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Cliques, Hicks, and Ugly SticksConfessions of April Grace
By K.D. McCrite
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Kathaleen McCrite
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRecovery Isn't as Easy as It Looks
Isabel St. James is a recovering hypochondriac.
She once thought she had hoof-and-mouth disease just because she skittered through the barnyard while the cows were there waiting to be milked. Another time she swore up and down and sideways that the air in the Ozarks was full of poison and begged her husband to take her back to the city for the sake of her lungs. She was puffing on a cigarette as hard as a freight train when she said it, too. Boy, oh boy.
On Tuesday afternoon, the first week of September 1986, right after the first day of school, I walked with my mama and my older sister, Myra Sue, along the shiny gray floors of the hospital corridor. I seriously doubted anything in ole Isabel's experience to that point had prepared her for the actual pain of a concussion, two black eyes, a broken nose, a broken leg, four cracked ribs, and a purple knot on her forehead the size and color of an Easter egg. This is what her husband, Ian, reported to Mama that morning, after Isabel's accident.
I figured Isabel probably had a good case of the whiplash as well, but I'm no doctor.
Now, for a girl of my age (which is eleven) and education (I am in the sixth grade at Cedar Ridge Junior High), I've always been pretty good around blood and scrapes and runny noses. I'm no sissy like Myra Sue, who is fourteen and in high school. But that day was my first experience in a hospital. I have to tell you, I felt downright woozy. Even Mama looked queasy. Maybe it was because of all the busyness and the noise: phones ringing and people talking and nurses scurrying up and down the hallway with clipboards. I guess it made us both want to lose our lunches, but if Mama could buck up and face it down, so could I. We redheads are pretty tough.
Those nurses didn't bother to make eye contact with anyone. I wondered if they ever looked at the people they took care of, or if all they did was scribble on those clipboards and read what other people wrote.
In one room we passed, the door stood wide open and a blond-haired lady was barfing right over the edge of her bed and onto the floor. And in the hallway, a gray-faced old man was lying on a hospital bed right out in the open so everyone had to step around him. He kept raising one thin, white hand every time a nurse passed. None of them bothered to say to him, "Good afternoon" or "Excuse me" or "Are you having a heart attack?"
I smiled at him, hoping to make him feel less invisible, but he just looked at me as if he was on his way out of this world. He'd probably be dead a week and a half before anyone from that hospital noticed.
I looked around and saw a chubby nurse with short, frizzy brown hair and great big pink-framed glasses. She was just standing there staring at nothing on the wall.
I walked away from Mama and went right up to that nurse. "That old man over there needs some help," I said. "I think he's dying."
She looked at me over the top of those glasses.
"I hardly think you qualify as an expert."
"Children have no business on this floor." She moved away from me, and her pale blue-green scrub pants made shish-shish noises as she walked toward the desk where two nurses were sipping coffee.
"Charlene," she said to one of them, "I keep telling 'em that kids don't need to be up here; they're always underfoot. Has the office changed the minimum age?"
Well, as I said, I'm just a little bit under the age of twelve, which is the minimum age to be a visitor on the floor, so I hurried to catch up with Mama and my sister before I could be thrown out for trying to save that old man's life.
I felt downright sorry for ole Isabel if she needed anything because I don't believe anyone in those aqua outfits had time or interest enough to actually take care of the sick and injured.
Right then I promised myself to never, in a million years, go to the hospital in Blue Reed, Arkansas, unless I was in a big hurry to be ushered out of this world and into the next.
"There's Isabel's room," Mama said as quietly as if we were in church. "Room 316."
"I hope she isn't asleep," Myra Sue whispered, her eyes big and scared. She dearly loved and adored Isabel St. James.
Somebody, somewhere, dropped something loud and metallic, and it clattered a good ten seconds before it finally collapsed.
"How could she sleep in all this racket?" I asked in a perfectly reasonable volume given all that was going on around us.
"Shh," Mama cautioned. "We're in the hospital."
"Yes, you dork," Myra Sue added. "Speak appropriately."
I hardly saw the point, especially when about ten feet behind us that frizzy-haired nurse yelled for Kelly, who hollered back at her from the far end of the corridor. Apparently Nurse Frizzy had wanted Sugar Free Dr Pepper, not Diet Coke, and in case you're wondering, the vending machine on the third floor of that hospital has never, ever sold Fanta Orange, and probably never will. Kelly said so. In fact, she yelled it right down that big, shiny hall so all of us could hear.
Mama tapped on the door, which, unlike most of the doors we'd passed, was half closed.
"Entrez-vous," came the unmistakably miserable and somewhat nasally voice of Isabel St. James, who is not French, just in case you're wondering.
With her shiny blond curls flying, Myra Sue left us in the dust as she rushed into the room.
