The stone was covered in red clay when James grabbed it and slung it at me. Shards of red spiraled and flew as it sailed towards me, small but brilliant in the waning light.
I stood at the edge of the long puddle, my toes dipped in mud, certain as hell my father would hit me for it when we got home. I was a child, but old enough to understand that time slows when anticipating a blow. My thoughts hung heavy like apples in the slowness – solid, sometimes sour, but easy to pluck: I should duck. Aunt Jean said there would be biscuits at dinner. James’s aim is dead on. He had meant for my head, and that’s what he was going to get.
My sister crouched on the far side of the puddle, a pile of crumpled petals sagging beside her – the fallen phlox we’d collected from the end of the drive. She dropped petals into the muddy water, one tiny world of dreams at a time. She was the baby and, not just in that moment but every day, I wondered at her ability to escape. Just watch Lucy, I decided, and braced.
The stone hit hard and certain above my right eyebrow, a warm trickle of blood pulling down. James stood 30 feet from me, his throwing arm tracing the arc like he’d been taught.
“I could’a got hurt bad,” I hollered, wiping blood with my hand.
James chuckled, chuffed.
“Why’d you do it?” I yelled. James shrugged. The thought had occurred to him, and that was enough.
“You aren’t gonna’ tell, are you?” James hollered back. He had dropped his pitching arm and tucked his hand back into his pocket. His jeans fit him tight around the hips, his white sleeves snug on his arms.
“Might,” I said. That landed on James the way it was meant. Not hurtful, exactly. Not even a threat. I wouldn’t tattle to Father no more than I’d go to Mother for a hug. James knew it, but he’d stopped trusting himself.
“We ought to get back, Lucy,” I said, pulling her elbow, James glaring at me in a way that made me shake. His feet started moving, but his eyes never strayed.
“C’mon,” I urged, but Lucy resisted coming away.
Uncle Ray’s driveway rose and fell in unpredictable patterns, but James was in no mood to look where he stepped. One foot landed in a sudden dip, and he rocked forward, cartwheeling his arms. His momentum carried him several wild steps before he fell, and his knees hit ground. He fell a solid five feet from us, hands in the mud.
“You tripped me,” he snarled.
It was this moment that Lucy chose to look up.
“What are you looking at, baby?” James snapped. In one quick movement he cupped his hands and thrust them forward, sending a spray of mud and water into the air.
The wave hit Lucy head on, and she stood – dripping mud and water from her chin, from her brown curls, from all the white ruffles of her elegant dress. Aunt Jean had bought it. Three days earlier, Aunt Jean had done the unimaginable and bought it brand-new as a gift.
Lucy’s lips trembled, and mine with them – the sting of her tears pulsing more now than the wound on my head. Without knowing my purpose, I bent down and searched. My hands looked blindly for any solid thing they could grip – a rock, a stick, a hunk of red clay. I found a small thing, a smooth wet thing. It was cold and it filled me with something like relief. I curled my fingers around it, pulled back, and released. The thing flew forward, flat and straight in its course, bouncing off James’s shoulder before skittering down the drive.
James howled, clutched his shoulder, and then smiled. “Sissy, you practically missed me,” he said.
“Sam,” Lucy said at the edge of hearing. “Sam.” I turned to her. “Aunt Jean is calling dinner. C’mon.” She pulled my hand forward and I let her, my feet landing in the mud without thought. But when we came even with James, my feet stopped.
His mouth hung slack, his knees now in the mud. His hair clung to his forehead, painted into stiff strands. Sound was muffled as I reached outward, offering James my hand. He looked up and let it hang – long enough that I wondered at the gesture myself.
“Sissy,” he repeated, and stood on his own.
When we came within sight of the house, our parents inspected us with scowls from the porch.
“Well, look at the state of you,” my mother hissed. Her voice could sometimes feel as beautiful and slippery as her name – Ruby. In this moment, it was hard and precise. “And just look at that dress,” she spat.
Lucy stood silently, her chin tucked, her brown curls caressing her chin. Her white ruffles, once so flouncy, hung lifeless and pressed.
“Sam threw a rock at me!” James shouted, his means of protection to tell half-truths and preempt.
