Bad Girl, Good Boy by Thresa Clinton
My house sits back from the road, on a winding, dirt driveway. One border consists of a pond and the other an even windier babbling brook. When the bus stops at the bottom of the hill to let me off, the rule is to wait until it comes to a complete stop before approaching the faded white marker near the driver. Daydreaming, I stand up and take one step before the bus shudders to a halt. Laughter erupts as the bus driver calls for me to return to my seat and try again. I want to laugh and try to, but the shame burning inside my little body makes me shaky, and a half-smirk is all I can muster. Clayton, my bus driver, is going to get back to the garage and tell my Dad all about it as they swap stories over the bad kids on their afternoon runs. He is going to be so disappointed when he gets home, and I feel the tears about to pour over my lower lids as I gingerly walk to the worn line at the front.
“Come on,” screams one older kid, “You’re holding us up. Move it!”
I glance back and see there are now 3 cars waiting behind our bus. Everyone is giggling and taunting as time slows and I reach the front.
“You should know better,” Clayton says as I approach, “No standing until the bus stops.”
I nod, my face tingly and hot, as I turn to take the few final steps down off the bus. All the cars behind us will see me when they pass and know it was my fault for being a bad girl.
My Mom isn’t waiting for me at the end of the driveway today. I told her just last week that since I was ten years old now, I can’t have her making me look like a big baby, because I’m not! I give my blue L.L. Bean book bag a shift on my back, tuck my head down, and kick the small pebbles in my way as I listen to the now four cars pass slowly down the road behind me. A few more steps and I am down the little hill which marries the end of my driveway to the road. I look down the driveway, but I can’t see through all the trees. My house is hidden; surrounded by tall pines and my Dad’s treasured black walnut trees, the spaces between filled with an assortment of forest weeds and fallen trees. The trees still standing are a million miles tall, and when the top leaves flutter, I can see patterns in the morphing shapes of sunshine. The birds sing in the tallest branches, chirping back and forth. I hear a woodpecker not too far off, but the loudest of all the noises is the creek. It lies to my right, winding through turns and over the larger rocks of the shallow beds.
Today I am too embarrassed to head toward the creek. You can see the road from my favorite part, and I’m afraid everyone that drives past will feel my shame and know I was bad. My mind races over how embarrassed my Dad will feel when Clayton tells him about the bus incident. He won’t be home for another couple of hours, so I have an eternity to worry about it. As I mosey down the driveway further, dragging my feet and feeling the weight of the world within my bag, I start to hear the frogs.
“Rrrrriiiibbbbiiiiiit. Rrrrribit. Ribit. Ribit. Rrrribbbbiiit.”
The pond, which homes these croaky crooners, begins with cattails as tall as a horse. I can’t wait for them to puff up further into the season, but right now my thoughts are once again distracted by the noises of the water.
“Splash! Swish, swish,” the pond sings to me.
As I step over the drainage pipe that leads under the driveway and into the creek across from it, I see three frogs. Their weird eyes blink at me, the giant round spots of gold and yellow on their cheeks glisten in the sun filtered down between the leaves. I freeze, but I’m too late. All three retreat out of sight, swirling murky water and tiny fragments of brush behind them as they dive deeper and deeper. The water settles, and I take a step to the left, finding my footing in the soggy water bank but making sure I don’t get my good white shoes dirty. My Mom says I can’t keep them clean, but I wish she could see how careful I’m being. The last thing I need is to prove her right and disappoint both parents in one afternoon.
I crouch down and wait for an eternity. As I stare into the shimmery reflection of the sun and trees, I see a bubble emerge just in front of me. I hold my breath, and stare ahead, carefully making sure my eyes don’t shift focus to the spot in question. I can’t let them know my intention. Then it happens, and the surface of the pond water breaks. First the nose, then the eyes, yellow, which disappear for an instant behind the blink of slimy lids. It’s silent. I no longer hear the birds or the creek, just my heart pounding in my head. I slowly let out my breath and contemplate my next move. My fingers start to tingle in anticipation, and I take one last slow breath before I pounce. My feet begin to slip underneath me, but there’s no time to correct them. If I don’t move quickly, I will fail, and this small victory is all I can think about right now.
The frog stares at me, and my eyes lock onto him as I shift my glance to him ever so slowly. My body tenses up, and my right arm flies out from my side as my left follows. I feel the mud and twigs rush past my fingers in the same instant my feet slide further into the muddy water. My fingers close around him, and the frog squirms in my tiny palms as I try to pull my sunken feet from the soggy clenches of the pond scum. I take a few steps further back as I move my hands carefully, resting my pointer finger and thumb behind the front legs of the frog and hold him up to marvel upon. His hind end hangs, and his cheeks and chest puff out with each breath. I smile to myself, slide a bit, and look down to see my white cloth shoes drenched and with flecks of debris stuck to the laces.
This impromptu frog hunt was victorious, but the moment short-lived. As the shame of the bus rushes back to me, it's coupled now with fears of what awaits me. Between my dirtied shoes and bus-capade, the anticipation eats away at me faster than I sink in the muck. I give the frog a few more turns with a gentle flick of my wrist, taking in every golden-yellow spot along his sides and then cup my hands around him once again. His head peaks out of the crack, and I use my thumb to rub the top of his head.
“Rrrribit,” my new friend cries.
I take one step closer to the water but am careful not to step near the sunken footprints I left behind. I stoop down, open my hands, and stare in amazement as the frog sits in my left hand, breathing heavily. We are frozen in this moment, and I am sure my kind thoughts and head rubs have bonded us. He will sit there forever. Before I can finish my thought, he leaps gracefully from my hands, making the smallest splash as his body elongates and he dives in the water. A few swirls of muddy water are all that’s left as he disappears, and I stand up. Looking down to see if there are others, I glimpse my shoes. I brush off as much of the black chunks as I can and shake each foot as I turn back to the driveway. One step, two steps, and my feet meet the dirt and gravel again. My bookbag starts to feel heavy once more, and I veer left to finish my walk home.
It’s visible now, with the grey sided and brick-based garage being the first part that peaks from around the trees. My Mom comes from the far corner with Bear attached to the dog run. She smiles, reaches down, and releases the 130-pound German Shepherd mix from his restraining line. I’m not thinking about the bus as Bear barrels towards me. The top part of the driveway is paved, and as I approach from the gravel, I hear dog nails racing toward me on the hard surface. Bear skids to a halt before me, covering my face with kisses, and then my hands as I try to defend my glasses from his slobbery praise. I can’t stop giggling as my Mom approaches, and Bear flops down onto my feet for belly rubs.
“Come on, boy!” my mom shouts as she reaches to give Bear a quick rub. He jumps to his feet at the sound of her voice and runs up to the house. He stops briefly once to look back as if urging us to follow faster. I begin to follow him as I hear my Mom’s voice again.
“Your shoes,” is all she says as her voice trails off.
I remember the bus and look up at the dog standing at the top of the driveway, tail wagging and now starting at us. Then I look down at the pavement, the crushing weight of my shame engulfs me. I look up, and Bear’s tail isn’t wagging anymore, but hanging straight down. He’s such a good boy for knowing when I’ve been bad.