The thin, sharp sound of Kel's switchin' echoes through the farmhouse windows. Alex crouches in the tall crabgrass by the fence. One day he'll leave that crabgrass behind and fly away, but not today.
Today he listens to Kelly getting punished; his pal 'fessed to breaking the crystal vase, even though it was Alex's mom what done it. He didn't ask Kel to do it; but Kel knew, from the dark stains on the barn floor, what would happen to Alex's mom if his folks found out, and didn't give Mom a chance to 'fess up, didn't even give Alex time to set in motion his own half-formed plan of owning up to the crime – Alex 'splained to Kel that maybe he'd just get sold 'stead of whipped half-dead, and Kel said over his dead body and ran off and told his Papa that it was him—
Alex winces at the whistling of the switch and the thwick as it lands on Kelly's legs, not sure why it hurts him so to listen. He's listened to a passel of whippings, and it never gets any easier, and he knows he ought not to care about a white kid getting switched. And yet it's so rotten to listen – it's like he can feel Kel hurtin', almost hear Kel bite back his hollerin'. Kel told him he'd just get spanked with a brush, that nobody in his family got the switch till they were thirteen. Well, looks like his Papa made an exception, since he's only got six months to go. Alexander bows his head at the sound of the switch cutting into his friend. He knows what the merciless hickory does to the skin, and he knows that with how valuable the vase was, Kelly will be laid up in bed for days.
It's hard to believe, and it makes him sick to think on it, but Kel's right: this is actually the best outcome there can be, to this mess. Alex wishes that things could be better, but though he's nine, nearly a man, he has no idea how to change it. Except… he's heard about the North. New York. He lets it sing through his veins. Kel's taught him to write, and he's better than his pal, though he does say it himself. One day he'll write papers for himself and his Mom and brother and sister, and be gone far away from here.
He wonders if Kelly'd come, if he asked him real nice. He can only hope. But hope is a luxury, where he lives.