March twentieth was full of First Things, and to thirteen- year- old Katie Vaughn it was the day that started all the other days in her life, the beginning of everything that might come after.
It was midday, recess, when Katie hung upside down on the monkey bars. A net of freckles covered her pale face and her copper hair dipped into a puddle— a disgusting soup made of mud and the lime- green slime of newly mowed grass. But it didn’t bother Katie. She knew how to hang upside down, swing up to grab the bar, and do a full loop before landing five feet out from the bars on the solid earth below her feet. Katie was showing off and she knew she was, but if you know how to do something better than anyone else, Mom had told her, you should be doing it.
That day— that first day of spring— no one else would go near the monkey bars what with the slimy puddles, but Katie’s skill had no match at Wesley Prep. She did her loop and then landed on the grass, smiling in that way of the humble when Jack Adams turned to smile at her, and damn if that wasn’t when she felt her feet slip across the unstable ground. Losing balance, she landed with splayed legs, her hair spread like seaweed in the mud.
Sometimes kids say what they feel instead of what they’re told is proper, and this was one of those unfortunate times for Katie Vaughn. The word was out of her mouth before she even knew it. This was the first time she’d ever cursed, and the word felt like biting into a lemon with the quick stab of bitter juice. Until she looked up and saw the principal looking down at her and frowning.
“Young lady, did you curse on my school grounds?” Mr. Proctor asked.
Katie looked him directly in the eyes. She’d already done one bad thing, and wasn’t set to lie about it. “Yes, Sir,” she said.
“Follow me. We’ll call your mother,” he said, pronouncing the words as if a period existed behind each one. He walked away, obviously expecting her to follow.
Katie glanced at Jack and shrugged her muddy shoulders; she could have sworn he was laughing.
After she’d been sent home to “clean her clothes and her mouth,” Katie sat in the alcove of her bedroom window until evening. A small room with a single white- painted iron bed, this was Katie’s hideaway. Wallpaper made of climbing pink roses filled the room like a false and always blooming garden. The dark wood hand- me- down furniture had all been painted a shade of pale pink, meant to match the rose wallpaper but missing its mark completely. Which was maybe what had happened when she’d tried to impress Jack and fallen into the mud: an absolute miss.
She still sat at the window waiting, although she didn’t know what she was waiting for, until Jack threw acorns skyward to ping against the glass pane.
Katie opened the window. “Hey,” she called out, swinging the pane out on its rusty hinges.
“Come out,” he said, glancing around like a boy who is afraid he’ll get caught. “Or are you grounded?”
“I’m not grounded,” she said. “My mom knows that sometimes the right word is just the right word.”
He laughed and threw a pine cone toward the back yard. He was a boy accustomed to having something to throw at all times. “Well, come on out.”
Yes, this was what she’d been waiting for— to walk under the moon with Jack Adams.
Every night Katie checked on the moon to make sure it still hung by the invisible forces above, as if the moon could be anywhere else but the sky. She always wanted to know that Luna followed her as her grandfather had told her it did. It hadn’t disappointed her yet.
Spring in Bluff ton, South Carolina, was thick and swollen with possibility and, running outside, Katie felt the earth in her body. She and Jack walked down the stone pathway that led to the May River— her river— a f lowing body of water so wide and rich that Katie believed the world must have been born in its basin. Scientists were wrong about where the world started because her river was the original Garden of Eden. Jack took her hand, winding his fingers through hers like the kudzu that twined over her front porch lattice.
They sat on a shattered oak log, quiet until Jack spoke. “I can’t believe you aren’t grounded. I mean, my dad would have made me pick out my belt if I’d been caught by mean Mr. Proctor like that.”
“Well, you’re a boy and you can’t say that around girls, but the best I can figure is that it matters more why you say something than if you say it. If I’d have said that to my stupid little sisters or the teacher, I’d have been locked in my room for a week, but I said it because I fell and landed almost inside the earth.”
Jack laughed. “I love the way you say things. You’re funny, Katie.”
And then he did the one thing, the only thing, she’d ever wanted him to do— he kissed her right there under a half moon next to her favorite river. It was a quick kiss, his lips brushing hers and releasing before she could fully kiss him in return. He turned away. “Guess I should’ve asked first,” he said.
“Ask me now.”
He looked at her and smiled. That kiss— the second one— was even better than the first. Katie considered it the real first kiss because it lasted long enough for her to taste the lemonade on his lips.
They sat in silence, crickets singing their praises, or so Katie believed.
Jack dug his forefinger into a hole of the log, plucking out dirt and flicking it onto the ground. “So, you’re my girlfriend now, right?”
Katie stared at Jack with what she hoped was an adorable wide-eyed look. “Of course.”
“You know, today is the first day of spring,” Jack said. “And my crazy mother believes that anything you promise on the first day of spring is a promise you can never, ever break.”
“Well, I better get home for dinner or I will be grounded,” Katie said.
They walked hand in hand to the fork in the path. One way led to his house, the other to hers. Jack glanced toward Katie’s unseen house as if Katie’s mom and dad had seen what happened on the riverbank.
“I can make it home from here,” Katie said, knowing she didn’t yet want to go home.
“You sure?” he asked.
“Yep,” she answered, and then kissed him, quickly and crooked so their front teeth clacked together. She ran up the path and when she knew he could no longer see her, Katie stopped and took a hard right to her favorite willow tree—the one with a trunk as thick as three men, the tree she hid under and in. Her fortress. Flopping down on the ground under the willow’s guardian limbs, Katie spoke out loud. “Today I said my first curse word. Today was my first kiss. Today is the first day of spring, and now my first promise: I vow to never, ever love anyone but Jonathon Gray Adams— my Jack.”
Some people wish upon stars, others on birthday candles, but Katie Vaughn made a promise under a half moon and in that moment, nothing felt more important than this vow made on the first day of spring— one that couldn’t and wouldn’t be broken.
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@ 2013 Patti Callahan Henry. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of St. Martin's Press.