from Pieces of Annie

by Stacey Crowley

Friday, August 20, 1982

Old Dr. Craig’s sweet smile makes my stomach cringe. His eyes twinkle when he signals me closer, his words gentle as I stand in front of him and let him pull my underwear open. Icy fingers melt any courage I managed to muster.

“All righty, Swizzle. A freshman now? Hard to believe. Just a quick look here.”

I hold my breath and squeeze my eyes shut like I do before plunging into frigid water. Doc peers down at my privates through ancient wire-rimmed glasses, just a quick peek to check for signs of growth, for even one curly hair, for any evidence of the pube almighty—a requirement to pass the sports physical. In the stupid state of New York, no pubic hair means no period, and no period means no sports.

“Mm, hmm,” he says.

“Please, Dr. Craig? You said yourself I’m healthy. It’s just cross-country. I run all the time in gym class.”

“I sure am sorry, Miss Brennan.” He signs my school health record in red ink and hands it to Nurse Taylor to make a copy. “You and I both know it’s the law of the land.”

My third physical is supposed to be the charm, not a strikeout.

Dad’s in the driveway standing in the middle of a thick haze of smoke when I get home, the leaves in his rusty barrel too wet for a clean burn. “Again, Annie? How are you going to be a competitor if you can’t make the team?” He throws another match onto the wet pile and prods at his smoldering heap with an old piece of copper piping. “It’s a goddamn shame,” says the man currently unable to understand the physics of fire, the man whose words blaze hot in my ears.

I’ll be ready for track in the spring, I want to tell Dad as much as I want to believe that I will get my period in time to pass the next sports physical, now seven months away. Dad throws the matches on the driveway and walks into the garage, running an adoring hand along the side of his 1952 pickup truck.

I can train on my own. The words I can’t say aloud go up in smoke as Dad buries his scruffy beard deep inside his beer cooler and fumbles for a bottle.

I’m not trying to be a loser, I say to myself as I light a match, touch it to the edge of the paper in my hand and drop it into the barrel where the evidence of my failed physical shrivels and hisses as it succumbs to the flame. I wish I could be the superstar athlete Dad wants me to be, so he could drink his beer to celebrate the thrill of my victory instead of the agony of my repeated defeat.

I want to be part of the team for myself, too. The truth is, though, I don’t care a wink about competition. For me, making the team isn’t about winning my heat, getting blue ribbons or breaking records. I have to make a team, any team that will help train my legs to take me as far as I need to go.

Sunday, January 16, 1983

The Chariots of Fire theme music swells in my mind as I imagine Harold about to cross the finish line to win the gold—a victory felt personally by every movie-going underdog on the planet—when a clump of snow lands on my gut. A second frozen projectile skids across my face, taking with it the best movie scene of all time. I’m on the picnic bench in our backyard, and Buttons, our gargantuan poodle with no regard for personal space, runs over my head in hot pursuit of the snowballs.

“Teddy!” I choke, scrambling up from the bench in our backyard. My fingers scream at the shock of freezing temperatures, clumsy in their attempt to dig snow from orifices where it shouldn’t be. Buttons zips by again in a black blur, snatching my mittens off the ground. My little brother’s laugh echoes inside the garage where he high-fives his life-size cardboard cutout of Luke Skywalker, the Star Wars hero that Teddy insists is his best friend.

“Get back in the house!” I yell. Teddy’s cackle turns into a cough and the garage door lowers before I get my mittens out of Buttons’ mouth. Any normal person would be humbled after breaking his upper central incisor, but not Teddy. Earlier today, his one-man game of hockey had ended with a face plant on the frozen fender of Dad’s pickup. It’s still unclear how Teddy’s remaining bucktooth was spared. It kinda sucks for him that he has to look like a beaver even though his teeth don’t continually grow like one. Add a root canal to the ever-expanding list of that kid’s medical needs.

“Well, you’re lucky you didn’t do more damage,” said Mom as she stood by the kitchen sink crushing baby aspirin into applesauce, her stale perfume wafting under the ceiling fan.

