I’m not sure why I didn’t tell Grandma about the girl sleeping in our fruit grove. It was around midday when I found her. The sun had reached its apex in the cloudless blue sky. The pecan trees offered a few shady spots, but I was moving around trying to collect the fallen pecans that my white shirt was drenched in sweat and my shorts clung to my legs. I wanted to take a quick break and catch my breath. But I was afraid of being scolded by Grandma, so I tiptoed to the side of the yard, past the rusted green tool shed and into the small grove.
The girl slept under the apple tree, her chin so low that it nearly touched her tank top. She was properly dressed for the infamous Southern heat—white and pink striped tank top that stopped just at the start of her blue jean shorts which ended in a fringe just above her knees—but she didn’t have the dark tan many southerners acquired during the summer. Her skin was a fine caramel color. It had only been a few weeks since I was shipped off to Grandma’s South Carolina home and I was already nearing the color of bread that was in the toaster a minute too long.
I decided to let her continue sleeping. I picked a few figs off one of the trees and a handful of muscadine grapes. Some of the grapes were unripe, so I pocketed those and popped some darker grapes in my mouth. I left while munching away at my snack.
I looked towards Grandma’s brick home, wondering just how many chores I could skip for the day. The driveway and walkway needed to be hosed down and the window shutters needed a fresh coat of white paint. The “No Trespassing” signs had to be hung in and around the grove. And I wanted to fill another bucket full of pecans to sell. If Granddad were still alive, he’d help me with these chores. But I was the youngest body and surprisingly strong for a girl who failed PE last school year.
The kitchen window was open. I stood on the tips of my toes and poked my head inside. Grandma sat at the small kitchen table. The metallic table legs had long lost its gleam and the green plastic top had the scars of many defeated mealtime battles with young, rambunctious children.
“Grandma, I’ve been out here all day.” Not true, I’d been out here for an hour, but it still felt like all day. “Let me come inside for a bit.”
She responded without peeling her eyes away from the small, grey television. “Finish picking the pecans and then you can come in. But you still need to go pick up some groceries.”
I started to whine, but she silenced me with a look that told me I was not too old to pick a switch from a tree and get a whipping. “Just go finish picking up those pecans and then you can come and take a shower before heading to the grocery store,” she said. She turned back to the TV and whatever daytime talk show that entertained her before I pestered her. I stood with my face in the windowsill, hoping she’d change her mind.
“Bridget Annie Marsh,” she said. I hurried away, since I knew few good things came after being called by my full name. Walking back to the pecan trees, I thought about how a bony, eighty year old, hundred pound woman could intimidate a chunky seventeen year old, hundred and seventy pound teenager. Then I remembered the collective whippings my cousins and I earned when we were younger. My grandma said we acted devilishly. I just thought we were having fun.
By the time I called it quits, I ended up filling my original bucket as well as getting a decent start on another bucket of pecans. I prayed for a nighttime breeze to shake some pecans off the branches. I dragged the dirty white bucket across the grass and lifted it onto the bed of Granddad’s rusted powder blue truck. I pushed the bucket all the way back until it was flush with the rear window and left the other bucket near the back truck tire. I decided to check on the girl after stowing the metal pecan catcher in the green shed.
The sun was beginning its slow descent below the horizon. The sky was now turning a deep blue, with a few shades of red, orange and purple thrown in. The girl still slept under the apple tree. I needed to wake her before Grandma discovered her.
I picked a few figs off the tree and stuffed them in my pocket. My fingers brushed against the unripe muscadines and I was struck with an idea on how to wake the girl. I considered picking an apple, but I knew from previous experience that an apple against the head wasn’t a pleasant sensation. I sat across from the girl, with plenty of space separating us. I fished the muscadines out and let them roll around the palm of my hand. I picked one out of the bunch, took aim and chucked it across.
It hit her right between her trim eyebrows. She mumbled, but kept dozing. I threw two more muscadines and earned the same response. For a moment, I worried that she had a heat stroke from sitting outside for so long. It happens a lot. I remember when it happened to my older cousin. Grandma is still surprised I remembered that day, since I was barely five at the time. But it’s hard to forget your Grandma pulling your cousin out the car, laying her on the warm driveway and throwing a gallon of ice water on her face.
