The thing about protecting yourself is knowing what your enemies are up to. Claire figured that as long as she could hear the tractor she was safe. When she got high enough she’d be able to see it, too; then she could keep an eye on the old bastard. She put one foot on the ladder and whispered, “bastard,” then tried it aloud, but low and under her breath. “Bastard.”
“Old son-of a bitch,” she added in her every-day voice, and felt a thrill of guilt and daring. Spike stopped snuffling around the foundation and looked up at her, whining way down in his throat. “Lay down. Stay!” She said it like she meant business, for all the good it would do. The minute she was out of his sight he’d be off like a shot, getting into who knows what kind of trouble. She could tie him up, but then he’d start howling, and Ma would wonder what was going on.
The rungs of the ladder were rotten and cracked, and Claire kept her feet far to the sides and was careful to never put both feet on the same rung. Once she got onto the hen house roof, she ran as fast as she dared, both on the chance that Ma might be looking out the window and because the corrugated metal was blistering hot on the bottoms of her feet.
The big pine tree grew against the building, so close that the edge of the roof cut right into its bark. When she stretched up, she could just reach the lowest branch. She tucked her skirt into her underpants, dug her toes into the rough bark, held on tight, and scrambled, until there she was, sweaty and scraped, straddling the branch. From here on it was easy, just climbing up until she got to her spot.
The branches grew in a curve to make a perfect chair; one to sit on and another to brace her feet against in case of a sudden gust of wind. What if a tornado came? Would she go flying off above the barn and swoop over the chicken coop like she sometimes did in her dreams? It wasn’t such a scary thought now. There wasn’t a cloud in sight. Thinking about climbing back down was kind of scary. She didn’t need to worry about that until the time came.
She leaned her shoulder into the trunk and lifted her butt enough to pull her skirt back down around her legs. Then she settled back and looked up into the green needles and blue sky. The tree swayed just enough to make it creak where it scraped against the roof, and the breeze made a whooshing through the needles. If she shut her eyes she could imagine herself perched in the crow’s nest of a ship on the sea, hearing the ocean’s roar and the grate of ropes against wood as she sailed over endless green waves.
In books, running away to sea was an adventure and the best way ever to escape. No one ever found you. Years later you’d come back home grown up and rich. At first people wouldn’t know it was you, but when they figured it out, they were sorry they’d been so mean. But that was only if you were a boy; girls couldn’t run away. It wasn’t fair. When boys got big enough, they just did as they darn pleased, anyway, so they didn’t really have to bother to run away. They only did it for fun. Girls had to stay at home and put up with things no matter what.
Claire wasn’t sure she was brave enough to run away even if she could. Go off by herself? Leave Ma and Joey? If she just stayed in the tree, how long would it take for them to find her? They’d hunt everywhere, for days on end, but never think of looking up. And all the time she’d be watching them.
She undid the rusty safety pin that held the pocket of her dress closed and brought out an apple—hard, green, and no bigger than a chicken egg. She rubbed it on her dress, polishing it, screwing up her courage, and then nibbled off a tiny piece of the skin, and spit it out quick before it had a chance to touch her tongue. A crack in the tree where her backrest met the trunk made a hiding place where she kept her salt, a solid chunk chipped from the block in the barnyard and wrapped in a scrap of oilcloth to keep it dry. She rubbed the salt into the white flesh of the apple and sank her teeth into it. Pa’d skin her alive if he knew she had either the salt or the green apples. Well, he didn’t know. She ate all five of them, salting before each bite, loving the crisp sour taste, until her gums felt fuzzy and her stomach queasy, all the while keeping her ears open for the rumble of the tractor. As long as she could hear it, it meant Pa was a half mile away, raking hay. He wouldn’t waste gas by driving the tractor back to the house until he’d raked the whole field. She’d have to take his dinner out to him. If he needed to come back for something else, he’d walk. She could shinny down out of that tree and be pulling weeds in the garden long before he’d make it home.
If she leaned around the tree and looked behind her, she could see the tractor, a bright orange speck in the green field, inching along, like a ladybug crawling across a leaf. It was all that moved or made any noise. Otherwise everything was hot and lazy and still.
Until the crack of a gunshot broke the spell. People were always shooting at something around here, crows, tin cans… chicken-killing fox terriers. She hung over the branch to look down. Spike wasn’t there. Her stomach felt even queasier. She said a little prayer and crossed herself.
Pa didn’t like guns. He might stop mowing to see what was going on. But no, the tractor had just turned around and was heading for the other side of the field, not orange now, but a black shadow against the narrow blue band on the edge of the world that was the lake.
Lake Superior was almost like the ocean, probably. You couldn’t see across to the other side. Claire’d never heard of anybody running away to spend their life sailing on it, though, but maybe sometimes people did.
