Three little girls were walking up the steep part of a dirt road toward the wooden railroad bridge. So much happened at the railroad bridge. It was where they could find all the other kids in the neighborhood who had bare feet and scabby knees like they had. It was a place to play, and talk, and underneath was a perfect hiding place.
It was a place to think and to get over being mad. The wooden railroad bridge was the center of the world. The three girls and all of the other kids would run to it when they heard the train whistle in the distance. They’d stop whatever they were doing – playing tag, doing Jacob’s ladder, even swimming in the pond – and they’d gather at the top of the bridge.
Some of the brave kids would walk-slide down the slope to the gravel and stand in just the right spot to wave at the conductor. When the train got close all the kids would wave both hands over their heads, and the conductor would put his hand out the small window and wave back and blow his whistle as he rumbled under the wooden railroad bridge.
The three girls were on their way to the other dirt road that their feet knew so well. The bridge crossed to that road and that road crossed a path a long way up, and they meant to take that path and walk down to the end of it.
There was an old powder mill at the end, almost gone forever, but there was enough of it left that they could sit on the fallen rafters. They had planned to do just that and decide which way to go for blueberries. There were paths through the woods in every direction, Indian paths, they called them, because you could find arrowheads.
But this day, just as the little girls were about to cross the wooden railroad bridge, the oldest one, Amanda, who they called Mandy, said, “Let’s go under the bridge first. I gotta tell you something. A secret.” Mandy had short black hair with bangs and wore a sleeveless red shirt with a flower print along the bottom and pedal pushers that were worn to threads in both knees.
Her legs and arms and face were brown from the sun and the other two girls, who were her little sisters, had sun-browned limbs, too. Her sister May wasn’t tall and lanky like Mandy, she was a little pigeon-toed and had long brown hair that was snarled into a mat in the back.
May had on shorts over her red bathing suit. Nearly every day she swam in the pond at the bottom of the road they had just walked up.
Lolly, the littlest, was six, and almost as tall as May. She was just a little bit chubby, which made her skin soft and rosy. Lolly had a pixie cut and wore what Mandy had grown out of, yellow shorts with a permanent mustard stain on the left leg and a yellow shirt with a chickie on the front, her favorite shirt.
When Mandy said she had a secret to tell, she smiled and looked from May to Lolly, then ran down the slope to the tracks. May and Lilly ran after her, down to the tracks, then up again under the bridge so the wooden boards were right over their heads, they could touch them.
Mandy’s head touched as she sat at the very top, with her arms around her knees. Lolly copied her and May sat with her legs folded under her. Mandy squeezed her lips shut, to tease.
“Come on, Mandy!” said May, leaning towards her sister, hands on the ground. “What are you gonna tell us?” and “Tell us!” said Lolly at the same time.
Mandy said, “Valerie eloped.”
May rocked back and sat with a thump.
“What’s eloped?” asked Lolly.
“Ran away and got married,” said Mandy.
“Why?” asked Lolly.
“Cause her father wouldn’t let her,” said Mandy. She said it in a whisper.
The girls sat quietly for a minute.
“How did she do it then?” asked May. “Did she sneak out her window?”
“Probably,” said Mandy. “She probably snuck out her window then they ran away.”
“Who? Who did she get married to?” asked Lolly.
Mandy shrugged. The girls were quiet again, poking at gravel with sticks and picking at pieces of grass sticking through the gravel, each one imagining the beautiful Valerie, ten years older than Lolly, looking over her shoulder at her closed bedroom door as she climbed, one leg then the other.
They pictured her sitting on the sill for a moment, then letting go and hopping down, staying in a crouch with her head on her knees, waiting for the boom of her father’s voice, then, when it didn’t come, lifting her head, standing up, and running.
In Lolly’s imagination, Valerie was like Gretel in the story, running to find Hansel; in May’s, Valerie was wearing a dungaree jacket over a flannel nightgown, barefoot.
Mandy wasn’t as imaginative as her sisters. She stretched her legs out in front of her and moved her toes around. “I wonder if the boys are gonna get the strap.”
May hadn’t thought about Danny and Douggie. She was sort of in love with Douggie, in fact once they’d kissed right there under the wooden railroad bridge.
But mostly she loved him because they were just the same age, even though she was going into third grade and he was going into second, and they both had an older sister or brother who was so mean sometimes they couldn’t stand it, and they talked to each other about that.
Also, May felt bad for Douggie because he was always embarrassed when he’d show up to play at the bridge with a bruise or a band-aid over a cut and everyone figured it was his father who did it.
“The strap,” Mandy had whispered to May once when he showed up that way.
“Shut up, Mandy!” May had whispered back, shoving Mandy with her shoulder, and Mandy shoved her back.
Once, Douggie kept picking at a cut above his eye despite his brother Danny repeatedly pushing his hand away from it and saying, “Leave it alone, Douggie.” And now Douggie had a scar there that made him look like he had three eyebrows. Anyone else, the kids would probably have made fun of. No one teased Douggie or Danny.
A car crossed the wooden railroad bridge with two thuds and some dirt came through the bridge’s boards onto Mandy’s head and she ducked. May stood and brushed off her bottom. “Let’s go back and get the pails and go blueberry picking all day,” she said. “Let’s go for the whole day.”
