"You want to see a naked girl?"
"What?" I spun my head around so fast the muscle in my neck popped, sending shards of pain rocketing down my shooting arm. My best friend, Ham, smirked and sat against a boulder that flanked the edge of the abandoned quarry. He kicked his feet out in front of him and propped one bare foot on top of the other.
"I said ..." Ham paused, letting his words linger. He looked like he hadn't a care in the world, but he was sucking the life out of a blade of alfalfa grass. "Do you want to see a--"
"I heard you," I said quickly. A picture of Ham's younger sister, AnnaLise, popped into my mind. I wondered if she was the naked girl Ham was talking about. In his family, with five sisters running around, it was certainly a possibility. The thought made my stomach feel funny. I wiped the palms of my hands on my pants.
"Aw, you're full of baloney," I said. I rolled my shoulders and tried to ease out the cramp. The pain inched its way from one side of my neck to the other.
"Am not. I'm dead shooting serious." Ham spat the alfalfa grass to the ground, flipped to his feet, and crouched in front of me. I thought that if Ham could channel his maniac energy, he'd be a great guard for the basketball team. But Ham didn't care about things that had rules and organization.
"Naked girls. Hundreds of 'em. Well, at least a couple. And they take all their clothes off." Ham's voice rose to a squeak. He was standing now and pacing. I stood up. I was taller than Ham and bigger, but my energy was more contained. Deliberate, Ham would say. Wary.
Ham leaned in close and whispered, "They're at the carnival. In a tent. A naked girl tent."
I stepped back and stared at him. Part of me was relieved he wasn't talking about AnnaLise. But the other part ... I shook my head. "The carnival? You're crazy. We can't go to the carnival."
Every year a group of roustabouts drifted into town with their tents and their freaks and their lures of easy prizes. They set up in a field north of town and took money from the scabblers coming from the quarries and the car blockers coming from the railroad. It sounded wonderful, but I was never allowed to go. Neither was Ham. I reminded him of that fact again. Ham only smiled.
"It's not like we're going to ask permission, Andy." Ham's eyes crinkled in that funny way he had when plotting mischief. "We'll sneak out, under cover of darkness."His voice rose dramatically, then he crouched low and took two steps forward. "We'll cut through the Oberstrong's pastures and come at the carnival from the back side. If my sources serve me well, the naked girls are located at the far right corner. We can peek under the tent, see the naked girls, and then bolt for home before anyone even notices that we're gone." He grinned.
"Boy, oh, boy, Ham. If we get caught ..." I let the awful idea hang in the air for a moment. "My parents would kill me. Yours, too."
Ham shook his head. The look of deviousness on his face softened. "The Judge won't do anything."
As strange as it sounded, I had to admit that Ham was right. Judge Mortimer was reputed to be the toughest judge in the county. Everybody knew it, from the stonecutters to the farmers to Willard Nevil, the town drunk. But no matter what kind of trouble Ham got himself into, the Judge never punished him. The Judge would stand, stern and unmoving, the anger and disappointment carved into his face. Sometimes he'd make Ham pay what he called restitution, but when it came right down to it, he never actually sentenced Ham to any kind of punishment. I often wondered if Ham got into trouble just to see if he could get a reaction out of his father. I wished my parents would let me get away with half the stuff the Judge let Ham get away with.
Then Ham shook his head and the grin returned. "Felix, on the other hand, would have a fit." The idea seemed to strike Ham as funny. Felix was Ham's uncle, the Judge's brother. He was also the county sheriff, but we joked that he should have been born a preacher. He could talk ajaybird quiet. And boy did he rattle on about the Catholics brewing their illegal beer and the flappers with their short skirts. Most folks, my brother George included, took Sheriff Mortimer's words as gospel. But Ham, being Ham, thought his uncle was full of hot air.
"I don't know, Ham," I said.
Ham must have taken my uncertainty as a yes. "I'll meet you behind your barn tonight at ten o'clock."
I shook my head. "I can't. Tonight is Pete's birthday."
Ham's face clouded. "Oh. Sorry. I forgot." Then he brightened. "Thursday, then. Same time."
"But ..." I had to find some way out of this. "Won't your parents still be awake?" Everyone in my family woke with the sun to milk the cows, so we fell asleep early. But Ham's family sometimes stayed awake until midnight.
"Eleven o'clock, then. Bye!" Ham grinned and raced toward town.
I picked up the stone I'd been carving and with my finger traced the lines I'd etched. It looked pretty good, I thought, almost like a real basketball. I stuck the carving in my pocket. I trudged past the boulders that littered the ground around the abandoned quarry, toward the house, the last place I wanted to be. Tonight was Pete's birthday. Ham had forgotten. I sighed. I could never forget. Some days I thought I was stuck at age eight, the day I discovered that Pete had run off to war. Or maybe age nine, the day I learned that he was never coming back.