“Lucky my ass.” Dad shot a one-eyed look from behind the sports section. “You’re gonna pay for every cent of the dental bill if you have to shovel driveways at night. Got it, Teddy? Consider it the price of being stupid.”

Dad got up from the table and threw his empty Michelob in the garbage with the others, the loud clink of glass-on-glass punctuating his point. “I’ll be home after the Cowboys whomp the Green Bay Cheeseheads.” The mudroom door slammed hard behind him. The Cowboys must’ve beat the Packers because Dad hasn’t come home yet, which means he’s still out celebrating.

I finagle my glasses out of my left mitten, disappointed to find them in one piece. The practical side of me can’t bring myself to break them on purpose even though the practical side of Mom would probably let me replace them with the contact lenses I’ve been asking for since I was twelve.

Grabbing my backpack from under the picnic table, I call to Buttons. She follows as I trudge through our woods to the old train tracks. Parallel lines carved in the deep snow are flanked by periodic ski pole marks. Some optimistic sap must’ve tried cross-country skiing up here recently. Probably Farmer Russo’s grandson, Russell. Russell Russo. Who does that to their kid?

The canopy of trees over the tracks shimmers like glass, emboldened by its temporary ice armor. Broken branches lie scattered, too frail to endure the blizzard’s outrage—a clear demise of the unfit. Would anyone besides Grandpa notice if it was me cut down by a force of fury? My family would probably learn of my demise on the six o'clock news. “Fourteen year-old Annie Brennan went missing this morning when an unexpected avalanche buried the town of Westburg, New York,” the newscaster would say.

My glasses are fogged again when I climb down the bank to the creek. I shove them back in my mitten and let the world look fuzzy. The wind has picked up and fresh snow swirls in blurry pirouettes above frozen creek water. Last week’s trail of blood has been erased, nature’s whiteout hiding evidence of the brute force I used to pull out my last baby tooth. That molar had been a thorn in my gum for two years. It had to come out. No one with baby teeth gets their period.

I arrive at our meeting spot as Kristie emerges from the tunnel, thick icicles hanging from its entrance like swords. My best friend ducks under them and walks her fuchsia Moon Boots across the frozen creek to the bank where I am standing. The boots’ gigantic size makes Kristie look like a Pygmy in Amazon footwear.

“What’s up, Pygmy butt?” I say.

“What? Hi,” says Kristie, an odd look on her face.

“How did it go at the mall?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.

“I couldn’t get away from my mom. Sears and Waldenbooks are on opposite ends of the mall.”

“Oh, well. Nice boots,” I tell her, eyeing the monstrosities on her feet. Her face lights up.

“Yea, thanks! Cool, huh?”

“Pretty sweet,” I fib. “So, do you have the thermos?”

“Yea, I got it.”

“And the Baileys?”

“Yep, I added a jigger of it to the hot chocolate.”

“A jigger? I don’t like the sound of that. It sounds like the N-word,” I say.

“It’s just a shot.”

“A shot of what?”

“Oh my God. Swiz. A shot of Baileys. Duh? Just relax, okay? I’ve done this before, remember?”

“So you’re a bartender now? A wine cooler is pre-mixed. This is different. Maybe you should relax.”

We lock eyes. Kristie chews her bottom lip. I raise my eyebrows. “Fine. Where is it?” I ask. Kristie unzips her coat and produces a Ms. Pac-Man soup thermos.

“There’s a Snickers in here somewhere.” I dig around my backpack and instead of candy find a tissue and use it to clean my glasses. Buttons runs over and grabs the used tissue for a snack. She’s the tallest poodle I’ve ever met.

Just as I get my glasses on, a dark figure sidles through some evergreens by the tracks. Branches snap. Buttons growls. Heat rises in my throat. “Oh. Kurt.” Now I understand Kristie’s twisted up face.

There he stands sniffling in his over-exaggerated winter wrappings. Kristie’s little brother is forever sick with head colds. Mrs. Barker keeps adding layers to Kurt’s winter outfits in hopes of fortifying his resistance to illness. It hasn’t worked yet, and he is currently sweating profusely, as usual. Gross.

“Hi, Swizzle. Is Teddy with you?”

