Karen Lee Osborne is the author of the novels Carlyle Simpson and Hawkwings and the prose poem chapbook Survival. She edited The Country of Herself: Short Fiction by Chicago Women and co-edited, with William J. Spurlin, Reclaiming the Heartland: Lesbian and Gay Voices from the Midwest. She is a professor of English at Columbia College Chicago. Her favorite flower is the iris. “Brute Force” is an excerpt from a novel in progress.

Karen Lee Osborne is the author of the novels Carlyle Simpson and Hawkwings and the prose poem chapbook Survival. She edited The Country of Herself: Short Fiction by Chicago Women and co-edited, with William J. Spurlin, Reclaiming the Heartland: Lesbian and Gay Voices from the Midwest. She is a professor of English at Columbia College Chicago. Her favorite flower is the iris. “Brute Force” is an excerpt from a novel in progress.

I had wrung the necks of two chickens that morning, boiled and plucked them for Mother, yet here I was, fumbling with my pencil and looking down at my desk when Mr. Blake handed back our history tests and announced that I had a perfect score, the highest in the class. I wanted to disappear. I heard murmurs, like water rushing past my ears. Then someone said, “Don’t be embar- rassed, Miss Simon. You should be proud.” Kay Collins’ clear, high voice. Kay always earned the highest scores in every class. She had never spoken to me before. Mr. Blake echoed, “Yes, she should be proud. And the rest of you need to study more.”

Kay was the only other girl who wore spectacles, and she wore hers only in class. She kept them in a small red case inside her soft tan leather satchel. The strap was as wide as a man’s belt and had a bright silver buckle.

That afternoon, after school, Kay came up and offered her hand. “I was waiting for this day. Thank you.” She smiled. “Please keep getting the highest score. I’m bored. I need someone to make it less easy for me.” She looked into my eyes with her own sparkling green eyes. She was not wearing her spectacles, and mine did not matter. I saw those eyes and the way they looked at me, and then I had to look away.

Kay was on a first-name basis with Mr. Warren, the principal, and he always had a special hello for her. Every morning before school, the other girls would huddle around Kay, listening to her funny stories. She had two uncles who farmed nearby, and they were the laughingstocks of other farmers, to hear her tell it. “And then Uncle Roger came out and said, ‘what pig?’ as if they’d never had one and he hadn’t lost it.” She’d say things like that and everyone would laugh. Here she was, with nice dresses from the Boston store and her leather satchel and fancy ribbons for her red hair, and yet her stories were all about her country bumpkin relatives. And now she was talking to me, the girl who cleaned rooms at her mother’s boardinghouse. All weekend as I did my chores, I could not help thinking of her.

That was the year we worked on projects for our science classes. I was collecting specimens along the Shenandoah for a herbarium. James Washington, Mattie’s son, helped me. We had grown up practically next door to each other but I did not see him much after we moved into town. Mother let me go back to River’s Edge for my project. James waited until I went down to the river. Then he would suddenly appear, wearing his worn brown jacket and his gray work- man’s pants and thick muddy boots, handed down from his brothers. He would hold out the plants he had gathered. I felt lighter and easier whenever he found me.

James and I spent several mornings and afternoons walking in the woods and fields along the river. I had almost forgotten the earthy, moist smell of mud and rotting leaves and brush underfoot. James knew where all the plants were. He helped me take just what I needed. Phlox. Asters. Vines. He led me to fallen birch branches with their peeling bark. He showed me how to peel them further. I held the knife, and his strong, large hand guided mine. The thin layers of peeling bark became the covers of my scrapbook. I knew that Great Grandfather Hill had owned James’s grandfather. I wanted to say, you should be in school with Frank. You know more than anyone except Miss Beatty. But I could not find the words. And James was quiet too, preoccupied as he was with the plants. He’d say, “Here, Miss Nettie,” and then place another specimen in my hands. “This one is perfect. Allyssium.”

Back in the kitchen at Grandma Simon’s, I told her and Aunt Della how much I admired Miss Beatty. She still brought in speci- mens from her own garden and from her long walks in the country. Miss Beatty took our class on walks sometimes so we could identify plants and trees. She would give us their Latin names and then have us recite them and say their common names. She wore high boots under her long skirts and advised all of us young ladies to insist on having some. “It’s not fair for boys to be the only ones with practi- cal footwear. There is no reason why young ladies cannot become naturalists the same as young men.”

