The Last Day
Excerpt from Night on Fire (1969),
by Avadelle Richardson, page 2
In 1960, Maud Butler Faulkner died, and two of her grown sons didn’t survive another three years past her last breath. One of them, you won’t know. The other, a fellow name of William Cuthbert Faulkner, him you might remember.
That boy dropped out of high school, failed his military physical to become a pilot in World War I, and impersonated a British citizen to join the Royal Canadian Air Force for a few years. Then he went and got himself fired from his job as postmaster at Ole Miss.
While all that was going on, though, William Faulkner wrote himself a few books and plays. “The sun, an hour above the horizon, is poised like a bloody egg upon a crest of thunderheads,” he said in As I Lay Dying. “The light has turned copper: in the eye portentous, in the nose sulphurous, smelling of lightning.” That book was published in 1930, but Faulkner’s ghost might as well have penned those words in 1960, about Oxford, Mississippi.
Poised on a crest of thunderheads. That’s what we were, no mistaking. A squall line had formed from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mason-Dixon Line, and the storm threatened to kill anyone caught in its path.
Talk to them in public, but don’t bring one home.
Thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed.
They got strong backs, but they ain’t as smart as us.
That’s what the best ones said. The best White folks.
What the worst had to say, that doesn’t bear repeating.
What the worst would do—
Well. That’s the stuff of hurricanes and Armageddon.
I suck at predicting the future, and I am so not the queen of witty comebacks.
If I needed any proof of either of those facts, which I really, really didn’t, I got it from Mackinnon Richardson at exactly 3:17 p.m. on the last day of eighth grade, at my locker at Ross-Phillips Academy, Oxford, Mississippi, in front of ten thousand people.
Okay, okay. Maybe it was only a handful of sixth-graders— but it felt like ten thousand people. And ten thousand people, or even a bunch of sixth-graders, that’s way too many folks to be paying attention when a big chunk of your life turns from sunshine to sewage, and you realize that not one thing in life is exactly what you thought it was.
“Dani Beans,” Indri Wilson intoned in her best vintage actress voice, “You are the cornado.”
I snorted at her as we started the next and probably last cornhole inning. The score was twenty to three, in favor of me. Even if I kept a cowpie on the bright red board, I’d win. Since I couldn’t play any other sport known to humanity, I didn’t feel guilty for pummeling Indri at cornhole. After all, it was the last day of school, and the sun was out, and everything had gotten warm and relaxed. The teacher policing the cornament had wandered off, and nobody was trying that hard. Indri and I had our pit to ourselves, bookended by two groups of seventh-graders playing a round of doubles.
Indri wiggled her eyebrows over her yellow cat-eye sunglasses as she lined up her next shot. “Mac likes you,” she said as she threw a screaming eagle so far to the right, she smacked one of the seventh-graders in the shoulder. He caught the bag, glared in our direction, saw the pretty girl in the bright golden sundress with the clover crown woven through her long black hair, gave her a stupid grin, and pitched the beanbag back to us. Indri waved at him, adjusted her sunglasses, and gestured for me to take my turn.
Just as I was about to throw for the win, Indri said, “What I mean is, I bet that’s what Mac wants to talk to you about. He likes you. As in, likes you.”
My bag smacked the board and skittered hard left, clipping a different seventh-grader on the other side of the cornhole board. He wheeled around, saw the dumpy girl in the jeans shorts with the wild frizzy hair, and aimed the beanbag right between my eyes.
I caught his pitch with one hand and pointed the bag at Indri. “Mac doesn’t like me that way, and you completely exploded my toss on purpose. No fair.”
She shrugged one delicate shoulder. “Throw again. It’s what, twenty billion to nothing? And you’ve got five minutes before you meet Mac.”
I gave her a look, then lined up the white bag, ready to give it a gentle underhand.
