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Years ago, Stanley told me the best time to make a mud pie was before it rained. I didn’t understand him at the time, but I always remembered the words of my neighborhood idol. Every day, we’d look up at the sky, and I’d ask him, “Will it rain tomorrow?” and he’d shake his head. Turns out, we had a drought that year, and by the time the clouds heralded the upcoming storm, we were too old to make mud pies.
He moved away before I started middle school. Somewhere in the city, I think. We tried to correspond, but snail mail was too slow and neither of us ever bothered to check our emails. Over the years, I imagined his new life. Stanley would fit well in the city life. Whenever I thought of him, I would glance up at the sky and wonder if it would rain. Not that I’d know how to make a mud pie anyway.
Today was my first day as a second semester senior. Finished with college application and last minute cramming for SATs and finals, I felt more relaxed than ever…until a strangely familiar person sat down beside me in Ceramics. Ms. Fletcher, or Mama Fletcher as everyone called her, introduced him as Stanley, the newcomer who wasn’t quite so new after all. So the rumors were true, Stanley Shaw was back from the city. I turned to stare at his profile. He hadn’t changed much. He still had the sandy blonde hair and long piano fingers. Fingers not meant to dig in the dirt, but surprisingly adept at making mud pies.
Feeling my gaze, he looked at me and squinted. After a considerable amount of time, his brown eyes, the color of the mud pies he promised he’d teach me how to make, widened. “Norah Lowell?”
I smiled. “The one and only,” I replied before making the “secret” hand gesture we always made as kids.
He laughed the same belly-laughter sound as I had remembered; only now, it was deeper.
“So, why’d you come back?” People who left this small town rarely came back.
Stanley glanced away, “Uh, some family issues…”
I couldn’t help but to feel a bit disappointed. Sure, we weren’t best friends anymore, but I still wanted to know.
“What’re you up to these days? Cow tipping?” he asked, trying to ease the awkward patch that had fallen between us.
“You, of all people, should know that cow tipping is impossible. Those things weigh a ton!” I cracked a smile, “But that still doesn’t stop the others.”
“You mean Jimmy Craft and the gang? You all still hang out?”
Jimmy Craft, the Tom Sawyer of our neighborhood crew, who had once led us on countless expeditions, was now the star quarterback at our school, as well as Student Council President. Unlike the other jocks at rival high schools, Jimmy was still as down to earth and hung out with the “old crowd” so to speak. He would probably end up marrying his girlfriend and my best friend, Liz Knight. They’d have the whole white picket fence, puppy named Spot, and two kids immersed in Little League…that sort of thing.
“Oh, yeah. Just like the old times. Only, without you, I guess,” I said before the bell rang. I looked down at the vase in my hand and the clean brush in my other. We still had a lot of catching up to do.
* * * * *
Days later, Stanley and I were up to speed. Turns out he hated the city. Hated the smog. Hated the rushing commuters. Hated the honking taxis. Hated the hazy night sky and lack of stars. Who knew?
I still didn’t know the real reason why he moved back, but I never pressed him for the answer. I just assumed he’d tell me eventually. I did notice, however, how his once mirthful mother slouched now, and how much older his father looked.
As I finished my calculus homework one night, I heard a rock land on my windowsill. Peering into the night, I saw Stanley standing on the front lawn. I rushed down the stairs to open the door. He beckoned me out. Grabbing a jacket, I walked over to him.
“So, what brings you out here?” I asked, linking my arm through his.
He looked down at me. “I know you’ve been wondering why we moved back…” his voice trailed off.
I tore my gaze from his. “You don’t have to tell me if it makes you uncomfortable.”
“No, Norah. I need to—” he paused, then smiled, or rather, grimaced. “Well, as cliché as it sounds, I need to get a few things off my chest.”
We walked in silence for awhile until we reached the park, a tiny playground and a field of grass that was once lush, but now riddled with bald patches. We sat near a clump of dirt. “I had a younger sister, Sammy. She was born in the city.”
Had I noticed, but remained silent. Sammy Shaw, I thought, would look just as beautiful as her older brother. She would probably have the same dimpled smile and the same brooding brown eyes. In fact, she would probably be able to make the same kind of amazing mud pies and play the most marvelous pieces on the piano just like Stanley could.
“She, uh, would get these bruises and get sick, you know?” Stanley’s voice cracked, but he kept speaking. “The doctors said she had leukemia, and” he took a deep breath, “she died about a month ago. She was barely seven years old and already so smart.”
“Oh, Stanley. I—I’m so sorry.” I placed my hand on his arm, unsure of what else I could do.
He looked at me with those brown eyes, now filled with sorrow, and then glanced up at the stars. After contemplating a few minutes, he turned to me and whispered, “It looks like it’ll rain tomorrow.”
I smiled and whispered back, “Does that mean you’ll finally teach me how to make a mud pie?”
His eyes widened. “You remembered?”
“Of course! How can I ever forget such deep, insightful words?!” I teased.
As we formed the dirt into pie, I placed my hands over his. “Stanley?”
He looked up. “Norah?”
“Let’s make this mud pie for Sammy, okay?”
He smiled and nodded. We made two that night. One from Stanley, the perfectly shaped pie, and one from me, the lopsided one that almost looked like a heart if you tilted your head and squinted your eyes. I hoped it was good enough for Sammy.