“I’m not surprised you like her,” Della said. “I always thought she had more intelligence and gumption than most girls. Believe it or not, your father once courted her, before your mother got her—before he and your mother got together. They had been at school together.”

“At one point I thought he might have wanted to marry her,” Grandma said.

My father and Miss Beatty. I could see it. I could see her love of all living things in this world and his love of farming. I could see them sitting quietly together, speaking of plants, of seasons, of the way the water was low or high, the way a tree looked well or ill. I could imagine them reading aloud from a book together, taking turns, listening, pointing out an important new fact to enjoy.

“They were always friends,” Della said. “Once your Father met your Mother, he was just blinded by her beauty. He never really thought of anyone but your mother after that.” She turned and smiled at me. “And look at how it turned out. They had all these beautiful children, and I’m ever so glad!”

Della did not need to tell me that Liza Beatty had known my namesake too. Della’s and Father’s sister who had died of consumption the same year I was born. I knew because of the way Miss Beatty sometimes looked at me. The first day of class, before I had my spectacles, when I took my seat in the sturdy oak chair in the front row so that I could see, I looked up to find Miss Beatty standing, frozen, in front of the blackboard, chalk in hand. She had just writ- ten her name and turned to face the class when she saw me sitting not two feet from her. She froze. She quickly turned away, but I saw that look. It was the look people gave me when they saw the Nettie they had loved in me. It was the look that said, you are a Simon, and you come from River’s Edge. People who saw me that way treated me tenderly, because I was their chance to remember the Nettie they had loved. But even if it was a secondary love, tangential, it was still a kind of love, and something I craved. Their tender looks served as substitutes for my mother’s love. I did not reflect my mother’s beauty. I was proof of her fallibility, her imperfection, proof that there were limits to her indomitable will.
 
Monday morning some older boys followed me, calling me names. “Hey, Buck Teeth. Wait up.” And “Hey, Four Eyes, come look at me.” They laughed. When I had almost reached the school, one of them snatched my book bag and started twirling it around. Then he upended it, dumping its contents on the ground. My history books and pencils and my brush and even my lunch, wrapped in a sack, lay in the dirt.

Kay Collins saw and heard the boys as we approached. She was wearing a beautiful dark blue dress with puffy sleeves and a pleated skirt that was perfectly ironed. She left the girls she was with and came over. She called out to the boys. “What did you just say?”

The biggest boy said, “I asked Four Eyes if she’d like to look at me.” He said it in a tone that dared her to challenge him.

“Metonymy. Synecdoche. Instead of referring to the person, you’re referring to the thing associated with her. Poor example. I give that a D, Nicholas Barrow.”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

She ignored his question. “And what else did you call her?”

“None of your business.”

She turned to me. “What else did they call you?”

The shock of hearing her boss those boys and address me in front of everyone made me unable to answer. I could only stare at her red hair and tiny freckles and those beautiful green eyes. The sun was rising higher. Behind Kay I saw the white pillars and the big double doors of the red brick high school. She stood out against those pillars, the sun edging her figure in her dark blue pleated dress as sharp and clean as the brick corners against the brightening sky. Someone could have painted her there. With her tan leather satchel she could already be an important lawyer heading to the courthouse. Mr. Blake said that Kay could easily become the first woman lawyer in the county.

“Buck Teeth,” another boy said. “Why do you care?”

“Buck Teeth,” Kay repeated, as though considering what it might mean. I kept my mouth closed, as I usually did. I was afraid she might ask me to open my mouth so that she could investigate. Then she said, “Not very imaginative. As all of you seem to have mincemeat for brains, I’m not surprised. And I am certain that Mr. Warren is going to be even less pleased than I am, when I tell him what you have done.”

She said it the way Mother would say something. The way someone who was used to being obeyed would talk. Everyone knew Kay’s father and Mr. Warren were friends.

Nicholas Barrow said, “You don’t need to do that. We won’t bother her anymore.” He was the tallest. If he had not tormented me I would have liked him, with his brown wavy hair and a slight forelock. He motioned to the other boys, and they began picking up my history book, my botany book, and the other things and putting them back into my book bag.

She looked down her sharp nose at him even though he was taller. “Too late for that, I’m afraid. You think a simple apology is sufficient, but it won’t do. I must report you. You took her textbooks. Theft of school property.”

