Jessica stared at her hands. They were trembling. Thunder rolled in the distance, still a few miles from Rogers Park. The bench was hard, shedding splinters to unwary visitors. The air was still.
She didn’t know how long she’d been sitting there, staring down, feet curled together, wisps of hair escaped from her ponytail and tickling her eyelashes. A branch cracked, and she looked up, green eyes wide.
“Ah, Jess!” Nana was a short lady, wild white hair waving in the wind.
“Nana,” Jessica called, half-heartedly.
“Jess,” she said, sitting down on the bench and breathing hard. She shoved one hand in her apron pocket and rested her elbow on the bench, propping up her head. “How was it?”
Jessica kicked at a pinecone, watched it wobble away down the paved pathway and out of reach.
“Ah,” Nana said, shifting towards her. The two sat in silence. First raindrops plopped to the ground—one, two, three. Gone.
“You know,” Nana said at last, “Whatever those girls did, it won’t seem so bad in the morning.”
“I can’t face them,” Jessica said softly. “Not again. Not after today.”
Jessica sniffled. She opened her mouth, closed it, and took a breath. “I said I’d never do it. But they all… and now… I’m not one of them, Nana.”
A gust of wind caught Nana’s loose bun and sent long strands of hair whipping across her face. She brushed it back with one hand and stared unblinkingly at the girl. Jessica glanced at her, then back at the ground. Her legs swung back, forth, back, forth, as unsettled as the sky.
“Did you know,” Nana said slowly, “Back in middle school, I used to be one of the popular girls.”
“I know,” Nana said, leaning forward. “Look at me now, eh? It took a few things before I said to myself, I’ve had it, I’ve had enough, I’m going my own way.”
“I tried. Honest I did, Nana.”
“I know. So did I.” Nana leaned back, but never looked away. “You’ll be all right, Jess. I’ve known a lot of kids in my day, seen ‘em grown up and head their different ways. You’re one of the ones who thinks about what she’s doing. That’s how things start to go right.”
Jessica kept watching her feet swing back and forth, back and forth. “You don’t know what I did, Nana. I… I…” She turned away, hid under locks of orange hair. “I can’t say it!”
Nana sat quietly, waiting. One lonely robin warbled in the woods behind them. Click. Click. Click. Jessica knew that sound. Nana’s knitting needles, patient and calm.
Slowly, Jessica unzipped her backpack. She reached for a small pouch, and placed it on the bench next to Nana, unable to meet her eyes. The clicking stopped.
Jessica nodded. She heard the metallic ring of metal against metal, knitting needle aluminum against fire tried gold.
“That is a beauty, honey.”
“I think I’ve seen one like it in Fenderman’s shop on the corner.”
“It’s the same one, Nana.”
Jessica could feel Nana’s eyes on her. She glanced up, then shut her eyes tight and turned away.
“I’m horrible!” she said, hardly audible. “You’re going to say I have to return it, aren’t you? I don’t even want it! I never would have done it! If I… if I give it back, they’ll know… I can’t, Nana.”
Jessica heard the clunk of the gold going back in the drawstringed velvet, felt it placed gently in her hand.
“Really think it’ll be that hard?” Nana said.
Nana clucked, pulled out her knitting needles again.
Nana paused, nodded.
“Go with me?”
The clicking stopped. Nana pulled herself up off the park bench and slipped her knitting into her pocket. “There’s a good girl.”
Jessica stayed where she was, holding still, almost holding her breath. She looked up into the deep brown eyes of the older lady, creased with laughlines all around. Nana’s apron pockets were bulging with various goodies and projects, as usual. Her eyes almost twinkled.
Jessica put the sack into her backpack and eased herself off the park bench. “It won’t be the same,” she said as they walked slowly down the path, crunching gravel. “I’m a thief.”
“Jess, I love you. You ain’t perfect, but good Lord gives us all a second chance and He knows we need it. You’ve got nothing to worry about. You know when you done wrong, you right it as you can, own up, and know a little more next time.”
Jess hung her head. A wave of sprinkles polka-dotted the concrete. Nana’s arm wrapped around her shoulder, squeezed her tight and held on.