Read All Alone in the Universe Online

Authors: Lynne Rae Perkins

Tags: #Ages 10 & Up

All Alone in the Universe

 
LYNNE RAE PERKINS

 

Illustrations by the author

 

 

 
one
 

 

O
UR TOWN IS CALLED
S
ELDEM

My dad likes to add, “If ever.”

The bronze plaque in Memorial Park says that our town was founded by Lord Henry Seldem, from England, in 1846. No one knows who he was or why he came here. The next town west is Hesmont, also named after a lord. It‧s hard to imagine any lords living here now, though. The biggest house in town probably has four bedrooms. Maybe Lord Seldem‧s house was torn down when they put in the Seldem Plaza or the Thorofare. Or maybe he never lived here at all; maybe he just founded the town, and the next day he looked around and decided he‧d be better off in Deer Church or River‧s Knob.

Memorial Park is a tiny green triangle on Pittsfield Street Besides the bronze plaque, which is bolted onto an oily slab of coal from the Hesmont Mine, it has a flagpole, a war monument, a bench you can sit on to wait for the bus, and enough grass for one dog to lie down on under the sign that says
WELCOME TO SELDEM! A COMMUNITY OF HOMES
. When the dog stands up, it might want to trot two blocks south to the river and wash off because the grass (and everything else here) is coated with a light film of fly ash from the power plant in Birdvale, to the east. The dog would be kidding itself, though, because the river itself is fly ash (and who knows what else) mixed with water.

My dad says that we are descendants of Peter Stuyvesant, who started New York City, and Lord Baltimore, who used to own Maryland. My mother doesn‧t believe this, but my dad says, “That and twenty-five cents will get you a cup of coffee.” So we would seem to be up to our armpits in royalty and noble heritage, not to mention real estate. Nothing has made it all the way to 1969, though, except for some names. And names don‧t mean that much. If you think about them in a certain way, they can mean anything.

For example, my dad told me the other day that the stuff on the outside of our house is called Insul-Brick. It‧s supposed to look like bricks, but it‧s just a brick pattern, printed somehow onto thick sheets of a tar-papery, shingly-type material. No one would be fooled into thinking it‧s really bricks, but it looks all right. It keeps the rain out.

 

Now pretend you don‧t know that, and listen to the word: Insul-Brick. “Insulbrick.” It sounds like a royal name, a name for a castle in Scotland or England.

I can picture it in gold, shining letters on a paperback book, with the gorgeous couple in flowing robes falling in love at sunset on horses in a garden with the castle, Insulbrick, in the background.

 

Debbie of Insulbrick is not the gorgeous woman, though. Debbie is the girl up in the tower who has to finish ironing all the flowing robes before she can send carrier pigeon messages to her friends. That would be me.

In the first chapter, Debbie of Insulbrick‧s mother would be saying, “Why do
you
always send the first carrier pigeon message? Why doesn‧t Maureen ever send one to you, first? They have pigeons, too, don‧t they?”

Debbie would breathe an inward sigh of exasperation with her mother for expecting Maureen always to do the same things that ordinary people might do, like make phone calls. I mean, send carrier pigeon messages. But aloud Debbie would just say, “She does, sometimes.”

Which I think was true, before last summer. Before last summer Maureen and I were best friends. I know we were in May.

I‧m positive we were, in April. At least I think we were. I don‧t know what happened exactly.

As people who get hit by trucks sometimes say, “I didn‧t see anything coming.”

two
 

 

T
HE YARDS IN
D
EER
C
HURCH ARE SO BIG THAT A BETTER WORD
for them might be
meadows
or maybe
parks.
They are perfect and beautiful and so big that you can have a picnic in one corner of the yard and the people in the house never even know you‧re there, because the house is so far away, and there are trees that block the view.

The only part of the house we could see from where we were sitting was the roof, with its dozens of peaks and chimneys poking up over the treetops like the skyline of a city. We were sitting on two park benches at the edge of a grove of birch trees, eating lunch out of our bike bags.

“See,” Maureen said, pointing to the benches, “they expect people to come here.”

“I wish they had put a pool in, though,” I said. “I‧m sweating to death.”

