“Can you tell me a story?”
One of Ash’s dark eyebrows lifted. He crossed both arms over his chest and seemed to think about the question. Finally, he tipped his head down and looked at me. “I don’t rightly know. What kind of story would you like to hear?”
“A new one! Tell me something true. Nothing about blue crickets sneaking into the Queen’s shoe this time,” I insisted, feeling my nose crinkle slightly.
I love Ash. He’s been my friend for a really long time. Like, since my birthday, and that was almost a whole year ago. He is the coolest storyteller ever, mainly cause he knows tons of them. He’s been all over the world, and he tells me stories about the places he’s been. Sometimes he even brings me little trinkets for me to look at, bought back from far away places, like Alaska and New York and one time he even showed me a picture of a real lady from India. I could listen to Ash’s stories all day. Mostly, though, I love Ash because….well, because he’s nice. Even if sometimes he’s a little weird, like when he tells me stories about blue crickets (I don’t think there really is such a thing) that get into queens’ shoes and he tries to make me believe it really happened. I might be only ten, but, really, I know better.
“How bout you tell me a story first?” he asked, leaning back against the maple tree in my backyard.
“I don’t know any stories,” I said.
The sound of my daddy calling made my head jerk towards our back door. He sounded a little mad. I started scrambling to my feet, grabbing my notebook with one hand. Then I looked back at Ash, who was still sitting against the maple tree. “I gotta go,” I said, feeling my hand clench and unclench. I couldn’t keep from looking over my shoulder towards the door again, either. My dad wouldn’t wait for long.
Ash inclined his head. “You gotta go,” he repeated slowly and quietly.
“Bye,” I said and turned to go.
“Anna?” Ash’s voice stopped me. Frowning, I looked over my shoulder at him. For a long moment, he said nothing but then, finally, he said what he always says to me before he goes away. “Écrivez-moi.” Ash knows I love everything about the French. I usually smile when he says this but, right now, I’m in a hurry. He seems to know this because he winks at me and then nods towards the door. I turn and run but when I get to the steps of our back porch, I look over my shoulder to see him. Ash still sits at the maple tree and he is watching me. He winks again.
***** ***** *****
The ceiling above my bed slants down. Almost right in the center of the portion above my head is a crack. It’s not a very big crack, and Mama always says she needs to fix it, but I kind of like it. It reminds me of me. Daddy’s hands are smooth. They don’t look nothing like Ash’s hands, which have big sores on them and feel kind of rough. He says that’s cause he’s a cowboy. I like Ash’s hands, even though they remind me of sandpaper. Daddy’s hands are not rough at all. They’re smooth. And clean, too. He smells of cedar wood, because he’s been in the basement all day making benches. He’s real good at that sort of thing—making wood into real things that we can use. I used to wonder how his hands could stay so smooth and clean when he worked with wood. He says it’s so that he can be “easy with me.” I don’t really know what that means, but I think I kind of do. Whenever he says he’s gotta be “easy with his girl,” it makes me sad. I–
“Aaaah,” without meaning to, a little cry comes out of me as my body jerks. I hate this part the most, when the hard thing sticks me. Most of the rest of it, I just kind of watch from above. Sometimes I cry but that just makes it all the worse. Most of the time, I don’t need to cry anyway cause it don’t really hurt that bad no more. Except for the sticking part. That hurts and it’s hard not to cry out even though I try to be a “big girl” like Daddy tells me I should be. I am ten. It gets really hard to think after the sticking part for a few minutes cause it just keeps going on and on and on. I hear the sound of the bed creaking when Daddy reaches above me and grabs the headboard. I try to turn my head sideways, but it’s really hard to do because Daddy’s chest is in my face. The hairs on his chest are really prickly. Finally, it’s still. Daddy falls on top of me and makes a deep rumble. Then the hard thing falls out. It is easier to think again now.
Daddy stands up and walks over to the dresser. He pulls out a cigarette and sits down on the chair beside the night table. I look away, first at the door to my room, then down at the sheets where I see my hands and realize they are clutching the sheet. I stare at them for a long time, until the sound of Daddy’s voice jerks me. “Were you talkin’ to Ash?”