I stood, grabbed some figs out my pocket and ate them one by one. I couldn’t sneak a jug of water out the house without crossing paths with Grandma. But there was a water hose near the shed.
I searched for the black hose and turned the spigot. Then I dragged the hose back to the grove, creating a small water trail. The hose grew taut just a few inches from the apple tree and the girl.
“Hey, wake up,” I said. The girl didn’t respond. I placed my thumb over the mouth of the hose, creating two odd shaped streams. I took a brief moment to enjoy the cool water, before aiming at the girl’s side.
Her hands shot up to cover her face. “What are you doing?”
I lowered the hose. “I was trying to wake you up.”
“With cold water?”
The soil around some of the plants looked dry, so I decided to go ahead and water them. One less chore I’d have to deal with. “Well, you didn’t respond to the muscadines.” I used my free hand to point to the green grapes just on her other side. “And I was worried that you may have had a heat stroke. But you woke up so fast, so I guess you were just sleeping.”
The girl stood and glared at me, before inspecting herself with a frown. Tiny water droplets fell on the grass and half of her midnight black hair hung low in loose ringlets. She started to wring the water out of her tank.
I heard a car pull up on the grass and I knew it was my Aunt, returning from her job in Columbia. The car horn beeped twice as she set the lock.
“I accept,” the girl said.
“The apology that I’m sure is on the tip of your tongue.”
I smiled and almost chuckled when I heard Grandma calling for me out one of the windows. Her light voice drifted on the wind, carrying the thinly veiled threat that I would be in deep trouble if I didn’t get in the house soon. I popped a fig in my mouth and thought about apologizing. The girl mumbled to herself, complaining that she was completely soaked.
“If you stay here, I can bring you some dry clothes,” I said.
She looked at me with narrow eyes. I shrugged. “It’s my way of apologizing.” Grandma called my name again. Her voice sounded closer. “Just stay here, I’ll be right back.”
The girl nodded and then looked over my shoulder. Her lips formed a small smile and I knew someone was behind me. I sighed, rolled my eyes and turned. Grandma stood in the grove’s entrance. Her hands were on her hips and her lips were pursed to the side. Her eyes focused on the hose in my hand, then flickered over to the girl and her wet clothes, before landing on my face.
“I made a friend!” I said with a grin. Grandma’s shoulders slumped from a sigh and she looked at the girl.
“Why don’t you come inside?” she said beckoning the girl with her hand. “I’ll get you some dry clothes.” The girl walked around me. “Bridget, go take your shower so you can go get some groceries.” Grandma put an arm around the girl’s shoulders and steered her in the direction of the house, leaving me alone in the grove with the hose still spewing water on the ground. I finished watering the apple tree, stashed the hose behind the shed and made my way back to the home.
Grandma was in the kitchen, peeling potatoes with a knife. There was a piece of paper on the table, ripped from a small notebook. I glanced at the list as I walked to the bathroom.
“Trinity’s going with you to town,” Grandma said.
“The girl you just met. The one you sprayed down.”
“I thought she had a heat stroke.”
“I’m sure you did. Just go take your shower so you can go.”
“Why is she coming with me?” I asked. “I rarely need a babysitter.”
Grandma sighed my name and I hurried into the bedroom. I grabbed grey shorts and a white tank top out my suitcase, before heading into the restroom. I turned the shower to the hottest setting that I could stand and let the steam fill up the room. The scent of buttered potatoes, hot grease and vinegar drifted under the bathroom door and mingled with the steam and vanilla scent of my body wash. Minutes later, I emerged from the bathroom, dressed in my fresh clothes.
My Aunt sat at the kitchen table, still dressed in her navy pin striped suit. She was fiddling with her work phone when I walked in. The girl, Trinity, sat to the left of my Aunt, watching the last remnants of Judge Judy. I stood on the tips of my toes and searched for my truck keys in the iron tray on top of the freezer.
