A large tear rolled down her cheek. It was warm inside the car, and the engine hummed along with the steady throb of rain as it pounded on the roof. Gerri curled her feet up under the blanket. Outside, through the darkness and deluge, she caught glimpses of towering, tree-dotted mountains. They loomed over abysmal valleys, with their delicate traces of fog hovering bleakly amidst the blackness.
The tear clung to her chin, trying to decide if it wanted to fall or not. It reminded Gerri of the wet beads on her window. They had a way of trickling down the glass smoothly for a while, and then halting, quivering as they pondered which course to take.
Gerri decided for the tear, and gingerly wiped it away with the sleeve of her shirt. A dark spot was all that remained.
She cast a doleful glance at the front seat. Her mother's slender fingers rested on the steering wheel, illuminated by the colorful dashboard lights.
Gerri didn't bother with them.
Instead, she let her head sink into the spongy depths of her pillow, listening to the soft sounds that enveloped her.
And then Gerri was gone.
The warm scent of cinnamon rolls coaxed Gerri out of her slumber. It was a gradual come-to, and she could hardly suppress a smile as she felt the squishy down of her pillow under her head.
But the smile vanished when she opened her eyes.
Sitting straight up, Gerri gripped the corner of her blanket, gasping softly as she took in the strange room about her.
Where was she?
The question loomed ominously in the back of her mind, provoking a barrage of equally uncertain ones to come sloshing into her thoughts. After a moment, however, Gerri's faithful logic cleared them away, and as she rubbed the grogginess out of her baggy brown eyes, the truth dawned on her.
This was her new house.
In the excitement of the moment, Gerri forgot about her previous grief, and she hurriedly flung back the covers and scrambled to her feet.
The wooden floor was cold, she observed, and in the process of scanning for socks or something, Gerri got a good look at her supposed bedroom.
Brown, rugged wooden planks made up the floor and ceiling, joined together by a smooth gray wall. On the far side, opposite of Gerri's bed, there was a small, square window. Pale morning sunlight poured in through the petite opening, splashing down onto Gerri's socks, all crumpled and lying in the corner.
Shivering, Gerri made her way over to retrieve them, and had scarcely plucked them off the floor when she heard voices downstairs.
Mother, most likely.
But who was she talking to?
Curiosity piqued, Gerri yanked on her socks, finger-combed her hair, and trotted gallantly out the door. As she felt her way down the narrow hallway-- for her eyes had not yet adjusted to the dark-- Gerri took blissful gasps of air, imagining herself with a mound of the warm, savory treats and a cool glass of milk at her side.
Upon reaching the staircase, Gerri was pleased to discern that her eyesight had returned to its former decency, and she hopped down the three steps with little difficulty.
The aroma of cinnamon rolls.
It wafted out of the kitchen door, sweet and soothing like a whiff of heaven.
Practically beside herself with excitement, Gerri darted for the doorway.
But something stopped her.
Daddy was home.
And Mommy sounded upset.
Hardly daring to breathe, Gerri pressed her ear against the wall.
Their voices, nothing more than a strained murmur, mingled with the rapid beating of her heart.
What were they saying?
She pressed further, just catching the last bit of their conversation.
Gerri let the full weight of their words sink in. When they did, her heart sank, too.
Was it true?
No, it couldn't be.
With a tangle of questions playing tug-of-war in her mind, Gerri trekked slowly into the kitchen.
Both adults were seated around a cheap, fold-up table by the crackling fire in the wood-burning stove, plates laden with eggs and bacon. When she entered, their heads shot up.
"Oh," her mother faltered, quickly brightening her worn features with a smile. "Good mornin', Sweetie! How'd you sleep last night?"
"Fine," Gerri replied, giving them a forced grin. "Took me awhile to gain my wherabouts, though."
Her parents chuckled.
"Sit down and eat up," her father encouraged, patting the worn seat cover. "Your mother fixed some delicious breakfast, and more importantly, there are cinnamon rolls. We all know how you love those."
He grinned at her, and she subtly returned it.
There was very little conversation during breakfast, so wrapped up was everyone with thoughts of their food and personal problems.