No way did Mac like me. Well, he was my friend. That’s how I liked him, and how he thought of me, and that was pretty amazing given that our grandmothers were mortal enemies. Our parents didn’t even totally approve of us hanging out. So the friends thing, it was kind of a victory.
I adjusted the bag. Took a breath. Thought about Mac. Took one more breath. Mom always told me I thought too much and dwelled on things, and had a . . . what was it? Oh, yeah: tendency toward the dramatic.
“Are you going to throw that stupid thing or give it a sloppy kiss?” Indri grumbled.
See? She was the one with the tendency toward the dramatic. Plus, she had an attitude because her mom—who was my mom’s best friend—was an archeologist at Ole Miss, and she had named Indri for the largest living lemur in the world. It was a species native to Madagascar. When you’re named for a lemur, you have to do some serious compensating.
I kept my eyes on the hole at the far end of the board. Mac didn’t like me the way Indri was talking about. He didn’t, even if Indri was usually right about all things connected to human beings. Understanding people and relationships was her special talent. I didn’t have any special talents, except maybe winning cornhole games. The hot afternoon sun heated my cheeks and my whole face, because I wasn’t blushing. I didn’t care if Mac liked me or not.
Indri sighed. “This century, Dani?”
Okay, okay. If I got the bag in the hole, maybe Mac did like me, like me. If it just hit the board, he liked me a little bit. If I missed everything, he thought of me like a sister. The early summer air smelled like grass and felt like magic, and I tensed, relaxed, lined up one more time, and tossed.
The white bag sailed in a smooth, perfect arc toward the board. When it dropped through the hole without even brushing a bit of wood, I stared at the space where it disappeared.
Indri stuck her arms in the air like I made a touchdown and yelled, “Swish!” Then, “Thank every god in the whole world this idiotic game is finally over! I’m going to clean out my locker. I’ll come over to your hall when I’m done.”
Before I could even finish collecting the beanbags, she was gone. I shook my head at the skipping streak of yellow with clover in her hair. Indri moved like she was in ballet class all the time. Kinda better than my clumsy stomping, but I guess we both got where we were going.
Mac doesn’t like me. Not like me, like me.
I had known Mac since fifth grade, and known about him way before that. Who didn’t? He was the famous writer’s grandson. The famous writer that my grandmother—another writer, respected in her academic field but not exactly famous—famously didn’t speak to. “The Magnolia Feud.” That’s what journalists called the relationship between Ruth Beans, scholar of American history and civil rights, and Avadelle Richardson, novelist extraordinaire. “One of the enduring mysteries of our time.”
Neither my grandmother nor Mac’s would say a word to anyone about why they didn’t talk to each other. They swore up and down they weren’t angry and it was much ado about nothing, but they had been friends once, very close friends, and then they weren’t. When I was seven years old, my grandmother actually left the Jitney Jungle grocery store downtown to avoid ending up in the same aisle as Avadelle.
With that kind of build-up for why Beans people didn’t mix with Richardson people, I figured I’d despise Mac on general principle, but he was quiet and funny and he played electric guitar in a band, and I liked listening to their music while I did my homework.
I let out the breath I kept accidentally holding as I walked back to the nearest building, where my locker waited. Mac’s locker was close to mine. This morning, he had texted that he wanted to talk to me right here, right about now, before school let out. That was weird, because we usually saw each other in school and after school too, but I hadn’t seen him all day. Why had he gone to the trouble of setting up a meeting? What if Indri was right? What if—
I chewed my bottom lip and pushed the thought out of my mind. He’d probably say hi like always. I’d say hi like always. He’d ask if I wanted to go get ice cream like always. Regular and routine and nothing new.
No sign of him yet. I started clearing out my locker. This weekend, I planned to wake up whenever I wanted to, and all week, and maybe the week after that, too. Then I’d start Creative Arts Camp at Ole Miss, with Indri and Mac. I failed at all things art, but maybe this would be my year, my moment, that special space in time when I finally got inspiration (yeah, yeah, talent wouldn’t hurt either) and started making masterpieces like my grandmother.
