Eleven-year-old Mia refuses to believe that her parents are not coming back after they're reported lost at sea.
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The week after my parents vanished I tried to climb the water tower in Ionia, Tennessee. I hoped to see the ocean. It was a hot, windy day, and grit from the cement works pelted my face, making me blink. That morning my sister Bibi had teased my hair to cheer me up, and now, in the heat, I felt it prickled out all around my head like a thistle blossom. Usually it hung down, fine and flyaway and not a good color: beige, the shade of a grocery sack.
I had been eyeing the tower since we'd arrived in Ionia two days earlier, and finally, that afternoon, I decided to go up. I didn't tell my sisters when I left the house. They were supposed to take care of me while Kit, our aunt, was at work, but they spent all their time out in the porch swing eating cashews and reading novels in French to show off.
"Who wants to play crazy eights?" I'd asked, but they wouldn't even look up. I knew they were just reading love stories, but their French books had plain paper covers that looked intellectual, and heavy, folded-over pages that MY sisters sliced open, importantly, with butter knives from my aunt 's kitchen.
"Want me to fix lunch?" I asked. "I can fix baloney sandwiches."
Bibi looked up, reluctantly, from her book. "None for me," she said. "I'm just going to have a coffee."
"Me, too," Nell said. She tapped her butter knife against the porch railing. "Ennui." She sighed. "Tristesse."
"We're back in America now," I said. "You can speak English."
The branches of two huge catalpa treesbrushed across the porch roof, sounding like drum whisks. My sisters turned back to their books, slicing pages and pushing their bare feet against the floor to rock the porch swing, back and forth, back and forth. My palms itched. I couldn't wait around any longer.
"Maybe we should call the police," I suggested, "and see if they have any news for us."
My sisters didn't answer. I thought I could feel the weight of the hot, damp air, as if somebody were resting a hand on the top of my head. Over on the hillside the water tower gleamed, dully, against the hazy sky, the highest point in town. Suddenly I knew what I was going to do. What I had to do.
"You're making me nervous, just standing there, Mia." Nell spoke from behind her book. I stood there for another half a minute anyway, rooted to the scene. It changed things, having a plan. My sisters swung there idly, so unknowing. I already felt bad for them, for how they would worry when they noticed I was gone.
Up close, the water tower was much taller than it had appeared from Kit's house. When I leaned back to look up at the tank, its sides seemed to bulge, as if it were breathing. I hesitated. I knew I wasn't brave. But at least I was used to climbing. In Beirut, where we had been living, I shinnied to the top of the date palm trees on the playground almost every day and swayed there, hidden in the leaves, until one of my sisters was sent to tell me it was time to eat dinner or practice my music. Getting down from a palm tree was harder than climbing up, and I had scrapes all along the insides of my legs that I had to treat every night with Mercurochrome. Bibi told me if I kept it up, I would need a skin graft. But I wouldn't stop. From the tops of those trees, I could look across the street to the Mediterranean Sea and watch for any American ships that might be coming in. If no ships came, I would just beam messages, by mental telepathy, across the ocean, in the direction I hoped was toward the U.S.A. I spent most of my time being homesick. We had been living in Beirut for more than three years, and I was missing out on being an American kid.
I could name just what I was missing: sloppy joes and corn on the cob and going to watch Dumbo at the ten-cent matinees on Sundays. I wanted to drink school milk from the small waxy cartons printed with pictures of the presidents, and I wanted to sniff my hands for the strong, dull smell they gave off after catching lightning bugs. It was 1962, and I knew, from reading Life magazine, that there were new things I was missing, too: Barbie dolls, Caroline Kennedy riding her pony around the White House, teenagers dancing the twist. I kept magazine clippings in a scrapbook in my room, along with every letter I'd received from the friends I'd made in school where we used to live, in Ohio. They didn't tell me much -- that it was snowing out or that school was as boring as ever -- but I treasured them for the stationery with pictures of Little Lulu or Daisy Duck.
It wasn't that I hated Beirut. I liked the way it seemed pretty and dirty at the same time. The long flight of concrete stairs near our school always smelled as if somebody had just peed there, but small wild orchids grew out of the gaps in the concrete. I liked the tall white buildings and the tramcars and the beaches, where I collected sea sponges that rolled in on the foamy waves. I liked riding in the Cadillac taxis that went speeding along the Corniche with their tail fins bumping up and down.. But I wanted to go home. Every morning, when I woke up, I tasted the Beirut air, tangy with salt and exhaust fumes and lemon blossoms, and I knew I wasn't where I was supposed to be.
It made me nervous that my dad was so happy teaching geology there, as if we might stay forever. From the balcony of our apartment he showed me how quickly the texture of the land changed from the seacoast to the slopes of Jabal Makhmal, where the cedar trees grew. He stooped down to my eye level and outlined the mountain range with his hands. I tried to pay attention. I had always loved my dad's looks, his coppery hair, his long, bony arms and legs, the sharp ridge of his nose. He looked as if he should be some kind of geological formation himself. But now I didn't want to think about bodies too closely. Jill Pillsworth, who was a grade ahead of me, had complicated everything, by always talking about IT. She seemed to know all the details.
"They breathe really hard when they do IT," she said, panting to demonstrate. "The whole bed shakes. God! Can you imagine your parents doing that?"The Cuckoo's Child. Copyright � by Suzanne Freeman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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