The eastern sky was a pretty cherry color when I started down the dirt road for school. I walked toward the sunrise, my eyes elevated to catch the wisps of pink clouds trying their best to hide a lavender background. I was actually headed for a crossroads about two miles out where the school bus stopped to pick me up. It was as far from town as the school district agreed to travel for one student. On nice days like this I didn’t mind the long walk.
The trees stood perfectly still. Only a few leaves rustled here and there, mostly low brush disturbed by scampering animals. Repeated melodic chirping rang down from the lungs of warblers and swallows. The air felt cool, but not cold enough to raise any goose bumps on my bare arms and legs. I breathed in deeply, catching a lilac fragrance mixed with the sharp hint of pine. It smelled as pretty as the pink sky appeared.
Alice in Wonderland accompanied me to school, the book securely tucked beneath my armpit. I didn’t feel comfortable leaving it alone, seeing how it was entrusted to me by that unusually nice man from the library. I thought of him on the way to school and wondered how long a library book could be borrowed before having to return it. So I raised my hand at the start of class. Something I never did.
“Yes, Annabelle?” Mrs. Cosgrove acknowledged me. She looked about as shocked as everyone else that I was voluntarily about to speak.
“Uh…” I hesitated, feeling more nervous than I’d anticipated. “I was just wondering….um….how long can I keep my library book?”
“Oh, well, that’s a very good question. One that was answered by Mr. Lundstrom yesterday on our field trip.”
I shrunk under her critical eyes until they shifted to the rest of the class.
“I’ll assume that Annabelle’s not the only student who doesn’t recall that information. To repeat what the director said, ‘You may keep your library books for three weeks. After such time they should be returned to the library or, if that’s an impossibility, hand them in to your teacher.’ Does that answer your question, Annabelle?”
I nodded and mumbled, “Yes, ma’am.”
My heart leapt. Three weeks with Alice! That meant I’d be able to read the book at least a dozen times; learn by heart every beautiful conversation; commit to memory every detail of Lewis Carroll’s adorable characters. How glorious!
I kept an anxious eye on the clock throughout our morning routine, noting the sluggish passing of time. I was eager for first recess so I could take my book outside and curl up in the grass and read more of Wonderland. Earlier that morning I’d barely skimmed the upcoming paragraph enough to know there were gardeners painting white roses red for some silly reason. It reminded me of how I’d magically painted polka dots on the petals of pink roses in my dream. Mention of a King and Queen of Hearts caught my eye on the same page as well. I couldn’t wait to meet them. If they were any fun at all, maybe Gavin and I could pretend to be them.
I finished rewriting the last of our spelling words for the week, proceed and precede, when the bell rang to announce recess. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked to Mrs. Cosgrove. Our teacher quickly made assignments for playground equipment and dismissed us to go outside, away from her watchful eyes for the next fifteen minutes.
“Thomas and Gregory, you may act as ball captains this period. Charlotte and Mary, you two are in charge of jump ropes. You’re all dismissed.”
I was never assigned balls or jump ropes or the occasional gift of sidewalk chalk. I never asked to be, and I never hoped to be.
The sun shone high in the sky, too bright to look at. The air was calm and slightly warmed, enough to make it a comfortable spring day. I was fast to my usual spot—a grassy seat at the very edge of a long brick wall that faced the playground. Having found it near impossible to successfully interact with the other kids, I’d made a habit of reading silently during recesses. I didn’t mind. No one else, including the teachers, seemed to mind either. Normally I was left entirely alone, except for the occasional “time out” child who was made to stand for three minutes against the same wall as punishment for some playground violation. It was usually a quick wait at the opposite end with nose nearly touching the red brick.
I wasn’t surprised today when Charlie was escorted by the arm for a time out. He was well-known as a sore loser in ballgames. But when Gregory Hill was told to join him, it stunned me enough that I looked up at his freckled profile. His forehead fell against the wall, the look on his face red and resentful. I couldn’t believe it. Gregory never got in trouble. He was the nicest, shyest, most easy-going of all the boys. I suppose I had it coming when he stuck his tongue out at me for gawking at him. I swallowed and looked away, curling up a little more tightly with my book. I read a sentence about three terrified gardeners hoping to keep from losing their heads. Then I heard Charlie speak to me from the other side of Gregory. His words were low and cruel.
“Ugly duck. Why don’t you ever do anything but read those dumb books?”
