After the death of her beloved Gramps, Delores Colchester, better known as "Itch," moves with her grandmother from Florida to Ohio. Starting over is hard, and Itch feels like an outsider in her new school, until she becomes friends with popular baton-twirling Gwendolyn. On the outside, Gwendolyn seems perfect: talented, smart, and beautiful. But she has a dark secret, which Itch begins to suspect and soon discovers is true. "Speaking up takes courage," Gramps had always told Itch, and she's about to discover just how much.
Michelle D. Kwasney weaves a compelling story about child abuse, family, and friendship against the backdrop of the late 1960s.
Itch is a 2009 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.
About the Author
MICHELLE D. KWASNEY is the author of the young adult novel Baby Blue. She holds a master's degree in education, and has worked as an elementary-school art educator in the public schools of Massachusetts and New York for twenty years. Michelle lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Michelle Kwasney lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her partner and their nineteen-year-old cat, Samantha. She is the author of the books Baby Blue and Itch.
Read an Excerpt
By Michelle D. Kwasney
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2008 Michelle D. Kwasney
All rights reserved.
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.CHAPTER 2
I remember every word of my final conversation with Gramps. That's because words are my specialty. I even keep a list of my favorites. Some I have chosen for how they sound, rolling off my tongue. Whip-poor-will. Persnickety. Others, like omniscient and talisman, I've picked on account of their meaning. But I digress — which is to say, I plumb near swerved off the topic.
Gramps and I were relaxing in the front seat of his Chevy Bel Air convertible. We were parked in the driveway, "watching the grass grow," as Gramps used to say. The top was down. He was puffing on an after-supper cigar.
I could hear Gram inside the house, sorting perm rods and disinfecting combs for her next day's appointments. Gramps — with the help of one of our neighbors, Leroy Garrison — had built Gram a beauty parlor in our garage. According to Gramps, Leroy was so dumb he could throw himself on the ground and miss, but he could hang Sheetrock faster than anybody. Together, they installed a head-washing sink, a chair with a dryer attached, and a styling station with a seat that lifted and lowered, depending on the height of the person Gram was looking to gussy up. Once Leroy asked Gramps what possessed him to give up his garage for a silly old hair salon. Moseying toward his Chevy, Gramps answered, "What you don't know about me, Leroy, is that I, myself, am part Bel Air and part tomcat. And neither one of them wants to be kept inside a dad-blasted house, now, do they?"
Gramps was always doing that — comparing people to things: car parts, animals, inanimate objects, some of them downright unseemly. Take Leroy, for instance. Gramps said he was equal parts flat tire and spent match.
That night, as Gramps and I sat in the driveway and the peepers called reeet-reeet, reeeet-reeeet back and forth across the buggy swamp and the scent of Gram's tea roses filled my nose with sweet smells, I became melancholy as all get-out. Then I got a strong hankering to talk about my mama.
Now, Gram didn't care much for the topic, seeing as my mama ran off ten months after I was born and was never to be seen or heard from again — except for a single postcard from the Grand Canyon that read: Take good care of my baby girl. You're the best. I love you. Then she signed her full name, Ruby Lee Colchester, with more curlicues than a ten-foot phone cord.
Gramps didn't mind discussing Mama, though. That night I said to him, "Gramps, I've got a question for you," just as I had ten trillion times before. Except I had no way of knowing there would never be a ten trillion and one.
Gramps clicked on the car radio. A Frank Sinatra song leapt from the dashboard. He puffed his cigar and asked, "What would that be, Itch?"
I stretched my legs out, staring down at my skinned-up knees. "You know how you're always saying what folks are made of? Well, I was wondering ..." I lowered my voice so Gram wouldn't hear me through the window. "What do you reckon my mama's made of?"
The upholstery crinkled as he sat back, thinking. "Your mama," he said finally, "is made up of equal parts of three things."
"Wait a second," I said. "How come everybody else you've ever told me about is made up of two things and my mama gets three?"
"Because your mama is a lot more complicated than most folks."
"I see," I said, though I wasn't sure I did.
"What's the best thing to use for catching fish?" Gramps asked me.
I squinted at him, sure this was a trick. We went fishing all the time. I could bait a hook in my sleep. "Why, worms, of course."