With every bite, Gerri felt the gnawing sensation in her stomach increase.
What should she do?
Sit back and wait for things to work themselves out?
It was a tempting notion, she had to admit, but more likely than not the situation would just get worse.
Something had to be done.
The gears in her head began to churn, and a sketchy outline of a plan started to take shape.
Gerri shoveled the last of her eggs into her mouth and leaned back, contemplating.
"Who's up for some rolls?" Mother asked, breaking the silence.
Without waiting for an answer, she rose from her chair and collected everybodys' plates. Carefully she toted them over to one of the small, compact wooden counters where the cinnamon rolls lay, smoke curling in the ashen morning glow that seeped through the window.
When her plate was returned to her, Gerri noted with half-hearted satisfaction that it sported a tiny heap of cinnamon rolls, probably three or four at the least.
After her thanking her mother with all the enthusiasm she could muster, Gerri crammed a roll into her mouth, hoping that it would hit the spot like usual and ease her burden, or something like that.
It did not.
Gerri solemnly finished her breakfast, ears open in case her parents started talking to one another, or decided to restate their earlier point that had so effectively ruined her morning.
Of course, they didn't.
And as soon as she'd swallowed her last roll, Gerri stood up.
"Thank you for the breakfast, Mommy," she smiled, hoping that her dejection was not too evident. "That was delicious."
"You're more'n welcome," her mother winked, also standing. "After we put our dishes in the sink, how'd you like to join us for a little stroll around town? I hear from your father it's supposed to be pretty cute, and given there's only thirteen residents or so, we might as well get to know a few. Hopefully, they're nice."
Gerri felt her insides deflate.
Walk around town?
Weren't things bad enough as they were?
She started to politely object, but one look at her mother, who was clearly trying so hard to make the whole mess enjoyable for her, and Gerri forgot about her own desires.
"Okay," she nodded, bringing her plate over and setting it in the large basin. "Sure. I'll get my rainboots."
* * * * * * * * * * *
The squishy mud seemed determined to suck the shoes off of every unsuspecting pedestrian who dared set foot on its mucky surface.
Gerri had learned this the hard way, and now trudged along the gravel road with damp socks and an even damper spirit, silently wondering if they had June-bugs here.
The mere thought made her shudder.
To the north, a dark forest slouched at the foot of a looming mountain, crowned by the hazy gray skies that hinted at more rain.
The path then swerved east, however, and up ahead, behind a veil of fog, stood a ring of buildings.
The gravel road split, making way for the thick, gnarled old oak tree that rested in the center of the circle, green leaves swaying in a cool breeze.
Around the cul de sac slumped a few businesses.
There was a long, narrow building with a tattered sign that read, "Deak's." Clothes, canned food, and simple furniture suggested that it was some kind of convenience store.
On its left stood a proud, tallish, church-like structure, with a weathered yard sign that introduced it as, "Skinny Road Church." The play-on-words tugged at the corners of Gerri's mouth, and she turned with a smile to observe the next building.
This one had clean, modern lines and a very artsy paint job, highlighted by the relatively un-battered sign that declared, "Stitch: Fabric Shop." Gerri chuckled. If the locals weren't nice, at least they were somewhat clever.
She glanced over at the last store.
It was a thick, two-story structure, with a large, bump-out window and a tiny staircase that led up to the second floor.
Warm yellow light filtered out through the rain-streaked glass, punctuating the soft red bricks and spotlighting the window display.
Gerri's sweet-tooth perked up.
The sign read "Comfy Cookies," and indeed, buried under all the other delicacies, contained in numerous little woven baskets, were the most giant ones she'd ever seen.
Perhaps this trip wouldn't turn out so bad, after all.
"Look at this place!" her mother exclaimed, gazing at the mountainous scenery which beheld them. "What'd you say it was called, Honey?"
Her father grinned. "Preen."
Gerri brushed his shirt sleeve and pointed at the bakery, eyes sparkling.
He chuckled. "You and your sweet-tooth. Come on, ladies, let's see if we can find some people in this bustling metropolis."