I couldn’t help flicker a glance up at him. Both boys were looking at me, Charlie peering from behind Gregory’s back.
“They’re not dumb books,” I mumbled. My eyes went back to my reading. Alice was meeting the Queen of Hearts for the first time. It turned out she wasn’t a very nice person, which disappointed me more than it should have.
“Alice in Wonderland is a stupid, baby book. I read it when I was in diapers. Are you still in diapers? Is that why you’re reading it, Baby Anna?”
I ignored Charlie’s teasing. It was harder to ignore the hurtful, accompanying jab from Gregory.
“She smells like she wears diapers.”
I turned my back on their laughter.
“Hey, you boys, no talking!” I grinned, feeling the tiniest bit of vindication until the teacher who’d scolded the scoundrels turned on me. “Don’t bother those boys, Annabelle. Keep to yourself.”
I looked up to find a stern finger pointing down at me. There was no use arguing. Innocent or not I’d be found guilty.
“Yes, ma’am,” I muttered.
Three minutes later Charlie and Gregory were given permission to return to their play. To my horror, they didn’t leave.
I felt their approach before their shadows blocked my light, even before their shoes came into view of my downcast eyes. It was hard not to look up, and harder still to focus on reading.
“Baby Anna, have you got to the part where Alice loses her head?”
“No,” I mumbled in answer to Charlie’s question. I hoped he was kidding. I really didn’t want to see anything bad happen to the girl, although, what I’d just read about the wicked Queen of Hearts left me wondering.
“Baby Anna, have you got to the part where the stupid rabbit is beheaded and cooked and eaten at the royal supper?”
“That doesn’t really happen,” I grumbled. I was guessing.
“Does so,” Charlie argued. He nudged Gregory with his elbow. “Doesn’t it Greg?”
I sensed the shy boy nod in agreement. “Uh-huh,” he concurred.
I turned my back on them again, leaving me facing the wall with my book propped up on bent knees. It was difficult to read this way. Charlie and his sidekick didn’t leave.
“Hey, ugly duck, have you gotten to the part where the Hatter goes completely mad and chops up the caterpillar and the fat cat and the entire deck of card soldiers?”
“That does not happen,” I said with more insistence. I was certain he was lying to me now.
“Does so,” Charlie snarled with a rude roll in his voice.
I heard Gregory snicker over my head. “Maybe she can’t read.” They laughed while I tried my best to imagine them vanishing into thin air. I gasped when a hand reached over my shoulder, swiping the precious book from my fingertips. It was gone before I had time to react.
“No!” I protested, swiveling around on my rump. “Give that back!” I was up on my feet instantly, reaching for the book in Charlie’s grip. But the two boys had found a new game to play—keep away.
“What do you want it for, baby? You can’t even read!”
“Toss it to me! I’ll read it to her!”
I watched the book sail over my head, spinning on its side until the cover flipped up. The book landed on its clean, white pages in the grass. Gregory swiped it up before I could get to it.
“Give it back!” I protested, purposefully raising my voice. It did no good. Where was a teacher when you really needed one?
Gregory opened the book and pretended to read. His blue eyes scanned the upturned pages.
“Once upon a time there was a baby girl named Alice…”
“No, make that Anna!” Charlie called out from behind me.
I tried to get my book from Gregory, but he kept his back to me no matter which direction I moved. His pointy elbows jabbed at my attempts to reach it.
“Baby Anna lived in Wonderland with…”
“No, no,” Charlie interrupted again, “make that Diaperland! Stinky Diaperland!”
“Baby Anna lived in Stinky Diaperland with all the other stinky animals. The only creatures that could stand to be around her were the March Skunk, the Fish Hatter and the Cheshire Pig! But none of them smelled as bad as the stinky diaper baby, Anna!”
Charlie laughed so hard he snorted twice.
I felt my face redden. My cheeks flushed warm. I wished it was a strong emotion like anger, but the threat of tears betrayed my tender, hurt feelings.
“Give it back, Gregory,” I said. “You’re going to ruin the book!”
He jabbed me with his elbow again, fending off my attempts to get around. I finally quit trying and stood behind him, my hands clasped against my stomach. I’d wait for their teasing to come to its end. It wasn’t much different than waiting for my father’s ranting to subside, but the fact that it was Gregory Hill tormenting me—the boy everyone would easily vote the quietest, nicest of all students—made me want to cry. Even the kindest of people hated me. I didn’t understand why.