She started up the steps.

“Wait!” Nicholas Barrow said. “What if she doesn’t want you to?” he asked, looking at me. “What if we promise never to call you Buck Teeth or Four Eyes again?” The other boys nodded in agreement.

Kay was standing on the step with her arms crossed, tapping one foot, like an impatient general waiting for a soldier to deliver a mes- sage. The other girls hung back like reluctant troops.

“I, uh, I guess it really isn’t any trouble,” I said, my voice shaking.
 
All that day, Kay paid attention to me. I was walking on air. After school, I did my chores and then went to Mr. Smith’s room. Mr. Smith was our first boarder and my favorite. He was a tailor who had come from Pennsylvania and opened a shop on Main St. Important men came from as far away as Winchester to visit his shop. He was neat and clean and did not smoke or drink. Mother said he was very refined. He had given Mother a phonograph and a recording of Enrico Caruso. Mr. Smith had said I could visit his room and read his newspapers and study his globe whenever I wanted. The light in his room in the late afternoons was just right. Sometimes I turned on the little brass lamp. Sometimes I looked at his photographs on the dresser. I saw a younger Mr. Smith standing with another man. They were both wearing dark suits and looked very handsome. His friend had died, he told me when I asked. A farm accident.

The globe was hand-painted, mostly in shades of tan and beige but with other colors too. Some continents were green; others were orange or red or yellowish. The oceans were blue. Even with my spectacles, the lettering was hard to read without a glass. The artist had made shadows that looked real, so you could see the mountain ranges. I would study rivers and the countries they flowed through. I memorized continents and countries and cities. I found Panama and imagined the big gash being carved into it, splitting it in two for the canal. I loved tracing the Nile and the Amazon with my finger. Delicate ribbons of blue curving through golden land. As I followed the Nile with my finger, I imagined I was on a ship, wearing a big wide-brimmed straw hat and sweating in the hot sun.
 
Two days later, my brother Frank told me he had heard about the boys and Kay.

“Why didn’t you just tell them to leave you alone because I’m your brother? That would have taken care of them.”

I thought about this. Frank seemed so easygoing. Would those boys really have been afraid of him? I had never seen anyone so unafraid as Kay Collins to order people around, except my Mother.

By the following day Kay had switched places with the girl who sat next to me in Mr. Blake’s class.

“Let’s see your notes from yesterday,” she said. I gave her my notebook. She scanned the pages.

“You’re a much better note-taker than I am,” she said. “I just keep it all in here.” And she tapped her temple.

Kay invited me to study with her after school.

“I can’t,” I told her. “I have to get home and clean rooms and take care of my sisters and little brother.”

She raised her right eyebrow. The soft leather satchel hung from her shoulder just so. It did not weigh her down.

“What do you mean? Won’t your parents let you do your homework?”

“Mother only lets me do homework after I finish my chores.”

The next day the winds were gusty and leaves were falling. Kay asked if she could help me do my chores. I couldn’t think of any reason to tell her no. As we walked down the street together, I felt the cold air in my nostrils. I felt my shoulders straighten. Kay Collins was walking with me. Frank introduced himself to her and she said, “Oh, I know who you are. I was so jealous of Sarah Lyle at first, but then I realized I’m just too young for you.” When we stopped for Billy at his school, he asked her why her hair was orange. Kay just laughed.

We arrived home to find a black Ford Model T sitting out front with Mother at the wheel.

“Hello Frank! Nettie! Billy! Look at your mother, will you? Now watch me drive this thing!!” She was wearing her black hat with a red ribbon and her good black dress. She started the car. It made a series of explosions at first as she drove down Chestnut Street. The smell of fuel hung in the air. The neighbors and shop owners came out to look. There were very few automobiles in town, and none owned by women. Mother sat bolt upright, a queen in her own fine, shiny chariot. A few minutes later, she returned, having just gone around the block. She stopped the car in front of our boardinghouse.

While Frank and Billy inspected the automobile, I introduced Kay to Mother.

“Hello, Mrs. Simon. I’ve been wanting to meet you. I’ve heard that you are the smartest woman in the entire county, and maybe the state. And now, you’re the first woman to drive your own automobile!”

If Mother was unnerved by Kay’s brashness, she didn’t show it.

