“Savannah!” Mama’s hollering at me
“Where in the you-know-what is your brother at?”
“How should I know? Am I his keeper?”
“Damn right you are! Now hustle on down to the beach and
tell that boy to come do his chores like I asked him.
I’ve got exactly ten minutes to get my butt to work
‘fore they fire my ass. I haven’t time to be chasing him
all over tarnation!”
“Like I do?” I mutter. “Why’s it always me has to be on
Mama’s been fired from near about every job in town.
Aside from being consistently tardy, which she just
can’t seem to help, she has to miss work a lot. They
don’t take too kindly to that. It ain’t as if it’s her
“Did you hear me, girl? Now quit running your mouth and
go on after your brother!”
“Yes, ma’am.” I guess I’m headed to the beach. Least I
can take my bike. By the time they’re going into the
tenth grade, most girls think riding a bike is dumb or
babyish, but not me. I love riding fast and free, wind
blowing in my ears. I could ride all day if Mama would
let me. It don’t take but five minutes to get down to
the beach the back way.
Anyhow, like I was saying, my daddy cut out on us when I
was three, right after Dog was born. Dog’s my little
brother. Mama named him Dogwood after the tree that was
blooming outside her window when he was born. After my
close call with the tornado, and with my daddy on the
verge of leaving, that’s how scared she was to see what
sign the heavens might send. Personally, I think the
radio would have been a better bet. I mean dogwoods are
pretty and all with their tender white flowers reminding
you that spring is nigh, but nobody calls my brother
anything but Dog. Can you imagine? He thinks he’s got
the coolest name on God’s green earth. I tell you what—I
feel sorry for him come fall when he hits the seventh
grade and comes to find out it’s one big joke. What kind
of sane person wants to go about with a name like Dog?
At least he ain’t a girl.
I’m almost down to the beach. We live in an itty bitty
town on the Carolina coast. Hardly nobody even knows
it’s here—unless they need some gas or a bite to eat,
and get a little lost. Not like one of them tourist
towns where all the beachgoers end up.
Summer is about the only time of life worth discussing
around here. The rest of the year is one big blob of
boredom getting in the way of summer vacation. Our town
is so dead in wintertime you’d have thought the whole
lot of us had got up and took off for some revival
meeting or something. Dead as a dang doornail.
to the beach, and there’s Dog wrestling in the wet sand
like a young’un half his age—I swear! “Dog! Get on up
outta that mud! Mama says you best get on home and do
“Has she left for work?”
“Yes! Now git!”
“Then how’s she gonn’ know what time I come in?”
He has a point. “Just see to it them chores get done
’fore she gets home.”
He’s already back to wrestling with his sidekick, Davis
Wilson, AKA Dave. It ain’t exactly a fair fight, since
Dog is big for his age and thick like a football player,
while Dave is more of your basic runt. Dog and Dave have
been best friends as long as I can remember. They’re
like twins, but from different mothers. They were born
one day apart and have spent near about every day since
then together. Mama and Gina, Dave’s mom, have traded
off babysitting since the very beginning.
Once we got big enough not to need a grown-up looking
after us, it became my job to watch Dog and Dave in the
summers. But this year, Mama and Gina are letting them
be out on their own, long as they stay out of trouble. I
reckon they’re hoping the boys will keep each other busy
enough that they won’t find their way into too much
mischief. Some of their friends go to day camps, but
others are in the same boat as us—not having enough
money for such things. So they’ve got plenty of kids to
hang around with.
I’m fixing to sit down on the dry sand and enjoy the sun
on my face when I spy this surfer I’ve been keeping my
eye on the last couple weeks. He’s got short-cropped
hair and sea green eyes. He is so cute. He looks right
sad, though, standing by his board near the shoreline,
staring off like there’s something waiting for him out
there in the water. Lord have mercy, he must have sensed
me watching him. He’s looking right at me, his eyes
connected to mine like he knows me, even though we’ve
never spoken a word. I’m getting all flushed, like I’m
the one who’s been in the sun all afternoon without
protection instead of my stupid brother.