“Let’s go,” I said to Trinity once I retrieved my keys. I snatched the list from the kitchen table, told Grandma and my Aunt I would be back soon and walked outside. I heard Trinity follow me. I slid in the truck’s cabin and reached a hand across to unlock the passenger side door. Trinity climbed inside and buckled herself in. I backed out and onto the street, driving until we came to the stop sign at the end and made a left.
From the corner of my eye, I could see that Trinity was now dressed in blue basketball shorts and an orange t-shirt with Newberry High School written across in faded white lettering. I turned the radio on. Sam Hunt’s voice played out the speakers.
“Are you new in town?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “My Dad was transferred to the Air Force base near Columbia and my Mom found a job with Newberry College.” I nodded and said cool, though it wasn’t. I always felt that living in Newberry was more of a punishment than a reward. “What about you?”
“I’m just here for the summer. My parents shipped me off right after school let out.”
“I guess they needed a break from me for a while.”
“Well I’m sure it’s not all bad.” Trinity tapped the photo that was taped to the front of the glove box. It was from two years ago. Granddad and I went fishing in a river a few miles out of town. I caught a huge catfish and Granddad wanted to remember the moment. Luckily, there was another fisher who could snap the photo of Granddad and I.
“Is this your Grandfather’s truck?” she asked.
“It was.” Then I added, “He left it to me in his will.”
“Don’t be. It won’t bring him back.” I gripped the steering wheel and pressed down on the gas. We let Luke Bryan carry a one-sided conversation for the rest of the trip. Five minutes later, I pulled into Walmart’s parking lot, found a spot near the entrance and turned off the truck.
I opened the door and said, “I won’t take long. Roll down the windows if you get too hot.”
She started to unbuckle her seatbelt. “I’ll just come with you.”
I shook my head. “No, I’m fine. Just stay here.”
Trinity sighed. “Okay.”
I felt bad for leaving her out in the heat. So I tossed her the keys and said she could use the AC if she wanted.
It only took about fifteen minutes to get everything off the list and pay. Trinity helped me load the groceries onto the bed of the truck. I moved some of the pecan buckets around so they would block the plastic bags from the wind. We climbed back into the truck and left the Walmart.
I made a right out the parking lot, setting our course down Main Street. We drove through the older section of town and I pointed out places of interest. Like, Purcell’s Insurance, the place Granddad used to work. Or Linda’s Art Gallery, where my older cousins and I took drawing lessons during the summer. I stopped in front of the courthouse and showed Trinity the town’s main courtyard.
“During December, the town puts up Christmas decorations. It’s pretty cute,” I said. “Definitely worth a trip downtown.” I made a left turn, driving away from the town. We drove parallel to train tracks and soon the white and grey homes started to disappear while the lawns widen. Then we were outside of the town, on the long, straight road, with plain grass fields on both sides. I turned the radio on, at a low volume.
“Where are we going now?” Trinity asked.
“Nowhere. I’m just driving.”
She propped her feet on top of the dash. I pretended not to notice. My phone vibrated in my pocket. I pretended it wasn’t there. It felt nice sitting in this comfortable silence. I rolled the window down just a bit so the sweet South Carolina air could fill the cabin. I looked to see if Trinity would object. But to my surprise, she rolled down her window and let her arm hang out. I smiled softly and thought about how this moment felt like old summers, though Granddad was the one driving and my arm was draped out the truck. There was an intersection coming up, maybe a half a mile away. I knew I could make a left to lead me back to Grandma’s home, but I wasn’t ready to go back.
My phone started to vibrate again. I waited until I came to the stop sign to answer the call.
“Where are you?” Grandma asked.
My forehead rested against the cracked leather steering wheel. “I’m out driving.”
“You haven’t done that in a while.”
“Well it’s a nice day,” I said.
“Are you still with Trinity?”
“Invite her to dinner.”
“Just invite her!”
I sighed, lowered my phone, and said, “Would you like to join my family for dinner?”
“Sure, that sounds nice.”
“Are you sure? My family is crazy.”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
I brought the phone back to my ear. “I asked her.”
“And what did she say?” Grandma asked. I opened my mouth to respond, but she quickly added, “And think before you try to lie to me.”
I rubbed my eyes with my thumb and forefinger. “She said she can come. We’ll be home in fifteen minutes. It’s dangerous to drive and talk, so I’m hanging up now. Bye.”