“Why thank you, Miss Collins. I have always admired your mother, as well.”

I asked if it was all right if Kay helped me.

“Well, this is a private home as well as a boarding house. I’m not keen on having someone who isn’t a relative or a boarder looking at our dirty rooms.”

“But I won’t be looking, really, I promise,” Kay told her. And then Kay did an amazing thing. She reached out and touched my mother’s arm. And my mother smiled. It was as if they were friends who had known each other a long time. I sensed that she liked this charming, confident girl who was so much the opposite of me.
 
We hung our coats in the front hall, Kay’s fine black one next to my shabby grey one.

I cleaned the bathroom while Kay chattered away, asking me all about the boarders. I offered her a rag, but she handed it back to me.

“I’m not very good at this, you know.” So I cleaned as fast as I could, and then we went to the room I shared with Ruth and Mary Evalina.

They were fascinated with Kay, and kept staring. Ruth came over while Kay and I were seated on my bed going over my notes. She climbed up next to Kay with a big smile. She started to pet Kay’s long red hair. It fell across her shoulders and halfway down her back. Kay acted as though she didn’t notice, as if people came up to her and did this every day. Her eyes were glued to my notes.

“Hey, Nettie,” she said. “Your botany notes are just the best. Can I borrow them?”

So I gave them to her. I couldn’t say no to Kay Collins.

“This is Miss Milly,” Ruth said, and held her doll out to Kay. “See her necklace? Isn’t it pretty?”

“Why, yes, it is,” Kay said. She fingered the buttons and string and then petted Miss Milly’s hair while Ruth stroked hers.

“It was Nettie’s idea. Nettie found the buttons and helped us make it.”

Without looking up from Miss Milly, Kay said, “Why, of course she did. Nettie is ever so intelligent and inventive. She can do anything!” Ruth and Mary Evalina stared up at Kay and nodded as if they agreed. I felt my face get hot.

“Nettie killed a snake once,” Ruth confided. “She ‘tected us.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Kay said, this time glancing at me. “She would do anything for you. I wish she were my sister!”

The absurdity of it, me, a girl working for her mother in the boardinghouse and Kay Collins, who always told funny stories about her poor relations but who lived in a big gabled house high up on Center Street and had more dresses than days in the week.
 
Two weeks later, Kay asked me to bring her Mr. Smith’s globe. I thought that he would let me borrow the globe if I asked.

Of course you can borrow it, he’d say.

But I was afraid to ask. Twice I went to knock on his door after the supper dishes were done, and both times I could not do it. I took a deep breath but still could not raise my right arm.

Mr. Blake had a globe in his classroom, but it was much too large.

Mr. Smith was there in the dining room when I showed Mother and Father my herbarium documenting all the flora along the Shenandoah for Miss Beatty’s class. I had placed the parchment pages with the specimens between two large pieces of birch bark. I had used Aunt Della’s largest embroidery needle to pierce them and then threaded yarn through them.

“I had no idea how much you knew about River’s Edge,” Father said. “You are another Liza Beatty, Nettie. You could teach all of us about these plants and trees.”

I felt my face turning warm. “Oh, this isn’t much. You should see Kay’s project. She’ s made a model of four different cities in the world.”

“What cities?” Mother asked.

“Paris, Rome, New York, and London.”

“Only it’s still missing a globe,” Ruth said. “There’s a space next to New York where she was going to put the globe and show everyone where the cities are. Couldn’t she borrow Mr. Smith’s?”

Before Mr. Smith could answer, Father spoke. “Now, Ruth, it is not right to treat other people’s things as though they are your own. Mr. Smith has been very generous in allowing Nettie to read his newspapers and use his globe. I’m sure Kay can find another globe if she truly needs one. Your mother wanted an automobile, and she found a way to get one.” He chuckled.

“Well, I—” Mother started to say.

“Of course, if she’s Nettie’s friend, she can borrow the globe,” Mr. Smith broke in, smiling at me as if it was only a silly thing like a pencil.

“No,” said Father. “It’s very kind of you, Mr. Smith. But I think that globe belongs where it is, safe in your room. There is no telling what might happen in a room full of children at the school.”

Then, to me: “Nettie, you can tell Kay that we don’t borrow things from our boarders and take them out of the house.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.
 
But later, I decided that if I could return it the same day no one would ever need to know that it was gone.

