“I’m not afraid of you, you know.” She flung her arms out to the side for balance as if the flat top rock was a narrow balance beam. In reality, the rock was about two feet wide and she had plenty of balance and grip from her bare feet. But her airplane arms with her sandals hanging by their straps from one hand just added to the look of youth and vulnerability that made people feel the need to protect her. It was her strategy for surviving through this system, the way that learning to fight had been his.
“Hmm.” He grunted a response to her. She reached the end of the rock and spun with a little flourish, heading back down towards him.
“Nope. Not even a little. The other boys say I should be afraid of you, that you’re bad and are a lot of trouble. They say that Nana and Pappy are supposed to set you straight. They say that if we steer clear of you, then you’ll have no reason to hurt us, and we’ll just have to wait until you get yourself into trouble and go away again.” She came to the edge of the rock and looked down at him. For a moment, they were trapped in those small staring contests that direct eye contact and nothing to say led to. But for the first time in a long time, his opponent did not shrink away under his gaze. In fact, under her green gaze, he coughed and looked away first. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw he spin on her toe again and head back out along the rock. “I think they’re wrong. I think that you may have done bad things if the rumors are true, but I don’ think you are a bad person. Bad things don’t make a bad person.” She turned and jumped off the other end of the rock, arms still extended as she made her dismount, but she didn’t walk any closer.
“The rumors are true. I’ve done a lot of bad things.” He wasn’t sure what made him say it. He’d always promised himself he would never lie to anyone who asked, but she hadn’t asked. Was he trying to scare her? What did that say about him?
If he was trying to scare her, it wasn’t working, because she just smiled. “I thought so. You didn’t seem to be the kind of person to let people tell lies about you.”
“What if I did bad things to you?” It wasn’t a threat. Just a question.
She leaned her head to the side and looked him up and down. “I don’t think you’d do bad things to me with no reason. If it’s in your best interest, I can’t fault you for trying, but I will fight for what’s in my best interest.”
“Have you done bad things?” It felt like a ridiculous question even as he was asking it. She was a girl, young, abandoned to the system rather than condemned by it. She worked the system through blonde curls and a sweet smile.
But then again, he thought as her arms dropped to her sides, she was a young girl who had grown up entirely in this system. For a second, her eyes seemed to glaze over, she looked right through him and seemed so much older. “We’ve all done bad things. It’s just a question of opinions and degrees.” For a second she smiled a half-smile, and he had to wonder who told her that because it certainly didn’t feel like her words.
She gave herself a little shake, and then gave him a true smile, skipped the length of the rock and offered him a hand to hold, “Let’s head back, yeah?” Nana and Pappy will get worried if we’re not around for the nightly rounds.” She took his hand and dragged him along after her, not even bothering to put her sandals back on.