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I should have taken the shortcut home from my bird-watching spot at the salt marsh, because then I wouldn’t have to walk past Joey Morell, whipping rocks against the telephone pole in front of his house as the sun goes down. I try to sneak around him, pushing so hard against the scrub oaks on our side of the road that the branches scratch my bare legs, but he sees me.
“Hey,” he says, holding a rock and taking a step toward me. He doesn’t have a shirt on; it’s been broiling all week.
“Hey,” I say, real friendly, like I’m not thinking about the fact that I’m a girl and he’s a boy who might pop me with a rock, since he comes from a family that Dad says has significant issues. The Morells have only lived across Salt Marsh Lane from us since early spring, but that’s long enough to know that his two brothers are tough guys, and Joey, he goes hot and cold.
“It’s getting kind of dark for you to be wandering around all by yourself,” he says, tossing the rock up and catching it with one hand.
“Things can happen to girls outside in the dark on summer nights,” Joey says, smacking the rock into the palm of his other hand.
“So where were you?” Joey asks, like it’s his right to know.
“How was nowhere?”
“Just like somewhere,” I say.
He looks at me, real serious, and then he smiles and drops the rock.
I don’t smile back, since he might be trying to trick me, which is what tough guys do.
“How’s your arm?” he says.
“You know, do you throw like a girl?”
“I am a girl.”
“Here,” Joey says. He picks up some rocks and holds one out to me.
I don’t take it, but I don’t run away, either.
“Let me see you throw,” Joey says. “You don’t even have to wind up.” His voice sounds gentler now, so I take one baby step closer to him. His blond hair is as dried out and tangly-looking as a song sparrow’s nest. I can just hear our teacher from last year, Mrs. McHenry, saying, “A comb, young man. Do you not know the function of a comb?” if he had ever dared to show up in class like that.
“Stupid mosquitoes!” Joey says, slapping his cheek. He’s got three bites on his forehead and too many bites on the rest of him for me to count without him asking what the heck I’m staring at, like maybe I’m interested in his skinny, suntanned chest. His bites look like hot-pink polka dots, which means he’s been scratching, scratching, scratching.
“Why don’t you go get some bug dope to keep the mosquitoes off you?” I ask.
“ ’Cuz I can’t go in.”
“Why can’t you go in?”
“ ’Cuz I’m locked out.”
“But the lights are on,” I say. “It looks like someone’s home.”
“They’re all home,” Joey says. “They’re having dessert. Chocolate pudding. But I’m locked out.” I want to ask Joey what he did wrong, but I don’t want to make him feel worse.
He throws a rock against the telephone pole. Bam.
I grab a rock from the ground and take a few giant steps so I’m a whole lot closer to the telephone pole than Joey. Too close to miss.
“Not bad,” Joey says. He comes and stands next to me. He smells like the lime Dad cuts up for his gin and tonic before dinner.
Joey’s turn. Bam.
My turn. Bam.
His turn. Bam.
My turn. Bam.
“Crap,” he says.
“Crap,” I say.
“Triple crap.” Dad says swearing is inappropriate and not what he expects to hear from either of his daughters. I don’t know if crap is officially a swear, but I do know there are lots of more polite words in the English language.
Joey picks up a whole handful of rocks. He throws them into the air, and they smash down on the road.
“Is your mom’s leg okay?” he asks.
“Yeah, it sucks.” My heart is pounding.
“I love chocolate pudding,” Joey says.
I pick up more rocks and hand them over to Joey. He throws them up really, really high, and we run out of the way to make sure they don’t crash down on us.
“When will they let you in?” I ask.
“When they’re good and ready,” he says, flapping at the mosquitoes near his face.
“Want me to go get you some bug dope?” I ask.
“Nah.” He bends down to get more rocks. When he stands up, he looks right in my eyes. His are gray blue, like the water in our inlet on a stormy winter day.
“You’re not gonna tell anyone that”
“Don’t worry,” I say.
“I guess you’d better get home.”
“Catch you on the flip side,” Joey says. I feel him watching me. It’s like a light shining on my back as I walk away.