“Ummmm, nooooo,” I say, holding up my hands to gesture at the white expanse of nothingness around me. “He’s home with a cold.”

“My mom said he knocked out a tooth,” says Kristie.

“Yea, that too,” I answer.

“A cold?” is Kurt’s stupid response. Kurt can’t understand anyone else’s illness through his own fog of snot and sweat. Before I can answer, he bolts up the bank to the train track with the grace of a beached whale. Kristie is antsy beside me. I look at her with a “Now what?” expression on my face. She breaks eye contact and walks over to some thin ice at the creek’s edge.

“He was bored, so I told him he could come if he left us alone to do our experiment,” she croaks in the wimpiest voice on the planet. She stomps on a crack in the ice. I could stomp on Kristie.

We’re about to melt mini-Snickers in our first spiked hot chocolate. Our first spiked anything, to be clear. This is a big-time moment . . . as if Kurt and his green boogers are going to leave us alone. His mouth is like the hopper of a garbage truck, open and at the ready to receive any edible thing in the vicinity. I have, at times, feared he would eat me.

Kurt barrels headfirst down the hill and stands in my face as soon as he hears the word experiment. I back considerably far away from him.

“What kind of experiment? A food experiment?” blares Snot Face.

Times like these I want the guts to use a decorative swear word to help me make a point. I am a rule-follower by trade, but I recently talked myself into believing a silent swear is not a sin. I stare hard at Kurt’s chapped cheeks, mash my lips together, and blow off a list of silent profanities in my head.

After an awkward silence, Kristie stops pretending she’s interested in the crack in the ice and walks over. The three of us stand in a circle with our backs to the inky night that is tiptoeing toward us. Buttons flops in the middle of us and rolls on her back, hoping someone will rub her belly. I pack some snow into a ball and drop it on her instead.

Then, in horror, I watch Kristie uncap the thermos. She sticks her nose over the opening and savors the smell of steaming cocoa and Baileys as if we are going to proceed with our plan in front of Kurt.

“Kristie, have you lost your mind?” I demand. She knows Kurt can’t keep a secret any better than he can understand basic arithmetic. I grit my teeth and wait for a response that doesn’t come. The wafting scent of chocolate heaven momentarily lures me away from my anger, but the sight of Kurt’s hand reaching for the steamy prize is all I need to regain my resolve.

“Forget it! Kurt was not part of the experiment, so the plan is OFF!” I say in a half yell. Okay, a full yell. Buttons jumps to attention and stands like a retriever, her eyes trained on Kurt. I turn to leave when it happens. Out of nowhere, with no preparatory sounds or body movements, Kurt sneezes all over Kristie and the open thermos.

He sneezes two more times before I see it: a big, fat, green goober running down Kristie’s nose and right cheek, its lower half resting on her upper lip. This is grosser than the time Kurt threw up marshmallows on Teddy at their backyard campout. And so it comes to pass. I can’t help myself. It’s not even a choice. It just happens.

“God dammit Kurt! How about covering your fat fucking face next time?” Time freezes as my F-bomb reverberates off the three of us. Buttons breaks our collective spell when she tears after a deer.

So that’s it. Not only did Kristie the bartender ruin our plan, but she forced me to the place of no return. And shit is going to hit the fan if Dad finds out.

I replay the moment in my mind several times, savoring the residual power from my dropped F-bomb along with the guilt I feel for letting it slip. I’m so shocked at myself that I do something else unexpected: I kick Kurt in his fat stomach. He doesn’t flinch. Kristie drops the thermos when her hands shoot up to wipe off her face. She fails in cleaning up, but excels at spreading the goober across her chin. Evidence of my failed first drink seeps into the snow, gradually expanding like a bloodstain.

I throw Kristie an invisible bird inside my mitten, grab my backpack and take off in a run along the creek, falling twice before I get to the sidewalk on Main Street. My useless glasses again fogged, I walk the rest of the way home using the streetlights to guide me.

