The Oak Tree by Julie Judish - HTML preview
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The alarm had been blaring its noxious tone for several seconds before Joanna Arianna Becker came out of her slumber long enough to reach out one arm from the warm comfort of her bed and bang the snooze button. Just then, the door to her bedroom opened and her mom came breezily into the room.
“Jo, that’s the third time the alarm went off. I know you’re tired but its time to get up!”
Jo sleepily raised herself onto one elbow, pried open one eye and glared at her mom. Last night had been another late night, but today was the last final of her high school career, the very last test she would ever take as a high school student. She had been studying until early in the morning.
“Mom, can I get a ride to school so I can sleep an extra twenty minutes?” Jo’s eyes pleaded with her mom.
Linda Becker shook her head and sighed, “No honey, I’m sorry but I have to be at work in fifteen minutes. Gail called in sick again and I have to work her shift at the market.”
When Jo sat up straight and began to protest, her mother held up her hand, stopping the objection short. “I know what you are going to say, and I promise I won’t be late coming home,” she said, sitting down on the side of the bed to give Jo a big hug. “This is a big night for us that we have been waiting and planning for years. I wouldn’t miss it, you know that!” She gave Jo a quick kiss on the forehead then stood up and walked toward the bedroom door. “Hurry up now, you have forty five minutes to catch the bus, and you can’t miss it! I love you Jo, have a wonderful last day of high school.”
After her mother had closed the door, Jo drug herself out of the warm bed and stood up on the worn carpeting in her bedroom. She got dressed, walked out of her warm room and turned toward the bathroom. She stared at her reflection. At five foot five inches, she was the same height as many girls at her school. She thought she had too many freckles, and wasn’t totally happy with her straight, mid-length brown hair. She sighed, snatched up a hairbrush and began attacking the tangles in her hair as she continued down the hallway to the rest of the house. Well, not really a house. It was a mobile home, single wide, fourteen or so feet across, she supposed. The two bedrooms where she and her mom slept were ample space for the two of them, though. The living room was small but cozy. The carpet was worn badly, same as it was in the bedrooms, but it didn’t bother her. She always tried avoiding looking down anyway, since she detested the orange carpeting which had been installed when the mobile was created, about forty years ago. The kitchen linoleum was coming up in spots, and was cracked in others. The faucet in the kitchen squealed when you used it, but the water ran clear. Most of the cupboards were battered and closed crooked. The pots and pans were chipped and cracked, as were a lot of the dishes. The furniture was dented and scratched in the living room. The small stereo her mom had gotten at a bargain yard sale for two dollars had only one working speaker. The television was a twenty-inch, not a large screen like a lot of her friends’ TVs, but it was home, and comfortable. She had decent clothes, she was warm, her mom was a great cook, and she was happy.
She thought about some of her friends, and their fancy, modern homes. With large yards, big cars, swimming pools and entertainment centers. Sure, it was fun to visit their homes. She had a good time, they hung out, and they swam and goofed off, but she was never ashamed of her mom, or her house, and would invite her friends home with her just as often as she went with them to theirs. Her mom told her a few times, “Jo, I’m so proud of you, that you aren’t spoiled like most of the kids today, and how you place your value in people, not in money, or things.” Jo was glad that her friends loved her mom, too.
Entering the kitchen, she got a clean glass from one of the cupboards and poured the last of the milk into it. After popping two pieces of bread into the toaster, Jo removed the butter and jam from the refrigerator and then rummaged in a drawer for a pencil. On the front of the refrigerator was a piece of paper with a shopping list. She added “milk” to the list that already contained “flour, sugar, eggs, hamburger, and tomato paste”.
Toast and milk were staples for breakfast, and she ate them as she sat at the kitchen table, staring out the window into the mobile home park. She saw her neighbor, Mrs. Harper, coming out of her mobile and getting into her car. Mrs. Harper worked as a cashier at a variety store near the supermarket that Jo’s mom worked at, also as a cashier. Beyond Mrs. Harper’s place, she saw young Mrs. Chambers coming out of her home with her baby in her arms. They must be going for their morning stroll, Jo concluded. When the stroller opened up and the baby was placed inside, she knew she was right. It was nice to see everyday things happen every day. Jo smiled. She was pretty sure that next she would see the twins, Bob and Mickey, from the other side of the mobile park running by to their bus stop. Their bus came about ten minutes before hers did. It was always her personal alarm clock to see those two go by. When they did, she knew she had to hustle. She cleaned up, grabbed an apple to stuff in her backpack, and closed the fridge door just as she saw the two little boys run past the window.
