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*****

August 1997

Lungs burning and legs pumping furiously Jordyn Jameson pushed her bike faster around the wide curve of sidewalk bordering the park. She could hear the boys behind her gaining, their shouts and threats drawing attention from parents watching their children on the climbing structures and swings.

Glancing behind her, she could see Garret and his posse closing in. They’d caught her kissing Megan Perkins behind the vending machine at the library. It had been Megan’s idea, the pretty blonde tugging JJ along the path to the machines. JJ had been reluctant, despite the curiosity she’d buried inside.

“I’m going to kick your skinny dyke ass Jameson!” Garret yelled, standing to pedal faster.

JJ felt her stomach give a sickening drop when two boys shot around the curve ahead of her, bearing down fast. She jerked her bike to the right, cutting through the grass towards the street. Looking ahead she could see a break in traffic that might save her ass and give her some time.

She could still see Megan’s shy smile when she leaned against the wall, looking at JJ through long eyelashes. “Aren’t you going to kiss me?” Megan had asked, tipping her head to the right so her hair fell over her shoulder.

“But you’re Garret’s girl. He’s gonna beat me up if he finds out.” JJ had almost taken a step back, but the soft hand on her wrist had stopped her.

“Please? He won’t find out. I – I want you to kiss me.” Megan had blushed, a cute pink stealing over her cheeks.

Breath coming faster, palms sweaty, chest filled with hope and wonder, JJ had leaned in and pressed a gentle kiss to Megan’s small pink mouth. For a few seconds, the world had been right. JJ had felt right, like she was complete and whole. Then hell had opened up and tried to swallow her when Garret and his gang had come out of the side door and spotted them. Megan had looked up and gasped, drawing JJ’s attention as a beefy fist connected with her shoulder.

JJ shook her head and timed her cut across the street, the old bike frame groaning as she hopped the curb and pedaled into the street. She raced across and down the open neighborhood street, making the first left to escape the boy’s sight.

Slowing she sucked in air and looked back, relieved to see no one behind her. JJ kept going, not giving up her guard. She zig-zagged through the neighborhood streets, relieved when she’d remained alone for ten minutes. The boys never kept up that long. Turning down yet another street she veered to the sidewalk to avoid a car.

“There she is! Get the lesbo!” The shout, from the boys ahead of her and too close for comfort, had JJ’s heart jumping into her throat. She wheeled around and forced her tired legs to go faster. She tried to lose them around another set of corners, but the boys only got closer. It wasn’t long enough before her legs were cramping and Percy had come up alongside her. He had a nasty grin on his face and shoved her shoulder hard.

She went down fast, her bike tire catching on the curb when she tipped. Rolling and gaining her feet, JJ was at least off the ground when the boys began their attack. Garret got the first punch in, right to her nose. It was hard to keep track of which boy hit where but JJ made sure she got her own punches and jabs in where she could. Garret kept up a steady stream of curses and insults as someone hooked a foot behind her knee and sent her to the ground. The concrete was hot and rough under her hands, a sharp stinging on her elbow signaling ripped skin. One boy kicked her ribs with enough force to force the air from her lungs. Garret used his foot to push her onto her side and spit in her face.

“No slut dyke is gonna ruin my girl. You keep those nasty hands to yourself. If I catch you with another girl ever again I’m going to break your face.” He sneered and straightened.

Before anyone else could land a kick a voice rang out, “Break it up boys, that’s enough. I’ve got the cops on the phone and they’re on their way.”

JJ was jostled and stepped on as the boys made a fast get away. She forced herself to her feet and squinted in the bright sunlight for her bike. Before she could limp over a gentle hand on her shoulder stopped her, turning her around. “You look like you could use a nice cool glass of water. Come sit in the shade and relax, catch your breath.”

JJ looked up into the woman’s face, kind grey eyes in a gentle mother’s face, surrounded by thick dark curls. “I’m fine. I should be getting home.”

The woman gave her a knowing look and led her to a wide porch where a small girl sat, blonde curls everywhere. “I’m Debra, you can call me Debbie. This is Ashely, my daughter. She got my attention when the boys were being rather ungentlemanly.” “I’m JJ.”

“Hi JJ, I’m Ashley. I was coloring flowers and carrots for my bunnies to eat and play with.” The girl beamed at JJ when she sat gingerly on the step. Her hands were covered in chalk dust and her jeans had chalky poker oyna handprints in various places.