The three ran in giant strides from under the bridge, down the slope to the tracks, then scrambled back up to the road. None of them wanted to be in the neighborhood where Mr. Dombrowski was. They didn’t know Mr. Dombrowski but they had heard that awful yelling often enough when they walked by the house. Not the words, just how it sounded.
When they got the pails from beside the cracked cement steps in their yard, Mandy, May, and Lolly decided to head for a different picking place, instead of the one they’d planned on which now seemed too far away.
They’d try the one at the bottom of the dirt road by the pond instead of going back to the powder mill path because the path by the pond was closer and they really didn’t want to be too far from the Dumbrowskis in case something bad happened.
When they got just a few feet into the path, they saw that the blueberry bushes on both sides were loaded, their branches weighed down and almost completely blue. Mandy cupped a hand around a branch and pulled and her hand spilled over with berries. May’s and Lolly’s eyes were wide; they looked at each other and each grabbed a branch on another bush.
“Hold your pail right under them,” said Mandy, excited, “so they don’t all drop on the ground!”
The girls held the pails under and tugged at their branches. They felt the soft berries fill their hands then heard the million tiny tinks and plinks as they disappeared from their hands into the pails. Some of the branches were so full the berries fell into their pails with just a touch.
They followed the best bushes into the woods, not even finishing off one bush before seeing another and shouting, “This one! No, this one!” Off they ran to the next and pulled at the branches until their pails were almost filled up and they slowed down and looked at each other still amazed.
A few more branches and the pails were full with little mounds of berries on top. Each girl hoisted her pail by the handle with two hands and started back down the path, then out to the road. In the daylight again, they let their heavy pails down and sat beside them.
Mandy picked up a handful from the top of hers and popped the whole thing in her mouth, smiling to show her blue teeth and make May and Lolly laugh.
“I know what,” May said, “Let’s bring them to Danny and Douggie. Maybe they can come play. Mr. Dombrowski must be done yelling now.”
Mandy was hesitant so Lolly was, too, but Mandy said, “Okay.” And they grabbed onto their pail handles again. As they heaved the pails up the hill of the dirt road, they imagined what was going on in the Dombrowski’s house. Mr. Dombrowski would be sitting in a big armchair smoking one after another. Mrs. Dombrowski would be in the kitchen crying and putting away dishes.
The boys would be in the cellar, scratching lines in the dirt floor with sticks and occasionally whispering to one another, short questions with no answers, like, “Where’d she go?” and “What about school?”
In May’s imagination, Mr. Dombrowski jumped up and the screen door banged as he ran out and to the corner calling, “Valerie! Valerie, you come back now! Valerie!” but instead of an angry sound she imagined it was desperately sad.
When they got to the Dombrowski’s driveway they stopped and put the pails down. The house was quiet.
“Let’s go knock,” said May. None of them moved. Then the screen door opened. It was Mr. Dombrowski. He looked up at the girls then walked around to the side of the house where there was a big tree stump and he sat down.
He looked down at the ground, then looked back at the three little girls at the end of his driveway and said, “What’ve you got there?”
“Blueberries,” said Mandy. “Can Danny and Douggie play?”
Mr. Dombrowski stood up. Each girl took a half step backward.
“They went with their Ma to their Auntie Lena’s,” he said. “Did you bring those blueberries for them?”
The girls looked at each other, then May spoke up. “You can have them,” she said. She took a few steps down the driveway. Mandy and Lilly followed and the three carried their pails to the front step. “We got plenty. There’s more,” she said.
Mandy said, “But Mom probably wants the pails back.” They put the pails on the step.
Mr. Dombrowski walked over to the step and picked up a handful of blueberries then turned his hand sideways and let them fall gently back to the pail. Some rolled onto the ground. He kept looking where they fell and said, “I’ll see she gets her buckets back.” He looked up at the girls and added, “If the boys’ Ma makes blueberry pies, I’ll have her make one for you.”
When May looked at him, she saw how much he looked like Douggie.
“I’ll bring the buckets back to your mom tomorrow and then you can pick some more. You girls go picking again, hear? Pick ‘em all before they’re gone. The season’s over soon. You think they’ll always be there and they’ll be there all the time so you let the time go by, but they ain’t. They ain’t gonna be there long. They ain’t.”
He picked up two pails in one hand and one in the other and opened the screen door with his elbow. “Go on now,” he said. He looked at them once more and tilted his head. “Go on home, honeybears,” he said and went in.
The three girls walked slowly back up Mr. Dombrowski’s driveway. Without a word, they headed for the wooden railroad bridge. When they got there, they were quiet, looking over the railing to the tracks. Then May looked at each of her sisters, back and forth, Mandy then Lolly. Finally, May said, “He’s nice, isn’t he?”
She really wanted to know.
Need more fiction? There’s more to come for Will & May stories, soon! In the meantime, enjoy these other great fiction pieces from the MockingOwl Roost contributors and staff.
Melissa Juchniewicz (she, her, hers) is a writer living in Chester, New Hampshire. A two-time winner of the MacGregor award, her work has been published in journals including Orca: A Literary Journal, The Poet’s Touchstone, Light, and The Offering. Above all else, she loves and reveres short fiction. A close second is finding trails and paths in the woods and following them. Besides her work on the English faculty at University of Massachusetts, Lowell, she volunteers with elders in memoir workshops and enjoys the beauty of the New England seasons.