At the head of a forested ravine the Carey’s clapboard house sat shedding the last of its decades-old paint. The Carey Shack, as my mother called it, was a literal stone’s throw away, at the base of a thirty-foot embankment and across a county road from our house—decidedly forbidden territory. At every opportunity I sneaked through the laurel hedge behind our garage for a view onto the Carey’s roof and sagging porch. Dirty-faced kids shot me their customary scowls, and soon a volley of pebbles came zinging my way. If one hit me, I would run inside where my mother would greet me with a swat across the butt.
“Didn’t I tell you to stay away from those brats?”
It wasn’t as though I had failed to throw a rock or two of my own. A tomboy, I loved to climb trees, shoot plastic bullets at tin cans and make mud pies. On Sundays I was compelled to dress for church while the Careys remained as feral as their dogs. I envied them, hated them, and wanted to make friends with them.
One day after school I went to the woods behind our house and headed up the hill to what I called the fort, a shelter created when a cedar stump toppled, exposing its network of roots. I followed a path beaten bare by no feet other than my own, for this was my territory.
When I reached the fort, I stopped short. In a pool of sunlight, not twenty feet away, was Rose Carey.
Her wavy brown hair was fastened with plastic barrettes and fell to the waist of her faded cotton dress. She glanced in my direction and returned to her pile of broken crayons. She selected one from a sixty-four crayon set, the kind that came with a sharpener on the box, but all she had were inch-long remnants. Rose pressed a stick of Cornflower into the weathered wood and pulled it away, leaving a fat waxy dot.
As I saw what she had already done, I shrank back with dismay. An unsightly splatter marred the fort; Rose Carey had ruined it forever. She pressed another dot into the wood and sat back on her heels to appraise it. Then she did an unexpected thing: she turned and offered me a crayon.
We spent the afternoon covering the fort with dots of Cornflower and Aquamarine, Raw Umber and Yellow-green. When Rose’s mother called her to dinner, we gathered the crayon nubs and arranged them in the box. I watched her cascade of sunlit hair disappearing down the path and felt an illicit thrill very different from that of throwing rocks. I had played with a Carey kid.
The Careys moved a few years later, and I never heard of them again. My mother said “Good riddance” more than once, and I soon forgot about them. But after five decades, Rose has remained with me. For one summer afternoon a small wild woodlot welcomed equally the child who lived in a battered shack, soon to be bulldozed for another subdivision, and the girl who watched with disdain from behind a leafy hedge. Sharing crayons at the fort, we stood on common ground. Before the rain and sun weathered it away, I studied our handiwork, a random constellation of multi-colored dots. It was beautiful.