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Authors: Ann H. Gabhart

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BOOK: Orchard of Hope
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“Maybe I don’t want to tell you. Maybe I want to stay a stranger.”

“Then suit yourself.” Jocie turned around and started walking again. She didn’t have time for whatever game this boy was playing. She tried to keep from limping, but she couldn’t. At the edge of the Sawyers’ yard, she scratched the spot right in front of Butch’s tail and pointed him back to his porch. To her surprise the dog went.

“Are you sure that bike-biting terror is not your dog?” the boy asked. He was pushing his bike along beside Jocie.

“He’s not my dog.” Jocie looked over at him. “I’m glad your bike wasn’t banged up too bad.”

“How about my bloody head?”

“I’ve already told you I was sorry about that.”

They kept walking without saying anything. Finally the boy said, “Your ankle looks swollen.”

“Yeah. I must’ve twisted it,” Jocie said.

They went a few more steps before the boy said, “Look, I know you’re a little white girl and I’m a big black boy and I just moved here and I’m not sure what the rules are around here about this kind of thing, but do you want a ride?”

“I’m not a little girl. I’ll be fourteen next month. And it’s my guess you aren’t much older or you’d be driving a car instead of riding a bike.”

“So I lack a little being sixteen. I’m still a big black boy in a white neighborhood, and I don’t bow and scrape too good.” The boy grimaced and touched his forehead. “Well, that might not have been the best word to use right now, what with this scrape on my head. But now that the dog’s gone I’ll give you a ride.”

“You forgot about the stranger part,” Jocie said.

“I bet you’ve never met a stranger.”

“Somebody who doesn’t want to say his name is pretty strange.”

The boy laughed again. “Your point.”

“Maybe my point, but your serve,” Jocie said.

“You play tennis?”

“No. We don’t have any tennis courts, but I’ve played badminton sometimes. All you need is a yard and a net for that.”

“I told my mother this place was too backward to move to. We should have stayed in Chicago. Lots of tennis courts up there.”

“You play tennis?”

“How come you sound so surprised? Because I’m black and black people don’t play tennis?”

“Do you?”

“Well, no, but I might someday. So how about the ride? Yes or no?”

Jocie stopped walking and looked straight at him. “How about the name? Yes or no?”

He stopped rolling his bike and smiled at her. “Noah Hearndon at your service, Miss Brooke.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Hearndon, and I’d be more than happy to take you up on that offer of a ride if it’s not too much trouble.”

“Climb aboard.” Noah straddled the bike and waited while Jocie tried to figure out the best way to sit on the back fender.

“I don’t think this is going to work,” she said finally.

“Not unless you grab hold of my waist,” Noah said. When Jocie still hesitated, he laughed and added, “I promise the black won’t rub off on you.”

Jocie wasn’t a bit worried about the black rubbing off, but she hadn’t grabbed hold of a boy since she used to wrestle with Teddy Whitehead in second grade. Still, she’d told Noah she wanted a ride, and she couldn’t ride without holding on. She took a deep breath and put one hand gingerly on each side of his waist. His muscles felt hard under his sweaty T-shirt.

Noah gave her a look over his shoulder and said, “Hold on and pray.”

Jocie was already praying. She just wasn’t sure exactly what she should be praying for the most. That she wouldn’t fall off? Surely this couldn’t be that much different than riding on the back of a motorcycle, and she’d done that plenty of times with Wes. But with Wes, she just wrapped her arms around his waist without a second’s thought. She couldn’t very well hug this boy like that.

Or maybe she should be praying that she wouldn’t make Noah laugh at her again. She didn’t know why she cared if he did or not. After all, she really didn’t know him. She didn’t know where he lived. She didn’t know why he was in Hollyhill. She didn’t know why he went from being mad to laughing his head off in a second’s time. And she didn’t know which she was going to make him do next or how.

One thing for sure, she wasn’t going to find out any of the answers without asking. Now seemed to be as good a time as any.

“You move in somewhere around here?”

“You don’t think I biked down from Chicago, do you?”

“I haven’t heard about anybody moving into the neighborhood.”

“And you’d have heard if I moved into your neighborhood. That’s for sure.”

“Okay, so you don’t live in Chicago or my neighborhood. Where do you live? Or did you just fall out of a spaceship?” She knew he wouldn’t know what she was talking about, but she didn’t care. That was what Wes was always telling Jocie. That he fell out of a spaceship and landed in Hollyhill.

