Between the Lines

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Print version available March 20, 2015

Between the Lines tells the story of three girls who become friends during the racially-charged aftermath of the 1967 Detroit Riots.

Hattie Percha is crushed when the riots start on her tenth birthday, and when she must move away from her treasured childhood home and friends, attending public school for the first time, she’s afraid her life is over. Then, she meets Beverly Jo Nichols, her first black friend, and Crackers, afearless tomboy. Despite opposition from Hattie’s mother and a racist teacher, the unlikely friends join forces. As the self-proclaimed Dream Girls, they challenge bigotry and intolerance, willing to do whatever it takes to hold onto what’s most precious to them all, their friendship.

Excerpt:

CHAPTER ONE

Sunday, July 23, 1967 ~ Detroit, Michigan

Mom calls me a dreamer like it’s a bad thing. This morning when I woke up, I said, “This is going to be the best birthday!” A little smile curled on her lips and she cocked her head my way and said, “Hattie, my faithful dreamer.” I know my daydreams are a problem when I’m at school (not that I’d ever admit that to her). I get lost in my thoughts a ton and have to remind myself to pay better attention. But now? In the summer? Who cares if I’m dreaming? And why doesn’t Mom think my tenth birthday will be perfect? She’s already made my bed for me, and Mary and Joanne, my two best friends, are coming over later for a party. We’re going to have my favorite foods—Sloppy Joes, angel food cake with fluffy chocolate frosting, and Sanders vanilla ice cream—then go swimming and have a sleepover. My birthday bash will be loads of fun!

Plus, no chore list. Besides making our beds on our birthdays, Mom says, “No jobs on your special day.” I don’t have to sweep the kitchen floor or wash the dishes. I don’t have to lend my little brothers a hand when they are trying to build with Lincoln Logs and their clumsy little fingers knock their forts apart before they finish. I hate how they cry, so mostly it’s just easier to help them. But today? I’m taking the day off.

But I can’t figure out this “dreamer” thing. When Dad or Grandma refer to me as a dreamer, they act like it’s a good thing, and Dad sometimes says, “You’ll do great things one day, Hattie.” I feel all warm inside when he says that, and my heart swells like a balloon. All this talk makes me think dreaming can be both good and bad, depending.

I peek out my bedroom window. Sunshine is flooding our backyard, and I love the way the brilliant rays make the pool water sparkle. I pull on shorts and a shirt, tie my hair back into a ponytail, and head for the front porch, right after I grab a handful of dry Frosted Flakes and my writing tools.

I like to think of myself as thoughtful, meaning my head is full of all kinds of ideas. Ideas for stories, and questions about why things are the way they are. For instance, why do we have to move? I sit on the cool concrete porch steps and make a sour face at the SOLD sign Dad moved to the driveway while he’s mowing the lawn. I overheard a confusing conversation between him and Mom the other night. I wasn’t eavesdropping on purpose, but their bedroom is right next to mine, and I like to lay awake when I’m done reading at night and listen to the house sounds—the hum of the refrigerator, the whir of the window fan, the creaks and moans of the wooden floors and the plaster walls.

Mom said, “Michael, are you sure there aren’t any Negroes in the new neighborhood?”

“Yes, dear,” Dad says. “I don’t know why you’re so worried about the neighbors. I work with Negroes. I teach them. They’re just like us.”

That’s weird. There aren’t any Negroes in our neighborhood now, so moving for that reason makes no sense. I don’t even know any Negroes other than the lady who came to help Mom with the ironing a few times. She was really nice and smiled at me. Anyhow, the only part I understand about moving is how we’ve outgrown this house. My brothers share the upstairs dormer, the three oldest, that is. Baby Larry shares my room with me. We’re jammed in here like a colony of ants in a too-small hole.

