It was seventh grade, and we went to junior high in an ancient, monstrous building so blighted and battered it looked as if it had once harbored Confederate soldiers, or the criminally insane. The school suffered alternating stages of decay and conflagration. Rococo blooms of mold spread across the ceiling and dropped tiny damp kisses, spores, onto our notebooks and pencil cases. Every few months, another classroom mysteriously caught fire and burned up.
The building's structural dramas seemed to mirror our own inner turbulence: Seventh grade was all about hormones, a nightmare of natural selection. Of course, there were the lucky ones. Boys, some of them, got hairy armpits and underwent violent growth spurts; their shadows, bobbing against the cafeteria wall, looked like driller's rigs. Girls, some of them, got bobbly chests, permutations our mothers referred to as "development"--as in "My! Hasn't Kimmie developed this year!" or "You'll develop, honey, in your own good time." The unlucky ones, those left behind by the puberty freight train, were relegated to the lower castes, there to be ignored, pitied or reviled, depending on the mood of our classmates.
This was routine abuse, though, the ordinary penitence of adolescence. That I failed to fill out my gym suit caused me only moderate pain. The real trouble lay with the bullies, and Betty Ray was the worst. She was built like a Baobab tree, with a vanilla Moon-Pie face and arctic blue eyes. Her baby fat had neither disappeared nor redistributed itself; it had merely begun to harden around her chin and wrists. The Moon-Pie face was crabbed and heavy, drained of expression and set like pudding. A small scar, white on white, lay like a skater's mark along the edge of her jaw.
There were rumors: Her mama worked the streets of South Raleigh; her daddy had got drunk and drowned in Gresham's Lake; her older brother was in and out of youth detention. Betty Ray herself, prowling the halls in polar silence, revealed nothing. In the universe of bullies, she was an anomaly, a brooding dark star. For one thing, she refused the comforts of an entourage; there were no second-rate thugs following her around, cheering her on. For another, she was a girl, and this allowed her to torment other girls, something many boy bullies were reluctant to do. With Betty Ray there was no petulant elbowing, no release of animal fury. She merely stood at your back, menacing, or leaned into your face, crooning something hateful. "You gon' get your ass whupped," she'd whisper. Or, "I'm gon' mess you up bad." She talked like a countrified mobster.
I steered clear. Dimly I saw that Betty Ray's family was poor, that she had a hard time of it at home, that she had no friends. But when you are 13 you don't dwell on your predator's circumstances. I knew only that whenever Betty Ray appeared, slouched against a doorway, the world became as precarious as the Serengeti. And that, at any cost, I must stay upwind of her. In this I was successful, until one morning in February, when she separated me from the herd.
We were in art classes, which is where the teachers sent us whenever they needed to sit in the lounge and hold their heads in their hands. Valentine's Day was approaching and someone had laid out stacks of red construction paper and doilies. Some of the other girls at my table were secretly passing "sweethearts" to each other--those candy hearts with little messages on them. The joke that year was to put handfuls of sweethearts in sandwich bags and slip them into the lockers or backpacks of all the nerds, outcasts and misfits in our class. I thought it was mean, but mostly I was grateful that I'd been let in on the prank, which pretty much guaranteed immunity. I cut and pasted in safety.
Done with my valentine, I began drawing a picture of a horse on a piece of school-issue tablet paper, the kind with wood pulp still floating around in it. I was coloring in the tail when I felt a presence, a breathing body, behind my back.
The rest of the big round table got suddenly quiet and everyone bent earnestly over their doilies. I held my breath and listened to the radiators hiss. A large square hand reached over my shoulder and picked up the drawing. The horse was ridiculous: blue with a goofy smile. Flowers and peace signs floated on an orange background. Betty Ray snorted, looking at it. Then she folded it up, shoved it into her pocket and walked away. I breathed again.
But who was I kidding? That afternoon, when the dismissal bell rang and we rummaged for coats and books and Thermoses, I discovered that Betty Ray had taken my notebook, one of those massive, multi-subject, color-coded affairs with a built-in pencil case and a plastic slot for my protractor. She watched me for a moment with her hard blue eyes, and said, "Go to the 7-Eleven this afternoon and I'll give you your stupid notebook. If you ain't too scared."
I was, in fact, scared, but what choice did I have? Everything was in that notebook: homework assignments, drawings, secret messages. Squealing would only fan Betty Ray's flame and draw her attention down on me like a magnifying glass on an ant.
