Dry leaves skipped across the road, happy to escape the junk yard where Millie saw two boys raking the unlucky ones into piles and setting them on fire. Five piles smoldered among the heaps of rusted metal scattered around old man Mosley’s kingdom. The light breeze pushing the leaves end over end also brought the smell of an old memory of Tillman’s farm back to Millie. She had learned to stay away when she smelled burning leaves. Her mother had warned her for her own good, “The farmer stands guard to make sure the fire don’t spread to his chicken house. So, don’t be goin’ ‘round there when you smell burnin’ leaves no matter how hungry you are.”
Sunlight flickered on the blacktop through the pecan trees Millie discovered on her way home from school the day the bus driver stopped for cigarettes and let the kids who had money go into Sandlin’s Market for a treat. Millie didn’t have any money, but she got off the bus anyway and found a Coke can that needed kicking to the edge of the parking lot. That’s when she saw the huge trees covering more than three acres near what was once a river bed. Millie ran as fast as she could toward the shade on the far side of the pecan grove. She ran back to find the bus had left her. That was the day the choir director’s wife called the sheriff and Millie got another warning for her own good.
That was four years ago. Four years of following stringent rules, of being careful not to upset the choir director’s wife. Four years living in fear that she’d be sent back to Mercy’s Hope for the slightest infraction; a hair out of place or the appearance of a blemish. When that happened, Millie’s diet was restricted until the outbreak was cleared up. Chocolate was forbidden and other foods she’d once enjoyed regularly were no longer allowed, even on special occasions. Millie began sneaking around to have the foods she craved until one by one her friends were informed that their own mother’s had been put on high alert to report any unauthorized foods they witnessed Millie eating. It’s wasn’t the worst thing a foster mother could do. Millie knew this. Still, it seemed extreme. She cleansed her face until it was raw, trying to prevent what was sure to cause the choir director’s wife to have an all out panic attack.
What Millie needed, so she thought as she sat there now, cracking pecans, communing with the squirrels, was an escape plan. She visited the pecan grove every chance she could to have some privacy and think about how she could get away from the choir director’s wife once she graduated high school. Millie jumped at the sound of leaves crunching behind her.
“What are you doing over here by yourself?” The boy’s voice cracked.
“I want to be alone. To think. Leave me alone,” Millie commanded.
“What are you thinking about?”
“Damn girl, you’re tall.” His voice cracked again. He laughed nervously, faltering as he tried to lean against his rake.
“What do you want? Can’t you see you’re bothering me? Go on, get out of here.”
“I saw you cut across the road and I wanted to make sure you didn’t run into any snakes over here in these woods. Snakes are still out, you know. We killed a big ole Copperhead yesterday while we were rakin’ leaves from around some old refrigerators.”
“I’m not afraid of snakes.”
“Well, you’re the only girl in the world I know of that ain’t.”
“Don’t say ain’t.”
“Oh, you’re one of them types.”
“Them smarty pants types.”
“Those smarty pants types.”
The two laughed at the ridiculousness of their conversation. The boy turned to walk away, dragging the rake behind him he called back, “Well, if any snakes come around while you’re thinking, be sure to tell ‘em I said hello.”
The boy stopped and looked back over his shoulder to see Millie searching the ground before forcing a smile and asking, “What’s your name?”
“Jake. Jake Hollingsworth.”