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“What do you want?” Matt asked as his eyes narrowed.
The three boys were cornering them, cutting off every escape but the street, which was pretty busy. They all wore the same uniform, which suggested that they went to the same school. One of them, the one with straw-colored hair, looked appraisingly at the girl at Matt’s side, with her pale skin, blue eyes and bright hair. She was quite beautiful, considering that she was just sixteen.
It was a misty morning on the autumn of 1959. School had just been dismissed, and Matt had been walking the girl, Rosie, home from school. These times were basically all the time they could spend together because of overprotective parents.
“What do you want, Anders?” the girl named Rosie asked angrily.
The blond one flicked his eyes to Matt, and then back to Rosie. “Why would a girl like you,” he started to ask, coming closer, “with your money and fine looks, want a Negro hiding in your shadow? Especially with your already bad health, you don’t want to be contaminated…” Anders was dragging Rosie away discreetly while she struggled to pry his fingers off her arm.
Matt, in one swift movement, put an arm around Rosie and knocked Anders’ hands off her. “Buzz off,” Matt snarled, and tried again to step around him with Rosie tucked under his arm.
Matt didn’t register Anders’ movements fast enough, and caught the fist full in the face.
Reeling back, Matt’s face seemed to explode with fiery pain and he lost awareness for a moment. The boys advanced on Matt, intent on hitting every bit of him until he was covered in bruises beneath his brown skin, but Matt was determined not to be their afternoon entertainment. Heart racing and adrenaline coursing through him, Matt ducked a right hook from Anders and thrust a fist into his gut, sending him back. Rosie yelled from somewhere. And then as another of the boys ran at him, Matt’s arm came swinging around to collide with the boy’s jaw. The next one was tripped, being heavy enough that Matt could easily take the weight to his own advantage.
The assailants temporarily winded, Matt looked for Rosie. She was standing just feet away, her pale cheeks turning slightly pink with fright.
“Run home, Rosie!” Matt yelled as something hard and straight hit the back of his neck. Matt cried out, loosing his footing for a few crucial moments. A foot buried itself in his stomach, knocking the air out of his lungs and getting him to his knees. Rage bubbled up inside Matt as he thought of the injustice of it all; he thought of the stares he got on the street, the hateful, disgusted looks; he thought of the separated dance floors, bathrooms, drinking fountains; he thought of the ridiculous rules that said a Black person must give up his or her bus seat to a White person; he thought of the persecution that Rosie received just for being seen with him, a “Negro.”
“Leave him alone!” Rosie screamed.
Matt swung his leg around and bashed the kid’s legs out from under him. Jumping to his feet, he sent his fist flying into the other boy’s nose, trying to see where Rosie was. She had grabbed a handful of Anders’ hair, which made the sissy’s eyes start to water. Matt’s heart rate sky-rocketed.
One of the muggers distracted Matt for a moment while Matt threw his attacker to the ground again. He saw Rosie’s shining long hair flying through the air near the edge of the sidewalk, and turned in that direction to see Anders’ pushing her bodily out onto the street. Matt saw her stumble away…and he could see the shining car coming down the road, never slowing. Panic made Matt’s heart sputter as he sprinted toward her.
Anders didn’t have time to react against the kick Matt threw to the back of his thigh, and the pretty-boy fell with a howl of pain.
The scream he heard next made Matt’s heart stop completely.
Turning back to where Rosie ought to be, Matt choked on the air he’d been trying to breathe as he pelted over to where Rosie was sprawled on the asphalt, her leg twisted awkwardly out from her and her shoulder beginning to bleed from a deep gash.
The year was 1955, and it was a sunny summer morning. Matt had nowhere to be. He stood, leaning against the brick wall of the market place. Matt was African-American, and so the people walking by looked at him as if he were expected to stand on his hands or juggle knives.