"Well," Gramps said, "your mama was one part worms."
I curled my lip up.
"Hang on. It's not like it sounds. Remember, worms ain't worms to a fisherman. They're bait. And your mama had plenty."
I felt myself blushing. "What's next?"
Gramps smiled. "Butterfly wings."
"Really? Why's that?"
"You seen pictures of your mama."
Indeed, I had. And though we were both born with the same sandy hair and dark eyes, they looked a far cry better on her. "Yeah," I agreed, "she's pretty."
Gramps's smile faded. "But she never stayed put. She was just like a monarch, always flitting here and there. Only landing long enough for you to admire its beauty and say, 'C'mere and have a gander at this,' before it flew off."
The evening settled in around us. A band of pink, bright as cherry Kool-Aid, began to soak the sky. "The third thing ...?" I said, prompting Gramps, before he flitted off, too.
Gramps rocked his head back, staring into the dusk.
I waited and waited.
I decided to make sure he hadn't fallen asleep on me. He'd been known to spend the night in that front seat. "Gramps." I shook his arm. "You didn't tell me the third thing about my mama."
Gramps turned to face me, then slowly, sadly, he looked away. "I ain't figured it out yet."CHAPTER 3
Bob Dylan Was Right
"We're creatures of habit," Gram has always said.
To which Gramps would answer, "Oh, horsefeathers!" And sometimes, just to put her in a tailspin, he'd quote a Bob Dylan song she couldn't stand. "These times they are a-changin'," he'd sing — usually on his way out the door. Gram's a hefty package, so Gramps didn't cross her without an easy exit.
Gram liked counting on each day being prett' near the same as the one that went before it. But Bob Dylan was right, as we found out one fiercely hot morning.
The Fourth of July was only two days away. Gramps had tacked red, white, and blue bunting across the front of our house, Gram had been busy making salads since the morning before, and the Beaver Creek Fire Department promised their best and biggest fireworks display ever.
Gram drew her bath at seven A.M. sharp, just as she did every morning. Then she hollered out to Gramps, who'd spent the night in his Chevy, "Coffee's ready, old man!"
I glanced through the window at him. Gramps's fishing hat was tipped forward, shielding his eyes. He was bent sideways in what looked to be a mighty uncomfortable position. I thought, Surely he'll be asking Gram to rub his back with liniment oil.
The sun was already bright, melting everything it touched into blurry pools of color — like a box of Neapolitan ice cream left on the table too long. I hightailed it out the back door, heading straight for my wooden swing. It hung from a branch on our old yellow poinciana tree and had been home to so many thoughts I'd taken to calling it my Thinking Swing. Back in first grade, when Gramps made it for me, I'd ponder stuff like if I bit my nails (which I did), then chewed them up and swallowed them (which I also did), and I needed an emergency operation, would the doctor open me up and find a huge pile of nail dust inside?
My thoughts have changed a good deal since then. Take that particular morning, for instance — I was contemplating something Gramps had told me recently. "Life is like a recipe," he'd said. "If you got two basic ingredients — one, somebody to care about, who cares about you in return, and, two, a place to call home, no matter how humble — you'll be good to go." Now, Gram claims there is no such thing as coincidence, that everything happens on account of God's will. And if that's true, then God — at that very moment — was preparing to mess with my recipe.
I was just getting warmed up on my Thinking Swing when I noticed Bailey Parncutt starting across the backyard toward me. Bailey and I'd been best friends since the second grade, when her family moved to Florida from Virginia and our teacher paired us up for a science project. We soon discovered we were the only two girls in the class who weren't scared of handling the toads we were studying. Mary Stingpratt — who we later nicknamed Mary Stinkypants — said to Bailey, all nasty-like, "You shouldn't play with frogs, they'll pee on you and give you warts." After which Bailey thrust one hand — already spotted with several brown bumps — right underneath Mary's nose, saying, "How do you think I got these?" That shut Mary up fast. Bailey earned my immediate respect.
Bailey stopped a few feet from my swing. My toe bumped a low-hanging blossom, and yellow petals rained down around her. "Hey," she said, thrusting her hands in the pockets of her shorts. "Whatcha doin'?" Bailey knew full well what I was doing; this was just her usual greeting.
