I've got the sail hauled in tight. Lanyard's wrapped around my wrist. That sailboat leans over and just about flies out of the water, lifting high like a bird's wing. Foam and bubbles hiss past until there's a long, snaky trail behind us. I set sail for the West Indies, wherever they may be.
I don't really, though. Don't set sail for anywhere. Truth is, I'm just sitting in my seat, leaning my head against the wall of my fourth-grade class at the Auburn Street School, by the windows. That lanyard is the cord from the venetian blinds. It's Monday afternoon and I'm waiting for the three o'clock bell to ring so I can go get my little sister, Tasha, and head on home.
We're supposed to be finishing up a paragraph to hand in to Miss Jenkins, but I can't even get started. The only thing on my paper is my name and the title, "My Wish." Then nothing but thin blue lines.
I grab onto the cord one more time and look out the window. The wood along the classroom windowsills is old and yellow, and it has wavy black streaks underneath the shiny surface. I run my fingers along it. The windowsill's got lots of varnish on it, just the way sailboats have varnish on them, so the water won't rot the wood.
See? I know all about sailboats from those magazines Mrs. Swanson brings in to the project library. They come from a dentist's office. She's got so many she said I could keep some of them. Now they're under my bed in a big stack right next to my bottle collection.
Thinking about those bottles reminds me that I do have a wish. A birthday wish. And I'm going to put my wish on tiny pieces of paper, shove them into the bottles, and float them out to sea.
But my birthday wish is a secret. I'm hoping and hoping that it will come true. Until it does, I won't tell anyone about it. Especially Robert. He might make fun of me, so I'm not going to say one word.
I wrap the cord around my wrist. The wind's picking up. The seagulls are screaming overhead and the waves are going slap, slap, slap against the hull. Captain McClain yells to his crew. Shove over on the tiller and head into the wind! We're coming about!
The sails flap and crackle. I duck my head as the boom goes by.
"Junior!" says Miss Jenkins sharply.
"Huh?" I say.
Miss Jenkins's voice breaks through the sound of the gulls. She interrupts my journey. She's standing at the front of my row and it looks as if she just made some kind of announcement. Uh-oh. All the kids in my row are turning around, staring at me. But my buddy Robert, who sits in front of me, he's laughing, so I guess I'm not in real trouble.
"I said," repeats Miss Jenkins, "that anyone who didn't finish his paragraph should do it for homework."
I sure didn't finish mine, so I fold it up into a tight little square and shove it into my pocket. When the bell rings, everybody scrapes his chair back and heads on out, yelling goodbye to Miss Jenkins.
"Junebug," Robert says, out at the coathooks. "You gotta go get Tasha?"
Everybody except Mama and the teachers calls me Junebug, but my real name is Reeve McClain, Jr. Captain McClain to my crew, but they're invisible.
"Yeah, I guess."
"Oh, man." Robert shakes his head as if I just broke his heart. "Can't you leave her home?"
"Come on with me and Trevor downtown."
"Hey," Robert says. "Guess what I wrote about? I wrote about me being on the Knicks. Point guard.I get down low. Dribble in under the basket when no one's looking. Sneak a shot. Score!"
"Oh, yeah?" I say back. "How come no one's looking? How come no one stuffed you?"
"Because I made it up just the way I wanted it."
I have to laugh.
"You make me mad, Junebug," Robert says. "How are you ever gonna get good at basketball if you don't practice with us down at the Boys' Club? How are you gonna impress the talent scouts when they start coming around?"
"I'm not. I'm not gonna play for no NBA. They can't afford me, anyhow."
Now Robert has to laugh. The crowd has thinned out. We get our jackets on and head down the stairs.
"Yeah? Well, you gotta be on the NBA if you want to be in a sneaker commercial," he says. "You know that one where King Kong walks through the city?"
He puts his arms out stiff and walks like King Kong down the stairs. I shake my head. He's one sorry case. Robert watches too much TV.
"Why can't your Aunt Jolita mind Tasha after school? I thought you told me that she'd babysit when she moved in with you all."
"I don't know," I say, shrugging as if I don't care. I don't want to talk about Aunt Jolita. "She's never around."
"Yeah? Well, you better quit hanging around five-year-olds. This is your last chance, Junebug," Robertcalls out, running toward the front door to meet Trevor. "Are you coming or not?"
"Nah," I say. "See you."
Every day, Trevor comes over from the sixth-grade portable classrooms. He's waiting by the door for Robert. When he sees me, he shakes his head with disgust. I don't care. I don't like Trevor, anyway. Trevor's eleven, and he hangs out with some older guys at night. But I don't want to think about that.
I don't want to think about my birthday, either. It's coming in two weeks. May 18. And then I'll be ten. And that's when kids like Trevor start asking you if you want to go with them and maybe run some errands, earn some money. Somebody told me Trevor bought himself a gun. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn't. I don't know. Thinking about the gun, I feel sick to my stomach right there on the staircase to the kindergarten rooms.
"Don't think about it," I tell myself. "Don't." I shove the sick feeling away.
Some of the stuff that goes on in the Auburn Street projects, I'm never gonna do. These projects are like some kind of never-never land, like they never got put on a regular map. Nobody comes around here on purpose. It's as if we all got lost, right in the middle of the city.
The only person who comes to the projects by herself is that reading teacher, Miss Robinson. She comes after school to the room where Mrs. Swansonhas a little library set up. That's where Tasha and I go after school sometimes.
I take a big breath. Then I run down the rest of the stairs.
All the kindergarten classes are down in the basement next to the rickety old bathrooms. Little kids have to go a lot, I guess, and the teachers don't want to have to be running all over the school looking for them.
There's Tasha, sitting in her cubby, waiting. I know she won't leave without me. She's got a round face just like mine; we're like two moons shining up in the sky. She sits there waiting, her lips pushed together and her brown eyes wide and still.
Some of the Puerto Rican families are still here. Sometimes a whole family comes to pick up one kid. Their mamas kneel down and shove those little kids' arms up their sleevespoke, poke. Puerto Rican kids act all bendy and loose, like they're made out of Play-Doh instead of bones, getting all shoved and zipped, first one way and then the other. Their mamas kneel down and talk Spanish right up in their facesfast, fast, fast. Spanish words come out like lightning. Makes me sound slow as a turtle. Then out they go. The mamas hold their hands, and the little kids kind of lean off to one side.
Tasha puts on her yellow windbreaker, slow and quiet. I reach up into her cubby and pull out her papers.
"These yours?" I ask.
I glance down at them before I shove them into my pocket. No stickers today. Tasha doesn't usually get stickers, because she doesn't usually finish her work. I didn't finish my work today, either, but I have to as soon as I get home. Mama counts on me doing well in school, and I can't stand to disappoint her. How many times has my mama hugged me and Tasha and said to us, "You two are all I've got"?
"Come on, Tasha. Let's go."
She starts off up the stairs. She doesn't say a word. She can talk. She just doesn't.
JUNEBUG. Copyright © 1995 by Alice Mead. All rights reserved. Printed in July 2010 in the United States of America by R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, Harrisonburg, Virginia. For information, address Square Fish, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.