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Despite the urgings of her parents, twelve-year-old Anika finds it difficult to befriend the obnoxious new girl who has just moved from the United States to Kenya.
I swallowed hard and knocked on the door.
Nothing happened. My stomach felt all twisted up as I knocked again. I hate meeting new people. This time was even worse than usual because I really wanted to be friends with Lisa Barnes. She was the only kid my age on our mission station.
The Barneses were a new missionary family. They had come to Africa while Sandy (that's my ten-year-old sister) and I were away at boarding school. Mom said that the Barneses had two kids, Alex and Lisa. Alex was eight years old and Lisa was twelve, like me. Now here I was, standing at their front door because Mom had sent me down to invite them for supper.
Finally the door opened, and a man with a bald head loomed over me. He was huge. Before I had a chance to say anything he boomed, "Now let me see. Who have we here? This little sweetie must be Anika Scott. Am I right?"
He stuck his hand out for me to shake. It was as big as a Frisbee. Little sweetie? Me? Ha! I thought as my hand disappeared into his huge mitt.
"We've heard lots about you," he went on. "You're going to have to help our Lisa get used to Kenya." He was practically yelling in my face, like he thought I was half a mile away instead of right in front of him. "A sweetie pie like you shouldn't have any trouble with that, though," he boomed. Then he thumped me on the shoulder and laughed really loud. I cringed.
A thin woman with light brown hair in a ponytail came up behind him. "Now honey, let the poor child get a word in," she cooed. (No kidding! She really cooed! Just like a dove. Her voice was low and slow, almost like she was singing. I'd heard Southern accents before, but never anything as wild as this!)
Mr. Barnes didn't give me a chance to say anything. He kept right on bellowing. "I hear you kids call adults Aunt and Uncle, Anika. That would make me your Uncle Joey. And this here is your Aunt Elsie. Ha, ha, ha! It's a cute habit."
OK, so he was right. Missionary kids do call adults they know well Aunt and Uncle. But I didn't know these people—and right now I wasn't sure I wanted to. Mr. Barnes thumped me on the shoulder again, and I backed away.
Mrs. Barnes came after me and patted me on the arm. "It's so nice to meet you, honeybunch," she cooed. "I'm sure you and Lisa will be wonderful friends. Once she gets to know you and y'all are friends, why, she'll like it here just fine."
I managed to say something about being glad to meet her, too, and then I remembered why I was there. "Um, we wanted to invite your whole family to our house for supper tonight. Would you be able to come?"
Mrs. Barnes gave a soft little scream and hugged me. I went stiff, but she kept on hugging anyway. "It's so kind of y'all to invite us," she said. "Now, can I bring anything along to help your mama?"
I said Mom hadn't said anything about that and got out of there as quickly as I could. Whew! What if Lisa turned out to be like her parents? I shook my head.
When I got back to the house, Mom was correcting papers in her office. She teaches Bible school.
"The Barneses said they'd come," I said as soon as I walked in. "I never even saw Lisa. Is she as weird as her parents?"
"Anika, be a little kinder," Mom said.
"Well, is she?" I asked again.
"I don't really know what Lisa is like," Mom said. "I've only seen her once, and then she looked like she'd been crying. Mrs. Barnes said that Lisa really didn't want to leave her friends in America. She's having trouble adjusting." Mom put her pencil down and looked at me thoughtfully. "I want you to make a special effort to make Lisa feel welcome. Be sure to reach out to her and be her friend."
"Mommmm," I really dragged it out. I hate being lectured, especially about things I already want to do.
"Now, Anika," Mom said, "don't you think that ploud wees Jesus?"
I burst out laughing. For some reason none of us have ever figured out, Mom is always getting her words all tangled up. We've gotten pretty used to it, though, and can usually figure out what she means.
In this case, I figured she meant to say that my making friends with Lisa would please Jesus. Mom always brings everything back to pleasing God. I think she's memorized half of the Bible. Sometimes that can be a real pain. Most of the time I don't mind, though. It makes me feel kind of safe.
After I left Mom, I climbed to my favorite thinking branch in the mango tree just by our front porch. I know, twelve is a little old for tree climbing, but for as long as I can remember I'd always come to sit on this branch whenever I was worried. This time I brought the book I was reading with me, but I was already almost at the end of it, so it didn't take me long to finish it.
I pulled a dead leaf off of the branch above me and thought about Lisa. How could anyone not want to live in Kenya? I wouldn't give up being a missionary kid for anything!
That made me think of the other thing that was worrying me. If Daddy didn't get all the way better soon, I might have to give up being a missionary kid. No more camping in the game parks, no more trips to the coast, no more mango tree. It meant exile to the boring, smoggy U.S.A., where the only thing to do was fry your brain watching reruns on TV. (At least, that's how I thought of it.)
