Folks on the Hill
Up on the top corner of Franklin stood a one-story surrounded by a large yard with lilac bush out by the ditch. Every spring Mom made us kids sneak over there to steal armloads of blossoms; the bush was large enough that we were well-hidden, and our house smelled great for a few days, making it well worth the risk.
Eventually, the inhabitant--a widow--moved away, leaving the house open for a short time before a family of three moved in. A few glances out of our salmon-colored curtains showed two girls about the same age as Cathy and I, and a mother in faded bell bottoms. Her hair was scraggly; a cigarette dangling from her right hand as she watched the girls running around the yard. A couple of trips up the street on our bicycles allowed fate to connect us, and we found out the older girl's name was Rhonda. She had fluffy curls of honey blonde and a sweet disposition. Christy was not so well-behaved, with layered brown hair hanging over a face more boyish than we had noticed all the way across the street from behind smudged glass.
Mom said that the Therman's mom was a stripper—it was the only excuse for her late night leavings and early morning drives back home. This information only added to the mystery, drawing us closer to the chaos. Saturday afternoons would find us over at their old abandoned car, crawling all over its blue roof, sitting inside and pretending to steer through imagined streets far beyond our own not-yet-paved Franklin.
"Hey!" Christy popped her head in one cloudy afternoon, eyes wild. "You gotta come see what I found out in the back yard. A real live grizzly bear!" Her voice was as rough as granite, hands dirty from pulling indian grass out by the fence. She was the epitome of a tomboy, perhaps going one step father than perviously defined.
I looked at the steering wheel in front of me, and then my partner in the passenger seat: John Kennedy Jr., Spring Hill's wild child that I was secretly in love with, and in complete fear for my life. "Nah. I'm still driving." He was silent next to me; we never really talked.
"Oh come on! I killed it with my own two hands. I'll give you some licorice if you come with me."
I didn't want the licorice. If she actually possessed any, it was most likely half-chewed and covered with grime. But I said yes regardless, avoiding the incessant begging I knew was to come. When I crawled out of the open driver's side window, John slid over to my empty seat, pretending to rev the engine. He gave no good-bye glance or even hint that he was sorry for my departure. Long sand-colored hair hung over his face, hiding the eyes I was always too scared to look into.
Christy dragged me up the hill toward the south part of the back yard, stopping just past the broken sled she'd stolen from our yard and smashed apart with a big rock. Then she held her arms out and pretended to be holding a rifle. "You never can be too sure with these bears. He might have come back to life. Okay, I think it's safe! You step over there and I will go first just to make sure you're safe."
I watched her step ahead, then turned fast to check the front yard again. A new group of neighborhood kids had just arrived, ambushing the car John was still occupying. I recognized my brother and his group of boys--the oldest on the block. Then I saw my sister sitting with Rhonda by the ditch. They were always so quiet, sharing secrets I would never be allowed to know. We'd all heard the most important one: a late-night walk up the road with a boy in her former town, fresh pavement, new car with stealth tires. The boy was gone, leaving Rhonda behind with a crooked walk and memories she refused to speak of, yet which would not let her forget. Startled by accident, she would fall to the ground in a set of wretched screams. Christy had a lot of fun setting her older sister off into these flashbacks, while the rest of us stood back in horror.
"Hey! You're missing it. The bear just had a pack of babies. We can each take one home and raise them for the circus."
I turned to view the invisible scene, wishing I could somehow escape Christy's stupid games. She was always singling me out, asking me to pretend the most ludicrous things. If only she wanted to pretend something that had to do with being a girl, then perhaps I'd have more interest. As usual, I humored her just to move things along and get back to the car.
"Didn't you say it was dead? Whatever. I'll take the dark brown one."
"No, no. That one's mine. You can have the red cub that's missing a back paw."
"Haha! We'll join the circus and live together for the rest of our lives." Christy was always saying weird things like that. It just figured no one in Spring Hill knew I existed, except for this one girl who thought she was a boy.
I had to get away. "My mom just waved through the window, she must need me. I'll see you later Christy!"
She grabbed my arm, holding me tight with those dirty, tanned fingers. "But you can't go. We have to raise the bears!"
I felt suffocated in her touch, wishing there was someway to tell her I just wanted to be alone. If only she knew of all the times I'd been trapped, scared, unable to speak loud or even dance in my own home. I just wanted to be free.
"No . . . I really gotta go. See ya later!" I ran back down the hill toward the abandoned car, frowning when I saw John was missing; his seat replaced by the loud throng of sixth-graders, including my brother, who refused to acknowledge my presence. Christy was yelling for me by the fence, but I kept walking, heading up the street in pursuit of something I couldn't put into words. A few blocks on and I saw him, standing at his front door, leaning against it in a rebellious waste of time. When he saw me approach, he flipped the hair out of his eyes and turned away. Then, the rain started.
I made it back to the hill in enough time to witness all the kids of Franklin scattering away from the car and rushing to their front doors; mothers waiting with worried glances and stained aprons. My steps were slow, calculated, sad. I saw the empty car and crawled inside, listening to the pattern of rain above my head like little pebbles falling from an angry hand. The steering wheel and its chrome accented vinyl fit snugly in my freckled fingers, moving slightly as I turned it to my right. That was the direction of the highway, stretched out for miles beside long fields, broken of their gold.