I don’t like that working title, so it’ll change at some point. This is something I’m messing around with and thinking of serializing here. If you like it, go buy one of my other books, or join my Patreon.
When I was a little girl, my best friend was named Tina. I met her the summer after my fourth grade year, and we played together all summer long in the woods behind my house. I didn’t have many friends, so when I started telling my mother about Tina, she was thrilled. I’d finally found a girl my own age to be friends with. I suppose she thought this would make school easier in the fall. I didn’t believe that, I just thought it might give me a nice summer before I had to go back to school, where the girls teased me about my clothes and asked me why I always wore boys’ shoes and why my clothes were old and frayed at the hems.
Tina never asked questions, just played Star Wars on our swing set Millennium Falcon and always let me be Princess Leia and never made me be Chewbacca because I was “dirty” and “smelled like a Wookie.” Tina was always there that summer, just hanging around outside whenever I got done with breakfast in the morning, ready to play. She never came into my house, not even for afternoon snack, and I never went to hers. We just played together, exploring the woods and the creek and the red clay banks and getting the mud between our toes and making mudpies and taking off our blue jeans and sitting on the wet rocks in the creek in our underwear, pretending we had on bikinis like the older girls we saw on TV.
Until one morning Tina wasn’t there. I hopped down the cinderblock steps at the back door of our trailer and looked around, but she wasn’t nowhere to be seen. I wandered around my back yard for a little while, swung on the swing for a bit, but she didn’t show up. So I went to look for her. She wasn’t down by the creek, not even in the deep pool where we liked to catch crawdaddies. She wasn’t in Old Man Perkin’s field seeing how far she could fling cowpies before they broke. She wasn’t in the old barn across the road at Aunt Hazel’s place, with all its smells of hay and old horses.
Finally I found her all the way down at the old Martin place, sitting all by herself on the steps. There weren’t no house there no more, it having burned up a long time before I was born, so there was just a concrete slab foundation poured with three brick steps leading up to it, and a chimney sticking up like a red brick finger pointing at the sky.
“What you doing sitting out here all alone?” I hollered as soon as I saw her. She was still tiny off in the distance, and when she didn’t say nothing I figured she didn’t hear me. I ran down the overgrown gravel driveway, thistles and grass seeds catching all up in my white tube socks I had to wear on account of the handmedown boots Mama got me from the church was still a little big. She allowed as how I’d grow into them by the time school started.
I was out of breath from running up that whole long driveway, so I leaned over and put my hands on my knees like I seen people do on TV when they were tired. It didn’t make me feel no better, so I just sat down on the top step next to Tina.
“What you doing all the way out here?” I asked again, panting a little. Tina never got out of breath, no matter how far we ran or roamed. She could run for days if she needed to. Me, I had a little belly from watching too much TV, so Mama liked that I spent all day running around outside with Tina. She said all the fresh air was good for me. I thought she liked it that I was out of the house for her to watch her stories.
Tina didn’t answer me for a long time, then she finally said “I’m waiting for my mama.” I hadn’t never met Tina’s mama, not in all the time we’d been playing together. I hadn’t never been to her house, neither. She’d always just showed up outside in my back yard, ready to play.
“Okay, I’ll sit with you. Is she gonna bring you lunch?” Tina shook her head and didn’t say nothing. I just sat there with her, quiet. Sometimes she was like that, quiet and still. Other times she was just like a normal girl, least as much as I could tell, not really having any other friends to speak of.
We waited for a long time, but nobody came. After a while, I got bored and started to look around the old burnt down house. I’d been there before, a couple of times, but I always got scared and left before I could see anything. Kids on the school bus would point at this place, nothing visible from the road but the chimney, and say somebody died in the fire and that it was haunted. I wasn’t scared of ghosts, not as long as Tina was with me, and it was daylight.
I found a nickel, and a Bible that you could still read some of the pages in, then I was rooting around in a back room and found a golden locket. The chain was melted away, but the locket itself looked like it had been under something when the fire happened, so it wasn’t hurt too bad. I couldn’t get it open, not even with my pocketknife. I messed with it for a long time, then turned to Tina to see if she could open it.