It had rained for two days straight but that day it was sunny. Still, I did not want to be seen parading up the street with such a fine thing under my arm. After serving the boarders their breakfast, I took a box from mother’s supply in the basement while she was busy with her accounts. The globe and the scrapbook both fit inside.

I wore my favorite school dress, the yellow print. I put my hair up in a bun like Mother’s.

I walked into the assembly hall ten minutes before it was to open. I looked for Kay but did not see her anywhere. I removed my scrapbook from the box and lay it on one of the tables. Then I set the box on the floor.

When Kay came in, she saw me but did not greet me. Instead, she put her project down on the next table over. I marveled at the ingeniousness of her models. She had built a Roman Colosseum out of cardboard that folded up or down. She had painted the ruins in dusky colors as if they were reflecting a sunset. She built New York out of plaster of Paris and cardboard. It was painted with blacks and grays and dabs of white and pale yellow. She made a bridge using wire mesh from her uncle’s farm. She made an Eiffel Tower out of the mesh too, with bits of cardboard and glued on glitter to make it sparkle. She had a real watch face for Big Ben and a wooden bridge over blue yarn for the Thames. The models were mounted on a round wooden plate with small wood balls under it. You could touch the wooden plate and turn the cities around. The theme of her project was to spin around the world’s great cities. I waited for her to say hello, and when she didn’t, I took the globe out of the box and brought it to her.

“You got it!” she said with a bright laugh. “I thought—”

“Sshh,” I whispered. “No one knows I borrowed it.”

She nodded and drew her hand across her lips.

She set the globe down gently next to her models of the cities. “There. Now it’s perfect: Double Axes.” I saw the way the wooden plate and the globe could both spin their worlds. The globe was indeed perfect. The lacquered parchment reflected the light as it spun. The bronze base contrasted the white plaster-of-Paris accents that Kay had left unpainted. The delicacy with which the sphere rested on its axis was a lovely balance to the heavy solidity of the wood platter. I couldn’t resist touching the globe again and running my palm over its smooth, shiny surface. The whole world, right here. And with Kay standing next to me, I felt the world could be mine.

My project wasn’t much compared to hers, but I went over and touched the birch bark again, so different in its roughness from the smooth globe. This was not the world, but it came from River’s Edge.

“It’s lovely,” a voice said behind me. “I want you to keep this forever, Nettie. It is a record not only of all the flora, but it is also a record of a place that is like no other in your heart. You have captured this place and shared why it has captured you.”

I turned away before she could see my tears. Miss Beatty had seen what was in my heart and understood.

She went over to help Mr. Walker with the weights and anchors on a gear machine, some sort of miniature cart. I thought of James, of how he had so carefully cut the strips of bark, how he knew what ailments the plants were good for, and how he could not be here at my school although he knew more than any of these boys. These were boys who built things and destroyed things but could not be bothered to look carefully at what they stepped on every day.
 
Kay’s project took First Prize. Nicholas Barrow had been sure that his catapult would win, and he was angry.

“That’s not even scientific,” he taunted Kay when school ended and we were all gathering our projects and packing them up to take home. “You just won because Mr. Walker and Mr. Warren would like to get out of here and go to the places you showed. You made an art project, not a science project.”

“That’s not true,” Kay retorted. “It’s very scientific. I had to do research to make those models.”

“Yes, and you just plunked that globe down there as if you made it. Just because you have money to buy something like that, you get to show us all up.”

“For your information, I did not buy that globe. I just borrowed it,” Kay said, as she picked it up. She was about to hand it to me.

Then Nicholas noticed me.

“So Four Eyes gave it to you. Where would she get it? From her mother’s parlor at the boarding house?” And they all laughed.

“Better not,” his friend Jimmy said. “Remember how she ratted you out to Mr. Warren last time.”

She ratted them out? I looked at her, but she did not meet my eyes. I tried to take the globe then, but Kay held onto it.

“Nicholas Barrow, you stop that right now. Yes, I went to Mr. Warren, and it was a good thing I did. Who cares about your stupid catapult anyway? All it does is use brute force. Sometimes people want to see something a little more beautiful in the world.”

“I’ll show you brute force.” And he loaded the pellet into the catapult, cocked it, and let it fly. The pellet headed straight for Kay, who ducked behind the globe.