“Well, Sam,” my father said evenly. “Did you do like he says?” The menace of my father never presented itself in words. The contortion of his face and the stiffening of his fists were telling enough.
“I might have,” I answered.
“Might have? Too bird-brained to recall,” my mother chimed in.
“I threw something,” I offered. “Don’t know what.”
“You don’t know what,” my father echoed. His voice had come up a notch. Lucy whimpered as he began to unhitch his belt. Fists or belt, it didn’t matter. Time was already slowing down.
“Ho there,” called a voice from behind us. “What’s this?”
Aunt Jean and Uncle Ray pushed the screen door open and made their way onto the porch. With their arrival, Mother sighed.
“Flies are circling the food,” Uncle Ray said, eyes on Father. “You coming?”
Aunt Jean waved at the ruin of us. “Well, they can’t eat like that,” she determined. “Ruby, Frank, Ray. You all just go in. I’ll sort these ones out.”
My father seemed to debate, then thought better of arguing against a hot meal. Uncle Ray opened the door, and my mother passed through. My father hesitated a moment, pointing one finger at me – a gesture I took as a promise that he’d find his way back.
When the screen door closed behind them, Aunt Jean looked us up and down.
“Your mother pack you an extra set of pants?” she asked James. He nodded, and she told him to go get them on. “Hang them to dry when you’re done,” she said. “Come on, Lucy. It’s your turn.”
She turned Lucy around and started undoing buttons, purple little things that matched the flowers on Lucy’s shoes. Aunt Jean pulled the dress up over Lucy’s head and clucked at what she saw. “Your mother told me I was wasting my money when I bought you that dress. She may have been right.”
“Still,” she said, sniffing the dress for good measure, “I don’t think I was wrong.”
Aunt Jean helped Lucy out of her shoes, then told her to scoot inside to get dressed. “You,” she said, pointing at me. “Let’s fix you up.”
She led me around to the back porch where there was a washtub and shooed Uncle Ray’s old rooster off the steps. She told me to sit, then disappeared inside. When she came back she held a piece of cotton and cream.
“You going to tell me what happened?” she asked as she dipped the edge of the cotton in the washbasin and began dabbing my head.
“I threw something at James.”
“Somebody ought to throw something at James,” she scoffed. “What about this, then?” she asked, inspecting my cut.
“What about it?”
“Did he throw something too?”
I shrugged in answer, and she opened her bottle of cream. She squeezed a bit onto her finger and pressed it into my scalp. It was cool, her touch soft. “Thing is, Sam, I know your aim is as good as your brother’s.”
She dabbed another bit of cream on the cut and asked, “So how come his forehead isn’t covered in blood?”
I gave her no answer, which she accepted, and she said we were done. She stood with Lucy’s dress in her hands, flies buzzing around her that she ignored.
“You washing that now?” I asked.
“Before the stains set, yes.”
I reached for it, and she gave it, and I stepped off the porch. The washbasin was dry, but the pump was well-oiled and worked.
“Soap’s in that little wooden box by your feet,” she told me, then watched as I dipped layer after layer of ruffles in the basin. Aunt Jean let me scrub, her arms folded across her chest as she stood leaning against the clap-boards. When I finished – the last stain a reddish blotch on the collar – I wrung the extra water out and Aunt Jean examined my work. She clucked in what I took for approval, and I followed her to the clothesline. I was too short to hang it, and I stood a couple steps back as she stretched for a clip.
“Why’s he hate me so much?” I said, surprised as much with my words as the accompanying burn of my ears.
“Your brother?” Aunt Jean paused, searching the line for a second clip. She found one and pressed the edges together and pushed it over the dress. “It’s not simple,” she finally answered, turning towards me. “I guess… I don’t know. I suppose nobody ever likes the middle man,” she said.
She put her arm around my waist then, and led me inside.
That night, after James had settled himself into our bed, I waited for his breath to quiet before asking if he knew what it meant.
“She called you a name?” James asked. “Don’t sound like her.” I felt him shrug, the edge of his pillow lodged as it was against mine. Summers at Aunt Jean’s always had me and James sleeping together, and though we were used to sharing a room, sharing a bed was something else altogether. It created a closeness that, in quiet moments, allowed us to talk.
