This third book in Fogelin's "neighborhood" series can stand alone, and the ending makes it clear that this enjoyable saga will continue. Mica, 11, is living with her marine-biologist father on a boat in the Florida Keys when she begins to exchange letters with 12-year-old Anna, who lives in Tallahassee with her latest foster mom, science teacher Miss Johnette. The correspondence was suggested by a mutual friend, Ben, whose family visited the marina where Mica lives, and who felt that the girls shared much in common. The pen pals, who sign many of their letters "Your (sorta) sister," form a friendship that sustains them through unsettling times. Anna has been bounced around between friends and family since she was two. She hopes to be adopted by Miss Johnette, yet struggles with the budding romance between her "almost mom" and clumsy Mr. Webster. Mica is nervous about starting regular school for the first time (she has been homeschooled) and is troubled by her father's alcoholic binges. Because of the girls' love of nature, each letter contains a specimen native to the sender's environment, along with its background, Latin name, and an accurate pencil-and-ink illustration.
D. Maria LaRoccoCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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The Sorta Sisters
By Adrian Fogelin
PeachtreeCopyright © 2007 Adrian Fogelin
All rights reserved.
Wednesday, January 1
"Hey, girl, want to take a look?" Anna knows that no dog—not even an exceptional one like Beauty—is interested in the night sky. It's just that the moon through her new telescope is too big and too awesome to keep to herself. She wants to share it.
Beauty rolls onto her back at Anna's feet and grins up at her. The dog's teeth glow in the pale light of the streetlamp, and so do the white patches on her splotchy coat. Anna drops to one knee. "Would the exceptional dog like a belly rub?"
As she scratches the dog's stomach, a chilly gust cuts through her old sweater. "It's cold, isn't it, girl?" She works her fingers through Beauty's thick fur until she can feel the radiating dog warmth.
The streetlamp three houses away paints the road with twisted shadows; the shadow of the telescope is a giant spider. When Anna stands, her shadow-legs are long and stalky, her shadow-head a mere bump. She lifts the hat she always wears. The misshapen shadow-girl lifts her hat too.
As she pulls on her uncle's old hat, the wind slaps the brim back. She wraps her arms around herself and leans into the telescope, pressing an eye to the eyepiece.
"What if the moon were only as big as it looks through the 'scope? I'd reach up and grab it for my collection."
Anna's collection contains one rock for each place she's lived over the last ten years—so many rocks that they barely fit on the windowsill in her new room. She hugs herself harder. "The moon would be a great last rock."
Miss Johnette, her latest foster mom, is going to become her real mom. "Hopefully," Anna whispers, resting a hand on the barrel of the telescope. "This telescope is too expensive to give to a kid you don't plan to keep."
She stares at the lit windows of Miss J's house. Stuccoed in white with a cheerful purple door, all it needs is snow on the roof to look like a cottage on a Christmas card.
Snow will never fall here—this is Florida. But Anna wishes that everything could stay the same as it is right now, like a Christmas card. Miss J says it will, but Anna's lived with scads of aunts and uncles and cousins, in forever places that didn't last. Even though they were her family, it never worked out. In the end, she was always one too many.
Miss Johnette is not a member of Anna's real family. Anyone can tell they aren't related. Miss J is tall and big boned; Anna is small. Miss J calls the two of them "a family by choice." Anna loves Miss J and trusts her, but until she is legally and officially adopted, anything can happen.
"It's New Year's Day," she tells the dog. "The very first day of our best year ever." She doesn't know if there is such a thing as a New Year's wish, but she makes one just in case, crossing her fingers to help it come true.
She has just pressed her eye back against the eyepiece when she hears the click ... click ... click of bike gears, then the scrape of a sneaker on the road. "What're you doing?" asks a boy voice.
She turns and—ohmygosh! It's Ben Floyd, back from his family vacation in the Keys. "Observing the full moon," she says. She's thought about Ben all Christmas break. But now, sitting there breathing through his mouth, bike angled awkwardly between his legs, he's not as cute as he was in her daydreams—until he flicks his head to get his hair out of his eyes.
