By Janet Zinser Arey
Josie had been surprised to see Dale when she cut past the Feeley’s farm after school. He usually hung out by the old gas station riding his dirt bike. Today, he’d been waiting in the shade of the sugar maples. He’d brought her a gift.
“Well?” he asked, shrugging his shoulders and fidgeting like an excited puppy. Josie stood opposite him at the end of the Feeley’s sagging split-rail fence, his gift resting in her carefully cupped palms. Everyone at school had forgotten it was her birthday, even Ms. Halladay. So if she was disappointed with Dale’s gift, she didn’t want him to know it.
“It’s great,” she smiled at him. “It’s so nice of you to give me something.”
“Something?” he asked. Silver-green leaves on the branches behind his head danced in the hot breeze.
“Yes,” she glanced at him and then over the fence towards the Feeley’s farmhouse. “Thank you for remembering my birthday,” she added.
Though it was late afternoon and the sun sat lower in the sky, it was still hot, and sweat glued her necklace to her skin. She touched where it lay below the collar of her cotton t-shirt, feeling the tiny cross at the bottom—Ma’s gift for her Confirmation last month. That was a few weeks after Ma told her not to take the shortcut past the Feeley’s after school, and to use the path by the old gas station instead. If Ma hadn’t wanted her to see Dale, then she never should have told Josie to walk by the old gas station. Everybody knew that the older boys rode their dirt bikes there most days.
Josie was old enough, anyhow. Old enough to talk to grown-ups by herself, without her mom around. And Dale wasn’t an adult really, he was only seventeen. Though in his riding boots, he was even taller than her uncle.
Josie usually didn’t mind walking the long way home because she didn’t like the days when the boys cut past the Feeley’s farm and teased their dog, Nickels. Sometimes, Mrs. Feeley came out to the porch and yelled at them to stop. Most times, someone hollered at Nickels to shut up from inside the screen door and Nickels would run back to his shady corner near the house. She didn’t see the dog there today.
Though Nickels seemed to mean it when he barked, he only followed Josie along the far side of the fence. He always stopped at the corner and let Josie walk the rest of the way in peace. On the days when the boys walked his way, they liked to run a stick down Nickels’ fence or throw acorns at him. Then Nickels would chase them the whole way around the fence, snapping at them like they were rabbits and he’d missed dinner four days straight.
Dale caught Josie’s eyes. She had almost forgotten he was standing there, but not exactly. He leaned closer. “You don’t know what it is, do you?”
His eyes darkened as he looked at her, but they weren’t angry. Not yet. He was doubting himself. She could see the question there, right where the excitement used to be. She looked at the thing lying in her hands. She didn’t know what it was.
She glanced around quickly to get her bearings, and then examined the object more closely. It was four inches long, less than an inch around, and flared at both ends. An animal bone she was fairly certain. It wasn’t anything from her farm, though. Not big enough for one of the cows. Josie slid her gift into one palm and closed her hand around its coolness. She rested her other hand on the warm fence rail. Sweat slid behind her ear and she shrugged her shoulder to dry it with the fabric of her shirt.
“Of course I know what it is,” she insisted with a tone that implied Dale was silly to get upset. His brow relaxed a little and he tucked his thumbs over the top of his jean pockets. Josie looked toward the sugar maples and wondered where Dale had parked his dirt bike.
“Well do you like it?” Dale asked.
“I already told you I did,” she replied with a pout, taking her hand from the fence and putting it on her hip.
“How can you like a thing when you don’t know what it is?” His head tilted sideways and he squinted at her. The sun had angled its rays into his eyes. It was hard to see how blue they were when he squinted. He looked at her like she was a bug he’d found, like the ants her brother burned up with a magnifying glass.
She took her hand off her hip and forgot to pout. “I like it because it means you thought about me.”
“Damn right I did,” he replied, nodding.
Maybe it was a turtle bone. Something the local tribes would use as a symbol of good fortune. It was the only thing she could think of.
“I’m gonna keep it for good luck,” she said.
Storm clouds settled upon his face. His hands balled at his side and he rocked back on his heels.