The sound was like a pop, as if someone had thrown a pebble at a window.

Then Nicholas did it again. And again.

The globe shattered. The pieces fell apart like broken bits of pie crust. They didn’t go far. I heard Mr. Walker’s baritone as he collared Nicholas and shouted, “What do you think you are doing, young man?” I heard Nicholas mutter something, but I did not turn. I saw only the fragments of lacquered paper, the colors and the lines and the ridges all broken. North America was in Africa now. Panama was in China. England was in Japan. I stared and stared, imagining what kind of willow trees might grow in Japan, until I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“What happened?”

It was not Kay’s hand. Kay had stayed under the table. It was Miss Beatty.

“Oh, well, Nicholas fired his catapult and it, it—”

Then Kay shot up like a jack in a box.

“That’s right. He aimed right for that globe because he knew it was Nettie’s. It’s terrible the way those boys tease her. They have really gone too far this time.”

“But that wasn’t—” I started.

“Well, I think Mr. Walker and Mr. Warren will put a stop to that,” Miss Beatty said.

Then, to me: “It’s such a shame about the globe, Nettie. That was very generous of you to let Kay borrow it. Kay is lucky to have you as a friend. And you are lucky to have a friend to stand up to those boys.”

I wanted to tell Miss Beatty that it wasn’t my globe to lend, and that Nicholas had been aiming at Kay, but I didn’t say anything.

I started collecting the fragments. The bronze stand was intact. About a quarter of the broken globe still hung on its axis. The jagged edges and the gaping hollowness hurt my eyes. To see that emptiness behind the surface of the globe, that it had been filled with emptiness the whole time, flooded me with shame.

By the time Kay had packed up her project in her fine suitcase along with her blue ribbon, and I had gathered all the pieces of the globe I could find and put them in the box with my herbarium, almost everyone was gone.

I hated the tears that kept coming.

“Hey, Netts, don’t worry. You’ll just explain that it was an accident, and Mr. Smith will understand.”

“It’s not Mr. Smith who will give me trouble,” I said. I thought to myself, at least not the kind that other people give you. “It’s my parents. They forbade me.”

“Well, why don’t I come home with you and explain.” “They won’t understand.”

“Oh, I think I can help them to understand. I’ll show them how wonderful my project is.”

And looking at her confident smile, I almost believed she could convince them.

“I’ll tell them how you insisted on lending me the globe and how that Barrow boy just can’t stay away from you and had to destroy it.”

“But that’s not what happened.”

We were on the street. She was not smiling now. “What do you mean, that’s not what happened?” she demanded.

So I tried to tell her, through my tears, how Mr. Smith had offered it, but Father forbade me to take it, how she herself had kept pressuring me and made me feel I had to do it, how Nicholas Barrow was aiming at her and not at the globe and not at me.

“That is NOT how it happened, Nettie.” Kay sounded like a disap- pointed teacher reprimanding a misbehaving pupil.

“You brought me the globe. It was your idea. And he only took aim because it was yours.

This was not Kay. This was no one I knew. This was someone made of metal. Someone iron. Someone more determined even than Mother.

“And you should know I saw you.”

She was smiling again, her mouth just slightly open, a sliver of the even rows of her pretty white teeth showing.

Her bright green eyes betrayed no hint of malice. But the words carried a sting.

I was off balance. This was an unexpected current such as I had never felt, a torrent carrying me away against my will.

“Saw what?” I heard myself ask. The voice not my own. A tinny voice.

“I saw you. At the river. With that boy.”

Boy. What boy? My brother Billy? It had been months since we had all been swimming. Then I remembered. The birch trees. James and his knife. The bark. His hand on mine. And before that. And after. Gathering plants. Taking me where they could be found.

“I saw you from my uncle’s pasture. I saw him touch you.”

The voice the same. The smile. As if she were describing a fact about her own body, a revelation of truth that she commanded entirely. A truth as incontrovertible as the evidence of the freckles on her arms.
The word “touch” in her voice that day sounded like a gash. Harsher than the pop of Nicholas’s catapult.

James. He had not touched me, I wanted to say. We were just gathering plant specimens. We were slicing layers of loose bark for my scrapbook cover.

It was not a touch. But hadn’t I felt it too. Not the way Kay said. Another way.

And I realized then what she was doing. All this time and she had never brought it up. Saving it to use. And I her servant, her asset, her reserve in the bank.

