“Megan is different.” I took a nibble of my warm sugar cookie. “Not odd or weird, but different.”
“How do the other kids treat her?” The look in my best friend’s eye told me that she, for once, was not joking.
I shook my head, pulling my feet down from over the back of the old gray couch. “Remember, when we met, how the other kids treated me?”
“Remember, they laughed at me whenever I did anything remotely athletic, then told me I was lazy for playing with the little ones?”
Michelle nodded. “I remember they touched your blistered sunburn.”
“It’s exactly the same.” I sighed. “The only difference is that, with her, no one does anything. I wish an adult would do something, especially one of the other kids’ mothers.”
She pulled her feet off the couch and set them on the floor. “Any kid in particular?”
I sighed and reached for another cookie. “The oldest Thompson girl is flat-out cruel.” I leaned back on the couch. “I’ve seen that girl say horrible things to Megan’s face, and it doesn’t stop there. She dumped Coke on her during Kids’ Night at church last week. She even cut off a strand of her hair with those blunt scissors they have in the classrooms. I just wish someone would do something.”
“Why don’t you, Ana? You’re in a good position to do something.”
“Me?” I scoffed. “Michelle, you know I don’t have the guts for something like that.”
“Well, then don’t complain if you’re not going to do anything.”
I sighed. “I’m taking her to Alice’s tomorrow for brunch. I was surprised when her mom approved it. I guess Mrs. Farmer likes me better than I’d thought.”
“Guess so.” Michelle stuffed a cookie into her mouth and thought for a moment. “Ana, why does Megan like you?” she finally asked.
“I have no clue. The kid just decided to love me one day when she was two and never looked back.”
“Ah, that’s right. Well, have fun on Saturday!” I grinned. Saturday, I thought, couldn’t come soon enough.
A quaint little restaurant with lace doilies for tablecloths and birdhouses hanging from the ceiling, Alice’s Tea House was the key attraction of Crawdad, Tennessee, frequented primarily by women, girls, and their reluctant male counterparts. The Saturday morning sunlight streamed through the front windows, providing an almost nostalgic feel and glinting off Megan’s golden hair. The eight-year-old smiled brightly through her pink-rimmed glasses as she talked, and I couldn’t help but smile back.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the door swing open, ringing an old brass bell as it did so. Two bored-looking children and an adult walked in. I looked up and my heart sank. It was the Thompsons.
“Ugh, Mom!” I heard the eldest Thompson girl say, “Do we have to eat here?”
The woman cocked her head. “What do you mean, sweetie?”
“She’s here,” the preteen said with an eye roll. “I might lose my appetite.”
I gritted my teeth but smiled at Megan.
“What’s goin’ on, Ana?” the little girl asked.
“Some girls are being ugly and complaining. Don’t worry about it.”
I heard the mother’s response. “Oh, Allie, surely she’s not that bad. You asked to eat here, so this is where we’re eating.” At that moment, the younger child piped up, and normal family talk continued for a while. Megan’s eyes shone in apprehension.. “Ana, was she talkin’ about me?”
My heart sank. I couldn’t lie to her, but at the same time, how could I tell her? “It’s none of our business who they were talking about, Nutmeg.” I used the term of endearment that her mother so often used and that I had picked up.
“But it is if it was about me!” The little girl stuck out her lower lip in a crude estimation of a pout.
“Don’t worry about it, Sweetie.” I tried to be soothing. “Eat your scone.” I kept my eye on the family as they found a table.
The mother stopped by my spot. “Hey, Ana!”
“Hi, Mrs. Thompson!” I rose, smiling up at her.
“Having a girls’ brunch?” Her tone was more polite than interested.
“Well, you two have fun!” The pretty, middle-aged woman walked to her table.
My eight-year-old counterpart looked up at me as I sat down. “Did you know they were here, Ana?”
