Nicolette Mary-Margaret Montgomery peered longingly over the hedge that ran along the back veranda of her grandparents’ house. From her higher elevation she could see the boy next door as he played fetch with his dog. She smiled when the dog ran with the yellow tennis ball and the boy took off in pursuit. A giggle worked its way out when the dog ran back to the boy and they both rolled on the grass.
“Nicole! Come away from there and stop looking at that uncouth boy next door.”
“Yes, Grandmother.” Nicole gave the happy scene one last lingering glance before she joined her grandparents at the tea table set outside on the veranda. Her grandfather winked at her and she smiled back. She tucked her white dress under her as she sat in the wicker chair, smoothed the front and sides, making sure there were no wrinkles and that her dress covered her knees. Once satisfied that no transgressions could be found, she cupped her gloved hands, palms up, and gently settled them on her lap.
“Feet, Nicole,” her grandmother reprimanded, as she reached for one of her fine porcelain cabbage-rose tea cups and began to pour perfectly steeped tea into the dainty cup.
“Yes, ma’am.” Nicole crossed her ankles, put her knees together, tucked them under her, and tilted them properly to the right.
“Posture, Nicole. How many times must I remind you, dear? A proper lady never slouches,” her grandmother prompted.
“Yes, ma’am.” Nicole imagined a string coming out of the top of her head, pulling her straight towards the ceiling and corrected her appalling posture.
Nicole sat primly as her grandmother discussed the weather with grandfather as she served their tea and placed tiny cucumber sandwiches on each cabbage-rose dessert plate. With a slight nod from her grandmother, Nicole removed her gloves, laid them across one knee, opened her napkin, placed it gently across her lap and then began to nibble on her cucumber sandwich. Nicole liked eating outside on the veranda; it almost seemed like picnics she’d read about in books.
She knew she should keep up with her grandparents’ conversation, should she be asked to interject, but her mind and eyes kept straying to the boy next door. The conversation had moved to politics, and Nicole couldn’t keep up anyway. The boy next door had been joined by his two brothers; the brothers never interested her much, only the light brown-haired boy who looked to be a little older than her age. The other boys looked younger. All three were throwing the tennis ball between them with their dog barking and jumping to try and catch it. They were much too far away to hear. Nicole wondered what the dog’s name was.
Tilting her head sideways, a memory flittered through her mind. She’d had a dog once when her parents were still alive. She tried really hard, but she couldn’t remember the dog’s name. She’d been four when her parents were killed in a terrible plane crash and she came to live with her grandparents. Her grandmother said the dog was filthy and a carrier of disease. Nicole never knew what had happened to the dog. One day he just disappeared and was never spoken of again. She knew better than to ask.
Nicole finished her sandwich in the appropriate thirty nibbles and reached for another on the three-tiered serving dish. She jerked her hand back sharply when her grandmother rapped her knuckles. “One sandwich, dear. We don’t want to become portly, now do we?” Her grandmother looked at her with disapproval.
“No, ma’am.” Nicole sat quietly until her grandmother excused her from the table and directed her to read quietly in her room. She stood and pushed her chair in. Her grandfather secretly slipped a peppermint into her hand and winked as she walked by. She looked over her shoulder as she went in the back screen door and found the boy’s backyard empty. She was a little sad she wouldn’t be able to watch him play from her bedroom window.
Nicole hoped he’d come out again after dinner. The boy, she knew from watching for the past four years, didn’t follow a schedule, but he usually came back outside to play after dinner until his mother called him in. That was the time that Nicole loved the most. On very warm days Grandmother would allow her to open her bedroom window and she would listen for the boy’s mother to call him inside to take a bath and to get ready for bed. Nicole could just imagine the mother reading the boy a story and tucking him into bed like in her story books. She couldn’t remember her own mother or father reading to her, but she liked to believe that they had.
Once in her room, Nicole chose her favorite leather bound book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and sat on the edge of the Queen Anne chair and adjusted her dress, legs and posture. Satisfied she was exhibiting proper deportment, she opened to the first page and soon lost herself in the story. Occasionally she’d raise her head and listen for her boy next door. Hearing nothing, she dove back into the world of Alice.