“I could tell,” she said.

Tell whom? It did not matter. The truth would not matter. All that mattered is what Kay would say she saw: James and me at the river, together.

It was nothing. We did nothing wrong.

But I knew that for James all that stood between right and wrong and guilt and punishment was one word from Kay.

I would deny my white skin. I would trade it for dark.

“I’ll tell unless you say it was your fault. I had already given the globe back to you. Nicholas Barrow shot at it because he saw that you had it. Or you can tell them you dropped it on the way home.”

Cashing me in. Bartering me. Selling me. Selling James.

“It’s your choice.” As if it had nothing to do with her. Then she began walking again.

“But I’m so glad you insisted on lending it to me. Without it, my project wouldn’t have taken first place. ”

My mouth must have been open. Footsteps. Frank was just behind us.

“That’s what happened, isn’t it?”

I dared not look at her. I looked at my feet, my brown oxfords.

“Yes,” I said. Two ways of spinning the world.

“What’s wrong, Nettie?” Frank asked when he caught up with us. I was carrying the box with my scrapbook and the broken globe.

My chest and shoulders were heaving as the tears rolled down my face. “Here,” he said, handing me a handkerchief. He tried to take the box, but I would not give it to him.

“She’s just upset because that awful Nick Barrow broke the globe she borrowed,” Kay said.

And Kay’s voice was sweet again, the voice I remembered, the voice I would never be able to hear again in the same way. It was not real, and it was not for me. Ever again.

She told Frank all about it, not the way it really happened, but exactly the way Kay said it happened. “Well, don’t you see?” Kay said. “All of a sudden Nick started in on her. He broke the globe because he knew how much it meant to her. Look how she still cradles it—like a baby. Your parents forbade her. Can you help us make them understand?”

When we arrived at home, Frank brought Father and Mother to the parlor. I kept the globe and its parts hidden behind a table while we assembled her project on the coffee table.

Mother said, “What is all this to interrupt me in the middle of cooking?” Oh, hello Kay,” and she beamed.

“Hello, Mrs. Simon. We wanted you to see my project. It won First Place.”

‘”Only I feel so terrible,” Kay said. “Nettie is the kindest, sweetest girl in that entire school, and there is this terrible gang of boys who have been tormenting her.”

“What?” Father seemed perplexed. Mother looked irritated. “It’s like this, Father,” Frank began.

“I took the globe,” I interrupted. “I took the globe because Kay needed it for her project and I knew I shouldn’t have, but I took it anyway.”

“I had no idea she was going to do that,” Kay said, “but she is such a good friend and she saw how perfect my project would be if only it had the globe. I told her to take it right back, but she refused. She said I had to win First Place.”

“But then Nicholas Barrow shot it with his catapult,” Frank said. “When I see him I’m going to punch him.”

“No you won’t,” Father said. “We’ll talk to Mr. Warren instead.”

“No need,” Kay said sweetly. “Mr. Walker grabbed Nicholas right there and took him away. I’m quite sure they have dealt with him appropriately.”

“I wanted you to see my project so you could see why Nettie wanted to help me. Please try to understand. It was not her fault.”

Father and Mother looked at each other and then studied the project. It was still impressive, more impressive in our parlor than it had been in the assembly hall. The glitter on the plaster-of-Paris sparkled in the late afternoon light.

“Thank you for showing us your project, Miss Collins,” Father said. “It is indeed a remarkable piece of work.” Then he turned to me. “Nettie, where is the globe?”

When I brought the pieces out, Father could not disguise his shock..

“Nettie, you know what you did was wrong. I had strictly forbid- den you to take that globe.”

“But Mr. Smith himself said—” Frank interrupted.

“I don’t care what Mr. Smith said. I told you not to take the globe. Do you not remember that?”

“I remember, Sir,” I said. I had not had occasion to call him “Sir” in years.

“You have done a very bad thing.” Father said. “You will go to your room without supper tonight.”

Mother started to speak, and Father said, “except, of course, you will help your mother as usual in the kitchen before and after. But you will not sit down to eat with us. Understood?”

“Yes.”

“I am so disappointed in you, Nettie.” Father’s voice fell off at the end. “Miss Collins, you are of course still welcome to stay for supper.” “Oh, no thank you, Mr. Simon. I will be going along now. I only
hope you understand.”