Buttons is wild with freedom from her deer chase. I’m jealous of her four legs that make her faster than I’ll ever be. She flaunts her advantage by running a complete loop at full tilt around each of the four houses we pass before we reach our own. It’s odd how often a dog will love something that a person hates, like toilet water. Or garbage. Or this very moment. That dog cracks me up though. Her best trick yet is rainbow pooping after a meal of balloons. Teddy fed her half a bag after his last birthday. Mom said Buttons was lucky to escape a bowel obstruction. Grandpa said Buttons has the gut of a billy goat.

By the time I lope up our barren driveway, Buttons is panting at my side. Above the garage, soft light flickers in Grandma and Grandpa’s apartment windows. The static sounds of an Atari Asteroids game seep into the mudroom, but Teddy’s annoying voice does not. I kick off my boots on Mom’s plastic shoe tray and hang my wet clothes over the mudroom heater. I leave Buttons licking her paws and sprint upstairs to the safety of my room.

Albert Einstein greets me from his hanging place above my dresser, his wild hair aglow from the hallway light. The best thing about Einstein’s picture is that he’s sticking out his tongue. Who doesn’t love a silly genius? That’s what Grandpa says. I have to agree.

“Mr. Einstein,” I say after catching my breath. “You’re not going to believe what I just fucking did.” The good doctor’s expression remains frozen, but I can’t share in his goofiness right now. My mouth has clearly gone off the rails, an insolent child with a mind of its own. A familiar throbbing starts behind my temples, deep and dull like distant thunder.

Dirty clothes, soft under foot, lead me to the edge of my unmade bed. Leaning over to the bookshelf, I run an open palm across a row of National Geographic magazines, a soothing habit that’s wearing their bindings thin. I guess repeated adoration, however gentle, can wear out the strongest of materials, like the worn-down bronze toes of St. Peter’s statue in Rome—his feet slowly disappearing from the tender kisses of his worshippers.

On the cover of the February issue, a small Inuit girl, veiled in heavy layers of animal fur, slogs through Arctic snow. After studying the map above my bookshelf, I label Alaska with a red pushpin, vowing to read more about it later. Green pushpins are saved for places I will one day visit.

Red and green intentions aren’t decorating any old map; it’s Grandpa’s aviation map from when he flew his own airplane. He gave it to me for my eighth birthday and wrote across the bottom, Aviation is proof that given the will, we have the capacity to achieve the impossible. The Wright brothers flew the first airplane before Grandpa was born, but his amazement at the invention is as potent as if humans took flight just yesterday.

Grandpa’s the one quiet man in my house, and he notices tiny things, digesting details like a toddler on a sidewalk who squats to taste every pebble, leaf, and insect. But Grandpa doesn’t walk through life. He crawls as close to it as he can to better read the ring patterns that tell a tree’s history, or feel the nearly imperceptible blend of crisp and balmy breezes before a summer storm, or to chart the minute time change of sunrise and sunset each day, and then to marvel at how the sum total of those subtle shifts ushers in a new season, just like clockwork.

It’s Grandpa who taught me how to see a snowflake’s magic. There is a moment, the briefest crack in time, just after it lands on a windshield, when a snowflake’s sparkling geometry can be seen. And then, in the blink of an eye, it melts. Gone, forever. A snowflake’s vanishing perfection always makes me ache, right in the gut. The math of nature lets me know there is something bigger out there though, and I know Grandpa sees it too.

Downstairs, Buttons starts barking — her way of announcing a guest. Guilt manifests itself in a giant hiccup that brings me to my feet. Is Mrs. Barker here to rat me out, already? The pain behind my temple drums deeper, the cadence marching me to the bathroom to take some aspirin.

Buttons, as if a queen returning to her throne, is busy nesting herself in a carefully arranged heap of bedspread when I return. I pay a traitor’s homage by promptly escorting her majesty to the hallway by the collar. She yips when I catch her back foot in the door. “Go bother someone who cares,” I snap at her without apology.

I grab my penlight from under my mattress and head to my hiding spot under the antique desk I recently relocated from the attic to my closet, again feeling a wave of satisfaction at how perfectly the edges of the desk snug against the walls without a centimeter to spare. Crawling under my desk, I pull the chair close. Maybe I should just lie, like Teddy does. Just last month Dad walked in on Teddy sitting under the Christmas tree, surrounded by Tootsie Roll wrappers, opening his presents before school on a Friday morning. The first thing out of Teddy’s mouth? “Swiz did it first.” I did no such thing.