Goodness, I’m smiling at him. How can you not when
someone looks at you like that, his eyes all shiny like
he’s glad to see me? Whoa man, I’m getting worked up. My
face must be red as a hornet’s hairy behind. I’ve got to
turn away. Not that I want to—I don’t—but I mean, I have
to. John Brown it, where is my bike? Okay, I caught my
breath, I’m going to look back at him. Hell in a hand
basket, he’s gone.
I think I’ll head down the beach a ways, see if I can’t
see where he got off to. “Dog, I’m warning you!” I yell.
That ought to suffice. Anyhow, as I was saying, Mama and
Gina have been friends ever since they were both working
at the Piggly Wiggly. They kept on trading babysitting
even after Mama got fired and started working at the
Hardee’s. That was quite a few jobs back. Now she’s at
the Family Dollar Store, which is two towns over. They’d
have made her a manager by now if she was more
dependable. But like I said, it ain’t like it’s her
I got serious asthma, and sometimes it gets real bad and
I need to go to the hospital, which is out by the Family
Dollar, and when it’s real, real bad Mama’s got to carry
me clear out to Wilmington for the right doctors. She
may leave us alone at home near about every day, but she
don’t never leave me at the hospital by myself. Mama
don’t trust them folks any further than she can throw
them. When we go in, her little notebook comes out, and
down go all the doctors’ orders and nurses’ names, all
to make sure nobody gives me the wrong medicines or
Maybe her bosses would be more understanding if she’d
just tell them why she’s not coming to work. But she
says she don’t want nobody pitying me, that she’s had
enough pity to last her a lifetime and just can’t take
no more. Course she won’t ever explain what pity it is
she’s speaking of, no matter how many times I ask her.
Since my asthma started the day my daddy left us, Mama
always used to say as soon as he comes back I’d be free
of it. She don’t say that no more, though. For a long
time, I dreamed about trying to find him. What father
could refuse a daughter who can’t breathe without him?
But in time, I came to find out that this here’s a
mighty big world. And even if I did track him down, he
ain’t coming back. He don’t care nothing about me, and
he never will. He’s been gone twelve years with nary so
much as one single solitary phone call. No matter. I’ll
find my own cure. I don’t need him for nothing.
The swells are mighty high today. My heart’s beating
real fast ’cause I see my surfer up ahead. He’s new
around here and seems to be older than me and my
friends. He looks real smart, like he’s always thinking
about something important. I heard some kids at the
snack shack say he’s kin to the Channings, which
explains why he’s always hanging around with them. They
live over by the old railroad station. There ain’t no
trains anymore, though. Now that area has been developed
to look real clean and pretty, so the rich folk have
taken it over.
Shoot, he’s met up with his cousins. They’re a couple
years ahead of me in school, super snobby, and mean as
one-armed paperhangers with the hives. I guess I best
get on to work anyways.
My summer job is at the public library. It ain’t but
fifteen hours a week, and they only pay sub minimum
wage, seeing as I’m a student and all. But at least I
get to choose my own hours. My main task is reshelving
books. Plus sometimes I have to read stories to the
little kids, but that’s only for twenty minutes or so.
Then they leave—not like with babysitting, where you’ve
got to entertain them for hours on end. I don’t mind
story time when the young’uns are real cute and clap
their hands like I did an amazing magic trick just by
reading to them. But some days those children give me a
headache, when they act like they’re sitting on ant
hills, screaming and jumping about.
It may sound dorky, but I love books—the feel of the
paper, the old, musty smell, and especially the way the
words roll over you and take you somewhere altogether
different. They’ve been my escape long as I can
remember. Whether I need a break from schoolwork or my
brother or just life in general, there’s always a book
that can take me someplace far away.
“Hey, Miss Patsy,” I say to the librarian, after locking
my bike out back.
