New kids in school really weren’t a big deal. Rural life was rough, so families moved in and out all the time. And besides, it was the new millennium: the age of the city. Technology, culture, and masses of people meant that corn fields and dirt roads lost their allure. Even the people who were there seemed stuck in shades of grey, like the much beloved westerns on their mostly static TV sets.
Church was every Sunday, in the sweaty, ancient building. Ladies all wore dresses, and the men all wore the one suit they owned and would one day be buried in. And every face in the congregation seemed to be as white as the communion wafers that melted on their tongues even with all the time in the sun.
“We have a new family entering our community today.” the lumpy little priest wiped sweat off of his forehead. “And I ask you to open your hearts to them as your brothers and sisters. Would the White family please rise up?”
A husband and wife, a handsome young boy that you almost couldn’t see over the pew, and a beautiful teenage girl shyly stood . Their dark skin caused whispers to flare up, and people stared. One such gawker was the mayor’s boy, his bright blue eyes trained on the girl. She caught him and smiled as well, waving her fingers just a little. When he raised his hand to do the same, his mother snatched his arm and pulled him to face forward again.
“Thank you, brothers and sisters. Now, let us pray.”
When Joshua saw the nasty slurs painted across the garage of the White family’s house, he was sure he knew where they had come from. The boys in his class loved to cause trouble, and when he offered to help clean it up, Mrs. White just smiled.
“You’re a fine boy, aren’t you Joshua.” she shook her head. “No no, now you just run along. You’ll upset your Mother, standing around here and ending up late for school.”
“But Ma’am, I really would like to help.”
“My husband will take care of it. Now you run along.”
“But I…Yes Ma’am…”
The teacher said her name was Ruth, like the one in the Bible, and Joshua was sure it was the prettiest name he’d ever heard. There wasn’t an empty desk by him, but the way that Delilah pursed her lips made him wish there was. When he walked by her otherwise empty table at lunch, he wished that he hadn’t already promised Thomas that he’d help him figure out his geometry homework too.
“Look at that. Ain’t even walkin’ home. Must be from the city.”
“Well y’see that car? It sure ain’t for cartin’ stuff around a farm.”
Ruth and her little brother both piled in to the sleek, black car as it pulled up. The others he walked with had stopped to stare, some of them to snarl. Joshua simply stood with his hands in his pockets, waiting for one of them to start off down the road. He was relieved when he heard the car move away after what felt like an eternity.
“My daddy says we ain’t supposed to talk to them.” One of the second graders adjusted her backpack as she took four steps to keep up with the two steps of the older kids. “Because he says they ain’t supposed to be here.”
“Well then, where are they supposed to be? They live here, don’t they? That’s what the Father said.” Joshua shook his head. “That doesn’t make sense at all.”
“Well, he says we’re supposed to listen to our parents first. And mine say that they’re a tattoo, and bad.”
“People can’t be a tattoo, Martha.” one of the older girls rolled her eyes. “Your momma didn’t call them a tattoo. Taboo, that’s what she said.”
“That doesn’t make any sense either.” Joshua sighed. “A family can’t be a taboo.”
“Well you go ahead and tell that to your god fearing momma then. See where that gets you.”
The next day, Joshua paused in front of Ruth’s otherwise empty table at lunch. She was doodling something on a sketchpad, apparently unfazed by her lack of company. She even blinked those big brown eyes as he sat down across from her.
“You’re Ruth, right? I’m Joshua. We’re in the same class.”
“Yeah, I’m Ruth.” she looked down at the hand he had extended to her. “Shouldn’t you go and sit with your friends?”
“Well, I thought that I might like to be your friend.”
Joshua has one of those smiles that was infectious, and it never failed. Ruth smiled as well, closing her little drawing book.
“Well all right, I suppose you can go ahead and try.” she shook his hand before folding hers on the table in front of her.
“Well all right.”
“I don’t know what I did wrong with you Joshua! You used to be such a good boy, and now you son’t even listen to me.”
Joshua’s mother had dragged him up the street after she saw the girl turn the corner towards her own home .Joshua rubbed his arm as it was released, looking down at the peeling linoleum tile of the kitchen floor.
“I was just bing neighborly, Momma.” he muttered. “Like you always tell me to be.”
“I told you to leave that girl alone. She’s a temptress.” she made the sign of the cross over her thin chest. “Oh your good grandfather would rise up and teach you a lesson boy.”
“No. You go right up to your room. You wait until your Daddy gets home. We’re going to have a talk about this.”
And like a good son, he said the prayers his father gave him and read all the passages about obeying your parents and not falling to temptations. He tried to be a good boy: to not be tempted to disobey his parents, for that was the greatest taboo. He shuddered when his parents used the same language that the second grader had, but counted off the last bead of his rosary loud enough for his mother to hear in the other room.
Finally done, he set the chain back in the dish on his bedside table and grabbed his backpack. Before flopping on to his mattress, he dug a small piece of paper out from one of his notebooks. As he unfolded it, a beautifully drawn rose appeared, with a signature in neat script, and a ten digit number. It seemed that Joshua would have to get used to nights shouting the rosary through thin walls.