Back in her room she donned her tennis shoes quickly and grabbed her backpack making sure her keys to the house were in it, and then grabbed her cell phone -- the one luxury she and her mom scrimped and saved to be able to have for them both. She locked up the house and headed down the road out of the park to the bus stop.
As she rounded the last corner to the exit of the park, she looked for the car she’d seen there a few times in the last couple of weeks. Yes, there it was. A black sedan with tinted windows, sitting across the main road and up about two hundred feet. There were a few scattered houses on that side of the street, but the car seemed to be between them, not in front of any particular one. She’d never seen anyone get into or out of it; it seemed to be empty. It was hard to tell though, with the windows so black. She looked up the long straight road for the bus and, not seeing it, decided to go look at the license plate of the black car. She ran across the otherwise deserted road and walked nonchalantly toward the vehicle. As she got closer she could just make out the license plate. It wasn’t a California license plate, she was sure. Even from this distance she could tell the colors were wrong. As she got close enough to start making out the numbers and letters, she could tell there was no “e” or “GOV” that would make it a state or government vehicle. She considered going closer to determine which state it was from when she saw the bus heading her way from up the road. She dashed back across the main road and hurried back to the bus stop. She was NOT going to miss that bus. The car was probably just someone visiting a relative in one of the houses on the other side of the road, and she wasn’t going to worry about it anymore.
Her excitement was displayed in her wide smile as she boarded the bus a few seconds later and found a seat next to her two best friends, Charlie and Alex. Charlie Allen, whose given name was Charlene, was petite, slim, and always decked out in the latest styles. Pretty, outgoing, and constantly chattering, Charlie was the life of the team. However, she often got the other two in trouble when she said the wrong thing at the wrong time. She was very literal, and did not know the meaning of the word “discreet.” Alexis Turner, nicknamed Alex, was tall and slender and relaxed. She was one of a small minority of African American kids in their community, but Alex’s skin color had never bothered Jo. Jeans and a T-shirt was the only wardrobe Jo had ever seen her in. Alex was in all the advanced classes at school and excelled in Math and Science. The two friends were as different as could be; yet today they were bubbly and giddy as Jo sat next to them.
“Jo! Today is the last day of childhood! After today we go forth as educated women of the world!” Charlie was bursting with excitement.
Alex was a little calmer, “Jo, are you staying after school to finish setting up for the sober grad party tonight?”
“Yes,” Jo answered, “Aren’t you staying too?”
“Yep, I was wondering if you needed a ride home.”
Jo saw that Alex was grinning ear to ear, and exclaimed, “You got it?”
Alex nodded her head. “It’s perfect, Jo! It’s a royal blue color, the seats are charcoal gray, the interior has been totally redone, and it is exactly what I wanted! My dad gave me the keys last night, and told me he was proud of his little girl, and now I am the proud owner of a classic Mustang! My dad is bringing it to school later; he had to get the insurance and title stuff done today with it. I am so excited!”
“I can’t tell, Alex,” Jo replied sarcastically. “Wow, you got a car for a graduation gift! That is just incredible!” Jo had not a twinge of jealousy in her, knowing what a wonderful thing this was for Alex. She knew Alex would pick up her and Charlie often, and the three of them would have a lot more freedom. She was truly happy for Alex, and hugged her enthusiastically. “Yes, I would love a ride home after the set-up. We won’t have a lot of time to get ready for graduation, but it won’t take long because we will be so excited.”
“How much time do we need anyway? “ Charlie interrupted. “Just the cap and gown on top of the mid length dress. Simple, elegant, and -- oh I can hardly wait!”
Jo smiled at her friends, and sat back in the small bus seat with them as much as she could. The seat was too small for three to fit comfortably anymore. The bus ride the rest of the way to school was filled with talk of the party, graduation, and Alex’s new car. Excitement was in the air and the weather was perfect as they filed off the bus. It was a glorious day, and she was thrilled.