Nicole counted her steps. Each morning she was required to take in the morning air while strengthening her constitution by walking in the backyard. Two hundred steps down the hedge on the left, three hundred and sixty-seven steps across the back and two hundred and ten steps up the right-side hedge. Then she would turn around and begin her counting all over again until her grandmother called her in.
On the third lap she heard a rustling noise in the hedge. Then on her one hundred and fifteenth step, a head poked out of the hedge, stopping her in her tracks. A head with a mop of shaggy brown hair that kept falling in its owner’s eyes popped through. Nicole giggled as he tried to blow his hair away from his face, not even bothering to use a comb or to even run his fingers through it to keep it out of the way. His eyes were dancing with mischief and were so blue they gave her shivers.
“Hey. What’re you doing?”
Nicole eyed “her boy” from next door. “I’m taking my morning constitutional.” She’d never heard his voice and thought he sounded rather childish.
“Con-sti what?” The boy started to crawl out of the hedge, but Nicole stopped him by pushing on his shoulders with her hands.
“No, please…stay back. We have not been properly introduced, and my grandmother would not approve.” Nicole glanced anxiously towards the house, glad she didn’t see her grandparents at the windows. She knew it was wrong to speak with the boy, but she desired more than anything for just a few moments with him.
“You talk funny.” The boy looked her up and down. “And you dress funny too.”
Nicole ran her hands down her white cotton split-skirt and tunic, confused about why he thought her walking costume was humorous. Every inch of skin was covered except her hands and face. “I can assure you I speak the same as my grandmother and grandfather. Perhaps you are the one that speaks differently. And there is nothing wrong with my garments.”
“See, nobody I know says things like that. What’s your name, girl?”
Nicole again glanced toward the house, worrying her bottom lip between her teeth, a habit her grandmother detested. “I don’t know if it is proper to be on a first name basis with someone I just met.”
“I’m William Marcus Harrison, but everybody calls me Will. So, now we’ve been introduced, and you can tell me your name.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, William.” Nicole offered her hand to William, paused, and then dropped it again when he appeared disinclined to shake her hand. “My name is Nicolette Mary-Margaret Montgomery.”
“That name’s a mouthful. How old are you, Nic?” William dropped to his knees and began digging in the dirt at the base of the hedge.
“Nicole,” she corrected, and cringed when his khaki shorts touched the ground, grinding dirt into the knees. “And it’s not polite to ask a lady her age, but I will tell you anyway, William. I’m eight years old.” Nicole was fascinated with his earnest digging. He seemed not to mind the dirt on his hands or under his fingernails. Grandmother would have one of her spells if Nicole came in with dirt on her hands.
“That’s why you’re so little. You’re just a baby. I’m ten. I’ll be eleven in eight months and two weeks.” William dug up a clump and tossed it behind him. Sprinkles of dirt rained on him.
Nicole frowned at his dirty shirt and stuck her little chin up defiantly. “I am not small. My grandmother is forever reminding me to watch my weight.” Nicole looked back towards the house. She knew her time was almost up. “Please, you must go William before my grandmother comes.”
“Can I talk to you tomorrow?” Will looked up, waiting on her answer. “You’re not as stupid as other girls I know. I wouldn’t mind talking with you again.” William stood and brushed his dirty hands on his shirt and shorts.
Nicole gasped, her eyes widening with horror as the stains on his clothing grew. “Are you going to be in trouble?”
“In trouble?” Will scratched his head in puzzlement, getting his hair dirty in the process. “For sneaking through the hedge? I don’t see why I would be. I didn’t hurt it or anything.”
“No, William.” Nicole shook her head and pointed to his shirt and shorts. “Because of the dirt. Will you be sent to bed without dinner, or will you have to pray for an hour for forgiveness?”
Will had to stop and think about what she’d said; she was talking funny again. “Do you think I’m gonna be in trouble ‘cause I got dirty?”
“Yes, of course.” Nicole nodded. His parents’ punishments must be much more severe than hers, with three boys in the house. His mother would be repairing garments and removing stains constantly otherwise. Children needed to know their actions had consequences. Reprimands were the only way to learn.
“No. I think my mom expects me to get dirty.” He shrugged his shoulders. “How else can I play if I don’t get dirty?”