“Those boys are meanies. It’s not nice to beat people up.” Ashley leaned in and whispered, “They can be buttheads, even when they’re grown up. Mommy said so.”

Despite herself JJ smiled, “Your mom is right.”

Ashley grinned and sat back, pleased with herself. She turned back to JJ but she spotted JJ’s elbow before she could speak. “You need a Band-Aid. You’re bleeding.” Ashley stood up and walked to the screen door Debbie had vanished behind. “Mommy, JJ needs a Band-Aid for her elbow. She’s bleeding.” Ashley called, “You want a Wonder Woman Band-Aid? I have a whole box.” She asked JJ, turning to face her.

“No, I’m fine, I don’t need anything.” JJ declined the offer, standing stiffly.

Ashley ran around in front of JJ and planted her feet, hands on her hips. “You are bleeding. When you bleed you need a Band-Aid. Now sit down until Mommy gets the first aid kit.”

JJ sat back down, completely taken by surprise. “How old are you Ashley?” JJ asked, curious despite her hesitation around strangers.

“I’m eight years old.” Ashley said, sitting next to JJ. “I turned eight in May and Mommy and Daddy took me up to my grandparent’s house. They have a dog and she had puppies. I wanted to bring one home, but they’re too young to leave their mom. I picked one out and when he’s old enough and doesn’t pee in the house, we’re going to go pick him up. He’s soo cute! He couldn’t see yet, but he licked me when I held him, his little face all smushed up and his eyes closed tight, like this.” Ashley made a face, her eyes squeezed tight, making little puppy noises.

Debbie walked back out, surprised to hear JJ laughing with Ashley. She knew who JJ’s father was, had known her mother. The entire town was familiar with the tragedy of the Jameson family.

Mack and Emily had grown up in this town, high school sweethearts who married shortly after she’d completed college. When JJ had been born, there hadn’t been a happier set of parents. JJ was two and too young to understand her mother’s death, killed in a hit and run by a drunk driver passing through town. Mack had withdrawn from the community, continuing to work and care for the basic needs of himself and his young daughter.

Debbie wasn’t sure if the rumors of drinking and abuse were true, she hoped they weren’t. She remembered Mack as a gentle giant, big and built from years of construction, but gentle as a lamb. It was hard to imagine him as the rumors described. She hoped for his sake, and the sake of the young girl on her porch, that the rumors were false.

***

JJ pushed her bike through the gate and dumped it against the side of the house before trudging through the dead grass to the back patio. The old wood creaked under her feet and the side door opened with a shove.

The smell of stale smoke met her nose right away, dim light slicing though the thin curtains in the windows. If she was lucky, Mack wasn’t home and she could change to hide the gauze taped to her arm.

Tip toeing over the ratty carpet in the kitchen she inched down the hall and into her room. Mack’s bedroom door was half open, a sure sign he was still at work. She breathed a short sigh of relief, then forced herself to find a clean shirt and jeans.

Clothes bundled in her arm, JJ checked again and snuck to the bathroom, shutting and locking the door. She showered quickly, rinsing off the dirt, sweat and blood. She toweled off and slipped her clothing back on, the thin tee’s long sleeves covered the gauze completely. JJ made it back to her room and tossed the old clothing into her small hamper before lying down on her bed.

Debbie had cleaned her up, bandaged the most serious cuts and scrapes. JJ had never had anyone fuss over her like that. Mack certainly didn’t. It would be a miracle if there were bandages in the house. JJ swallowed the tears that tried to choke her. If Debra Turner was anything, she was the kind of mother JJ wished for. Kind, caring, and funny without being mean. She’d offered JJ lunch, really insisting JJ eat with herself and Ashley. They’d even given JJ and her beat up old bike a ride home.

Ashley. Now there was an adorable kid. Maybe a little too chatty, but happy and sweet. She’d offered JJ a tour of the house while Debbie had prepared lunch, showing JJ the living room, the bathroom and her room. The tour had included introductions to all of Ashley’s stuffed animals and a peek at the tree house. JJ had agreed to come over in the next few weeks to play with Ashley, something she wasn’t sure about.

There were four years between them, but JJ felt older. She didn’t have a menagerie of stuffed animals with cute names like Button Bottom and Feisty Whiskers. The walls in her room had nothing on them. Bars were mounted on her window, her clothing stored in a plastic chest of clear drawers. Her bed was a second hand twin mattress with worn springs and torn stitching. Mack had supplied her with the basics, canlı poker oyna but didn’t give a rat’s ass about her comfort or happiness.