In years to come, people might say about the summer before I started high school, That was when it happened. That was when Dani Beans started changing the world.
Artists really could change the world. My Grandma Beans did it with books she wrote about history and politics, back before she got Alzheimer’s disease. Mac’s grandmother had changed the world with Night on Fire, her award-winning novel about Southern life that some reviewer said “opened eyes and shattered stereotypes”—and she was the meanest person in the entire universe. If Avadelle Richardson’s hateful old butt could change the world with one book, I could do it ten times over. I just had to find that . . . thing. My special talent. My muse. My medium. Something. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it would morph me from wannabe brilliant transformationist to unstoppable creative force (you can shut up now, brain, transformationist can be a word if I want it to be).
I dumped the last of my pencils and erasers into my carry-home bag, then stood and closed the door to my dingy red locker. That’s when I came face-to-face with Mac Richardson.
“Oh!” My breath caught, and I almost dropped my carry-home bag. “You scared me.”
Mac didn’t say anything. He stepped away from me, then stared at his feet. He stuffed his hands in his jeans pockets, and he wiggled one foot back and forth. The foot looked like it might be trying to claw its way out of the nasty black sneaker that was strangling it to death. Mac wasn’t much on fashion. He was a T-shirt guy, and he kept his brown hair long, so it hung in his face.
I suddenly got too aware of the old red lockers and the cinder block walls, and the way the big square floor tiles seriously needed mopping. A lot of sixth-graders had shown up while I was cleaning out my locker. They were digging through their own lockers, chattering and glancing at us, and the air blowing through the hallway seemed warmer than it had been a minute ago. Why was my heart beating all funny and fast? I made myself grin, even though Mac still hadn’t looked at me.
Some of the sixth-graders giggled. I knew some of those girls thought he was cute.
He doesn’t like me.
Since Mac kept not talking, I thought I would help him out. “I’m sleeping until noon tomorrow, and Sunday, and all next week. Want to come over Monday and walk down University Avenue with Indri and me? We can eat ice cream until we explode.”
Mac’s foot kept tapping its escape code. “I . . . uh. Um. It’s . . .”
He stopped. I waited. Mac wasn’t a word wizard, despite his grandmother being such a well-known writer. If something made him nervous, his tongue tied itself in major knots.
I got a strange feeling in my stomach, like something was going really wrong. My neck started to sweat. Just perfect. Every girl needs neck sweat to feel extra-special pretty when talking to a boy who might like her.
“Camp,” Mac finally expelled. The way he said it, it sounded like a swear word. He glanced at me and shoved his hair out of his brown eyes. He had a lot of freckles, but all this year, they had been joining together to make him look tan and—I don’t know. Older, somehow.
“Camp,” I prodded, hoping he’d keep producing words without a high-speed come-apart.
“I can’t do camp this year,” he said. “I have to help my grandmother.” Then he went right back to staring at his feet. “Yeah, and . . .”
A second ticked by. Two. Then three.
“I’m not supposed to talk to you anymore,” Mac said so fast I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly.
“What?” My face burned hot. I wrapped both hands around my carry-home bag and leaned toward Mac, who still wouldn’t look at me. “Mac. That doesn’t make any sense.”
“I know. But I’m not supposed to. It’s . . . I . . . my parents.” He kicked one ugly sneaker against the other. “They said. My parents, I mean.”
“You have got to be kidding,” I said to Mac. Okay, I probably yelled it. “This is not what’s happening here. You were supposed to be talking about liking me!”
Did I actually just holler that loud enough for the entire school to hear? I wanted to stuff myself in a locker and slam the door and never come out until next year in a totally new school where I didn’t know any of these people.
“Sorry.” Mac sounded miserable. “That story in the news last week about the Magnolia Feud, they got all worked up about reporters coming down here and stalking us again, and . . . never mind. It’s just the way things are right now, Dani.”
