile, a hug, but came up empty. Had he done some horrible thing when he was little, too little to remember, that made his father hate him? His father did love his little sister, Iwana. That was fine with him, since his mother treated her the way his father treated him. Iwana needed the love more than he did. He smiled. She was such a cute, sweet kid. Maybe he would sneak inside and play her favorite game with her, Red Rover. They would have to be quiet though.
He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the cigarette he had bought from Clem for a nickel. "Goddamn robbery," he muttered, while striking a match against a raw board. He drew deeply on the cigarette, inhaling the sulfur from the match, snuffing out the flame.
Most all of his friends were poor and tried to snooker him out of his money any way they could, not that he cared that much. He had plenty. His mother saw to that. Money and dare-devil ways made him the leader of his crowd. He would take on any dare they could think up; like Clem's dare yesterday, to steal cigarettes from McCormick's store. He did it, had five packs to prove it. Then, this morning they turned up missing. He slammed his fist into the wall.
"Maggie must have found them. That damn nigger, I'll fix her," he said, the cigarette dangling from his lips. He pinched the stub between his forefinger and thumb and inhaled deeply, the fire racing down the paper, burning his finger. He snatched the butt from his mouth and flicked it outside to the wet ground, then rammed his hand in his coat pocket and pulled out a small square of folded white paper, careful not to get any of the itching powder on his hands. There was only a little left after he dusted Mr. Cole's arithmetic book with it this morning. Remembering the old man scratching for all he was worth, Nathan let out a laugh. The class loved him, got them out of arithmetic.
If he could sneak into the house, and sprinkle some inside Maggie's pocketbook, that would fix her good. She'd think twice before taking any more of his cigarettes.
He put the packet back in his pocket, took a look outside and to the back door, then skulked his way to the house and up the steps to the landing beneath the stoop. Before going in, he peeked through the first window in the long row. Good, no one was there. He tiptoed inside, and as he gently closed the door behind him, the front doorbell rang. Curious as to who the visitor could be, he moved to the doorway between the kitchen and sitting room, keeping out of sight. He heard his mother's footsteps on the wood floor.
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