She’d seen Dale like this once before, but he wouldn’t know that. She’d been behind the wild blueberry bushes when he beat up Tommy Feeley two months ago. Josie had seen all of it. When Dale finally stopped beating Tommy, he’d left on his dirtbike, and she’d run home and told her Ma that Tommy was dead. Her Ma had hurried to get the neighbor and his pickup. They’d found Tommy and took him straight home. He wasn’t dead after all. In fact, he only had a broken nose and two black eyes. He didn’t even miss school like her best friend Sara had when she got pneumonia last year. When Josie asked her Ma why the boys had been fighting, her Ma said to put it out of her head—it was ‘just two boys getting into a bit of a dust up.’
Besides, Dale had been so nice to Josie since three weeks ago when Nickels got loose and chased her on her way home from school. He’d ridden next to her most days until she was almost home. He’d shown her how his dirt bike worked. He had given her gum and even offered her a cigarette, but she’d said no to that.
That day Nickels got loose, the boys had been teasing the dog like they always did, but the Feeleys had forgotten to shut their gate. So when Nickels got riled up, he ran straight out the gate, and sunk his teeth into the first thing he could, which was Josie. Josie was too scared to pull her wrist loose once Nickels had hold of it. She thought for sure that dog would tear her hand straight off. But then she heard Dale’s dirt bike, and he chased the dog off with a stick. Afterwards, she told Dale that her birthday was coming soon, mostly to cheer herself up, so she wouldn’t cry like a baby from being scared. He seemed to care that she would be thirteen.
Ma had checked her arm and said the dog bite wasn’t bad when Josie got home that day. Her Ma hadn’t even thought to ask why she’d taken the shortcut past the Feeley’s farm. Josie had been so relieved not to get in trouble, that she forgot to tell her Ma how nice Dale had been lately.
But Dale was mad at her now, like he’d been at Tommy Feeley that day. Only she didn’t know what she’d done wrong. She backed up a step and said, “My Ma’s waiting for me so we can have my cake. I’d better get on home.” Her heart beat so fast it hurt her chest.
“Your Ma’s not waiting for you,” he said slowly, looking down at her. He sounded so sure. Josie wished Dale had stayed at the gas station today. He stepped closer and jabbed her cupped palm with his dirty fingernail.
“That there is a dog bone,” he said. “I got it when I remembered it was gonna be your birthday.”
What did she want a dog bone for? Had he found it lying in the yard near the dog bowl?
“Where’d you find it?” Josie asked, looking up at him.
“Find it?” He jerked his head back. “I didn’t find it. I had to give it to you after what that dog did to you.”
Dale’s eyes were glassy and he looked through her.
“No…,” Josie said, shuffling backwards and shaking the bone from her hand. Her breath caught in a knot between her chest and ribs.
“I knew you would want me to,” he said, moving close enough to touch her.
She suddenly wondered what it felt like when someone broke your nose. “I’m goin’ home now,” Josie said, but her voice came out all feathery.
Dale’s hand moved. She flinched and turned before she realized that he hadn’t been trying to hit her. He’d only been trying to grab her arm.
“Why you leaving?” Dale said, sounding confused. She glanced at him and began walking as fast as she could in the direction of her house.
She’d only gone a little way along the fence line when she heard him coming, like a dog after a rabbit. Her legs seemed too frozen to run, as if the devil had run his finger down her spine. When Dale reached her, he shoved the back of her shoulders, knocking her forward. The numbness disappeared as her knees hit the ground with a thud and dry bristles of grass scratched her legs and hands. Rolling over to face him, she tried to shimmy backward along the Feeley’s fence. Dale crouched down, clamped his hand around her ankle, and yanked her whole body towards him, knocking her hands out from under her.
Dale was breathing hard. He squeezed her ankle and said, “You’d better answer me. I asked where you think you’re going.”
But she couldn’t answer. The sun lit his hair from behind like a halo, and his eyes looked so black. Josie closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to look at him. Blood pounded in her ears, and she held her breath, waiting for him to hit her. Dale’s wrist was still around her ankle when she heard the click of a shell being loaded into a shotgun. Her eyes flew open. Where did Dale get a gun?
Dale slowly let go of Josie’s ankle, and she sat as quiet and still as a rabbit. He didn’t have a gun. Dale was looking over her head, over the fence. A long shadow had fallen upon the two of them. Someone was standing behind her on the other side of the fence.
Josie could almost feel Tommy Feeley’s voice slide over the fence and settle between the two of them:
“Hey, Dale,” Tommy said. “You seen my dog?”
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story