I banged my head against my locker and glared at the chipped paint instead of him. Then I banged my head one more time and turned on Mac. “So you’re letting your parents pick your friends now?”
All the noise and people around us drained out of my awareness, and I willed him to quit kicking himself and staring at nothing and look at me. Look at his friend. The one he was ditching because he was too much of a weenie to tell his parents no, or just do what he wanted anyway.
He didn’t raise his head.
My chest actually hurt. Heart-ache. Who knew that was real and not just a metaphor?
“You’re pathetic,” I said. Yelled. Screeched. Whatever.
Indri chose that moment to sweep up to us like a yellow sunray. Her smile spread light across the world, until she looked at us. “Wait,” she said. “What? Are you two fighting? It’s the last day of school. Are you both crazy?”
Mac glanced at her. Then he looked at me. As in, really looked at me. His hair hung in his face again, but I could see his eyes. They seemed wide and sad. I had called him pathetic. I wanted to say it again, with even more underlines and exclamation points that actually hung in the air where he could see them, but I couldn’t, not when he looked like that.
My eyes didn’t cry with sadness, I was sure. Mine sparked and glowed with PISSED OFF.
Mac’s expression hardened, he looked back at the floor, grunted something at Indri that sounded like “Bye,” and “Talk to you later.”
Then he turned and left, shoving through the sixth-grade crowd to do it.
“What was that about?” Indri asked me. “What did you say to him? What did he say to you? Why was he acting like that?”
I let go of my carry-home bag with one hand and tried to wipe the sweat off the back of my neck. “We’re not friends anymore, according to him.”
“What??” Indri sort of toppled into the lockers, looking about as stunned as I felt. “Why?!”
“He said his parents won’t let him talk to me anymore. That article in Time set them off.”
Indri recovered herself enough to stand up straight. “So, the feud.”
I shrugged like I wanted the feud, Mac, the wrecking of my day, the staring sixth-graders, all of it, every bit of it, to be no big deal at all. “Maybe he just needed an excuse to walk away, so he took the first one that came along.”
And maybe if I tried hard enough, I could believe all of this truly wasn’t a big deal.
“Just an excuse,” I mumbled. “Indri, I thought—I was sort of—and he blew me off.” A tear slipped down my cheek. I hoped no sixth-graders saw it.
But Indri did. Her eyes narrowed. Then they got more narrow, and more narrow, until she looked like a crazed robot.
“Oh, no he did not blow you off,” psychotic-robot-Indri said as she turned toward the crowded hallway, even though Mac was probably long gone. “He did not blow us off.”
Indri had been friends with Mac too—but mostly because of me. I suddenly felt guilty for her getting her feelings hurt too.
“Sorry,” I whispered, trying not to let a second tear follow the first one.
“Hey, Richardson!” Indri yelled down the crowded hall. “You’re a worm! You hear me? You’re less than a worm. YOU’RE WORM DUNG!”
She got hold of my arm, jostling the carry-home bag as she pulled me into the sixth-grade cockroach ocean. “Come on, Dani,” she said. “Who needs Worm Dung anyway?”
Definitely not me.
A provocative, sensitive, and oh-so-timely read. (Kirkus, STARRED REVIEW)
Ambitious, thought provoking, and very readable. (Booklist, STARRED REVIEW)
Vaught deftly balances family story and mystery, and the racial attitudes and experiences of biracial Dani and white Mac contrast starkly with those of their elders but cannot fully insulate them from the families’ strained histories. The awaited revelation of the reason for the Magnolia Feud—Avadelle’s appropriation of Ruth’s civil rights experiences, which she fictionalized into a novel—is definitely dramatic. Perhaps more importantly, it’s challenging, forcing the reader to consider such thorny issues as who has the right to tell a story and how does the legacy of segregation continue to affect kids generations removed from its legal demise. (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books)
A strong addition to school collections and curricula, especially when paired with nonfiction titles about the civil rights era. (School Library Journal)