The call ended just as Grandma started to say something else. I turned the phone on silent and slid it back in my pocket. I looked up and down the street before making a left.
“You didn’t want me to come, did you?” Trinity asked.
I shrugged and turned the radio on. It was another Sam Hunt song. I hummed the lyrics, my voice barely drifting over the song. I propped my elbow on the door, letting the glass cool my arm. The silence was back, though it wasn’t as comfortable as before. The moment was gone and I wasn’t sure if I was ready for it to come back.
The sky was a deep blue when I pulled up on Grandma’s front lawn. Trinity unbuckled her seatbelt before I could shut off the truck. She pushed the door open and hopped out.
“You should know,” I said. I didn’t want to look at her, so I stared at the green tool shed. “It’s not that I don’t like you. I just don’t like what you could do to me.”
“What do you think I could possibly do to you?” she asked. I didn’t know how to answer so I stayed quiet. “Fine,” she said. She slammed the door and seconds later, the door to the truck bed was yanked open. I watched in the rearview mirror as she grabbed some of the plastic bags and marched inside. I leaned back in my seat, huffed and climbed out. I grabbed the remaining grocery bags and walked in the house.
My Aunt was already at the kitchen table eating her nightly salad. She had changed out of her business suit and into a simple pink blouse and jean capris.
“What took you so long?” she asked in between her chewing.
“We went for a drive,” I said.
She smiled, her lips parted just enough to show a set of teeth that were beginning to yellow. Grandma tapped her wooden spoon against the edge of a large black pot. “Dinner’s ready,” she said.
I put away the few groceries and grabbed a plate from the cupboards above the stove. Grandma placed a bony hand on my shoulder. “Let Trinity go first,” she said.
I stood near the sink and waited for my turn. Once Trinity finished, I piled buttered mashed potatoes, fried chicken, collard greens, cornbread and corn on the cob on my plate. I sat at the table and drowned my greens in an orange lake of hot sauce. Grandma poured two glass of mint tea for me and Trinity. The large ice cubes clinked against the glass when I took my first sip.
“This look delicious,” Trinity said, adding a sweet smile. Grandma thanked her and sat with her own plate of food. She started asking Trinity the standard getting to know you questions: Where was she from? How old was she? What year of high school was she in? Was she already looking at colleges? Did she like the town so far?
“It’s a pretty town,” Trinity said. “I think it will be fun to live here.”
“Bull,” I said.
“No cussin’ at the table,” Grandma said.
Grandma glared at me, but didn’t say anything. I scooped up the last of my mashed potatoes.
“I hope you had a nice tour, despite my granddaughter’s devilish manners. And don’t take it personal. She’s like this with most new people. She’s only nice to her family.”
I smirked and said, “I don’t think I’m particularly nice to my family.”
My Aunt and Grandma snorted at the same time. Trinity laughed and said, “It’s fine. I’m sure she’s really a nice girl.”
“No,” my Aunt said. “She’s not. She was a bully even as a child. Ever since the ‘Petting Zoo’ incident, Bridget’s parents have had problems. She doesn’t like to tell that story.”
“And I don’t like hearing it,” I said.
But of course, Trinity had to lean forward on the table and asked what happened at the petting zoo.
“It didn’t take place at an actual zoo,” my Aunt said. “It happened in her neighborhood. She and some other kids were playing a silly game. One person pretended to be an animal you find at the zoo and the other kids had to guess. Bridget decided she wanted to be a lion and she bit one of the boys.”
“Why?” Trinity asked.
My Aunt and Grandma shrugged, but I said, “Because the kid tried to pet me and I was pretending to be a lion. And we all know what happens when you try to pet a lion.”
“You didn’t have to bit him!” Grandma said.
I rolled my eyes. “You two,” I said, pointing a finger at Grandma and my Aunt, “tell the story wrong. It’s supposed to be funny. But you make it a sad affair. I didn’t bite off a finger or anything. I may have broken the skin a little, but that’s it. It was a joke.”
“It wasn’t very funny,” my Aunt said.