Matt watched the passersby lethargically, barely noticing the stares anymore. But one person suddenly snared his attention; a White girl, no older than him, with fancy clothes abruptly halted upon seeing him.
Matt asked, “You want something, lady?”
The girl wrinkled her nose and bent her eyebrows. “Lady?” she said laughingly. “I’m barely older than you are!”
“Who says you are older?” Matt retorted. Why was she talking to an African-American as if he were just another kid? In truth, he was just another kid, but the White kids usually forgot that. Matt didn’t know what was wrong with this girl.
“Fine then,” the girl placed her hands on her non-existent hips, “how old are you?”
Matt said, “Eleven.”
“And when is your birthday?” She was looking at him funny.
He told her, and she counted something out on her fingers. Suddenly, she pointed at Matt, laughing and saying, “Ha! I’m one week older than you!”
Matt gaped at her, his eyes wide.
This girl was shorter than him by inches even though he was younger. She was very pale, even by White standards, and there wasn’t even one freckle or mole anywhere on her skin. Her eyes were pale blue, but her eyelashes looked wet, they were so black and long. Her hair was orangey red and glistened down her back in thick curls.
“What do you want anyway?” Matt asked, finally expressing his confusion.
The girl smiled, “I just wanted a friend.”
Matt didn’t know what to say…or to believe.
“What’s your name?”
Matt answered automatically, not really paying attention to what he might be saying.
“Oh. My real name is Rosemary, but everyone just calls me Rosie. You can call me Rosie too.”
Rosie smiled again, and started to rummage around in her small purse, saying, “I want to show you something really cool, ok?”
Matt waited while she searched her little purse, until she pulled out a small, blue thing that fit perfectly in her palm. It looked like a three-sided box, with sides that were shaped like eyes. The corners connected a two points, making an oddly shaped football. Writing that looked more like gold scribbles sprawled all over its blue surface.
“What’s that?” Matt asked, walking toward Rosie. For the first time in a long time, he forgot the crowd of White people around him.
“It’s my Chinese box,” Rosie said proudly. “My Uncle Richard got it for me. He’s been everywhere on the whole entire Earth! He’s going to take me to China someday. I just have to get better first. Look at how it opens!” Rosie took her thumb and index finger, and pressed them against the two corners. One of the edges spilt open like a flower, showing a few coins stowed away for safe keeping.
Minutes later, the two were sitting on a park bench across the street.
“Mother hardly lets me go outside,” Rosie said, her pale eyes sad. “I get sick easily.”
“How come?” Matt asked.
“I’m mostly allergic to nuts, but I’m also allergic to shellfish, soy, cinnamon, coconut, and I’m lactose intolerant and my heart is hurt,” Rosie listed off. “I have a bad immune system, so it’s hard to get better when I get sick.”
Matt would never really believe that one girl could live with so many difficulties.
Rosie was staring sadly at the sidewalk. “I want to go to China and France and see all the Roman coliseums, like Uncle Richard. But Mother says that there’s a pretty good chance that I won’t get to do anything.” Rosie looked ready to cry.
“Don’t worry about it,” Matt said, hating to see her sunny face sad. “You’ll get better and you’ll get to see every single place there is in the universe!”
Rosie smiled thankfully, and then said enthusiastically, “Do you want to come with me and Uncle Richard? Oh, I’m sure he’d let you come if I asked him!”
Matt and Rosie started, and looked around at the lady that had yelled. Matt was sure the woman had to be Rosie’s mother; she had the same color of eyes, and she wore the same kind of fancy clothes.
“What do you think you are doing out here?” screeched Rosie’s mother. She made her way over and yanked her daughter to her feet. Now she bent over Rosie, talking furiously, “You are coming straight home, young lady! Imagine what could’ve happened if I hadn’t seen you out here with…” Rosie’s mother suddenly stopped, and turned her cold eyes onto Matt.
It was all Matt could do to not shiver. He remained standing where he’d leapt to when the woman had come over, staring at her with as little emotion as he could portray.