“My misguided parents moved down here to plant an orchard out on Hoopole Road. I bet you don’t even know where that is. It’s so far out in the sticks that nobody could know where that is.”

“But I do. My father’s the preacher at Mt. Pleasant Church just over the hill from Hoopole Road,” Jocie said.

“A preacher’s kid. You have my sympathy.”

“I don’t need it. I like being a preacher’s kid,” Jocie said.

“All the time?” He glanced back over his shoulder at her.

“Well, my father’s the newspaper editor too, so I can be the editor’s kid part of the time.”

“I’ll bet nobody ever forgets you’re a preacher’s kid, though.”

“I don’t want them to,” Jocie said. Just a few weeks ago she’d been more worried about people not believing she was the preacher’s kid. “Are you a preacher’s kid too?”

“My father a preacher? No way.” Noah was laughing again. The bike wobbled a little before he paid attention to keeping his wheels straight. “He doesn’t have much use for preachers.”

“Why not?”

“Beats me,” Noah said. “Now my mother, that’s a different matter altogether. She might have been a preacher if the job was open to women. Instead she just preaches at me and anybody else who will stand still five minutes.”

“What’s she preach about?”

“Anything and everything, according to her mood. But mostly freedom. She’s what some might call an activist. Went to the March on Washington with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. last summer.”

“Oh yeah. My dad had me read Rev. King’s speech because he thought it was so good. He kept saying he wished he could hear him preach in person sometime.”

“Yeah, that part about having a dream really grabbed people. My mother came home all charged up, but my daddy said that’s all it is—a dream. A dream that won’t ever come true, but my mama says it will if we make it happen.” Noah looked over his shoulder at Jocie. “I don’t know how you people here in the big town of Hollyhill feel about blacks in general, but one thing for sure, you’re going to know it when my mama comes to town. Your little town will never be the same once Myra Cassidy Hearndon gets hold of it.”

Jocie didn’t say so out loud, but she thought the same might be said about Myra’s son, Noah Hearndon.

4

Jocie pointed out the newspaper office when they got to Main Street.

“People are looking,” Noah said as he stopped the bike in an open parking space in front of the office.

“Just because they don’t know who you are. We expect to know everybody we see in Hollyhill.” Jocie climbed off the bike and stepped down gingerly on her ankle. It still hurt.

“Yeah. I’m sure that’s it and that it doesn’t have a thing to do with me being a little dark around the edges and you being so lily white.”

“We have black people in Hollyhill.”

“You ever ridden on the backs of any of their bikes?”

“Not yet. They know me well enough to stay out of my way when they see me coming on my bike.”

“Smart guys,” Noah said, smiling again.

Jocie stood on the sidewalk and looked at Noah. “You never did tell me why you were coming to town.”

“You’re sort of nosey, aren’t you?”

“Maybe.” Jocie didn’t let what he said bother her. “I guess it comes from helping my dad get stories for the paper.”

“I know. And being a preacher’s kid.”

“That too.” Jocie waited for him to say why he was in Hollyhill, but he just balanced himself with one foot on the road and one on his bike pedal and looked at her without saying a word.

She eyed him, then gave a shrug. “Okay, don’t tell me. The
Banner
just came out yesterday anyway, and your story, whatever it is, would be such old news by next week’s issue that nobody would care.” She nodded toward the door. “But come on inside and meet my dad. And you can clean up the scrape on your head. If you were looking for a job or something, you wouldn’t want to show up bleeding.”

“What makes you think I need a job?” Noah asked, but he got off his bike, sat it up on the sidewalk, and kicked down the stand.

“You’re almost sixteen and you want to drive a car instead of ride a bike,” Jocie said.

“Deductive thinking. You must be a regular female Sherlock Holmes.”

“That’s me. Come on and I’ll get you a Band-Aid and a copy of this week’s
Banner
. I don’t remember any help-wanted ads, but there might have been one or Dad might know somebody that needs help. Of course, there are always farmers working in hay and stuff.”

“I’ve already got a line on something like that. The guy who sold us the farm said he might need some help with fencing and painting his barn roof in a week or two.”

“Who was that?”

“Harvey McMurtry. You know him?”

“Sure. Mr. Harvey goes to my dad’s church.”

“Small world, isn’t it?” Noah said and then looked up and down Main Street before making a face. “Real small.”