At 4 o'clock that afternoon I walked up the big hill in our neighborhood. The 7-Eleven was deserted except for Betty Ray, who slouched menacingly in the Slim-Jim-powdered-doughnut-pork-crisps aisle. She wore a brown knit cap and a sweatshirt dotted with frilled holes. When I walked in she put a package of cinnamon buns in my hand and said, "Pay for these."
I glanced at the clerk, who was busy stacking plastic cups. I gave him the money and Betty Ray walked out the door.
"Hey, I need my notebook," I said.
"I forgot it at home," she said. "I just live over yonder." She pointed to some apartments. When I hesitated Betty Ray sneered. "Ain't nobody gon' hurt you, missy."
We walked across the irregular asphalt parking lot and through a patch of thin woods. On the landing next to Betty Ray's apartment there was a sack of dirty plastic diapers and a thin gray cat that twitched its tail. "That's Coco," said Betty Ray.
Inside, the apartment smelled of pineapple juice and soiled laundry. Somewhere in a back room a TV chuckled to itself. Betty Ray walked down a hall to her bedroom and pointed to a table where my notebook lay. She seemed almost friendly now, or, at least, less inclined to murder me in cold blood, so I looked around. Her room contained a bed, a card table and a beanbag chair whose seams had been taped up. The walls were smirched and dirty and mostly bare. Something was making a tiny peeping sound.
"Hey, lookahere," Betty Ray whispered, opening the closet. Inside, three kittens lay in a cardboard box.
"Where'd they come from?" I asked.
"Don't nobody know they're here," Betty Ray said. "Whenever Coco has kittens my mama's boyfriend hauls 'em down to the dumpster." She put a kitten in my lap. "Then I go down there when he ain't looking and get 'em out."
"What do you do with them?"
"I turn 'em loose, once they're older. Me and my brother put food out for 'em, down in the woods."
The kitten I was holding climbed up my jacket, its claws sticking in the cloth. When it yawned you could see the pink tongue, already delicately spiked.
"How could anybody put them in a dumpster?" I said. Betty Ray gave me a level look. "My mama's boyfriend? That man is pure-T evil."
A shadow appeared at the window, my heart jumped up into my throat and I sat there thinking this is it, the boyfriend. Then the shadow meowed and when Betty Ray opened the window, Coco jumped to the floor and slunk over to the cardboard box.
"One time," Betty Ray said, "I didn't get them out in time. I was staying with my aunt and when I got back he'd put them out there and they were already dead." She reached under the bed and pulled out an old strongbox. "Lookahere," she said, opening the top. Inside were two tiny skeletons on a blue bandana. "I kept them under a garbage pail for a long time and then I cleaned 'em up and bleached 'em. My brother showed me how, with Q-Tips."
The skeletons were beautiful. "Poor little things," I said.
"Yeah, well, you can have one if you want," Betty Ray said. She watched me from her Moon-Pie face.
"That's OK," I said. Betty Ray's face was pink. "What I mean," I said, "is they should stay together."
"Uh huh," Betty Ray said. "Well, your ol' notebook is over there on that table."
I picked it up and was turning to go when something caught my eye. My drawing was taped to the wall above the card table: flowers and peace signs, a blue horse on an orange sky.
We spoke only once more. By spring Betty Ray had disappeared. Somebody said she'd moved away. Somebody else said she'd gone to the youth home like her brother. After she'd gone I thought of her sometimes--the dirty apartment and the living kittens, the small white bones she'd tried to give me. Years later I realized I'd failed her, though not, perhaps, completely.
That same winter, just after Valentine's Day, I saw Betty Ray on the kickball field at school. She was standing by herself next to third base and I walked over and asked how the kittens were. "I'm tendin' to 'em," she scowled.
I stood still for a minute. "Hey, lookahere," she said, fishing in her coat pocket. She produced a plastic bag with candy hearts inside. DREAM GIRL and LUV U showed through the plastic. "Did you put this in my locker?" she asked. Unaware of the prank, the girls with their bags of sweethearts, Betty Ray watched me, her eyes slitted and wary.
I glanced over at home plate, where captains were choosing their teams. It was a pretty day, with March and warm weather on the distant horizon. Betty Ray would be picked last, as usual, though she kicked a mean left-field grounder.
"Yeah," I said. "It was me."