Photo by Danny Lyon

The tail end of summer brought with it the pang of indifference from the elders. By then no one cared much where the young ones wandered off to or if they came back long past sunset, as long as they showed up. If they took care of their chores and made it down to breakfast, freedom reigned throughout the remainder of the day. Myrna and M'dear quickly finished sweeping and mopping the kitchen and the porch, beating out the rugs hung over a fence in the back yard, and bringing in the wash that hung on the line drying since the early morning wash. Rather than share their whereabouts with the others, M&M—a name they called themselves—chose to slip out unnoticed. The fewer who knew their whereabouts, the better, while they escaped to the lowland, the river's edge and crossed the creek to Fell's Pride, where they had no business being. Why? Because it was well kept with manicured lawns. Why? Because it was within their reach but beyond their knowing.

On days like this, Myrna tugged M'dear's hand until she followed, hiking their dresses well above brown, knobby knees, and holding their shoes, while crossing the creek to the other side.

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"Trouble's going to find us," M'dear said.

"I have an inkling we'll stay clear of it today," Myrna said.

They walked in silence, cursing mosquito pinches, and promising to do each other's sweated back hair long before Mama had a chance to sit them each between her legs and run a pressing comb through their tangled knots. The heat showed no mercy and harshly singed their skins, but they so badly wanted an adventure, they created one. When they reached the hill beneath the shade of the oak, they smoothed the backs of their dresses, sat on a mound of grass, and sipped from the single Mason jar of water between them.

"Shh, did you hear that?" Myrna asked, whipping her head around in the direction of the noise.

"An inkling, remember, Myr?"

"Doesn't mean I can't be wrong."

"You better not be," as they both turned their heads towards the woods.

"Lookie here?" A stranger's voice.

They shifted in the direction of the barely-a-boy voice, found themselves face to face with a white boy. They had sat on this mound many a summer day and never found even a whisper of a person in these parts. So struck were they by his presence they didn't move.

He wasn't afraid of them. They were sure of that. He came a little too close and stood over them with empty hands, but his chin jutted out like he was some kind of tough. His dark hair lay slicked back and wet. His thin shirt and trousers, damp as if he had taken a swim in the creek. What struck them most was the whiteness of his skin, and how he puffed his chest and inflated his voice once he saw their faces. That simple gesture told the girls, he was no one to fear and nothing to worry over.

"What do you think you're doing here?"

"Minding our business," M'dear said, as Myrna elbowed her.

"What are your names?"

"Who wants to know?" Myrna said.

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"I got a right to know".

"Says who?" said M'dear.

"Says me."

As much as he tried, he didn't sound threatening.

Myrna stood, then brushed off her dress, face to face. "Who are you?" She smelled his sweat along with his stringy, wet hair, and thought putrid.

His collar flipped over like he had hurried to put on his short-sleeve shirt. He flinched not one bit at how close she was. Before she knew it, he grabbed her arm, then with a slight jerk, he slumped to his knees before falling over.

M'dear wrestled to her feet, "What the heck."

His weight landed so completely on Myrna, she fell too. There they lay, his white skin above her dark one, the very sight of it made the girls tense. Myrna scrambled to move from beneath him, but he was more than a little heavy.

"Git him off me!"

"I'm pulling him, but he's heavy for a lightweight. Is he dead?"

"No, I smell his breath, but I'm about to be if you don't yank his tail off of me."

M'dear pulled at his arm then kneed his chest to push him off of Myrna.

Myrna scurried out from under him, already hot, now bothered by his weight and earthy smell.

"What should we do with him?"

"Give me that water," M'dear said, not hesitating to snatch it from Myrna. She unscrewed the cap, knelt, turned him over then held the boy's head in her lap. She placed the lip of the jar on his mouth. His face was a ruddy red like the heat got too close to him. She had never seen lips that thin and a nose so slender she wondered how he breathed.

They looked curiously at the boy, not having ever been that close to a white kid before.

"Maybe we should go," Myrna said.

"We can't just leave him here alone. Mama'd never forgive us."

"Who said Mama had to know?"

M'dear watched the water spill from his lips and down his cheeks, as he wasn't swallowing. His eyelids twitched and his lashes, heavy and dark, fluttered against his skin. For a moment she stepped outside of herself and wondered what she looked like, kneeling with a white boy on her lap, feeding him water from a jar. The very thought forced her to her feet and his head hit the ground with a thump.

Myrna bent down and listened for his breathing with her head to his chest.

"He's still alive. What are we going to do with him?"

"Stay with him while I get help."

"That's not going to happen. What would I look like alone in the woods with a boy? What will you look like telling strangers that a white boy fainted in the woods? The first thing they'll ask us is why we're even here."

"He must have heatstroke," M'dear said. "Look at the rose to his cheeks."

"What's heatstroke? You mean a little bitty thing like the heat can wipe out a fellow like that?"

"Maybe."

The boy opened his eyes then pushed up on his elbows, a sluggish look to him. M'dear extended the water to him. His lips curled before he brushed the jar away from his face.

"I'm not drinking from no moon cricket."

"You don't have to." M'dear threw the water in his face. She looked at the bewildered boy who sat wiping his face with the back of his hand, then took off down the hill. "Come on, Myrna. Let's go."

"M'dear! I can't believe you ... ," and then to the boy, "We should've known better than to help you. You ... you, fool boy!" As quick as she said it, her hands 'spelled' regret and rushed to her mouth, before she took off to follow.

Later that night with the windows propped up on screens, the heat, still a reckoning force dictated that they sleep on the floor with a sheet draped over them, Myrna whispered to M'dear, "Why do you think he called us that? We were trying to help him."

"Myrna, some people don't know a blessing when they see one. Should've let him rot right there in his own hate."

"But what's a moon cricket? I didn't know what it was, but it sounded hateful. My skin tingled when he said it, and I knew it was something mean," said Myrna.

"It means something you're not, so don't worry about it," said M'dear, but she pulled the sheet over her shoulder and turned her back to Myrna, crowding out the anger she felt having helped the boy at all. PaPa Shatt would've said giving him water meant a show of grace. What she felt was more than anger or regret. The night grew long before she freed the shame of having helped a boy who threw a wrench at her kindness. The realization brought her one step closer to being an adult: You can't control what others feel about you. Make room for it or chose to be free of it. Both got consequences.

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Carla Du Pree, author and new Executive Director of CityLit Project, is currently working to complete her novel about a young African-American military family braving travels through an uneasy South.

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