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The floor was polka-dotted with buttons. Blue and red and yellow and green. Round and square and scalloped. Someone had bumped the button jar and spilled it, but it wasn’t Verity. She just happened to be sitting nearby. Her teacher gave her a stern look.
“Verity, you should be more careful. Please clean up the mess you made.”
Verity opened her mouth to explain. She’d been sitting in her desk, working away at her Mother’s Day button necklace craft, when the jar had thumped against the floor and the buttons had rolled out and spread across the rug. She hadn’t touched it.
But Miss Ryland’s eyes held her frozen. Her teacher was waiting for her to obey. If there were words to protest, words to convince Miss Ryland of her innocence, Verity couldn’t find them.
She left her desk and collected the buttons one by one, plunking them back into the jar while the other students finished their projects.
Suzanne and Celia stared at her striped stockings. They were purple and yellow, with pink flowers at the knees.
“Why do you always wear those silly old stockings?” Suzanne asked.
Verity thought her striped stockings did a great deal to liven up her gray uniform. But they did rather stand out.
“Yeah,” Celia said. “You look like a clown.”
Verity felt her heart race and her cheeks grow hot. She heard the shouting of the boys on the merry-go-round and the creaking of the chains on the swings. She felt very small under the smirking smiles of the girls in front of her. It wasn’t right what they’d said. She didn’t like it.
But Verity couldn’t think how to respond. She just stood there with her face flushed, staring at the grass until Suzanne and Celia tired of her and stalked off.
Floppy was dead. Verity saw him from the back window as her father turned the corner onto their street. She shouted for him to stop the car, jumped from her seat, and knelt down in the road.
The Cochrans had introduced her to the little basset hound puppy only three months before. She’d sat on their front porch and crossed her legs, and Floppy had curled up inside them. Verity had stroked his soft fur, running her fingers between the folds of skin. Floppy had thumped his tail and, later, licked her chin. After that, whenever Verity passed by the Cocrhans’ house, Floppy had howled and scratched until Mrs. Cochran let him out for a visit. Verity had tossed the ball with him and walked him around the neighborhood.
Now he’d waddled out into the road and a truck had run him over.
Daddy walked down to the Cochrans’ to deliver the bad news while Verity stayed rooted to the ground. She wanted to say something to honor Floppy, to tell him how much joy he’d brought her in the little time he’d lived.
But her heart ached, and her mouth was dry. She couldn’t find the right words anywhere.
The house smelled spicy. Mama was making chili. Verity slipped out of her shoes and went into the kitchen and wrapped her arms around her mother’s waist. Dinner bubbled on the stove, pinkish beans and brownish hunks of beef peeking out from the red sauce. Verity leaned over the pot to sniff.
“I made cornbread, too,” Mama said. She ran her hand over Verity’s hair and smiled, looking down into her eyes. Then she spread a clean cloth over a ceramic bowl and grabbed an oven mitt. “Will you get the butter?”
The tears started in her eyes, and Verity sighed. It was nice to be home. The kitchen was warm and comforting, and Mama made her feel like she fit right in. She wanted to say something, to tell her mother how good it was to see her, how nice it was to be loved, how fine it was to have someone remember how much you love chili and cornbread.
But Verity couldn’t quite think of where to begin. The words got lost in the bustle and the aromas of the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator and retrieved the butter.
All the maple leaves had turned, and the yard was littered with the first of the red and gold leaves. The sun shone through the branches, and the leaves looked as though they burned. Behind them, the sky was a crisp, sharp blue. The clouds were piled in heaping mounds of gray and white, their edges tipped with gold. The air smelled of wood smoke. Daddy must have built a fire in the fireplace.
Verity sat while the wind tossed the leaves. She drank in the bright colors of autumn. She kept her face to the sun, so its rays would warm her cheeks while the wind nipped at her nose. Canada geese flew overhead, honking cheerfully to one another, their broad wings beating the air.
This was perfect. Verity felt quiet inside, even as her fingers and toes tingled and twitched. The world was so sad, so pretty. And she was alive in it, and it hurt, and it was wonderful, and she wanted to find the words to say so.
She tipped her head backward and closed her eyes. She said a little prayer. She asked for the words.
All at once, the wind gusted, and the leaves rustled, and Verity opened her eyes. And the words came drifting down, falling with the red and golden leaves.
The wind heaved the branches, thrusting them down toward her, and more words came. Slowly, they settled to the ground. Verity picked up a handful of the nearest ones and slid them into the pocket of her coat.
Then she looked down at her feet and saw a pair of words that had landed on the toes of her shoes. She smiled. These two were just the right ones to get her started, just the words she needed for this beautiful day. She picked them up, opened her mouth, and said,