Gravity and I were having a tug-a-war over my sister. Gravity was winning. I was bent nearly double out my grandparents’ attic window, desperately holding onto Shelby’s skinny ankles, trying to keep her from sliding head-first off the edge of the roof. She was laying spread eagle on the sloped incline, flailing her arms for purchase. Her frantic movements dislodged tiny pebbles from the tar paper covering, making an ominous tinkling sound as they rained onto the cement steps of the front porch below.
“Don’t let go!” Shelby shrieked.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got you.” I wanted to sound more reassuring, but my diaphragm was crushed against the window sill and I couldn’t breathe. At eleven, I was a full year older and at least ten pounds heavier than Shelby. As her weight slowly pulled my feet off the floor, it occurred to me that I may have overestimated my ability to haul my younger sister back inside the house.
The oppressive heat and humidity, not to mention a massive dose of fear, made my palms sweaty. Shelby slipped forward another few inches. She let out a startled cry of terror.
“Hush! Someone will hear you,” I hissed.
“They’re gonna hear me when I hit the ground.”
I had a sudden mental image of the watermelon we’d thrown out of the hay loft last summer—the red fruit exploding in every direction from the cracked green shell as it landed with a deep thud on the barn floor. I squeezed Shelby’s ankles even tighter.
“You gotta be quiet.” The last thing I wanted was for our grandmother, Mamaw, to catch us. I’d been grounded all weekend for accidentally breaking a window. I couldn't imagine what my punishment would be for dropping my sister off a two-story house.
This wasn’t turning out at all like I’d planned.
Earlier that afternoon, Shelby and I had grown bored with tormenting crawdads in the creek and had wandered into the house and up the stairs to the attic. Gabled windows ran the entire length of the room and a braided rug with fraying edges padded the floor. Mismatched beds lined the walls and served as a dormitory for the grandchildren who frequently slept over. In the daytime the attic made a perfect playroom. Games and toys were stacked precariously on wooden shelves, and the staircase, with its narrow tread and high steps, discouraged grownups from making unnecessary supervisory inspections.
We’d tried playing a game of checkers, but it ended badly, with accusations of cheating on both sides. Still bored, I wandered to the window. Other than the family cemetery on the hill, this was the best view of my grandparents’ farm. Their house was set in a holler deep in the Cumberland Gap. Green hills rolled in gentle waves in every direction. The Dalton family had owned this land for 200 years and probably would for 200 more. On my left was the old gray barn used for storing hay and drying tobacco. A small stream wound its way across the yard and down into the mule field. It provided my sister and me with a constant supply of playmates—salamanders, newts, crawdads, mud turtles, and tadpoles. On my right was Mamaw’s garden where we were frequently sentenced to hours of hard labor. We did our best to avoid that side of the yard.
As I glanced around, a flash of light near the edge of the roof caught my eye. It twinkled and shone in the sun. I summoned Shelby over to take a look. “What do you think it is?” she asked.
“I dunno. Maybe it’s a diamond.”
“Or a gold doubloon.” Shelby had been reading Treasure Island that summer.
After several unsuccessful attempts to reach the mysterious object with a broken fishing pole, I eyed my sister appraisingly and announced, "I have a great idea."
“We always get in trouble when you say that,” Shelby said, but loyal and devoted as our daddy’s coon hound, she complied.
I was beginning to think things couldn’t get any worse when a battered red Volkswagen appeared at the mouth of the holler. “Oh, crap!” I said.
Shelby craned her neck up as far as she could to get a better look and started to whimper, “Now we’re really gonna get it.”
It was our Uncle Lige. He had a beer belly, a bad comb-over, and a worse temper. He was also the principal of Flat Lick Elementary. On the wall behind his desk hung a long, thick paddle with the words “Board of Education” engraved on it. We lived in mortal fear of that board.
He must have seen us at the same time we saw him because the car suddenly swerved and sped up. Gravel sprayed in every direction as it fishtailed to a stop in front of the house. Lige emerged from the car yelling and gesturing in our direction. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I was pretty sure his words didn’t appear anywhere on my grandmother’s approved list of colorful phrases. Actually, there weren’t many phrases on that list. It was pretty much limited to “Good heavens, child!” (usually directed at me) and “Lord have mercy!” reserved for extreme circumstances, like the time I found a pair of scissors and decided to play “beauty parlor” with Shelby.