“Hello there, Savannah. We’ve got quite a few carts
waiting on you, and story time starts in forty-five
minutes.” Her poofy gray hair is standing up rather
taller than usual today. She heads into the back room,
her weight causing her to go slowly, the silver bangles
she wears on her wrists jangling.
“Yes, ma’am,” I reply. Miss Patsy has been recommending
books to me since I first started reading. Sometimes
when a new book comes in, she’ll set it aside for me to
borrow before it even gets shelved.
It’s dead quiet in here today, so I get busy putting up
the books. After finishing the children’s returns, I
start shelving in the young adult section. I come across
a copy of Stallion of My Heart and flip it open to
somewhere in the middle. Before long, I’m hunched down
in a corner rereading it. I only meant to look at a page
“Savannah Brown,” Miss Patsy scolds, “you are not
getting paid to read.”
I can usually hear her coming from the clanking of her
bracelets as she meanders down the rows. Somehow I
managed to miss it today.
“Sorry.” I blush, hating getting caught at anything.
“The children are waiting. Then you have two more carts
I hadn’t even noticed the hustle and bustle of kids and
parents coming in for story time. I scoot into the
children’s area and sit in the chair up front. There are
about fifteen preschoolers bouncing off the walls. It
seems more like fifty, they’re making such a racket. I
start reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Kids usually
love that one. Personally, I think they just like to
imagine themselves being able to eat all that junk the
caterpillar gets. No sooner do I read the title than
five little hands go up in the air.
“Do all of y’all have questions?” I ask.
“I got that book at home,” one boy says.
“Me, too,” says another.
“Me-maw read it to me,” says a little girl.
“Okay, lots of you have heard this one. Let’s be quiet
now, so everybody else can hear it too.” That seems to
shut them up, at least temporarily.
But then, after only two pages, another boy raises his
hand and without waiting to be called on says, “I caught
me a callapitter. It was fuzzy and it felt funny when I
While he’s yakking, a couple of boys start fighting.
Their moms don’t even pay attention. So I just continue
on with the story. Next thing I know, one of those boys
throws his tennis shoe at the other, only it misses and
hits me right upside the head!
“Ow!” I yelp.
Then all hell breaks loose. Everybody is taking off
their shoes and throwing them at each other and laughing
like it’s some kind of party.
Miss Patsy rushes in to save the day. “Children,” she
commands, and they all sit right down cross-legged on
the rug. She takes the book from my hand and starts
reading in this dramatic, dreamy voice, and the darn
kids are transfixed.
I slink out to go finish shelving books, my head still
stinging from that boy’s shoe.
When I’m fixing to leave for the day, Miss Patsy comes
over and says, “It’ll get easier with the children. You
just need to know how to hold their attention.”
I nod, feeling embarrassed that things got so out of
hand. The kids have been chatty and restless before, but
it’s never been this bad.
She hands me a copy of Stallion of My Heart. With a sly
smile, she says, “I checked it out for you. If you’re
going to read it, may as well do it on your own time,
though I’d prefer to see you reading something a little
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you,” I say, taking it from her. Then
I head out back to get my bike. Not my best day at work.
I spy Surferboy playing basketball on the court behind
the library with his cousin, Junior. The other cousin,
Billy Jo, is sitting up in their red pickup, wearing the
Carolina Mudcats baseball cap that never seems to leave
his head. He’s blasting hip-hop so loud on the stereo
the bass makes me woozy. While Junior is distracted with
swiping his long, brown hair away from his eyes,
Surferboy knocks the ball out of his hands and it flies
my way. Next thing I know, he’s running right straight
towards me. I try to look busy unlocking my bike, make
it seem like I wasn’t just sitting there watching him.
“Hey,” he says, picking up the ball.
“Hi,” I reply, but then I hop on my bike and act like
I’m busy closing up the lock.
He keeps looking at me.
Suddenly, I just can’t handle the pressure. So I take
off, riding for home.
“Hey!” he calls.