"Isabel!" she shrieked woefully in the most un-hospital-appropriate and unladylike manner you can imagine.
"Dearest girl!" Isabel did not shriek, but her whimper was not exactly genteel, either.
Boy, oh boy, ole Isabel looked like she'd been beat with a shovel and poked in the face with an ugly stick. She lay black and blue and purple against the white pillow and sheets. Both eyes were black. Her nose was all bandaged, and her lips were twice their normal size. Her right leg was all bundled up like a package, and I don't think Isabel or any of the busy nurses had bothered to comb her short, dark hair since her car wreck, and it stood out all over her head. I have to say, I've seen ole Isabel St. James look much better, and that's saying something, because believe me, even on her very best day, she's no prize in the looks department.
For a minute, you would have thought Myra Sue was going to jump right up on the bed with Isabel, but she stopped herself and tenderly hugged the woman. Isabel attempted to kiss her cheek with those big, swole-up ole lips, then looked past her at Mama and me. She reached out her bruised right hand.
"Lily! April!" she said with a little more spirit than you might have thought. "Oh, it's so good to see you both. I thought I might never see another living soul."
We hugged her as gently as possible. She moaned but she didn't scream, for which I was grateful. Isabel can put on the dog pretty good when it comes to High Drama, that's the truth.
She looked past us. "Didn't Grace come with you?"
Grace is my grandma, after whom my sister and I are named. Grandma's full name is Myra Grace Reilly.
"No," Mama said. "She has come down with a cold, and she won't leave her house until she's sure she's no longer contagious. You know Mama Grace."
Isabel shook her head. "And she won't see a doctor, will she?"
"You know Grandma," Myra Sue said, sounding like she thought she was as wise as Mama.
"Stubborn to the very core," said Mama.
"And then some," I added. "I just hope she don't get the pneumonia."
"When I called to tell her about your accident, she said to tell you she's praying for your quick recovery," Mama told Isabel.
Isabel lay back against the pillows and sighed. "That's kind of her. But after everything I've been through in the last eight hours ..."
Her voice trailed into nothing as Ian came into the room. He looked worse for wear, let me tell you—all wrinkled and droopy, with bags under his pale blue eyes and his shirt half untucked. Ian usually looks well-groomed, even in work clothes. Right then his wispy blond hair was wispier than ever, and he had mud on his shoes. He saw us and smiled a little bit. Ian's not so bad once you get used to him.
"Afternoon," he said wearily. I have to say, we three Reilly females greeted him with a lot more enthusiasm than his wife did.
"Is that my coffee?" Isabel said to him without so much as a howdy-do. Have I told you yet that she can be rude? R-u-d-e, rude.
"Yes. I had them brew it fresh for you at Gourmet Coffee, just like you told me." He peeled back the little tab on the lid. Steam came out, and the smell of coffee temporarily overcame the icky stink of medicine and sick people.
"There's a coffee vending machine at the end of the hall," I told him. "Right next to the machine that sells potato chips and gum and Oreos."
He gave me a tight smile. "She didn't want that."
"Oh." Enough said.
"And where are my cigarettes?" Isabel took the Styrofoam cup from him.
Ole Isabel says she's going to quit smoking, but your guess is as good as mine as to when that will be.
Ian hesitated. "Your doctor said you must not smoke until he's sure you're all right," he said finally. "You might have injured your lungs in that accident, lambkins."
She glared at him from her black-and-blue eyes.
"Have a little pity, can't you? I am in deadly pain, I've totally lost the use of my leg, and I haven't had a cigarette since ... since ..." Her look of outrage fled as panic replaced it. "Oh! Oh! I can't remember the last time I had a cigarette."
She leaned toward Ian in desperation. "I might have brain damage, darling! Oh! Oh, please don't leave me, darling!"
See what I mean about High Drama? Good grief.
"Oh, Isabel!" hollered Myra Sue, as if someone were taking out her own personal appendix without her permission.
"You're recovering from a wreck, Isabel, so it's only natural to have a little memory lapse or two," Mama said soothingly, a complete Voice of Reason.
"Yes, lamb," Ian murmured, all sweet and kind. "The doctor said your concussion was mild."
He tried to smooth her messy hair, but she jerked her head away. "A lot you care. Or know. And I can remember just fine what happened right up until I ... until I ..."
It was obvious the way she visibly grasped for memories that she couldn't remember right up until Whatever. I tried to help.
"Why don't you just tell us what you remember? Then maybe all the rest of it will come back to you."
She dragged her pitiful, bruised gaze from her mister and looked at me. When her swollen lips parted in a smile, I saw that her two front teeth were chipped. I wondered if she knew about that. I bet she didn't, because if she did, she would already be screeching for a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon to give her a mouth transplant.
