Laura squatted down next to the flower bed, dug her trowel deep into the soil to loosen a spot and tucked the little pansy plant into the hole. The row of new flowers extended along the rock border filling in the gaps between the bigger shrubs. She bought them on the weekend at the home improvement store with her dad, and now, after school, she was planting them, one by one, along the row. She scooted the dirt in around the root ball and with the trowel tamped it down with her hands.
The sound of thudding feet echoed behind her. She looked up to see the neighbor girl, Andrea, running by. They waved, the footsteps thudded past. Laura continued planting, tucking the baby plants in every few inches. The new blooms, purple, yellow, lavender and peach brightened the front border.
Footsteps thudded behind her again. This was an afternoon ritual, her neighbor running up the street, down the other side and back again, time after time. Laura stood up, motioned to her and walked to the sidewalk where they met. “How many times do you run this each day?”
“I lose count, can’t remember if I already counted seven or if this is actually eight. So I just time it on my watch – thirty minutes.”
“You do this every day?”
“Yeah, six days a week. I love to run.”
“Why don’t you go farther? Why not go to the school track, why stay just on this block?”
“Johnny, my little brother, sits on the porch and reads. He loves to read. My dad doesn’t get home until six. I have to watch him. If I stay on the block, I can watch him and run.”
“How old is Johnny?”
“He’s eight. He is happy to sit and read his books.” They both looked down the street and could see his black sneakers propped up on the white porch railing. “He sits in the swing while I run. I can see him from almost anywhere on the block. Especially when he sticks his feet up like that.”
“He must really like to read.”
“Always,” Andrea laughed. “Well, I’m off, the timer is ticking.”
Laura watched her jog down the street and wondered why she was so driven to run. Maybe she just enjoys it, like I like to garden. Well, whatever. She turned back to her planting, pulling a few weeds as she kneeled and worked along the row.
Tuesday after school, Laura walked to the county park, turned right on the side road and followed it along the edge of the hill around to the back of the park. Three hawks circled overhead as she walked, hovering, watching her. Behind a tall chain link fence was the community garden. She met a group of foster kids one day a week for her senior volunteer project, and together they worked a small plot of the garden, growing tomatoes, peas, beans and squash. The kids enjoyed goofing around, getting their hands dirty, and squirting each other with the hose. She looked forward to being with the kids, watching their enthusiasm and discoveries with a little piece of nature.
Two large teen boys sat on a fence railing on the curve of the road. Laura glanced at them, but quickly looked away. She didn’t like their haughty expressions, their hovering, watching her. They weren’t familiar faces from her school. She picked up her pace, walking quickly and purposefully.
“Hey, who dressed you, your little sister?”
Unconsciously, she looked down at her clothes, unable to think what she was wearing. Jeans and a t-shirt, what’s wrong with that, she thought?
“And that hair. Do you mop the floor with that stringy thing?” The two boys nudged each other and laughed.
“Looks like she tried to mop the lawn, with those grass stains on her knees. What is she, a flower girl?” They weren’t even talking to her, just entertaining each other.
Laura knew it was better not to make eye contact, not to answer the bullies. It was hard, though. She could think of several barbed quips to hurl at them, but instead, amused herself with just thinking them, smiling. Quickly, firmly, she walked past them.
Until she was around the corner, they continued laughing at her. “Look, she has clippers in her back pocket, what planet did she fall off of?”
The other one said, “Is that a girl who looks like a boy, or a boy who looks like a girl? Maybe it doesn’t know what it is.” They laughed at their own amusements.
At the gate to the community garden, Laura clicked the latch and took a deep breath. The kids arrived in a county van. She was glad they didn’t have to walk by those boys. They had enough of their own problems without others creating insecurities for them. She did look down at her knees. Yup, grass stains from yesterday when she was kneeling in the grass. Didn’t bother her, though, she liked to wear evidence of her favorite pastime. She did not like how uncomfortable she felt, though. Did her long straight hair really look like a mop? Did she really look like a boy?
