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Doing Our Part
I didn't mean to do it. I just got carried away.
First I found the balloon in the bib pocket of my overalls and thought it would be fun to fill it with water from the faucet by the garage. Then I thought about finding something to throw the balloon at, and that's when my sister put the record on. Dance music blared out of our bedroom window, pulling me closer to the house as the Andrews Sisters sang,
Don't sit under the apple tree
With anyone else but me,
Anyone else but me,
Anyone else but me--No! No! No!
Sneaking around the corner of the house between the forsythia bushes, I became patrol leader H. N. Anderson. My men crept behind me so silently I couldn't even hear them until we all crouched together under the window, hugging our grenades and listening to high heels click on the wood floor. Nice trick, I thought--the enemy's using an all-American band as cover for sabotage. But it won't work. Steady, men . . . steady . . . NOW!
I leapt up and hurled my grenade through the open window. There wasn't any time to aim; all I hoped to hit was the floor. But the balloon struck the edge of the vanity mirror and exploded all over ribbons, lipstick, powder boxes, and Estelle. I stared at her for a second, seeing mainly a mouth as wide as a bathtub. Mission accomplished--now scram! I dashed toward the front porch as my sister's scream sounded--low at first but zooming up like an air-raid siren. Enemy plane! Take cover!
Straight ahead was the old henhouse. Follow me, men! The natives might give us shelter! I didn't see the attack squad until they were right on top of us--trapped! I dodged to the left, but a long arm reached out and yanked me up so fast my feet swung out from under me. That made me really mad. "Lemme go, you lousy Jap!"
"Hey, soldier. Hey. I'm on your side. Private J. J. Lanski, U.S. Marines." As my heart slowed down, I got an eyeful of starchy khakis and the gleam of an anchor-and-globe pin on a collar. He stuck out his hand. "Shake."
From the porch Estelle hollered, "Jed! Don't let her get away!"
I remembered the mission and made a bolt for the woods, but Jed caught me around the middle and tucked me under his arm like a bag of flour. Then he started for the house. "Looks like you've seen some action, soldier. You'll have to tell me about it at the picnic."
But Estelle was already telling him, fast and loud. "You'll never guess what she did! I was standing in front of the mirror when she hauls off and throws a water balloon through the window. Now look at me--she's ruined my dress, my hair--"
Which was baloney. The ruffle on one sleeve hung limp, but a little water couldn't wash the curl out of her hair or the sparkle from her eyes. "Oh, dry up," I muttered once my feet were on the ground.
"If only I could--"
"I think you look fine," Jed offered. "Better than fine."
They were starting to go all moony-eyed when Mom stalked out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. "What's going on?"
Estelle started off making it sound like she was Poland and I was Hitler, but Mom cut it short. "All right, all right. For heaven's sake, Hazel, you're almost twelve. Aren't you a little old for silly practical jokes?"
Questions like this don't usually expect an answer.
"Don't let her ride to the picnic with us," Estelle said quickly. "Put her to work washing dishes."
"If I need suggestions, I'll ask for them, dear."
"But Mother. It's our last chance to be together before
"Um . . . we won't exactly be alone, doll." Jed's fingers twitched on my shoulder, but I wasn't the doll he meant. "My mom decided to come."
We all stared at the Lanskis' Ford. Jed's mother got out of her house so seldom, it was as if a big mushroom had suddenly sprung up in the backseat--a mushroom that colored its lips victory red, fanned itself with a magazine, and waved at us with a pale puffy hand. Estelle sighed all the way down to her shoes but managed not to say anything.
Mom smoothed her apron over her skirt. "Hazel, I expect you'd better stay here and help me clean up the kitchen. You can ride to the picnic later with Aunt Ruth and me. Estelle, you go on and have a good time, but I want you home by dark. You hear, Jed?"
Jed nodded solemnly. Estelle, all smiles again, disappeared into the house--"I'll be right back!" Mom marched out to have a few neighborly words with Mrs. Lanski. I stayed right where I was, stiff as a board.
Jed turned me toward him, but I didn't even unfold my arms. "No hard feelings, okay?"
When I didn't answer, he leaned closer. "What's the matter, Hazelee?"
"You are." It busted out like a belch, but I didn't feel like saying excuse me. "You've been home since Wednesday and you've barely even talked to me."
"Oh. Well." He sat down on the porch steps and tugged at my arm, but I wouldn't budge. "It's not that I don't want to. There's nothing I'd like better than to take you for a ride in the pickup again. But I only have four days, and a guy has stuff to do before he ships out to the Pacific for who knows how long. Stuff that's more . . ."
"Important," I finished. Even my eyes felt hard.
"Maybe not more important, just more urgent. I had to help my dad get the bean crop in, didn't I?"
You didn't have to take Estelle out two nights in a row, I thought--but decided not to mention it. What was the use?
After a long pause, Jed tried again. "Remember the first conversation we had, a coupla years back?"
I stuck my hands in my pockets and nodded. I'd fallen out of a tree next to the gravel road and knocked myself out a little. He had come along in his pickup while I was still flat on my back, trying to figure out what made those black spots in front of my eyes. I was all right, but when he found out nobody was home at my house, he couldn't leave it at that. "We'd better make sure you're okay. How about you come along to our south field and help me pick melons?"
He probably didn't think I would be much help, but even my mother admits I'm a good worker once I get started. From that time on, Jed would often pause on the road outside our house and tap the horn to ask if I wanted to go along on a trip or a chore. Did I remember? Sure, I remembered.
"We talked about how this crazy war has shuffled everybody around," Jed was saying, "and how we all have to look out extra sharp for each other, right?"
"Uh-huh." He pitched in to help us too, so Mom didn't mind me returning the favor as long as I kept up with my own chores. We got to be friends, or that's what I thought. Jed taught me to hoot like an owl and whistle like a thrush and tie a slipknot that never failed. I told him jokes I'd heard on the radio. And we talked--about the war, and our favorite food, and baseball, and movies, and Jed's plan to enlist in the marines as soon as he could talk his dad into it. And about Estelle.
That's when Estelle was flirting with the entire football team at Hood River High. She knew Jed, of course. He'd been our neighbor forever, but he was a few years older and never looked like a movie star, though I loved the way his eyes grinned and his hair crinkled. Then, two days after he turned twenty-one, he marched down to the marine recruiter's office and enlisted. I guess he talked his dad into it. What's more, he started talking in a more serious way to Estelle, and all of a sudden she began to see the good things about him that I'd seen all along.
"That's what I need from you, Hazelee," he was saying now. "To look after things while I'm gone. Check on my mother every now and then, and ask my dad if you could help him around the farm, and . . . cheer up your sister if she gets blue. Could you do that?"
From the Hardcover edition.