I can’t talk. I have to answer him but I suddenly realize that my teeth are ground so hard against each other that I can’t unlock my jaw. I squint my eyes and try really hard. Finally, my teeth unclamp. “Yes, sir,” I answer.
“Your teacher said he came to eat lunch with you at school.”
“You know your mother doesn’t like you talkin’ to Ash.”
This time, I say nothing. I can’t stop being friends with Ash. That would be, like, totally the worst thing in the world. But all I say is, “Yes, sir.”
Daddy grabs his pants and heads towards the door. As he opens it, he says, “Get dressed.”
And me: “Yes, sir.” My eyes are back, now, on the crack in the ceiling above my head. I wonder if the roof hurt when the crack formed. I do like that crack. It and me are a lot alike.
***** ***** *****
It hurts to walk. It hurts in my private part and it also hurts in my right leg. It makes me walk a little funny but I still walk as fast as I can outside. I hope Ash is there. When I get outside, though, he’s not there. It’s just the maple tree. I go and sit beneath it. When I sit down, I can feel the blades of grass poking me. Most of the time, I like this feeling cause it’s a soft prickly, but right after Daddy comes to my room, I don’t like it much. It reminds me of the prickly hairs and the rough skin of his legs. But it’s okay because I have pants on now. And my flashlight so that I can see in the dark. I prop the flashlight up on a stump to the side of me and lay down on my belly in the grass so that the light shines on the notebook. When I open it up, I have just enough light, from the flashlight and the moon, to see enough to write. I don’t know why I do it, but after Daddy leaves, I usually have to write about it. If I don’t, I start feeling like I can’t breathe and it’s hard to think, especially in school. It’s kind of like my way of remembering so I can forget cause once I write about it, I try real hard not to think about it again. Ever. It don’t always work that good but then it does work a lot of times too.
Three pages have been written when I see the first tear hit the page. It makes a round dot and the words that I have just written smear, the blue ink turning darker. That makes me sad, too. How stupid of me not to wipe my eyes in time. Suddenly, there are more tears. They are salty as they slip into the corner of my mouth. I grab the edge of my blue sweater with my fingers and pull the edge of my sleeve up into my palm, then I use that to wipe my face.
“Do you still want to hear a true story?”
Ash’s voice is so deep. When my mama hears somebody talk like Ash, she says it sounds “rich as molasses.” I like that cause molasses is sweet and so is Ash. Just hearing his voice makes me instantly happy. I scramble to sit up while Ash watches me and lowers himself to the ground. I did not hear him come in. But that’s like a lot of times. He’s real quiet. I don’t think nothing about it when he takes my notebook and puts it behind him so that he can sit closer to me. “Hi, Ash,” I say, wiping the last of my tears away.
“Hi. You okay?”
I nod. “I want to hear a story.”
“Come mere, and I’ll tell you one.” He opens his arms and I move closer to his side. Ash’s hugs are the best. And I love it especially much when he lets me sit real close to him like this while he tells me a story. “What’s this story about, Ash?”
“Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived a little boy. He liked lots of things. He liked playing baseball. He liked spaghetti. He liked video games, especially Mario. He also loved cars. His favorite kind were the red sports cars. He had a ton of them to play with, and whenever his birthday or Christmas came up, he always asked for a different version of the same thing: a red car. This little boy even liked school. But there was one thing he did not like.”
“What was that?”
“Change. He hated change. After the last snow melted, and the weather started turning warmer, his mother would do ‘spring cleaning.’ He hated this, because she always moved things around the house. One time, she moved the coffee table to a different place and when the boy went to set his drink down on the table to watch TV, it dropped onto the floor because the coffee table wasn’t where it was supposed to be. He could never find anything he needed because his mother would always ‘put it away’ for him—except she put it in a different spot every time! Whenever a new school year started, he had to get a new teacher. He didn’t like that because he never knew if the new teacher was going to be as good or worse than the teacher the year before. If his mother made a meal different than she usually did, he wouldn’t eat it. Everything had to stay exactly the same. Well, one day, his mommy and his daddy told him something bad. Real bad. They told him that they were going to be moving. Moving, d’ya hear?! The boy had been born in the house he lived in. I mean, really born in it: his mommy hadn’t gone to a hospital like most mommies did. The boy cried and cried and cried and cried and cried. I mean, really, Anna, he was very upset. He didn’t know what he was going to do but he just couldn’t stand the idea of changing houses and changing schools and changing friends—all at the same time!”