“Nicole! It’s time to come in dear,” her grandmother called from the porch.
Nicole pushed William back into the hedge. “Go, please, go!” Nicole whispered to William before turning around and heading back to her house.
“Okay, I’ll go, but from now on, you’re my girl.” Will was able to get out before he fell back through the hedge and landed on his butt. While he was already on the grass, he lay back and thought about his conversation with the strange girl next door. Her name was a mouthful, but he’d already gotten around that. He would call her Nic.
She had some pretty weird ideas about getting dirty. Her folks must not let her play very much. Maybe they thought she would get hurt since she was so small. She wouldn’t be very good at football or building tree houses in the woods. She sure liked to walk though. He’d been watching her walk for a long time in her backyard. At first he thought she had been looking for something.
His dog Max discovered him lying in the grass and came to give him slobbery kisses. Will giggled and rolled to his feet and wondered what Nic was doing now. She was a little thing and was probably not good for much of anything, but he kinda liked her. Especially, her red hair…well, it wasn’t all the way red. It was brown, but with the sun on it, it looked sparkly red. He would have to watch out for her, teach her stuff, and keep her safe. That would be his new mission, to keep Nic safe, and to teach her how to be a kid. Somebody needed to help her. Why not him?
He would talk to her again tomorrow and tell her that he was going to help her out. She needed to learn how to play and to talk like a normal person. There was no way he could be friends with someone he couldn’t understand.
“Come on, Max, let’s go dig worms and go fishin’.” Max must have understood. He barked in agreement and they both ran to the tool shed to get the shovel.
The next day, Nicole hurried through her lessons and dressed in her walking costume in haste. She simply couldn’t wait another moment to see if William would talk to her again today. Grandmother had gone to the hairdresser for her weekly touchup, and Grandfather was busy at his desk in the study.
“Grandfather.” Nicole stood outside the study waiting for permission to enter. She’d always liked the way her grandfather’s study smelled. It smelled of leather from the furniture and the many books on the shelves, of pipe tobacco, which he kept in a box on the mantle, and a lemony smell from the wood polish Hilda used every Thursday for cleaning.
“Yes, dear. Are you ready for your exercise?”
Nicole smiled when her grandfather looked over the top of his spectacles at her. It made him appear as if he had four eyes. “Yes, sir. If I may.”
“Of course, dear.”
“Thank you, sir.” Nicole turned to go.
Her grandfather put his pen down and rested his elbows on his desk and laced his fingers together peering at her over the tops. “Your grandmother is going to be gone a few hours. Why don’t you invite the young man from next door to step over and visit with you for a bit?”
Nicole’s eyes grew large and her back straightened. How had her grandfather found out about the boy next door? Would he tell grandmother? Her nails began to bite into the palm of her hands and she blinked quickly to banish the tears forming in her eyes. She’d never see her boy again.
Wait…Grandfather said to invite him over? Nicole shifted her eyes towards her grandfather and visibly relaxed. His eyes were happy and he smiled at her as if he understood about William.
He leaned back in his chair and the leather creaked, but he never stopped smiling. “I see no reason why you and the young man can’t be friends on occasion.”
“And I also see no reason your grandmother needs to know. Now hurry up. I heard the school bus earlier. He should be about ready to charge through his backdoor.”
“Thank you, Grandfather!” Nicole called, as she ran to the back veranda.
Nicole flew down the veranda stairs and out to the backyard. She’d almost made it to the exact spot she saw William yesterday when once again his sandy mop of hair stuck through the shrub.
“Hello, William. It’s a lovely day, isn’t it?”
“It’s Will. Do you wanna come see my treehouse? My brothers and I built it all by ourselves.”
Nicole looked back towards the house and smiled. “Yes, William. I’ve love to. Thank you for the invitation. It was ever so kind.”
“Oh, brother, you’re doing it again. Come on, Nic. We need to work on how to talk.” Will took her hand and led her through the hedge into his backyard. “You should have just said, ‘Yes.’ You didn’t need to say all that other stuff.”
“Because you’re a kid, and kids don’t talk like their grandparents.” Will held the bushes apart and waited for her to walk through.
“I see.” Nicole stepped through the hedge, careful not to snag her garments.
“You’re doing it again.” Will let the hedge pop back into place and took the lead.