I looked at my feet while Gregory made up a cruel story about me. Charlie stepped over to help him once he realized I’d surrendered. He exaggerated Gregory’s taunting with malicious adlibs. They laughed at their mean cleverness, holding the book open as though they were reading it word for word, upside down. I managed to hold the tears back, recalling a day years ago when my father had beaten me for showing weakness in his presence. A day I’d learned to strangle my emotions.
I was very young. I’d been given a homemade doll as a gift from the Hopkins. It was nothing fancy, just a rag doll dressed in a red kerchief, topped with brown yarn for hair. Her eyes were brown, painted wide open. Short, black lines created lashes both above and below her big eyes. She had a smile that reached from ear to ear, or close to where her ears would’ve been had she had any. I named the doll “Mama,” but not after my mother. It was simply a word I could say. I loved that doll and carried it with me all the time. Everywhere. It was my only toy. My only friend.
I’m not sure if my father didn’t notice it or if he simply didn’t care, but I was allowed to keep the doll for months. I played with her every day, talked with her, ate with her, picked dandelions and wildflowers with her to give to my mother.
One day I left her on the couch. It was the same afternoon my father returned home from a long haul.
Minutes after walking through the front door, he bellowed a foul version of my name that made the house tremble. My mother appeared from the kitchen right before I slinked out from the hall shadows. The look on her face told me I was in serious trouble.
I backed against the wall when my father came toward me like a raging bull with lowered horns. He shoved the doll in my face and I cowered, sliding sideways against the wall to my knees.
Mother was right there attempting to intervene. “Johnny, it’s my fault. I…I forgot to pick it up.”
“Shut up, Lin!” he growled, jerking the doll at her. She was outside his reach, or she would’ve been slapped for her interruption.
His other hand grabbed a handful of my hair, pulling me back up to my feet. I squealed at the pain.
“Shut up!” he commanded, adding a smack against my cheek.
I felt the tears rise and spill automatically.
He shook the doll in my face, nearly rubbing my nose in the happy smile painted on “Mama.”
“Is this your garbage?” He waited for only a second to get an answer, but I was too frightened to speak. His eyes were violent, not glassy or wandering as was normally the case in a drunken rage. He was perfectly, eerily sober this time.
“Answer me, you worthless brat! Is this your filthy piece of garbage?”
My shoulders rose so high they brushed my ears. “It’s my doll,” I squeaked. My scared eyes flickered to my mother.
Father slapped me. “Don’t look at her! She ain’t gonna save you.”
The tears streamed down my cheeks. My nose ran at the same time.
“Quit your cryin’ or I’ll put a stop to it myself.” He raised his hand, threatening to hit me again. I wiped at my eyes, rubbing my nose with my sleeve. I tried to stop crying, but the tears seemed endless in their rise.
“Johnny, please,” my mother begged.
Father turned the most vicious glare on her. She cringed away from it. Then he turned his violence back on me.
“You don’t leave your trash on my furniture. You don’t leave any of your useless crap anywhere in my house. Do you understand me?”
I nodded vigorously, wiping my eyes clear again.
He brought the doll up to his face as though seeing it for the first time. “Where the hell’d you get this piece of junk from anyway?” He looked back at my mother for an answer.
Her head shook as vigorously as mine had. “We didn’t buy it, Johnny. It...it was a gift.”
His face hardened. “From who?” he demanded.
“The….the Hopkins. The lady up the road thought it would be nice for Anna to have a…a doll. It was just a gift. It didn’t cost anything.”
Father’s grip tightened around my doll, squeezing the stuffing into a tight wad. I held my breath. “What? Those snooty farmers think we ain’t got the money to buy our own crap? They gotta pawn their junk off on us?”
Father turned on her, jabbing a finger at the air with his heated lecture. “I don’t want you takin’ any of their stinkin’ charity, Lin! You tell those nosy, good-for-nuthin’s we ain’t no beggars and we don’t need them interferin’ in our business! Those meddlin’ devils can keep their filthy garbage!”
Mother nodded that she understood, though that wasn’t good enough for my father. He took my doll in both hands and wringed “Mama” by the neck, pulling the stuffing out from her cloth body as he severed the head from its kerchief dress.
“No!” I cried. It was the wrong thing to do.
My father’s eyes were big and wild when he turned back to me. I immediately looked to my mother. That was also the wrong thing to do.