“Cheapskates,” said Maureen.

A few birds and crickets chirped, and some bees buzzed through the warm spring air. A car came and went somewhere, and there was the distant drone of one lawn mower. But there were no voices shouting, no screen doors banging. We could have been a million miles from Seldem. We chewed on our plain cheese sandwiches, made without mayonnaise so we wouldn‧t get food poisoning, and washed them down with warm, plasticky water from our water bottles.

“Let‧s ride back through Blentz,” I said, “then stop at the Tastee-Freez.”

“Okay,” said Maureen, “but first, let‧s do our stomachs.”

We plopped down on the silky, never-seen-by-its-owners grass and pulled up our T-shirts to expose our pale stomachs to the sun. Bathing suit season was right around the corner. We closed our eyes and drifted. The sun was warm. It had been a long ride, with a lot of hills.

“I wish I had a Coke,” I said.

“Me, too,” said Maureen.

“Do you have a suit yet?”

“No, do you?”

“No.”

“No, me either.”

There was a new kind of bathing suit I was thinking about a two-piece. The top had two or three rows of ruffles in the front to “emphasize the bust.” In my case I was hoping it would make me seem to actually have a bust.

 

Joke: A flat-chested girl goes into a store to buy a bra. She opens her blouse and says to the clerk, “Do you have anything for this?” And the clerk says, “Clearasil.”

Which pretty well describes my figure. And Maureen‧s.

The sun dazzled our eyes through our eyelids. Grass tickled the backs of our legs. In my daydream I was going to the pool in a ruffle-topped swimsuit, which was somehow also making my hair thicker and straighter, helping me tan without burning, and bringing me success in romance: there I was, talking and laughing with three of the twenty-seven boys I was currently willing to have a crush on but was unable to speak to. I wondered if I had asked them about their interests and hobbies. I strained to hear what I was saying in case it was something that could actually be said to a real person, but suddenly someone started shouting. My dream self looked around to see what this interruption in my perfect life was all about.

“Hey!”

The shout was coming from the outside, not the inside of my head. I rose, spinning, to the surface, and my dream self dissolved into a million rainbow-colored bits, like oil dissolved by detergent.

“You there!”

I lifted my head and saw a man walking briskly toward us across the unknown wealthy person‧s emerald lawn. He was carrying something pointy that glinted in the sunlight.

Because I am the type of person who views being shouted at by people holding weapons as something to be avoided, I panicked. I grabbed Maureen‧s arm.

“Maureen!” I whispered. “We have to go. Now! Wake up!”

“I‧m not asleep,” she said. Rolling her head in my direction and opening one eye, she asked, “What? What did you say?”

“This is private property!” the man shouted across the fifty feet of lush green carpet that still separated us. The pointy, shiny thing he carried looked like a dagger. Or possibly hedge clippers.

“Oh,” said Maureen. By the time she stood up, I was on my bike, poised to disappear from the neighborhood for several years or even forever.

“Maureen,” I whispered more urgently, “let‧s go.
Now
.”

But Maureen just stood there. “Hi!” she called out. “What did you say?”

I couldn‧t believe it. From the sound of her voice, you would think an old friend had spotted us and was on his way over to say hello and invite us into the mansion for a lemonade. I turned to explain our situation to her. But then I thought I might wait a minute. Because when I saw Maureen‧s face, I knew that she had a different idea about what could happen next. Her idea was that it was going to be something good, something fun. This was basically always Maureen‧s idea. The amazing part was, just having the idea could make it be true. The trick was being able to think it. Maureen could think it almost anywhere.

 

I looked at the man with the hedge clippers to see what kind of idea
he
might have about what would be happening next. His tanned and wrinkled face was partly in the shadow of a cloth hat, but I could make out silvery eyebrows over crinkly, twinkling eyes. He had already decided we were not exactly a dangerous pair. He stopped about ten feet away and put his hands on his hips. He was only pretending to be serious now.

“Now, tell me,” he said. “Do you girls make a habit out of camping in other people‧s front yards?”

“Oh, come on,” Maureen said. “This isn‧t someone‧s front yard! Where‧s the house?”

The hedge clipper guy glanced back over his shoulder at the miniature city beyond the small forest. “Right over there,” he said.