“You are never to speak to my daughter again, do you hear me Negro?” she said menacingly.
Matt didn’t reply, as his papa had taught him to do with someone that used that title with him. Even though he’d heard it often enough, it didn’t hurt any less.
Without another word or look, Rosie’s mother started to walk away with her struggling daughter in one hand. Matt saw Rosie turn to look back at him, apology and hurt in her pale eyes.
The next few days, Matt caught himself thinking of Rosie. Thoughts like, I wonder if she ever will get to see the Roman coliseums and What would her mother do to keep her from getting out again were running through his head randomly. When the rain started to fall a week later, he wondered if she liked the rain, and felt saddened that he might never get to ask her.
As the new Monday came around, Matt found himself on that street outside the market, leaning against the brick wall in exactly the same manner, in exactly the same place.
It wasn’t long until he saw Rosie’s sun-bright hair in the crowd, and a smile greeted him as he made his way toward his new friend.
Matt sat on the bench just outside Rosie’s hospital room, his hands clenched as he stared unseeingly ahead. His heart wouldn’t quit racing every time he thought of the blood he’d seen in her hair, and his stomach gave uneasy clenches every time he thought of her leg, bent so strangely.
Someone came out of Rosie’s room. Matt jumped to his feet, saying to the nurse, “Is she alright? How is her heart?”
The brunette nurse looked Matt up and down with her eyes wide. He could judge from her soft features that she might’ve been a usually kind person, but he could also see the usual bigotry clouding all else from her mind, and asked frantically, “Will you tell me anything? Please.”
The nurse’s eyebrow cricked lopsidedly, before she said, “She’s doing alright at the moment. But time will tell us how the loss of blood and the trauma might affect her heart. We’ve got her patched up though.”
He sighed. “Thank you,” Matt said appreciatively, relieved…for the moment.
“Our pleasure,” the nurse said, curiosity making her voice edgy. “You’re hurt.” She indicated his split knuckles and a splash of dried blood coming from the back of his neck. “The doctors for you are just down stairs, if you want to go get cleaned up…then…I’ll let you see her.” The nurse smiled, the prejudice she felt cutting through her kindness.
Matt was waiting for Rosie in the park, pacing up and down the paved pathway. This was a Black park, which meant that Black kids were allowed to play here and White kids usually stayed away. This was Rosie and Matt’s “rendezvous point,” as she liked to call it.
Matt turned to see where Rosie might be coming from, and he was nearly knocked off his feet as Rosie threw her arms around his neck when she was still running at full speed. Matt didn’t have time to register what had happened before she released him again and was talking very fast.
“Oh, Matt, I’m so excited! You’ll never ever guess why I’m so happy! Guess what!” she squealed, twirling around.
Matt massaged his neck where she had nearly strangled him, laughing, “You can go see the new alien movie you wanted to?”
“No,” Rosie said, still radiating sunshine. She took a deep breath and said in a very deliberate voice, “I…can go…to school!”
Matt’s eyes popped, “What!”
Rosie nodded, biting her lip, and then added enthusiastically, “Well, it isn’t public school, so I can’t go to school with you. It’s a private school, so Mother can keep a better watch on me with the psychotic teachers as her birdies, but…I’M GOING TO SCHOOL!” she screamed and laughed and jumped up and down, causing a few of the kids on the playground to look around.
Matt and Rosie began talking animatedly over the top of each other, but it was cut short; a group of Black boys and girls, maybe about twelve of them, surround Rosie and Matt. Rosie looked up at them from her small height, looking a bit deflated but not entirely.
“What are you doing with a moon-faced tyrant, huh?” one boy asked Matt.
One girl with long, shiny black hair looked Rosie up and down, “Look at the clothes this little shrimp’s wearing! Does she think she’s royalty or something?”