He cursed at me, slapping my face for my outburst. A second slap followed right behind it, this one for seeking my mother’s help. I cried so hard it was impossible to wipe the tears away fast enough. My face stung and my stomach hurt at the loss of my only friend, real or not.
I suffered repeated blows as my father swore and hollered at me, ordering me to toughen up. Dolls were for babies! Crying was for babies! Only crybabies looked to their mommies for help! I felt numb, inside and out, when he stopped hitting me. Though my eyes didn’t flicker, I could see in the background how my mother had stood trembling against the wall the whole time, her hands covering her mouth. Though her eyes were glistening, she hadn’t shed any tears. Apparently she’d learned.
I learned quickly too.
When it was over, mother rushed to my side. I tensed when she gathered me up in her arms. I didn’t want to be beaten again for being a baby.
My father fell into his chair and flipped on the television, wrinkling and wiping at his nose as if he’d done nothing more than take out the garbage. His shoes flew across the room before the stench of sweaty socks filled the house. With two slams, his feet landed on the coffee table. His eyes shifted from the television screen to my crouching mother, holding her blubbering child close.
“What the hell are you waitin’ for? Get me a beer, Lin.”
I was never given another doll after that.
The bell rang, signaling the end of recess. Alice in Wonderland was hastily discarded by her captors, tossed open-faced onto the ground. I waited for Charlie and Gregory to step away before going after the book. When I bent over to pick it up, it was swiped by bigger fingers first. My eyes lifted to find the culprit—Miss Harrison, our playground teacher. I would’ve been relieved had it not been for the critical look on her face.
She waved the book in front of me. “Is this how you treat your belongings, Annabelle?”
My head shook in strong denial, surprised by the accusation. I had very few actual belongings. Those I did own were precious to me.
“Books require proper care. They shouldn’t be left face down in the grass. You’ll stain the pages.”
For a moment I thought she would return my prize, and I opened my hand in anticipation. But her eyes caught the black, stamped letters on the edge and she turned the book sideways to read the local library address.
“This is a library book!” she exclaimed. “Annabelle! This isn’t even your property!” Her eyebrows pinched together, angling over a harshly judgmental expression.
“But…” I breathed, incapable of arguing. I wanted to protest—it wasn’t my fault! It wasn’t me! I love that book, I would never do anything to mar or damage it! But my throat closed off and I couldn’t speak. My tiny form tensed and slumped in a manner I was sure appeared guilty. Falsely guilty.
Miss Harrison huffed, then tucked my treasure beneath her arm. She pointed toward the line of students waiting by Mrs. Cosgrove’s door.
“Go to class.”
I glanced longingly at my book before obediently stepping up to the back of the line. I ignored how Charlie and two other boys snickered, pointing their fingers my way. My gaze did meet Gregory’s for a second. His blue eyes were dull, slanted, puckered. I thought he looked remorseful, but I was probably mistaken. He’d taught me how deceptive his timid act really was.
I fretted the rest of the school day. My eyes flickered perhaps a thousand times at the little brown hardback lying on Mrs. Cosgrove’s desk. I worried I’d never get it back, never learn the end of Alice’s adventures. What made it worse was knowing that Charlie’s insinuation of a mass beheading of characters would stick in my mind, ruining the real story, the one I’d never have a chance to read about. My dreams would turn to nightmares thanks to him. However, to my delight, the book was returned to me at the end of school, not lacking a strict lecture.
“If you fail to care for their books, Annabelle, the librarians will never allow you to check out another. Library books are collected to be shared by all members of the community, which means we must act responsibly when it’s our turn to borrow one.” Mrs. Cosgrove held the little hardback in one hand, tapping it against an open palm as she spoke. “You should always return a book in the same good shape in which it was borrowed.”
I nodded nonstop in agreement, anxious to get Alice back in my hands.
“Now, I am a firm believer in second chances, which is why I’m placing this book in your care again despite the fact that Miss Harrison found it discarded in the grass.
I looked up at my teacher, my eyes drooping. I felt hurt for being misjudged and misunderstood—what I’m sure she perceived as a guilty conscience, especially when I automatically whispered, “I’m sorry.”
It’s not that I was sorry for harming the book myself. What I was sorry for was failing to keep it from cruel Charlie’s hands. What I was sorry for was not being the kind of student Mrs. Cosgrove wished for me to be.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I uttered, accepting Alice again. I hugged the prize to my chest and turned to leave the empty classroom.