Once at school, the three friends split up and headed to their last two classes. This high school split up the finals week, making each of the six normal periods last half a day. This was the last day of two, two-hour period finals. Today Jo would tackle physics, one of the hardest classes she had had this year. She would be seeing Alex there, since they were in it together, but first she headed to the Attendance office where she was an aide fifth period, and so had a two-hour break from academics. She knew there was a lot of final paperwork and filing to be done for the end of the school year, and was planning on being busy the whole two hours.
Just as she got to the door of the attendance office and grabbed the handle to open it, out of the corner of her eye she saw a black sedan pull up and park in the teachers parking area. It was far away, so she couldn’t be sure if it was the same one, she just thought it was odd to see it there. Maybe a teacher was running late but she didn’t remember any black cars ever parking in the teacher’s parking area that resembled the one she had seen repeatedly near her home. It was probably just a coincidence. She shrugged and went on into the building.
The rest of the day went by in a blur. Jo filed until her fingers were sore, calmed worried relatives on the telephone regarding the time for the ceremony that evening, found a missing class ring in the lost-and-found for a fellow senior, and made herself useful as usual. The physics test she had studied for was hard, but she was ready, and in the end, felt she had done well. Then it was over and she could sit back and sigh in relief. Done. Finished. All that was left of her time at Central High would be excitement and laughter and fun! Sure there would be some heartache and tears, knowing she would probably not see most of her classmates again, and some of them never. A few were going into the military immediately. Many were going on to various colleges and universities. Some, like Jo, would go directly into the workforce. She wasn’t exactly sure where she would try to get a job at first. Her mom had told her several times she could come to work at the supermarket with her. Jo considered that to be her fallback job. She wanted to get something on her own, something that she could do as her own person. Besides, as much as she loved her mom, she didn’t want to work with her all day then be home with her all day. People need their space.
It was there, lounging at a picnic bench outside the school cafeteria pondering her future that Alex and Charlie found her a few minutes later.
“Jo! There you are! Lets get this party ready and then we can go out for a soda before I take you home,” Alex was always the responsible one. The girls headed into the gym where the festivities were headquartered, and asked for instructions. They were assigned outdoors, setting up a water balloon fight area, and it looked like it would be a blast!
They walked through one of the wings of the English department, and outside, at the end of the corridor, they found a small wading pool filled with water. There were several bags of water balloons, a hose with a tiny adapter on it to fill the balloons, and on the ground, lines and sections divided off for the game. The three girls began filling balloons, tying them off, and placing them in the water-filled wading pool. After thirty or so balloons, Charlie was clumsy and dropped one, it splattered all over Jo, and that’s how the water fight began. They wasted every balloon they had already filled, even filled a few more. Alex was soaked to the bone after falling into the wading pool, but had acquired several small squirt guns from the table beside the pool that were for the game later. Charlie was dripping wet, armed and dangerous, the last two un-popped water-filled balloons in her hands. Jo was drenched too, but she was no pushover -- and she had the hose. The head of the English department found out just how strong Jo was with that hose when he came out of his classroom at the end of the hall to find out what all the screaming and squealing was about. He got a stream full force right in the face.
“Oh my gosh! I’m so sorry, Mr. Bowen! I didn’t see you come out!” Jo stammered as she saw what she had done. Charlie and Alex dropped their weapons and stood up straight. There was no way the three of them could feign innocence, as the evidence of their guilt was dripping from their clothing.
Mr. Bowen was well-known in the school for being able to take a joke, so the girls weren’t too worried – until he barked in a gruff tone, “Hand me that hose, young lady!”
Jo pulled the hose over towards him, worried, a sinking feeling coming over her. Was this going to ruin a perfect day? Was Mr. Bowen going to be angry with them and possibly get them banned from the party later in the evening? She did not expect what happened next.
Mr. Bowen took the hose from her. “Now, get over there with the other two hoodlums.”
Jo retreated back to the other side of the wading pool away from Mr. Bowen. The girls looked at each other, wondering what was going to happen. They were definitely no longer laughing.
Then, so slightly that Jo almost missed it, he winked.
He turned towards the building and yelled out, “Ms. Blake, can you come out here for a moment please. These girls seem to be having some trouble.”