“Pardon.” Nicole tried to keep up but William’s legs were much longer than hers.
Will stopped at the foot of a wooden structure. “Well, this is it. Ain’t she a beaut?”
Nicole looked at the haphazardly constructed wooded edifice in front of her. “I don’t know, William.” She cocked her head and stared closer at the structure. “What is a beaut?”
Will rolled his eyes and started climbing a rickety old ladder. Nicole took a tentative step towards the ladder and daintily put her foot on the first rung. Slowly and cautiously she made her way up and crawled through the trap door in the floor. It was much more spacious inside that she would have imagined.
Will plopped down on the floor and took a silver toy car from the shelf and began to run it back and forth on the floor. “Why do you live with your grandparents?”
Nicole swiped a section of the floor with her shoe and grimaced when dust began to float in the air. She decided to stand. “My parents were killed in a horrible plane crash when I was four.”
“Do you remember your parents?” Will stopped playing with his car.
“Some things I do. My mother always smiled and laughed a lot. I remember riding on my father’s shoulders and thinking I should be scared up that high, but I wasn’t because I knew my father wouldn’t drop me.” Nicole looked out the window. They weren’t that high up, but she had a clear view right to the lake.
“Those are nice memories. Why don’t you go to school?” Will traded his silver car for a red one, knocking some plastic green men over in the process.
Nicole waited for Will to pick up the toys he’d knocked over and bit her lip when he didn’t. “My grandparents don’t condone public schools, and boarding schools are nothing but rife with depravity and wickedness.”
Will rolled his eyes again. “I go to school?”
“I know. I watch you from my bedroom window in the mornings as you get on the school bus. What’s it like, William, to ride on one of those big yellow buses?” Nicole turned her back to the window. She’d love to sit on the floor like William, but mostly she’d love for him to pick those green pieces up.
“It’s kinda fun and loud, and sometimes there are fights.” Will handed Nic the red car.
“Fights!” Nicole exclaimed, as she held the tiny car between her thumb and index finger. She had no idea what William wanted her to do with it. “That doesn’t sound like fun at all.”
Will shrugged and wiped his hands on his pants. “You don’t go to school? That must be fun.”
Nicole didn’t think it was fun at all. She would much rather go to school and make friends. “I do my lessons at home. I have tutors that come three days a week to teach me.”
Will dug around in his pocket and pulled out a rumpled pack of gum. He pulled a piece out and offered it to Nicole.
Nicole eyed the gum. Sometimes gentlemen from church gave her sticks of gum, but grandmother said gum would rot her teeth out. So instead of taking the gum like she wanted to, she shook her head. “No, thank you.” Nicole watched in amazement as William unwrapped two sticks of gum and stuffed them into his mouth and chewed loudly. “William, do you have friends?”
Will slurped and swallowed and then moved the big ball of gum to one cheek, making him look like a chipmunk with a mouth full of nuts. “Sure I do. I have a bunch of friends. Don’t you?”
“No, not really. I guess my grandparents’ friends are also my friends.”
“But they are old. Don’t you have friends your age?”
“No. Our church has children my age, but Grandmother says I must attend to the Lord with the grownups. She says that children from a young age should learn to sit up and behave and learn, when in the Lord’s house.”
Will smiled through the wad of gum. “Well, now you have me, Nic.”
Nicole giggled. “Thank you, William.”
“William, are you certain?” Nicole wrung her hands in nervousness as she peeked out her open bedroom window. The distance to the ground seemed much too far away.
“Come on, Nic. I’ll help you. You know I won’t let you fall.” Will balanced on the trellis with one hand and held his other hand out towards Nicole.
Nicole worried her bottom lip between her teeth and took a step closer. In the very short time since she’d made William’s acquaintance, he’d been nothing but helpful. But that was still a long way down, and this time she wasn’t on her father’s shoulders.
“Do you want to watch the movie over here? I can go get it.”
Nicole tipped her head and her copper curls sprang around her face. “We don’t have a television, William.
Will’s eyes rounded and he looked at her as if she’d lost her mind.
“You don’t?” Will shook his head, his eyes growing round in disbelief. “What do you do for fun?”
