Drifting. In one of those long boats filled with people brown as leather, and they were singing, raising their paddles high and slicing them into the sea, just like out of one of those National Geographic specials on TV. She was in the middle of the boat, tossed from side to side, and it seemed they were singing to her. Far away her mom's eyes, like twin suns, tipped over the horizon and she could tell from them that she was smiling at her. She tried to smile back but a quick darkness descended as if someone had turned a page in book. Her mother's eyes were gone and everything froze.
She jumped awake. She shook herself, doglike, to wake up, and as she unbent herself she could feel every bone and every muscle hurt. The ruckle of the train wheels, the scene unwrapping itself outside the window -- no, she wasn't in her room and Mommy wasn't making French toast. "I am Jennifer," she said out loud, "Jennifer Caroline Williams". In the old train car the voice curdled and settled to the floor. "I am JC," she quoted to herself softly. That much was sure. The rest was not so clear, not yet -- how she'd jumped this train in that town, the ride in the truck, the food she'd stolen -- but one thing shook clear, like light off a lake: she was on her adventure, she was nine years old and finally doing something unboring!! A small pond flashed by her and she barely glimpsed a shimmer of two men fishing, their poles held out like a pencil stroke. And she was tired and a little panicky and hungry and her leg hurt where she'd fallen down. Her eyes slipped shut and the stale smell of the train car became the odor of pancakes and as the door at the end of the car opened she smiled, knowing her mother was coming to get her out of bed.
But it wasn't her mother. It was a head. The head, JC thought, was a head like any other. It scanned the car, going over each seat like a lintpicker over a suitcoat. When the head got to JC it stopped, stared, then continued the search. Bit by bit the body of a small girl emerged under the head, clutching a gnarled carpetbag. She and JC peered at each other, like first cousins who'd never met, and because she was slightly embarrassed and didn't like staring, JC finally asked her to come sit down. The girl stared at her for just a half-second more, just to let JC know who was in command, and sauntered to JC's seat.
Just as her rear-end hit the seat the train door opened again and a conductor, with a face like a dead leaf and hands like shovels, sidled into the car. The girl and JC stiffened at the same time and visions of spending the rest of her life in jail made JC shake. She'd never broken the law and suddenly here she was on a train without a ticket, having eaten food she didn't pay for, next to a strange girl with short stringy black hair and dirt on her neck. Suddenly, the whole adventure was as sour as her morning mouth.
The man advanced on them, smiling, his hand locked behind his back. As he got closer JC noticed the girl smelled, and the closer he got, the worse she smelled. She smelled like the old woman in the train station. JC wondered if the conductor noticed and would he blame JC for it. Her stomach churned so hard she was having trouble swallowing.
"Where are your parents?" He loomed over them like an oak tree.
Just as JC was about to break down and confess to everything, the girl, giggling in the most Shirley Temple fashion, said, "Oh, they're up front." She pointed vaguely forward. "Up front."
"What're you doin' back here?" He pushed his hat back on his head.
The little girl didn't answer but just smiled. His eyes wandered over to JC and she just smiled back at him, making herself as compact as possible.
"You wouldn't be riding for free now, would you?" His face grinned, but JC could sense the meanness in the man.
"Us?" She laughed and punched JC in the arm. JC, without missing a beat, started to muss up her hair. The conductor, his smile a little exasperated, told them to quiet it down.
"Which ones are your parents?" he asked. The little girl started to answer but he put up his left hand to stop her and looked at JC. JC squeezed inside and went white but she didn't stop grinning like a maniac. "They're the same parents she has!!"
The little girl squealed at the conductor, "You dummy, you dummy!" She rapped JC on the thigh as they started to tussle again and the little girl let an elbow land on the conductor's thumb. The conductor jerked away. "Damned kids!" They were giggling too hard to hear what he said.
As soon as the door slammed shut, the little girl stopped and craned around to watch his bulk sway through the other car. "He won't bother us for a while." She turned to JC. "Who are you?"
JC, not liking the impoliteness of the girl, and now that the man was gone, unable to stand the smell, reached, opened a window, sat back down, and did something uncharacteristic of her. "You stink," she said.
The little girl appraised her coolly, like a banker counting profits. For a moment JC thought the girl was going to slap her and JC very much wanted to apologize, but something in the eyes didn't want apologies. The girl seemed to be calculating something.
"Elephants speak French at the bottom of the sea."
"Penguins have diamonds in their guts."
"Yeah. There's a lot you don't know about. Like kicking gift horses in the mouth." The little girl punched JC hard, right on the muscle where the should and arm met. JC, slammed back against the window, only looked at her in astonishment.
"I know I stink. And you ain't the first to tell me." She leaned in closely. "I saved your ass."
JC, not liking this at all, and being hungry, hurt, tired, and a little homesick, pushed her face right up to the girl's and said, "I saved your ass, too, you old potato, so keep away from me." They glared at each other with an inch between their noses until, unable to keep it up, the little girl started laughing so hard her nose, eyes, and mouth scrunched together like the top of a draw-string purse. JC, still confused, but relieved, started to laugh too, and the two of them sat there, laughing quietly to themselves. When they settled down, the girl leaned over to JC and said, "I'm Tandy. You got any soap?" JC shook her head no.