She feels her face flush. To give herself something to do, she shifts the legs of the tripod a few inches. "I got this great telescope for Christmas. Want to see?" She steps back and twists her hands down to the bottom of her pockets.
For a moment he just rests his weight on stiff arms, his hands on the handlebars. Then, with a slower click ... click ... click, he wheels over. "It won't be full until tomorrow night," he says, ducking his head to take a look.
"True." If he knows that, he must be interested in the moon too. That's something they have in common.
But he can't be that interested because he doesn't look for long. "Nice 'scope." The way he says it sounds like good-bye. He turns the front wheel, puts a foot on the pedal, then stops and pats the pocket of his denim jacket. "Hey, Anna, I have a letter for you." He slides a small, lumpy bundle out of his pocket.
"You do?" Her heart rises. "Who from?" Him—it has to be from him!
"A girl who was staying at the marina. She lives aboard a sailboat and travels around with her dad."
Anna feels her heart fall like an egg out of a nest and land with a splat.
He doesn't notice that she's not listening. "She goes to school by mail. Her name is Mica."
He seems to be waiting for her to say something, so she parrots back the last thing she heard him say. "She lives on a boat? Cool."
"Now don't go squeezing it," he warns as he sets the package in her hand. "There's a fragile shell inside. A janthina. Tell you more about it later. I gotta go." He pulls something flat out of the back pocket of his jeans and moves it carefully to his shirt pocket.
It's probably a letter for someone else—one he wrote himself. Maybe the pendant Cass Bodine wears around her neck really is a Christmas present from him, Anna thinks. Everyone says it is.
Holding the small bundle to her chest, Anna watches him pedal away. "Where are you going?" she shouts.
"Gotta see somebody," he yells over his shoulder. He stands on the pedals, picking up speed.
"Thanks for the letter," she calls after him. "And the shell. Say hi to Cass." If he's on his way to see Justin or Leroy, he'll circle back to set her straight, but he doesn't.
It must be true about the necklace.
Imagining that he could have liked me was stupid, Anna thinks now. Besides, Cass is nice. Anna tries to be happy for her.
She puts her eye to the eyepiece, but all she sees is half a moon—which is all he saw too. The other half was lost when she moved the telescope. He didn't say a thing, or adjust the angle. Guess he doesn't care about the moon after all.
If she stays outside he'll go by again on his way home, but it doesn't matter. He isn't any closer than the moon, not really.
Johnette Walker quits whistling when she hears the front door open. She glances up from the fossils she's sorting on the kitchen table. "Anna?" Beauty, a streak with brown and white spots, scrambles into the kitchen and slides across the linoleum, then flops down in front of the wood stove.
"Just a sec," Anna calls from the living room. "I have to make a phone call."
Good, Johnette thinks, leaning over to pat the dog. She's calling someone from school. Maybe it's her imagination, but Anna seems a little light on friends. In the next room Anna asks for Cass, but seconds later Anna walks into the kitchen, shoulders slumped. Johnette wonders what's wrong, but doesn't know how to ask. "Hey, I was about to join you outside."
"It's kind of cold."
Anna is wearing that thin sweater again, the hand-me-down from her cousin with the buttons that dangle by loose threads. Johnette wonders if wearing the sweater with the iron-on label that says "Janice Casey" is more important to Anna than staying warm. She has so few things from her family.
But what if Anna catches a cold? How do real mothers know what is important and what they can let slide? Johnette reaches out and runs a hand down one thin sweater sleeve. "Were you warm enough?"
That means no. Johnette remembers that much from being a kid herself. She puts the sweater on her things-to-fix-later list. "What's that?" she asks, pointing at the small bundle in Anna's hand.
The girl holds out a crumpled sheet of lined notebook paper tied with a piece of yarn. "Ben gave it to me." She blushes when she says his name.
When Johnette was Anna's age she was too busy tramping around collecting bugs to be interested in boys. But Anna seems interested. The question is, is it time for boys to be interested back? Johnette hopes not. She's having a hard enough time figuring out what to do about the sweater. "Ben wrote you a note?"
