Today was her thirteenth birthday! Milly didn’t know why she felt so excited because she really didn’t seem any older or wiser or smarter to herself, but she was thirteen and that was supposed to be grand. Something to be proud of!
For all that, though, the best part was the candy. Her family had brought her all the way off the farmland into the nearest town so she could go into the sweetshop herself and hand pick out all the sweets she desired. And she liked sweet things! Even if they weren’t pudding, it had been hard to decide what to get. She’d eventually settled on a big bag mixed with caramels, licorice, peppermints, sour candies, and a sprinkling of cherry lollipops. Her parents had looked at the hefty bag stuffed with sugar and only laughed, warning her cheerfully not to eat it all in a single day.
After the sweetshop her parents led her across the street to another building, a clothing store. They had custom ordered her some new clothes, since she was fast outgrowing her old ones and nothing in the girls’ department came in her size anymore. Her father stalled her with a hug.
“Now, now,” he chuckled, “you stay out here while your Mama and I go and get your gifts. We want you to be surprised. And then we’ll meet up with the rest of the family and see what they’ve gotten you.”
They told her to wait outside while they did their business. It would not take long and she was thirteen, so they didn’t feel too worried about leaving her to her own devices for a jot.
She munched a few handfuls of her candy happily, still feeling grand.
Three, maybe four times her hand fished in for sweets when movement across the way caught her eye. A whole gaggle of kids, all looking younger than herself, some very small and some closer to her age, poured out of a grocery, an older lady with her arms full of sacks following them and trying to herd them. She tried to calm down the chattering crowd for a few moments and then turned to two older-looking children, also weighed down with groceries, who were straggling behind her. She whispered something to them and then led the rest off, leaving them and the sacks behind.
Milly was confounded.
She looked at them curiously. There were only the two of them now. One of them was thin and dressed in a shabby white shirt and fraying shorts, his hair black and unruly. The other one acted a bit younger but was almost as tall and she could tell even from this distance by his very long fingers and arms that he’d grow up to be very big one day. Both looked thin and scrappy. And they had been left all alone! But they didn’t seem to mind. They sat down on the curb and started drawing things in the dust of the street.
For a moment she felt sorry for them, the next envious. They looked about three, maybe four years younger than she was and suddenly she didn’t think that being thirteen was so grand. Those boys were still young and could play as much as they wanted. Her family had been very good to her and were always fun. but they let her play less and less. She couldn’t shout like she used to, wear dirty clothes like she used to, have fun like she used to. Being thirteen would only make it worse. The horror of it all was too much for her to bear. She wanted to play like they could.
She looked more closely at them. They had both seemed skinny at first, but this time she saw that they had a hunger in their eyes. They weren’t starving but obviously didn’t eat much good food either. The bag felt heavy in her hand. There was plenty to share and her parents had always told her to share.
Milly walked across the street towards them, bag behind her back and smiling. They saw her coming, casting wary glances at her but also curious. She stood in front of them, still smiling her most friendly smile that everyone said was like sunshine. The younger looking kid smiled back shyly.
“Hello!” she said. They nodded at her, too shy and cautious to say anything. Sensing the backup was already needed, she pulled out her birthday bag of candy. “I have some candy and I can’t eat it all. Would you like some? It’s good.”
The black-haired one finally spoke. “Miss Melanie says that it’s bad for us to take candy from strangers. They might do bad things to it.”
“Yes,” piped the younger one, who had white, spiky hair. “It might be poisoned or needles put into it!”
Milly felt insulted. “That’s silly! I’m just a kid, like you! I got this from the store. It’s really good.”
“You don’t look so much like a kid,” the black haired one said. “You’re big and your chest is bumpy.”
“Bumpy,” giggled the other.
If she wasn’t holding her candy bag she would have crossed her arms over her chest. “How can you think of things like that?”
“Well, you’re just not a kid,” said the black-haired one, nodding firmly.
“I’m not grown up either,” she muttered. “I wish I was still a kid, though.”
The white haired one sighed. “Once you grow up, it’s too late. You can’t ever be a kid again.”
“Sucks for you!” crowed the other.
“I’m only trying to be nice,” she cried. “If you two babies don’t want any candy, fine, I’ll just go and wait for my folks.”
“I wish we had folks.” The younger child lowered his head, eyes glum. “Miss Melanie looks after us but she’s not our mom. We’re all orphans.”
“Why’d she leave you here?” Milly asked, indignation fast dissipating.
“We’re the oldest,” explained the dark-haired child. “We went to town to get our monthly groceries and we come by bus. But the driver’s new and didn’t know where exactly this place was, so he parked at the station. That’s where Miss Melanie is taking the other kids. We have to watch the groceries and she’ll have the bus come by to pick us up.”