I hold the penlight under my chin to examine my cuticles. Using the tweezers from under the loose floorboard, I pick at hangnails until they bleed. My nerves soften at the taste of blood. In the dark, the thick drone of heartbeat floats on silence like a lullaby; my own rhythmic swoosh-swoosh, swoosh-swoosh, swoosh-swoosh pulling me down and away from the day. I’m dreaming in shades of red when the sound of a siren wakes me.

I know instantly that Grandpa is having another heart attack.

By the time I get myself out of my closet and open my bedroom door, the ambulance guys are carrying an empty stretcher up our shag-carpeted stairs, their safest option during winter emergencies when the outside stairs to the apartment are frozen. Grandma is standing at their apartment door in her pink hairnet and flowered housecoat. I inadvertently catch a glimpse of her curled, yellow toenails and trap a gag that rises in my throat. Grandma’s tiny body is shaking like the clothes washer when I put too many towels in it. I walk over and take her hand, making sure to keep my eyes off those feet.

“It’s Grandpa’s heart?” I ask. She nods and a tear rolls down her wrinkled cheek.

“Cool!” says Teddy when he comes out of his room and sees the stretcher. “Can I ride on that?” He looks dumber than usual in his Star Wars pajamas with a GI Joe guy clenched in his armpit. The kid is obsessed with finding new uses for his underarms.

“No you can not, young man,” says the paramedic wearing a nametag with “Jimbo” printed on it. In my mind I see Jimbo whack Teddy in the head with the back of his hand and ask, “What are you son, a moron?” I snap to when I hear Grandma’s voice.

“He was lying on the far bed. I didn’t hear him call 911,” she says. Her voice is as brittle as an eggshell. She lets go of my hand and adjusts her hearing aid. I can’t help but notice how old and scared she looks. Her mind is a little more frail every day, just like Grandpa’s heart.

Teddy and I follow the paramedics through the hallway to my grandparents’ tiny studio apartment, but the guy holding the back of the stretcher puts his hand up. “Better stay out here, champ.” He looks right at Teddy. “We need Gramps to stay as calm as possible.” He pushes us backward with his glare and closes the apartment door in our faces.

“Way to go, Teddy.”

“What’s up your butt?” asks the genius.

“You are. Where’s Mom?”

“Where’s Mom?”

“Ted, this is serious, where is she?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” he says. The kid has zero scruples.

“Listen twit, Grandpa could die tonight, so stop being a brat and tell me where Mom is.”

“Will you shut up! She went to some meeting, okay?” And with that, he burps in my face, walks into the bathroom, and starts bawling like a baby. He deserves to cry, but a little part of me feels a little bad for him.

Monday, January 17, 1983

Mom and Grandma get home from Rochester General after midnight. I’m reading Black Beauty with my penlight when I hear the Grand Prix pull into the garage. My feet take two stairs at a time and meet them in the kitchen.

“Did he die?” I ask.

“No, no, no. He’s alive.” Mom sets her purse on the counter.

“Was it a heart attack?”

“God is in his heaven and all is right with the world,” answers Grandma from the kitchen table. She is still in her housecoat, but she’s now wearing her boots too. Thankfully. I’m not sure they’d allow her exposed toenails in the hospital.

“They’re thinking angina attack,” says Mom.

“An angel attack?” Teddy pipes in from behind me.

“Angina, honey. Not angel.” Mom leads Teddy and me to the stairs. Buttons chases Teddy to his room while I stand on the bottom step and search Mom’s face for information. Black circles under her eyes remind me of the raccoon that broke into our cooler on our last camping trip.

“What’s an angina attack?” I ask.

“I’m too tired for medical talk, Swiz.”

“Can I see him?”

“In a few days. It’s late honey. Go up to bed.” She kisses me on the cheek, draws an invisible cross on my forehead with her thumb and waits until I get into my room before turning off the upstairs light.

“Hey, Mom?” I yell back down from my bedroom door. “Mom?”

“Yes, I’m here.”

“Was Dad with you?”

