Muddy by Amy Allison

Red showed through the mud. Rose red. Glancing over at me, my big brother, Ben, asked, “Find one, Deb?”

That summer, for the last time, we’d tagged along with the Wallace boys to search the swamps for frogs. Back in the sixties, the swamps were within walking distance of where we lived outside Washington, D.C. We’d trap the frogs in jars and take them home until they deserted us by quickly dying. Sally Wallace, who was a couple years older than me, never came along, but that wasn’t something you’d ask her brothers about.

I shook my head no, I hadn’t found any frogs, and Ben went back to searching a patch of reeds. No one saw me salvage the scrap of cloth, with its pattern of roses, from the mud. And no one saw me wrap it in Kleenex and stuff it in the pocket of my overalls. I always kept Kleenex with me when I was in grade school and got nosebleeds a lot.

I tried to remember what was familiar about those roses as we walked home from the swamps. Only John and Tom Wallace caught any frogs. Their brother, Joey, who was even littler than me, insisted we take them to the swimming pool in my family’s back yard. Joey was crazy to see the frogs swim in it.

John and Tom stood at the edge of the pool and emptied their jars of frogs. The frogs dove to the bottom.

“I ain’t waitin’ for those frogs to come up for air,” John muttered. He and Tom dragged Joey, cursing them, across the street to their house.

Three stories tall, the Wallaces’ house towered over the ranch homes up and down the block. Rumor was, it was built before the Civil War. I knew without having to see them that Mr. Wallace’s German Shepherds were pacing out in back, chained, as if the ghost of the slave owner who’d built the place expected something to be shackled. And beaten like Mr. Wallace beat those dogs.

Sitting cross-legged on my bed, I drew the Kleenex from my pocket. I unwrapped the scrap of fabric and stared at the roses. I stared so hard, they weren’t roses anymore, just dye staining the cloth red.

I glanced up and saw, across the room, my purple vinyl Barbie doll box. The girls in the neighborhood all played Barbie together. The last to get her own Barbie doll was Sally Wallace. Sally’s teeth were crooked and chipped, and when she laughed, she covered her mouth, except when she was playing Barbie. My mother said Sally was such a pretty girl, it was a shame her parents didn’t take her to a dentist to get her teeth fixed.

Then I remembered. Sally’s Barbie wore homemade dresses, just like Sally did, and that’s where I’d seen the roses before, on one of those dresses. But I hadn’t found the doll in the mud, or the dress, only a scrap of it. I hadn’t actually seen Sally’s doll for weeks, not since we last played Barbie. Most of us neighborhood kids were busy over the summer building a tree house.

The next morning, in the kitchen after finishing breakfast, I phoned Sally. My mother had forbidden me from going over to the Wallaces’ without calling first. That meant I didn’t visit there much, since they didn’t always answer their phone. I counted ten rings before giving up. While I counted, I clutched the scrap of cloth in my pocket.

Ben drained his glass of orange juice. “Let’s see if anyone’s at the Doyles’ yet,” he said.

We were building the tree house in the giant oak shading the Doyles’ back yard. Neil Doyle and Joey Wallace had stationed themselves by the tree, next to a jumble of wood planks. The boys were near the same age, though Neil stood up straighter and his eyes didn’t go all blank on you sometimes.

“Hey, Joey, is Sally at home?” I shouted.

“Yeah, where else would she be?” he shouted back.

“Let’s go.”

“Go where?”

“To your house.”

“I ain’t goin’ nowhere. Kyle said to wait here ’til he got back.” Kyle was the eldest Doyle boy. He’d taken charge of building the tree house, and we let him, without question.

“C’mon, Joey, it’ll just take a minute.”

“I’m waitin’ for Kyle,” Joey repeated. His eyes narrowed and his lower lip stuck out. The last time I saw that expression on his face, his brother Tom had to hold him back from head-butting someone.

“Okay, well, is Sally coming by here later?” I asked, finally at a distance I didn’t have to shout.

“She ain’t got time. She’s helpin’ around the house.”

“Will you give her something, then, and ask her to call me?”

“I ain’t your servant!” he said and spat.

“Fine! I just want to return something of hers.”

“Let me see!”

“Here!” I thrust the scrap at him.

“That’s from Sally’s dress! You got it all dirty!” He flung himself at me, and it took both Ben and Neil to pull him away.

The following morning, we all woke to find the Wallaces’ Oldsmobile gone, and Sally and Mrs. Wallace with it. From that morning on, Mr. Wallace’s flatbed truck was parked by itself in the gravel driveway. People in the neighborhood had their suspicions why Mrs. Wallace left with Sally. You’d overhear adults talking though they’d stop when they saw us kids.

Years later, I have to rely on photographs to recall Sally Wallace’s face. I phone Ben after coming across Sally’s picture in a fraying yearbook late at night. It’s earlier out West, where Ben moved to teach chemical engineering at Caltech.

“Hey, Ben,” I ask, “do you remember the Wallaces?”

“Sure,” he answers. “Those Wallace boys were geniuses at catching frogs. You know why the frogs died so quickly? It was the chlorine in the pool,” he said. “The chlorine killed them.”

If only we’d known.

© Copyright 2013 Amy Allison. All rights reserved.

amy-allisonAmy Allison has contributed fiction to,, and Her poetry has been published in Cricket magazine. She and her husband, Dave, live in Southern California. Their wedding took place at La Casita del Arroyo in Pasadena.


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