Ember reached into the box of wigglers and pulled out a handful of slimy worms. She stuffed them into a plastic bag and dropped a quarter next to a giant jar of pickled eggs on the bait store counter.
“You tell Goldy and Glitter I said hey,” Mr. Deal called sleepily from his ratty green recliner behind the counter.
“I will, Mr. Deal! Thanks!”
“You’re welcome, Red,” he called as he spit a brown stream of tobacco juice into a rusty coffee can next to his chair. Mr. Deal was the only one who called her Red. He said her hair looked like his favorite vegetable, a tomato. Unfortunately he was right, Ember thought with a sigh. It was red and curly, kind of like ketchup-covered curly fries.
A cool spring breeze floated in through the screen door rustling bunches of leathery-brown dried beans hung by nails to the wall next to the wood stove beside the counter. “Your leather britches have been hanging there since last fall.” Ember looked from the beans to Mr. Deal. “You gonna eat them before this season’s beans are ready to hang?”
“One day.” Mr. Deal smiled and pulled his straw hat over his eyes, settling into his recliner for his usual afternoon nap.
Ember giggled. “See ya next week,” she called as she let the screen door wack behind her and stepped onto the wooden porch.
Ember was answered by Mr. Deal’s bear-like snore.
She stepped from the porch and looked at the sky. The mountains towering over the town were darker than usual. Threatening grey clouds floated among their peaks, casting shadows on the mountains’ soft green slopes as flocks of blackbirds danced between them. Ember sighed. She looked up at the sad tree-covered peaks surrounding the valley. “Hope I can feed Goldy and Glitter before it starts to pour down rain,” Ember whispered to herself.
“What are you doing, Ugly?” a sassy voice called from the dirt road next to Deal’s bait shop.
It was Michelle and her stuck-up friend, Lisa, who was following her around like Michelle was a mama duck. Ember’s stomach turned. Michelle was the last person Ember wanted to see today, or any day for that matter. Ember decided to ignore the spoiled “queen” of the fifth grade.
wasn’t going to work today though. Michelle and Lisa rode up on their shiny
bicycles next to Ember. Queen Michelle flipped her angelic golden hair over her
shoulder. “Hey, Tomato Head. I saw your crazy grandma talking to that azalea
bush today. Why don’t you just have her put in a loony farm?”
Ember glared at the “perfect” Michelle. She had ribbons in her hair and wore a designer shirt she probably stole from her mother’s closet. It was just a little too big for her, and it looked ridiculous on Michelle sitting atop a lavender bicycle.
“Oh I forgot! You don’t have to put her in the loony farm. You live in the big yellow loony farm already!” Michelle laughed wickedly and Lisa, her disciple, giggled gleefully from behind her.
Ember didn’t say a word. It wouldn’t do any good anyway. Instead, she reached into her bag of worms and, pulling out one exceptionally long wiggler, held it toward Queen Michelle. “This’ll look really nice with those ribbons in your hair, Michelle.”
Horror lit up Michelle’s beauty queen face, but she wasn’t moving yet. “You’re disgusting, Tomato head.”
“Yeah, well yuns’re snakes!” Ember tossed the worm. It squiggled through the air and landed on Michelle’s shoulder.
Michelle screamed, “Ah, get it off! Get it off!” Lisa dutifully scraped the worm off Michelle’s shoulder. Michelle glared at Ember. “I’ll get you for that!”
Michelle and Lisa turned their bicycles and rode down Cherokee Road toward Silk Stocking Avenue. Ember always thought that was a weird name for a street. Mr. Deal, who was old as dirt, said it was because back during the Depression, the rich women who lived there were the only people in town who could afford to wear stockings. It figured Michelle would live on a street named after clothes since that's all she seemed to care about.
Ember watched the two prissy girls riding away. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be waiting with more worms!” she called.
Ember looked up to the round-topped Mount Golana where a huge flock of blackbirds circled around like a giant dark ghost before diving down into the valley beyond. That was strange. Why were there so many blackbirds out? Ember shrugged her shoulders in answer to her own question.
She picked up the poor worm Michelle had discarded. “Don’t worry. Glitter’s going to love you,” and she tucked the worm back into the plastic bag before crossing Cherokee Road. She passed Old Simpson's barn and walked through the freshly plowed tobacco field to the front yard of her grandparents’ yellow farmhouse and through to the backyard, where Goldy and Glitter were waiting.
Ember sighed as she looked down into her tub-sized goldfish pond. Goldy and Glitter quickly broke the surface with bright yellow fins and open mouths waiting for their Friday treat. Ember dropped a squiggling worm into the water and stared at her golden eyes and curly red hair reflected in the surface of the pond. She looked like a clown! She always looked like a clown. Why couldn’t she just be normal? Then maybe Michelle would leave her alone.
Two dragonflies buzzed overhead in an emerald blur.
“The blackbirdzzzz are flying,” one dragonfly said.