“Granddad thought it was.” I stood and tossed my empty plate into the sink. I went in my bedroom and searched my duffel bag for the Newport pack hidden under my folded shirts. I slipped it and the purple lighter into my pocket and headed towards the kitchen again.
“I’m going out,” I said, anticipating my grandma’s question. She sighed as I left the kitchen and headed outside. The air was cool and for a moment, I considered grabbing a jacket, but I didn’t want to face my family again. Crickets, hidden amongst the blades of grass, chirped their nighttime song. A few fireflies flew around, their neon yellow bulbs blinking. I smiled, remembering the nights Granddad and I chased after them, catching them with our bare hands and marveling at the tiny flicker of light.
I patted my pockets for my keys and made a quick stop at the truck. I opened the glovebox, shuffling the insurance cards, old receipts and other papers around until my finger grazed a plastic cap. I pulled the water bottle out, twisted the cap off and sniffed. My tongue watered at the sweet aroma of muscadine wine. I screwed the cap back and slipped the bottle in my pocket.
There wasn’t much to do in Grandma’s town, but there was a small lake about a mile from the house. The lake was surrounded by a thick ring of trees, making it a perfect hiding spot.
I reached the outside of the trees and walked along the manmade path. I pulled back a low hanging branch and spotted the moon lit lake. I walked around, stepping carefully along the muddy bank. My foot slid a few times, filling the area with a soft squelching sound. I found a dry grassy spot and sat. I pulled the water bottle from my pocket, took a long swig and lit a cigarette. The leaves rustled as the wind blew through the branches. A squirrel scampered along the ground in search of food. I placed my hands behind me on the dewy grass, tilted my head towards the sky and exhaled a small, thin cloud of smoke. An hour passed. Or maybe ten minutes. I don’t know. Time seemed to move slower in the South.
A twig snapped behind me. I took another sip and waited for whoever was coming to make it through the trees. I wanted to be alone tonight, but if the person brought more alcohol, I wouldn’t mind the company.
I turned to see Trinity step over an exposed tree root. She sat next to me and stretched her legs in front of her, crossing them at the ankles. Her flip-flops patted the heel as she tapped her foot. I took out another cigarette and lit it. I inhaled, tried to blow the smoke from the corner of my mouth, failed, started to cough and took the cigarette out. I took a sip of wine. Trinity gave my back a hard smack.
“Thanks,” I said once I caught my breath. “What are you doing here?”
“Your Grandma said I should come. She said it’s nice out here during the night.”
“You’re lying. She sent you to come check on me.”
Trinity smiled and leaned back on her elbows. “Okay, yeah she did. Are you alright?”
“Just peachy.” I offered her the bottle. “Want some?”
She scrunched up her nose and inspected the dirty yellow liquid inside. “What is it?”
“Muscadine wine,” I said before taking another sip. “It looks like piss but it tastes like heaven.” I shoved the bottle directly under her nose, so she could smell the sweetness. “C’mon, take a sip.”
She grabbed it, took a small sip and let the wine sit in her mouth for a bit before swallowing. “It’s pretty good.” She took a longer sip. “Where did you get this?”
I placed the cap back on and set the bottle in the grass between us. “I keep it hidden in my truck.”
“Because I can.”
“Why are you so standoffish?”
“Why do you have so many questions?” I asked.
“Because I’m clearly trying to be friendly with you.”
I flicked my thumb against the butt of the cigarette to get rid of the ash. “Well don’t,” I said, leaving it at that.
“Are you always an asshole?” she asked.
I smiled, but didn’t say anything. I looked out at the lake and wondered how long she would stay with me. Trinity took a sip of wine, offered the bottle to me, but I shook my head. She set it back on the grass. I took one last pull from my cigarette. It sizzled as I ground it on the grass.
“We did this earlier today,” Trinity said.
“Sit in silence. It was nice. But at some point we’re going to have to talk.”
I ran a hand over my face. “I’d rather not. My Granddad and I used to do this all the time and we developed a deep bond. We’d spend hours fishing on the river and not say a word.”
“You miss your Granddad?”