They set off laughing towards "Deak's," figuring that, if there was anybody out in this weather, they would either be shopping or hanging out in the bakery.
A little bell tinkled when they pushed the door open. Racks and shelves, all loaded up with ropes, books, and green shampoo, spread out before them.
At the far end of the store sat a long, squat counter, and behind it stood a young woman wearing a tan, Park-Ranger sort of uniform. She had short, curly blonde hair and a smile so big you could see it from the moon.
"Wall, howdy thar, pardners!" she hollered, giving them a friendly wave. "I don't b'lieve I've seen y'all round here before. You move in recent or somethin'?"
"Yeah," Gerri's father replied, maneuvering his way over to the counter with the females in tow. "Just today, in fact. My name's Ralph Pyker. This is my wife, Agnes, and our daughter, Gerri."
"Pleased to make your 'quaintances!" the woman chuckled, shaking their hands heartily. "I'm Flora Deak, owner of this 'ere convenience store and official mountain guide of Preen. Now, how may I be of service to you on this fine, soppin' wet day?"
"Oh, well, we weren't exactly shopping," Agnes explained hurriedly, tearing her gaze away from the stack of bright, colorful cotton quilts.
Gerri noted her discomfort with a pang of . . . sadness? Anxiety? Mother rarely turned down the chance to shop, and the fact that she did only increased Gerri's worry.
Agnes smiled at the woman. "Just trying to get out of the house and meet some new people, you know?"
"Ah," Flora nodded understandingly. "Ain't that joyful? Ye'll be hard-pressed to find much anyone out in this temp'st, though. Try the bakery. Ever'body's always hangin' out there, anyways. Wall, don't let me hinder your traipsin', now! Go spread the pleasantness."
"We'll try," Ralph assured her, and the three departed with a wave.
Cold rain smacked them in the face when they stepped outside. Rolling black clouds hung low in the sky, drizzling lightly upon their heads as they squinted through the fog, trying to spot the bakery.
"Rain," Agnes observed at last, shielding her chocolate-colored eyes. "Again. Wonder if this place floods much."
She was silent for a moment. Gerri watched the raindrops soak into her gray sweater. Mother loved that sweater. It had been a gift from Gerri for Valentine's Day, and despite the frayed sleeves and thread-bare appearance, Agnes continued to wear it lovingly.
Besides, the color suited her well.
"How about this way?" Mother suggested presently. "I think it's promising enough, and if the bakery isn't down there, we'll just come back."
Ralph murmured his agreement, as did Gerri, but her initial burst of enthusiasm from the scenery had since died down, and was replaced by the typical dread of people she harbored deep in her soul.
Not even the thought of sweets could cure her.
After all, Gerri was an introvert.
Unfortunately, while they had chosen the right direction, the walk down it proved easier said than done.
The whole trudge over, they were pelted with rain, and the mud's slickness only increased as they went.
"Go, go!" Ralph cried, yanking off his wet jacket to use as a make-shift umbrella for the girls. "Hurry, get inside!"
They had just leapt onto the front steps when a white, blinding flash of lightning lit up the misty sky, accompanied by an ominous rumble of thunder.
Gerri, who had reached the stairs first, began to fumble with the doorknob. But before she succeeded in opening it, the door swung inwards with a creak.
A short, plump, white-haired old lady motioned hastily for them to come in, and they wasted not a second, piling eagerly into the warm, dry room.
"Brr-rrr!" Agnes shivered, peeling her husband's soggy jacket off of her head. "Good grief, that rain picked up quick! Thank you, ma'am. And . . . oh, sorry about the mess."
"Don't give it a mind!" the elderly woman chuckled, her dark eyes crinkling behind her glasses. "It'll mop up. But here, first, you should all dry off. Wouldn't want you to catch a cold, now, would we?"
She handed them a stack of fluffy red towels, all warm and toasty from sitting by the fireplace.
As she rubbed the material over her dripping clothes, Gerri gazed at her surroundings.
Sweets were everywhere!
In baskets, on shelves, around vases, under cloth- it was like someone had broken off a little chunk of Heaven and squished it through the doorway.