These thoughts dissipated as Jimmy, Sam, Sarah and Tucker burst in through the gate behind her, full of questions and energy. The hour passed quickly and productively and happily. When the county driver offered her a ride out to the corner, she accepted, not wanting to risk encountering the guys again. Not because she was afraid, she told herself, but because it was simpler to avoid them.
Wednesday, after school, Laura mowed the lawn. There was always something she could find to do in the yard. She liked the break it gave her in the afternoon before she started her homework. On one of her passes across the lawn, she noticed Andrea and Johnny sitting next to each other on their porch steps. Andrea’s head was bent over, her arms hugging her knees up tight to her shoulders. Why wasn’t she running?
Laura shut off the mower and walked to their house. Johnny looked unhappy, unsure what to do. Andrea was crying. Laura looked at Johnny, questioning. He shrugged. Quietly, she spoke. “Andrea, are you ok?” No response. “Andrea?”
Andrea jumped and looked up wildly, like a frightened fox caught in a trap.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. I saw you out here and wondered if you needed help?”
Andrea had trouble speaking. Johnny helped her. “Some boys picked on her on the way home. They told her she looked like a boy. They laughed at us, said we looked stupid. I thought they were, but they hurt Andy.”
Laura bristled. “Did they touch her?”
“No, just hurt her feelings, I guess.”
Relieved that it wasn’t worse, Laura chose her words carefully. “Did you talk to them?”
“No, but I told Andy to just keep on walking. When I called her ‘Andy’ they laughed really loud. Did I do something wrong?”
“No, of course not. Did you know who they were?” She caught Andrea’s eye. She shook her head.
Johnny said, “Big bullies. Just guys who think they’re big and tough.”
“Yes,” said Laura, “Guys like that have something to prove, I guess.”
“But why do they have to pick on Andy? She didn’t do anything to them.”
Gently, Laura asked, “What did they say to you?”
“I looked like a boy. I do have short hair, and it’s curly. Does make me look like a boy, I guess. Not pretty, like your hair.”
Laura couldn’t help laughing. Andrea looked hurt, withdrawn. Laura reached out her hand and touched her knee. “I wasn’t laughing at you. Just yesterday, two boys made fun of me and said my hair looked like a stringy mop. So I know how you feel.”
“It looks pretty, not like a mop,” Andrea defended her.
“Thanks. At first, what they said bugged me, but then I thought, it is my hair, and no matter what they say, I am still a girl, still me and I do what I do. They are just silly and wrong about me. But it did still hurt a little.”
“Yea, guess I shouldn’t take it so seriously.”
“No, you shouldn’t. But, it could make you think more about who you are, what you want to be and what you want to do. Be bigger than they are. Better than them.”
Johnny said, “If they pick on my sister again, I’ll give them a big one-two punch like the boxer guy on my computer game!”
“Oh, no you don’t! That just makes it worse. Gives them what they want. If you ignore them, you don’t give them any encouragement or attention. That’s what they really want, attention, but they don’t know how to get it in reasonable ways.”
“Guess we all have our troubles,” said Andrea.
“Is that why you like to run?”
“I just feel so much better when I run after I get home from school. If I was frustrated about something, I seem to be able to work it out when I run. Even if I was tired, I feel better after I run. Maybe I should invite those bullies to run with me. I could outrun them, I’m sure.”
Laura laughed, “Yes, you probably could. But it is better for you to just leave them behind, don’t talk to them. Picture yourself outrunning their taunts, so they don’t even reach you. Their words just fall onto the ground and wither up. Can you do that?”
“I think I could. And not running because I’m afraid and running away. Running because I am fast and strong.”
“Good girl. Johnny, you help, too. Be tall and strong and courageous, walking with your sister. Protect her, but not with your fists.”
“Can I kick them?”
“Funny. No. Do you understand what I mean, to be confident and take charge?”
“Sure, just like that brave general guy who led the army in that book I’m reading.”
“Yup, sounds good. You guys want to come over for some ice cream?”
“Yippee!” said Johnny.
“I’ll write a note to my Dad in case he comes home early. We’ll be right over.”