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       Tumbleweeds, p.3

           Leila Meacham

  “Okay, young lady, let’s go take a look at your locker,” the principal said, and offered his hand, but Cathy gripped the handle of her satchel with both of hers—why did people insist on treating her like a kindergartner!—and walked beside him without a backward look at her grandmother, but her heart clutched when she heard the push of the handlebar and the door slammed shut by the wind.

  “Your books are already in your locker,” the principal said. “Your grandmother returned them so you wouldn’t have to lug a heavy load around the first part of the day.”

  For the last two days Cathy had memorized her schedule and thumbed through her textbooks, thinking the material awfully simple. She was especially disappointed to learn that science was not taught in the sixth grade but rather geography, and she would have to wait until her sophomore year to take biology. At Winchester, her class was already studying anatomy and the digestive system. Next year the students would begin dissecting frogs. Her grandmother, knowing Cathy wanted to become a doctor and seeing her disappointment, had told her not to worry. She would send away for home-schooling materials dealing with subjects in the medical field and Cathy could learn from those.

  Principal Favor explained that her first period was homeroom, a class where roll was taken and announcements made and students did their homework. Cathy thought the last part strange. At Winchester, homework was done at home. He stopped in the middle of a row of metal storage compartments lined along a wall, quite different from the polished wood cabinets in her former school. “Miss Emma requested a top locker located between Trey Don Hall and John Caldwell,” he said, his grin spreading wide. “Most of the little girls in your class would kill to have it.”

  There were those names again. Why would any girl kill to have a locker between two boys? Cathy watched the principal demonstrate how to open the locker by turning the dial of a combination lock. She learned the numbers immediately, but he repeated them several times and insisted she write them down on her schedule and practice dialing her combination. Then she followed him to the closed door of a classroom through which could be heard loud laughing and talking.

  Mr. Favor’s face turned an explosive pink. “Miss Whitby needs to take her homeroom in hand,” he said as if he owed Cathy an explanation. “I don’t know how many times I’ve told her.” He mustered a smile. “Well, young lady, are you ready?”

  Dumbly Cathy nodded, and the principal opened the door.

  Instantly all chatter ceased. Everyone’s attention swiveled to their entrance. Several students who were out of their seats lowered themselves back into them, mesmerized with curiosity. The teacher who must be Miss Whitby froze in the act of writing on the board, a flash of panic in her startled stare.

  The butterflies swarmed up to Cathy’s throat and choked off her breath. The arrested faces dimmed like stars behind clouds. Only one shone through, glowing like the moon. It belonged to a handsome boy in the back row whose head and shoulders rose above everyone else’s except for the blurred figure of another boy two seats over.

  Miss Whitby recovered and came forward with a strained smile. She was very pretty and looked too young to teach. “You must be Catherine Ann Benson. I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow. Thank you, Mr. Favor. I’ll take over from here.”

  Mr. Favor spoke in an undertone from behind his hand, “As I hope you will your students, Miss Whitby, and I told you she’d be here today.” He dropped his hand and addressed the class. “Boys and girls, this is Catherine Ann Benson, Miss Emma’s granddaughter. She’s from California. I don’t want to hear of anybody not being nice to her, understand?” He ran a stern eye around the room. “You know what’ll happen if you do.” To Cathy he said, “Don’t hesitate to call me if you need me, Catherine Ann.”

  Cathy. My name is Cathy! she wanted to cry, feeling her insides dissolve in embarrassment at her introduction. The principal had threatened the students and now, on top of everything else different about her, they would hate her for that reason alone.

  She dropped her eyes to escape their stares and heard a voice call from the back of the room, “Let her sit here, Miss Whitby.” Cathy sneaked a peek from under her lashes and saw that the command had come from the handsome boy in the last row. He was pointing to a desk between him and the other tall boy. There were giggles and girls covered their mouths with their hands, but the speaker did not laugh. Perfectly serious, he dragged his book satchel out of the aisle as if expecting to be obeyed.

  “All right, Trey Don,” Miss Whitby said after a pause. “We’ll try it for a little while. Catherine Ann, you may take your seat.”