JJ rolled to her side and stared at the wall. She wouldn’t mind playing with Ashley, the kid was cute and kinda spunky. It would be nice to play with someone who wouldn’t try to knock her teeth out, even if that someone was a talkative eight year old.

***

Ashley was sitting on the porch steps reading a short chapter book, one of her first, when a bike coming down the street caught her attention. “Mommy! JJ’s back!” Ashley squealed in delight. She jumped up and waved her arms happily, joined by her mother who brushed dirt from her knee pads.

“Well hello there JJ. It’s nice to see you again. What can I do for you?” Debbie welcomed the young girl with a smile and a friendly wave.

“I came by to play with Ashley.” JJ dismounted the bike and gave the little blonde a small smile.

“Then you ladies have fun, let me know if you need anything. I’ll be out here getting these flowers in tip top shape.” Having given her blessing Debbie turned back to the flower bed as Ashley bounced down the steps to grab JJ’s hand and tug her into the house.

“C’mon, you’ve gotta see my tree house. I have all kinds of cool stuff up there. Mom even lets me color up there.” Ashley babbled, leading JJ into the cool house.

JJ let Ashley pull her through the house and into the backyard, a tall tree near a corner, a modest wooden structure in its stout branches. The grass is green and well kept, a bike and other outside toys in a neat pile next to the house.

Turning her attention back to the tree, JJ watched Ashley climb the wooden planks nailed to the tree, forming steps to the tree house. Ashley crawled through the little swinging door, then called out, “C’mon slowpoke, it’s your turn!”

JJ climbed up and through the door, which Ashley closed with a small sliding bolt lock. The wooden floor was smooth beneath JJ’s hands and knees, a soft rug and a couple cushy pillows at one end. Shelves were built into the walls, holding books, a sketchbook and box of colored pencils and a few toys. The telescope made her smile as she settled against the smooth back wall.

Ashley turned and bounced in place, beaming. “What do you think?” she asked, spreading her arms wide.

JJ grinned, “It’s an awesome tree house. I wish I had one. I’d live in it, sleep in it at night too.” JJ looked up, adding “The only thing missing is a roof.”

“Dad stretches this tarp thing over the top when it’s going to rain. It keeps everything dry, so I can leave my toys and stuff up here.” Ashley explained, repositioning a doll so it sat up straighter.

“What do you usually do up here?” JJ asked, wrapping her arms around her legs, knees pulled up to her chin.

“Lots of things. I can read, or color, even bring up a snack if Mom says it’s okay. When my friends come over we come up here on sunny days and play.” Ashley giggled and leaned in close, “Sometimes we spy on the neighbors. The lady who lives behind us likes to swim without a swimsuit on.” She whispered, her bright blue eyes sparkling in the sunlight.

“No way.” JJ didn’t think an adult would do something like that, not during the day when anyone could look over a fence and see.

Ashley nodded, her eyes wide with suppressed laughter. “She does too. Comes outside without any clothes and jumps in to swim around. My friend Rebecca, everyone calls her Becca, saw it when she looked through the telescope.” Ashley pointed at the brass object laying on its shelf.

JJ looked at it, tempted to pick it up and check for herself. She was curious about what a grown up’s body would look like. She’d just had the puberty talk last year in school, learning about male and female anatomy, periods, erections, and hair in weird places. The teacher had put on videos with awkward acting that talked about dating, kissing, and even petting. They had made JJ want to squirm in her seat, her body uncomfortably warm and tingly as she watched boys and girls kissing chastely on screen. Mentally shaking her head JJ focused on Ashley’s constant stream of talking.

“And Becca said she had,” Ashley blushed and leaned in to JJ, “She said the lady had hair on her privates. Do you think that’s normal?” Ashley asked, looking worried.

JJ swallowed, but decided to answer as best she could. “I’ve heard it is. That everyone gets hair there as they grow up. Girls get breasts too, and boys can…grow beards.” JJ finished awkwardly. She didn’t want to have to explain an erection, since she didn’t really understand what an erection was. The explanation had been vague at best in class.

Ashley blinked at her, then shrugged. “I guess that makes sense. So how old are you?” she asked, leaning back against the pillows.

“I’m twelve.” JJ answered, taking the pillow Ashely offered.