“Joey?” I stop and turn around.
I want to ask him when he was paying so much attention that he noticed Mom’s left leg.
“Whatever you say, Milky Way.” He starts whipping rocks again. Bam bam bam follows me across our road, up six stairs, and home.
Rachel and I are in the middle of Salt Marsh Lane, singing louder than the rain that gushes down on us and smacks the asphalt like a zillion tiny drumbeats while we twist and shout in our matching green bikinis. Finally the sky’s opened up after way too many days of the 3 h’shazy, hot, and humid.
“Well, shake it up, baby, now . . .”
We sing so loud that I bet Mom can hear us, even though she’s sitting on the porch in her watching chair and not dancing with us, since her left leg isn’t strong enough these days to carry her down our six stairs, let alone do the Twist. She’s not dancing with us, but her laugh is here. It makes me laugh and Rachel shimmy like she has something to shimmy, but she really doesn’t have much. I have even less, being two years younger.
“Hey, Chirp,” Rachel says, slowing down her shaking shoulders, “let’s do it for Mom. Can you?”
“Can you?” I answer.
“Of course, we cancan!” we shout at the exact same time. We stop twisting. The cancan isn’t exactly the coolest dance to be doing in 1972, but Mom loves it. I slither my wet arm around my sister’s wet waist. She slides her arm, warm, around me. Now we’re kicking our legs high, flinging streaks of cool water into the steamy air. Little streams land on Rachel’s tanned, blackberry-scratched legs. Good, strong girl-legs, Mom calls them. When we’re sure Mom’s watching, we do our special reverse formation, taking tiny steps backward, legs straight, chins up, just like she taught us. My bikini bottom’s slipping down in all our kicky wetness. I yank it up, hoping Mom doesn’t notice. I don’t want to wreck our show. I don’t want Mom to feel disappointed. I want to be a success like Mom was when she used to dance in contests in New York for the grand prize. Most of all, I want Mom to keep on laughing, heeee heeee hee hee hee, like some kind of bird I’m trying to identify by its happy sound.
We’re gearing up for our finale. I’m crouched down low in the sandy dirt by the side of the road, facing Rachel, who’s still in the middle of the road. My job is to splash through the puddles and spring into my sister’s arms. One, two, three and I’m running fast on my girl-legs. Does Mom see how strong they are? Light as air, soft as a feather, light as air, soft as a feather. I fly up toward Rachel’s arms just as there’s the biggest flash and then the loudest crash. The scrub oaks glow with light. “Whoaaa!” Rach yells, and hits the deck, scared. Without her arms to catch me, I land, hard, on top of her. My arm scrapes the road, and I wonder if there’s blood. With my ear on Rachel’s chest, I can hear her heart beating.
“Okay?” I ask, but I know she’s fine. We’re tough as nails, is what Mom tells us. What I really want to know is if Mom’s all right. Did the thunder and lightning scare her? Is her laughing squeezed down so deep that I’ll have to wait a long time again to hear it? I lift my head off Rachel and make myself look through the rain at our front porch. Dad’s hovering over Mom. She’s peeking around him like she’s trying to check on us, but he moves his body in the way. I bet he’s talking to her in his psychiatrist voice, explaining what’s what. He puts his arm around her shoulder and steers her inside like she just might get lost, even though she’s lived in this house since before I was born.
“Don’t worry. We’re okay!” I shout after them, but the screen door has already bumped closed.
Time to get up. If Joey and his brothers look out their window and see me lying on top of my sister, they’ll call us lezzies and try to dunk us the next time we go swimming in Heron Pond. They might try to dunk us anyway, because we’re Jews and they’re not, but I don’t want to give them more ammunition.
“Let’s go,” Rachel says, just as I’m rolling off her and pulling her to her feet. I check my arm. No blood, just trickles of water.
“Let’s go see if Mom liked our dance,” I say, flinging my wet hair out of my eyes.
“She and Dad are probably talking,” Rachel says. “We should give them privacy.”
“But I want to find out if she liked our cancan.”
