فصل 07

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فصل 07

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Seven

I knew I wasn’t going to high school, so I got a job down in town. It was at the drugstore, and it paid almost twenty dollars a week. I delivered and worked behind the counter selling things. I was lucky I got it, because it was a pretty good job. Aunt Mae was glad for me. She stayed with Mother in the daytime, but that wasn’t much trouble. At night Clyde got her to go with the band. Most of the people in the valley had heard them, though, and they didn’t get so much business anymore. When they did get jobs, it was usually someplace further away than the capital where people didn’t know them. Then Aunt Mae would come in at almost four o’clock in the morning, and I’d wonder if it really took that long to drive back or if Clyde stopped along the way. Aunt Mae was really looking tired, I thought. If we didn’t need the money, I never would have let her go out with him on the jobs. As it was, we didn’t get much money from it anyway.

Flora went all over town and told everybody about Mother. Aunt Mae said she made a mistake in the first place asking her to come up to the house that night to take care of her. I knew if Flora didn’t like Chinee people she wasn’t going to like the way Mother was. Nobody in town would have known about it if it wasn’t for Flora. Mother never went into town anyway, and nobody ever came up to our house, except Clyde sometimes, and he was always paying attention to Aunt Mae and ignoring everybody else. Plenty people in town got to wondering what went on up on the hill with Mother. Nobody in the valley acted strange aside from Mr. Farney, and that was different. People began to come right around the house to hunt until we put up a No Trespassing sign. That made them more curious, but it kept them away.

When I came in from the drugstore in the evening, I’d go into the cleared land behind the house to see Mother. The seedling pines were big now, and you never would think the land was ever cleared. Sometimes rabbits ran under them, and squirrels went up and down their trunks. Mother would be sitting down on the ground under the pines looking up at their branches. I’d sit and talk to her for a while, but I couldn’t get her to say much anymore. She just looked at me with a faraway look and smiled. She smiled at everything I said, so after a while I stopped talking, and we would just sit in the pines and watch the sun go down and everything go dark. Then Aunt Mae would come out and sit a while. After that we went in for dinner. Aunt Mae would go upstairs and get ready the nights she had a job, and I’d sit with Mother in the kitchen and listen to the radio. Mother listened to the radio better than she listened to Aunt Mae or me. She followed all the stories and would say things while they were on, like “Just listen to the way that man goes on” or “Who do you think is the murderer, David?” Whoever I said, she would say, “No, I think you have the wrong one.” And when the one I picked was the right one, she would say, “Oh, they were wrong about him.”

One evening when I went back into the clearing, she got up off the ground and held me by the arm and pointed to the pines that were growing there and said, “You see how they’re growing? They’re your poppa’s.” Then she took me down to the front yard, and we stood on the cinders, and she pointed out over all the hills. “You see how they’re growing?” I looked at the thousands of pines all over the valley. “From a little seed your poppa planted they’re growing all over, but I saw them come up in his clearing first. I saw them first.”

I liked the drugstore job. Mr. Williams, the man who owned it, gave me the job mainly because he had heard of Mother. Anyway, that’s what I thought. He was nice that way, always trying to help people who needed it. He used to charge the people who lived on the street north of town a lot, but he let some of the poor people owe him for almost a year. I know because I delivered everything he sold. The ones on the street north of town never said anything about the high prices, and the poor ones were happy to get credit, so I guess it was alright.

You don’t know how many people you can meet delivering for a drugstore – or, I guess, delivering for anything. They had all kinds. The women who lost their husbands in the war ordered things like Kleenex and hand lotion and Camay soap. I don’t know why, but I almost always delivered things like that to them. They were still quiet, but none of them cried anymore. They always said, “Thank you, son,” and didn’t even seem to know I was there.

I delivered to Mr. Farney’s house too. He ordered the expensive men’s powders and aftershave things that nobody in town used. Mr. Williams got it from the company just for Mr. Farney and the other man he lived with who taught music. They came in the drugstore a lot because they liked to look around at everything, even the women’s things. When one of them saw something he’d say, “Oh, come here and see this. Isn’t this just precious.” Mr. Farney always asked about Mother and said it was “tragic,” which made me feel bad. But I knew Mr. Farney didn’t know it made me feel that way. He wouldn’t have said it if he knew I felt that way. Mr. Farney seemed to know when he said something to make you angry or make you feel bad. Then he’d say, “Oh, look at me. Look what I’ve done. Will you ever forgive me?” Then he would bite his nails or pick at his face.