I tipped my head back to see Ash’s tanned, square face. His chocolate colored eyes shone as he looked at me. I wrapped my arms around his waist and squeezed hard. I knew that the little boy in the story was really Ash. “What happened?”
“Well, the day before they had to leave his house and go to a new house and a new town, his mommy came in to talk to him. She sat him down on the bed and she said, ‘You don’t want things to change. I know that. Change is just another word for courage. Every time you go through a change strong, God drops a little more courage into your courage bucket.’ ‘Where’s the courage bucket?’ ‘It’s in your heart,’ said his mommy. ‘And,’ said the mommy. ‘When your courage bucket gets full, you get a special surprise. It’s very special. It’s something called pride. When your courage bucket gets full, God will touch your heart and make you feel proud of yourself. That’s a really big reward. Feeling proud of yourself can really make you happy and strong.’ ‘What do you have to do to get God to give you more courage for the courage bucket?’ asked the boy. ‘Well, whenever there’s a possibility of change, you just say, ‘okay, I can do this, and I think it’s going to be a good thing’ and you always try to make things good. That gets you more courage.’”
“Did the boy want the courage?”
“Well, the boy had told his mommy and daddy that he was going to hide away from them so that they couldn’t make him go to the new place. But he wanted God to give him more courage too. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever felt proud. He knew that sometimes things were scary but that he was really safe. He had his mommy, after all. And he had God, too. What could happen by being brave? So when the time came, the boy crawled into the car and looked out the window at his house. He cried, but just a little, and then he decided that he was going to see how many new friends he could make before the end of the day. That meant he had to go out and introduce himself to kids he didn’t know. It was real scary. But he did it. And pretty soon, what his mama said really did come true: he started smiling.”
“Why was he smiling?” I asked.
“Cause he was happy.”
“About finding the new friends?”
“No. He was happy with himself. He felt proud because he had done something he didn’t think he could do. He was happy because he felt special. And he learned a few things, too. He learned there were friends everywhere he was: all he had to do was meet them. He learned that doing something new was scary but it wasn’t impossible. And he learned that God gives him courage so that he can feel proud of himself. Change was really a good thing, not a bad thing. It was just hard to actually decide to do something hard.”
“I like that story.”
I sat there for a few more minutes. The crickets were chirping really loudly and I was starting to get a little bit cold. “I’m glad you came back.”
“I think I’ll write that story down so I can read it again later.”
Suddenly, we saw the light of my bedroom flip on from inside the house. Daddy was looking for me. “I better go inside.” I reached over to grab my story notebook and then I stood. I was excited about going back to my room and writing the story down that Ash told me. Sometimes I did that: I wrote down the different stories. I had whole notebooks filled with the stories Ash had told me. Mama and my teachers were worried because I was writing all the time, and because they’d heard me talk to Ash. But reading the stories Ash told me when he wasn’t there made me happy and they made it easier for me to think about stuff other than my dad.
***** ***** *****
When I walked in my room, I was horrified to see Daddy sitting at my desk. He had one of my story notebooks in his hand. His round face was red and he looked really mad. I bet he was, because of all the things that I’d written in those story notebooks. “This is what you’ve been writing?” he demanded, waving one of the notebooks around. My eyes followed the black and white story notebook with the words “composition notebook: private” written on the front of it. It was just a short black square pad of paper—but it was really important to me. The memories of what happened with Daddy were in there. And so were lots of stories that Ash told me. I felt my legs start to shake and then my arms and then my whole body stood quivering while Daddy jerked open the drawer to my desk. “Where are the other notebooks?”
I couldn’t answer him because I was shaking. And I did not want to give him the other story notebooks. There were lots of them, anyway.
“Anna! Answer me! Where are the other books?”
“The only ones are the one in the desk.”
Daddy turned and stooped until his face was mere inches from mine. I felt heat flood my cheeks instantly. The shaking got lots worse and I had to clench my hands into balls at my side. “The next time you lie to me, young lady, I will blister you, do you understand me?”
“Where are the other books?”
I stood still.