“No. Your father wasn’t at the hospital.”

“Oh. Okay. ’Night.”

“Goodnight honey.”

I climb into bed and pull the blanket up until I can run the silky border across my lips. Thank you for saving Grandpa. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I never know where I’m sending my gratitude, but it must be the same place where snowflakes come from.

Before drifting off, I remember to add: And bring Dad home safe.

I wake Monday morning to the sound of the garbage truck dropping the dumpster on the parking lot next door. Chills crawl up my spine before a heavy sadness settles on my heart. Grandpa threw their cat in that dumpster a few winters back, without telling anyone that Blackie had died. Blackie was wrapped in a drop cloth. The cloth was bound into a bundle with duct tape. The bundle was placed in their kitchen trash. The trash was thrown into the dumpster.

I was mad at Grandpa for throwing Blackie away, but Mom explained how Grandpa is a no-nonsense kind of guy who fixes problems in the quickest, easiest way possible. The ground was simply too frozen for Blackie to be buried. I figure it’s Grandpa’s no-nonsense that teaches me so much about science, so I forgave him. But my heart still hurts when I hear that garbage truck.

We usually hear the garbage pickup while we eat breakfast, so I jump out of bed and run into my parents’ room. The smell of stale beer and farts assaults my nostrils when I open their bedroom door, like walking into the dumpster itself. Mom is getting out of bed. Dad is getting into it, yesterday’s clothes trailing his route from the bathroom.

“Hey, Mom. The garbage truck is out back, so either the trash pickup is really early this week, or…”

“…we are running so late,” she finishes. Mom leads me out of their bedroom and closes the door behind us, leaving Buttons on the other side where she scratches and whines for freedom. Dad yells something—that I will not repeat—and the scratching stops.

“We overslept, Swiz. Get dressed, quick.” Mom’s voice is like shredded wheat that’s been sitting in the bowl for too long: soggy and heavy. She opens Teddy’s door. He’s standing on his bed, naked. Mom walks in, reaches for his scrawny body and slams his door behind her.

I get ready in record time, avoiding the pink-and-blue striped sweater that accentuates my flat chest. It was my favorite new top until the percussion section called me Princess Plywood during band rehearsal last week. Standing at the kitchen sink, I snarf down an untoasted bagel to Frank Sinatra singing, “Chicago, Chicago, that toddling town,” on Mom’s oldies radio station.

On cue, Buttons sits at my feet when she hears me putting the butter knife in the dishwasher. I drag my index finger through the cream cheese and wait until her tail stops thumping before I scrape my finger clean on the roof of her mouth. Mom startles me from behind and shoves some lunch money in my coat pocket while I’m putting on my boots.

“You’ll have to buy lunch today,” she says. “And you know I don’t like you sticking your finger in the condiments or the dog’s mouth.” School lunch is worse than meatloaf night at home, or the dog’s mouth.

“Is Teddy coming?” I ask.

“No, he’s still got a fever. I’ll call the nurse and let her know.” Mom starts wiping off the already clean stovetop, probably to avoid looking at me.

“Why is he always sick?” I ask. “It’s really not fair that he gets to stay home all the time.”

Mom stops cleaning and drops her head, speaking so I can barely hear her. “Please, Swiz. Not today.”

“Can I see Grandpa after school?”

“Probably not,” she answers. I walk out the mudroom door without saying goodbye.

A rueful sun hangs low in a cobalt blue sky, warming the morning like an apology for the weekend weather. A faint scent of cinnamon toast floats in the air. Chickadees flutter from their nests to sip from the rivulets of water running down the driveway. In the backyard, an image of Grandpa hanging fresh suet from our favorite maple pops into my head. He puts out a new feeder every Monday to give our birds extra energy for the winter. I wave to Grandpa only to watch him disappear when I remember that he’s lying in some hospital bed thirty miles away. Blinking away a dizzy feeling, I grab a fallen branch and start whacking out a beat on the crackly puddles at the driveway’s edge.

“Chicago, Chicago that toddling town.” Whack whack whack. The upstairs window slides open on its rusty track. The birds retreat to their trees. My arm freezes mid-whack.

