The night that Posey and Evalina moved to Harmony, Georgia, Walter Tipple had that dream again.
The one about his birthday.
Mama and Daddy are standing nearby, waiting for him to blow out the candles.
Eleven of them.
Everyone sings “Happy Birthday,” but suddenly the screen door bursts open and in steps Walter’s brother, Tank, in his army uniform.
He throws his arms out and says, “Look who’s back!” while everyone stares, wide-eyed and gape-mouthed, like they’ve just seen a ghost.
Which, of course, they have.
The candles drip wax onto the buttercream frosting that Mama makes so good.
And then it happens.
Every single time Walter has that dream.
The ghost that is Tank takes off his army hat, plunks it down on Walter’s head, and says, “Blow out them candles, little man, and I’ll show you my world.” He slaps Walter on the back and adds, “But you gotta blow ’em all out. First try. No cheating.”
He grins that grin of his with the chipped front tooth.
Then he crosses his arms and taps his foot and says, “I ain’t got all day.”
So Walter looks down at those eleven candles, takes a deep breath …
… and wakes up.
Every single time.
The night that Evalina and Posey moved to Harmony, Walter had sat on the edge of the bed after that dream with his heart racing.
Then he’d heard a car bouncing and squeaking up the gravel road toward Ernest and Nadine’s old tumbledown house next door.
He got out of bed and padded to the window, the wide plank floor cool under his bare feet. The full moon glowed over the yard, making the clothesline cast an eerie shadow, like a long black snake that slithered through the garden and over the lawn chair where Daddy sometimes napped in the afternoon.
By the light of the moon, Walter saw Evalina’s car pulling a trailer piled high with cardboard boxes. A washing machine. A mattress.
He hadn’t seen Posey or her scruffy little dog, Porkchop, sitting in the front seat beside Evalina.
But the next day, he had done what Mama asked him to and run up to that old house with a jar of her bread-and-butter pickles. He stood on the wooden porch with half the boards missing and started counting to ten to calm his nerves before knocking on the door. But he had only gotten to six when a skinny, scabby-kneed girl came busting out onto the porch, followed by a small, yapping dog.
“Can’t you read?” the girl hollered.
Walter nearly fell backward into the prickly bushes along the porch. And just when he thought his beating heart might come to a screeching halt, that girl stuck her face up close to his and said, “I suppose you can’t talk, neither.”
“Um…” Walter said, looking down at the pickle jar.
“Stick out your tongue,” the girl snapped.
So, of course, that is exactly what Walter did.
He stuck out his tongue.
That was when Evalina came out onto the porch and said, “Good gravy and green beans, Posey. What you doing to that boy?”
“Checking to see if he can hear me, ’cause he sure can’t read.” Posey jabbed a finger at the sign nailed on the porch railing:
That sign had been there as long as Walter could remember and he still didn’t know what solicitors were. He’d always figured it meant any human being who was breathing because Ernest and Nadine hadn’t wanted anybody to set foot on their property. They stayed inside that falling-down house the livelong day, only opening the door every now and then to shoo cats out of their weed-filled yard.
Then one day Nadine died and three days later Ernest died. Not long after that, Mama heard somebody at the post office say that their daughter from Tennessee was coming to live in their old house.
Mama hadn’t heard that Evalina had a skinny, scabby-kneed daughter named Posey and a yapping little dog named Porkchop.
Which was why it had come as a bit of a shock to Walter to find himself on their porch with a jar of pickles and that girl glaring at him and her dog snapping and snarling.
After he got over the shock, he took a good hard look at Posey and felt his spirits lift a little.
Right there in the middle of Posey’s left cheek was a large heart-shaped birthmark.
Deep dark brown against her pale, freckled skin.
The instant Walter saw that birthmark, he began to think that maybe he and Posey were destined to be kindred spirits, bound together by the misfortune of being an easy target.
Walter had a lifetime of experience in being an easy target.
He was a quiet, timid, pigeon-toed boy with a lazy eye that never seemed to want to look where the other eye was looking.
Such boys were easy targets for the sharp-tongued kids in Harmony.
Now here was this girl with a heart-shaped birthmark on her cheek who was surely going to be an easy target, too.
Walter had waited his whole life for a kindred spirit and now here she was.
True, she seemed a little wild, wagging her finger at him and going on about that sign on the porch railing.
But then, Walter figured, beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to kindred spirits.
He handed Evalina the jar of pickles, and that little dog snarled and snapped at his ankles, making him jump down off the porch, landing in the red dirt yard with a thud.
“Hush up, Porkchop,” Posey said, holding the dog by his collar. She peered down at Walter and said, “He only bites if I tell him to.”
Walter looked up at the dog and felt his mouth drop open in surprise.
That scruffy little dog only had three legs!
Two in the front and one in the back.
Posey must’ve seen Walter’s surprise, because she said, “You gotta be tough when you look like ol’ Porkchop here. He’s a scrapper.” She jabbed a thumb at herself and added, “Like me.”
When he headed back home that day, Walter felt a little lighter. Maybe this summer was going to get better. The Tipples lived so far from town that Walter had never had anyone but Tank to hang out with. Now that Tank was gone, he spent every day alone.
His mind whirled with images of him and Posey having a grand old time together.
Looking for salamanders under the rotten logs down by the river.
Maybe adding a second story to the fort he and Tank had built way back in the woods behind a pile of termite-riddled lumber that used to be somebody’s barn.
But later that night, Walter felt that familiar Mr. Doubt come creeping back, turning him into his worry-filled self again. He thought about Posey pointing at that NO SOLICITORS sign and squinting right up in his face so bossy and all.
He was starting to realize that Posey was probably one of those kids who had perfected the fine art of bully-thwarting.
He’d bet anything that when summer was over, she’d march herself right into Harmony Elementary School and dare those kids to laugh at her just by sending them a glare as mighty as any laser.
She’d probably snatch fish sticks right off the plates of first-graders at lunch or dare the third-graders to touch her birthmark and then charge them a quarter if they did.
Yep. Posey was a bully-thwarter the way that he, Walter Tipple, could never be.
She and that dog, Porkchop, were tough, the way that he, Walter Tipple, would never be.
By the time he fell asleep that night, Mr. Doubt had stepped aside and Mr. Disappointment had settled in. A bully-thwarter like Posey wouldn’t want to hang out with a loser like him.
But then, the very next day, something happened that told Walter that fate might finally be on his side, sending him the kindred spirit he’d been waiting for, after all.
Because the very next day, when he and Posey and Porkchop were pushing their way through tangled pricker bushes and climbing over fallen trees in the dense woods beside the river, they found a dead man.
The morning after Walter delivered Mama’s pickles to Evalina and Posey, he splashed cold water on his face, trying to clear his head of that dream he kept having. The one about his birthday with Tank telling him, “Blow out them candles, little man, and I’ll show you my world.”
At breakfast, Mama shuffled around the kitchen in her bathrobe and slippers, her face lined with the sadness that had been written on it every minute of every day for the last six months.
She dropped into the kitchen chair across from Walter and pushed a cereal box toward him. Walter sighed. He sure did miss that French toast and those blueberry pancakes she used to make for him and Tank.
Walter looked over at Tank’s empty seat at the table and could practically hear him going on and on about Mama’s cooking the way he used to, making her face light up and sending her back to the stove to cook some more.
Copyright © 2021 by Barbara O’Connor