In elementary school, Kate and I would walk everyday after school to the public library about a block away. Our father, along with many other students' parents, used the Kent County Public Library as a free after-school program, instead of expensive daycare or a babysitter. We would stay there, playing outside, reading inside, or entertaining ourselves semi-quietly while the librarians glared in our direction until Dad picked us up once he got done work, between five and six o'clock each week night. Many of the other children who joined us each day were rough and tumble characters. These children, in a good deal of cases, were trouble-makers of the highest degree, antagonizing anyone who dared talk back to them, and never retreating from a potential fist fight. Kate and I just kept our heads down most of the time and ignored any comments or advances from these kids. One day though, Kate had finally had too much.
As we walked to the library after school on this particular day, Kate was fuming. She stomped along beside me, her mouth set in a tight frown. From what she mumbled to me, I gathered that another one of the library kids had stolen something from a friend of hers. Autumn Whitmire was her name, and she was, hands down, the most vicious and scrappy girl in the fourth grade. Kate was so angry she was gritting her teeth. We had barely made it a half a block when Autumn caught up to us on the sidewalk. Kate, her hands on her hips, looked right at her and said, "You stole my friend's scrunchie," accusing Autumn right to her pinched and permanently scowling face. Autumn, in response, let flow from her mouth a torrent of expletives which the likes of have never been heard again by my ears. Kate stood tall, stoicly listening without so much as a flinch as the tirade went on and on. Finally, after at least two minutes, Autumn stopped. I thought Kate would turn and walk away, looking at her feet and hoping that Autumn was satisfied with her ultimate cuss out. Instead, she stepped forward, leaned toward Autumn, and said, "I don't care what you say, Autumn. You are like the piece of paper I wipe my butt with!" The forming crowd of kids laughed at Autumn. Kate crossed her arms over her chest and tilted her face slightly upward, a sure sign of confidence.
I couldn't believe it. Kate had counter-attacked! She had, in one short sentence, outdone all of Autumn's lackluster cursing. I felt immense pride for Kate, her heroic words resonating in my head. But as I looked on, I could see things about to take a dire turn. Autumn's face looked like she was hanging upside-down. The blood was seeping upward, reddening her face, then turning it to a purple-ish color. Her lips began to quiver and tense. Kate, the thrill of verbal victory still coursing through her veins, yelled out, "Fifty-cent girl!" She seemed not to notice Autumn's angry hue. Before Kate could see what was happening, Autumn was on her, slapping and scratching, her teeth bared and clenched. Kate began to fight back, grabbing at Autumn, smacking at whatever she could make contact with. The crowd was whooping and cheering, and I, frozen in the front of the ring of people, began to cry, frightened by the assault in front of me. Kate and Autumn looked like a ball of legs and arms and flying hair, now on the ground and rolling from side to side, the sound of palms hitting flesh and shrieks of pain and exertion emanating from the scuffle. As I stood uselessly crying, I heard Kate yell, "Help me , Meghan!!" I was paralyzed with fear. All I could manage was, between sobs, wailing "Don't hurt my sister, don't hurt my sister!" I wanted so badly to jump in and save Kate, to run with her until we were far away from Autumn and the library kids and the shrieks and slaps, but I just kept repeating "Don't hurt my sister," a futile and begging attempt at protecting her. I looked down, and Autumn had Kate by the hair, and Kate had scratched Autumn's face, and it was bleeding, and everything seemed to be spinning as they wrestled and flopped below me.
Suddenly, a woman in a Volvo Station Wagon screeched to halt next to us on the road. She bounded from the driver's seat, ripping Kate and Autumn apart, their arms and legs continuing to flail until they realized what was happening. "What are you doing to each other?!", she exclaimed. Kate and Autumn immediately began crying, and I cried with them, ashamed that I hadn't rescued Kate from the fight, but also relieved that it was over. The crowd broke up, bored the instant that the action stopped. Once the woman was sure that there would be no more punches thrown, she slid back behind the wheel of her Volvo, and with a final disgusted shake of her head, she slammed her door and drove away. Kate and Autumn stood looking at each other, still crying as they turned and walked together to the library, shuffling along as I followed a few steps behind.
Once we reached the library, the three of us perched on the brick steps outside, and I sat wiping at my eyes and sucking in jagged breaths as Kate pulled clumps of loosened hair from her head, her breath slowing as her adrenaline ebbed away. All of us were traumatized. Autumn watched Kate removing fistful after fistful of her sandy colored hair, and I could see her realize the horror of what she had done. Her eyes widened, and then her head dropped, and she stared at her hands in her lap, sporadically blotting at her wounded face with the back of her hand. All of the anger between them had drained away, and I could tell by their slack shoulders and down-turned glances that the only thing either of them felt was sorry. I felt the same way. When Kate turned to me and asked, "Why didn't you help me, Meghan?", all I could do was look at my shoes and choke back tears. I wished so much that I had helped.
To this day, I still wish I had.