I was desperate: “Look, it ain’t worth it, Jem. A lickin’ hurts but it doesn’t last. You’ll get your head shot off, Jem. Please . . .”
He blew out his breath patiently. “I—it’s like this, Scout,” he muttered. “Atticus ain’t ever whipped me since I can remember. I wanta keep it that way.”
This was a thought. It seemed that Atticus threatened us every other day. “You mean he’s never caught you at anything.”
“Maybe so, but—I just wanta keep it that way, Scout. We shouldn’a done that tonight, Scout.”
It was then, I suppose, that Jem and I first began to part company. Sometimes I did not understand him, but my periods of bewilderment were short-lived. This was beyond me. “Please,” I pleaded, “can’tcha just think about it for a minute—by yourself on that place—”
“It’s not like he’d never speak to you again or somethin’ . . . I’m gonna wake him up, Jem, I swear I am—”
Jem grabbed my pajama collar and wrenched it tight. “Then I’m goin’ with you—” I choked.
“No you ain’t, you’ll just make noise.”
It was no use. I unlatched the back door and held it while he crept down the steps. It must have been two o’clock. The moon was setting and the lattice-work shadows were fading into fuzzy nothingness. Jem’s white shirt-tail dipped and bobbed like a small ghost dancing away to escape the coming morning. A faint breeze stirred and cooled the sweat running down my sides.
He went the back way, through Deer’s Pasture, across the schoolyard and around to the fence, I thought—at least that was the way he was headed. It would take longer, so it was not time to worry yet. I waited until it was time to worry and listened for Mr. Radley’s shotgun. Then I thought I heard the back fence squeak. It was wishful thinking.
Then I heard Atticus cough. I held my breath. Sometimes when we made a midnight pilgrimage to the bathroom we would find him reading. He said he often woke up during the night, checked on us, and read himself back to sleep. I waited for his light to go on, straining my eyes to see it flood the hall. It stayed off, and I breathed again.
The night-crawlers had retired, but ripe chinaberries drummed on the roof when the wind stirred, and the darkness was desolate with the barking of distant dogs.
There he was, returning to me. His white shirt bobbed over the back fence and slowly grew larger. He came up the back steps, latched the door behind him, and sat on his cot. Wordlessly, he held up his pants. He lay down, and for a while I heard his cot trembling. Soon he was still. I did not hear him stir again.
Jem stayed moody and silent for a week. As Atticus had once advised me to do, I tried to climb into Jem’s skin and walk around in it: if I had gone alone to the Radley Place at two in the morning, my funeral would have been held the next afternoon. So I left Jem alone and tried not to bother him.
School started. The second grade was as bad as the first, only worse—they still flashed cards at you and wouldn’t let you read or write. Miss Caroline’s progress next door could be estimated by the frequency of laughter; however, the usual crew had flunked the first grade again, and were helpful in keeping order. The only thing good about the second grade was that this year I had to stay as late as Jem, and we usually walked home together at three o’clock.
One afternoon when we were crossing the schoolyard toward home, Jem suddenly said: “There’s something I didn’t tell you.”
As this was his first complete sentence in several days, I encouraged him: “About what?”
“About that night.”
“You’ve never told me anything about that night,” I said.
Jem waved my words away as if fanning gnats. He was silent for a while, then he said, “When I went back for my breeches—they were all in a tangle when I was gettin’ out of ’em, I couldn’t get ’em loose. When I went back—” Jem took a deep breath. “When I went back, they were folded across the fence . . . like they were expectin’ me.”
“And something else—” Jem’s voice was flat. “Show you when we get home. They’d been sewed up. Not like a lady sewed ’em, like somethin’ I’d try to do. All crooked. It’s almost like—”
“—somebody knew you were comin’ back for ’em.”
Jem shuddered. “Like somebody was readin’ my mind . . . like somebody could tell what I was gonna do. Can’t anybody tell what I’m gonna do lest they know me, can they, Scout?”