Jocie stepped into the newspaper office and set the bell over the door to jingling. Zella looked up from her typewriter. “Where in the world have you been, Jocelyn? Your father’s been calling everywhere to try to find you.” Her eyes narrowed as she took a closer look at Jocie. “Good heavens, Jocelyn. Don’t you own a comb or a washcloth? You look like you’ve been wrestling pigs or something.”

“No pigs, just a bike wreck. I ran into a newcomer to Hollyhill. Literally,” Jocie said and stepped aside so Zella could see Noah. “This is Noah Hearndon. Zella Curtsinger, Noah.”

Zella’s eyes popped open wide when she saw Noah. Zella had been working at the
Banner
ever since Jocie could remember, probably ever since her father could remember too. As long as Jocie had known her, she’d looked exactly the same—with the same dark-rimmed glasses, the same tightly curled black hair, the same red lipstick that she sometimes had to wipe off her teeth with the pink tissues she kept at hand on her desk, and the same twist to her mouth as if she’d been eating green persimmons whenever she looked at Jocie.

Jocie just had a way of getting under Zella’s skin even when she didn’t try, and most of the time she tried. Zella was always reciting the proper behavior rules for girls to Jocie, and she looked as if she was about to explode with several of them now as she stared between Jocie and Noah.

Finally she dabbed her upper lip with one of her pink tissues and managed to say, “Pleased to meet you, I’m sure.”

“Same here, ma’am,” Noah said. He looked as if he wanted to not only smile but burst out laughing the way he had at Jocie after the bike wreck.

“Noah’s family bought a farm out on Hoopole Road,” Jocie said. “He was coming to town when me and the Sawyers’ dog managed to knock his bike out from under him. He needs a couple of Band-Aids.”

“Certainly,” Zella said as she pulled open a desk drawer quickly. She held out the Band-Aids to Jocie and let her eyes skip across Noah’s face. “Your father’s a farmer?”

“Now he is,” Noah said. “That’s not against the law here in Holly County, is it? Having Negro farmers?”

“Well, no, certainly not, or at least I suppose not,” Zella said as she fanned her face with her tissue. “I don’t think we’ve ever had one before. Some of the boys who live up in the West End work on the farms now and again, of course, but nobody who actually lives on a farm.”

“Oh, what do the Negroes here do?” Noah asked.

“Well, they have jobs like anybody else.”

“Lawyers, bankers, sheriff’s deputies, mailmen?” Noah said.

Zella’s eyes narrowed on Noah. “I think you need to learn some manners, young man, when you’re talking to your elders.”

“Yes, ma’am, you’re probably right,” Noah said. “I sometimes forget my place.”

Jocie could tell Noah was baiting Zella. She’d done the same plenty of times herself, but it seemed different somehow when somebody else was doing it. “Come on, Noah. I’ll show you where the bathroom is so you can take care of your forehead.”

Noah followed her away from Zella’s desk. “Are they flesh-toned Band-Aids?”

“Not your flesh tone, I’m sure,” Jocie said. “You have a problem with being black or something?”

“Not me. It’s everybody else that seems to have the problem.”

Jocie decided not to bite on that one and just pointed Noah toward the sink in the bathroom. “I’ll get Dad.”

“Is he going to have a problem with me being in his restroom?”

“Beats me,” Jocie said. “You can ask him.” She wasn’t going to be baited like Zella. She could almost hear Zella steaming at her desk behind them before she started banging extra hard on the keys of her typewriter. Jocie went through the door into the pressroom. “Hey, Dad. You back here?”

“Jocie, it’s about time. I thought maybe I was going to have to call the sheriff and send out a search party. Aunt Love said you left there almost an hour ago.” Her dad stood up from the worktable and took a better look at her. “What have you been doing?”

“The chain slipped off my bike, and I had a wreck.”

“Are you okay?” He moved closer to look at her better.

“Bummed up my ankle, but I’m okay. I sort of hit somebody else. He banged up his head.”

“You ran your bike into somebody? How could you run into somebody on your bike? I mean, you had the whole outdoors out there to steer around him, didn’t you?”

“You’d think, but I had help,” Jocie said. “He was on a bike too, and Butch, you know the Sawyers’ big German shepherd, was chasing him and I couldn’t stop and he did. It’s a long story.”

BOOK: Orchard of Hope
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