At the back of the room was a massive stone fireplace, the roaring flames held back by nothing but caution and God's grace. To Gerri's surprise, she noticed the presence of five other human beings, all hanging around by the bakery counter and nibbling on some rolls.
Instant discomfort set in, and she smoothly turned her back to the group, towel draped casually over her shoulders like a cape.
Maybe if she acted especially indifferent, they would leave her alone.
Why not? Even if it didn't work, at least it would alleviate some of her anxiety.
But then the lady trotted back over, wearing the sweetest old-lady smile that had ever been committed, and Gerri felt her tense nerves relax- just a bit.
"Those helped some, I hope?" the woman queried earnestly, gathering up the damp towels.
"Oh, yes," Ralph assured her, running a hand through his short, dark hair so it wouldn't dry plastered to his skull. "Very much, thank you."
"You're most welcome," she smiled, tossing them to one of the five persons, who had by now acknowledged the fact that there were strangers in their midst, and were staring intently toward the three newcomers. "My name is Pinny, by the way. I was kneading some dough and happened to spot you folks out the window, so I hurried to get the towels and open the door. What a frightful storm to be out in! I must confess, though, I don't know a single one of you," she admitted, adjusting her spectacles. "Have you just moved in?"
"Why, yes," Agnes smiled, her cheeks flushed from the cold. "Officially today. I'm Agnes Pyker, and this is my husband, Ralph, and our daughter, Gerri."
"Well, isn't that wonderful?" Pinny breathed, drying her hands on her patchwork apron. "Newcomers! I always do love me some more companions; keep me company in my old age, you see. Ruben!"
An old man from the Five Spectators glanced up.
"You need to meet our new friends, the . . . "
"Pykers! Yes, just moved here today. Now you come on over and meet them, and stop eating all my croissants."
For a moment, there was a chorus of whispers, and then all Five Spectators rose from their corner and crossed the room, much to the dismay of Gerri.
The first to greet them was an elderly man-- Ruben, she supposed-- with a long, blood-hound-ish face and a few remaining tufts of white hair. He shook their hands politely, but didn't say much, appearing slightly uncomfortable with the whole affair.
Then came a tall, blond, suit-clad man, whose careless Southern accent betrayed his business-like air. He shook their hands casually and ruffled Gerri's hair-- the horrors-- and then addressed Ralph with a smile.
"Name's Base Lide," the man said. "I'm a medical doctor, so if y'all ever need any 'tendin' to, just give me a ring."
After him came a pale, thin woman with high cheekbones and curly brown hair. She wore a long skirt and thick, square-rimmed glasses. "Lafonde Heuwick," she stated, giving them a weensy smile. "And my daughter, Enid."
Looking to her left, Gerri saw a smiling teenage girl, whose straight brown hair was pulled back in a sloppy bun that matched her battered T-shirt well. Enid waved shyly, and Gerri hesitantly returned the gesture.
Then came the Fifth Spectator.
Last, but certainly not least.
Sparkling brown eyes, missing teeth, moppish hair, and filthy clothes, all compiled into to one muddy nine-year-old boy who desperately needed a bath.
"Patch Lide," the young boy said, grinning sweetly with all his teeth-holes. "But don't tell nobody."
It took a moment for Gerri to get the pun, but when she did, she gave a half-hearted laugh.
Pinny clapped her wrinkly hands together. "Well then! That's done. Now, you three Pykers, go warm yourselves by the fire while I fix you a snack. Do turkey sandwiches sound alright?"
"Er, well . . . " Agnes frowned, exchanging a glance with Ralph. "We . . . don't have any money on us, right now, to pay you with, so . . . "
"So?" Pinny smiled, slapping some cheese on the bread. "Did I ask for pay?"
They went silent.
She decided she liked Pinny.
The fire was incredibly hot, and while it was a little bit daunting to be so near an open flame, Gerri found herself entranced by its sporatic dancing.
She thanked Pinny graciously when her sandwich was delivered, and all but inhaled it with the first bite.
Mr. Lide snorted with laughter. "If that ain't the perfect image of Patch, I don't know what is! You two ought'a get along mighty swell. Now, which one o' you folks taught her that, eh?"