One woman I delivered to was named Miss A. Scover. Anyway, that’s the name she had on her doorbell. I had seen her before because she worked at the post office selling stamps. Her house was one of the new ones they were building up in the hills. She lived all alone for all I knew, except for a lot of cats that sat on the porch and went in the front door when she opened it. Sometimes she came to the door holding one in her arms. She would kiss it behind the ears and blow in its fur and say, “We’re going outside, baby. Outside, outside.”

She wasn’t over forty years old. She didn’t have any gray hair, but her face was thin, with a wrinkled sort of neck and a long nose. When I went there, she always came to the door in her robe. I wondered about it. No other woman in town would come out in her robe. After I gave her what she ordered, she said, “Come in, boy, while I get the money.” I went in the first time, and it took about five minutes for her to find her purse. I called to the room where she was that I had to get back to the store. After a while she came out with the money and stared at me. I put out my hand, but she didn’t give it to me. She asked how old I was, and I said I was fifteen. Then she asked if we delivered at night. I told her we did on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She didn’t say anything, she just gave me the money, and I left. That night I told Aunt Mae about it. She looked at me with her eyes wide and said for me never to go in that house again.

The next week Miss Scover called Tuesday night and ordered some things. I was at the phone in the store. When I heard her voice, I hung up. She called a little while later, and Mr. Williams answered. I heard him say he couldn’t understand it, sorry, must have been the operator’s fault. He gave me the order, and I left before he gave me the address. When I got to the door, he called to me and asked if I knew where to go. I stopped and thought and said that I didn’t. He called out the address I knew backwards, and the name too.

When I got up to Miss Scover’s, all the cats were sitting out on the porch in the moonlight. They ran when I went up on the porch and rang the bell. Pretty soon Miss Scover came to the door. She had on a robe like she always wore, except this one looked more like silk or some expensive material. The light was shining out on the porch from the front room. Her face was in the shadow, and I couldn’t see it, but she asked me to come in while she got her purse. I told her I had some valuable medicine in my bike basket and couldn’t take my eyes off it for a minute. She said nobody around there was going to steal it, and anyway, it was damp outside. I told her no again, so she left to get the money. When she came back, she gave it to me and slammed the door. I got on my bike and rode down to the store and didn’t think about Miss Scover again because she always came in the store after that to buy what she wanted.

When I wasn’t delivering, I worked behind the counter with Mr. Williams. Sometimes he went out of the store and left me to take care of everything. That was the time I liked. I could look at everything we sold and act like I owned it. The boys I went to school with were mostly going to the high school. When they came in and saw Mr. Williams was gone, they asked me to show them some of the things they always made jokes about, but I didn’t know where they were or where Mr. Williams kept them. Then they looked at me like I was silly and asked why I didn’t find out and left the store. I wished I did know where they were. I didn’t only want to be able to show them to the boys, I wanted to see what they looked like myself, I had heard so much at school about them.

The rest of the time mostly old women came into the store. They didn’t always buy anything. They just looked around at the medicine we had on the shelves and read what they had in them and what they were for and how much you should take. Sometimes one would buy a bottle, then almost always return it the next day and say it didn’t do her any good. I couldn’t give the money back if it was already opened, and they had to open it to try it. Then they got mad and didn’t come in again for about a week.

We sold magazines too. I think we were the only ones in town who did, except for the hotel. They sold mostly things like Time there, though. We sold movie magazines and comic books and magazines for women and some magazine some preacher in North Carolina put out. That sold pretty well, especially with the preacher’s people. We sold more movie magazines than anything, though, those and the romance ones. We had a lot of comic books, but most people just looked at them and didn’t buy. Even the old people looked at the comic books, especially the old men. They came in on Saturday afternoons and sat down on their haunches or sat on the floor and read them. By the time everybody had read all our comic books nobody wanted to buy them, so we lost money there. Mr. Williams didn’t mind, though. They bought tobacco while they read, and we made a profit on it since they didn’t grow it far away and Mr. Williams got it cheap.

