Two boys, a girl, and secrets in the woods.
Jimmy McNamara’s hand lingered atop that skinny shifter, eagerly awaiting the jump from second to third gear, and the growing speed meant to fling the shiny borrowed Ford Model T beyond Caulfield city limits, out to where that rat-a-tat-tat wouldn’t draw much commotion from folks who’d know its meaning.
Teagan Barton had other notions, though.
“There it is again!” he hollered from the passenger seat. “Right over Draper’s place.” The boy’s fingers gripped that long black case taking its leisure on his lap; his eyes fixed on some point in the clear blue above.
Jimmy couldn’t see it, though. “You sure it ain’t only a bird?”
Righteous indignation like a shaken-up bottle of soda pop bubbled over the boy. “It’s a goddamn airplane, man! A red biplane!” He jerked his gaze a-loose of the sky and flung it at his friend behind the wheel. “You ever seen a bird with two sets of wings? ‘Cause I ain’t.”
Jimmy’s head tipped subtlely, his eyes took up a search of their own. “Must be like you sad, then.”
“I ain’t seen many,” admitted Teagan, “but I know a plane when I see one.”
“Maybe we oughtn’t go shooting that thing, huh?” Jimmy said.
Teagan’s hands tapped some vague rhythm against that black case. “Ain’t no airplane flyer gonna know what we’re doing. Besides, up there he can see clear down to Biloxi—maybe even to New Orleans. He ain’t watching us.”
Jimmy set the Model T onto Calfton Road, put them to a crawl while scanning overhead for spies.
Teagan’s the one who saw her first, that tiny speck of a girl wandering along the middle of the road, head tipped back, eyes searching the sky.
“Ain’t that Grace Ann Folmer?” he asked.
Jimmy gave a nod, goosed the gas to gain some speed.
Teagan said, “Talk her into going with us.”
“’Cause she’s nice to look at.”
“She’s only a kid—not even old enough to know better.”
Teagan argued, “Just two years younger than us. That ain’t a lot.”
Jimmy said, “You the one gonna ask her daddy can she go?”
He wouldn’t. Charles Folmer was a man big enough to whip Jack Dempsey himself—just for fun.
Jimmy brought the Ford still; his finger punched the klaxon’s button.
The girl jumped on the driver’s running board, cast her blue-eyed gaze around the car’s interior, asked, “Who’d ya swipe this from?”
“Didn’t swipe it,” Jimmy tut-tutted.
“I’m gonna get me one just like it,” Grace Ann promised.
Hair the color of honey in a clear glass jar, this girl. Lips pink and swollen, like maybe a bee stuck her one good. It was a natural thing on Grace Ann, though, lips like hers.
Teagan’s eyes settled on her mouth. “Girls can’t drive no Model T,” he told her.
She leaned through the window like she meant to get a hold on the boy, said, “It’s nineteen twenty-two. Girls can do anything a stupid old boy can do. They even got women airplane flyers now.”
Teagan got bold with the matter, said, “Girl can’t piss on a wall.”
Grace Ann wouldn’t be dissuaded. “Betcha I can.”
“I’d pay to see that!”
Jimmy’s hand found the top of her head, gently eased the girl back through the window. “Ain’t nobody gonna pay to watch you make water,” he said.
But Grace Ann had moved on. “What’s in the case?”
“Tommy gun,” Jimmy confessed.
“Nuh-uh,” the girl argued. “You ain’t got no tommy gun.”
Teagan Barton popped the locks, flipped the lid, showed off that black metal and dark wood, and told all about their plans to go squirrel hunting.
“Won’t be no meat left, you shoot it with that,” Grace observed.
Jimmy’s laughter settled the matter. “We’re only gonna shoot at some trees maybe.”
Typical for Grace, a whine crawled between the girl’s words. “I wanna shoot it too.”
Teagan said, “I’ll let you shoot it.”
But Jimmy’s the one always thought things through. “And what of her daddy?”
“Daddy don’t have to know,” Grace assured all who’d listen. “Besides, he thinks I’m off traipsing with Selma Downey, won’t be expecting me till supper.”