Her parents chuckled, and that was the beginning of the three-hour long conversation.
Gerri, of course, being a child, knew exactly what was going to happen as soon as the first question was asked.
She also knew that it would be wise to extract herself from the "Drone Zone," as she sometimes referred to it, before they really got the ball rolling.
"Can I go lie down somewhere, please?" she whispered to her mother. "I . . . feel kinda sleepy."
Agnes whipped her head around, carefully scrutinizing her daughter's face. After a moment, she sighed and squeezed Gerri's hand. "Sure, Sweetie," she nodded. "You rest. I'll let you know when the rain's stopped so we can go. Okay?"
Gerri stood up and hurried off toward the farthest corner possible, well aware of the trailing gazes of Patch and Enid.
She spied a tiny window seat wedged between a wall and a table.
That should give her some privacy.
Slumping down, Gerri tugged her jacket tighter, trying to preserve the leftover heat from the fire.
But she didn't need to.
Because just then, Pinny arrived, her plump arms clutching a wad of pillows and blankets.
"Thought you might need these," she winked, setting them down beside Gerri. "It get's a mite chilly by the window, 'specially with all this rain."
"Thank you, ma'am," Gerri smiled gratefully, selecting a blanket from the mound.
"Don't mention it." Pinny fluffed her a pillow and then teetered back over to the adults, humming softly as she went.
Gerri pulled the fuzzy throw blanket up to her chin, dark hair sprawling over the pillow.
Sleep would not come.
Even the pitter-patter of rain failed to soothe her, and eventually, Gerri gave in to watching raindrops trickle down the foggy glass.
But she made the mistake of letting her mind wander.
And it wandered right back to that morning's conversation . . . the same one she'd overheard.
"They WHAT?! Are you serious, Ralph?"
Agnes' voice echoed hollowly in Gerri's memory.
"Of course I'm serious! Why would I make something up like this? I tried to bargain with them, but they're set. It's final."
A tear welled up in Gerri's eyes, threatening to spill over her lashes.
Her thought kept racing.
"Ralph . . . "
"I know, Honey. It's bad."
"It's worse than bad! We needed those extra three months, Ralph. It was going to carry us while you were looking for a job, and with that gone, and you still out of work . . . I mean, how will we be able to afford . . . well, you know . . . "
The tear fell.
Gerri brushed it away with the corner of the blanket, squeezing her eyes shut to block out the memory.
'Why, God?' she pleaded. 'Why do You let these things happen to people? To us?'
Her fingers curled around the pillow.
'Please,' Gerri prayed, 'just . . . please, let them be able to afford me.'
She'd said it.
But what good did that do? She would still go to an orphanage or foster home or something if the problem didn't get resolved.
Heart thoroughly shattered, Gerri cried herself to sleep.
* * * * * * * * * * *
It had only been about ten minutes before her eyes popped open again.
Dozing, however, seemed to have worked its magic on Gerri, because as soon as her grogginess cleared, it hit her.
But of course!
That's what she would do!
The realization swept over her like a flood of rainwater, and Gerri had to stifle her laughter with the pillow so as not to attract attention.
She would find him a job herself!
The gravity of this decision didn't quite reach her, and Gerri's elation brought on such a fit of laughter that she had trouble breathing.
"Thank You, God," she whispered, hugging the pillow. "Thank You, thank You, thank You!"
After another minute of ecstatic chuckling, Gerri managed to calm herself down, and realized just how tired she was now that the brunt of her worry was gone.
Ironically, it was the pitter-patter of rain that lured her to sleep.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Two and a half hours later, Gerri's eyelids fluttered open.
It took a moment to gain her wherabouts, and after she yawned and stretched and rubbed her eyes, Gerri edged off the seat and onto the cold floor, trying to catch a glimpse of the others.
The grown-ups were still talking, as was to be expected, but Enid and Patch sat sluggishly on the sidelines, looking about as contented as two dogs at the vet.
Before she even knew what she was doing, Gerri found herself scooting forward. "Hey! Psst!" She summoned them with her finger. "Over here!"
