13. The Next Day

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When Ash honked, my aunt walked me out of the house. Earthworms rolled about in her decaying vegetable garden. My mind returned briefly to the old football field shining bone gray in the moonlight, and the unease that had been flirting with me all month ran a cracked fingernail down my neck. I knew in that moment. Something was wrong with Honaw. Honaw was broken, like I was broken, and as much as it might look normal from the outside, inside it was an open wound, bleeding and hurting and about to overflow. I knew this as well as I knew my own pain.

But knowing is one thing.

Believing is another.

"What," my aunt said lightly, "would your mother and father think of me sending you off to your friends now?"

At the mention of my parents a wall fell down between us, or around us. I felt it go, and I was scared to have it gone, but I was glad too. It seemed like the wrong moment for a lie or a dodge, so I said, "They wouldn't approve."

"No." Sandy squinted into the morning sunlight. I remember that sunlight clearly, the way we remember all lost things. It was bright and sharp and pure as springwater, and washed in it, my aunt became a different version of herself. Not younger, but different. More content, perhaps. Not so lonely. She lowered her gaze to me. "And I guess they definitely wouldn't approve of this either."

"Approve of what?"

She leaned over and tucked something into the pocket of my leather jacket. I had decided I rather liked the thing (the cross I had taken off, however), and was wearing it open over a white undershirt.

"What's that?" I said.

"In my day we called it grass."

"Weed?"

She shook her head sadly. "Grass sounds so much nicer, don't you think?"

I had no comment on that. I was still stuck on, "Why?"

"Does there have to be a reason?"

"No," I said after a pause. "No, there doesn't."

She leaned over once more and planted a kiss on my cheek, a big wet one. "Don't keep Ash waiting forever now."

I pushed on down the path, Bitchmaster's wheels clicking across the stones.

"I'm curious," my aunt called after me. "Might the three of you at some point actually learn how to play a musical instrument?"

"Santy . . . Santy . . . what would be the fun in that?"

Her laugh warmed the cool morning. "Have a nice first day of your long weekend . . . Joelie."

Our long weekend would turn out to be much longer than expected.

So, we hadn't won the talent show.

But we had taken home a consolation prize, one that would turn out to be far more valuable than KY's $100 ticket to Applebee's.

A one-day suspension.

Nip's voice soaked anxiously through the locked door. "Mom'll murder me."

"Your mom'll never know," I cooed from the welcome mat. "We'll have you back before she steps one foot into Honaw again. Won't we, Ash?"

"We will. Absolutely. Before her shift even ends at the hospital."

A pause. "What if she calls?"

"Then you'll answer, dipshit, and we'll be real quiet until you hang up."

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