“I read quite a lot. And we listen to the phonograph. Grandfather has a wonderful collection of Bing Cosby and Frank Sinatra records. Of course Benny Goodman is my favorite. I can really tap my foot to his music. It’s quite lively.”
William continued to stare at her, and she didn’t appreciate the patronizing look on his face one little bit.
“Nic, come on. We don’t have time to waste. I’ve got so much more to teach you. Nobody listens to those people anymore. I don’t even know who they are. Just put your foot out and crawl down my body like a ladder. Then you can jump the rest of the way.”
Nicole peered over the sill once more and scrunched up her nose. She was curious about the movie. All she’d ever watched on television were cartoons when her grandmother was at her Circle Meetings at someone else’s house, and she really wanted to see the movie William told her about. Talking fish sounded like so much fun. She gathered her night rail in her arms and took William’s hand. After climbing through she latched onto his back and closed her eyes. She didn’t want to see how far she’d fall if she slipped. Inch by inch she crawled along his back until she felt his legs.
“That’s it, Nic. Now all you have to do is jump the rest of the way.”
Nicole opened her eyes, turned loose, and landed solidly on her slippered feet. After impact she froze and took inventory. Finding nothing injured she smiled up at William. “I did it!”
“Shhhh, quiet.” Will jumped and landed beside Nicole. “We don’t want to wake your grandparents.”
“Oh, yes. Sorry.” Nicole smoothed her white cotton night rail down.
“Come on, let’s go to my house.” Will took Nicole’s hand and led her through the hedge and right to his bedroom window. “I’ll climb through and then help you in.”
“Alright, William. I suppose going in is much the same as going out.”
Once inside Will leaned out the window. Nicole was able to reach up, grab his arms and Will lifted her inside. He was so strong.
Nicole stood quietly in William’s room and looked around in awe. Their rooms were vastly different. William had toys everywhere. One entire wire basket was filled with balls. Posters of vehicles she’d never seen and sweaty-looking men holding balls decorated his walls. His room was neat, but by no means was it as orderly as hers. Toys weren’t to be seen according to her grandmother. That’s probably why she didn’t have very many.
“Go ahead, crawl up in bed, and I’ll start the show.”
Nicole took her slippers off and placed them neatly beside the bed. “How do you play with so many toys?”
“I don’t know.” Will turned the sound down low and joined Nic on his bed. “Don’t you have a lot?”
Nicole thought about her answer as she scooted over to make room for Will. “I supposed I have what I need.”
Will frowned. “What kind of games do you have?” He pulled the cover over both of them.
Nicole twisted her mouth, thinking hard. “Grandfather and I play backgammon. I’m quite fond of that.”
“Backgammon? That’s not a fun game. My nana plays that. What about toys? What do you play with?”
“I.” Nicole started to answer but stopped. She looked around Will’s room again. She had nothing like he did. Would Will think she wasn’t fun if she didn’t have toys? “I have my books. I spend much of my day reading. I travel all over the world between the pages of a book, William.”
Will shook his head and reached over to his bedside table. “Here. You can have this to take home and play with.”
Nicole took the cold metal object in her hands and looked at it from all sides trying to figure out its intended purpose. It looked like a spring she’d seen sticking out of the bottom of her grandmother’s couch. Her eyes questioned Will.
Instead of answering her, Will took the object and held the two ends in the palms of his hands and tossed the spring back and forth. It made a tinny, slinky sound almost like purring.
Nicole watched the mesmerizing movement of the toy and giggled. “It’s rather fun, isn’t it, William? May I have a try?” Nicole looked up into Will’s eyes with delight.
“Sure.” Will chuckled at her excitement and handed it over. He helped her to position the ends in her tiny hands. “Now, let one hand drop lower than the other one and then lift it up and lower the other hand. That’s it!”
Nicole stuck her pink tongue out of the corner of her mouth as she concentrated on making the toy work as Will had. “I’m doing it, William!”
“You sure are.”
The movie forgotten, Will taught Nic how to play with many of his toys. When Will walked Nic back to her bedroom later that night and helped her to climb in her window, she still clung tightly to the silver metal toy. Neither one of them saw the shadowy figure watching from the veranda or the ember glow from the end of a cigar.