As Uncle Lige stormed into the house, Shelby started to cry openly. Moments later heavy boots thundered up the stairs, accompanied by a string of muttered profanities. Thick arms reached past me to grab Shelby’s legs and none-too-gently haul her back through the window. She and I collapsed in a tangled heap on the floor, shaking.
“What in the Sam Hill were you two doing?” Uncle Lige demanded. A vein pulsed on his forehead. “Have you lost your minds?”
Mamaw suddenly appeared at his elbow. “What’s going on here?” she asked in a quiet, controlled voice.
“These fool girls were playing on the roof. That one there nearly broke her neck.” He pointed a stubby finger at Shelby. “Want me to fetch the Board of Education?”
Our heads jerked up in unison.
“No, that won’t be necessary, Lige,” Mamaw replied calmly. “Thank you for your help. I’ll take it from here.” She patted his arm and gently steered him toward the door. We could hear him huffing and snorting all the way back down the stairs.
There was a long silence before Mamaw finally spoke. “Mind telling me what you two were doing out there?”
Shelby glared sideways at me but didn’t say a word. I stared down at my shoes, hoping for an explanation that might save me. When nothing came to mind, I opted for the truth, “Ummmm . . . . we saw something shiny?” It came out sounding like a question.
With a heavy sigh, Mamaw walked to the window to look out. “You risked your sister’s life for a piece of broken glass?”
Shelby and I both blinked in surprise. Glass? It had never occurred to us that it might be something as ordinary as broken glass.
Shaking her head, Mamaw sat on the nearest bed. The old springs creaked under her slight weight. “Bethany Dalton, you’re just like your father. You never think before you act.” I knew she meant it as a rebuke, but I was secretly pleased. I wanted to be like the father I worshipped but barely remembered. He had been killed in a car accident when I was only six, and in so doing, had attained the status of sainthood granted all those who die tragically and young. I certainly didn’t want to be like my mother, whose part-time job and full-time grief left little energy for her daughters, which is why Shelby and I spent most of our time with our grandparents.
Mamaw pulled Shelby up off the floor and onto the bed next to her, giving her a quick squeeze and whispering into her hair, “So glad you’re okay, baby.” To me she said, “You'll be spending the next week hoeing corn.” She held up a warning finger when I opened my mouth to protest. “I just hope you've learned your lesson this time.”
Oh, I learned my lesson all right--I learned to start from a ground floor window to avoid falling. I learned to use the cover of darkness to keep from getting caught. And I learned to wait until I was at my Aunt Bug’s house, away from my grandmother’s all-seeing eye. That’s why, two years later, I was once again bent over a window sill, holding onto Shelby's wrists as she dangled a few feet above the ground.
"This brings back bad memories," Shelby groused before dropping gracelessly into a bed of petunias.
"Stop whining,” I said, “and don’t mash the flowers." I followed my sister out the window. Adjusting the backpack that hung from my shoulders, I grabbed Shelby’s hand as we headed off together into the night.
My sister and I were often shuttled to our aunt’s house under the guise of helping her with housework and babysitting, but I suspect the real reason was to give our grandmother a break from our constant commotion. Aunt Bug and Uncle Lige had recently moved off The Creek into a sprawling, red brick house in Flat Lick near the new highway. The road directly in front of their home had once been an old lover’s lane. It was lined with huge trees that laced their long branches overhead to form a leafy canopy, giving an illusion of privacy to amorous teens and dissatisfied spouses. On the far side of the road was a tobacco field, and beyond that was the shiny new blacktop of a four-lane highway.
We called our little forays into the night “gallivanting.” It started one sultry summer night when the air conditioning went out. The only relief we got was when an occasional breeze blew through the open window beside our bed. The lure of the cool mist and dewy grass that lay just beyond the curtains was too much to resist.
“I have the best idea ever,” I announced.
Despite her initial resistance, it didn’t take much to convince Shelby to join me in escaping the heat and relentless tedium of our bedroom. That first night we sneaked around the house, peering into each window—two giggling peeping toms in baby-doll pajamas. We saw Uncle Lige dozing in his recliner in front of the TV and Aunt Bug folding laundry on the couch. It wasn’t a particularly salacious sight, but we felt wicked just the same.