“I did,” I said. “I was just waiting for Mrs. Thompson to say hi.” I could hear the girls complaining to their mother about my little guest. I could stand up and say something. Or, alternatively, I could quietly console Megan. Consoling her would keep me out of the center of attention, but it would place the small girl in it in a bad way, and goodness only knew what all this could do to her down the road. I thought back to my own childhood…
“Hey, squirt!” The older Thompson girl’s words jerked me out of my reminiscence. Blue eyeliner surrounded her brown eyes as she looked down at Megan, who stared back up at her nervously.
The older girl smirked. “What are you eating?”
“A scone. It’s good; you should have one!”
The girl thought for a moment, picking up the scone to look at it. “Nah. I don’t like cardboard!” She dropped the scone to the floor with a shrug. Crumbs scattered as the pastry collided with the hardwood. “Do they have any real food other than your gross wheat-free stuff?”
I glanced over at Megan. She had begun sniffling, and I noticed tears filling her eyes, causing them to shine. That was it. I stood to my feet.
“Allison, what did you do?” The girl look up at me in defiance.
“What does it look like, Mom?”
“No, you tell me. Now.”
“No, I know. Let’s go talk to your mother.” I ushered the girl before me and made her walk to her mother and younger siblings. “Tell your mother what you did.” Her mother looked at her, eyebrows raised in surprise, likely more at my actions than at those of her daughter.
“I didn’t do anything, Mom!” Her voice sounded like a defiant cat’s. “I just commented on Megan’s food!”
I raised my eyebrows. “What did you say about it?” Allie muttered something under her breath. I looked at her the way I often did one of my younger siblings. “What was that?”
“I said I didn’t like it because it was cardboard!” I saw a waitress, or potentially the manager, come to watch, but paid her no heed.
“Then what did you do?”
“No, you tell her what you did.”
I pointed toward my table. “Then why is Megan crying right now?” I frightened myself with the strength of my words but continued nonetheless. I looked at Mrs. Thompson and jumped at the fact that her expression was one, not of frustration at her child but rather one of impatience with me. A knot planted itself in my stomach. I looked back at Allie. “What did you do?”
“I threw it on the floor!” The preteen glanced at her mother. “But it was an accident, I swear! I meant to throw it onto her plate! I didn’t mean any harm by it!”
“And yet a little girl is crying. What are you going to do?”
Mrs. Thompson finally spoke. “Now, hold on, Ana. Are you Allie’s mother?” “No, ma’am.”
“Then don’t speak that way to my child.”
I thought for a moment. “Mrs. Thompson, is Megan a dog?”
“Then why does Allie treat her worse than one?”
“I didn’t see that.”
I raised my eyebrows. “I may not be Allie’s mom, or even a mom at all, but I am the one taking care of Megan today. I care about her because she trusts me, and I will not stand for my little girl to be treated as if she were less. With all due respect, Ma’am, your daughter was cruel to Megan, a sweet child who never did anything to hurt your daughter. Would you want Megan treating Allie that way?” I turned and walked back to my table. As I wrapped my arms around the little girl to stop her crying, the manager approached us.
“I saw everything that happened,” she said quietly. “Your brunch is on us. I’ve already called for a replacement scone. It took an awful lot of guts to stand up for her like that. Thank you.” She turned and walked away before I could say anything.
That night found me back at Michelle’s house, eating kettle corn and watching sci-fi. The episode ended, and my oldest friend got up to get more kettle corn and milk. I followed her to the kitchen.
“Interesting thing happened today,” I said as I pulled a gallon jug of milk from the fridge.
“I found my guts.”
Michelle gave me a wry look as she shoveled some kettle corn into her bowl. “I’d hope they were right where they always are.” I glared.
“Shut up, ‘Chelle. You know what I mean.”
My friend grinned. “Tell me about it! I want all the details!”
“You’d better sit. It’s a long story.”
Michelle shrugged and led the way back to her basement bedroom. “We’ve only got all night!”