“Yes,” Mother added. “We understand. Thank you for trying to help Nettie, Kay. You are very kind to do so. And congratulations on your First Place ribbon. Please give my regards to your mother.”
 
I must have been in the kitchen helping Mother when Mr. Smith arrived. I heard little but the scraping of chairs and the voices of the other men as they began to leave the table and go to their rooms. Then I came up and helped to clear the table and wash the dishes. Mother’s icy silence did not bother me. Father’s indifferent look hurt more.

After we finished the dishes I headed upstairs. I sat in my room with Ruth Ann and Mary Evalina for a while, reading a story. I held Miss Milly on my lap and at the end of the story I said, “Look! Miss Milly is already asleep.” Ruth took her and carried her into bed.

Then I got up and slowly walked down the hall to Mr. Smith’s door, carrying the box with the globe stand and the pieces.

The hall was dimly lit by the one yellow bulb with the frosted glass jar over it. The floors creaked. I felt the whole world could hear me walking down to his room.

I knocked. There was no answer.

I knocked again.

“Mr. Smith,” I said. “It’s me, Nettie.”

He opened the door. He was not so much taller than me now. I stood just a few inches below him, both of us wearing spectacles. His light brown hair was perfectly combed but some light stubble gave his face a rougher, tired look.

“Why, hello, Miss Simon. What can I do for you?”

“I, I have come to, to,” my voice shaking, “to apologize for a very bad thing I have done.”

He looked surprised. He had removed the jacket from his tweed suit. It has hanging on the back of his desk chair. His white shirt was perfectly starched and his cuffs as crisp as they must have looked that morning.

“Why, I hardly think you could do anything so bad, Miss Simon. But please come in and tell me all about it. “

I brought the box with me and sat in the desk chair he held out for me. I held the box on my lap.

“It’s your globe,” I said. “Did you notice that it was missing?” He glanced at the desk and then back at the box.

“Yes, I did. But I thought perhaps you had borrowed it and taken it to your room.”

How I wished that was all I had done.

“I said that you could borrow it if you needed it.”

“But Father told me not to.”

“Yes, that’s right.” He said it as though he were exhausted, as if these were the last three words he could possibly utter on this earth. Almost in a whisper.

I began to tell him about Kay and the project, and then I started crying, and I told him about the boys and how they liked to tease me and about the science fair, but before I could finish telling about the catapult, Mr. Smith spoke.

“Please just open the box, Miss Simon.”

I opened the box. He stared for what seemed a long time. Then he reached in and lifted the bronze base and curved arch that held the axis of the globe. He removed it slowly, carefully, and held the base in his palm and let the axis rotate with just that shred of brittle parchment left on it. He spun it around. A kind of skewed smile came over him, his lips twisted downward, as he spun it.

I picked out the biggest fragments and held them in my open palms. A hunk of the North Americas, a shred of India, other places. “If I could fix it, I would, Mr. Smith. But I will save up and buy
you a new one.”

He spun the axis again and set the base down on the desk.

He reached for the shards in my palms. They were just parchment, but at that moment they felt like something far more valuable. He took them all from me, then pushed my hands away, gently but firmly. He brought his hands to his chest, staring down at the pieces.

Tears were streaming down his face.

I looked down, feeling I should not stay, but unable to move. His entire body started shaking. He sat down on the edge of the bed and held his head in his hands. Great gulps came from him. “Oh, Harvey, Harvey.” His body heaved as he gulped the words, as though something inside was twisting him inside out, even though the sounds were barely audible.

I had never seen a man weep like that. I stood up. I knew I should leave.

I looked at the photo on his dresser.

Then I knew. Harvey had given him the globe. What it must have cost Harvey, the farmhand, to buy him that globe.

I left, closing the door quietly.

That was when I became a bad girl. I knew I was bad and there was nothing I could do to change that. I would not have hurt Mr. Smith for the world, but I had.

I was worse than cousin Ralph, who had smashed up Mr. Smith’s tailor shop before leaving town. Ralph was mean and nasty but you saw it coming. I had acted like I was Mr. Smith’s friend.

I had destroyed the last gift the person he loved most in the world had given him.

All to please Kay Collins.

Kay had not crept into his room and stolen the globe.

No, it was I who had done that. Blind as I was with what I thought was love.