“Annabelle, I think it would be best if you didn’t take that book out for recess anymore,” my teacher decisively added.
Though my heart sank a little, I turned and nodded in agreement.
Father was still away when I got home from school, somewhere along a stretch of highway hauling freight across the states. His visits home were never announced, never preceded by a phone call, though they often fell on the weekends. Mother kept the house spotless, the cooler packed with beer, anticipating him stepping through the front door at any moment. We’d become accustomed to at least one full week of his absence at a time. Often two. He provided a fistful of money….and pain….with his visits. I always thought it best when he was away, even when the money ran tight.
Checking on my mother’s whereabouts first (she was stitching up a pocket on her favorite blue housedress), I filled a bucket of water and dragged it across the backyard into the open grove where we’d planted the one diced potato. Alice was tucked beneath my armpit, securely held in place by a greater sense of obligation toward the book. About a foot from our bare plot of soil I let the pail tip over, thoroughly soaking the ground. The sun was behind the trees. It wouldn’t steal much moisture.
Then I looked around for a nice spot to sit and read, behind a double trunk of pine bark where a pair of conifers had sprouted, attached at the base like Siamese twins.
I read until the sky turned scarlet, about the same time my mother hollered my name. I closed the book, leaving Alice sitting in court trying to figure out who stole the queen’s tarts.
Mother and I ate boiled potatoes with leftover milk for dinner. All the cream had been skimmed off and licked up the night before. I smiled big when she treated us both to sticks of black licorice. And it wasn’t even a holiday! I ate the candy rope like a lollipop, licking and sucking on the skin to make it last longer. The flavor was sweet and strong and delicious.
Mother put me to bed with a cool kiss on the forehead. She said my entire mouth was black, tongue, teeth and all. Then she stuck out her black tongue to prove it. I smiled a black smile as she left, snuggling into the corner of my mattress, prepared to drift off to the muted murmur of the television down the hall.
I dreamt without Gavin.
At first I tried to include him in my adventure, but for some reason I couldn’t quite dream him up the same way I had previously. Though my imagination copied his look near perfect, he just wasn’t the same character. I tried picturing him with a tall, wide-brimmed Hatter hat, but that did no good. Then I imagined him dressed in black, wearing a heavy, hooded robe. My first impression was that he looked sinister. It wasn’t the same bright-eyed and friendly boy I’d met in our Red Riding Hood adventure. I gave up trying. It was silly, but lacking Gavin in my dreams made me melancholy.
I let my dreams drift away with Alice. I didn’t pretend to be her, but followed her around the queen’s garden, observing a game of flamingo crochet and a party with unusual guests and pompous royalty. The Queen shouted, “Off with their heads!” over and over and over again to every member in attendance, including her nincompoop husband, the King of Hearts. No one lost their heads, however. Instead, I, myself, dressed up as a Princess of Hearts in a pink gown with white and red hearts printed all over the silky skirt. As a member of royalty I went from guest to guest overriding the orders, patting people consolingly on the head every time the wicked queen threatened to decapitate them. Eventually, I got bored and willed the dream to an end.
I stood alone in a void. It made me laugh when I thought of Gavin, brown eyes rolling, arms folded across his chest, grumbling “Bor~ing!” That didn’t make his image appear in my dreams, though.
I imagined a field of white roses—the bright, clean flowers covering the ground in every direction for as far as I could see. A thick, long-bristled paintbrush appeared in my hand, dripping glossy red paint from a pointed tip. I lifted the brush and snapped my wrist, sending sprinkles of red all over the clean flowers. It looked as if the petals had a sudden attack of the chicken pox.
Holding the paint brush high in the air I thought of a magic word. A ridiculous one consisting of parts of all the red items I could think of.
I twirled the paint brush above my head like a winding tornado before splattering the white roses a second time. They all turned scarlet red in a blink.
I giggled again. This was fun.
The rest of my dream was spent waving around the magical paintbrush, thinking up enchanted words to make over the roses—aqua blue with orange tips; white with zebra stripes; lustrous metallic gold; transparent glass that shimmered a slight blue in the sunlight. In the end, I repeated a used spell.
It transformed every rose to a pretty, soft pink, covering them in polka dots as colorful as rainbows.
These were my favorite. My first creation with Gavin.