The good thing is that when we move, I’ll have a bedroom of my own. The bad thing is, I’m leaving my best friends behind, and I might have to go to public school. I went there for Kindergarten. McCall Elementary wasn’t all that bad, I guess—I was just a crybaby and wanted to be home with Mom. That’s the other problem with me. Besides being a dreamer, I’m shy. Like want to hide in a corner or closet shy. I love cubbies and curling up in tiny, out-of-the-way places. It feels safer. I’ve been a Catholic school girl since the first grade. The thought of being on the waiting list to get in to St. Mary’s when my brothers have already been accepted makes me jealous. And the thought of going on my own to a brand-new public school, where I’m not sure of the rules, is beyond frightening. I’ve heard Mom say that kids don’t learn as much in public school, so why is she letting me go there? Come to think of it, I’m not all that brave either.

I squint through my glasses at the sun. I hate my glasses; they’re light blue and have these sparkles on the wings where the earpieces join, which Mom thought were pretty, but they make me feel like everyone is looking at me. Mom said it’s normal to need glasses around the time you turn ten. I probably need them because I read and write so much. Neither Mom nor Dad wear glasses, so I didn’t inherit my nearsightedness from them. I’ve just strained my peepers from overuse.

Dad pushes the mower across the front lawn, tips his head toward me, and smiles. I set down my pad and pen, wave and grin, then play with the branch of a yew. The needles are soft and pliable; they break when I bend them, and the smell of fresh evergreen stays on my fingertips. I love the aroma. (I’m working on my vocabulary. Because I’m going to be a writer, I need to know tons of words.) The scent of the freshly mown grass and the seasonable temperature—it’s already heating up—mean my birthday is bound to be a slice of paradise.

I pick up my pencil and turn to a fresh page in my notebook and write the word “paradise” in cursive five times. I love cursive. It’s so pretty. What will I write about today? An odd noise barges into my thoughts.

Pop! Pop! Pop! It reminds me a little of a car backfiring, yet it’s different. Dad stops and the clacking mower blades quiet. Now, the crack of sound is sharper, closer.

A look of fear crosses Dad’s face before he swallows and composes himself. “Hattie,” he says in a serious voice, “go inside. Those are gunshots.”

My eyes open wide. “Gunshots?”

He looks worried, more than I’ve ever seen him, and I don’t want to leave him.

“Go inside. Now. And make sure your brothers stay put. No one comes outside.”

“What about you? Are you coming in?” I wait, but he’s listening hard for the sounds. “Come in,” I plead. “Please.”

His face changes before my very eyes. He’s faking. Trying to act calm. I’ve seen him act like this before when he received the phone call that my Grandpa died, and when he broke the news to mom. He took a big breath then. He’s gulping for air again now. “Be right there,” he says. “Please do as I ask.”

I gather my writing supplies, spin around, open the screen door, and pause to gaze at the few wispy clouds floating on a sea of blue. Please, God. Let this be some kind of horrible mistake. Not gunshots on my birthday!

I step inside. My feet feel different, like they aren’t really hitting the floor. My brothers are sprawled out on the living room rug playing army men and shooting the enemy. “Pshew, pshew, pshew.” All la-di-da, life goes on like. I want to tell them to stop, to listen to the real shots being fired down the street, but I’m paralyzed and stand there like a baby bird who’s lost her voice.

I stand there for an eternity. I have no idea where Mom is, but I’m guessing she’s in the basement putting laundry into the washing machine. Finally, the side door slams. I wait for Dad to come and say, “false alarm,” and tell me the noises we heard were from some kind of construction project down the road, like a jackhammer. But Dad doesn’t come. Footsteps sound on the back steps, and he stays in the kitchen when Mom comes upstairs. She turns on the water at the sink. She’s probably washing the dishes. I hear Dad tell her to “turn off the water.”

It’s like I’m suspended, watching my brothers from up in the sky. Waiting. Waiting. Today’s my birthday. Nothing bad is allowed to happen. Maybe tomorrow or the next day, but not today.

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IMG_3241-300x300Hattie – 5th Grade