“Oh,” said Maureen. As if we didn‧t all know she knew that already, which I‧m pretty sure we all did.

She studied the rooftops in the treetops. “It looks like the house in
The Secret Garden
,” she said. “Is there a secret garden?”

The hedge clipper guy seemed to be amused. He crinkled and twinkled a Little more. “There‧s a garden,” he said. “But it‧s no particular secret. Would you like to see it?”

“Yes!” said Maureen.

They both looked at me.

I was hesitating. I had one foot in the land of adventure, but my other foot was still on the pedal of escape.

The hedge clipper guy winked at me and said, “I‧d say you were about to take off like a bat out of hell.”

I got off my bike and leaned it against a tree.

He told us mat his name was George and that he was the caretaker and gardener for the whole place, which even had its own name. It was called Webley. When we told him where we were from, he whistled and said, “Is that right? Seldem. That‧s a fur piece on a bicycle.”

He led us through some dappled, leafy groves and a gate made of iron swirls into the garden. It was not like any garden I had ever seen. There were three parts, each part a few steps lower than the one before, until at the bottom you could lean against a stone wall and look out at the river. It was our river, but it looked better here. Serene and majestic. Maybe even clean. There were fountains and ponds. There were winding paths and statues. There were trees with branches that curved like snakes, trees growing flat up against a wall like candelabra, trees trimmed into the shapes of animals, and bushes growing in the shape of a maze.

“Wow,” I said.

“No kidding,” said Maureen. “If I lived here, I would be in this garden all the time,” I said.

“I‧d enjoy the company,” said George. He said it as if he meant it, and I thought about how every inch of the garden was made to be pleasant, to be pleasing, but no one besides us was there to be pleased. It could be lonely, I thought. Though as places for being lonely go, it wasn‧t the worst one you could pick.

“Of course there aren‧t any roses yet” George said. “If you were to come back in June or July, then there‧d be something to see.”

“Can we come back?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “Just knock at the kitchen door over there and say you‧re here to see George.”

“Okay,” I said. I knew I would come there again. I felt it in my bones.

“I‧ll put you to work,” said George.

“Okay,” I said.

Back on our bikes, we rolled gently along the winding lanes of Deer Church. The road was so empty we could ride side by side most of the time. We peeked down the long driveways to catch glimpses of the houses.

“Let‧s stop there next time,” Maureen said. She pointed to a house that looked a lot like the one where Snow White met the Seven Dwarfs, only bigger.

“We can‧t do that,” I said. “George would be bummed if we stopped in someone else‧s yard.” Maureen could sometimes forget about things like that.

“Oh, yeah,” she said, “I guess you‧re right.”

The houses started to shrink, and the yards, too, until they were shoeboxes set in the middle of postage stamps, and now we were in Blentz. We coasted down the main street of Blentz, then the main street of Hesmont, then the main street of Seldem. It‧s all one street, but each town has a different name for it. In Seldem it‧s Pittsfield Street and that‧s where the Tastee-Freez is.

There was only one little thing that day that wasn‧t perfect. As I turned onto our street, I saw a moving van parked in front of the house where the Zolniaks had lived. A couple of men were trying to get a television set through the front door, and in the middle of the unmowed lawn a woman was sunning herself on a chaise lounge. Her bright blue bathing-suit straps were undone, and she had yellow plastic eye protectors over her eyes.

 

I was just coasting by, minding my own business, when a chance gust of wind blew one of the big back doors of the moving van wide open, right into my path. I tried to swerve, but it was too late. I slammed right into it and was hurled in slow motion through the air. I was up there for so long that I had time to notice the sound of my bike, clattering down without me. I had time to look both ways and feel relieved that no cars were coming. Time to think, This is kind of interesting, and right now I‧m still okay, but in a second I‧m going to get hurt. Which I did. I met the pavement with great force and cried out,
“Aaaaagghhhi”
Or something like that. With a quickness that surprised me, I found myself jumping up and dusting myself off. I examined my hand and my leg, where gravel and flesh and blood were mingling freely. The lady in the chaise lounge lifted up her eye protectors and said, “You okay, hon?”

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