“SWIZ! What the hell are you doing?” roars Dad as he leans out the window. “Jesus Christ. You better hope I don’t have to come down there.” Buttons hops her front legs up on the windowsill and barks at me, too, like she’s suddenly on Dad’s side. She has some nerve—her upper palate isn’t even licked clean yet.

The window crashes shut before I can answer. Holding on to opposite elbows, I tiptoe away from the puddle. An upstairs door slams and Buttons’ barking comes to an abrupt stop. I guess she’s on my side now.

A thin strip of sidewalk leading to the corner bus stop has been shoveled clear. The neat row of houses on either side of our block is all white, except for the widow Penetti's, currently a chocolate brown with neon green shutters. Pregnant Peggy sits on her front stoop, smoking a cigarette with her morning coffee before she heads to her clerk job at the Super Duper—her parents don’t let her smoke in the house. Next door, the Larson’s snow-covered shrubs look like a row of British barristers standing at attention under powdery wigs. I read about England’s wig-wearing lawyers in a recent National Geographic. Incidentally, the same issue named London, England a top vacation destination, earning it a green pushpin on Grandpa’s map.

The bus stop is underpopulated this morning. Skinny Vinnie isn’t working his Rubik’s Cube from his usual spot on the corner bench. Teddy’s missing mouth makes it quieter than usual, too. Randy crouches on his skateboard behind a tall snow bank two houses down, throwing snowballs at the occasional semi. A kid I don’t recognize stands by himself at the end of the bench, both hands in his back pockets. Loose curls spill out from under a baby blue ball-cap perched backwards on his head. A gray hood hangs out of his denim jacket, and he’s chewing what looks like a straw that’s sticking out of his mouth.

Is this a new student? Could we actually have a new kid in town? Who in their right mind would move to Westburg? Maybe he’s one of those foster kids who live with the Burlingames while he waits for his forever family. But this isn’t the Burlingame’s bus stop. Whoever he is, he’s underdressed for winter. Neither his story nor his outerwear continue being of interest, because by the stop sign stand Kristie and Kurt with their backs to me. And with them, larger than life, is Mrs. Barker. Her arms make giant circles in the air like she’s tracing the size of her loud mouth.

After a few frozen moments of watching Mrs. Barker and her gigantic gesticulations, yesterday’s F-bomb comes barreling back to my mental movie screen. The thwapping sound of my boot on Kurt’s belly follows, and my foot reflexively kicks out in front of me. Mrs. Barker freezes when she sees me. Eventually, she waves. I do the only reasonable thing I can do: I wave back, turn around, and hightail in the opposite direction. Mrs. Barker follows like a lioness stalking her prey. To make matters worse, she’s sporting a pair of hot-pink Moon Boots identical to Kristie’s.

I’m walking past our driveway when the school bus rounds the corner. Propped up behind Old Yeller’s steering wheel is Snuffy Guilford, the school bus driver, or the school custodian, depending on the hour. Snuffy rumbles past me, Mrs. Barker and the row of British barristers. The sound of Mrs. Barker’s thighs rubbing together in her polyester pants lets me know she is gaining on me. Just as I break a sweat, she changes course and takes an unexpected turn down our driveway. Her true intentions are crystal clear now: she’s on her way to tattle my sins to my parents. With any luck, Dad will sleep through her confession like Father Nolan sleeps through mine.

With her off my tail for the moment, my brain clicks into prioritizing mode and moves Mrs. Barker and her snitching mission to the bottom of my list of worries. The bigger issue, a more pressing problem, the one with more immediate consequences, pops into my head. If I don’t get myself to school in twenty minutes, I’ll get my first tardy slip. Ever.

It’s time to run.

Stacey Crowley is a speech language pathologist, reading specialist, and owner of Learning Tree Literacy, an Asheville-based private practice specializing in assessment and intervention for students with dyslexia and language-based learning differences. Stacey’s experience using brain science to teach literacy and social-emotional skills is incorporated into her first novel. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

About Pieces of Annie—This is a coming-of-age story and a work of early young adult fiction that examines themes of childhood anxiety, emotional abuse, school-based therapy, and giftedness.