As I rounded the bend, the late sun fell away behind the treetops, and I pushed the bulky wheelbarrow into shadow. It was a difference of two steps between daylight and evening, between a deep, energetic appreciation for the lit hours of movement and doing things, and the dusky drowsiness of endings, when it was time to finish up chores, eat our last meal, wash away the day's dirt, give in to sleep I didn't want to take. The thought of evening coming on took the edge off my anger and replaced it with a sad dread, but I forgot about my feelings altogether when Aunt Nell called to me from behind her front gate.
"Headed to see Rachelle?" she asked. She steadied her frail, listing bones with a garden-gloved hand on the gate post. A gentle smile stretched the silky wrinkles all across her face, like a breeze breathing through a spiderweb.
Aunt Nell was old enough to be my daddy's mother, even though she was his sister. She had my Daddy's eyes -- blue glass beads, clear and unchipped -- except hers were shaded under the wide, dropping brim of her garden hat.
The wheelbarrow creaked to a halt in front of Aunt Nell's gate. I scratched a fresh fireant bite on my heel and waved at the mosquitoes circling my head. "Yes, ma'am, Mama's sending over more of my dresses and some blackberries I picked today." I was sure to emphasize they were my dresses.
Aunt Nell peered over the gate. "Got quite a bit today, huh, Madge?"
For the second time that day, I frowned
into the blackberry bucket. "Not much, really. Maybe enough for a cobbler."
"I think Rachelle will be happy just eatin' 'em straight outta the bucket, don't you think?" she smiled. "And I'm sure she'll want to share with you."
I squirmed. I knew what Aunt Nell was doing, but I didn't feel any better about it. I twisted my hands on the wheelbarrow handles and leaned back toward the road.
"You better get along then," she said. "It'll be dark before long, and you shouldn't be walkin' on this lane so late, especially with those Miller boys runnin' the roads."
"Tell your mama I said hello; we'll see y'all on Sunday."
"I will," I promised, lurching forward again.
Aunt Nell's mailbox stood directly across the lane from her brother-in-law's. The house and the property were both wasting and unkempt. Half the roof had fallen in shortly after a fire two Christmases ago, but the man still lived in the "good" half, from what I understood.
I didn't see "Uncle Buck" often, if I ever saw him to begin with. The only reason I knew there was an Uncle Buck at all is because Aunt Nell mentioned him around holidays. It was the only time she saw him either. He wasn't a "people person," she said.
And he wasn't really my uncle either, nor related to me in any way other than by being Aunt Nell's dead husband's brother. For politeness's sake, however, I was told to call him "uncle" to make him feel more connected to the family, since we were the only family he had.
Uncle Buck might've been more of a mystery to me if I'd been intrigued by his absence from everyday life, but to my ten-year-old perception, his absence was just the way things were, like Mama's tan shoes for town, or the fact me and Rachelle didn't have our daddies anymore. I wondered about a lot of things, like why persimmons tasted best when they were about to rot, and why I could never blow all the seeds off a dandelion with one breath. But I never wondered about Uncle Buck. His ugly house sat opposite Aunt Nell's mailbox; that was enough for me.
Suddenly, a large, black rat darted out of a ditch bordering Uncle Buck's yard, startling me so I almost tipped the wheelbarrow again. Right behind the rat, a small, slim calico kitten chased through the dust, ears peeled back.
Both creatures ran in esses, crazed and vicious. I hopped back and forth from one foot to the other, hoping neither animal would try to crawl up my leg or attack me in the confusion.
In the middle of the lane, the rat could find no place to hide. Each time he took off in a new direction, there was the kitten blocking the escape.
Just when I thought the calico might snap up the rat in its jaws, the rodent made a sharp retreat toward Aunt Nell's side of the road. Both animals disappeared in the hedges, branches thick and shuddering behind them.
Uncle Buck's house must have been infested with rats. I wondered if they might multiply and take over someday, maybe eat up Uncle Buck in his sleep, and we'd never know what happened to him.
I shivered, but not because of an image of rats chewing on Uncle Buck. As I came to the end of his yard, I thought I heard someone spit at the edge of his overgrown property.
Maybe it was the cat hissing, or maybe a bough broke from one of the pine trees overhead. Maybe something shifted in my wheelbarrow without my seeing it. Maybe it wasn't a person.
But I did hear something, and now my thoughts went to how small I felt. I didn't feel like the eldest girl in my family. I didn't feel like a young lady. I felt like a little kid alone and away from home with no sweater and no shoes on my feet. The wheelbarrow was heavier than it had ever been before, and I wished Daddy was here to help me push it.
The side of my neck facing Uncle Buck's house stung and itched the way my armpits sometimes did when I had to read something in front of the class. I was afraid to swallow or look around, afraid to do anything that might bring the word "scared" to my mind, because once I thought the word, I'd become the word, and there was no stuffing it back down after that.
I wasn't afraid of the dark, but sometimes, on some nights when I had to go to the toilet while everyone else was asleep, I stepped more lightly than usual, tried harder to be silent, avoided looking into the shadows and corners and mirrors, lest I disrupt that precariously balanced something in the air that was holding terror at bay.
Back in bed, I realized there was nothing at all to be afraid of, but the high-pitched tone in my ears, the throbbing blood in my head, the pounding in my ribcage outlasted my analysis, and I dug myself deep, deep under the blankets, safe from that word until I thought I might suffocate.
The itch moved from my neck to a sharp point between my shoulderblades. The temptation to turn toward the ditch just to see -- to know without a doubt if I did indeed have something to fear -- was almost too strong. To break the spell, I cleared my throat and made myself cough, for the reassurance of noise, company, even if it was only me with me.
I heard Rachelle's voice before I saw her, hands waving high above her head as she came running down the lane toward me in the faded navy-blue sailor dress Mama made me the year Daddy left.