“Yezzzz. Evil izzz brewing today!” the other answered.
Ember listened to the soft buzz of the dragonflies as she sat on the cold stones lining the water. She was always able to hear dragonflies talking, but she dared not tell anyone except her friend Templeton. She was already weird enough, and anyone else might think she was crazy like her grandma who was always talking to the front yard azalea bush.
Ember looked back down at her weird rippling reflection. Normal people didn’t have hair the color of tomatoes or hear bugs talk. Why couldn’t she just be normal like everybody else, not strange or peculiar?
Ember dropped the rest of the squiggling worms into the pond and felt in her pocket for a penny. She held her breath, and closed her eyes to concentrate. “I wish, I wish I were normal, not weird!” She flipped the coin into the air. PLOP! It fell in the pond. Ember opened her eyes. The dragonflies were gone. At least she wouldn’t have to listen to them. Maybe the wish worked.
Suddenly she heard someone shouting from the flower garden next door! “Help! Help!” It must be Miss Francine. Miss Francine spent most of her time in the garden and won first place in the town fair the past three years for her Amaryllis lilies. The bright red flowers were the size of dinner plates, and she went to great effort to make sure no one ever found out how she grew them so large.
Ember squeezed through the hedge bordering Miss Francine’s perfect yard. The sweet smell dancing in the air around the thousands of flowers suffocated her for a moment. “Miss Francine, are you all right?” Ember coughed.
Suddenly the insane gardener dashed from around the corner, her face flushed and her yellow polka-dotted dress billowing behind her like a giant kite. She was armed with a tool belt filled with rattling bottles of bubbly liquids and clippers of assorted sizes, and her angry blue eyes burned from under a floppy red hat.
Her ultimate weapon was an industrial-sized fly swatter, held ready to squash whatever got in the way. Worse yet, it looked like Ember was in the crazy woman’s way!
Ember froze. Miss Francine raised the weapon overhead to swat her! Ember closed her eyes as the fly swatter plunged toward her. But a microsecond later, what hit her was soft and fluttery. It slipped into her shirt collar and down to her stomach. It tickled and felt like the pink feather duster her grandma used to clean house! It was definitely not a fly swatter. Ember glanced into her shirt. White feathers sparkled near her tummy. It was a bird!
“Where did it go?” Miss Francine demanded as she knelt next to Ember and shuffled through some fuzzy purple flowers. “I can't see it properly. I left my glasses inside, but I know it’s some foreign pest let loose over here by Miss Prattville. That old cheat. She’d love for something to eat my precious lilies so she can win first place this year!”
Miss Francine squinted up with beady eyes and a wrinkled nose. “You saw it, didn’t you?”
Ember bit her lip. She decided she shouldn’t tell nutty Miss Francine about the tiny white bird trapped in her shirt. “Uh,...er…it nicked my ear and…uh…flew into that bush.” Ember pointed.
Miss Francine grinned wickedly and dashed to the bush. She peered into the dense foliage brandishing her fly swatter for the fugitive pest.
With one last look at Miss Francine’s yellow polka-dotted bottom sticking out of the bush, Ember squeezed back through the hedge, cradling the bird in her shirt. Would it be okay? As she ran to the backyard, Templeton pulled into the driveway on his rattling bicycle. He was shorter than Ember, and his white hair stuck up in the back like Donald Duck’s tail feathers.
“Templeton, hurry!” she yelled racing to the oak tree and the huge tree-house her grandpa built for her. “I think I have a bird in my shirt!”
“Brilliant!” Templeton bumbled up the ladder after her. “Wait a moment. I have to get my magnifying glass!”
The tree house was built complete with shutters on the windows and a covered porch. Inside sat a gold painted bunk-bed and desk, purple beanbag chair heaped in one corner and a red table in the other.
Ember switched on the purple lamp over the table. The light fell on her collection of aluminum foil balls which dangled like sparkling planets from the ceiling. She pushed aside jars filled with her hoard of shiny coins, buttons and sparkling stones, and grabbed an empty shoe box from the shelf above.
Templeton set down his overnight bag. His pet turtle, Herbert, hid in his rusty green shell, terrified from the bumpy trip up the ladder.
“Miss Francine was chasing something. I’ve got whatever it was here in my shirt.”
“Well, let’s see it,” he said as he dug in the desk drawer pulling out a superhero magnifying glass. “Maybe it’s a dove. Mum and Dad say they are everywhere this season.”
“I think it’s too small for a dove.” Ember gently un-tucked her shirt. The soft creature fell into her hand.
“Holy cow!” It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
“That is no cow, Ember.”
“Well, I know it’s not a cow, silly.”
A tiny girl no larger than an egg rested in Ember's hand. Long white feathers hung from her head like an icy waterfall, and she was dressed in shimmering flower petal clothes. The most amazing thing, though, was springing from her back.
She had wings!