Where the Story Begins
Highway 14 stretches on for miles and miles through the South Carolina countryside.
The land is flat.
The dirt is red.
There are mountains to the west. An ocean to the east.
Every few miles there is a gas station. A billboard. A Waffle House.
In the summer, cars whiz up the highway with suitcases strapped on the roofs and bicycles hanging off the backs. Eighteen-wheelers rumble along, hauling lumber and paper and concrete sewer pipes.
The cars and the eighteen-wheelers drive right by a small green sign with an arrow pointing to the left. The sign reads MEADVILLE.
Pecan trees line the main street of Meadville, shading the sidewalks and dropping pecans for boys to throw at stop signs.
On summer afternoons, waves of steamy heat hover above the asphalt roads.
Tollie Sanborn sits on the curb in front of the barbershop in his white barber coat with combs in the pocket.
Elwin Dayton changes a flat tire on his beat-up car with flames painted on the hood.
Marlene Roseman skips to swimming lessons, her flip-flops slapping on the sidewalk.
When the sun goes down and the moon comes up, the street is empty. The shops are closed and dark. The streetlights flicker on. A stray cat roams the alleys, sniffing at Dumpsters overflowing with rotten lettuce and soggy cardboard boxes.
Just past the post office is a narrow street called Waxhaw Lane. At the end of Waxhaw Lane is a green house with muddy shoes on the porch and an empty doghouse in the front yard.
On one side of the door of the green house is a window. The window is open. The room inside is dark.
A curly-haired girl named Stella sits in the window and whispers into the night:
Moo goo gai pan
Moo goo gai pan
Moo goo gai pan
The words drift through the screen and float across the street and hover under the streetlights, dancing with the moths.
Stella is supposed to be saying her prayers, but instead she is just whispering words, like moo goo gai pan.
Across the street from the green house is a big white house with blue-striped awnings over the windows and rocking chairs on the porch. A giant hickory-nut tree casts shadows that move in the warm breeze like fingers wiggling over the dandelions on the dry brown lawn. The roots of the tree lift up patches of cement under the sidewalk out front.
The next morning, Stella will race across the street and up the gravel driveway of the big white house. She will climb the wooden ladder to the flat roof of the garage to wait for Gerald Baxter.
Stella and Gerald will sit in lawn chairs on the roof and play cards on an overturned trash can. They will watch Stella’s older brother, Levi, and his friends C.J. and Jiggs ride their rickety homemade skateboards up and down the street.
They will eat saltine crackers with peanut butter and toss scraps down to Gerald’s gray-faced dog sleeping in the ivy below.
They will listen to the kids on Waxhaw Lane playing in somebody’s sprinkler or choosing teams for kickball. Stella will want to join them, but Gerald won’t. Stella might go anyway, leaving Gerald pouting on the roof. But most likely she will heave a sigh and stay up there on the roof, playing cards with Gerald.
They will watch the lazy days of summer stretch out before them like the highway out by the Waffle House.
As the sun sinks lower in the sky and disappears behind the shiny white steeple of Rocky Creek Baptist Church, the lightning bugs will come out one by one, twinkling across the yards on Waxhaw Lane.
Gerald’s mother will turn on the back-porch light, sending a soft yellow glow across the yard. Stella’s mother will holler at Levi for leaving his skateboard in the driveway again.
Stella and Gerald will put the cards inside the little shed at the back of the garage roof and climb down the ladder.
The next day will start the same.
Stella will race across the street to the big white house and climb the wooden ladder to the garage roof to wait for Gerald.
But this time something will be different.
Copyright © 2012 by Barbara O’Connor
Map copyright © 2012 by Greg Call