“Dad told us at lunch that they’re worried about Mom’s leg. It’s been more than a week now that it’s been hurting her. Just leave them alone.” Rachel’s heading for the stairs.
“That’s not what he said.” He said they were terribly preoccupied, which I’m pretty sure is psychiatrist secret code for Don’t you dare bother us, but I hate admitting that maybe Rachel’s right and I shouldn’t go check up on Mom.
“What did he say, then?” Rachel asks from halfway up the stairs.
“I’m singin’ in the rain!” I belt out, ignoring her. She sits in Mom’s watching chair on the porch while I take big, swaying steps down the middle of our road, like I’m Gene Kelly in the movie and there’s nothing that’s worrying me, nothing at all, since there’s nothing in the world but a sky crammed with dark clouds and these fat, beautiful drops of rain.
My favorite bird in August is the red-throated loon, and my favorite time to see the loons is now, when the rest of the family is still sleeping. I need to move fast so that I’m up and at ’em before Dad wakes up. He has an early patient four days a week, so the odds are good that this is one of those days. I wouldn’t want to be him and listen to people talk about their problems when the day is just beginning and nod uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, like I understand everything about everything.
I slept in my green bikini, so all I need to do is pull on my jean cutoffs. I’ve got my knapsack prepacked with my birthday binoculars, notebook, pen, and pennywhistle, and I grab it off the hook on the back of my door. I slide down the banister so I can avoid the stairs’ squeaks. Breakfast is important for clear thinking, but I don’t need to think clearly when I’m looking for loons, so I skip it. Anyway, there’s a blackberry patch with ripe berries on the way to the salt marsh. I leave a note that says, “Back before long. Love, Chirp,” in case anyone notices that I’m gone.
The air’s already thick and warm, even though the sun’s still just a spritz of light in the pitch pines and scrub oaks and not a hot, round ball bouncing on the top of my head, like it will be soon. On the path behind our house, bunny tracks in damp sand, wet spiderwebs, mourning doves, chickadees, a couple of crabby starlings, and the thwop-thwop, thwop-thwop of my blue flip-flops. No delivery trucks yet racing down Route 6. In class last year, Mrs. McHenry taught us that Harriet the Spy is good at what she does because she’s observant and that careful observation is a skill all of us should develop while we’re young, so I’m working on it.
If I take the biggest steps I can from the beech tree, I’ll be at the fork in the path in thirty-eight steps, unless my legs grew a lot since last Thursday. This time I’ll try to hop the whole way, no counting. Anyone seeing my tracks will think I have just one leg, like Timmy Mahoney, who was just honorably discharged from Vietnam and hangs out in the town square smoking cigarettes with his pant leg neatly folded up and safety-pinned. But if they observe the ground closely, like they’re supposed to, they’ll wonder why there’s no sign of crutches. It’ll be a mystery, solved only by a team of searchers with magnifying glasses and sniffer dogs. And at the end of the investigation? Just me, an almost-sixth-grade girl who hopped on one foot on her way to look for red-throated loons.
Red-throated loons can’t walk on land, because their feet are too far back on their bodies, but they can use their feet to kind of shove themselves along on their bellies. Underwater, it’s a whole different story: They’re fast and graceful and do all kinds of cool stuff, like dive super deep down to catch fish and flap their wings when they really want to put the pedal to the metal. When Dad first met Mom, she was scared of the water, since she grew up in the Bronx, where there aren’t any ponds or lakes. I guess there might be swimming pools, but her parents were too poor and busy to teach her how to swim, since they were immigrants from the old country, and even put her in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum for two years when she was really little because they didn’t think they could afford to keep her. Dad, on the other hand, was a very patient teacher, and now Mom can swim okay, even when it hurts to walk. We found that out yesterday morning when we all went to Heron Pond to try our experiment.
The pond wasn’t crowded, because all of the summer people were scared off by the storm clouds. In general, summer people only like blue-sky days for swimming, and they leave the not-blue-sky days to locals like us and the Morells and go play miniature golf and eat soft ice cream at Windee’s Dairy Breeze.