Once, right after they moved here, Pa went to Gibb’s Bay. He said he’d be gone for the whole day, so after they’d done the chores, Ma let them go to the lake. They took peanut butter sandwiches and a jar of cottage cheese, and walked through the pasture and along the railroad tracks.
The lake was bigger that she ever thought a lake could be. The water was clear as glass, not greenish like the lakes back home, and it didn’t have any lily pads or weeds around the edges. Claire waded in and squealed when she felt its icy grab on her ankles. She hadn’t been in for even a minute before she had to scramble out and wiggle her feet into the warm sand. Jake and Sam took off their clothes and dived right in just wearing their undershorts. Maybe boys were tougher and braver, or maybe they were just ornerier. Jake and Sam wouldn’t admit they were cold even if they turned into icicles. Joey had tried to follow them, but he was still little enough to be smart, and pretty soon he came out, too, and spent the rest of the afternoon helping Claire build a sand fort.
Jake said he could tell time by the sun, but he was just bragging, because when they got back six o’clock had come and gone and they weren’t at the supper table. Pa was. He threw their food to the chickens, and they ended up planting beans until two o’clock the next morning. Even Joey had to come out and hold the lantern.
Still, that lake was worth seeing, and that cold water would feel good today. She’d go again, next time the old son-of-a-bitch got out of the way.
She was jolted out of her daydream by a screechy twanging sound. She swung around again to see the tractor struggling along by the fence at the edge of the field.
“Claire! It’s almost eleven-thirty!” Ma yelled out the window, and Claire didn’t get the chance to see what happened next. Maybe he’d sink into the ditch and drown.
Hurrying down didn’t give her enough time to be scared.
It was cooler in the house, but not much. Ma had the fan on low and the radio loud. Our Gal Sunday was just starting, so Claire had plenty of time to get Pa’s dinner out to him. She put the bread and butter on the table and went to the cellar for salad dressing and cream for the coffee. When she got back up, Our Gal was having trouble with her wealthy and titled Englishman again, and Ma had laid out the slices of bread and started spreading on the butter. “We’re almost out of cheese. Who do you suppose I should give it to?”
“How about we eat it ourselves? That’ll take care of the problem.”
Claire hadn’t meant it as a joke, exactly, but Ma laughed and said, “Oh well, I’ll give some to Pa and save the rest for Joey. Where is he?” She folded a piece of the buttered bread and put it in her mouth.
“He’s upstairs. I’ll get him.” Joey probably didn’t want to come down. He was up sick in the night, and went out to the garden to pick the last of the peas before the rest of them were done eating breakfast. After that he’d stayed out of sight, so Ma wouldn’t see that he wasn’t feeling well. He wasn’t going to want to take Sam and Jake’s dinner out to them either, because it was the fight that Jake had with Pa that scared him so bad, and that was probably what made him sick, too. And boys were supposed to be so tough.
“Get him to dig up a few potatoes to go with the peas for supper.”
They put potted meat on the rest of the sandwiches. Claire twisted salt and pepper into wax paper for the boiled eggs and cut three pieces of yesterday’s spice cake. She scraped the crusty parts from the corners of the pan and popped them into her mouth. Then she cut a small extra piece for herself, and poured coffee into the thermos jugs.
She yelled up the stairs for Joey, but he didn’t answer, so he must have gone back outside.
He was coming out of the can, looking green around the gills.
“Are you still sick?” “I puked again.”
“You shouldn’t have eaten all those fried potatoes. They’re too rich for you.” He never listened to her, anyway. “It’s almost a quarter past.”
Joey looked so scared, and so white, that Claire gave in. “Oh, all right. I’ll do it.” It meant she’d have to make two trips. One for Sam and Jake and one for Pa. And that meant it’d be past twelve-thirty when Pa got his dinner and he’d be mad. She’d have to think up some kind of story. Lying was bad, but Claire would sooner have God mad at her than Pa. If you went to confession, God would forgive you. Pa wouldn’t.
“Go on inside. Ma’s got some cheese for you.” He looked like he might puke again, and Claire took off. She ran all the way to the potato field with the dinner pails bumping against her legs. She couldn’t even see the boys; they’d sneaked off somewhere. Smoking, probably. She left the lunch bucket and thermos in the pickup and honked the horn so they’d know it was there.
She trotted back to the house for Pa’s lunch, and after that her side hurt too bad to run anymore. She’d just have to be late. Most of the time, she liked going to the fields. She could hurry there and take her time walking back through the woods, or along the river. It was a cheat. She hollered back to Joey, “You have to take my turn pumping water!”
She could fake that she’d sprained her ankle, but then she’d have to remember to limp for a couple of days. Better to just leave the dinner pail and high-tail it back to the house before he had a chance to say anything.
She couldn’t hear the tractor anymore, so he was either waiting, or he’d dropped dead of starvation. Too bad. She looked down at Spike, “Wouldn’t that be too damn bad?”