The only thing I didn’t like about the drugstore job was the people who asked about Mother, and plenty of them did. Even some who didn’t know us but who heard about me from their friends asked. Some looked like they felt sorry. Most of them acted like they were afraid of Mother ever coming down into town and just asked me to be sure she was alright up on the hill. I didn’t know what to say to the ones who felt sorry, but I told the others she never went far away from home and that they didn’t have to worry. Then they said they weren’t worrying, they just wanted to be sure she was happy and alright up there. I didn’t like to hear people talk about Mother like this, just like she had a cold or fever and they hoped she wasn’t suffering too much. I wondered if they thought how it made me feel. When one woman’s daughter in town had a miscarriage, nobody even said a word about it. Nobody would ask the woman how her daughter was. That’s how I felt about Mother, and I hoped they’d stop talking about it and asking me. I told some of Mother’s old friends she knew when we lived down in town that maybe Mother would like to see them if they’d go and visit her, but they all gave some excuse about not feeling good enough to climb the hill, or else they had to take care of their house or something. Most of them never asked about Mother after that.

Flora came in the store a lot to buy baby things for her grandchildren, but she always got Mr. Williams to wait on her. When he wasn’t in, she came back when he was. She never talked to me, and turned her face away when I looked at her. Aunt Mae told me she slapped Flora in the face the next time she saw her after the night I graduated. Then Flora began to cry and said she got frightened when she heard Mother talking the way she did, and ran out the house when Mother showed her the picture of the white crosses. Flora showed Aunt Mae a place on her leg where she slipped running down the hill. I looked at it every time Flora came in the store. It was a scar now, and it went almost all the way on her left leg from her knee to her ankle. Aunt Mae told me she felt sorry for Flora then and let her go from the way she had been holding her.

Flora must have spent all her money on the grandchildren. She bought them toys and the little books we sold and all the new baby medicines. I thought it was probably because she was so happy they weren’t Chinee. I thought she would have been luckier, too, to get a Chinee daughter-in-law than the ugly one she had. Nobody liked Flora’s daughter-in-law except Flora and her son. She didn’t even get out of eighth grade, and she was only fifteen when she married Flora’s son. Mr. Farney told our class once that that girl was the worst pupil he ever had. I never spoke to her, but I always saw her on the street with those red pimples she had all over her face, even some on her arms.

It was about that time Jo Lynne began coming into the store. She was the granddaughter of some old man I used to see walking around town. Mr. Williams told me she was visiting the old man with her mother and that they were from someplace about fifty miles away, near the state line. When I first saw her, I knew she wasn’t from the valley, because she was about my age but I never saw her around school or around the street.

The first day she came into the store I thought I knew her from somewhere at first. Her face looked like someone’s face I had seen before. She looked at me, and I looked away, but I don’t know why. I wanted to look at her again and see her eyes. They were sort of greenish-blue with dashes of gray that seemed to come out of their center. And it looked like you could see through them to the back of her eye.

Mr. Williams was in the back, so I had to wait on her. I went over to the medicine counter where she was standing, and she gave me a prescription she said she wanted for her grandfather. After I went back to give it to Mr. Williams, I was afraid to go back into the store where she was. I don’t know why. I wanted to, because I wanted to have her look at me with her eyes again, but I just stayed around the prescription room. Mr. Williams saw me walking around behind him looking at the labels he had on all the bottles there, and he told me to get back into the store and tell that girl he’d have the prescription ready in a little while.

When I came down in the store again, she was reading one of the comic books from the magazine shelf. I told her the prescription would be ready in a little while, and she said okay, she’d wait. I wanted to go back up in the room with Mr. Williams, because every now and then she looked over at me where I was sitting on a stool behind the counter, and I scraped my feet along the floor and started to whistle and looked the other way.

When she went back to her comic book, I looked at her. She was about sixteen, maybe a little older, but I couldn’t say how much. Only a few people in the valley had black hair. I didn’t see it very often, so I looked at hers. Hers was prettier than most people’s. It was long and wavy and shiny. She had some curls on her forehead, and then it was straight until her shoulders, where she had some more curls. Her eyebrows and eyelashes were black too, but her skin was white. Not only her face, but her arms too. Plenty women in the valley got their faces white, but their arms were still red.

She was pretty and could have been on the front of a magazine if it wasn’t for her mouth. It was just a little too big, but I liked the way her lips curved. She had on a pretty color lipstick that looked red when the light was on her lips but looked purple when she was in the dark. I liked it with her eyes and hair.