"You always have the best ideas, April," she said.
"Well, I try," I said modestly, but boy, oh boy, had her tune changed! Used to be, she couldn't stand the sight of me. And I always thought she hated my ideas. Especially the good ones.
She attempted to sip her hot coffee, squealing a bit when she burned her fat lips. She blinked a bunch of times, a habit I find highly annoying. It's a trait my silly sister has adopted when she's feeling put-upon or uppity—which is most of the time.
"I'll blow on it for you, dear," Ian said, "and you tell the Reillys about your accident."
"Thank you, darling." Was that soft, gooey voice Isabel's? Yep, I guess so, because she gave him a dopey-eyed look as he took the cup from her bandaged hand and walked to the window. He gazed outside while he blew across Isabel's coffee to cool it. She launched into an account of what happened that morning after Myra Sue and I had climbed onto the school bus and Mama had gone to Ava, a town near us, real early on some errand she had refused to tell us about.
"I was running late for school," Isabel began, "and I had not had my morning coffee because it never got made." She slung a meaningful look at her mister, who gave every appearance of not having heard the remark. But I bet he heard every syllable of it.
"Oh, Isabel, I'm so sorry," Mama said. "I was in such a rush this morning—"
Isabel held up one hand.
"I don't expect you to wait on me hand and foot," she sniffed.
"Yes, that's my job," Ian said. I think he would've rolled his eyes, except Isabel was glaring at him, and you could see she was getting ready to throw something at his head—if she could find anything heavy enough—if he said another word.
Ian and Isabel had been staying with us for a while now, and used to be, she expected my mama to cook special things and clean up after her and do her laundry and everything, but Mama finally set her straight. It takes a lot to get on Lily Reilly's last nerve, but ole Isabel had done it.
You see, when Ian and Isabel first showed up on Rough Creek Road this past summer, they had just left California because of money problems, and they didn't have hardly anything except a bunch of clothes. The house they bought down the road from us was purely a rat haven, so Daddy made a deal with Ian that he would help fix the St. Jameses' house up if Ian would help on the farm the rest of the summer. Then Mama invited them to move in with us until their house was ready.
Well, let me tell you something: I thought none of us would survive that. But the St. Jameses finally learned that they weren't better than everybody in Arkansas, and I learned they were pretty good folks once I bothered to get to know them. It was an eye-opening experience all around, but not exactly a pleasant one.
They are still in our house, but only for a couple more months. Some of the other men in the neighborhood have promised to help Daddy and Ian do all the repairs once the summer farming season wraps up. In the meantime, the Cedar Ridge school hired ole Isabel to teach a few dance and drama classes. She's a professional dancer and has quite a bit of acting experience, so it seemed logical to hire her. The thing I had to ask myself, though, was how in the world was that woman gonna teach dance if she had a broken leg? I had a feeling ole Isabel's teaching career was over before it started. That was not a good thing for a lot of reasons, but mainly because she had been looking forward to it so much that she'd often forget to be a pain in everybody's neck.
"About the time I got to the highway," she was saying right then, "I realized that, in my haste, I had forgotten the video of As You Like It at home. I had to go back and get it because I wanted to show it to the senior drama club on their first day." She looked a little concerned. "I do hope those children do not think good acting starts and stops with Dallas or The Dukes of Hazzard." She thought about that a minute, shuddered, then continued, "Well, anyway. Lily, girls, you know what Rough Creek Road is like since that deluge last week."
You better believe we all knew what she was talking about. Our old country road is a mess, and will be for the next seven or eight million years unless I miss my guess.
"It took me a good fifteen minutes just to get to the highway, dodging those loathsome rocks and holes," Isabel said. "And, of course, it took another fifteen to get back home. I was not pleased."
No one would ever argue that. Isabel St. James was often disgruntled because so many things displeased her.
"When I got back to the house," she went on, "I saw that Ian had made the coffee after I left." She huffed loudly. "Why he couldn't have made it earlier is beyond me. Especially since he knows I need my morning coffee!"
Ole Ian just stood there, cooling her coffee while she stabbed him with fiery darts from her eyes. He continued to look out the window as if his wife weren't even in the room.
"I would have made it for you, dearest Isabel, if you'd asked me to," Myra Sue said, her eyes all shiny.
"Oh, darling, I know you would have." Isabel gave Myra Sue the best smile she could muster from those busted-up lips. "You are such a precious child."
Oh brother! I looked around for barf bags because those two were making me sick. I thought they were making Mama sick, too, because right then she was so pale that her freckles stood out, but she was smiling. I could not do that. Instead, I sighed.
Excerpted from Cliques, Hicks, and Ugly Sticks by K.D. McCrite Copyright © 2011 by Kathaleen McCrite. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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