Thomasina Tull clomped down the school bus steps, head lowered, books clutched tightly to her chest, and waited for Mr. Earl to lever open the door. She always hated these few beats of time that seemed to last forever before she could escape the yellow monster filled with mean grins and even meaner eyes.
On the ride to and from school—as well as on the playground—the other kids’ relentless teasing, contemptuous looks, and sometimes shoves or kicks had lessened as she and they had gotten older but had never stopped. Only in the classroom was she free of harassment. She was always assigned the front desk in the center row so she could see the blackboard. All the faculty at Blackburn Elementary knew she couldn’t see worth a flip.
The doors whooshed open, and Thomasina quickly stepped to the ground and strode away. She knew she shouldn’t look back, but she did and saw Jackie Carter’s fuzzy face hanging out the window, making those disgusting smacking noises before yelling, “What’s up, doc?” his top lip poking out and his bottom lip pulled back in a bad Bugs Bunny imitation.
The bus pulled away, trailing hoots of laughter and a swirling cloud of dust.
Thomasina sighed, well past the point of being hurt—or told herself she was. After all, it was nothing she hadn’t experienced a thousand times before.
She grabbed the mail from the listing, rusty mailbox and started the quarter-mile walk down the little-used lane to her home. She stuck to one of the two parallel tracks that were bisected by tall Johnson grass and crowded on both sides by thick trees whose limbs twined their leafy fingers across the road, keeping it in perpetual shade. Wouldn’t do to brush against any stray stalks; though it was mid October, there hadn’t yet been a hard freeze to kill off the seed ticks and chiggers that clung to grasses and brush in shady spots, laying in wait to transfer to some unlucky warm-blooded host.
So, Thomasina stepped carefully, bunching her long, faded skirt in one fist to keep it from touching the grass, remembering her first run-in years ago with chiggers, the scratching and misery. When she had told Daddy about the itching, he had rubbed the wide scar that parted his dark hair on the left side, frowned, and studied the small red bumps on her legs for a time. Then his sky-blue eyes, which she had inherited, brightened, and he’d grinned. “Them there are chigger bites, Tom.” And in his limited way, had told her about chiggers and seed ticks—she had already known about regular-sized ticks—and smeared her legs with calamine lotion.
Sometimes, Daddy knew things, and sometimes he didn’t, but all in all, she knew more than he did. At one time—and this was so long ago she barely remembered—he knew everything, but the accident at the sawmill had stolen the bigger part of that knowledge. And it had even stolen Mama, who’d slipped away in the dead of night after Daddy came home from the hospital, leaving four-year-old Thomasina with a daddy that had trouble even tying his shoelaces. And that wasn’t even the worst of it.
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