Her breasts were big for only about sixteen, and high too. She was wearing a dress with a flower pattern on it that I didn’t like, but it didn’t look bad on her. I liked the way her big belt made her waist look real small. It looked like you could put your hands around it and your fingers would touch. I looked through her sandals and saw even the skin on her feet was white and soft. She looked at me just then. I looked away and began scraping my foot again.

Mr. Williams came down into the store a little while later with the prescription. He gave it to her and told her something about when to take it while I rang it up on the cash register. I stood next to Mr. Williams and listened to what he was telling her, and I noticed something I never noticed before: I was taller than Mr. Williams. I looked down at the girl. She was looking at Mr. Williams, but all of a sudden she looked up at me, and I saw her eyes again.

I saw her in the store a lot after that first day. She read the magazines and comic books while Mr. Williams filled the prescriptions for her grandfather. Sometimes she wore shorts, and I saw her legs were even whiter than the rest of her body, especially up near her thigh. And her knees weren’t rough like the other girls in the valley, who had hard gray-looking knees. They were soft and white and had just one little crease in them.

After she had been coming in for about a month, I spoke to her one day. She started talking, though. I was just sitting behind the counter looking at her.

“Do you have this month’s Modern Romance?” She was looking through the magazines.

I came from behind the counter and went over to the shelf. I began to tell her that I’d look for it, but my voice sounded strange to me, so I stopped and cleared my throat. She looked at me.

“I asked if you had this month’s Modern Romance.”

“Yes, I know. I don’t know if we have it, but I’ll look.”

I started going through the magazines, and she said, “Thanks.” Whenever someone is looking at me from behind, I seem to know it, and I knew she was looking at me now.

“Do you work here all the time?”

She had her hand resting on the shelf near my head, and I looked at its whiteness.

“Yes, I do. All the time the store’s open and from thirty minutes before it does.”

“How old are you, about nineteen?”

I stopped going through the pile of magazines. I turned around and looked at her. I started to tell her I was only about her age, but I thought of how tall I was, and I couldn’t keep from looking in her eyes.

“Yes, just about. Nineteen and a half.”

We looked at each other for a while and didn’t say anything. Then she looked back at the pile of magazines. I turned around and started going through them again. After that she kept quiet, so I started talking.

“You’re from out of the valley, aren’t you?”

“Yes, my mother came here to take care of her father, Grandpa. He’s been getting along poorly. If he gets better, we’re going home again – Springhill.”

“That’s where you’re from?”

“Yes. You ever been there?”

“No, I’ve never been out of the valley.”

“Well, if you ever do get out, don’t go there. This place is prettier.”

I was surprised to hear anyone say the valley was pretty. I never thought much about it, but I was happy to be talking with her, so I went along with what she said.

Mr. Williams was done with the prescription before I could find her magazine, so she paid and left. Mr. Williams went back into the other room. A few seconds later, the front door opened again, and she stuck her head in.

“I forgot to tell you goodbye.”

“Oh, goodbye.”

“Goodbye. I’ll be in again if Grandpa has another prescription.”

She smiled and closed the door. I smiled too, and was still smiling when Mr. Williams came in again. He asked me what I was smiling for, and I told him nothing.

I thought about her all the time after that. When Mother and I listened to the radio at night, I didn’t hear what they were saying, and when she asked me something about the program, I usually couldn’t answer her. She finally told Aunt Mae I didn’t care about her anymore and cried and laid her head on the kitchen table. I didn’t know what to tell Aunt Mae, but she didn’t fuss about it because she knew the way Mother was.

A few nights after that, Aunt Mae and I were sitting on the porch. Mother was asleep upstairs. It was one of the nights Aunt Mae wasn’t with Clyde. I hadn’t been with her alone for a long while, and I wanted to talk. We sat and talked about everything, almost. The town was growing, and that was what we were talking about just then.