Patch's head shot up, and a broad grin stretched across his face. Nudging Enid, he army-crawled across the floor, rolling the last few feet and coming to a stop mere inches from Gerri.
"Howdy," he said, holding up a fist.
Gerri awkwardly bumped it, and then made room for Enid, whose long legs clearly were not made for tight corners.
"Hi," the teenager smiled, cramming herself in with some difficulty. "Has it stopped raining yet?"
Enid sighed. "Pity." She hugged her knees and gave Gerri a friendly look. "So . . . Gerri. Where'd you move from?"
"Tallymont, Virginia," Gerri replied. "It was real pretty, but nothing compared to this place. I mean, Preen has mountains and shops and-"
"The Boulder Graveyard?" Patch interrupted, his eyes twinkling.
"What?" Gerri frowned. "Graveyard?"
"It's this area of town that's totally covered with boulders," Enid explained. "A long time ago, there was this big avalanche, and it left a lot of giant rocks. So we play on them, sometimes. They're fun."
"Yeah," Patch agreed quickly, not to be outdone. "I'll show ya' this nifty cave I found. It's where I keep my loot."
Gerri grinned. These two weren't so bad, after all. "Maybe when the rain's over?" she suggested, glancing out the window.
Enid nodded excitedly, and Patch stuck his hands deep in his jeans pockets.
"Alright, swell. But what if the rain don't stop a'fore dark? My person holds to a mighty strict bedtime, so's my face don't get droopy-" he paused to demonstrate this, "-and I got no say in the whole affair." He went silent for a moment, then grinned. "Perhaps I should just sing the rain away?"
"And blow our eardrums?!" Enid exclaimed. "I'll pass."
Patch snorted. "Gerri ain't had the honors of hearin' me sing! I was just bein' considerate of our new pal, that's all. I'm sure Gerri's quite lookin' forward to it now, ain't she, Gerri?" He leaned into her face quizzically.
Gerri jerked back with a startled laughed, but before she could reply, Enid gasped and pointed out the window.
"The rain's stopped!"
Her shout silenced even the parents, who all hurried over to see for themselves.
And indeed, it HAD stopped.
The sky was still a murky gray, blending in with the rest of its surroundings but for the grass and trees, whose dewey leaves sparkled like emeralds in the sparse rays of sunlight. Overhead arched a rainbow, which would have been far less vibrant if not for the bland background which accompanied it.
"Finally!" breathed Agnes, ruffling Gerri's hair. "I thought it would never end! You ready to go now, Sugar? You can rest at home."
Gerri hesitated. "Well . . . actually, Enid, Patch, and I were wondering if we could go visit the-"
"Boulder Graveyard!" Patch finished proudly. "It's real neat, and not that far. I could lead you folks down there, if ya' want. Sound good?"
Agnes blinked. "Oh, uh, well . . . okay, I guess. Yeah, that's fine with me. What do you say, Ralph?"
He shrugged. "Why not? They're bound to go eventually, so . . . "
"SCORE!" Patch whooped, bursting into a ridiculous little jig. "Come on, you people! Who's up for a race?"
Without waiting for a response, Patch bounded out the front door, Gerri and Enid right on his heels.
They sloshed through the ankle-deep mud puddles, everyone but Patch trying to stay clean. He found it greatly amusing to pick up handfuls of the muck and rub it into his hair, letting the stuff drip down his face and onto his clothes as he cackled maniacally.
Finally, just when people were beginning to experience temptations of a warm shower and dry clothes, Patch threw his arms wide and shouted, "Behold! I present to you . . . the Boulder Graveyard!"
Gerri's jaw dropped.
Agnes shook her head in awe. "I think a mountain exploded."
And it certainly looked that way.
Colossal stones of every shape, size, and color littered the uneven terrain, some strewn far away from one another and some piled up in great, towering mounds.
Patch didn't waste a second.
"Charge!" the young boy howled, snatching up a soggy stick and zooming into the graveyard.
Enid followed more cautiously, and Gerri, after recieving the "Okay" from her mother, took off after them, the mud squelching under her boots.