Daddy had caught hepatitis. That's a disease you get from dirty water and stuff. He had gotten it at a training conference at Thika for African church leaders. He was mostly better, but he wouldn't rest and get all the way better. In two days we were leaving for the coast so he could rest. That was OK with me because the Indian Ocean is my very favorite place in all the world. I don't worry about anything there. It's that kind of place.
I wasn't there yet, though, and I was plenty worried now. I shifted on my branch, then heard voices coming toward our house. There was no mistaking that loud voice or that soft, slow one, either: the Barneses were coming. I tried to peer through the leaves to see what Lisa looked like, but the heavy, dark green leaves were too thick for that. I'd already seen Lisa's little brother, Alex, out playing with David Stewart, one of the kids from another missionary family. The Stewarts had two kids, Traci, who was ten, and David, who was nine. Traci and my sister Sandy were best friends.
Anyway, when I saw Alex, he had seemed pretty normal. Maybe Lisa would be OK, too.
I guess I'd better get down there, I thought without much enthusiasm. I started to slide down the branch I was on when I noticed a chameleon out near the top of the branch above me. There were chameleons everywhere on the station. This one matched the bark exactly and was about as long as my hand. Like all three-horned chameleons, it looked like a tiny, skinny triceratops. You know, the dinosaur with three horns.
Hey great, I thought. I can show it to Lisa. I really like animals; they're neat. Sure, I knew that not everybody liked them as much as me, but most kids were interested—especially in chameleons.
I stood up slowly, balanced myself on the branch I'd been sitting on, and caught the chameleon gently. One of its eyes was looking at me, a tiny bright beady dot in a round bump of wrinkled skin. The other eye was still looking at something up in the dark green leaves.
It twisted its body and opened its mouth at me. It looked fierce, but chameleons are really very gentle. You can keep them in a box and watch them catch flies with their super long tongues. Or you can just let them walk on you. We always let them go after a day or so.
At least Mom won't be able to say I'm not trying to be friends, I thought. I slid backwards down the long, smooth gray branch, carefully holding the chameleon in my hand.
When I got down on the ground all the Barneses were on the front porch with Mom and Daddy and Sandy. The kids were kind of eyeing each other, and the adults were talking. I walked up and stood by Sandy. The chameleon was on my shirt now, just holding on.
Lisa was taller than me; she already looked like a teenager. She had light brown hair and clothes that were really in style. I had on my usual old shorts and T-shirt. I wished I'd cleaned up and put some other clothes on, not that I had anything half as nice as her clothes.
I was just going to say hi when Lisa started screaming bloody murder and pointing at me like I was Count Dracula or something.
"What is it? What is it? Take it away!" she howled.
Sandy and I just stared at her. What on earth was her problem? Then I realized she must be talking about the chameleon. I took it off my shirt and backed up. By now all the grown-ups were staring at me, too.
I turned to Mom, kind of holding out the chameleon. She was standing right by Mrs. Barnes—who suddenly started screaming, too. She screamed even higher than Lisa. Daddy took two quick steps toward me, picked me up by my elbows, and carried me off the porch. I just about died.
"What do you think you're playing at, Anika Gail Scott?" he demanded. "Scaring guests is an obnoxious trick." He was kind of panting from moving fast—that made me feel even worse.
"Honest, Daddy, I didn't mean to. I was going to give it to Lisa. I thought she'd like it."
He just stared at me like he couldn't believe his ears. I was tired of being stared at, so I just looked down and held still. I noticed that my blue thongs were getting too small. My feet were kind of dusty, too, and there was a big smear of red dirt across my left foot. I rubbed it on the back of my leg.
Daddy sighed like he was very tired. "Well, put the chameleon down and come in and apologize. And next time, think a little harder." He walked back into the house.
Daddy's always saying that, about thinking first, I really felt dumb because he was right. Like, I know Mrs. Jantz at school is afraid of chameleons, and so are a couple of other air-headed women. I should have guessed Lisa would be like that.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid," I muttered through clenched teeth as I stuck the chameleon on the trunk of the mango tree.
For a second I thought about climbing into the safe green dome of the mango tree and just staying there till the Barneses left. But I knew it wouldn't help. It would just get me into more trouble.
I dragged my feet slowly through the soft red dust of the driveway. On the veranda, I curled my toes up tight to keep my thongs from making noise.
"I don't believe she meant to scare you," Daddy was saying. Lisa was still kind of hiccuping from crying.
I walked in and everybody stared at me again. My face felt hot, and my tongue seemed to be too big for my mouth.
"Ah, I'm sorry," I blurted. "I wanted it to be a surprise."
Mr. Barnes started laughing and boomed, "It sure was."
Then all the other grown-ups laughed, too, even Mom and Daddy. I wanted to run, but that would only make it worse.
"Come and sit down, honey," said Mrs. Barnes. "We forgive you, only don't make it quite so much of a surprise next time. You'll have to tell us sometime what that creature was."