  In the complete silence, Cathy walked down the aisle and slipped into the desk seat, conscious of every eye following her, curiosity mixed with surprise and excitement. Rigidly she focused her gaze on unzipping a compartment of her satchel to withdraw paper and pen to write down the material from the board. Her movements held the fascinated attention of the class, as if they were expecting her to perform tricks.

  The boy named Trey Don Hall—now revealed as the nephew of her grandmother’s best friend—leaned over. “Hi. I’m Trey Hall. I’m supposed to look after you. Me and John. That’s John Caldwell over there.”

  She turned to the other boy and blinked shyly. Hello.

  “Hi,” he said, and smiled at her.

  They were different from any other boys she’d ever known. There was nothing nerdy about them. She thought they may have been held back a year, they were so tall for the sixth grade. It would be hard to say who was handsomer. Both had brown eyes and dark hair, though John’s was a little curlier. They were big and strong compared to her, and she felt even smaller sitting between them.

  The boy named John said, “You can put your pen and paper away. There’s nothing to write down in here. This is a goof-off period.” He noticed the staring students and irritably waved at them with the backs of his hands as if he were shooing chickens. Immediately, in one movement, every set of shoulders rotated to the front.

  Indeed she was sitting between the definite leaders of the sixth grade. Trey Hall leaned over again. “You can call me TD. Everybody does.”

  She glanced at him, wanting to speak but held silent by the familiar powerlessness of her tongue.

  The boy on the other side of her whispered to him across her desk, “She’s mute, TD. Remember?”

  Cathy turned to stare at him in shock. Mute? She wasn’t mute!

  “Oh, sorry. I forgot,” Trey said. He smiled at her. “TD stands for ‘touchdown.’ ”

  She must make them understand that she could speak. She faced the other boy, but he misunderstood the anguish in her eyes and explained, “Like in football. Trey is our team’s quarterback.”

  “Do you like football?” Trey asked.

  She swung her gaze back to him blankly. Football? Her father thought football games were for monkeys.

  Trey grinned. “Well, that’s okay. And it’s okay to be like you are. We understand, don’t we, John?” He touched her arm. “John and me, we don’t have no parents, either. My old man split before I was born, and my mom left me with my aunt when I was four, and I never saw her again, and John’s mother died when he was seven. His dad—if you can call him that—is around, but we don’t see much of him. So…”—Trey’s grin widened—“we got being orphans in common.”

  Orphans… The word pierced through her like an arrow shot from a bow and shattered her secret place. Pain flooded where her parents had been alive and well, blinding her, forcing her to see.

  “Catherine Ann, are you okay?” John asked.

  Tears welled in her eyes. Her mouth trembled. “Cathy,” she said. “My name is Cathy.”

  Chapter Five

  What did I say to make her cry, John?”

  “I think it was the word orphan, TD. Maybe up until you said it, she hadn’t realized her parents were dead. It took a while for me to feel my mother gone, and then one morning, I woke up and it hit me that she was dead and I’d never see her again.”
br />   “I remember that morning,” Trey said. “You ran around like hornets were after you.”

  “It’s the most terrible feeling in the world.”

  “Ah, jeez, John, I didn’t mean to make her feel like that.”

  “Of course you didn’t. She knows it, too.”

  “I want to do something nice to make it up to her.”

  “Like what? Pick her some flowers?”

  “For Pete’s sake, John, where am I going to find flowers to pick in the dead of winter?”

  “You could buy them.”

  “With what? I’ve already spent my allowance.”

  “John! Trey! Stop talking and pay attention!” The order came from Coach Mayer, head coach of the ninth-grade football team. He stood at the blackboard, tapping at diagrams of game plays with a yardstick. John’s and Trey’s school schedules had been arranged for them to attend the physical-education class made up of the players of the junior high football teams, seventh through ninth grade. It was really a bull session designed to give the coaches extra time to tutor their players. In the long history of the school’s successful athletic program, John and Trey were the youngest students and only sixth graders ever assigned to the class. Big things were expected of their respective talents as they got older and moved into the higher ranks—Trey as quarterback and John as a wide receiver.