“Anna!” The voice was so loud I jumped and started walking towards my closet. Tears were flowing freely from my eyes now. He was going to throw my story notebooks away. He was going to throw my story notebooks away. But I had no courage. I didn’t want the sticking part again. I didn’t want him to take my clothes off again. And he would, he would do that, if I didn’t give him my story notebooks. And so I gave them to him.
He took them and stalked out of my room. I wondered where he was going with them. I tried to think of all the stories that I’d written in them, all the memories, but I couldn’t think of a single one. All I could think of was Ash. I wish he were here. He would know what to do. He would be brave.
The sound of the back door slamming shut made me blink. I stood up and walked to the window of my room, trying to see if I could see anything. At first, I couldn’t. But then I saw Daddy throw something into the big trash can. A minute later, bright orange flames leaped upwards, out of the trash cans. Daddy turned around and grabbed one of the story notebooks. I knew he was going to throw it into the fire and, before I could stop myself, I started banging on the window of my room. I banged so loud I thought I’d break the glass.
Daddy turned around and looked upwards at my window.
I shot out of my room, fast as my legs could carry me, my heart racing, screaming “Daddy!” and “Please don’t! Please Daddy!” as loud as I could. I charged through the back door—-and I didn’t see Daddy. What I did see was Ash standing beside the trash can, and in his hands were my story notebooks. I could hear Daddy around the side of the house. I didn’t know what he was doing. All I cared about were my story notebooks. “Ash! Did he — my –“
“They’re okay, Anna.” Ash knelt to the ground and put his hands on my shoulders. “They are okay. He didn’t throw them in the fire. He just wanted you to think he had.”
“Can I have them?”
Ash looked at me strangely and then stood up. “Anna, can I have them for awhile?”
“No. I need them. They’re mine and I –“
“Let me borrow them. You’ll get them back. I promise.”
He bent over and looked at me. His eyes were dark, and they looked so gentle. I loved his face so much. I almost lost all of his stories. I almost lost all of the memories of the other things I’d written down, that I didn’t want to remember no more.
“Anna, get in here.” My dad’s voice was real low and quiet. He meant business. I suddenly knew what he was doing at the side of the house. He’d gone into the garage, where he kept The Rod: a long, rectangular piece of wood with two holes drilled in the middle of it. I was going to be spanked now. I was stupid for leaving the story notebooks where he could find them. I needed to be spanked. I looked at Ash again. “He’s gonna see you, Ash.” But then I wonder if Daddy can see Ash at all.
“Let me take the story notebooks. You’ll get them back.” Ash cupped the side of my cheek with his palm. His hand felt so good over my cheek. “I promise, Anna.”
Tears streaked my cheeks. “Okay,” I whispered and, wanting him to go before my dad could see him, I turned and walked towards the garage.
***** ***** ******
Ms. Sarah lifted her brows, and looked down at the story notebook she held in her hand. Then she looked back at me. Ever since my mom found the story notebooks the night after Ash somehow kept the writings from being burned, I had started seeing Ms. Sarah. She was a nice lady. She told me I was real brave for leaving the story notebooks in my mom’s car. I don’t remember doing that. All I remember is letting Ash hold them for me while I went to the garage. I remember afterward, when I laid on the cold garage concrete while Daddy hurt me again. But that’s all. I don’t really know if Ash put the story notebooks in my mom’s car, or if I did. All I know is that she found them there, and she read them. She asked me if the things I’d written about nights when the sticking part came were true. Ash sat beside me and squeezed my hand. I knew he wanted me to get courage. I told her it was true but I don’t know how I did that. It just came out. I cried then. Mama cried, too. Then she said it was over, that it wouldn’t happen again. And I started seeing Ms. Sarah. Ms. Sarah wanted to read the story notebooks. But Mama promised me that no one would read them until I wanted them too. I didn’t know Ms. Sarah so I didn’t want her to read them. The stories were okay but I didn’t want anyone to ever read about or know about the memories of Daddy. But then, one day, I just decided that I wanted to be brave again and I told Ms. Sarah she could read them because she said that reading them might help her help me stop having nightmares. I don’t want to have anymore nightmares ever again. Not even one.