Jimmy opened his door, said, “He whips my ass, I’m whipping yours, girl.”
Jimmy would never lift a hand to her, though. Grace Ann Folmer pretty much did whatever she wanted—same as her mama before her. Some girls can just get away with stuff.
She took up perch in the middle, straight between those boys. Though she had always favored Jimmy, her body leaned closest to Teagan.
“Did y’all see the plane?” she asked.
Teagan breathed in, drew on her scent. It had nothing to do with perfume or soap; it was a natural thing, something sweet, girlish. The sort of scent that would stick in a boy’s head, have him conjuring recollections of Grace long after she’d moved on to fancy boys from higher stations than Mississippi could ever manage.
Her hand found that black case, gave it a knowing pat. “Where’d ya get it?”
Teagan said, “It’s my pop’s.”
“He rob banks?”
“Won’t he miss it?”
Teagan grinned. “He’s in jail at the moment.”
Jimmy wrestled the car onto the lane cutting right through Tockett’s Wood, out to where old Mavis Tockett once had a house. Nobody came back there much anymore. Wasn’t anything to see but trees and what remained of a cabin.
Teagan’s eyes, they were busy with Grace Ann, memorizing her dainty hands with their chewed up nails, those delicate fine hairs on tanned arms, and scuffed knees showing off beneath the hem of her gray dress.
Teagan said, “Heard you socked Richie Tockett in his eye.”
“Yup!” said the girl. “Got it all nice and swolled shut, too.”
Jimmy set the Ford to a stop near to where the foundation of a vanished barn could still be deciphered among tall grass. “Why’d ya hit him?” he asked.
Grace Ann offered little. “Got my reasons.”
Doors opened, bodies spilled from the car. Teagan’s the one those other two flocked around.
Having a Thompson will do that.
“I’ll go first,” he announced, uncasing the beast. The boy affixed that round clip, aimed it at a low mound of dirt piled right beside the remains of a roofless cabin, and let loose a rat-a-tat-tat folks a mile away could surely hear.
Twenty or thirty rounds tore up the earth in that one spot, sent dust and dirt into the air like the mess of a devil.
When the moment cleared and the calm commenced all over again, ears went to ringing while birds held their tongues.
“Lord Almighty!” the girl exclaimed.
“You’re next,” Teagan assured her, drawing her closer to his side.
She got hold on the gun, tested its heft, proclaimed it “Awful heavy,” and true to a know-it-all girl, she pulled down on the trigger before the boy had time to issue whatnots and wherefores.
The black barrel kicked high, threw lead at the sky, knocked the tiny girl ass-over-shoulders into the grass, left her dress belly high, her legs splayed, and put those clean white underpants on show for all to see.
And Grace Ann didn’t cry, neither, the way Teagan’s kid brother cried when he too took that same sort of spill. Grace, she just sat up, righted her dress, worked an easy rub against her shoulder, and pronounced, “Awful mean kick, that.”
She threw in a stray “Jeez Louise” and a mumbled thing sounded like “Lord Almighty” before she gained her feet, swept grass from her clothing, and took up that Thompson for another go.
Didn’t take no college boy to recognize an opportunity presented. Teagan Barton got behind the girl, pressed his body against hers, his front to her back.
“Gotta do this right,” he said, that right hand of his finding rest right beneath her belly button. His lips brushed her ear; words came soft as the girl’s own skin. “I’m gonna hold you up, all right?”
Grace said, “Okay, then.”
Instruction concerning keeping the gun’s butt tucked tight to her shoulder followed. “Squeeze the trigger,” the boy counseled, “don’t just pull.”
A sudden burst tore further into that dirt mound, exposed things that didn’t quite resemble stick nor stone.
Jimmy saw it first, asked, “Are those bones?”
Teagan snatched the gun, returned it to its case, and followed Jimmy over to the mound.
Grace Ann, she’s the one spelled things out, put it in plain old English. “That right there,” she announced, “was once a person.”
* * *
“Mavis Tockett,” said Sheriff Gomes. “Died of the influenza back near four years ago.”
Grace Ann’s the one took up that children’s rhyme. “Had a little bird, his name was Enza, I opened the window and in flew Enza.”
