COZY IN CARDBOARD
Inside her first clubhouse, Lacy Dawn glanced over fifth grade spelling words for tomorrow’s quiz at school. She already knew all the words in the textbook and most others in any human language.
Nothing’s more important than an education.
The clubhouse was a cardboard box in the front yard that her grandmother's new refrigerator had occupied until an hour before. Her father brought it home for her to play in.
The nicest thing he's ever done.
Faith lay beside her with a hand over the words and split fingers to cheat as they were called off. She lived in the next house up the hollow. Every other Wednesday for the last two months, the supervised child psychologist came to their school, pulled her out of class, and evaluated suspected learning disabilities. Lacy Dawn underlined a word with a fingernail.
All she needs is a little motivation.
Before they had crawled in, Lacy Dawn tapped the upper corner of the box with a flashlight and proclaimed, "The place of all things possible—especially you passing the fifth grade so we'll be together in the sixth."
Please concentrate, Faith. Try this one.
"A, R, M … A … D, I, L, D, O," Faith demonstrated her intellect.
"That's weak. This is a bonus word so you’ll get extra points. Come on."
Lacy Dawn nodded and looked for a new word.
I’ll trick her by going out of order—a word she can't turn into another punch line.
“Don’t talk about it and the image will go away. Let’s get back to studying,” Lacy Dawn said.
My mommy don't like sex. It's just her job and she told me so.
Faith turned her open spelling book over and rolled onto her side. Lacy Dawn did the same and snuggled her back against the paper wall. Face to face—a foot of smoothness between—they took a break. The outside was outside.
At their parents’ insistence each wore play clothing—unisex hand-me-downs that didn’t fit as well as school clothing. They’d been careful not to get muddy before crawling into the box. They’d not played in the creek and both were cleaner than on the usual evening. The clubhouse floor remained an open invitation to anybody who had the opportunity to consider relief from daily stressors.
"How'd you get so smart, Lacy Dawn? Your parents are dumb asses just like mine."
"You ain't no dumb ass and you're going to pass the fifth grade."
"Big deal—I'm still fat and ugly," Faith said.
"I'm doing the best I can. I figure by the time I turn eleven I can fix that too. For now, just concentrate on passing and don't become special education. I need you. You're my best friend."
"Ain't no other girls our age close in the hollow. That's the only reason you like me. Watch out. There's a pincher bug crawling in."
Lacy Dawn sat almost upright because there was not quite enough headroom in the refrigerator box. She scooted the bug out the opening. The clubhouse door faced downhill—the best choice since nothing natural was flat in the hollow. If it had sloped uphill, too much blood in the brain would have been detrimental to studying spelling or any other higher calling like changing Faith's future. Faith watched the bug attempt re-entry, picked it up, and threw it a yard away into the grass. It didn't get hurt. Lacy Dawn smiled her approval. The new clubhouse was a sacred place where nothing was supposed to hurt.
"Daddy said I can use the tarp whenever he finishes the overhaul on the car in the driveway. That way, our clubhouse will last a long time," Lacy Dawn said.
"Chewy, chewy tootsie roll. Everything in the hollow rots, especially the people. You know that."
"We ain't rotten,” Lacy Dawn gestured with open palms. “There are a lot of good things here—like all the beautiful flowers. Just focus on your spelling and I'll fix everything else. This time I want a 100% and a good letter to your mommy."
"She won't read it," Faith said.
"Yes she will. She loves you and it'll make her feel good. Besides, she has to or the teacher will call Welfare. Your daddy would be investigated—unless you do decide to become special education. That's how parents get out of it. The kid lets them off the hook by deciding to become a SPED. Then there ain't nothing Welfare can do about it because the kid is the problem and not the parents."
"I ain't got no problems," Faith said.
"Then pass this spelling test."
"I thought if I messed up long enough, eventually somebody would help me out. I just need a place to live where people don't argue all the time. That ain't much."
"Maybe you are a SPED. There's always an argument in a family. Pass the test you retard," Lacy Dawn opened her spelling book.
Faith flipped her book over too, rolled onto her stomach and looked at the spelling words. Lacy Dawn handed her the flashlight because it was getting dark and grinned when Faith’s lips started moving as she memorized. Faith noticed and clamped her lips shut between thumb and index finger.