She'd only been in the graveyard a couple minutes before she accepted the fact that she was lost.
The whole thing was very much like a maze, and although there were very few dead ends, the open paths went on forever and ever and got her nowhere.
Thus, Gerri decided to climb a rock.
Which was easier said than done, especially if that particular rock was half a foot taller than you and covered in wet, slippery moss.
But Gerri got the job done. She used some smaller stones as a make-shift staircase, and tore off as much of the moss as she could, leaving a perfect little perch for her to sit on and scan for her friends.
Ironically, Patch saw her first.
"Ahoy, Gerri!" he yelled, waving his stick in the air. "How fares the sky?"
She chuckled. "Gray."
"Argh," Patch growled, scooping up some mud and plastering it over his right eye. "Har har, I be a pirate. Come down, little parrot, and I'll give ye some raisins. But beware! There be June-buggies in our midst!"
And with that, he clomped around a corner.
Gerri stared after him, not entirely comprehending his words.
But then she heard it.
A June-bug buzz.
Gerri's heart stopped, her brain shutting down as she turned dumbly in the direction of the sound.
There it was.
In her frantic scramble to get away from the creature, Gerri's hand slipped.
She tumbled off the boulder, just grazing her wrist on a sharp stone and landing hard in the mud.
Patch came running.
"Gerri!" he gasped, wide-eyed. "Gerri, are you alright?"
"I- I . . . yes," she wheezed, trying to catch her breath after the fall. "It's . . . I mean, I'm good, Patch. But t-that June-bug . . . " Gerri shuddered, chafing her wrist.
"I'll get yer Mom." Patch jumped up quickly. He seemed to hesitate a moment, then turned back to her sheepishly. "Can you walk?"
She nodded slowly. "I think s- so."
And with Patch's help, she did.
All the way out of the Boulder Graveyard.
When Gerri came hobbling out with Patch as her crutch, her parents were by their side in an instant.
"Oh, good heavens, what happened to you?!" Agnes clutched Gerri into a hug, looking her up and down for injuries. "Did you fall?"
"Off a boulder," Patch offered, trying to be helpful.
Agnes gaped at him.
At that moment, Enid came rushing out of the maze, concern etched onto her face.
"What happened?" the girl demanded, staring at her shivering young friend. "Is Gerri alright?"
"I'm fine," Gerri assured everyone, her heart still fluttering. "I just . . . I saw a June-bug."
Ralph groaned. "Ahh, of course! How stupid of me! It's spring time, I should have known."
"And I should've brought the shield," Agnes said regretfully.
This caught Patch's attention. "Shield?" he repeated. "What do ya' mean?"
"Oh, it's this cardboard shield I made for Gerri," Agnes explained. "June-bug resistant."
"I don't like June-bugs," Gerri admitted, as if they hadn't caught on. "But I'm okay now, really."
"We've got to get something for your wrist." Agnes gently wiped away the blood with her sweater sleeve-- her gray sweater sleeve-- and then slipped it off and draped it over Gerri's shoulders. "Maybe Deak's has some band-aids?"
"They sure does," Patch nodded. "Want me to fetch ya' some?"
"Thanks, but I think we'll all come. At least it'll be dry in there." Ralph wrapped his jacket around Agnes, and the five of them sloshed their way over to the store.
When they finally arrived, Patch got the door for everyone, grinning quite nobly.
Flora glanced up at the ringing of the bell.
"Wall, if it ain't you three agin!" she chuckled, laying down her pen. "And Patch 'n' Enid, too! What brings y'all here this time?"
"We're looking for some bandages," Enid spoke up. "For Gerri. She got hurt at the Boulder Graveyard."
"My!" Flora's eyes grew wide, and she hurried around to see. "Oh, you poor thing! Here, I've got just the stuff ya' need. Foller me."
She led them briskly down an aisle full of bandages, ointments, disinfectants, and pills, and snatched up a tiny box of band-aids.
"There, that ought'a do it," Flora said, popping the lid open and pulling one out for Gerri. "Here y'are, Puddin'. There's a sink in the back room, if you wanna use it."
