From Chapter Seven
Little Aletta woke up and asked her mama if she could wear her favorite dress, the one it was easiest to run and play in, since it was the last day of school for the year. Delighted that it was finally summer, she joined the other kids at school in making it almost impossible for her teacher to keep any order at all. Mrs. Vandehay wore down by about eleven o'clock and let out for recess early, seeming as anxious for the day after the last day of school as the kids were.
Aletta played tag with her schoolmates. They ran around outside the old one-room schoolhouse with the energy of freedom, kicking up puffs of red dust and yelling just because they could.
Bobby Irvin, a blond boy with pink cheeks and big ears, raced after Aletta. She ran with all the speed her legs could find and circled around a few of the younger girls who were jumping rope. Bobby slowed down, breathing hard, and he and Aletta eyed each other through the rising and falling rope, circling slowly. Suddenly the rope stopped, and Bobby lunged for Aletta.
She screamed and backpedaled, running hard into Ralph Smart, the fifth-grade bully, knocking him to the ground. Ralph splayed out at her feet, but she stayed upright, swinging her arms in the air to avoid tripping over him. Bobby couldn't stop in time, and he tagged her with both hands, pushing her into Ralph's legs and causing her to fall on top of him. She landed right on his chest, and before she could get up, Ralph pushed Aletta off him and rolled on top of her in one motion.
"It was an accident! I'm sorry!" Aletta screamed.
His eyes were a crazy ice blue standing out against the red hot of his face. He straddled her waist and pushed her hands to the ground, grinding the backs of them into the gritty dirt and pebbles.
The images came quickly to her that first time, unexpectedly, like lightning out of a blue sky. She saw them in front of her like a movie. Ralph lying in bed, his mama throwing the covers off and yelling. His daddy pulling him out of bed by his ears. And sounds. "You're too big to wet the bed anymore, boy. For your own good." Nighttime. Ralph screaming and crying as his daddy drags him out to the barn and locks him in.
The images receded when Ralph let go of her hand and crammed his knee onto her arm to hold it down. With his free hand, he pulled her hair hard.
"Eeyow!" Aletta screamed. "Stop it, you bed wetter! I hate you!"
Ralph let go of her hair. His grip on her other hand loosened. Aletta knew she'd seen the truth by the look on his face. Before she could take advantage of his surprise, he pulled his fist back. She closed her eyes tight.
"Ralph Smart, I'm tellin' your daddy about this!" Mrs. Vandehay pulled him off Aletta by his hair.
Aletta lay on the ground, breathing heavily. It seemed that too many feelings and thoughts crowded inside her all at once. How had she seen those things about Ralph? It had been so clear, but she didn't know why. She was afraid and thrilled and confused.
"You okay, Lettie?" Bobby reached down to help her up. She knew he was just being so nice because he was afraid she'd tell on him for pushing her into Ralph, but she didn't care about that right now.
She looked up at him and took his hand but stayed sitting on the ground. He watched her as she held his gaze. Her breath left her as the images came again. This time they were weaker, but still there. Bobby was drawing on a tablet of paper alone in his room at night, then hiding the drawings under his bed. Finally, she breathed in deeply, then let him pull her up and help dust off her dress.
"You okay, Lettie?" he asked again.
"Why do you hide your drawings?" she asked.
Bobby looked like he'd just been socked in the arm. "Who told you?"
"My mama says it's idle hands, but it don't hurt nobody," he said defensively, a hurt look on his face.
Aletta shrugged again. "Sure don't seem like it would."
Aletta felt shaky and a little dazed as she walked to the schoolhouse. She had a strong feeling of specialness and power, but she was also afraid of what it might mean to have something like this happen, something she'd never heard people tell of before.
"Miz Vandehay wants you, 'Letta!" called Peggy Peg Legs, a scrawny first grader, as she ran over.
Shame crawled inside Aletta and curled up like a cat in a window. She just knew Mrs. Vandehay would scold her good, as she'd done with Miss Maple, if she said something about what had happened.
"You look weird, 'Letta," Peggy said.
Biting her lip, Aletta walked past the group of kids who crowded at the door trying to hear Mrs. Vandehay and Ralph inside. She felt like crying as she closed the door behind her and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dimness of the dark wood room.
"Aletta, do you have something to say? What happened out there?" Mrs. Vandehay, hands on hips, stood over Ralph, who sat at a desk in the front row. He shot Aletta an angry look.
She figured he'd blamed her for the fight, and it made her mad all over again. She wanted to call him a bed wetter again and put him in his place.
"Me and Bobby were playin' tag is all. I accidentally ran into Ralph, and he went crazy like he was gonna kill me. I didn't do nothin' and said I was sorry. Then…" Aletta stopped, remembering what she'd seen. Ralph being locked in the barn, scared and crying.
"Yes?" Mrs. Vandehay asked.
"But I'm sure he didn't mean nothin' by it," she blurted out quickly. "I ran into him real hard. I'd 'a been mad too."
Ralph's face softened a little.
"Did he hurt you?" Mrs. Vandehay asked.
Aletta rubbed the back of her left hand where a strawberry stood out red on her skin. "Not really."
As Aletta rode home on the bus that afternoon, she avoided touching the other kids. Her stomach was nervous and hurt a little, like she might be coming down with something. Ralph sat in the very back of the bus, staring out the window. She was afraid he might come and try to beat her up again, and the fear made her wish she'd gotten him in bad trouble. But as the bus approached her stop, she got up the courage to walk back near him. He looked up at her, a different shade of hurt blue in his eyes than when he'd held her down.
"I'm sorry your mama and daddy lock you in the barn," she whispered. "That ain't right."She didn't wait for him to respond but turned and ran to the front of the bus just in time for Mr. Randall to open the door and let her out. She felt her heart beating wildly as she glanced up at the bus rumbling away. Ralph's eyes looked at her through the back window, and this time they seemed different, the blue a shade brighter than before.