  The boys drew apart and focused their attention on the blackboard, but Trey’s fingers, already long and sinewy, beat out a rapid tap on the surface of his desk, a signal to John that he was in his thinking mode. That could be good, and that could be bad. One thing John knew, Trey had it bad for Catherine Ann—Cathy—Benson. Well, who wouldn’t? She looked like a little angel, all blond curls and blue eyes and sweet dimples when she smiled. Which wasn’t going to happen too often now. After that morning when John realized his mother was gone for good, his world had gone black for a long, long time. It would be a while before he and Trey saw those dimples again.

  Trey snapped his fingers. “I know! We can get her a puppy,” he whispered. “Gil Baker told me that Wolf Man’s collie had a litter last week.”

  John caught Coach Mayer’s frown in their direction and wrote on his notebook for Trey to read: You think he’ll give us one?

  Trey mouthed, Why not?

  To their consternation, the coaches did not dismiss the class, the last period of the day, until after the bell rang and Cathy had gone by the time they reached the home economics room to escort her to her locker. Except for athletics, she was in all their classes and shared the same lunch period, and they’d been able to watch her every move for most of the day. She’d looked lonely and lost and kept to herself, speaking to no one and barely to them, but everyone knew of the new girl in school and that he and Trey were looking out for her. When they were finally released, they flew down the hall to waylay her before she could leave, only to catch a glimpse of her blond curls bouncing under her cap as she went out the front door with Miss Emma.

  “Catherine Ann!” Trey called, his voice stricken, swallowed up in the end-of-school-day noise.

  John felt a pang of sympathy for him. He’d never seen Trey moony-eyed over anybody, and in the cafeteria at noon today John had been embarrassed for Cathy at the attention he gave her. “Is this seat okay, Catherine Ann?” “What do you want to drink? I’ll get it for you.” “You can have my Jell-O, if you want. My cookie, too.”

  And to John he’d said afterwards, “Did you see how nicely she ate, John? And did you notice how clean her fingernails were—like little white half-moons.”

  Actually, Cathy had eaten very little of the big sandwich Miss Emma had prepared and nothing else she’d packed in her sack, but he agreed she chewed daintily, and her hands were pretty and delicate and didn’t look as if they belonged at the sleeve ends of the flannel shirt she was wearing. Her shirt collar was too big for her little neck, too, and he figured Miss Emma had bought a larger size in case the shirt shrank or maybe she expected Cathy’s body to catch up to it. Miss Emma wasn’t rich like Aunt Mabel and probably couldn’t afford to replace the clothes Cathy grew out of.

  Cathy had looked at Trey as if he’d skittered in from a different solar system and for most of the time ignored him. They’d selected a place away from the jock table situated next to the one where Cissie Jane queened it over her silly bunch. Lots of giggles had come from that direction, and John had been pretty sure the cause of the laughs was Cathy.

  Trey’s interest was probably temporary, but right now she’d become the moon and stars in his sky. His, too, actually.

  “Relax, TD. We’ll see her tomorrow,” he said, placing a consoling hand on Trey’s shoulder.

  Trey shrugged it off in an unwillingness to be comforted. “Dadgummit! We could have ridden home in Miss Emma’s car with Catherine Ann if Coach Mayer hadn’t been so long-winded. Okay, let’s go talk to Wolf Man about that pup.”

  “Well, now, wait a minute, TD. Maybe she’d like a kitten,” John said, as they made for their lockers. “They’re less trouble than dogs, and I’ll bet Cissie Jane would give us one of hers. Her mama cat had a litter about three weeks ago, and she’s trying to find homes for them.”

  Trey whooped. “A kitten! No way! Cats got no soul, man. Dogs do, and it’ll protect Catherine Ann when it grows up.”

  “Cathy,” John corrected. “She likes to be called Cathy, TD.”

  “I really like the sound of ‘Catherine Ann.’ ”

  “Well, her name is Cathy.”

  Trey shrugged the point aside. “Here’s a news flash, Tiger. Cissie Jane’s not going to give us no—any—kitten for Catherine Ann.”

  “How do you know?”

  “Didn’t you see the way Cissie looked at her when we sat with her at lunch? Them green eyes of hers shot fire—I mean those green eyes.”