This is boring. I learned all these words last year.
"Don't use up the batteries or Daddy will know I took it," Lacy Dawn said.
"Alright—I'll pass the quiz, but just 'cause you told me to. This is a gamble and you'd better come through if it backfires. Ain't nothing wrong with being a SPED. The work is easier and the teacher lets you do puzzles."
"You're my best friend," Lacy Dawn closed the book.
They rolled back on their sides to enjoy the smoothness. The cricket chorus echoed throughout the hollow and the frogs peeped. An ant attempted entry but changed its direction before either rescued it. Unnoticed, Lacy Dawn's father threw the tarp over the box and slid in the trouble light. It was still on and hot. The bulb burned Lacy Dawn's calf.
He didn't mean to hurt me—the second nicest thing he's ever done.
"Test?" Lacy Dawn announced with the better light, and called off, "Poverty."
"I love you," Faith responded.
"Me too, but spell the word."
"P is for poor. O is for oranges from the Salvation Army Christmas basket. V is for varicose veins that Mommy has from getting pregnant every year. E is for everybody messes up sometimes—sorry. R is for I'm always right about everything except when you tell me I'm wrong—like now. T is for it’s too late for me to pass no matter what we do and Y is for you know it too."
"Faith, it's almost dark! Go home before your mommy worries," Lacy Dawn's mother yelled from the front porch and stepped back into the house to finish supper. The engine of the VW in the driveway cranked but wouldn't start. It turned slower as its battery died, too.
Faith slid out of the box with her spelling book in-hand. She farted from the effort. A clean breeze away, she squished a mosquito that had landed on her elbow and watched Lacy Dawn hold her breath as she scooted out of the clubhouse, pinching her nose with fingers of one hand, holding the trouble light with the other, and pushing her spelling book forward with her knees. The moon was almost full. There would be plenty of light to watch Faith walk up the gravel road. Outside the clubhouse, they stood face to face and ready to hug. It lasted a lightning bug statement until adult intrusion.
"Give it back. This thing won't start," Lacy Dawn’s father grabbed the trouble light out of her hand and walked away.
"All we ever have is beans for supper. Sorry about the fart."
"Don't complain. Complaining is like sitting in a rocking chair. You can get lots of motion but you ain't going anywhere," Lacy Dawn said.
"Why didn't you tell me that last year?” Faith asked. “I've wasted a lot of time."
"I just now figured it out. Sorry."
"Some savior you are. I put my whole life in your hands. I'll pass tomorrow's spelling quiz and everything. But you, my best friend who’s supposed to fix the world just now tell me that complaining won't work and will probably get me switched."
"You're complaining again."
"Oh yeah," Faith said.
"Before you go home, I need to tell you something."
To avoid Lacy Dawn's father working in the driveway, Faith slid down the bank to the dirt road. Her butt became too muddy to re-enter the clubhouse regardless of need. Lacy Dawn stayed in the yard, pulled the tarp taut over the cardboard, and waited for Faith to respond.
"I don't need no more encouragement. I'll pass the spelling quiz tomorrow just for you, but I may miss armadillo for fun. Our teacher deserves it," Faith said.
"That joke's too childish. She won't laugh. Make 100%. That's what I want."
"Okay. See you tomorrow." Faith took a step up the road.
"Wait. I want to tell you something. I've got another best friend. That's how I got so smart. He teaches me stuff."
"A boy? You've got a boyfriend?"
"Not exactly," Lacy Dawn put a finger over her lips to silence Faith. Her father was hooking up a battery charger. She slid down the bank, too.
He probably couldn’t hear us, but why take the chance.
A minute later, hand in hand, they walked the road toward Faith's house.
"Did you let him see your panties?" Faith asked.
"No. I ain't got no good pair. Besides, he don't like me that way. He's like a friend who's a teacher—not a boyfriend. I just wanted you to know that I get extra help learning stuff."
"Where's he live?"
Lacy Dawn pointed to the sky with her free hand.
"Jesus is everybody's friend," Faith said.
"It ain't Jesus, you moron," Lacy Dawn turned around to walk home. “His name’s DotCom and….” Her mother watched from the middle of the road until both children were safe.
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