So the days would go by, with the little girl very rarely venturing out into the sunshine, except to play with her doll on a picnic blanket under the maple tree, or jump on the trampoline in the windy sunlight. Then, just as the summer had reached its very hottest, the little girl, with her many brothers and sisters and Mama and Daddy, loaded up in a long white van to drive down through Memphis, and Little Rock, and Mena, to get to Grandma Jane's and Grandpa Riley's house.
They lived in the country. They didn't even have wireless internet, or fast computers, or nintendo, or cable TV, or any movies except old Westerns and black-and-white romances. They did have the church-house where Grandpa Riley preached right down the dirt road. They had horses and saddles, guns and bows-and-arrows, a swimming hole down in Cow Creek and pasture-lands with the promise of mad bulls and ticks. They had woods that were haunted by Bigfoot and wild boar and armadillo, and a log cabin where Aunt Sherry would make them chocolate milk. All the cousins lived down there, too. They loved the outdoors. The little girl who liked to the relaxation of the indoors was amazed by their tanned skin, wiry muscles, and great athletic abilities. They could outrun her in a flash. They could saddle up a horse by themselves, and even gallop bare-back. They could ride the bucking mule named John. And they could all drive the standard transmission pickup truck, even though they were all not even in their teens yet.
They were also very good at outsmarting Milly and her little sister, Gretchen. The cousins, Sara, who had feisty brown eyes and a flashing white grin, David-Riley, whose wiry physique boasted the fastest runner of the lot, and Milly's older brother, Benjamin, who was a pale, slight boy with a giant, brainy imagination, could read and spell, whereas Milly was still learning. They would give secret messages to each other in front of Milly by strange codes, like 'Let's go play at the C-H-U-R-C-H', and then they would run off so quickly that they soon lost Milly. She would huff and puff after them, her plump little face growing beet-red, her little lungs becoming hyper-active. Soon she would be forced to sit down beside the dirt road and try to parse out what C-H-U-R-C-H could possibly mean, since she couldn't keep up with them. Once she had found from her older siblings Annie and Alex that C-H makes a certain sound, and that 'church' was the only word that had that sound on either end, Benjamin had the bright idea to start spelling foreign translations of the word, like K-I-R-K. And that completely lost her.
Milly was a smart little girl, however, and she told Mama about it. Mama, her hazel eyes sparkling and her pretty pink mouth twitching with suppressed laughter, scolded Benjamin and Sara and David-Riley. Milly felt a little guilty for being a tattle-tell when she saw how sorry they all looked, even though Mama had always said that tattle-telling was a good thing.
So the cousins and Benjamin began to take Milly and Gretchen along with them to play. The little baby, Jeremiah, who was just starting to leave Mama's arms to toddle around, was still too young to join in.
The children's favorite haunt was the old barn on the Chattam place. It was cluttered with old boxes full of antiques and fiddleback spiders, rusted tin barrels of oats for the horses, leathery-smelling bridles and saddles, and, most importantly, an utterly mountainous construction of hay bales reaching all the way up to the peaked roof. The cousins would easily hop onto an old trailer hitch and tumble up onto the hay bales, stacked seven feet deep, and then they would laugh as Milly and Gretchen tried many times to jump up only to slide right back down. Finally, though, they helped them up.
Then the festivities began. The hay bales, squishy and sweet-smelling under their feet, had all sorts of pathways, hiding places, and precarious holes from where the tractor had pulled hay down to feed the cows and horses and the bales had fallen. The children loved to play tag up there. Milly, who could not run fast, and had a tendency to get the giggles so hard she was incapacitated, found that hiding was much more effective than running away, and so she would creep around corners and duck under bales while the rest had dashing races around the hay palace, catapulting over the holes in the hay as they ran.
But such tactics could not last long, especially once David-Riley found out about them, and, next time David-Riley got tagged It, Milly found herself huffing and puffing, running for her life, and falling down in terror as David-Riley leaped gracefully up to tag her. The bell of doom had tolled. She was It, and she knew in her heart-of-hearts that she would never be able to tag David-Riley, Sara, Benjamin, or even Gretchen. Especially since she was mortally afraid of stepping on one of the cracks in the hay bales and slipping down into the mouldy grey tempests beneath.
Milly's mama was a very good and attentive mama, and had read her all the old fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Bears, and The Boy Who Cried Wolf, but Milly was unfortunately not so good and attentive. She, though she had heard about the boy who cried wolf, and knew what happened to him, did not heed the moral of the story. Knowing that in order to not be It until the end of the game, she would have to outsmart everyone else. She therefore decided that, once everyone had run off and hid, she would scream and wail that she had fallen down into the hay. The first time she started fake crying and yelling 'Help! Help!' Sara, David-Riley, Ben, and Gretchen all came flying out of their hiding places. Milly made mad dashes toward them, but even after the trickery she could not tag them.
They scoffed at Milly's fakery as they ran away, leaving her out of breath and at a loss behind them. She waited a little while, and then she again started wailing and crying, 'Help! Help! I've fallen down in the hay!' The other children ran to help her, and, as they came into sight, Milly again dashed off after the closest, trying to tag somebody. They easily outran her, but she kept on puffing and huffing after them, running around and around on the prickly hay bales.
Then she fell. Down, down into the hay bales she slipped. She saw the golden-grey hay close over her head. She felt one foot touch the hay bale beneath and the other foot slip down even deeper.
But neither Sara nor David-Riley nor Benjamin nor Gretchen would believe her. Then she wept, and the other children, realizing that she was not joking this time, ran to her assistance.
Milly was terrified. Mama and Grandpa Riley had told her how snakes liked to live in the hay bales, and how one must be very careful in the barn because of the fiddleback spiders and black widows that made their home there. The sunlight seemed very far above her, and silhouetted against that light were the worried faces of the other children, staring down into Milly's misfortune.
Milly cried and cried, and reached up her hands to be pulled out, but none of the other children were strong enough to pull her out. She felt as if she could not breathe, and suddenly, added to her terror of creepy-crawly things was the fear that she might suffocate down there packed in the hay bales. Her legs gave way under her, and she sank down upon her knees, tears blinding her eyes, her long brown hair tangled up in the hay.
The children couldn't manage to get her out, and so Milly started yelling, 'Go get Alex! Go get Alex! Please, go get Alex!' Alex was Milly's older brother, who, at the very old age of thirteen, had started lifting weights and, in Milly's seven-year-old mind, could accomplish anything.
Sara thought that was the best idea, and, jumping nimbly off the hay bales, took a dashing Tom Sawyer run for the log cabin, where Alex and Annie and the grown-up cousins were playing board games. Meanwhile David-Riley, always finding the humor in the situation, started trying to persuade Gretchen that it was really fun down in the midst of the hay bales. It was like a different universe, he said. Milly, her blue eyes spouting fire and tears as she glared up at them, very vehemently told Gretchen to not listen to him.
And then Benjamin announced that Alex was coming, running behind Sara, and in five minutes he had leapt up onto the hay bales, taken Milly's soft, pale little hands, and had pulled her out of her golden-grey grave. Alex, trying not to laugh, told her that she was perfectly all right and that it really was not worth all those tears. Milly did not believe him, for he had not experienced it. But she dried her tears by and by, and then, with slow dignity, walked to the log cabin, her hair covered in hay and her little eyebrows red. She had experienced her first trauma, and had come through determined never to play trickery again.