In the ensuing weeks after Ma’s departure, Kya’s oldest brother leaves, too, followed by her two older sisters. They’re tired of Pa’s alcoholic furies and unpredictable violence, and they’re almost old enough to leave home anyway. Over time, Kya finds it difficult to remember her siblings’ ages and full names, recalling only that the family called them by nicknames. When it’s finally just Kya, Jodie, and Pa, Jodie makes grits and scrambled eggs, and though Kya gets excited for a moment because she thinks Ma has returned to cook breakfast, she’s disappointed to see that her brother is the one in the kitchen. As they eat, Kya says that they could run away together, but Jodie just tells her that everything will be all right.
As time passes, Kya comes to depend upon Jodie more and more. This is because her older siblings gradually slip away, leaving for the same reason that Ma left: to get away from Pa. Once again, then, readers see that humans will often do whatever they can to ensure their own safety and survival, even if it means leaving behind their loved ones.
That evening, Jodie finds Kya sitting on the beach and tells her that he, too, must leave. As he tells her that she’ll understand when she’s older, she can’t bring herself to look at him. He then tells her to be careful and instructs her to run into the marsh if she ever hears anyone approaching, insisting that she use the knowledge he has taught her about hiding from intruders. As he walks away, she finally forces herself to look at him and sees him disappear into the woods. While lying in her bed (which is on the porch) later on, she wonders who is going to cook now that everyone but she and her Pa have left. Getting up, she prepares a sad, unappetizing bowl of leftover grits and waits for Pa to return, though he doesn’t come home. She spends the rest of the night waiting.
Regardless of whether or not Pa returns, it’s clear that Kya is now—for all intents and purposes—on her own. Because Jodie was the last person in her life who bothered to look after her, she now must inhabit her own sense of independence, though this is no small feat, since she’s only six years old. Still, that she manages to prepare herself food despite her inexperience indicates that, left to her own devices, she will rise to the challenge of sustaining herself.
Pa doesn’t return for three days. While waiting, Kya eats turnips from Ma’s garden for every meal. Finally, Pa comes back and drunkenly asks where everybody has gone, but Kya says she doesn’t know and runs to the beach. When she returns to the shack, Pa is throwing Ma’s remaining possessions into a bonfire, including her beautiful oil paintings of the marsh and the family. “No!” Kya yells, putting herself between Pa and the shack and trying to stop him from fetching more possession to burn. For a moment, he raises his hand to hit her, but then drops it and walks way. In the days following this incident, Kya learns to live with Pa without attracting his fury, avoiding him as much as possible as a means of self-protection.
Kya is desperate to stop Pa from burning Ma’s possessions because she wants to maintain the only connection she still has to her mother, which is through memory. Fearing that she’ll soon forget Ma’s face just like she has already forgotten her siblings’, she puts herself in danger in order to keep Pa from further destroying the past. What’s more, that she learns how to live with Pa without provoking him is a testament to her survival skills, since this is nothing but an act of self-preservation. In order to protect herself, she must adapt to her harsh environment, which means learning to tip-toe around her father’s wrath.
Pa receives disability checks each week because he was injured in World War II. Slapping the small amount of money down on the table, he tells Kya that it should cover the cost of groceries, so she goes alone to Barkley Cove, the nearby town. Wearing dirty overalls and no shoes, she walks along the sidewalk, approaching a store called the Piggly Wiggly. Suddenly, three boys almost hit her on their bikes, speeding by until a woman named Miss Pansy Price yells at their ringleader, Chase Andrews, for biking on the sidewalk. Instead of scolding them for almost hitting Kya, though, she chews them out for nearly hitting her, and Chase tries to make an excuse by saying that they couldn’t see her because of Kya. In response, Miss Pansy Price tells him not to blame “swamp trash” for his own mistakes.
This is the first time that Chase Andrews appears in the narrative since the prologue, when readers discover that he has been found dead in the swamp. The details of how he died lie at the center of the plot, infusing the story with a sense of apprehensive mystery. For now, though, the only thing to be discerned from this scene is that Chase comes from a much different background than Kya. Whereas Kya is treated unfairly because the townspeople see her as “swamp trash,” Chase’s bad behavior doesn’t even get him into trouble, indicating that he can do no wrong in the classist world of Barkley Cove.
Once inside the Piggly Wiggly, Kya buys discounted grits. The cashier, Mrs. Singletary, asks where her mother is, but she lies and says that Ma is doing chores. When she pays, Mrs. Singletary helps her count out the right amount and then gives her change, explaining the math as she goes. Upon reaching home, Kya tries to remember how Ma used to make grits—she’s never made them from scratch, since she’s been eating the leftovers from the breakfast that Jodie made before he left. Now, though, she makes a pot of her own, and though they aren’t particularly tasty, she learns over the next few days how to improve them, experimenting as she goes. She even includes some backbones for flavor the following week, boiling them with the grits and some collard greens. She also starts doing laundry and cleaning the house, all while avoiding Pa.
Kya doesn’t know how to count out her own change at the Piggly Wiggly because she lacks a formal education. However, it’s apparent that she’s learning different skills, like how to cook for herself. Needless to say, this isn’t something that most six-year-olds know how to do, mainly because they don’t need to. Kya, on the other hand, must rely on herself, so she has no choice but to learn to cook through a process of trial and error. In this way, she embodies a level of maturity beyond her years simply because she must do what’s necessary to survive.
Summer turns to fall, and though Kya doesn’t know the exact date of her birthday, she realizes that it must be around this time. Pa doesn’t say anything, but Kya guesses that she must be seven now. She takes some grits to the beach and spreads them out for the seagulls, calling to them as she tosses the food into the sand. One gull in particular comes to a rest right next to her, so she turns to it and says, “It’s my birthday.”
That Kya doesn’t even know the exact date of her birthday emphasizes not only her lack of education, but how little attention she has received from the adults in her life. Indeed, she’s forced to celebrate her birthday on her own, an illustration of the fact that she must depend upon herself.