Eventually, the thrill of being voyeurs wore off and we started to venture away from the house, running across the wide green lawn and taking tentative steps onto the road. The tar was still warm from the heat of the day, and the heavy mist that blanketed the lowlands at night added to our sense of isolation and security. Since there were never any cars at that hour, we dared each other to go farther and farther down the road. We always stopped before we got to Birdie & Etna’s, though. The two elderly sisters were our closest neighbors. They wore matching house dresses with knee socks and orthopedic shoes, and shot at anything that startled them in the night, whether it was a stray possum or a next-door neighbor.
Except for an occasional complaint from our aunt about the dog trampling her flowers, our evening explorations went undetected. Shelby and I shared sly, secretive smiles over breakfast and eagerly scampered off to bed at night. Gallivanting got us through the long, boring days we spent in Flat Lick.
Our only other diversion was Lucy Gambrel—a girl our age who lived down the road. She was a slight, sweet girl who never stopped smiling. Since Lucy didn’t have a phone, we usually walked to her house. It was old and gray and leaned precariously to one side. It didn’t even have indoor plumbing. Mrs. Gambrel always invited us to stay, but since Aunt Bug’s house had air conditioning and a freezer full of popsicles, we usually took Lucy back there with us.
“We need a real adventure,” I announced one afternoon while the three of us were shelling peas in Aunt Bug’s kitchen.
“What kind of adventure?” Shelby asked warily.
“I dunno,” I said, “something fun.”
“There’s nothing like that around here,” Lucy said.
“My point exactly. That’s why we need to go somewhere else.” There was a long pause while we tried to think of somewhere nearby that could even remotely be considered “fun.”
“We could go gallivanting somewhere—like the cemetery,” I said.
“Oh no!” Shelby jumped up so quickly in protest that she upset the bowl of peas, sending them rolling across the floor like tiny green marbles.
“Calm down. I was just kidding.” I helped pick up the peas while I continued thinking. “How about that old school at the end of Turkey Creek?” Years ago it had been a one-room school house. Now it was just a roofless shell surrounded by waist-high weeds.
“Do you think it’s haunted?” Shelby asked.
“Nah, no one wants to hang around school when they’re dead any more than they did when they were alive,” I said.
“I don’t know,” Lucy said, biting her lower lip. “I’m not supposed to go out at night.”
Lucy’s devotion to following the rules was irritating. “No one’s gonna find out. We can pick you up on the way, and we’ll be back before daylight. Just be sure to sleep on the side closest to the window.” Lucy slept with her two sisters.
Since neither one of them could think of a better idea, it was decided—we were going to the old school house that night. Shelby and I stashed a few essential supplies—matches, a candle, and Moon Pies--in a backpack under the bed and waited for Aunt Bug and Uncle Lige to go to bed before making our escape.
When the house was out of sight, we whooped and hollered and danced in circles, giddy with the prospect of our new-found freedom. We chattered with excitement until we reached Birdie & Etna’s property, then crept silently along the tree line on the far side of the road. When we came to the cemetery, Shelby made me hold her hand and run just in case. We were almost to Lucy’s house when something caught my attention at the curve of the road ahead. The leaves on the trees were getting lighter. My steps slowed as I tried to work out what it was. It only took an instant for my brain to register the danger--
In another minute the driver behind those headlights would turn the corner and see us—two young girls dressed in baby-doll pajamas standing on a country road in the middle of the night. No one knew where we were. No one would miss us until morning. I stood frozen in fear. It was Shelby, yanking on my arm and repeatedly shouting my name, who broke through my paralysis.
We turned and ran as hard and fast as we could, our bare feet slapping the pavement in a frantic rhythm. Tiny rocks stung the soles of our feet. The trees beside us began to brighten, and then the light shone through our legs, making long skinny shadows on the asphalt ahead. The car was bearing straight down on us. I knew we could never outrun it, so I shoved Shelby sideways into the drainage ditch and jumped in after her, praying the weeds would hide us. We lay side by side on our bellies with our faces pressed to the ground. The white glare of the headlights changed to red as the taillights slowly passed over our heads. The muffler rattled and belched exhaust fumes, mixing with the sour smell of alcohol and the twang of country music that drifted from the open car window.
