All seven of my checks sit inside my worn copy of Little Women. I wear Delaney’s rain boots to work in the meantime. Judah says his mom won’t even know they’re missing, but I’m not in the habit of stealing rain boots then parading them around their owner.
Sandy looks me up and down when I walk in. “It ain’t even raining,” she says. “And those are happy boots. You ain’t happy.” I shrug. Sandy just got braces. It’s hard to take an adult with braces seriously.
Before the store opens, I find a pair of red Converse with minimal wear in the teenybopper section. I switch them out with the rain boots and put my seven dollars in the register. I’ve never had a pair of Converse before. Just sneakers from Wal-Mart. I feel like a million bucks—or seven, depending on the way you look at it. When Sandy sees my new shoes, she gives me a thumbs-up. I do a moonwalk across the Rag’s floor. I don’t know why I’m so good at moonwalking. Sandy tells me that I’m a white girl with a gift, as she eats a bluffin from the gas station and bops her head to “Billie Jean.” I stay late at work, helping Sandy sort a late delivery, and I almost miss the last bus of the night. The driver frowns at me when I pound on the doors just as he’s pulling away, but he lets me on and I give him my biggest smile. By the time I climb off at my stop, I’m so exhausted I can barely keep my eyes open. I carry the rain boots to Judah’s house and prop them against the front door. Most of the neighborhood is sleeping already—even the crack house. I am creeping away when he calls out to me. I can’t see him. He must be sitting in the dark at the window that faces the street.
I walk quickly toward his voice and crouch down, trying to see him through the screen.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey.” His voice is different.
“I brought back your mom’s boots,” I say cautiously. Then, “Why are you sitting in the dark?”
There is a long pause. I can hear his breath moving in and out of his lungs.
“I was waiting for you to walk by.”
I look over my shoulder, at the dead night, the dead street. Not even the frogs are singing tonight. I make a decision.
“Can I come in?” I whisper.
His head moves up and down, but just barely. I go to the door and open it slowly. No creak escapes from the hinges, and for that I am relieved. The last thing I want is Delaney coming out of her room to find the prostitute’s daughter creeping around her living room. The house is dark except for a candle that is burning in the far corner of the room. It smells of cinnamon.
Judah’s chair is pulled right up to the window. I wonder how often he sits there watching the world from his chair. His shoulders are curled inward, his head drooping from his neck. The chair is wearing him tonight, I think. I go to him, kneel down, and put my hands on his knees. I’ve never touched him before. Never dared. His knees are frail, thin. Not like the rest of him. Judah was born to be big, and tall, and powerful, and life stole that from him. How heavy is that burden? His head comes up a little, just so we can exchange looks. He seems … tired.
“Judah,” I whisper. “Why were you waiting for me?”
He blinks slowly, like he’s in some kind of trance, then he looks back out the window.
“I always have.” There is such utter dejection in his voice, I draw back.
He lifts his arm and points across the street. “There, where the blackberries grow in summer…”
I look to where he’s pointing. There is a thicket of bushes across the street. No one ever trims them back so they grow wild around an empty lot.
“I saw you there for the first time, picking berries with your mother. I mean, you’d lived here your whole life, and so had I, but that was the first time I looked. You were real little—missing teeth, scraped knees little. Your hair was ratty and so blonde it looked white in the sun.”
I search for this memory. Blackberry picking with my mother. Yes. She used to make pies. We’d take bowls and fill them up, staining our lips with the purple juice as we ate and picked. She would tell me stories about how she used to do the same thing with her mother. Before she tried to drown her, that is.
“Your skin gets real tan in the summer,” he continues. “In the winter you’re like the snow, but when summer comes you look like a Native American with spun gold hair.” I look down at my arms. It’s too dark to see the color of my skin, but I know he’s telling the truth. I don’t know where he’s going with this. He’s not himself.
“You know what I thought when I saw you? She’s going to fight. You’d reach into those thorns to get the best berries for your mom; it didn’t matter if you got all scratched up. You saw the one you wanted, and you did what you needed to do to get it.”
“Judah…?” I shake my head, but he shushes me. Puts two fingers right over my lips and presses softly. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to a kiss.
“I was already in my chair by that time. I couldn’t do that. Not even if I wanted to. It’s funny,” he says, ”it took the wheelchair for me to see you … to see a lot of things actually.”
The candle is dancing, swinging light gently around the room. I study his face, wanting to hurry his words and savor them at the same time.
“I’m half a person,” he says softly. “I’ll always have limits, and I’ll never have legs. Sometimes it makes me want to … quit.”
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