She tried to make her voice sound more gentle and rattled the bag. “I’m sorry you’re orphans. Do you really not want some sweets?”
The boys huddled together, whispering but doing such a bad job of it that she could hear every word.
“I’m so hungry,” said the younger. “And it looks so good. Can’t we take a few pieces, Nick?”
“She seems nice,” Nick said, “but we’d better be careful. Those lollipops are still packaged. That means she hasn’t gotten to them. Those are the only ones that are safe. We’ll take those.” He turned to her with dignity. “Two of those cherry lollipops, please.”
Once she handed them over, they tore off the wrappers and stuck them in their mouths posthaste, sucking greedily and with intensity not even she could muster.
“Do you like them?” she asked. Their mouths full, they only nodded.
After they’d been sucking on the sugar for a while, the younger one pulled out his lolly. “Thank you. You’re a very nice person.”
“Nice,” Nick agreed. “You can sit with us if you want. You’re just standing there doing nothing.”
Her legs had become tired so she happily flopped in between them, sucking on her own sweet. “My family is in that store,” she said. “They’re giving me a gift. It’s my thirteenth birthday today.”
“Happy birthday,” murmured the younger one. He’d been squirming a little once she’d sat in between them, bumping both their shoulders.
“That’s too old. I wouldn’t wanna be a teenager.”
Milly suddenly did feel very old compared to them. They were still small and could play in the dirt while she had grown like a weed and her legs and arms always hurt because of it and people were now saying she looked like a boy even if her chest was bumpy and she was doing more chores and other unpleasant things. In five, six years she would be expected to be married off or still working all day on the farm or some other job and they’d still be under eighteen. It was very unfair. She stopped licking her lolly and stared forlornly at the ground.
“Nick, you shouldn’t say things like that!” shouted the other. “I think it’s neat you’re a teenager, Lady. And I think you’re pretty, too.” The minute he said that he shrank back, blushing and very preoccupied with his sucker.
Blushes had formed on Nick’s cheeks too. “Yeah, she is kinda cute. And she did give us the suckers.”
“Don’t talk like I’m not here,” she muttered, blushing herself. Nobody had called her pretty or cute outside the family before, and it was embarrassing even if they were just kids.
“But you’d better watch out,” Nick continued, “because Jasmine might find out! What’d she say?”
The younger one looked almost ready to cry. “She doesn’t like me much now, not after what happened.”
“What happened?” Milly asked.
Nick had a guarded look once more. “He did something very bad, but he didn’t mean to. Now he thinks she hates him.”
He looked so sad that Milly threw an arm around the younger one, giving him a squeeze. “Well, it seems to me that you’re sorry for what you did and that’s what counts. Does she know you’re sorry? Because if not, you should tell her. That way she at least knows you feel bad and don’t want to hurt her feelings again and then she might forgive you!”
“You think so?”
“It’s worth a try. Here. Maybe you can give her this as an ‘I’m sorry’ gift.” She pulled out another lolly and give it to him.
“Thanks,” he whispered, his eyes growing wider.
“Everyone always likes you better,” Nick growled. Milly laughed and threw her free arm around him--she had to balance her bag on her knees to do so.
“I like you too,” she said. Then she smirked and gave him a kiss on the cheek. He squealed and blushed and tried to get away, but he didn’t make too much of an effort and she easily held him. “I like you both.”
“Ha ha, she kissed you!” snickered the other. That only earned him a kiss on the cheek and he did the same thing. They weren’t trying but she was a bit hard pressed to keep her arms around them; they were nasty strong little kids! It only got worse when she started to tickle them. They became a writhing mass on the street corner and got their fair share of strange looks.
As she tickled Milly saw movement in the store. Her parents were close to coming out the door. She released the children and picked up her bag as she stood up. “I have to go now. My folks are coming out and we’ll be leaving soon.” She looked down at them with a smile. “It was nice meeting you. Tell that girl you’re sorry and give her the lollipop and you’ll be fine. Take care, now.”
“Bye,” they said, voices disappointed.
She waved to them and went back across to meet her parents as they walked out the door.
“Sorry for the wait, sweetie,” her mother said. “But they had put your packages in the back and it took them a while to get them.”
“Now let’s go meet up with everyone and have lunch,” her father grinned, clamping his heavy, calloused hand on her shoulder. Milly beamed, heartened at the prospect of food, and skipped off ahead of them to their destination.
It was only until later that she realized she hadn’t asked the other one’s name or given her own.