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I pass Jo the bag of chips and he takes one. He Makes to take another but I slap his hand away and steal back the bag.
“you can have more if…” I jump up from the log we were sitting on in the shade of a big old yew tree. “…you catch me” I scream over my shoulder sprinting down the path my long braid thumping my back as I run.
“Jen” screams my little brother “that’s not fair we both know I can’t” he is standing under the tree his little fists on his hips glaring at me. I’ve stopped at the entrance to the woods and I’m facing him.
“come on Jo” I yell shaking the bag of chips from the 10cent shop. I hold the bag out like a bribe trying to persuade him to push his short legs hard enough to reach me. “I’ll wait for you here I promise”
He Makes a face then starts to run towards me. “Don’t run off Jen” he pouts taking the chips from my outstretched hand “it’s not fair I’m only 9 you’re already 14”
“Sorry Jo” I tell him but we both know I enJoyed it.
We turn away from the woods and I lead him back past the tree and to the house.
I pass him another chip and sit down at the table in our little kitchen in our little cottage on the farm. A cough comes from next door and we both hold still. I try to act relaxed and hide my fear from Jo. He is still so little he doesn’t need to know about fear and hardship. I try hard to hide it from him I try to pretend Ma will get better but Jo ain’t stupid.
Pa died when Jo was little and now the only people I have in the world are Ma and Jo. But Ma is sick and I don’t know what to do. She needs treatment and we can’t afford it. I try to make money and keep our farm running but I can only make enough for food and the pain relievers which help Ma. I’m so scared, I’m 14 but sometimes I feel too young. My friends used to call me aunty to tease me cause I was so mature. Now I don’t see my friends no more, I look after Ma and Jo and I try to go to school but its hard and it isn’t getting any easier.
I stand up and get 3 glasses down. I pour milk into two of the glasses and fill the other with plain water. Jo and Ma drink milk and orange juice when I can get it to keep them strong but I drink water, it’s cheaper.
I pick up the two glasses of milk and set one down in front of Jo who is staring at the table. “drink this Jo and start your homework” I tell the little boy he looks at me and the second glass.
“is that for you?” he asks
“no Jo this is for Ma mine is on the counter” he looks at the glass of water on the counter and frowns “you need to be strong too Jen you need milk too” he looks at me and I sigh, he aint stupid, he knows that I drink water so he can have his milk.
“I like water” I lie, to tell the truth I barely remember the taste of milk, I haven’t had any since last year when Ma started to get sick. Before that there was always milk and orange juice, there was always fresh baked bread and she was always up to help me with chores and help us with homework. I wipe a tear from my cheek so that Jo can’t see it and hurry next door into Ma’s room.
She lies in the big bed covered in a blanket despite the heat, she coughs and turns at the sound of my footsteps.
“Jen” she whispers “thank you baby girl”
“I’m no baby Ma” I whisper wanting nothing more than to be a baby again and curl up in her arms and let someone else take care of me. I bite back my tears and walk to the bed. I hand Ma the milk and she takes a sip. I turn to go but she holds me back.
“Come sit with me for a moment” she smiles at me and for a moment she seems strong again, but then I see how thin she is and how weak she looks and I remember the constant coughing. Ma is sick.
I sit on the edge of her bed holding her hand and stroking her hair.
“You are such a good, strong girl, Jenny I’m so proud of you I just wish you could be a baby again I wish I could be a better Ma for you and Jo”
I chock back the tears which threaten to spill over onto my cheeks. “I’m ok Ma” I whisper “we will be ok I’ll get the money for the treatment” I whisper fiercely.
“Remember baby girl that I want you and Jo to come first, I want to live but if it means that Jo has to go to work or if I have to lose my babies then I’d rather you two be safe and happy” I shake my head. I daren’t open my mouth for fear of giving away my feelings.
“It’s ok baby, go now help your brother, and tomorrow go to school like a good girl I’ll be fine alone just you leave some food in here and I’ll be fine” I nod and stand up wiping away any traces of my dry tears.
I return to the kitchen to find Jo doing his homework. His thin little body is crunched up and his pencil is short and stubby. I look at my baby brother and Make a promise to myself, I will keep them safe and I will find a way to keep Jo in school and get medicine for Ma, I can do it.
I take a deep breath and walk over to the counter Jo watches me as I tip the water back into the jug and pour myself a glass of milk, I need to be strong as well if I am to save my family, Jo was right.
I take a sip of the rich cold milk.
“You need to be strong” Jo smiles and I walk over to help him with his homework.
That evening I pull out a stack of papers from a shelf in the light of a candle I read through the 10 pages written in my small cramped hand writing. It is a story I have been writing and it has given me and idea, a way to stay in school and get money. Jo said that Mary from school who was 15 had entered a story in a competition and won 3 dollars. 3 dollars wasn’t much but I needed everything I could get. Ma’s medicine would cast $200 but $3 would help get orange juice and a new jacket for Jo. I turn the pages and then pick up my pencil, I write for twenty minutes. The End I print in my neat handwriting. There I sigh. It feels so good to have a plan.