Realization dawned on the three girls at what was about to happen just seconds before it took place. Ms. Blake, a recently divorced, very good-looking English teacher who occupied the room across the hall from Mr. Bowen, came out of the corridor at his call.
“What seems to be the problem, girls?” That was all she got to say before she was sprayed from head to toe with a jet of water from the hose Mr. Bowen was now in control of.
“Aaaahhh! Help me girls!” Ms. Blake reached for one of the squirt guns floating in the wading pool and gestured to the three friends. They weren’t too sure about getting involved – until Mr. Bowen turned the hose on them.
An hour or so later, all five of them were sitting in chairs around the wading pool, filling up water balloons. After a short fight in which it was four against one, Mr. Bowen had quickly given up and the two adults joined the girls in filling balloons. The two teachers, whom most of the students in the school counted as friends, inquired into what the girls’ plans were after graduation.
Charlie was going to college. Having grown up in the upscale part of town, she wished to see what else the world had to offer her. Her parents, Brad and Mindy Allen, had spoiled her just a bit, in Jo’s opinion, and let her choose whichever college she wished. She chose to go to New York and see the world. She would be leaving in the fall after an exciting last summer in California.
Alex was going to attend the local college and work full time in her parent’s company. Sam and Kendra Turner owned a travel agency, and Alex had been working with them part time since she was sixteen. Though she was raised middle-class, and the Turner family was one of the few African American families in their small town, Alex admitted she had a good life and was looking forward to continuing on as she had been. She liked things to stay the same.
Jo was going to go to work right away even though she had nothing lined up. Mr. Bowen inquired why she wasn’t going to college as well, and Jo explained that there was no money in her family for college.
“My dad died when I was too young to remember him,” she told him. “My mom and I have been doing okay, but I’ve been getting some kind of Social Security or something since his death. Well, that ends when I turn eighteen, so that will cut our current income in half. My mom works hard, but she doesn’t have a college degree. It’s a menial job, so even though they value her work, she still barely makes over minimum wage.” Jo smiled. “It’s been enough though, all these years. My mom’s been great, and we’ve always had food and shelter and clothing, and lots and lots of love.”
“When do you turn eighteen, Jo?” Ms. Blake asked.
“In three days,” Jo replied dreamily. Besides the graduation ceremony, her eighteenth birthday had been the thing she’d been looking forward to the most. She wasn’t exactly sure why, and couldn’t even begin to tell anyone how she felt. It was just a sense that things were going to change for her, a wonderful feeling that her life would begin once she turned eighteen.
The last of the balloons were placed on the huge pile in the wading pool. Ms. Blake and Mr. Bowen wished the girls luck with their futures, and went back to finish setting their classrooms in order for the summer. It was just after four in the afternoon, enough time for a quick ice cream break before they all went home to make themselves ready for graduation. Alex stood up and went to the fence behind where they had been working. This wing of the high school bordered the student parking lot. She gestured to Charlie and Jo.
“Hey, come here and look at my beautiful baby.” Alex pointed out a beautiful blue classic Mustang sitting in the sparsely filled parking lot. Most of the students were gone. Only those helping with the party preparations were still hanging around. “Let’s go take a ride!” Alex was excited to drive the car for the first time, and especially to share it with her best friends.
“Wait!” Jo stopped Alex and Charlie as they headed toward the corridor to leave. She had seen something that bothered her, out there in the parking lot. Alex and Charlie came back over to the fence.
“What is it Jo? You see your dream car out there?” Charlie asked, trying to see what was important. Jo pointed two rows over from Alex’s car, and gestured to the end.
“See that black car there? The one at the very end of the lot?" Jo asked her two friends. “Have you seen it before?”
Charlie and Alex eyed the vehicle in question. It was so far away; all they could tell was that it was black with tinted windows. From this distance, she couldn’t tell the make or model, even though Alex really knew her cars.
“Come on, Jo, lets get to my car and we can check it out on our way out of the parking lot.” Alex grabbed Jo’s arm and led her toward the corridor. “What’s the big deal about a black car anyway, Jo?”
Jo didn’t answer for a few seconds. She could feel both Alex and Charlie watching her, questioning her. Did she dare tell them what she thought? She looked at Alex, then at Charlie, considering.
“I think someone in that car is following me.”