The girls talked for a long time. Despite their age difference they had several similarities. Both went to the local public internet casino grade school and had lived in the almost small town of Sienna Falls their entire life. Ashley wanted to try out for the school sports teams when she was old enough, something JJ encouraged. JJ herself had been on the basketball team the year before.

They agreed that pizza should be a staple part of their diets and that school was a necessary evil. Scary movies were fun to watch at night, but only if there was someone else watching too.

By the time JJ had to go home Ashley had begged her to come over again and play some more. JJ got inexplicably shy, but agreed to come by again. Ashley had beamed and given JJ a bone crushing hug then stepped back for JJ to get on her bike. Ashley stood at the end of the driveway and waved until she couldn’t see JJ anymore.

***

Ashley raced to the door when the doorbell rang. It was the last week of summer and JJ had finally agreed to come to the sleep over Ashley and her friends from school had planned. The other girls were excited to meet JJ, and a little awestruck to have an older girl hang out with them.

Flinging open the door Ashley squealed along with the girls on her doorstep. Rebecca and Sarah had arrived together as usual, since they were neighbors. Hugs and chatter happened immediately, Debbie and Ashley’s father John coming out of the kitchen to work out pick up times with Sarah’s dad. The girls headed straight for Ashley’s room, where overnight bags were stashed.

“So is she coming?” Rebecca asked, pushing her red bangs out of her eyes.

“Yes! But I think she’s nervous. Or maybe shy? I don’t think she has many friends.” Ashley spun in her desk chair, her braid flying out behind her.

“What’s she like? It’s so cool that you have an older friend. None of the older kids ever notice I’m there until they step on me.” Sarah pushed her glasses up her nose, perching primly on Ashley’s bed.

“She’s like us, just older. She’s really nice, but quiet, so don’t pester her with questions.” Ashley mock glared at Rebecca, who gave her a ‘who me?’ look.

Further questions were set aside when the doorbell rang again. The girls raced down the hall, the doorbell ringing over and over. “That’ll be Chloe, she always rings it more than once.” Ashley laughed as she unlocked the door.

Chloe stood on the step, looking over her shoulder at JJ, who stood behind her, staring back. Brenda elbowed Chloe to get her attention, “Okay, quit with the bell, the door is open.” She scolded, shaking her head when Chloe whipped her head around to see Ashley with Sarah and Becca in tow.

Ashley welcomed everyone inside while her parents talked pickup with Chloe’s. JJ’s bike was in its place, chained to the porch bannister. The girls raced back to Ashley’s room, Ashley falling behind the group to take JJ’s hand. “C’mon, we hang out in here until pizza gets here, then we get to take over the living room. Mommy said we can watch movies until midnight.” Ashley smiled up at JJ, happy to see the older girl smile back.

As promised, the girls didn’t bomb JJ with questions, but they did make sure to keep her a part of the conversation. Rebecca started it, by asking JJ what grade she’d be in when school started. After JJ answered, the group talked about what they thought the new school year might bring. JJ was able to give them some input, as a brand new seventh grader she had been through the third grade and could impart some knowledge.

Pizza was followed by ice cream with enough toppings to make a full-fledged sundae. JJ had never been so stuffed. She’d never had so much fun either. The girls might be younger than her, but they were just as fun as Ashley. They didn’t make fun of her baggy clothes or ask weird questions. They giggled over silly things and were wickedly competitive over board games. JJ’d never been part of a group that was so easy going and accepting. She liked the feeling. She could see herself getting used to it.

The girls played some Mario Kart, setting up a tournament that Brenda won. She and Chloe squabbled over who’d cheated until Rebecca rolled her eyes and suggested a movie. Sarah fell asleep first, which Chloe giggled over, nudging JJ and telling her Sarah was always the first one to fall asleep.

Chloe didn’t last much longer. The second movie was almost over when she fell asleep, followed by Rebecca. By eleven JJ was the only one still awake, the others curled up in the mass of pillows and blankets. JJ pretended to be asleep when Debra came out to check on them, smiling as she quietly tip toed through the sleeping girls to turn off the movie and television.

Lying in the dark, JJ wondered if this is what her life would have been like if she’d had a mother. Warm, happy, with good friends and a full belly every night. Maybe then Mack wouldn’t ignore her, or get so angry when he did notice her. He’d made her tag along to the liquor store two nights ago, sending her to the tall shelves in the back to get him a bottle. The old man at the register had looked surprised to see her come to the counter with the bottle held tightly in her hands. Mack had just grunted and cuffed her shoulder to direct her to the door after he’d paid the man.

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