We always sat at our desks less than an arm's-length away from each other, not letting our secrets slip away to the other 4th graders when our teachers faced the board. Our teachers would address us as “those three little french hens,” sometimes just “chickens” for short because of all of our supposed “gobbling” or what anyone normal would call talking.
Rebecca and I went to the same pre-school down the street, where we had daily “mindfulness and meditation.” One day during snack-time, she came up to me to tell me that I could have her cookie that the teachers had parceled out to us. She explained that her mom didn’t believe in “GMOs or anything sweet.” Heck, I had no idea what ‘JNOs’ were but I didn’t need to know. She basically bought my friendship through food, but I don’t blame her.
Every year for school we had a class photo on the first day. It was always the same 56 kids in alphabetical order by last name. I passed the glossy picture in the 4th grade hallway and read through the names like I always do. Adams, Anderson, Bailey...Bailey? Who the heck is Bailey? I looked up and saw a new girl standing in the back row.
It was a week into 4th grade when I noticed the girl from the class photo sitting alone by the bookshelf side of the rug. I studied her two hair puffs and their springy ends. I crawled over to the girl and Rebecca followed. I tapped her plump arm.
“One thing you need to know about this place. Never, ever sit in that seat over there. Legend has it a girl died there after taking Ms. Aspen’s history test. I’m Sofia and this is Rebecca.”
“Hey, I’m Penelope. I just moved here from Jamaica. My dad’s a professor of Caribbean studies at Moorview down the road.” She spoke with a soft accent.
“Wowww, ” Rebecca said leaning into me.
As she was listening to Penelope her eyes expanded from icy blue marbles to those plastic easter eggs that Dad stuffs “3 Musketeers” bars into every year. As creepy as Rebecca’s eyes were, I have to admit, hearing Penelope talk about Jamaican people and their motto “Out of Many, One People” was cool to me. It made me think of my dad’s “party trick” of reciting each generation of our family members back to our Mayflower descendants. It was thirty minutes into our Abraham Lincoln lesson when we got the look from Ms. Aspen. Like an owl she snapped her neck away from the board and towards our flapping mouths. The bell rang.
“Chickens.” She said under her breath.
I went to Rebecca’s house at least once a week. Her mother always invited me over. Penelope only came if she was hanging out with us after school, whenever Rebecca’s mom asked me to join them. Her mother would lay out carrots for us, however, sometimes all I wanted were plain Cheetos. Everytime we pulled up to the house, white pillars shielded the two french style, heavy, black doors that led into the foyer. Golden frames filled with family portraits dating back 200 years line their walls.
Rebecca always explained the sparknotes version of her family’s history, talking about, “my great-great grandaddy fought for the patriots, that’s what mom says. The ones who believed in keeping their property.”
But, if I’m honest, I had never even asked in the first place. It was a Thursday afternoon when Rebecca’s mom asked me if I wanted to come over. Penelope had already left school early for a doctor’s appointment. After we passed the pillars and the stiff doors, we parked our books and bags in the kitchen. As soon as we began working on our Gettysburg Address presentations, Rebecca asked her mom about inviting Penelope. Her mother grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl and started slicing on the wooden chopping block.
“Alright so, we have some apple slices and Organic Peanut butter. You guys have to try this.”
“Mom, hello? Did you hear me?”
She pursed her lips and her green eyes narrowed in on Rebecca. She had the eyes of a rabid-wolf piercing through her prey. I wanted Penelope here too but what was I supposed to say to a woman I now feared? I promised myself I would keep my mouth shut and choke down the swirly, brown crap on my plate. Rebecca did the same. If Penelope were here, she would have brought the sweet mangos she told us about from her Grandmother’s garden in Jamaica.
Dad picked me up from the Richardson’s house.
“How was your day?” He said steering the squeaky car wheel.
“Good, but, today Rebecca’s mom didn’t invite Penelope over. And I wanted her to-”
“Well, maybe Ms. Richardson had a reason. She was probably being cautious…She may not know who her parents are. I mean, I don’t. I know you all hang out with her at school but, home is a more private place. I’m sure Penelope will be okay.”
“Actually, her dad is a prof-”
“I forgot to tell you this but I invited Rebecca and her mother over for dinner on Friday. You were packing up your books when I asked.”
I shifted in the backseat peeling my eyes from my father to the ravens now picking at our neighbor’s trash as we pulled into our driveway.
“Ok.” I said quietly.
The next day at school Penelope and I were on the swings. Today was the first day Rebecca didn’t hang out with us. She fluttered between the other kids in our class and she was over at the monkey bars. We never hung out by the monkey bars. Neither of us had any upper body strength. Plus, swinging felt like flying which was ten times cooler. It was five minutes until the recess bell rang when we saw Rebecca running up the small dirt mound towards us.
“Hey guys, um… Penelope?” She was out of breath from her short jog.
“Hey, where have you be-”
“Penelope, my mom doesn’t want us to hang out anymore.”
What would we be if Rebecca wasn’t allowed to hang out with us? Certainly the “three French Hens” wouldn’t work anymore. There wouldn’t be three of us to “gobble.” Only two of us. The other, I just met this year. Maybe Dad was right.
“What do you mean?” Penelope stopped swinging.
I looked at her. I guess her accent wasn’t like ours. She never seemed to burn in the sun. Her hair curled in funny directions. If I stayed as her only friend, then she would claw onto me. Ms. Richardson would never ask me to come over again if she always saw her around me. I enjoyed being met by the pillars and the heavy doors. I would miss the golden frames and the old guys in them. After all these years, I was even starting to somewhat warm up to the Whole Foods snacks.
“I mean she said we are not allowed to be friends anymore. But don’t take it personally. She just thinks that I could branch out and talk to more kids from our neighborhood.”
Rebecca stood back. When neither of us spoke she began to walk towards the monkey bars. I grabbed the chains of my swing and ran after her. Only one little, French hen was left on the swingset.
That Friday night Rebecca and her mother came over for dinner. Rebecca’s mother helped dad serve. She sunk a fork into the body of the bird to keep it from budging while we watched Dad butcher the meat. We ate and talked about our days, leaving Penelope out. Once we were all done eating, I looked into the pot and the only thing we left were the bones.