Jimmy said, “You remember that?”
Her head tipped a subtle nod. “I was in second grade when it came here,” she said, sharing recollections of when all that dying swept through the world during 1918. “Lost my granddaddy on my mama’s side on account of it.”
Sheriff’s chin dropped, taking his gaze to the ground. “We all lost somebody in that mess,” he said.
Mouths went quiet while the four watched a pair of men from Mr. Glickman’s funeral parlor remove Mavis Tockett’s remains from that shallow hole.
“Bodies terrestrial,” Jimmy proclaimed, “—like in First Corinthians.”
Grace Ann asked, “What’s it mean?”
“Means we all go back to dust—same as Mavis.”
Even the pretty ones, Teagan thought, eyeing the dainty girl at his side. “How come they’re wearing masks over their mouths?” he asked, sliding his gaze toward those funeral fellas.
That’s when Sheriff Gomes tied a mask around his own head and broke the news nobody wanted to hear. “Gonna have to quarantine y’all over to Jackson.”
* * *
Doctors separated the three for a time, just long enough to pace them through extra hot showers, draw blood, ask questions concerning how they came to dig up old Mavis, possibly disturbing more than just a pile of bones.
Jimmy and Teagan were first inside the room they’d share until whatever needed doing got done. The simple space harbored three fugitive cots, a card table, three folding chairs, and a game of checkers meant to occupy the attentions of no more than two at a time.
“Coulda brung us one of them new radio things,” Teagan complained, dropping onto one of those cots. “And where’s Grace Ann, anyway?”
Jimmy took up with a folding chair, turned talk toward words he’d heard from folks in charge, how it didn’t seem likely a pile of bones might still carry disease enough to trouble the living. “Forty-eight hours, is all they want from us.”
Teagan issued displeasure. “We gotta stay for two days?”
That’s when all the hollering began, somewhere in that hallway outside their room, Grace Ann’s voice rising above those belonging to nurses.
“You ain’t the boss of me!” the girl bellowed.
Some fool nurse took up the challenge, said, “Don’t you sass me, missy!”
Grace Ann gave it right back. “Then come over here and get you some!”
“Git!” barked a nurse. “Git on in there, you awful heathen child.”
“Chicken liver!” The girl barged into the room, slammed the door in her wake, announced, “They ain’t sticking me back there just to test my temperature.” She rolled up on Jimmy, snatched the boy’s hand and put it against her forehead. “Do I feel hot?”
She sported a pea green gown similar to the ones issued to the boys. But Grace’s gown had come a-loose around back, offering Teagan a lingering gawk at the stark whiteness of the girl’s exposed bottom.
“You gotta quit fussing with folks, Grace Ann,” Jimmy said. “I mean, if you ain’t socking some fool boy, you’re having words with ’em.”
She took umbrage with his remarks, went nose to nose with her accuser. “Even my own mama don’t take my temperature that way anymore.”
“And what of Richie Tockett?” the boy argued. “He can’t see spit out of that eye you closed for him.”
Grace Ann’s spine hitched up real straight. “He had it coming,” is what she said.
Inside Teagan’s head, notions went to flirting with the boy, nudging him toward laying a pinch to one of those lily white cheeks, or maybe even a playful swat—just to coerce the girl’s attentions to himself.
But Jimmy McNamara, he’d not allow such displays of familiarity. He traipsed after Teagan’s bold gaze, found it fixed to the girl’s exposure, spun Grace ass-backward to him, and tied up her gown—just the way Teagan knew he would.
“Spoil sport,” said Teagan, tossing onto his side, giving those other two his back.
* * *
A silvery spill of moonlight splashed against the girl, gave away her escape from her own cot, caught her bold march toward Jimmy’s place of rest. And that boy wouldn’t deny her, neither. He just yanked back his sheet, and let the girl climb in beside him.
Teagan Barton feigned sleep, watching the two through midnight shadows gathered in the darkened room. Jimmy wouldn’t fool with her, though. Even Teagan knew that much. Jimmy preferred older girls, with big boobs and curvy hips. Grace Ann, well, she was flat as a board and just as straight. A kid, is all.
