Do What You Do, Do Better

By Mercie Metcalf

The ants in Wisconsin were nicer. You could put a hundred of them on your hand and let them crawl around your fingers and they wouldn’t bite. Texas ants bit and bit hard. Which was why Sadie took great joy in smashing them under her thumb when they dared to trek by her sneakers. Sitting behind the library where she spent her time after school, she noticed there weren’t  many ants out. Probably because it was fall—they usually disappeared underground by then. This left the little girl with nothing to do but stare through the fence at the middle-school football field as the orange of the evening started to color everything outside.

She thought about going back to rock hunting. Well, they were pebbles really. The building was covered in tiny white pebbles that would fall off and bury themselves in the cool edge of dirt that the grass wasn’t strong enough to hold on to. It was almost like a game. Everyday she’d dig and find as many as she could to pile in her pockets, and then the next day, there’d be more waiting. Like someone left them there knowing that the previous ones had been lost or thrown out by her mother before the laundry. But there was already a pretty nice pile dirtying her pockets today and she liked the way the light shined through the leaves of the big tree the after-schoolers weren’t supposed to climb or fight by, so she leaned her head back and kept on looking. Sitting wasn’t so bad.

“You shouldn’t pick at that.” It was a woman who spoke, kinda tall, but everyone is when you’re ten, and Black like her. Sadie hadn’t even heard her walk up. The woman nodded towards her right knee, which was keeping the left one company against Sadie’s chest as she worked to peel off a rather large scab. “It’ll leave a scar.”

Sadie looked down at her hand not realizing it had been busy; the newly exposed pink wound quickly began to turn red as blood rushed to the surface. She didn’t stop.

“There are a bunch already,” she said with a shrug as she briefly lifted her leg to show off the telling marks of a tomboy.

“Right,” the woman said, the word was followed by a chuckle that didn’t seem happy. She took a few steps closer to Sadie and then leaned back against the building. Her head was resting against the wall too, but her eyes were on the sky. The woman sighed as she wrapped her long brown arms around herself. “So tell me, why would you be sitting back here by yourself?”

Another shrug was her answer.

“Oh I see, you’re not supposed to talk to strangers,” the woman said.

Sadie rolled her eyes at this. “You’re a woman.” She began to run her fingers through the dirt in long strokes, letting the dust glide through her fingers before starting over. She was watching a squirrel at the base of the fighting tree now.

“I hope so, but what does that have to do with anything?” Whoever she was, she didn’t sound too happy about the observation.

“Talking to you would only be bad if you were a man,” Sadie said, the infallible logic of a child coloring her tone with exasperation. “If you were a man, I’d have to go back inside…” The little girl turned her head towards her companion and looked her up and down, as if to assess her weak spots, before saying “but you’re not.”

“Wow,” the woman said blandly, “that’s pretty damn stupid.” She took a seat next Sadie, lowering herself slowly like adults do.

At this, Sadie started and quickly met the woman’s eyes. They were black like hers, with dark bags underneath like she was sleepy. Her longer legs were covered in a pair of worn jeans and she was wearing a shirt with the singer Sadie’s dad liked to listen to in the car when he drove her back home to her mom, the one with the dreads, Bob Marvey or something. Sadie was pretty sure grown-ups weren’t supposed to say things like that to kids.

“Why?”

The woman held up a finger. “I’m bigger than you.” Another finger joined the first. “You don’t know me.” A third finger. “I might not be a good person,” she said. “Me being a girl doesn’t change any of that.”

“They never show girls in any of the commercials,” Sadie said defensively.

“In any of the… Jesus, I forgot about all the fucking TV.”

Now the swearing didn’t surprise Sadie a bit. She couldn’t think of one adult she knew that didn’t use bad words, even her teacher. Her mother cursed a lot…except on Sundays. Sadie was beginning to test out the words herself but she still needed practice. She was learning that they didn’t sound as good if you just said them. They had to sound like you weren’t thinking about it.

“What’s your name?” Sadie asked.

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Why?”

The woman mimicked Sadie’s pose, pulling her knees to her chest and resting her forearms against them before leaning over slightly and answering, “Because you’re a stranger.”

She didn’t look that grown-up. Maybe about the same age as Sadie’s oldest sister, the college drop-out. Her hair was a shorter version of the one the man on her shirt had. Sadie liked it. It was so much cooler than her two French braids that were starting to unravel. The woman’s clothes were better too. The school made students wear uniforms, so Sadie had to walk around in a stupid white polo shirt and her dirt-covered navy blue shorts.

“You know I saw you earlier,” the woman started, “when you were tearing pages out of some of the magazines on the library shelves?”

That feeling Sadie hated began to creep up on her. The one that made her get hot all over and made her heart beat loud, like the sound her shoes made when she put them in the dryer that one time. Trouble. Big. Big. Trouble. Tears threatened to fall from her eyes. Her mother would not be too pleased about being told her daughter had messed up free after-school care for a bunch of stupid pictures. She thought she had been quiet.

“I won’t say anything. Hell, I don’t really care.” She was looking at the field now.

“They just throw them away anyway. Nobody even reads but me,” Sadie mumbled with relief as the heat began to ease out from under the collar of her Polo.

“You could still get in trouble though. What’d you take?”

“Pictures,” the little girl said with another shrug.

“Of?”