“Not a name so much as an expression, I think.”
“Tell me again what she called you.”
“She said no one likes the middle man.”
“No one does like you,” James said. “Didn’t know Aunt Jean had it in her to say so,” he laughed. He pushed his feet to the end of the sheet and settled one hand under his head.
“I’m not the middle man, though,” I said after some silence. “There’s Father, then you. And I’m third. Aren’t you the middle?”
“That assumes you’re a man, Sam,” he choked. He flipped a page in his comic, and read for a few minutes before looking up.
“Maybe she meant the middle child?” I asked.
“Might be. Everybody loves the firstborn, and the youngest is special – being the baby and all. But there’s really nothing special about the middle.” James gloated for a moment with his insult, but it hadn’t felt that way coming from Aunt Jean. There was something in her voice when she said it, an unusual warmth.
“Nah,” I decided. “That weren’t it.”
“Well how about it has something to do with you being in the middle of everyone’s business?” he said, impatience clear now in his voice. “Leave me alone now. I’m trying to sleep”
The cicadas that summer started in the early afternoon and sang through the night. I fell asleep with them as company, James beside me – still feeling, as ever, alone.
When I woke the next morning, James was gone. I went outside to find Aunt Jean’s red pickup gone too.
“They went for supplies,” Uncle Ray said from his ratty chair on the porch. It – or the floorboards beneath him – creaked in a steady rhythm as he rocked.
“All of ’em?” I asked.
“All of ’em,” he confirmed. “Except me.” I stood beside him on the porch, listening to his unintended music, feeling at ease.
“You want some breakfast?” Uncle Ray asked.
“No thank you,” I said, deciding my stomach could wait.
Uncle Ray rocked a few moments longer before stopping and pushing himself up against the handles. “I’ve got to feed the pigs,” he said. “You coming?”
We walked together around the house and to the back barn, where Uncle Ray kept a collection of old tractors rusty and out of use. He carried a dented bucket, the handle cracked and sagging, and wore a pair of old boots a faded shade of green. They were stained red round the edges, they climbed up to his knees.
“What grade you going into this year, Sam?” he asked.
“Starting sixth grade in a few weeks,” I said. It was hard to imagine myself a thousand miles north again, home, buttoning my jacket in the early morning, walking briskly to beat back the chill.
Uncle Ray tipped the bucket and let a pile of soggy scraps slip into the mud. “Fair is in town,” he observed out of nowhere. “I thought you and your siblings might like to go.”
I smiled, and Uncle Ray said he’d take that for a yes.
“How’s your wound this morning? Looking all right?” We were headed back towards the house, and I reached up to finger the rough scab.
“Fine,” I shrugged, working up to the thing I’d been itching to ask. We were getting close to the back porch when I put it to him, the same question I’d asked James the previous night.
“A middleman?” Uncle Ray asked. “You going into business?”
“No, sir,” I answered. He turned and blinked at me a few times, but if he wanted more of an explanation, he didn’t ask.
“It’s like this,” he said, setting the bucket in its place beside the back door. “Let’s say I’ve got a peach tree here in Georgia. Everyone does. I can’t sell my peaches because everyone’s got them, so they’re all going to rot. Right?”
“Right,” I said, following him back around to the front of the house.
“You’ve got a whole school of kids up in New Hampshire who haven’t eaten a peach – I mean, a real, succulent, tree-ripened Georgia peach – in ages. Maybe not ever. Right. So. Let’s say you bring a basket of peaches up north. I don’t think your dad would let you, but let’s just say. You’re the middle man. You got it?”
“Got it,” I said, though I was not sure that I did. “I’m the middle man.”
True to his word, Uncle Ray loaded us into the back of the pickup that evening for the fair. The adults sat up front, all but my mother who chose to stay home.
“All that noise,” she grumbled. “It’ll give me a headache,” she said. We waved to her as we jostled down the driveway, Aunt Jean at the wheel.
“Now don’t spend it all at once,” Uncle Ray warned us, as he doled out 10 dollars apiece.