“Thank you for letting me read these, Anna,” Ms. Sarah said, reaching over and giving them back to me. I took them and held them close to me. I was glad to get them back. Ms. Sarah had had them for a whole week. “Ash sounds nice.”
I nodded. I didn’t want to talk about Ash. I hadn’t seen him since that night. I didn’t know why he didn’t come around anymore. Everything else is going better. Most days, I don’t feel like the crack in the ceiling anymore. And there’s this new girl at my school who’s real nice. She likes to read, like me. One day, she let me borrow this book called Island of the Blue Dolphin. It was really good and so I let her borrow one of my Baby-Sitters Club books about Stacy having a crush on her teacher because Erika has a crush on our gym teacher. It feels good to have a friend, one that is my age and a girl, too. I’ve never had a friend that was a girl like me before. Daddy was gone. Mama said they put him in jail, and that even when he gets out, he won’t be able to be alone with me again. I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel about that, and it’s hard to believe sometimes, but I hope it’s true. If the nightmares would go away, and if I could stop shaking a lot, I’d be real good. Ms. Sarah says I have trust issues that I have to work on. But it’s okay, she says, because even some grown-ups have “issues.” I think Ash would like Ms. Sarah. I wish I could tell him about her. I wish he could come tell me a story again. I miss him. So I don’t want to talk about Ash.
“Well,” Ms. Sarah says, smiling. “That’s enough for today. We’ll talk more next week.”
I nod, say goodbye, and walk out of the den. It makes me nervous to have Mama drive me to Ms. Sarah’s, because I don’t want her to overhear stuff that might make her feel bad. Mama has to go see some doctor now, too, cause of me. So, instead, Ms. Sarah comes to my house and Mama stays upstairs while me and Ms Sarah talk. Mama says it’s real nice of Ms. Sarah to do it this way for a little while, until I feel better about an office. I always have to go get Mama to tell her we’re done talking and she comes down to see Ms. Sarah out. Usually, I go to my room. But not today. Today, I decide to go outside. I grab a new story notebook, in which I’ve been writing a story about a blue cricket who gets inside queens’ shoes, because I can’t think of anything else (and because I miss Ash), and walk out the back door. Nearly as soon as I do, I feel my heart leap into my throat.
One of Ash’s shoulders lean now against my maple tree, his ankles crossed, his arms folded across his chest, as if he’s been waiting for me. I drop the story notebook and take off running. Ash is laughing, the sound beautiful to my ears, when he picks me up and spins me around. “Ash!” I say.
“Hi, my friend. You didn’t think I’d forgotten you, did you?” he asks, setting me down again on my feet.
“Where have you been?”
He shrugged. “You didn’t need me. You don’t even need me now.” But then he grinned and his grin turned into a chuckle. “But you sort of wanted me around, I think. So, here I am.”
I smile so wide my face hurts. I don’t really care. I’m just glad he’s back.
“Come on, come on, sit down. Would you like to hear a story?”
The wind gently touches my cheek and blows my hair off my neck as I watch Ash tell his story. It is about a little girl who believes she can do something so outrageous that everyone else laughs at her. I watch Ash’s face. His chocolate colored eyes sparkle when the girl in the story is happy, and they darken to a somber shade when she’s not. He still uses his hands to talk, gesturing often, and he still has the same voice inflections. He still has the small star shaped birthmark near the corner of his left eye. His hands, I reach out and touch while he talks. They are still rough and calloused: the effects of being a cowboy. One day, I’m going to ask him to tell me a story about his horses. But, right now, the stories are secondary to the storyteller. I have missed him so much.
The story is over.
“Shouldn’t you get back?” Ash asks.
I frown. “I don’t want you to go away.”
Ash smiles, the grin stretching slowly across his face. “Little one. Go. Write the story before you forget it.”
Forget it? I’ve never forgotten anything Ash has ever said to me. But, obediently, I stand and get ready to leave. My feet don’t want to go, though. I just want to stare at him, and hear him tell me another story. He nods towards the house, where I can distantly hear Mama calling me. “Bye, Ash.”
I turn and start walking, take only two steps and then look over my shoulder again at him. He smiles and winks.
I turn again to head home.
Heart in my throat, I turn back to him. “Yes?” And what he says makes me smile, because I know that it means he’ll be back.