All up the hills where there were pines just a year ago houses were being built. Some big ones, but mostly little small ones that looked like boxes. The veterans all had children now, and they couldn’t live with their families down in town anymore, so they were moving into the hills. Some were starting at the foot of our hill. When I went down the path to the store, I could see the little foundations being laid a short distance from the street they were cutting there. Our hill wasn’t being improved as fast as some, though. It was too steep to build on very well, and it was too full of clay, they said. That made me happy. We had been on the hill for so long I didn’t want to see it full of those little homes. I wondered what was going to happen to them down there at the foot of the hill when a good rain came. That’s where the clay was really soft, where the water stayed after it had come all the way down from about where we lived.

Aunt Mae was looking at the other hills. The one across town from where we lived was almost full of those little houses now, all the same white kind. The hill to the side of ours was really developed too. Even in the dark we could see the path of the roads they were cutting on it that made it look like the crossword puzzles Mr. Farney used to try to get us to work, but no one knew enough words to fill them out.

All of a sudden I told Aunt Mae I saw a girl in the store that I really liked.

“I was wondering when you were going to say something like that, hon.”

Aunt Mae stopped rocking, and I wondered if she was mad.

“Why don’t you ask her out, Dave? All the other boys and girls I see down in town have been going out for a long time. You can’t sit up here every night with your Mother like you do.”

“I don’t mind it, and besides. . .”

“Yes, I know, hon. But look at how old you are now. It isn’t natural for you to be here every night with her. I shouldn’t have let it go on like it has, but Clyde’s been getting us some good jobs, you know. We couldn’t let her in the house alone.”

“I know that, Aunt Mae, that’s. . .”

“No, no. Listen to me. You know I’m home some nights. You ask this girl out, and I’ll make it my business to be here that night and look after Mother.”

I didn’t say anything just then. She started rocking again.

“Suppose she won’t go out with me.”

“Don’t worry, Dave, she will. You’re a nice-looking boy. You’re tall, that’s for sure. You look better than those little kids I see coming into the roadhouse when I sing there.”

“I don’t have any money like they do, Aunt Mae. It costs a lot to go to the roadhouse. You have to buy beer, and you have to use a car to get there.”

“Well, go to a show in town, then. How much is it? Thirty cents apiece? Well, that’s sixty cents there, and that isn’t much. Even I got that much.”

She started laughing, but I didn’t feel like laughing with her. I wondered if Jo Lynne would want to go just to the movie.

“Do you think she’ll go if I ask her, Aunt Mae?”

“I think she will. Anyway, there’s no harm in asking.”

It sounded easy the way Aunt Mae spoke about it, but I didn’t ask Jo Lynne for a while. I waited until she came in two times after that, and then I did. She said she could, and I was surprised.

The night we were going out Aunt Mae stayed home with Mother. I knew Clyde had a good job for them that night, but Aunt Mae said the place was almost seventy miles away and she didn’t mind missing it. I wore a flowered shirt I bought in town and a pair of Poppa’s good pants he bought before the war. When I left the house, Mother saw them on me and said she thought she saw them someplace before. Aunt Mae told her they were new, though, so I told them both good night.

Jo Lynne was waiting for me down in town on Main. She said it would be better if we met somewhere instead of me going to her grandfather’s house to get her. He didn’t want her to go out, she said, and it would have made trouble. It didn’t matter to me. I was glad I didn’t have to go meet him and her mother.

She was on the corner where she said she would be. I thought she looked good. Her hair was tied back with a green ribbon, and she had on a flowery sort of dress and sandals. That lipstick she used made her lips look dark at night, dark purple. It was a hot night, and there were a lot of people on Main walking around. Some of the men who were crossing the corner where she was turned around after they passed her and looked at her. The women looked at her too, because she looked different from them, and they knew she was a stranger in town and probably wondered where she was from. The breeze that was coming up Main blew her skirt and the ribbon in her hair just a little. I liked the way it did that.

She smiled when she saw me. We stood there and spoke for a while, then we started for the movie, which was two blocks down. I said hello to some people I knew, most from the drugstore, but Jo Lynne didn’t know anyone to say hello to. They all looked at us, though, because they thought I stayed up on the hill with Mother all the time.

I don’t remember what the movie was. It was one of those cheap ones they always showed on Saturday nights with gangsters or cowboys. Some people who went to school with me and who went to the high school now were in the show with girls. I knew they always went on Saturdays, then went to the roadhouse after and danced and drank. When I saw them, I wished I had a car so we could go out there too. Everyone said it was a lot of fun.

