Itch

Michelle D. Kwasney

Henry Holt and Co.

Chapter One

Unjust

Unjust: marked by injustice; unfair.

I have liked that word ever since it appeared on our spelling list in second grade. Right after, I began noticing how often Brother Thompson used it in his Sunday sermons. "The sins of an unjust few imperil the masses!" he would shout, slapping his hand on the podium. And all thirty-seven of us—unless Widow Pickett was ailing, in which case there would be thirty-six—would lift our voices and exclaim, "Amen! " Beaver Creek Baptists were big on hollering amen.

Still, I spotted those unjust acts everywhere.

Take Mr. and Mrs. Winthrop, who owned half the town of Beaver Creek. Each Sunday morning they’d drop a measly quarter in the collection plate while my best friend Bailey Parncutt’s mama and papa, who couldn’t afford an indoor toilet, gave fifty cents. Or two-faced Lenny Potts, who acted like one of the twelve disciples during the service, then headed home to whip the daylights out of his son, Lenny Junior.

Gram tells me I shouldn’t dwell on these thoughts— that the good Lord keeps tabs on everybody, and He’ll dole out what’s due when the time is right.

But Gramps understood me. He was just a kid when a bunch of angry white men torched the black town of Rosewood over a crime Gramps claimed a black man didn’t even commit. He seldom met more than a few folks who agreed with him, but that didn’t change his thinking any. Gramps had an opinion about everything—President Johnson, the Vietnam War, the sit-ins over in Alabama, you name it. When something wasn’t right by him, he spoke his piece and paid the price.

I wished I could be more like him in that way. I have always been shy in the speaking-up department. My brain’s a miniature thought factory, whizzing and whirring, kicking up notions like they’re a dime a dozen. But opening my mouth and sending those thoughts on their way is a whole ’nother matter.

What if I sound stupid? I ask myself. Where’ll I hide if people laugh?

One day I decided I would ask what the secret was. "Gramps," I said, "I’ve got a question for you," which was how most of our conversations started.

And he said, "What would that be, Itch?" Gramps had started calling me Itch four summers ago, following an especially bad case of poison ivy. In time, Gram took a hankering to it, as well. I didn’t mind—not with a name like Delores.

"How do you do it?" I asked Gramps. "How do you say what’s on your mind without worrying you’ll rub folks the wrong way?"

He said, "I’d have to be a nincompoop not to worry. Speaking up takes courage."

"Courage," I repeated.

Gramps nodded. "Growing up helps, too."

I scratched my head. "Yeah? When’s this growing up usually happen?"

"For you"—his chin puckered as he studied my face— "I’d say it’s just around the corner."

Dang, if Gramps wasn’t right.

Everything that followed from that moment onward was fixing to see to it I grew up. Except I’m not talking about gaining two inches in height or adding a shoe size, though both have happened since. I mean that other kind of growing up. The invisible stuff that happens inside your head, whispering so loud you can’t miss it. Psssst. Don’t look now, but you ain’t a kid anymore.

But there I go, getting ahead of myself—something Gram claims I do altogether too often. I’ll back it up—to the summer after I finished fifth grade and still believed there was nothing an orange Creamsicle and a ride in Gramps’s Chevy couldn’t cure. The summer Gramps died and Gram got the notion of moving us up north. The summer I met an almost-famous baton twirler named Gwendolyn who offered me a close-up look at unjust.

Yes, that’s where I’ll begin. At the beginning. Which was really an ending in disguise.

Excerpted from Itch by Michelle D. Kwasney

Copyright © 2008 by Michelle D. Kwasney

Published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.