  “Why do you keep correcting yourself? It’s annoying,” John said.

  “I’ve got to watch how I talk from now on. It’s not cool to butcher the English language, like my aunt keeps telling me.”

  John returned to the discussion. “Cissie Jane’s jealous of her, TD. She’s not the prettiest girl in class anymore.”

  “No kidding, and Catherine Ann’s a whole lot smarter and nicer than she is, too. You can tell. I just know she’d really love a puppy. Collies are so warm and cuddly. I bet she’d really like one to hold right now.”

  John agreed. A dog would be better than hugging a pillow. He should know, but what if Miss Emma didn’t want a dog in the house? “Don’t you think we ought to ask Miss Emma first if it’s okay to give Cathy a puppy? Collies shed.”

  “For goodness’ sakes, John, why do you always have to think that way? If we ask Miss Emma, she’s liable to say no out of hand. If we spring it on her, and Catherine Ann likes it, she has to keep it.”

  Trey had a point, but as usual, it was a little shady. “Tell you what,” John said. “Let’s run this idea by your aunt. She knows Miss Emma better than anybody. If she thinks a dog’s okay to give Cathy, we’ll go ask Odell Wolfe for one from his litter.”

  Trey’s countenance brightened. He threw up his hand, and they high-fived. “Way to go, Tiger!”

  Trey called him Tiger mainly when he agreed with his way of doing things. Trey had given John the nickname when they were playing pee wee football and he’d made good on Trey’s pass and carried two tacklers with him across the goal line, Trey yelling, “Thataway to go, Tiger!” John knew that Trey had in mind to sell his aunt on the idea, rather than simply run it by her. He always got his way with her, but maybe this time it was okay. Aunt Mabel had told them that Miss Emma was already insane about her granddaughter and that her heart felt “like a rusty old trunk with its lid pried open.” She might agree to just about anything to make Cathy happy.

  Chapter Six

  No, boys! Absolutely not.” Mabel Church shook her head vigorously to add emphasis to her rare assertion of authority over her nephew. “I cannot permit you to go to Odell Wolfe for a puppy. We don’t know a
thing about him, and who knows what would happen to you once you set foot in his house?”

  “We won’t set foot,” Trey argued. “He wouldn’t keep his dog in his house, Aunt Mabel. She’s probably laid up in one of his mangy old sheds.”

  “Property. I should have said ‘set foot on his property,’ ” Mabel corrected herself. “You’ll have to think of something else to give Catherine Ann.” She shuddered at the thought of two eleven-year-old boys doing business with the recluse who lived at the end of a neglected road in the least desirable section of her neighborhood. Wolf Man, everybody called him, and the moniker fit the man in the most uncharitable light of the species. Dirty and unkempt, red hair and beard a matted mess, he had come from nowhere at least ten years ago and taken up residence in a falling-down house that had lain vacant since its owners had abandoned it in the fifties. Few ever saw him. No one knew anything of his history, how old he was, or how he made his living. It was rumored he wandered about at night, carried a whip, and raised fighting chickens in the ramshackle pens in the backyard. It was Mabel’s policy to have no truck with folks you didn’t know anything about.

  “I don’t want to think of something else,” Trey wailed. “Catherine Ann needs a puppy, doesn’t she, John?”

  “A puppy would probably be a comfort to her, Aunt Mabel,” John said. “I don’t think Miss Emma will say no to the idea. She’ll want Cathy to be happy.”

  Mabel could feel her resistance soften. John’s insights always melted something inside her. Out of the mouths of babes. “It’s not the puppy I’m opposed to, John,” she explained. “It’s the fact that you’ll be dealing with Odell Wolfe. And what makes you think he’d give you one for free anyway?”

  “Why wouldn’t he?” Trey said. “He’s just going to kill them anyway. He’d probably be happy for us to take one off his hands.”

  “We’ll compromise,” Mabel said. “This weekend, I’ll drive you boys to the pound in Amarillo, and you can get one there for the little girl. We could even take her with us to make the selection, if she’ll go. Meanwhile, we’ll broach the idea to Miss Emma.”

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