“Yeah.” I grabbed the water bottle and took a long gulp. A bit of wine trickled down my chin and I wiped it away with the back of my hand. “He was supposed to teach me how to make this,” I said, shaking the water bottle. “The heart attack got him first.” Trinity whispered an apology. I blinked and realized there was extra moisture in my eyes. I used my shoulder as a tissue.
I wanted to tell her more. Like how Granddad laughed the first time he heard the ‘Petting Zoo’ story. Or how we would sit in the grove, eating figs and taking sips from cans of Miller Lite. We’d go for hour long drives, listen to radio static and not say a word.
And then, two summers ago, Granddad went into the grove to pick some apples for us. I was in the house washing the dishes. Two plates, forks and knives later, Granddad had not come back. I put on my shoes to go search for him. Granddad was still in the grove, face down under the apple tree. I ran to him, while digging in my pockets for my cell phone. The ambulance arrived five minutes later, but he was already dead. I don’t remember the days after his death or his funeral. And as time passed, my memories of him began to blur. When I think about our fishing trips, all I see is this gentle, old man who was always smiling. I don’t remember his voice or what he smelled like. The only time I can really, truly see him is when I’m sitting in the truck, staring at the last picture of us.
“Can I ask you something?” Trinity said. Her voice was a whisper.
“You’ll probably ask even if I say no.” I laughed, then sniffled and wiped my eyes on my shoulder again. I pulled another cigarette out, lit it, took one pull and decided I didn’t want it anymore. So I tossed it into the lake, listening to the soft hiss as the water killed the fire.
“What did you mean earlier when you said you’re afraid of what I could do to you?”
I chugged the rest of the wine and belched. “I meant that you’ll come into my life, stay for a while and then leave me with nothing but hazy memories.”
“That’s a huge assumption to make about someone you just met.”
“Well you’ve never lost your best friend.” I stuffed the empty water bottle back in my pocket and brushed the bit of grass and dirt that stuck to the back of my legs and shorts. “I’m heading home now. Good night.”
Trinity called my name and I stopped. “Maybe one day, you can tell me your version of the ‘Petting Zoo’ incident,” she said. “I could use a good laugh.”
The corner of my mouth pulled up in a smile. “I’ll think about it,” I said and left the lake. I walked home with my hands stuffed in my pockets. My body was warm from the wine and I was one yawn away from falling asleep. I used the front porch door to let myself in. All of the lights were off and Grandma’s snores drifted down the hallway into my room. I turned a lamp on and changed out my clothes. I was about to climb into bed when I noticed a sheet of paper on top of my pillow. The handwriting belonged to Grandma.
I know you went out drinking. You’re not slick. I found some cigarette butts in the grove. You better give me any packs you have hidden. Also, I’m waking you up at 6:00 am tomorrow. You have a lot of chores to get through.
True to her word, Grandma woke me at six. But instead of a gentle shoulder nudge, she slammed the door open and screamed my full name. I shot out of bed and ran into the bathroom. At least she fed me well before sending me outside with a list of chores that HAD to be done by the end of the day.
I walked into the grove before doing anything else, though I didn’t expect Trinity to be out there. I picked an apple, stuffed it in my jean pockets and decided to hose down the driveway and walkway first.
At noon, I took a lunch break. I made a ham and cheese sandwich and finished off the rest of the tea. Judge Mathis played on the TV, but I didn’t pay attention to it. Grandma’s voice and laughs carried through the windows in the parlor. I stuffed the rest of my sandwich in my mouth, while walking through the dining room and into the parlor. I stuck my head out the window. Grandma sat on the porch swing, while Trinity sat on the steps. Their conversation stopped as soon as they noticed me.
“I’m going for a drive,” I said to Grandma.
“Okay. Just be careful.” She smiled, looked at Trinity, looked at me and then stared out into the street.
“Do you want to come?” I said to Trinity.
She smiled, nodded and said, “Yeah, let’s go.” We said bye to my Grandma and walked to the truck. I unlocked it, hopped inside and opened the passenger door. I honked the horn as we sped by Grandma. We came to the stop sign and I looked up and down to make sure no cars were coming.
I glanced at her from the corner of my eye, smiled and said, “So, you want to hear my version of the ‘Petting Zoo’ story?”
“Yeah,” she said with a wide grin.