“Nothing.” Sadie began to study her shoes.

“Nothing, huh?” The woman studied Sadie. She looked for what felt like a long time. Sadie could feel it and hated it more than anything else in the world, including cough syrup and clowns. The look wasn’t bad, she just…didn’t like being watched. She heard a sigh and her companion leaned over once again. “They’re really pretty aren’t they?”

“Yeah,” Sadie simply replied.

“Is that why you took the pictures? Because you want to be them?”

“No.”

“Do you even know why?”

“No.”

“Right.” And they were silent for a bit. “So who else do you think is pretty? I mean, that’s not famous,” she asked and then paused. Suddenly her face scrunched up like she smelled something really bad. “That was terrible…don’t answer that. God I sound like such a creeper, and you,” she said pointing an accusing finger at Sadie, “should know better than to stick around when someone gets creepy.”

It was Sadie’s turn to stare. She wanted to smile for some reason. “Her name is Nevaeh, she’s in my class. Everyone likes her.”

“Nevaeh,” the woman repeated and rolled her eyes. “That name is not nearly as clever as people think it is and I really wish it hadn’t caught on.”

“Clever?”

“It’s supposed to be ‘heaven’ spelled backwards, which is hilarious because every Nevaeh I’ve ever met turned out to be a total bitch.” This woman knew how to curse.

“She’s the only one I know.”

“Mmm-hmm, exactly.”

“She is kinda mean,” Sadie admitted.

The woman laughed at this, just a little. They were silent a bit more. Sadie rested her chin on her knees and watched as the woman picked up a small stick and began to clean the dirt from beneath her fingernails. The girl’s mom would be here soon; she had to take the bus to come get her so that they could take the same bus back home. Sadie waited until the woman had gotten to her third nail.

“I know who you are.”

“Yeah?” The cleaning stopped for a moment before continuing.

“Yeah. I’ve had the same face since I was born,” the little girl said matter-of-factly. “Just because it’s older doesn’t mean it’s not mine.”

“Wow, I’m smarter than I remember.” She had a grin on her face and her eyebrows were raised high like she had been surprised. Which was kinda dumb, Sadie thought, since the woman should know better than anyone how smart she was. It was hard enough trying to prove it to the teachers that wanted her on drugs. She shouldn’t have to prove it to herself.

“So are you here to help me or something?”

“Help you? You’re in the 4th grade, what could you possibly need help with?”

“Aren’t you supposed to know that? Maybe you could help me not do embarrassing things all of the time.” Unfortunately, Sadie remembered just about every humiliating thing she had ever done since she was a toddler. The moments snuck up on her and burned just as hot as when they first happened. “You should’ve gone back some more and stopped me from getting teased so much.”

The woman shook her. “If I could go back farther, I’d probably tell you not to hold on to everything. Maybe leave it where it belongs.” The older her didn’t seem to be listening anymore and kinda looked mixed up between angry and sad.

“Where does it belong? What is it?”

“They protected you wrong, ya know,” she said abruptly, looking at Sadie in that way she didn’t like before and didn’t like now. “Well, you’ll figure it out later anyway.’

“Wrong?”

“Oh yeah. You’ll see. Things they shoulda let you do, things they shouldn’t’ve let you see. And vice versa.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Don’t expect that to change either.”

Now Sadie was the one who looked a little angry. She couldn’t stand it when people talked in circles and it was especially annoying to find out that she had grown up and become one of them. Why did everyone put so much work into making her feel stupid? She sighed.

“Why even come then, if you’re not gonna change anything?”

“I thought if I had the chance to tell me all the things I know, it would make things easier. But for some reason I’m starting to think a punch to the throat doesn’t hurt less when you see it coming.” The older her intertwined her now-cleaner fingers behind her neck and tilted her face towards the sun, closing her eyes.

“I like seeing things. I like to listen too. Why’s that bad?”

“Nobody likes to see the things you’re gonna see and there are gonna be a lot of things you wish you’d never heard at all. Things that hurt a little more than you’ll ever admit.”

“Will you tell me what those are at least? So I can close my eyes, maybe cover my ears?” It wasn’t that long ago that she wished she were older and passed all of her time as a kid.

“That’d be awesome, if it worked that way. I can’t, though, and they aren’t gonna pay attention until way after the damage is done. Then they’ll try to protect you…after you’re too big to want it.”

“So why say anything?”

“I’m not. Look what if me telling you didn’t change anything and all I managed to accomplish is you spending the rest of your childhood waiting for the bad stuff?”

“But…”

The woman turned fully towards her, eyes brighter than they had been before. Like she was awake for the first time since making her way behind the library. She didn’t seem comfortable facing herself though. “I really wish I could. You got no idea. I’d say, if I could, I’d say ‘Don’t let your sister do your homework for you.’ and ‘Those aren’t homemade cigarettes your mom’s smoking, so quit asking her to stop ‘cause she won’t.’ Things like that.”

“But you can’t?”

“Nope.” She sighed. Again. “Can’t say a word.”

Her…their mother would be getting off the bus soon and she wasn’t supposed to be outside when she got there. Sadie slipped a few of the pebbles from her pocket and lay them down in small pile by the older hers feet before standing up and dusting off her backside. She looked herself in the eye, for what was probably the last time, before making her way to the front of the building.

“That’s stupid.”