June 15, 1938
“Corde-eel-ee, don’t be sil-ly. We’ll find you sooner or later!”
The taunt echoed down the alley, bouncing from building to building, at the same rate her heartbeat pounded in her ears. The voices pumped more adrenaline into her blood. Would they pop into the Court from Pine Street?
Cordelia Grace pedaled her red and tan Schwinn as fast as her legs would go. She sucked in short rapid breaths that burned her lungs. She took a glance behind. No one. She swerved avoiding the metal garbage cans in front of Stoney’s Garage. Panic raced through her throat as tears pricked at her eyes. Where were her two girlfriends? They were supposed to be right behind her. Now she was alone to face her tormentors.
She probably wouldn’t have run from them if she had “more meat on her bones” like Grammy said. Other girls had the weight and power she lacked. Why did she have to fight? Truth be told . . . she didn’t know how to fight. Her daddy was a preacher man, and her momma always said young ladies of good breeding didn’t act like street hoodlums. No one ever taught her self-defense.
She breathed hard, pulling in big gulps of air. Maybe they hadn’t seen her turn down Dix Court? Maybe she could make it home safely . . . today. The alley, wide enough for cars to pass in either direction, felt as though it were closing in on her, squeezing her into the dusty center. She prayed someone would be on their porch. Just one grown-up she could stop and talk with until the danger passed. But each house stood silent, each narrow porch empty. Rows of garbage cans lined impossibly narrow strips of grass like tin soldiers, but none offered protection.
The quarter-sized scab on her left knee caught on the hem of her play dress as her legs pumped the pedals. The tiny prickle pains from the pulled skin would be worth it if she managed to escape. She jerked her head around to look back again. Long skinny braids whacked her in the face and slapped her in the right eye. Tears spilled onto her cheek. Bitsy Morgan’s house marked the halfway point in the alley. Still no one in hot pursuit.
Her arms relaxed on the handlebars and her legs slowed. She back-pedaled to brake. The bicycle slid to a stop. Cordelia hopped off the seat, her legs straddling the “J” frame. Her lungs burned.
Five houses up, they emerged on the path leading to the avenue. The three bullies spread across the court, blocking her way.
Cordelia whimpered as dread clenched her belly. They found her. She tried to turn but the chain caught her dress hem, wrenching the handlebars from her grip. The bicycle fell and the chain dug into the soft flesh of her ankle. A trail of black grease tracked down her white sock. Ignore the pain. If they see tears, they’ll know I’m scared. She lifted her quivering chin and stared.
Two girls and a boy ran at her.
She bent over and raised her bicycle.
Two more girls raced toward her. The five Wilson kids trapped their prey. She tried not to let fear register in her eyes.
“Cor-deel-le, you belong to me.” Debbie Lu, the taller girl in the group had her nappy hair pulled back in a tight, short ponytail, that pulled back the corners of her eyes, adding to her sinister look.
Cordelia shrank back, choking her handlebars with shaking hands. She watched the Wilson girl approach slapping her fist into the palm of her other hand.
Debbie Lu charged and slammed into Cordelia with the full force of both fists.
Cordelia stumbled from her bicycle and skidded to the ground. Her palms raked over the graveled dirt of the alley. The sting forced tears into her eyes. She refused to respond.
A red flash streaked from the roof of the shed on the left side of the alley. A cute light-skinned boy landed on the ground beside her bicycle. He wore blue jeans and a bright red shirt opened down the front revealing a dingy T-shirt. Cordelia eyed him warily, another tormentor.
He didn’t join the bullies.
She looked him up and down. Who was he? Her heart pounding eased.
The cute boy stepped between her and Debbie Lu. “What’s the problem?” He thumbed back at Cordelia. “Did she steal your Tootsie Pop?”
“I’m gonna pop her all right. Little Miss High Yella’ doesn’t belong in this neighborhood with her light skin and good hair. She acts like she’s white people and better’n us,” said the dark-complexioned girl.
The cute boy turned away from Debbie Lu to glance at Cordelia.
He raised one side of his lips in a slight smile and winked, then turned back to the menace. “In case you haven’t noticed, you should probably call me high yella’ too since my skin is as light as hers. Does that mean you want me out of the neighborhood, too?” He stepped closer to the girl. “See, I just moved here, and I don’t think my pa would want to leave, since he just got a job at the coal company.”
The girl scowled but lowered her fist and backed up.
Tim Wilson, the brother of the group, pushed Debbie Lu out of the way and stood toe-to-toe with the new boy. “Don’t you talk to my sister like that.”
“Or what?” The cute boy’s eyebrows furrowed and he lowered his head a tad.
Cordelia eyed the exchange. Her brain told her to run while she had the chance, but her feet stayed rooted to the spot. What did he think he was doing facing off with the Wilson kids? They were well-known scrappers.
Tim Wilson raised his left hand.
The cute boy’s right fist shot out and punched Tim square in the nose.
Tim’s hands cupped his nose as blood squirted down the front of his shirt and splattered his sisters.
The girls screamed. Both hightailed it down the alley.
Cordelia grimaced. An involuntarily sigh pushed from her chest. This boy wasn’t afraid of them.
“I’ll get you for this,” Tim warned in a nasal tone.
“Yeah, well, when you’re not bleeding and wanna stop playing house with your sisters, be sure and let me know.”
Tim pointed a bloody finger at the boy. “Hey, you take that back or I’m gonna beat your—”
“Oh, no! I’m sorry,” the cute boy interrupted, his voice pleading. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Cordelia’s heart sank. So much for her fearless hero. She couldn’t blame him, but somehow it felt worse than Debbie Lu’s fist in her belly.
Which way should she run before Tim called his sisters back to finish the job?
The boy added, “Yeah, I’m sorry. I meant to hit your sister.”