Another girl came around and snagged a strand of Rosie’s red hair, “Look at her hair! It’s tomato red! And look at that skin. Has she ever been outside a day in her life?”
Rosie’s face had been slowly more crestfallen with each word. But at this last sentence, she looked on the verge of tears, folding her arms protectively around herself.
Matt pushed the crowd away from Rosie, “Come on, come on, Rosie’s alright. If she wasn’t, do you think she would be hanging out with me?”
The crowd shrugged and consented a little reluctantly, but the small crowd disappeared nonetheless.
Matt turned back around to see Rosie whipping away a tear. “Hey, hey, hey,” Matt said soothingly, hugging Rosie. “It’s nothing personal.”
“It’s alright.” Rosie hugged him back, laughing. She looked up at him, “They have the right to be angry. They’ve got the sharpest edge of the knife. I mean, you’ve got the sharpest edge of the knife.”
“What?” Matt said, playfully screwing up his eyes. “What you mean, girl? I’ve got you to take out the sting.”
Rosie laughed, and Matt could see a little of the sunshine return to her pale eyes.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said. Rosie nodded and Matt put his arm around her shoulders and steered her out of the park.
Matt cautiously opened the door to Rosie’s hospital room, peeking inside to see who might be inside with her. A man was talking to her. Matt had seen her father, and her grandfather, and this man didn’t look like them. He was a bit stockier than Rosie’s family, but he had the same pale blue eyes. He had a square face, a clean-cut goatee, and crisp brown hair that shined the way that Rosie’s did.
Matt started, and smiled at the beaming Rosie. Remorse reattached to his heart as he saw the cast around her leg and the huge, deep black bruises visible anywhere the hospital gown didn’t cover her white skin.
“Uncle Richard,” Rosie said as the man stood, “this is Matt. Matt, this is Uncle Richard.”
Recognition erupted in both men’s eyes as they looked back at each other.
“Matthew Chasely!” Richard Carter said as he held out his hand to Matt, who took it awestruck. “Rosie has told me all about you!” Matt liked the way his voice boomed, but didn’t thunder or crackle like her parents’. It was a warmer sound.
“And she’s told me all about you, sir,” Matt smiled over at Rosie knowingly.
Mr. Carter chuckled, “Well, has she now? We can skip the rest of the introductions, I think.”
The next hour was spent talking idly about anything that they could think of. Rosie brought up her favorite food. Matt told his favorite book. Mr. Carter talked about his favorite band when he was “a young man,” about their age. Then it moved to favorite subject in school, and when Matt said his favorite subject was history, Rosie suddenly said, “That reminds me, Uncle Richard. When you take me to Rome, can we bring Matt along? He’s very interested about the coliseums I told him about.”
“Of course he can come,” Mr. Carter said, smiling. “As long as I’ve got permission from a guardian, I don’t see why not! The more the merrier!”
“See! I told you he would let you!” Rosie said, laughing. “Oh, it will be so much fun to have you there!”
Matt shifted uncomfortably, “I don’t think that…well…you’re parents wouldn’t like me to go…is all I’m saying.”
Rosie looked disappointed, and was about to argue with Matt when Mr. Carter suddenly asked, “What’s this about Rosie’s parents?”
Matt was startled to see Mr. Carter react this way. He looked completely…well…not the jolly Uncle Richard Rosie always painted. He didn’t look mad exactly, but he looked carved from stone, hard and unmoving.
“Mother and Father don’t like Matt,” Rosie said, a little angrily.
Mr. Carter’s expression didn’t change, “Why is that?”
“Well, he’s African-American,” Rosie said, “and they don’t like them. We’re only friends because we’ve been meeting in secret. Matt and I got into real trouble when I had the accident and they found out I had been walking home with him.”
Unexpectedly, Mr. Carter started to sputter about something under his breath and stood and left the room in a huff.
Matt’s eyes were wide as he turned to look at Rosie, who simply shrugged and smiled, saying, “Rome, here we come!”