I slid into my chair next to Sandy. Sandy looked at me and kind of raised one eyebrow, signaling toward Mrs. Barnes and Lisa.
All through the meal Mr. Barnes and especially Alex, who was eight, quizzed us about chameleons and the other animals that are around. Lisa never said a thing.
I kept on looking at her, but she just looked down. I'd sure blown my chance of ever being friends. But then, how could we be friends? She seemed to hate everything I liked: Kenya, animals—everything. Besides, she looked about six years older than me. I sighed.
We'd just started on the dessert when Daddy said something that made me stop eating entirely. Even loquat pie, which is my very favorite dessert, didn't taste good any more.
"Well, Joey," he said. "Have you made your decision about coming to the coast with us?"
"You bet your boots," boomed Mr. Barnes. "We're looking forward to swimming in a genuine tropical ocean."
Sandy and I looked at each other, horrified. How dare Daddy invite somebody to the coast with us without even telling us? Especially somebody like the Barnes family.
Mr. Barnes was still talking. "It sure ought to get Lisa to quit moping and see what a great little continent Africa is. Right, Lisa?" and he poked her hard in the ribs.
Suddenly, I actually felt sorry for Lisa.
As soon as the Barneses left, Sandy yelled, "Daddeeee, why did you have to go and invite the Barneses?"
"Yeah. At least you could have asked us first. It's not fair!" I added.
"We didn't ask you first because you were away at school. Also, we didn't know if the Barneses could come since they just got settled here. After all the packing up and moving, plus three months of language school, we thought they could use the break. Besides, we thought Anika would enjoy having somebody her own age there."
I squirmed. The coast is supposed to be a place where you don't have to worry, and the idea of spending time with Lisa Barnes made me nervous. I had a hard enough time keeping up with kids my age at school. I don't mean in schoolwork—that's OK. I mean in doing the right things, you know, socially. I never get it right. Now I was stuck with someone who looked ultrasophisticated and already hated me. Yuk.
Then I thought of something else. Daddy was supposed to rest and get better. I had him for sure this time.
"Daddy, we can't take them," I blurted. "How can you rest up with Mr. Barnes booming all over everyone? Even Bilge Water won't be restful with them there."
Bilge Water is the house we rent at the coast. It belongs to a Pakistani family. It's sort of like a cottage at the lake, and the family rents it out for not too much money. It's at the end of a long line of houses, each about a quarter of a mile apart and surrounded by thick bush. Anyway, the other houses are called things like the Cairns or Sea Breezes. I guess the people who built our house got sick of looking at supersweet names. Just to be different, they called their place Bilge Water—which is what you call the ucky water that sloshes around in the bottom of a boat. Don't let the name fool you, though. Bilge Water is one of the nicest places I know.
"Joey Barnes won't stop me from resting. He'll be another hand to help with any heavy work."
"It's not fair," Sandy practically yelled.
"Yeah!" I said. "Mr. Barnes talks so loud all the time, and Mrs. Barnes keeps gushing all over us—"
"Anika, I don't like your attitude one little bit," Mom interrupted, as if I was the only one complaining. "You're just thinking about yourself. I thought you memorized Philippians 2:4. 'Think not of your own interests, but also the inthers of otherests.'"
Daddy burst out laughing and said, "Yes, we really mustn't forget the 'inthers of otherests.' Now off to bed with you."
I lay in bed and thought about it. You'd never believe how good your very own bed feels when you usually have to sleep on squeaky boarding-school bunk beds. The wall beside my bed at home is made out of cinder blocks. It's always warm when I get in bed because the sun shines on it all afternoon. With my back up against the warm wall and my very own quilt over me, things didn't seem so bad after all. I still worried about Daddy not getting enough rest at the coast with the Barneses there, though.
"Dear Jesus," I prayed, "please make them not come with us."
That prayer kind of stuck to the roof of my mouth, so I stopped.
"Hey, Anika," Sandy whispered. Her bed is right across from mine. "Remember how Lisa was scared of that chameleon? I bet we could get them not to come if we kept telling them about all the big bugs and stuff at the coast."
It was an absolutely brilliant idea, even if Sandy did think of it. Still, I didn't answer right away. It really was brilliant ... but it made me feel squirmy inside.
"What if Mom and Daddy find out?" I finally asked.
"We wouldn't be lying or anything."
Sandy was right. There are more huge bugs, snakes, and spiders at the coast than anywhere else in Kenya. Besides, if Lisa and her mom were screeching all the time, Daddy wouldn't be able to rest. At least that's what I told myself. I just hated it when Daddy looked so tired. Everything was different with him sick.
"What if a lizard fell on Mrs. Barnes?" Sandy said all of a sudden and started giggling like mad. I don't think Sandy was as worried about Daddy as I was. At least she acted like she hardly noticed that there was anything different about him.
Excerpted from The Impossible Lisa Barnes by Karen Rispin. Copyright © 1992 Karen Rispin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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