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The step was steeper than Harriet expected. She stumbled, fell face forward, and caught herself just in time to plunge awkwardly off the bus into the breath-sucking heat that smothers Alabama in June.
She glared down the long sidewalk strafed by the noonday sun, then turned back accusingly to the driver. "This the closest you can get? It's got to be two blocks, and it's hotter'n a stove out here!"
"You can go on a block or two if you like," he said with practiced patience, "but this is the stop you asked for. You won't get any closer."
Outrage in every movement, she shrugged on her backpack and whirled away.
He closed the door. When the bus roared off in a noxious cloud, she felt suddenly, inexplicably abandoned. Raising one fist to her mouth, she coughed dramatically in case the driver was watching. Harriet liked playing to an audience. Still playing, she adjusted her backpack and stomped off in the direction of Oakwood Cemetery as instructed.
The bus driver, Jerry Banks, caught one final glimpse of her in his side mirror. He was glad his wife Netty couldn't see that kid. Now that their own two were grown, Netty was always bringing home strays. She would know what to do with this one eyes as gold as a tiger's pelt and a temper to match. She'd scrub off half the makeup and take a hairbrush to the long brown hair. While she brushed, Netty would sweet-talk the kid into losing her black nail polish and half the cheap perfume. The girl would clean up real good.
As he pulled in to his next stop, Jerry felt a twinge of uneasiness. What did a teenager want in that old cemetery in all this heat? He couldn't see her as a faithful daughter of the Confederacy, going up to read the historical marker and check out gravestones of early citizens or Confederate soldiers. He hoped she wasn't making a pilgrimage to Hank Williams's grave old Hank was buried in the Oakwood Annex. She could have stayed on a few stops for that. In either case, she'd surely be the only person up there at high noon.
But passengers weren't Jerry's responsibility once they left the bus especially young white passengers. He knew that, and shrugged at his own foolishness. After all, the police station was right across the street from the cemetery.
Jerry didn't know that ivy and kudzu make an effective barrier between the Montgomery police station and Oakwood Cemetery.
He'd guessed right about Harriet's interest in history and Hank Williams, though. She had never heard of Hank Williams. She had no idea the old burying ground had a historical marker. And it would never occur to her to be interested in tombstones. Harriet's concern with Oakwood Cemetery was uniquely her own.
The black backpack hung heavily from her shoulders. A vivid bird of prey on her black T-shirt stuck damply to her front. Black jeans hugged her small flat behind. Harriet always wore black. Black sandals. Black lipstick. Black nail polish. She'd dye her hair black if Uncle William would let her. Women looked better in black. That's what fashion magazines said. They never said how hot it was, though. She was so sweaty she felt grimy all over. She had wanted to meet later so she could go back to Aunt Dixie's and change, but the morning caller had been insistent. "I want to see you right now. I can't wait any longer!" The voice was a soft, muffled whisper. Harriet had read her own yearnings into it.
Just remembering made her walk faster, hurrying toward her own particular miracle.
Not that she quite believed it. Fifteen years of living had given Harriet a strong practical streak, and she'd never seen an honest-to-God miracle. She didn't really expect to find one at the end of this hot street.
"But it might be her," she argued aloud in a fierce whisper, clenching her fists around hope. "Sometimes in stories."
Stories, to Harriet, meant romance novels, where a secret caller could be the heroine's mother coming back after thirteen years. Clasping the heroine close, she'd whisper through raining tears the reason she'd had to leave long ago without a word. Unfortunately, only in her deepest soul was Harriet the heroine of anything.
Perspiration trickled down her back and under her arms. In her sandals, grit stuck to the balls of her feet and crept between her toes. "I'll be filthy before I get there," she muttered. With one hand she wiped her neck, then held her arm out critically. She'd have looked better with a tan.
Anxious thoughts circled like buzzards. Would her mother think her pretty? "You've got great eyes," she reminded herself. Did her mother have the same eyes? Harriet wished Granny Lawson had kept at least one picture.
Mother. Harriet savored the word and regretted she hadn't put on fresh mascara and eyeliner. She'd scarcely spent any time on her face this morning, she'd been in such a hurry to get to the bank.
"What difference does it make?" She could hear her cousin Julie's scorn. "You're such a mess, nobody notices your eyes." Julie the cheerleader, with the perfect figure, red-gold hair, and perfect tan. All Julie and her friends did on weekends was sit by pools and brag about all the boys they knew. Harriet wasn't about to sit around with them and let them smirk at her flat chest, or ask whether she knew any boys. Her shoulders sagged, then lifted defiantly. She'd show Julie. She'd show them all!
The cemetery gates were just ahead. Beyond them, irregular lines of white tombstones and a few tall trees marched up a high hill crowned by a grove and a small white gazebo. "At the gazebo," the voice had said.
She squinted against the sun, still afraid to believe. "Probably somebody just puttin' me on," she told herself for the umpteenth time. Anger surged. "But if it is if they do" She didn't know how she would punish such betrayal, but it would be terrible.
She felt torn between wanting to dash up that hill and wanting to turn and run. She wished it were yesterday, tomorrow, any minute but now.