Tina was standing at the top of the steps with a pretty woman with long dark hair and eyes that hadn’t smiled in a month of Sundays. I don’t know how I knew, but I could tell that I’d never seen anyone so sad. She wasn’t dressed to be outside, wearing slippers and a housecoat over her pale green nightgown, but she didn’t seem to care, and I wasn’t going to tell a grown-up how they should or shouldn’t dress.
I walked over to them and stuck my hand out. “Hey there,” I said. “You must be Tina’s mama. I’m Lila Grace Carter and I appreciate you letting Tina come play with me. She has been a good friend to me this summer.”
She knelt down in front of me, putting herself eye-to-eye with me, and smiled. It was a winsome thing, a little flutter of a smile that might run away if you looked at it too hard, so I tried to pretend like I couldn’t tell she didn’t have many smiles in her life. “Why, thank you, Lila Grace, I appreciate you keeping my baby company these past months ’til I could come be with her again. I expect we’ve got to move along now, but know that wherever you go, Tina will always be your friend.”
Then she stood up, motioned Tina over to her side, took her hand, and they were gone. That’s all it was; one second they were standing in front of me, the next they were gone. I turned around in circles and ran around that burnt-up homestead looking and hollering for Tina, but she was gone. After what felt like hours of looking, I decided she was gone for good and trudged on home.
Mama was standing at the sink peeling potatoes for supper when she saw me walk up the driveway. “Lila Grace you leave them nasty boots on the back porch and wash up before you come in this house!” She hollered through the screen window. I took off my boots and turned on the spigot by the back door, then let the water run through the hose for a minute ’til it got cold, and washed the dirt and soot off my hands and feet and face. I dried off with an old towel hanging by the back door that Daddy used to clean up with before he came in from the sawmill at night, and I carried my boots in and set them on the porch before I hopped up to the kitchen table for some lunch. We never ate in the dining room except on special occasions.
Mama brought me a glass of sweet tea and a tomato sandwich, and I could see on her face she’d been crying. “What’s wrong, Mama?” I asked as she sat down, washing down a big bite of home-grown tomato and mayonnaise with tea sweeter than lemonade.
“A woman from our church passed this morning, honey, and the whole thing made me a little sad. I was glad when you came home for lunch instead of going off all day playing today.”
“Who was it?” I asked, taking another too-big bite of sandwich. Mama smiled at me as the tomato juice ran down my chin. She picked up a paper napkin off the table and wiped my face for me. I grimaced a little, I wasn’t a little kid anymore, but she was upset, so I let her do it without fussing.
“I don’t think you knew her, but it was Clara Good. Her family lived down the road a piece before you were born. Her husband and daughter were killed in a house fire years ago, and poor Clara never was right after that. She couldn’t keep a job, and finally they had to put her in a home up in Rock Hill. Well, she died today, and it all reminded me of how sad the whole story was.”
“She lived in that old burnt-out house on the other side of Mr. Sam Junior’s place?” I asked, slipping the locket deep into the front pocket of my jeans.
“Yes, that was the place. You know it?”
“Only that some kids on the school bus say it’s haunted.” I had never lied to my mother before, but something told me that no good would come of telling her where I had spent my morning.
“She had a daughter about your age, I can’t remember her name…” I watched my mother’s eyes go wide, then she looked at me. I looked back at her, ready to tell her everything if she asked, or to tell her nothing. It was the first time I remember us talking like that, having a whole conversation without speaking a word, but it certainly wasn’t the last time it happened.
“Finish your sandwich, sweetie. Then I need you to help me hang up the laundry this afternoon.” She got up from the table and went back over to the sink and went back to washing and peeling potatoes. I finished my sandwich and carried my paper plate to the trash can on the back porch. While I stood there, out of Mama’s sight for the time being, I pulled the locket out and looked at Tina’s face staring into her mama’s, both of them smiling like there was no tomorrow.
I closed the little golden oval and slipped it back into my pants pocket. I looked out the back door and thought for a minute that I could see a woman walking away from my house holding hands with a little girl, but in a blink they were gone.
“Bye Tina,” I whispered, and went inside to help Mama with chores. That was the day I realized how different I really was.