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Nicki chewed on pen caps and twisted them with her teeth. She tore off pieces and kept them in her mouth. You could see them sitting on her tongue when she talked. I could never figure how she did that without choking.

She came into our class in the fourth grade. She’d just had her appendix taken out and the boys picked on her. Will Fletcher said she smelled like pigs. Her daddy was a hog farmer. His hog houses were back off the road on the way to school. Sometimes on the playground, when the wind blew right on the top of the swings, you could smell them.

Nicki and her family had moved down from Virginia. She had three sisters and they all had lots of freckles and long blonde hair. I’d never seen hair so thick and frizzy before. They all wore worn-out clothes that looked like mine just faded. And they all lived with their mama and daddy in front of their hog houses way back off road on the way to school. You could see their trailer sitting back there every morning. It was yellow down a long dirt path.

And Nicki had a lisp— I’d never heard anybody talk like that. She was the littlest girl in our class. She sat in front of me and her shoulder bones stuck outta her sleeveless tops. She was the second oldest sister.

When they had sleepovers it was like all the girls at school got invited.  We played hide-and-go-seek and three girls would squish together in the same spot. One time I got a spot to myself in the kitchen cabinet and I saw a mouse caught in a trap. I screamed then we all screamed and then Nicki’s sister Samantha came in there and told us to shut up or we’d wake up their mama and daddy. Samantha was the oldest and we all huddled together hanging outside the storm door to watch her fling that mouse off the porch. It was flying in the air when Nicki said “Look-- it’s still wiggling.” It’s little body shined in the porch light or maybe it was moonlight before it disappeared in the yard.  “Poor thing,” Samantha said, “It’s half dead, half alive.”

Samantha always did our makeovers. I loved her to French-braid my hair. She never pulled it too tight. And to make things work good with so many girls, Samantha made a rule that when she was braiding somebody’s hair, that girl would be brushing somebody else’s hair and getting her ready.

At the first sleepover, Nicki asked me to brush her hair. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to hurt her. There was probably lots of tangles in her thick thick frizzy hair, maybe in the little baby hairs up around her neck. But I got all her hair in my hands and smoothed it down her back. Then I started brushing from the bottom, working out the knots. And then once all the knots were gone, I took the brush and ran it down from the top of her head all the way to the bottom. I remember she shook like she had goosebumps then, turned around and giggled, “You’re giving me the tinglys.”

Samantha told us to hold our breath when she put  her mama’s nice Mary Kay mascara on us that way we wouldn’t blink. And she told us how the lipstick and eyeshadow she gave us went with our season and what that all meant. And she had a special hand mirror with sparkles in it that she used to show us our new look. And then she’d make all the girls who were too scared to get makeovers get up off the living room floor where they were giggling and carrying on, they’d move their sleeping bags out the way, clear us a circle, and we’d walk around it so everyone could see our new look.

And then we’d lay down, so many of us all together. You had to tiptoe not to step on anybody. And we’d watch Titanic and look at Rose’s naked body on that fancy couch, her pretty breast heaving under that big necklace. As soon as it was over the Barrett Twins would holler for somebody to rewind it. And we’d watch it again and again-- “the naked part.”

In the fall Nicki’s daddy got his leg tore off in one of the hog houses. He got caught in a piece of equipment. Every time anybody talked about it all I could think of was how he’d wallowed in pig shit and slosh after his leg had been ripped off, dragging himself through all that mess to get some help, with all the pigs grunting and running around, slick and mud wet.

The school threw a spaghetti supper for him. To raise money so he could get a fake leg. But when he got it, it won’t quite right. Like it was too little or something and he hobbled around the best he could at basketball games. And then everyone would go to him on the bottom bleacher and shake his hand and tell him how pretty all his girls were.

Everyone put Nicki’s daddy on the prayer list. And Mama gave me black trash bags and told me to put clothes in them I didn’t want nomore. She said she was gonna take them to Nicki and her sisters.  I filled the bags but didn’t go with her. Mama came back and talked all night at supper how Nicki and her sisters smiled when they saw all the clothes, how they started trying them on right there in the middle of the living room floor.

At the lunch table the girls talked about Nicki’s new dress, how they thought she looked nicer. It was black and white plaid with yellow sunflower buttons. I didn’t tell them that it used to be mine. In class I thought about her shoulder bones, were they sticking out more?  And I wanted to brush her hair. She turned around and asked me if she could please borrow a pen. Will Fletcher looked at me and said, “She’s gonna eat it.” I reached into my pencil box and grabbed a pen that I had chewed on and gave it to her. She took it and started to trace a picture of one of them wild horses running on the beach. She really liked that section in our North Carolina notebook, how those horses swam to shore after shipwrecks and stayed there in their own horse families, taking care of each other for hundreds of years in their own horse way.  I watched Nicki work on the wild horses. She’d scratch out the tail and start again to get it right.

The next thing we knew all the sisters stopped coming to school one day. The teacher told us they’d gone back to Virginia. We emptied Nicki’s desk out. The boys tipped it over and all her waded up homework and half used notebooks spilled out. Us girls dumped out her pencil box. She didn’t really have any crayon colors we needed. She didn’t really have many crayons at all. All she had was the regular colors that everybody has, nothing special. But we split them between us anyways. And I stayed and dug for a pen cap to keep.


image: Aaron Burch