“It’s too much,” my father protested. Lucy sucked her hair as James and I watched for Uncle Ray’s response. There was nothing we could do that would get Father to accept it, but as his older brother, Uncle Ray seemed to stand a chance.
Uncle Ray gave my father a look reserved only for brothers, I guessed. “You remember when Grandfather gave us a couple quarters that time?”
My father listened, one ear cocked. “I do.”
“Spent it all on games and that girl you were after. Wendy, I think. You remember her?” He punctuated his words with a small poke of his elbow to my father’s ribs.
Uncle Ray grinned and my father, guffawing at the memory, acquiesced.
“Now you guard that money,” he threatened as we set off. “If you’re dumb enough to lose it, don’t come asking for more.”
James went straight to the Tilt-a-Whirl without asking, and I felt likely to join him. Except that I’d seen the way Lucy looked at the carousel as we walked in, each of the ponies dressed up in garlands of flowers, their tails done up in nice. I took her hand and when we stood in the back of the line, she squeezed mine and smiled a full smile with teeth. When it came our turn, we each offered a quarter and I followed her to a prancing pony with four braids in its mane. Lucy was wearing braids herself, along with her white dress – washed and pressed so thoroughly by Aunt Jean that she looked a proper sight.
I felt happier then, in that moment, watching my sister rising and falling on her horse than I could ever explain. It meant something, having something in hand. Maybe it was the money, or maybe it was being left to myself. I debated whether Lucy and I should get off and get some cotton candy or wander for a bit through the booths. All the while, I wondered about being the middle man and why somebody who brought peaches shouldn’t be liked.
It was the end of the ride and Lucy found my hand and pulled me through the gate and out into the grass, trampled and covered with popcorn and half-eaten candied apples and littered bits of wrappers. I stepped out and Lucy, still a baby at 7 years old, beamed as she took in the colored lights and the prizes and the smell of hot dogs and the pleasant look of a passing, faceless crowd. We smiled like fools at everything, my father and my mother and my brother and all the hard things they did as many miles from my heart as was my home.
I had seven dollars left in my pocket and all those good feelings in my chest when I spotted Aunt Jean.
“Aunt Jean,” I said, rushing at her with Lucy’s hand still in my own. “We’ll buy you something. Anything. What treat do you like?”
“I’m getting a candied apple,” Lucy trilled. I took Aunt Jean’s hand with my empty one and the three of us strolled through the grass.
It was then, in that moment of brilliance, holding hands with two people who filled me, the carnival lights shining down on us in glory, the smells of food perfuming my nose, that James found me and thrust out his palm. “I lost my money,” he said, rushed. The tips of his fingers were red, his cheeks flushed. “How much have you got?”
“I don’t want to give it,” I said. “You should have taken better care.”
James stood expectant, his palm still stretched toward me, his eyes even with mine. “Give it,” he said. Out of a swirl of passers-by, another familiar face appeared.
“Seems like you owe him something, Sam. For throwing that rock.” My father’s face was set, determined to give me the punishment he’d been cheated of the night before.
“I’m not giving it,” I said. Maybe it was having the rock thrown at my head, or Lucy’s dress. Maybe it was the unfairness in having cared for my money, and then being expected to give it away. Maybe it was the way my mother saved her most hurtful words for me, or that my father blamed me without wanting the truth. I couldn’t say in that moment what all it was, except that something was building in me that I couldn’t control. Instead of searching the mud for something to hurl, I searched within. It was easy to find, so close to the surface all I had to do was loosen my hands. Once free, they balled up into fists and I shoved them upwards, shaking, in front of my nose.
“I’m not giving it,” I said, leaning onto the backs of my feet. My father’s teeth clenched and his hands went instinctively to his belt. James stood motionless in front of me, his empty palm still waiting to be filled.
“What do you mean, you’re not giving it?” James asked.
I’m sure I would have hit him in that moment, the carnival pouring rose- and lemon-colored lights all around us, the carousel music and prancing ponies giving all the feeling of a holiday. I would have hit him, hard in the nose or the stomach or the chin. It would have been a wild swing, fast and forceful and full. I would have hit him somewhere – anywhere – and my father too. I would have, and in my heart I had. But Aunt Jean stepped in.