The next day I get up early to prepare breakfast for my family. And do the chores so that I can go to the village school with Jo. I haven’t been in nearly 3 weeks, not since Ma got worse and I needed to look after her. She was right though she would survive the morning. I set the a plate of scrambled eggs in front of a yawning Jo.
“Come-on Jo eat up, I’m coming with you today” Jo looks up and a grin spreads across his tired little face.
“Really, Jen you promise”
“I promise” I tell my brother.
“Oh this is so exciting” he jumps up his eyes dancing with happiness.
“now sit down Jo we can go once you have finished” I tell him sternly but I can’t help letting a little smile touch my lips.
“where is your breakfast” Jo asks me sitting down “you have to eat Jen” I put my own plate down on the table
“I will, just let me take some to Ma”
He nods pacified. I take a third plate and a glass of milk through to Ma.
“Here Ma” I say quietly putting the plate down next to her “Ma I’m going to school today will you be ok?”
“I’m glad you are going, I will be fine” she smiles and kisses my cheek “go now before you are late”
I leave closing the door gently.
After breakfast we set out Jo carrying his books and lunch pail, me carrying my own books, from when I used to go to school, as well as lunch and my story. Our teacher Ms. Lilly is a favorite of mine and I want to show her my story to get advice on where to send it and how to fix it.
We step into the small school building side by side, the kids are all talking in the small room. A group of boys run towards Jo and hug me as well.
“Jen is back Jen is back” they sing happily I laugh pushing them away as a group of girls comes towards us.
“Jen” cries out the closest girl, I run to her and we hug.
“Sophie I missed you” I tell the other girl then turn to hug all my friends.
The school day passes happily and I can almost forget why I’m here. When break comes I send my friends outside telling them I need to talk to Ms. Lilly.
When Ms. Lilly sees me waiting by my desk she walks over and hugs me.
“I’m so glad you are back” she tells me then searching my face she asks “but you have a reason don’t you?”
I nod. She gestures for me to explain so I do.
“Ms. Lilly you know that my Ma is very sick which is why I left school” she nods so I continue “well the only thing that will help her is a special treatment but I can’t afford it. She is very, very, sick but I have an idea” I pause.
“and would you like my help with this plan of yours Jen?” she asks, I nod. “well why don’t you explain your plan and I’ll help however I can.”
“Well you know the girl who sent her story to a Magazine and she got paid” Ms. Lilly nods “well I want to send in a story too but I don’t know where to send it nor if it’s any good.” I explain in a rush.
“Do you have this story here” Ms. Lilly asks when I nod she continues “why don’t you show it to me and I’ll Make some edits tonight, then tomorrow you can look it over and I’ll let you work on the corrections during English. When it’s finished I’ll send it to a newspaper I know and we can see what happens, but Jen they may not take it and if they do I don’t know how much you will get for it” She explained gently.
“I understand but I have to try something” I tell her.
“you are right go get you’re story and I can read it now if you like” I retrieve my story from my desk and hand it to her.
The next day Ms. Lilly calls me over at break “Jen I read your story and I think it’s really, really, good” she tells me handing back the pages. I notice little red Marks on the pages. “I think you should edit it now and then we can send it into a completion that The Herald is holding, The winner will get $1,000 and second place $750, third $500 and fourth gets $250.” My eyes widen with amazement, Ma’s medicines will cost $200 any of those prizes would save my family.
Ms. Lilly took my story at the end of the day and put it in a big envelope. “you will have to wait a few weeks” she tells me in warning and I nod in understanding but I know that everyday will be hard to wait.
For the next few weeks I go to school every other day so that I can learn and look after Ma. Every day either Jo or myself would ask Ms. Lilly about the story and everyday she would smile sadly and tell us she had no reply. Then one day two weeks after I had sent in that fateful story, it was a day I had stayed home, Jo came flying down the path.
“Jen” he panted he flung open the door and fell to his knees panting “Miss. Lilly said to give you this it’s about your story.” I put down the dough I had been kneading and took the letter. My hands were trembling as I opened the letter.
I squeeze my eyes close and thrust the letter into Jo’s hands “here you open it Jo I can’t, just read me what it says”
He takes the letter from my trembling hands and starts to read
“Dear Jennifer Hortin, we are pleased to announce that your story has been chosen…” Jen grabbed the letter from her brothers hands
“I’ve been chosen” she asked incredulous
“What you been chosen for” asked Jo who although he knew his older sister was waiting for a letter about her story he didn’t know what it meant and why his sister looked so scared and hopeful. He had seen the look on his older sister’s face when she asked Ms. Lilly about it every other day, he knew she waited for him after school and when she saw his sorrowful face because Ms. Lilly had told him ‘not yet’ again he saw her face sag. This letter was important and he wanted to know why.
Jen had finished reading the letter and was pulling a wad of cash, $750 dollars to be precise, out of the envelope and a newspaper. She hugged her little brother and then turn to run into her mother’s room her little brother behind her.
“Ma” she cried out, “we’re gonna be okay”