Nola sat on the bottom step of her front porch and felt the cold granite begin to send its creeping chill throughout her little body. Dried, brown autumn leaves scraped the sidewalk in front of her as they skipped along in the rising breeze. Twigs and branches were scattered across the lawn from last night’s storm and Nola decided to pick some of them up while she waited for her father. She gathered as many as she could and carried them down to the small grove of white pines at the edge of the woods behind her house.
Beneath the sheltering branches of the tall straight pines Nola had created her own version of a bird’s nest in the crunchy carpet of dried pine needles that blanketed the ground. She’d carefully scooped and swept the mounds of needles into the outline of a circle large enough for her to sit in, adding twigs and pinecones to build the sides up over a foot high. She liked to imagine she was an exotic bird living high in the tree tops. Nola took the sticks she’d collected from the front yard and added them to the growing rim of her nest. Then she restacked some of the twigs that were knocked down during the previous night’s storm. When Nola was finished she stretched her arms out wide and slowly moved them up and down, flapping gracefully as she ran around to the front of the house, imagining that she was gliding through the cloudy sky as she zigzagged her way back to the steps. Nola sat once again on the granite slab. Her father still had not come out.
While she continued to wait, Nola noticed there was now something on the sidewalk that wasn’t there before. It looked like a ball of dried grass but when she got closer and gingerly picked it up she could see it was a small, perfectly formed bird’s nest -- a real one! Nola shivered with a combination of cold and excitement as she examined the delicate treasure, cupped carefully in her hands to secure it against the wind that was starting to kick up. Even though it looked fragile, as Nola scrutinized it she could tell that it was stronger than it seemed. This was smaller than she’d imagined a bird’s nest to be, it was hard to imagine any bird she’d ever seen actually using it, let alone sharing it with a brood of babies. Nola wished Grandee was here today, she would know what kind of bird built the nest. Grandee always knew everything. But her grandmother wouldn’t be here for several days yet. Nola needed to find a place to keep the nest safe until then. She wanted to take it to her room, but she couldn’t go back into the house now.
Instead Nola went around to the back porch and carefully reached her hand through the white painted lattice work running along the bottom and placed the nest gently underneath the weathered floorboards, tucked in a clump of leaves near one of the support posts. This was her special hiding spot, the place she kept things that didn't belong in the house, things her mother would say were dirty like pretty rocks or bits of broken pottery and twisted rusty nails that she found near where the old barn once stood.
“Nola Grace, where are you?” Nola jumped a little. She’d strayed from her waiting spot and now hearing the terseness of her father’s voice she knew he was not happy. “I’m sorry Daddy, I’m coming.” Nola called out as she ran towards where her father’s car was parked in the driveway. But he was already coming around the side of the house looking for her and she almost ran right into him. He grabbed her arm and walked a little too fast for her to keep up, partially dragging her along as he muttered under his breath, “How many times do I have to tell you, huh? If I say wait for me on the front steps then you sit your butt down there and don’t move till I come out. Jesus Christ, you’re gonna make me late, gotta look all over the place for you. If you’d just do what you were told once, just once…” and his voice trailed off as they reached the car and he waited impatiently for her to climb in. Nola was trying to get in quickly while not getting her dirty feet on the seats at the same time, but sure enough when she looked beside her she could see little pieces of leaves and pine needles all over the back seat. Thankfully her father didn’t notice and had already closed her door to go around the front of the car and get in. Once they were on their way Nola quietly reached over and picked up all the little bits and pieces she could, shoving a crispy fistful into her coat pocket before they reached the end of their street.
When they arrived at her school the long circular drive was empty. Usually cars were lined up along the entire length and even into the street beyond while parents waited to take their turn, one by one dropping off children under the watchful eyes of the waiting teachers. But no one was here now, not a single car. That meant that she was late, very late. Her father got out and opened her door, then got right back into the car.
“Daddy, I think your supposed to walk me in tell them why I’m late,” Nola said as she stood by the open car door, leaning into the back seat a little so he could hear her.
“Can’t I just write you a note or something?”
“Um, I don’t know, I guess so.”
Nola’s father rolled down his window. “Shut your door and give me a minute.” He took his black notebook out from the flap pocket of his coat and began to scribble quickly. Then he tore the page out and handed it to Nola, “Here, they can call me if they don’t like it. Hey, don’t go around the front of the car,” he snapped as she started to walk away, “always go around the back of a car, Nola, never around the front. Someone’s liable to run you over if they aren’t looking.” His words seemed to hang in the air for a minute before the realization of what he’d said caught up to him. Like Ethan, Nola thought, the person that ran over Ethan hadn’t seen see him. And then for the first time that day their eyes met. Nola thought her father looked sad and she wanted to give him a kiss goodbye. But he quickly looked away and before Nola could move he rolled up the window and drove off.
Nola stood there alone in the parking lot. The wind wrapped tangled strands of hair across her face as she looked at the low brick building and wondered if anyone from inside could see her. But the single row of windows revealed nothing, only a dimmed reflection of surrounding trees and clouds, as if the building were really floating in the sky.
She closed her eyes tight and thought, maybe the school was empty? Maybe today was actually Saturday? That had happened once, her mother had gotten her up and fed her breakfast, drove her here only to find an empty parking lot, just like today. But she’d been on time that day, even a little early, and her mother quickly realized her error. They’d laughed and gone out for pancakes. But Nola knew there was no mistake today. Her father would never make that kind of blunder.
As she walked up the sidewalk to the red steel doors that led down the long hall to her kindergarten classroom, Nola slowly picked out all the pine needles from her pocket and rubbed them between her fingers before letting them fall, pulverizing each little piece as she walked along. She thought about her nests, both the real one and the pretend one, and hoped that they would withstand the whipping winds that now blew the faint crumbled powder from her hands before it could leave a trail on the dark macadam, easily whisking away any trace of her late arrival.
six words: see ya soon - minor eye injury still needs healing