It was hot in the show, and it smelled like always. The old fans they had to keep it cool made so much noise that you couldn’t hear the actors sometimes. All the little children were sitting up in the first and second row about three feet from the screen. I never thought about them too much before, but they bothered me tonight, always running up and down the aisle and talking and throwing things up at the screen. I wished the sheriffs brother would come get them and put them out, but he charged more on Saturday nights, and if he put them out, he had to give their money back.

Jo Lynne’s arm was touching mine. I couldn’t keep my mind on the movie, but I kept looking at the screen. The actors moved around and talked and shot at each other, but I didn’t know what the story was about. I looked down at her once. The white light from the screen was shining on her lips, and they were wet, and I wondered why. She didn’t notice me looking. She kept looking at the movie. I looked from her face down to where her arm was touching mine. It was white, and it felt soft and smooth. After a while I took her hand, which was hanging over the arm of her chair, and held it. She didn’t even look at me, but she tightened her fingers over my hand, and I was surprised.

The movie ended, and everybody started getting up. Only the little children in the first and second row stayed in their seats, but they always stayed for two movies. They were hitting on each other and screaming, and I wondered where their mothers were. Jo Lynne and I got up. My hand was wet from having held hers. I wiped it on Poppa’s old pants, and it stained them, so I held my hand over the spot till we got out.

When we were out on the street, Jo Lynne said she thought the movie was good. I said I liked it too and asked her where she wanted to go. I wanted to take her to the restaurant, but she said her grandfather didn’t want her coming home too late. She said she’d rather go for a walk.

The breeze was still blowing, and it was a little cooler. We started off down to where she lived. I held her hand, and she didn’t say anything. She squeezed it again like she did in the show. We talked a little about the movie. I didn’t remember much about it, so I went along with what she said and agreed with her. After we finished talking about that, she said she was glad I asked her to go out because she got tired of sitting at her grandfather’s every night. I didn’t tell her I was surprised she said she would go, and I let it go at that.

I didn’t know why I felt frightened. I just did. We were walking along not saying anything for a long while, and I couldn’t think of anything to say to start a conversation. I felt silly holding her hand and not saying anything, but Jo Lynne didn’t try to speak either. Maybe she didn’t have anything to say too. I don’t know. I just know we were getting closer to her grandfather’s house. It was near the base of the hill across from ours.

When we turned into the street where it was, Jo Lynne looked up at the hill. They were building some of those new houses up on it. You could count how many they had up there by the roofs, because they were shining under the moon. I could see about fifteen built, but I knew they had some sides up without roofs yet. Before we got to her grandfather’s, Jo Lynne stopped and held on to my hand hard. I looked down at her. She was looking up on the hill at the shining roofs.

“Let’s go up and see those houses they’re building, David.”

I looked down at her again, only this time she was looking up at me.

“I thought your grandfather wanted you home.”

She held on to my hand harder until I thought the blood in it would stop. I looked at her purple lips. They were still wet, and I wondered about them again.

“We won’t be up there long. I just want to see what’s been going on.”

I said okay, so we went up the path the workmen and the trucks used. It had a lot of ruts, and Jo Lynne almost tripped sometimes, but I grabbed her by the waist and kept her from falling. It surprised me to find how soft her waist was. Aunt Mae’s was hard and the same shape all the time.

We got up to the first little group of houses and looked around. Jo Lynne kept close to me because she said she was afraid to be in the hills at night and if it wasn’t for me she wouldn’t have come. It made me feel good to hear her say that.

It looked funny to see the little houses all empty with the doors and windows open. In a few days, they would all be closed with wood and glass, and it would be a crime to go into them then. I thought of what a difference there was between these little wooden boxes now with the moonlight shining through where the doors should be and what they’d be in a little while with people living in them and loving them for a home.

We sat down on the steps of one of the little houses. Everything smelled like fresh-cut pine and green wood and plaster, that funny dry smell of plaster that you thought would choke you. They had cleared almost all the pines down here, and the browning stumps stuck up all around us and combed out the breeze that blew through our hair.

Jo Lynne was quiet. The breeze blew through her hair, and I could hear her breathing the strong pine air. I put my arm around her. She looked up at me, and I saw her wet purple lips even in the dark. I saw the moonlight on their wet, with little cracks of dark between. She looked at me in a different way, like I had never seen her look, and I knew what to do. I kissed her.

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