But now I feel like such a goon, rushing away like that,
I just wave and keep on
pedaling. This day is falling seriously flat. I’d best
head home anyhow, see to it Dog’s got his chores done.
I’ve lived in the same house my whole life—a little
yellow square with one bathroom and two bedrooms, which,
as you might have guessed, is totally insufficient. Can
you imagine a fifteen-year-old girl having to share her
bedroom with her twelve-year-old brother? It’s downright
embarrassing. I’ve been trying to convince Mama to let
Dog move into the living room or down to the storm
cellar. But as of yet, I’m having no luck. She’s sure if
he was in the living room he’d never cut off the
television; and the cellar, well, if I were to be
truthful, it ain’t exactly what you’d call habitable.
But with a little work . . .
I come in to find my brother kicked back on the couch
looking at TV.
“Have you done your chores?” I ask him.
He grunts in response.
“Dog, I asked you a question.”
“She ain’t back yet,” he replies.
“I refuse to take any heat for you on this.” I turn the
television off and stand right in front of it.
“What in the hell is up your butt?” he yells.
“I don’t feel like being in trouble—again—for not making
sure you get your chores done. I just got home from
breaking my back shelving books all afternoon, while you
were off playing.”
“Calm yourself, woman,” he teases, “I’m on it,” then
saunters out of the room.
All I can say is, three more years then I am out of
here. I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I do know
this, college is my ticket to somewhere else. I’ve
worked my butt off my whole life to see to it that I get
to go. I’ll be the first one in my family to do so. How
we’ll afford it is a question I ain’t ready to tackle
just yet. But I’ll tell you, I sure as hell am not
sticking around this crappy-ass town. Mama says the
ocean will call me back, keep me from straying too far.
I think she’s crazy as a cuckoo bird.
She grew up on the northern coast of North Carolina, on
the edge of an area called—I kid you not—the Great
Dismal Swamp. Can you imagine? When she finished high
school, she cut out like a light—went over to Cary, this
little town over by Raleigh. She got herself a job
waitressing. That’s where she met my daddy. But Mama
missed the ocean something fierce and Daddy wanted to be
a fisherman. So they moved down south to the beach. Mama
likes it better here than where she grew up. I ain’t
clear on why. But I’ve never been up there to the Great
Dismal Swamp, never even met my own grandma. She and
Mama had some kind of falling out—I expect having
something to do with my daddy. That was before I was
I’ve never been anywhere, really. We had a vacation
once, when I was a baby—went up to the Blue Ridge
Mountains to see the fall foliage. Mama says it was
right beautiful. I don’t remember a thing. That was back
when she and Daddy were still happy and all. I’ve seen
mountains on the TV and in the movies, of course. But I
can’t imagine what it’d be like in person, having that
big old mound of earth rising up in front of you. I
guess some folks can’t imagine what the ocean is like,
and I’ve got that right here in my own backyard.
Toward the end of this school year, my English teacher,
Mrs. Avery, put my name in for something called the
Program for Promising High School Students, which is
like a semester-long college experience for tenth
graders. It’s up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’m real
excited to have been nominated. Each school can only
recommend one student. Then only fifty kids get to go,
and that’s from both of the Carolinas. They live up
there in the dorms just like real undergraduates. I
ain’t getting my hopes up too high. Nobody from our
school has ever been selected to go. I keep wishing this
time it might be me. But even if I was lucky enough for
that to happen, we couldn’t never afford it. I filled in
my part of the application anyhow and sent it along with
Mrs. Avery’s forms. I didn’t bother telling Mama about
it. I just stuck the parent signature page at the bottom
of a stack of papers from school she needed to sign on a
night when she was particularly tired. She didn’t even
look at it. No matter, it ain’t exactly likely that
they’ll choose me. I reckon I’ll have to wait until
after high school to get out of this town. Then my first
stop will be them mountains. I’ll go check out that fall
foliage, maybe on my way to college, wherever that may
Life here is just too boring. Or, at least . . . it was.