"Hey, yourself," I said back.
The sun reflected off the roof of Gramps's metal shed. The glare poked me in the eye, and I had to squint to see. When I realized Bailey looked upset, I jumped off my swing, landing square on both heels. "What's wrong?" I asked her.
Bailey dragged her toe through the burnt grass. "Nothin'."
"Nuh-uh." I knew Bailey too well. Something was definitely up.
She shrugged her shoulders. "My mama's gonna have another baby."
Bailey's huge family was crammed into a tiny twobedroom bungalow. Her mama and daddy had one bedroom, Bailey and her three younger sisters shared the second, and the four boys slept on foldout cots in the living room.
"Oh," I said, forcing a smile.
"Her doctor thinks she's carryin' twins," she added, looking fit for tears.
Bailey wouldn't appreciate her eyes going all soggy on her, any more than I would if it were me. I reached for her hand and whirled her around. Then I let go. "Come on!" I yelled, taking off. "Last one to the swamp's a dirty, rotten egg!"
By the time we got through the woods, we were both out of breath. We collapsed against the fallen tree that straddled the gray-green water. Bailey had named that tree Annabelle after her ninety-two-year-old aunt. I'd never heard of anybody naming trees before. I liked that about Bailey; she had her own way of doing things. We shimmied across Annabelle till we reached the center of the bog. Jagged stumps poked out of the mire, like pencils snapped in two.
We sat there for the longest time. However far down that swamp water went, our silence went twice as deep. "I can help you babysit the twins," I said finally.
Bailey scratched a bug bite, digging till it bled. "Promise?"
"Sure." I nodded. "I'll teach 'em how to fish."
"But what if my mama has girls?"
I puffed my chest up. "I'm a girl. I fish."
"But what if my mama has sissy girls like Mary Stinkypants?"
I stared out at the beaver dam, trying to think of what to say next. But my thoughts were interrupted by a long, loud scream.
"That's Gram!" I shouted.
I skedaddled off the log and through the thickets. Bailey was on my heels. When we reached the house, we hurried inside, searching every room. But there was no sign of Gram or Gramps.
I pushed open the screen door. It whined loudly — once for me, then a second time for Bailey — before walloping closed behind us. I raced toward the driveway. Toward the Bel Air. Toward Gramps, who was still sleeping. I told myself, Gramps never sleeps this late. But my heart didn't want to hear the words.
Gram was hunched over Gramps, cradling his head to her chest. His fishing hat was tipped back, and his face was milk white.
Gram held one hand out, stopping us.
"Wha — what is it?" I choked.
"Call for an ambulance!" she yelled.
"Why?" I yelled back. "What's wrong?"
Gram tipped her chin toward the house. "Now, Itch!"
I did what she said. I ran inside and picked up the receiver and dialed the operator. "We need an ambulance!" I shouted.
Bailey gripped my T-shirt sleeve, twisting it back and forth. "Do you think he'll be all right?" she whispered.
I couldn't answer her.
As I hung up the telephone, a new thought entered my mind. A thought that was strange and cold and unwelcome.
Because I knew. I just knew.
I'd never hear Gramps's voice again.CHAPTER 4
Cousin Effie's Letter
Gramps's doctor said he'd had a heart attack and that he'd likely died in his sleep, quickly and painlessly — a fact he said Gram should be thankful for.
Every man, woman, and child in Beaver Creek attended Gramps's funeral. Even though he wasn't the churchgoing type, folks knew who Orville Colchester was. In a town of a hundred and seventy-nine people, it's difficult not to know everybody.
Excerpted from Itch by Michelle D. Kwasney. Copyright © 2008 Michelle D. Kwasney. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Bob Dylan Was Right,
Cousin Effie's Letter,
Good-bye, Beaver Creek,
Double Dose of Bad News,
Twirling with Fire,
Ready, Set, Go,
Apologies and Promises,
Thank You, Mrs. Ferris,
Lunch with the Breck Girls,
Dry Toast and Grapefruit,
Doors Open, Doors Close,
Bringing Wendy the Ocean,
Tête-à-Tête Over Tab,
School Night Sleepover,
The Truth Comes Out,
Trip to Kemp's,
Bel Air Blues,