"Sure," Gerri chuckled. "Thank you so much, Ms. Deak."
"Pleasure's all mine!" the woman replied. "Now come on, an' I'll show you to the back room. Only about one person'll fit, though, so you folks can just wander about as you see fit. I'll take good care of the little'un."
She took off toward the back of the room, Gerri trotting along beside her.
They came to what looked like a miniature closet, filled with boxes and books and a small, dingy sink.
While Gerri washed her cut, Flora talked.
"Ya' know," the woman began, "I used to have me a feller that kept this place neat and orderly. He'd stock the shelves that I couldn't reach, wash the winders, fix broken stuff, and fill in for me when I was sick. Handy feller, he was. And he always kept this back room tidy, too. Shame he had to move away, ain't it?" She sighed. "Now I don't hardly fit in here!"
Gerri said nothing.
She was thinking.
"You say he's gone?" she queried, slapped the band-aid on her wrist. "Moved away?"
"Just like that." Flora tried to snap her fingers, but couldn't. "Sad times, Puddin'. I been lookin' for somebody to fill in e'er since, but you just don't get many work-seekers out here, ya' know?"
A sly grin crossed Gerri's face.
As she anxiously paced her room, Gerri tried to think of the best way to break the news to them.
Should she just blurt it all out?
No, she couldn't do that.
This was one of those affecting things, so twisted and tangled up with everything else that it would be pointless to move on until it was acknowledged.
She caught a whiff of something warm and salty-- Mother's world-renowned fried potatoes-- and her stomach growled.
Supper was almost done.
And she had no idea what to do with herself.
"Please, God," Gerri prayed, "I don't know what to say. If You could just... find the words for me, that would be really helpful. Amen."
She had scarcely opened her eyes when Mother's voice rang out through the house.
"Gerri! Supper's ready!"
Biting her lip, Gerri trotted briskly down to the kitchen, heart fluttering with anticipation.
Her parents were seated around the pitiful substitute for a table, and as soon as Gerri joined them, Agnes began plopping mounds of steaming fried potatoes on their plates.
"Eat up," she encouraged, reaching for her fork. "Wouldn't want it to get cold."
Ralph complied, but Gerri hesitated.
Should she tell them?
No, not yet.
Or should she?
Something whispered yes.
Besides, she couldn't contain herself for another second.
Clearing her throat, Gerri sat up a little straighter in her chair.
"Daddy," she began slowly, "you know how you lost your last job? Back in Tallymont?"
He stopped chewing and exchanged glances with Agnes. "Um, yes... Why do you mention it?"
"Well, Daddy..." Gerri bit her lip, eyes sparkling, "I hope you like washing windows, because your new job at Deak's will require a whole lot of it."
You could have heard a pin drop.
"Wait, what?" Ralph's fork clattered against his plate. "You mean... hold on. I'm sorry, I think I misheard you. Did you say 'JOB'?"
"Yes!" Gerri squealed, bouncing in her seat. "At Deak's! Miss Flora said she could use a new janitor-type guy, so I told her you'd want the position! Oh... was that good?" Her joy momentarily deflated. "I mean, you do want the job, right?"
"Well, of course!" Ralph grinned. "But I just don't believe it. You really got me a job? With pay and everything?"
He shook his head in wonder. "That's wonderful. A miracle! But how come?"
Gerri shifted in her seat. "Well... the morning after we got here. You guys were talking in the kitchen, and I um... I overheard you saying something about how you couldn't afford 'you know what.' I thought you meant me, and I got worried. So I decided to find you a job."
Both parents burst into laughter.
"Oh, Sweetie!" Agnes said, and somehow that was enough.
As they all piled into a bear-hug, Gerri heard a soft CLUNK at the window.
Now that was funny.
Gerri actually felt a smile tug at her lips.
If they hadn't startled her off of the boulder, she might never have cut her wrist and gone to Deak's for help.
Her father might still be out of work.
Oh, the irony of it all.
And somewhere deep inside her soul, Gerri decided that June-bugs weren't actually half so bad.
Maybe even lucky.
There was no harm in keeping that shield.