At least once a week after that night, Will began gifting Nicole with toys. He explained to Nicole that a boy his age no longer found some toys interesting but a girl as young as she was would still enjoy them. And she did ever so much. She kept them in an old suitcase she’d found in the attic and then pushed under her bed, hoping her grandmother wouldn’t notice it especially with her rule about toys shouldn’t be seen. She’d never see them under there.
“Nic.” Will whispered.
Nicole turned over in her bed and smiled at Will as he hung his head through her bedroom window. “Hello, William. Are we going on an adventure tonight?”
“Come on, get dressed. The moon is so bright I thought it’d be a perfect night to search for pirate treasure.”
Nicole quietly got out of bed and searched under her bed for her suitcase, or treasure case as she’d come to think of it. She opened it and took out the old pair of shorts and t-shirt that had belonged to Will’s younger brother. Will said she needed play clothes that she didn’t have to worry about messing up when they went on their adventures.
Once she’d pulled her night rail over her head and tossed it on her bed, she pulled on the worn clothes, grabbed her flashlight and shimmed down Will’s body like a professional. She’d had a lot of practice.
Once on the ground Will took Nicole’s hand and they ran quietly to his treehouse in the woods behind his house.
“What type of treasure are we searching for, Will?”
Nicole laughed. “That sounds funny.”
“That’s what they call all the gold and jewels a pirate steels from the rich. He keeps everything in a treasure chest. Sometimes their ship sinks and then the treasure is lost and washes up on shores, just waiting to be found.”
“And we’re going to find some?”
“We’re going to try.”
“Alright.” Nicole started shinning her flashlight along the lake’s shore.
Will dug around in his pocket and handed Nic a chocolate covered caramel; her favorite. Nicole looked at the tasty treat and shook her head sadly. “I don’t think I should eat that, Will.” Nicole felt her lower lip begin to tremble.
“Woah, Nic. Hold on. Don’t cry. What’s wrong?”
“William, I’m afraid I’m losing my teeth.” Nicole opened her rose bud lips and showed Will the little pearly white tooth in the front of her mouth. “Look.” Nicole took her finger and wiggled the bottom front tooth. “See, it’s falling out. I’m going to have to wear store-bought teeth like Grandfather!”
Nicole threw herself into Will’s arms and cried in earnest. She didn’t want her teeth to stare at her from a glass on the bathroom sink. It was horrible, just horrible.
“Nic, you aren’t losing your teeth like your grandfather.” Will continued to pat her on the back.
“I…I’m not?” Nicole took her handkerchief from her pocket and wiped at her tears and hiccupped.
“No, you’re losing your baby teeth. See, I’ve already lost a bunch of baby teeth and then more grow back in.” Will opened his mouth and stood by patiently while Nic shone her flashlight in his mouth.
Nicole stood on her tip toes to peer into Will’s mouth. “They’re bigger.”
“Yeah, that’s because you have baby teeth when you’re a baby, but you need bigger teeth to eat steak and stuff when you’re an adult. So they have to be bigger.”
Nicole tilted her head and creased her brow in thought. “I’m going to get new teeth that are mine? Not from the dentist.”
“Right. And when you do lose a tooth, you put it under your pillow and the tooth fairy takes your tooth and leaves you money. I got a dollar for each one of my teeth. I’m saving it in a jar in my closet to buy a car when I’m sixteen.”
“I didn’t know that you have that many teeth to lose, Will.”
Will started laughing. “Nic, you’re so funny sometimes. It’s not just tooth-fairy money I’ve been saving. I have birthday money, Christmas money, and the money Mom gives me for doing jobs around the house.”
“You’re so smart, Will.”
“Come on, let’s hunt for treasure.”
A week later Nicole lost her first tooth and slipped it under her pillow like Will had said to do. The next morning she jumped out of bed and looked under her pillow and her smile drooped. Her small little tooth hadn’t moved an inch. She tried not to be disappointed the tooth fairy hadn’t visited her. Maybe she only visited children with real parents.
After talking it over with Will, she tried it again the next night. Will said the tooth fairy could have been so busy she just hadn’t gotten to her tooth yet. But the next morning she found her tooth and no money. It’s not that she needed money. She had nothing to spend it on anyway. But she would have liked to have experienced the magic.