Vilonia is determined to prove she’s responsible enough to care for a dog in this “sensitive and uplifting coming-of-age” (Publishers Weekly) novel.
Being responsible is NOT easy.
Fourth grader Vilonia hasn’t lost her rain coat in the three weeks she’s had it and she’s brushed her teeth every night and she’s volunteered to be the Friday Library Helper. But all that hard work is worth it if it means she can get a dog. Besides, this dog isn’t just because Vilonia has wanted one for pretty much ever. It’s also to help Mama, who’s been lost in one, big sadness fog for forty-three days—ever since Nana died. But Vilonia read that pets can help with sadness. Now all she has to do is keep the library goldfish alive over spring break, stop bringing stray animals home, and help Mama not get fired from her job. And she’s got to do all of it before the Catfish Festival. Easy as pie, right?
Tremendous voice, humor, and heart make this debut novel utterly lovable.
The day I was born I was four times smaller than the trophy largemouth bass hanging in my daddy’s shop.
My entire hand fit on Dr. Lafferty’s thumbnail. Nobody, Mama included, had planned on me arriving three months early.
But I did. At two pounds, two ounces, I was the size of a head of cauliflower (I hate cauliflower) and didn’t make a peep. Boy, have times changed.
• • •
I pulled the cap off my gel pen, crossed out another line in my journal, and smudged purple ink all across the page. Poodles. More permanent ink stains, or as I call it, “the curse of being a lefty.” But being left-handed could be pretty great. Lefties make better videogamers and multitaskers, adjust faster to seeing underwater, and have an advantage in many sports.
Maybe that’s why lots of interesting people were lefties. Babe Ruth. Oprah Winfrey. Barack Obama. Me. So I wasn’t A-list famous, but I was the only lefty on my hometown’s ten-and-under softball team, the Howard County Crush. That had to count for something. I mean, I had played first base for three full seasons, and now Coach said I could try pitching. So what if star arm Mags Baloney moved to Texas to join some elite traveling team? I hadn’t been this excited since our sponsor, Guy’s Pies and Shakes, introduced the Crushin’ Cookie Dough Blast in our honor. They promised everyone on the team free kiddie sizes, all season long.
So far my spring looked plumb awesome. Thank heavens. Because the last two months stunk worse than my brother, Leon, when he forgot to wear deodorant. He was twelve and impossible.
Speaking of which, writing this tribute to my nana proved impossible too. She’d been dead for forty-three days, and we still hadn’t run her obituary. Mama had been in one sad funk ever since, and spent more time under the covers than out.
“Vilonia! Game’s in twenty!” Daddy hollered from somewhere downstairs.
“Coming!” I yelled back, slamming my journal shut and pulling my jersey over my head. Nana’s tribute would have to wait, again.
I tugged my visor onto my forehead and stopped to check my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Howard County Crush blazed across the front of my uniform in royal blue script, popping against the vibrant orange cloth. So did my last name, BEEBE (pronounced Bee-bee), and number, 10, that Daddy ironed on straight across the back. Hallelujah. Ten was a nice even number. I was almost ten. Almost double digits.
I smudged eye black across my cheeks and grabbed an orange ribbon for my hair. A fact about me: Normally, I wouldn’t be caught dead (no offense to Nana) with a ribbon of any sort in my hair. Except for softball. This game blended girly and fierce.
Daddy called me his “force of nature.” He says I talk faster, and louder, than a car salesman guzzling his third tall coffee. Which was why he always refused to take me fishing. Daddy was a fishing guide, and people who talk too much scare away the catch. You’d think being a force of nature would help.
But it hadn’t helped me help Mama. It hadn’t even helped me get a dog.
I hustled outside where Daddy, dressed in gray flannel and three days’ worth of stubble, lugged a cooler down from the bed of his pickup.
“It’s a perfect day to play ball!” I held my arms out to the sun, and a cool breeze brushed my face. It was the Thursday afternoon before spring break. Nana loved spring. “Nana would love today.”
“She sure would, Tadpole. She loved to watch you play.” Daddy reached into the cab of his truck and tossed my lucky glove my way. I snatched it midair and ran my fingers across its smooth leather.
“And what about Mama?” I asked, and stabbed the dirt with my toe. “Think she’ll feel like coming?”
Daddy’s eyes changed from sunny to cloudy with a chance of rain. “The forecast changes daily when it comes to Mama, Vi. But I can ask. You know she’s your biggest fan.”
“I know.” I tried to hide my disappointment. I knew Daddy was doing his absolute best to take care of us, Mama included. But I’ve learned grief has no rules. She’ll make herself at home, eat all your best snacks, sleep in your bed, and no matter what you do or say, sometimes nothing on earth can make her leave.
Daddy mussed my hair. “Your biggest fan next to me, that is. I’ll be there by the third inning. Got to clean up first. I refuse to smell like bait while my best girl pitches her first game.”