"No." Anna tucks her hair behind her ear, acting as if it doesn't matter. "Ben likes Cass."
"Then who wrote you?"
"A girl Ben met on vacation. She lives on a boat." Anna sits down opposite her and balances the packet on her outstretched hand. "There's supposed to be a shell in it, but it feels way too light."
Johnette scoots the kitchen chair forward. "Let's have a little look-see."
Carefully, carefully, Anna folds back the paper. When she concentrates, even her freckles seem to pay attention.
Anna smooths the crumpled paper against the table, exposing the lavender shell inside. "It's as thin as paper and as beautiful as the moon," she says, almost whispering. Miss J feels her heart squeeze. Do all kids say things like that, or just hers? Their social worker, Mrs. Riley, says that every child is special—and that every child has limitations.
Every child but my Anna, thinks Johnette, propping her chin on one hand. My Anna is perfect. "Well? What does the girl on the boat have to say?"
Anna picks up the letter and begins to read.CHAPTER 2
Wednesday, January 8
Wavelets rise and fall against Mica's cheeks as she floats on her back in the canal in front of Bert's Marina. The flag snaps over the nearby Coast Guard station; the sea must be choppy today. But her canal, which pokes off Snake Creek like a thumb, is protected from the wind.
She likes Bert's Marina. Likes it a lot. If it were up to her she'd stay forever. But when the Captain's short job at Biology Fun Camp ends—which will be soon, since the holidays are over and the camp is down to a trickle of school groups—they'll leave. She just has to hear back from Anna Casey before then. What if the letter comes the day after they leave? Even one minute after they cast off would be too late! The letter would be sitting in the box at the Islamorada post office when the Martina left the slip. She and the Captain would be unfurling the Martina's sails when Aunt Emma picked it up. Too bad. Return to sender.
If Anna had written back immediately it would be here already; maybe it got lost. Or maybe she isn't going to write at all. Because maybe Ben never delivered the letter. But it is just possible that Anna's reply is in the post office box right now. I wouldn't know, though, Mica says to herself. Aunt Emma won't leave even for a few teeny minutes to take me to the post office. Aunt Emma is waiting for a call from Chicago where her latest grand-baby is getting itself born.
But that shouldn't keep them from going to the post office. Uncle Bert can answer the phone. And if the baby gets born while they're away, so what? It'll still be born when they get back.
Mica has pointed all those things out to Aunt Emma. She's begged and begged. (Even if you can't convince adults, you can sometimes wear them down.) She'd try again now, but her last beg was only ten minutes ago.
She takes a deep breath and holds it. Her skinny chest rises out of the water. Suddenly she has a shivery thought: This is the way dead people look when they float. She lets her arms and legs go limp and pretends she's dead—it's not like she has anything better to do.
She's still lying there lifeless when she hears the buzz of a small engine. She lifts her head just long enough to see the Captain's moped hurtle into the marina parking lot. He squeals to a stop and cuts the engine.
Ka-thunkita-thunkita-thunkita. The wheels of the moped make a tired sound against the boards of the dock. With thin, strong arms her father pushes the bike past the pair of rusty gas pumps where boaters fuel up and past the Lizzy-J, a twenty-four-foot powerboat waiting for Uncle Bert to replace a bent prop. She watches him through squinted eyes, expecting that at any moment he'll see her floating in the boat basin—dead!
He still hasn't seen her when he and the moped disappear behind Aunt Emma and Uncle Bert's houseboat.
When her father reappears, his eyes are on the water but he's facing away from her, peering into the shallows between the dock and dry land. He cocks his head so he can see through the reflections.
"Yes!" he exclaims. He drops the moped against a piling and snatches the net that lies on the picnic table near their boat. With the net he dips up a knot of seaweed, which he dumps into one of the bubbling aquariums on the table. Resting his weight on his arms, he gazes at what she knows must be the fish that was hiding in the seaweed.
Darn it! She knew he needed a sargassum fish to illustrate protective coloration. She's been trying to find one for him for days. But it isn't easy. The fish are blotched and splotched with white, yellow, and gray, just like the seaweed they hide in.