“You ever been kissed?” Jimmy’s question came wrapped in a whisper not meant to reach Teagan’s cot.
But it did.
Grace Ann said, “Course I have.”
Jimmy’s laugh came soft, giddy-like. “Ain’t talking about kissing your mama and daddy.”
“Oh. You mean kiss a boy.”
Jimmy’s the one who instigated it, dipped his head, pressed his lips to hers, a quick thing really, not unlike a friendly peck—at least that’s how Teagan explained it to himself.
It might have been anger, that twist he felt in his gut. Probably just jealousy, though. Didn’t seem fair, this scene. Teagan’s the one who liked the girl.
Jimmy’s voice fell soft against the night. “Why’d you sock Richie Tockett?”
Grace Ann said, “Kiss me again and I just might tell you.”
Jimmy—bless his soul—blurted, “Teagan has a crush on you.”
The girl raised her head from their shared pillow, tossed her gaze toward the boy feigning sleep. “He said my mama serves the devil,” she announced. “Said she’s a witch—on account of she reads palms and such.”
Jimmy sat up, fixed his eyes to the one minding his own business. “Teagan said that?”
“Uh-uh. Richie Tockett said so,” Grace clarified. “That’s how come I socked him in his eye.”
Jimmy fell back against his pillow, let quiet settle back in among them. He whispered a thing sounded like, “He don’t know your mama,” and drifted away from the rest of them.
Grace Ann flung her feet to the floor and traipsed back to her own cot.
* * *
Grace Ann worked at her third bowl of ice cream—strawberry. She pulled a triple jump across the checker board, said, “Crown me” to Jimmy McNamara, all the while keeping her blue-eyed gawk fixed tightly to Teagan lying on his cot.
The boy stared back, held her gaze the way he’d gladly hold her hand—if she had a mind for such a gesture.
“Wanna play?” she asked.
Jimmy protested the invite. “We ain’t even done yet, Grace Ann.”
But the girl cut another quick move, dropped a double jump on the whining boy, lifted his last two pieces from the board, and announced, “That’s game.”
Teagan settled into Jimmy’s vacated seat, tipped a nod toward that now-empty ice cream bowl, and said, “Gonna go right through you, you keep eating that stuff.”
“They ain’t gonna let us take any with us,” she explained, “so we best get it while we can.”
Checkers filled the board, jumping commenced here and there, each side laying claim to the other’s captured pieces.
Grace Ann won the first game straightaway. Took the second one as well—though just barely. Teagan had her trapped in the third, where any old move would end in certain defeat.
The girl’s dainty fingers reached for a piece but pulled back.
Teagan asked, “What’ll you give me if I win this game?” He leaned back in his chair, let a grin bend his lips. “Will ya let me kiss you?”
She went for that same checker again, lifted it from its square, said, “You ain’t gonna win,” and fell into a triple jump the boy never contemplated. “Crown me, Teagan Barton.”
Before Teagan could even consider the girl’s sudden escape, their room door yawned wide and coughed up the sturdy figure of Sheriff Gomes.
The lawman wandered through the scene like he meant to investigate the goings-on of the morning, made pronouncements on all he saw. “Ice cream and checkers, huh?” he said, hands on hips. “Well I guess being young is the life.”
Grace Ann’s the one who spoke up. “Ain’t you scared of catching the influenza?—you not wearing a mask and all.”
Something akin to a grin curled around the man’s mouth. “Ain’t in any danger,” he announced. “And neither are you lot. Seems them bones don’t belong to Mavis Tockett after all—at least to hear her kin tell of it. They claim she’s buried over to Carsonville, right beside her folks.”
Jimmy took hold of the question most needing asking. “Then who are them bones we found?”
“Could be anybody, I reckon,” said Sheriff. “Probably been there for a coon’s age.”
“Bodies terrestrial,” Jimmy proclaimed, sounding wise as any preacher ever did.
“Back to dust,” chimed Grace Ann.
Teagan’s hand brushed hers. “Even the pretty ones.” He said it aloud this time, said it twice. “Even the pretty ones.”
Grace Ann slipped her hand inside his, gave the boy a smile. She understood him just fine.