We stayed motionless in the dirt until the only sounds we heard were the whir of the cicadas and our own thudding hearts. Cautiously, we peeked over the edge of the ditch. The road was dark and deserted once again. In a blind panic, we ran for home, never giving a thought to ghosts or shotgun-wielding old ladies. We tore across the lawn, slipping and sliding on the wet grass in our haste to reach the safety of the house. We helped each other scramble back through the window and collapsed on the bed, chests heaving. As the adrenaline wore off, we began to shake uncontrollably. The tears came after that. It was nearly dawn before I finally fell asleep, my hand clamped securely around Shelby’s wrist.
Two days later I woke to the sound of Aunt Bug’s agitated voice. I slid out of bed and quietly made my way down the hall to investigate. She was on the phone.
“I don’t want them here another minute,” Aunt Bug demanded. “You need to come get them. Now.” It was obvious that she was talking about Shelby and me. My guilty conscience immediately jumped to gallivanting. She must have found out, but how?
“Have Daddy come. This morning.”
This was bad. Really bad. I knew what we’d done was wrong, but I really had learned my lesson this time. Maybe I could explain that to her. At that moment Shelby emerged from the bedroom. I put my finger to my lips and waved her against the wall beside me. “I think we’re in trouble,” I whispered.
Her eyes grew wide. “For what?”
“Not sure, but Aunt Bug is sending us back early to Mamaw’s.”
There was a series of “uh huh’s” and “unh huh’s” before our aunt continued, “It’s that new highway. I know it is.”
“What’s she talking about?” Shelby frowned in confusion.
I shushed her and strained to hear the rest of the conversation. Random comments about “those big cities” and “what’s happening to today’s society” didn’t seem to have anything to do with us. The knot of fear in my stomach had just began to release when I heard Aunt Bug’s next words--
“Oh, that poor girl. Mrs. Gambrel promised to call before they left the hospital.”
All thoughts of self preservation vanished as I marched into the kitchen. “What’s going on?”
Aunt Bug looked up in surprise and abruptly ended her call. “You’re going back to your grandparents. Get your things together.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Just do what you’re told for once, Bethany. Please.”
“But I want to know,” I pressed. “Is something wrong with Lucy?”
We watched as the anger and color drained from Aunt Bug’s face. She turned to stare out the kitchen window, her words slow and measured, “Lucy was coming to see you girls after supper last night. It wasn’t even dark. You know she’d never be foolish enough to go out after dark.” I resisted the urge to look at Shelby. “She was almost to our house when she . . .they . . .” She took a deep breath. “There were some boys. They must have come from Corbin or Pineville.”
“Is she okay?” Shelby asked when Aunt Bug didn’t continue.
“Papaw will be here soon. You better get packed,” was all she said before she walked out of the kitchen.
It didn’t take long to gather our clothes. We put our bags by the door and sat on the front steps. We saw the dust at the turn-off before we actually saw the vehicle—but it wasn’t Papaw’s green truck. It was the Gambrel’s battered Nova. We jumped up, expecting them to stop to say hey, but their car continued down the road. Shelby and I sprinted after them.
By the time we reached Lucy’s house, everyone had gone inside. We climbed the sagging porch steps and knocked. Mrs. Gambrel appeared behind the screen door. Her face was tight and hard. “Lucy can’t play today, girls.”
“We heard she was in the hospital. Is she okay?” I asked.
Mrs. Gambrel didn’t open the door or invite us in. “Thank you for coming. You best go on home now.”
As she moved to close the door, I pressed my face to the dirty screen and saw Lucy lying under a quilt on the sofa. Her lip was split and swollen, and her arm was in a sling. But it was her eyes that frightened me the most. They were . . . blank. She stared straight ahead, not even turning at the sound of my voice. There was no bright smile or cheery wave. Just dull, hollow eyes.
A horn blared behind us, causing Shelby and I to jump. It was Papaw. Aunt Bug must have guessed where we’d gone and sent him to fetch us. We walked numbly to the truck, neither of us saying a word the entire way home. Mamaw had hot cornbread waiting for us when we walked in the door, but I couldn’t taste it.
That night Shelby and I crawled into our usual bed in the attic and lay on top of the cotton sheets, watching the gauzy curtains flutter in the breeze. But tonight the breeze didn’t cool; it chilled.
I slid out of bed and crossed the room, closing the window against the darkness.
After twenty-six years of being a stay-at-home mom, Dana Shurtz traded housework for homework and returned to college. She signed up for writing classes with a desire to tell about her childhood in Appalachia. Her greatest achievement is raising seven children without going insane. She credits the accomplishment to the constant patience and good humor of her husband, Gary.