Annie Dudley was born in Wilmington, North Carolina in a wood house with peeling white paint and a lazy old mutt, to the son of a sharecropper and his wife, who married beneath her. Annie’s mother never adjusted well to her situation, and died when Annie was still small enough to speak in little nothing phrases that only a mother could understand. Left with a father who wasn’t much interested in a girl-child, Annie had to make it on her own while he spent his days working as a mechanic, and his nights developing his drinking habit.
Mrs. Jenkins, the widow next door who smoked cigars now that her husband was dead and couldn’t get on her about it, kind of liked Annie. Mrs. Jenkins was nice enough to the girl and helped her get by.
Annie Dudley was an eight-year-old little whippersnapper–never taught the social conventions of not always saying what’s on one’s mind. Her mouth got her in trouble quite a bit at the school she went to just down the road, that she only went to because it was just down the road; but the pitiable, motherless state of Annie often stirred up the sympathy of the school mistress, Carolina Gardenia.
It was hot, North Carolina October, still all green and summer-like. It was one of those days when the pupils were stirred by the words of that teacher who told them to do something big and bold with their lives. Ms. Gardenia had just read a story about a poor country boy who went on to become the president, and free all those slaves, and how any one of them had the power to do likewise.
Now Annie knew that Miss Carolina Gardenia was crazier than a one-eyed owl at daytime, and knew there was no way that she—a poor black girl—could ever possibly do anything like that Lincoln-fella, but something about doing something big and bold for the world stuck in her head. Ms. Gardenia had said that all the bad folks would get what they deserved when the end came. Annie thought she might like to help that process along, and couldn’t get the Big Dudley’s out of her mind.
The Big Dudleys were the rich, white family who lived up the drive from the Little Dudleys, and Annie didn’t know which family was sorer over sharing a surname. Those Big Dudleys had two of the meanest, damn, bullying, shit-for-brains sons you ever met. Those boys loved to ride their cars all over the countryside causing trouble.
One of their favorite pastimes was to torment Annie. They would throw bottles at her, splash her with puddles, and leave her coughing in dust clouds on those dry, hot days that stung enough on their own. There was no end to the tortures they inflicted on that child. And Annie, never very fast on the foot, was like a sitting target.
That hot October day, Annie was on her way home from the creek carrying a sack-full of blackberries that had stained her with their inky sweetness. A crowd of bees and flies buzzed around her, and she swatted at them and cursed them in her little teasing way.
“You old bastards go away.”
Annie sang a little song about bees that she made up just walking along there, and thought she might stop to give some blackberries to Mrs. Jenkins if she didn’t eat them all up first. But then she forgot about Mrs. Jenkins when she heard the engine of that car pull up behind her.
“Good day to you, Miss Dudley,” sang Bo Dudley.
Annie quickened her step, but realized she hadn’t a place to go since they were crossing a bridge, and just resolved to pretend that those boys weren’t there. Something hard hit the back of her head that stopped her, though. She felt the stickiness of blood swelling up, and felt her skin burning.
“You better answer when I talk to you.”
“I ain’t done nothin’ to you.”
“You just breathin’ does somethin’ to me. You an insult to me with every knock-kneed step you take.”
“Lay off, Bo,” said Rawley. “That kid can’t barely understand what you say anyway. She’s stupider than cow shit.”
Annie saw that they were almost over the bridge and she could climb down and hide once they got to the end, but she saw that the boys weren’t content to just pick on her that day. Something felt all heavy and scary in her heart, and she thought she might be in a bad situation. She tried to walk as fast as possible without running, but being sort of gangling and clumsy, she tripped over her own feet and fell right on her sack of blackberries.
“You even blacker than you was before.”
Annie knew she was in trouble and jumped up fast. She started to run, but the boys caught her and dragged her under the bridge.
“We gonna teach you a lesson. Didn’t your momma ever teach you to speak up when you was spoken to?”
“Naw, her momma was stupid just like she was. Good she’s dead.”
Annie wasn’t sure what was happening. It was all a flash of belt loops and sweat and yelling, until another sound caused it to get real quiet, real quick.
“What ya’all doin’ down there?”
Bo shoved Annie into the undergrowth and fixed himself up while Rawley held his hand over her mouth.
“Hi there, Sheriff. Just looking for a bottle my brother threw over the bridge. Don’t want to let him mess up this pretty county with his trash.”
Now, Sheriff knew that that Bo was lying, and he knew that something bad was going on, but he wasn’t dumb enough to get the sons of Mr. Harley Dudley into serious trouble.
“Y’all fine. Come on up. I’m more worried about you leaving a car runnin’ in the middle of a bridge that messin’ with trash under it.”
“We comin’ up, sir.”
The bad thing never fully happened to Annie that day. But something set Annie on fire, and she wanted more than ever to make a bad thing happen to the Big Dudley’s as swiftly as possible.
The next night, late enough for Mrs. Jenkins’ lights to be out, but early enough for her father not to be home, Annie got her Daddy’s shovel, walked to the end of that Big Dudley driveway, and dug herself a huge hole right down by the road. You wouldn’t believe how that girl dug. She was quick and quiet and dug a hole from one side of that driveway to the other that was three feet wide and three feet deep. When she was satisfied with her work, she found some big leafy branches to cover that hole so the bastards wouldn’t even notice it.
The next day was Sunday. The church was just down a ways from the Dudley land, and every fancy person in the county had to drive by that driveway on their way to church. The Dudley’s loved coming down that tree-lined expanse in their car, nice and slow, and going over to Church where they could show off to the whole community, which was full of envy and hate for them.
Yelling awoke Annie that Sunday morning, and she was delighted with the sight that met her eyes. The butt of that Big Dudley car—full of mother, father, and boys—was sticking straight up out of the ground while the earth tried to swallow it up. The Dudley’s were screaming and yelling, and the best part was the shiny line of cars with doors open and well-dressed folks peering out with smiles on their faces. Annie came out onto the porch and saw Mrs. Jenkins there smoking her cigar. The old widow looked her over.
“You’re one stupid motherless child, honey, but I can’t say I’m not enjoying the show.”
“Whatever are you talkin’ about, old lady?”
“You better cut those blisters off your hands. They’ll give you dead away. The good news is that they’d never think a stupid, gangly thing like you could’a dreamt that up, let alone did it yourself.”
Annie’s Daddy came squinting and grunting out of the house.
“You talkin’ crazy, Jenkins,” said Annie. “Can’t you see that Hell tried to swallow them Big Dudley’s up?”
The widow laughed and smoked her cigar and they watched all morning. Two horses had to be hitched to the back of the fender to pull it out. Annie’s Daddy looked at his daughter hard, saw her hands, and started laughing. He got over the whole girl-child thing that morning, and the Big Dudley’s never even made it to church.