Her father can see anything in the water.
And she's not even camouflaged. The water is blue. She's tanned a dark brown. Her swimsuit is printed with hot pink hibiscus and bright macaws. How could he miss her?
Through half-closed eyelids, she watches him turn and gaze out over the basin.
Now! He'll see her now! She lets her tongue hang out a little.
He shades his eyes—and studies the flag on the Coast Guard station. He's judging the wind speed and direction, which he'll record in his weather journal. He lifts the pith helmet he always wears and lets the wind blow through his thin brown hair. His wide-legged khaki shorts flutter in the breeze. Still not seeing her, he hobbles over to the Martina and pulls himself up onto the deck, his arms doing most of the work. The hatch scrapes and he disappears below.
Mica whips her head out of the water. "Hel-lo! I'm dead down here!"
The only answer is the closing of the hatch.
She tells herself there are plenty of reasons he didn't see her. He's been teaching kids all day. Except for her, he hates kids. He only took the job because neither of the grants he's applied for has come through yet. And she can tell by his limp that his bad leg aches.
But by not noticing her, isn't he breaking his promise? One week ago when Ben and Cody were still here, the three of them got lost at sea. It scared the Captain so bad he swore that he would stay home more and pay better attention to her.
If he's so busy paying attention, why didn't her see her? He saw an invisible fish, didn't he?
Suddenly his promise seems hollow, like a New Year's resolution. She doesn't want to think about it. It must be time to bug Aunt Emma again.
How did I get talked into this? Emma thinks as she pulls the van into the post office parking lot. What if the phone is ringing right this very minute? Bert said he'll get it, but he won't.
She and Mica have just climbed out of the van when Emma spots Wiley Millman's golden retriever with his head out the window of Wiley's pickup. This is all she needs! Mica will have to stop and give old Jethro a pat. Emma slows, accepting the inevitable, but the girl walks right past. "Mica, aren't you going to pat Jethro?"
"Maybe on the way out," Mica calls over her shoulder.
Good—the dog might be gone by then. Emma wouldn't have mentioned it, but Mica needs all the affection she can get, even if it's just a friendly slobber.
Mica and her father often rent dock space at the marina for their live-aboard sailboat. They usually stay a month or two before moving on. Emma has never gotten the straight story about Mica's mother—Mica has described her as everything from a famous ballet dancer to a CIA spy. The only thing Emma knows for sure is that in all the times the father and daughter have tied up at the marina, she's never once laid eyes on the woman.
Emma allows the girl to call her Aunt Emma because it gives Mica a little more family. But it's hardly enough. The child is alone far too much. Homeschooled, she rarely has other kids to play with. Emma lets Mica do her studying perched on the spare stool in the marina office. And she showed her how to help around the store, pumping gas and dipping bait shrimp from the tank, just to keep her busy.
If the girl were here for any significant length of time, Emma would insist she be enrolled in public school. Sometimes Mica just wears her out. Today she begged and begged to go to the post office, until Emma finally gave in.
"What's the rush?" Emma asks as Mica streaks ahead up the walk to the post office. "Are you expecting something?"
The scrawny girl holds the door open. "Come on."
That's when Emma figures it out. Ever since her husband's nephew brought his family down over Christmas, Mica has badgered her to go to the post office. Of course. Mica is waiting for a letter from Ben.
Trailing Mica to the post office box, she tries to see Ben the way an eleven-year-old girl would. He's tall and lanky with dark hair, dark eyes. Cute—and a good kid too. But that doesn't mean he'll send her a letter. "Boys aren't reliable letter writers ..." she warns gently.
"Boys? What boys?"
This girl is good at hiding things, but the innocent look doesn't fool Emma.
By the time Emma reaches box 645, Mica has her eyes up to the little glass pane in the brass door. "Stuffed!" she announces.
"With the usual junk, I'm sure." Emma unlocks the box and wiggles out the envelopes and fliers.
Excerpted from The Sorta Sisters by Adrian Fogelin. Copyright © 2007 Adrian Fogelin. Excerpted by permission of Peachtree.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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