“You aren’t doing this, Frank. Not here, not again.” She put a hand on my shoulder and inched me back. “Come along, Lucy,” she said, and Lucy’s hot fingers wrapped the edge of my own.
I let Aunt Jean lead me, but I didn’t follow easy. I twisted and squirmed, turning my head backwards to glare at my father and James as they were swallowed up by the crowd.
“I won’t give it,” I repeated. “I won’t give it.” Again and again I said it, angry, until Aunt Jean stopped us dead in our tracks.
“You’re at a crossroads now, Sam, plain as day. I can see it, if you won’t. You’re at a crossroads and you have to choose.” She took me by the shoulders as she said it, her face even with my face, her breath on my breath.
“I won’t give it,” I said, though I could feel the words softening. “I won’t give it,” I repeated, gulping for air.
“James was at a crossroads last summer, but he’s gone now I think. You, Sam… You.” She stopped, groping for words. “Despite how they treat you, you don’t flinch when I touch you. And that says something, don’t you think?”
“I won’t give it,” I said again, the flood breaking as the words fell out, the tears pouring like rain. I shook hard with my sobbing, Aunt Jean pulling me into a hug.
If I cried for five minutes, I cried for ten – Aunt Jean rubbing the line of my shoulder blades as I did. “I won’t give it,” I cried again between large, loathsome breaths.
Her only reply was to hold me closer, tucking my head under her chin. My crying slowed and quieted in its time, and she waited without rushing as I let out a few last miserable sobs.
“Some men aren’t worth their whiskers,” Aunt Jean said as I stepped back. “And your father’s one of ’em. But you, Sam. You’re something else.”
I struggled to listen, but Lucy’s hand had come loose in my crying, and I began to feel a wave of tears building again.
“She’s there,” Aunt Jean said, pointing. “She’s safe.” She watched me rub my face dry. “Now, will you listen to me?” she asked.
“I will.” I would listen, for Aunt Jean I thought I could do anything.
“I was trying to tell you the other day, but I don’t think you heard. You’ve got something, Sam. Something special you ought to know that you have.”
Try as I might, I couldn’t piece her lesson together, and the world spun.
“Has this got something to do with the middle man?” I asked, a straggling tear running down the line of my nose.
“Yes!” she said, excited. “It’s no perfect explanation, if I’m honest. But you have something, Sam. Something they want. Only they don’t know how to get it. The whole world seems to have it, but it’s out of their grasp. You see? But you have it. You have it and you’re so close to them – your father and mother and James – no wonder they blame you. You’re the middle man.”
“But Aunt Jean,” I said, struggling. “I’ve got nothing to sell!”
“Uncle Ray said it’s selling, and I have nothing to sell.”
“It’s not only about selling, Sam. It’s not.” My eyes were starting to burn under all the carnival lights, and I squinted trying to understand. “There’s all kinds of middle men, Sam. People like you and me, trapped because we have what they don’t.”
Aunt Jean stopped, took a breath, and searched. “Do you see it, Sam? They want what they can’t get. For your father, it’s softness. For your mother, it’s love. For James, I don’t know what it is. Goodness, forgiveness, maybe hope. They want it, Sam. They want it, but they can’t seem to get it from you. So they hate you instead. Do you see?”
I tried to see, but the lights were too heavy and bright. I wanted simply to grab Lucy’s hand and run.
“But why should they hate me?” I asked. “I don’t have anything.” If my family really did want something from me, I would give it. I would give it to calm the desperate look in their eyes. I remembered then, suddenly, the seven dollars in my pocket, and how hurt James had been when I refused. I thrust my hands down and began fishing.
“Stop looking in your pockets, Sam. It’s inside, what they want,” she said, thrusting one solitary finger at my heart. “It’s right there, Sam. And you have everything.”
Ember Verma is a freelance editor and proofreader with a background in teaching. She does most of her writing at a table littered with children’s craft supplies, but is thankful to have a few mornings a week to herself. She hikes and runs marathons all over the world.
© 2018, Ember Verma