“Stink bait or not, I’ll just be warming up.” I threw him a fake pitch. “Fish for dinner?”
“Maybe. Now scoot.” Daddy shooed me away with his cap and grinned. I smiled back. Daddy had the widest, most contagious grin in all of Mississippi. I had it on good authority. Mine.
“I’ll be looking for ya.” I snatched my bike—Leon’s hand-me-down that I wrapped in paw-printed duct tape—from its usual spot in the yard and sped away.
The scent of honeysuckles hung thick in the air. I breathed in their delicious smell and zipped past my best friend and next-door neighbor Ava Claire Nutter’s house. Their American flag, long faded by the sun, waved a happy hello.
“Hey, Vilonia! Come over after dinner, okay?” AC, wearing her black leotard and sweats straight from dance, flitted to her mailbox. Ava Claire loved dance like lizards love sun.
“Okay!” I yelled, giving her a thumbs-up. Pedaling faster, I rounded the corner onto Hamilton and cruised downhill to the two-way stop.
My breath caught, and I skidded to a stop.
A big, fat chicken strode across the sunny intersection. Normally, I’d crack my why’d the chicken cross the road joke, but this wasn’t any old rogue hen. This was Mrs. Willoughby’s prize egg layer.
“Eleanor Roostevelt, you get back here right this instant!” Eleanor stopped, took one look at me, and then took off running. Hens could be so hardheaded. “You just wait!” I shouted. “You’re going to be in one heap of troub—”
A white work van with a clanging ladder on its side barreled over the top of the hill, cutting off my words. Shoot. I turned to look at Eleanor. She’d stalled in the center of the road for an insect feast. Meanwhile, the van’s driver bit into a sandwich. I’d landed a front row seat to a literal game of chicken.
“Run, Ellie, run!” I gripped my handlebars and squeezed my eyes shut, praying against a destruction of fender and feathers. Oblivious, the van roared through the intersection. My heart pounded. I opened my eyes as the vehicle zoomed around the bend. Silence.
A few feathers floated back and forth, back and forth above the steamy pavement.
That hen was a goner.
“Poodles.” I threw my bike to the ground. My eyes scanned the curb for any sign of the bird. Maybe she was still alive. It was a far-fetched hope, but Nana always said that hope was the thing with feathers. Looking both ways, I crossed the street. I walked up and down the sidewalk, trampling weeds with my cleats and calling out Eleanor’s name. I had less than ten minutes until the first pitch, but it was my moral duty as eyewitness and decent human being to at least look for her. I couldn’t leave a wounded critter behind.
“Eleanor?” I called.
But there was no sign of the rogue hen.
Maybe she flew to safety or maybe she flew straight to chicken heaven. Drat! Now Mama would be even sadder. She swore Eleanor’s fresh eggs with their deep orange yolks were what made her sour cream pound cakes so velvety rich. I kicked the curb and walked back to my bike. And that’s when I heard the cluck- clucking. I spun around on my heels and looked up. Way up.
That big chicken had perched in a tree.
“Eleanor, you silly bird. You about gave me a heart attack. Now get down here.”
Another fact about me: I had never caught a chicken. I reckoned catching one’s even harder when the hen’s six feet up. According to the Willoughby boys, the trick was to grab them real stealth-like by the ankles. Chicken ankles. Chankles. I’d laughed.
I wasn’t laughing now, waiting for Eleanor to come down. “Come on! Don’t you care I have a game?” Eleanor wiggled her wattle and blinked. I shook the tree’s trunk. But Eleanor flapped her wings in protest.
I looked around my feet and grabbed the first pebble I saw and chunked it close but not too close, hoping to spook her down. No such luck. Eleanor Roostevelt was one stubborn bird.
“Fine,” I huffed. “I’ll climb this tree faster than you can say bawk bawk.”
A few scrapes and scratches later, I had Eleanor under my arm. Her right leg stuck out at a weird angle, so I ended up grabbing her from behind as gently as I could. She clucked and flapped herself silly, but I held her wings down like the Willoughby boys had taught me.
“I’ve got you, Big E. It’s going to be okay.” I patted her back to calm her. I even wrapped my softball towel across her wings so she’d feel cozy and safe. As she nestled next to my glove inside my handlebar basket, I knew what I had to do.
Kristin L. Gray drinks coffee (cream, no sugar) and writes books (funny, not sad) from her home in northwest Arkansas. She loves to read, walk her dogs, and eat cake for breakfast. She will also travel any chance she gets. Kristin’s fourth-grade self would never believe she has five children, two dogs, one fish, a bearded dragon, and a shy gecko. Vilonia Beebe Takes Charge is her first novel. To learn more about Kristin, or to send her a cake, visit her online at KristinLGray.com.