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It was the month Eddie Malloy had been waiting for--tryouts for the Buckman Elementary baseball team--only sixth graders allowed. For Caroline, however, April looked as though it might be the most boring month since they'd moved to Buckman. She didn't care much for sports, but she knew how desperately her oldest sister wanted to get on the team. What Caroline most wanted was for something exciting to happen to her--something so dramatic it would get her picture in the newspaper.
But Eddie was fuming about the rain. "Look at it!" she wailed, staring out at the dismal West Virginia sky. The sun, which took its sweet time rising above the hills each morning, hadn't shown for a week. "I'll bet we won't have tryouts today after all!"
Eddie, Caroline, and Beth were finishing their toast, getting ready to return to school after spring vacation.
"You've got a whole month, Eddie. The games don't begin till May," Beth told her. Beth was in the fifth grade, and Caroline, being precocious, was in fourth, having been moved up a year. "Relax!" Beth said.
"I can't," said Eddie. "This is my one chance to show Jake Hatford that he's not the only good player around."
Mrs. Malloy came into the kitchen in her robe. "Gracious, I overslept!" she said. "It's a good thing you girls got yourselves up. This rain just makes me want to stay in bed. It's a good day for dreaming."
Mr. Malloy followed next and went directly to the coffeemaker. He was singing his usual song, the words being "I hate to get up in the mooorn-ing," and the girls rolled their eyes at each other. He was coaching Buckman College's football team this year in a teacher-exchange program. Whether or not he would move his family back to Ohio in September was still very much up in the air.
"Better wear your yellow slickers," Mrs. Malloy told the girls. "It's supposed to rain all day."
Eddie groaned and looked out the window and down the hill toward the river. The Buckman River, ordinarily shallow, was swollen now by all the rain. It entered town on one side of Island Avenue, where the family was staying, looped around under the road bridge to the business district, and went back out of Buckman again on the other side.
"Well," Eddie said finally. "If I never become a professional baseball player, I guess I'll be a scientist. That's my second choice."
"Good thinking," said her father. "Keep your bases covered." He grinned.
Beth had her nose stuck in a book as usual while she ate, her hand blindly reaching out to feel around the table for her orange juice. She never once took her eyes off the page.
"If she'd only read decent stuff!" her mother had once complained, because the stories Beth liked best were about human centipedes and creatures under the sea. Beth was currently reading a book called The Village of the Vampire Ants. Beth didn't give much thought to what she wanted to be when she was grown.
No one ever asked Caroline what she wanted to be when she grew up because she talked about it constantly: the world's greatest actress, that's what. She could see her name in lights on Broadway: Caroline Lenore Malloy, starring in . . . play after play after play.
As the Malloy girls crossed the swinging bridge that took them to College Avenue, they saw the Hatford boys waiting for them on the other side. Despite all the boys' tricks and teasing since the girls had come to Buckman, the Malloy sisters had started walking to school with them when a strange animal--which the newspaper called an abaguchie because no one knew what it was--had been sighted in the area. It had later been found to be a cougar, and the Hatford and Malloy parents had insisted their seven children walk together to and from school for protection. Now that the cougar had been caught and taken down to the Smoky Mountains, the kids, out of habit, still walked together every day.
The boys weren't exactly waiting patiently for the girls. What they were really doing was standing on the swinging bridge at their end, and as soon as the girls stepped on it, the boys began jumping up and down so that the bridge wiggled and swayed and bounced.
"Ha, ha, we're so scared!" Eddie said dryly.
"Look how high the water is!" Peter called. Peter was in second grade, the youngest of the boys. Wally was next, in fourth grade with Caroline, and the twins, Josh and Jake, were in sixth grade with Eddie. Beth was the only girl who wasn't in a class with a Hatford. Lucky you, Eddie had told her once.
"What's the highest the river's ever been?" Beth asked when the girls reached the other end and they all set off for school.
"It was up over the road in front of our house once," said Wally.
"Did you ever have to be rescued in rowboats or anything?" asked Caroline. She could just see herself, waving a white handkerchief from a window, the water rising to her waist, then her chest, then her throat--how she would faint just as the rescuers reached her and would have to be carried out to the boat.
"No," said Wally. "It was never that high."
Both Eddie and Jake were glum as they headed for school because Jake, too, wanted to try out for the baseball team, and they certainly couldn't do it in the rain. The rest of the crew was in good spirits, however.
"You know what we ought to do?" said Josh. "We each ought to put our name and phone number in a bottle and float them down the river. We could ask the people who find them to call and tell us where they were found, and whoever's bottle travels farthest by the end of the month wins."
"Wins what?" said Wally, who loved fooling around and liked the idea.
"Well, whoever wins could be king or queen for the day," suggested Josh.
"Queen of what?" asked Caroline.
"King or queen of the rest of us. The rest of us would have to be his slaves for a day and do whatever he wanted."
"Oh no you don't!" said Eddie. "If one of you guys wins, you'll make us do all kinds of gross things."
"Okay, they have to be things within reason," said Josh. "And the bottles should all be the same size. Maybe Mom could get some for us."
"Sounds fun!" said Beth.
"We'd better do it while the water's flowing fast, though," said Wally. "The bottles will go farther then."
"They might even get to the ocean!" Peter cried excitedly.
"And then one of them could be picked up by a ship at sea!" Caroline said dreamily. "I could be sitting in a chair at breakfast, calmly eating my cereal, and get a ship-to-shore message from a handsome captain of an ocean liner saying that he was coming to West Virginia to meet the maiden who had put her name in a bottle."
The others laughed.
"Or maybe he'd call to say that as soon as he read the name Caroline Malloy, he threw the bottle back in the ocean and washed his hands with soap and water," Jake teased.
It was hard to concentrate on schoolwork when there were notes to be sealed in bottles, Caroline thought. Her desk was right behind Wally Hatford's, and when she had nothing better to do, she would trace letters or words on Wally's back with the end of her ruler and dot the i's with her pencil. Or she would blow on the back of his neck and whisper romantic words, just to see his ears turn red.
But this morning she was content to stare out the window as rain trickled down the pane, and imagined a lonely aspirin bottle adrift at sea with a tiny piece of paper rolled up inside it. She imagined the handsome sea captain in his blue-and-white uniform bending over the side of the boat to scoop it up, and--
The voice of the teacher suddenly intruded, and Caroline blinked and snapped to attention.
"The answer, please?" said Miss Applebaum.
"The Ohio River?" Caroline said quickly.
"What?" said the teacher as the class turned to stare.
"The . . . the Gulf of Mexico?" Caroline bleated.
"Caroline, we happen to be doing long division, and I assure you that if you divided four thousand, six hundred and sixty-eight by twelve, you would not get the Gulf of Mexico," the teacher said. "Not even the Ohio River."
From the Hardcover edition.