• My legs are sore from sitting in this tree for so long. Six o’ clock it must have been, that I first climbed up here, but it’s dark now, has been for a while. I wish I’d thought to bring my watch. I wonder how long it’ll take.

    Just as I think that, there’s a the sound of an engine, however faint, and headlights appear at the bottom of the road; she lives on the top of a hill, and I can see the whole town, for miles and miles. I perk up, making my calves ache even more than they already did, but it’s ain’t her. It’s just Mrs. Leary in her husband’s pick-up truck. She’s probably driving to go round up a dog that’s running loose. I hope she didn’t see me.

    I settle back. This tree, it’s hard as hell to balance on and I feel like a parakeet. Also, it’s an old tree, over a hundred years I think, and ever’ time I try to shift my weight the thing lets out a creak like you wouldn’t believe, like the whole thing’s just going to collapse under me. It’s making my nerves jangle. Also, I wish I hadn’t worn the black face paint. It seemed mysterious when I put it on, but now it’s just stiff and cracking all over. I feel stupid.

    Another car purrs in the distance- well, not purring, exactly- and the two headlights appear and right then I just think This is her. There aren’t that many cars driving around this town, not at this hour of the night, and it’s slowing down as it reaches the driveway. As it gets closer, I can see the color- periwinkle, her favorite, she told me so two weeks ago in Biology class- but I can’t see the driver, and all of a sudden I’m all twitchy because for all I know it’s her mama or her daddy.

    I tell myself that there’s no way it’s anybody but her, because she told her friend Jeanette, that stupid cow, that her parents were going to be gone this week, but I’m still about to fall right off this branch, so I grab onto the truck and I hold on for dear life.

    But it is her, it is, I can see her when she turns off her car, and as god is my witness, she’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. She doesn’t get out for a minute, she’s checking her make-up in the light-up mirror above the wheel. She must have gone out somewhere. She told Jeanette that she wasn’t allowed to go nowhere while her parents were gone. My heart leaps. Maybe she aren’t really best friends! Maybe they don’t even like each other! Maybe-

    Shut up! I yell at myself, because she’s getting out of the car and going inside and I’m missing it. Under all the paint my face gets hot. Yer a retard, I think. Yer a retard if you’re gonna miss her goin inside.

    I watch for her bedroom light to come on, because it’s late, it’s much later than my bedtime, but she stays downstairs, watching TV maybe. We’ve both got school tomorrow, and we’ll both be tired monkeys in the morning, yessir. But she just hangs around downstairs. I can see her bed from where I am. It makes me feel like it’s a hundred degrees out, that bed.

    I bet she’s beautiful when she sleeps.

    I almost say it out loud, but I don’t, because when I was in third grade I used to think out loud and ever’body made fun of me for it, especially that nasty Virginia Coolidge, who always called me Odd Todd. Sometimes she’d call me Slow Joe too, but Joe’s my daddy’s name so mostly she’d just stick with Todd. Ever’ body calls me Odd Todd, even now that most of them could go to work instead of sittin’ ever’ day in class. They all think I’m a retard, but I ain’t. She knows that.

    I know stuff too. I know she and her daddy and her mama moved here from Hamilton County, Iowa, and that she lived right next to the highway, and that she misses her friends. I know she and Jeanette sometimes drive to the city and get older boys to buy them drinks. I know that when I walked into my Biology class that she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen in the whole world.

    Looking into her room, I think about what ever’ body else talks about doing in bed. She’s the only one who’s ever nice to me. Ever in my life. Maybe she’d do it with me.

    Then all of a sudden the light downstairs flicks off and I almost fall again. She must be going upstairs. I freeze. She opens the door of her bedroom- all she’s wearing is a t-shirt and a pair of underpants. I feel all hot again and I’m losing my balance and she goes into the bathroom and I get all situated again.

    I steady myself and go out on the branch. If I stretch I can reach her window, and I pop the glass right out of the frame just as neat as you please. My daddy, when he ain’t in jail, sometimes fixes windows. He taught me a little once. I have to jump a little to get on the frame, but I do it pretty quiet. Then I have to roll onto her bed. I’m all wet. I leave a smear of face paint. I messed up her pretty bed, and I go “Oh no!”

    “What?” she says from the bathroom, her mouth all full with toothpaste, and she walks out and I’m warm again. For a minute she just stands there, and then she drops the toothbrush in her hand. It leaves a spot the shape of a cat’s head on the carpet. After a minute she spits out the toothpaste in her mouth all over the floor.

    “What are you doing here?” she screeches. “I swear to God I know karate!”

    I didn’t know that about her, but I don’t say that. I try to walk toward her but my legs feel all funny because I’ve been sitting in a tree for god-knows-how-long and I fall, but I fall toward her and I grab the t-shirt and she falls down too and she’s screaming and screaming. I don’t want her to scream. I just want to her to be nice and quiet.

    “Don’t touch me!” she cries, and she kicks me in the shoulder and gets up and she starts to run down the stairs. I get up but my legs still feel like blocks of wood and I bang into something and my leg starts bleeding like the dickens. I get it all over her carpet when I’m trying to go downstairs after her.

    “I’m calling the police!” she screams at me when I get down there. She got a kitchen knife in her hand, and I’m sad, but I ain’t scared. Mama always said I was built like an ox.

    “You ain’t gonna get no police,” I said, because ever’body knows that Sherriff Bill Brathers and his boys hit the bar after a day of locking up drunks. I take a big step toward her with my arms out, because sometimes when you’re scared you need a hug. “It’s just you and me.”

    She screams again and she waves the arm with the knife and it hits my hand and that starts to bleed too. But I’m not scared of any blood, and when she tries to stab me again I grab her wrist and I knock her to the ground. She tries to kick me in the stomach and between the legs, and I have to hold her down just to get her to be quiet.

    “You gonna wake up the whole neighborhood,” I said.

    She says something that the Reverend John said ain’t never supposed to come out of a decent person’s mouth, and I shove my bloody hand right over her face so she can’t say it again. She bites my fingers and it hurts more than the knife did because she’s biting me, the most beautiful girl on the earth is biting me, and I’m righteously angry, as they say in the Bible.

    “Don’t you bite me!” I yell and I hit her hard, right on her nose, and she starts screaming like a crazy person and she’s bleeding everywhere and she ain’t pretty no more, not at all. But I start to get all panicky because what if she bleeds to death like that, and I think about that time that I cut my arm open and how the doctor tied a thing around my elbow to make it stop bleeding, and I wrap my hands around her throat and squeeze, and the bleeding stops, yessir, but then she don’t move no more and I think She’s dead.

    So I let go of her neck and I get back up, and she sure ain’t movin’. She ain’t gonna move again. But when I look at her, I see that she wasn’t beautiful, that she was just kinda pretty, but nothing like I’d remembered.

    So I let myself out the front door and I walk outside in the dark.

    I walk for a long time on the side of the road, and after a while I can stop limping and my hand stops bleeding and I scrape most of the paint off my face. I’m kind of thirsty. I walk for a while longer until I get to a gas station, and I count how much money is in my pockets. Two dollars. I could buy a soda, so I go inside and I go get a Coke and I go up to the counter. There ain’t nobody there, so I ring the little bell one, two, three times, and a girl comes out from the back.

    “This all?” she asks.

    I don’t say nothing.

    This all?” she demands.

    I say yes in a daze, ‘cause she’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.