Authors: Hannah Roberts McKinnon
“New neighbor?” Izzy asked.
“Lindy Dunn,” Mama told them. “She moved in last week. Has a boy Sidda's age.”
Izzy winked at Sidda, who fluttered her eyelashes.
“What's the husband like?” asked Dotty.
“Doesn't seem to be one,” Mama said with a shrug.
“No husband?” Dotty pressed.
“Not our business,” said Grandma Rae, but she, too, waited for Mama to answer.
“Husband or not, I'll tell you what she has got. Talent. She set up a pottery studio in the garden shed,” Mama said.
Faye nodded in agreement. “She brought some of it down to Harland's just yesterday. Bowls and vases, all sorts of colors. Real pretty.”
I'd been in that potting shed myself. Tucked behind the back of the house like a little secret, it was a small garden shed that Lindy had done up like a cottage. She'd hung plaid curtains in the windows, planted flowers in the boxes, and squeezed her worktables neatly into each corner. She often worked late into the night, and I always knew when she was done because the wind chimes would ring through our open window as she slid the heavy door closed. I liked the thought of the shed windows glowing in the darkness, and Lindy working her hands over the clay inside it. I pictured her at her wheel, humming softly, while the night unfolded outside. In no time at all, she'd become as much a part of the night as the river gurgling behind our house and the peepers beneath our window.
“We should meet her, girls. How 'bout next week?” Izzy asked.
Mama shrugged. “I'm not sure if she sews, but I'm happy to invite her.”
“Next Friday,” Izzy said, yanking the T. rex from her brim. “She'll come.”
uch!” Ben yelped as Sidda swatted him with the wooden spoon.
“Hands off, it's for my guest!” Sidda said. She was elbow deep in a bowl of pancake mix.
I couldn't tell which looked worse, our kitchen or Sidda. Batter splashed the countertops and floor. I wondered what the fuss was about. After all, Marilee had eaten breakfast with us hundreds of Saturday mornings.
I watched as Sidda turned her attention to the refrigerator. It was a doozy, crowded with all sorts of animal concoctions for the patients. You had to be real careful what you reached for when you stuck your hand in there. More than once Daddy had accidentally poured the mouse formula in his coffee.
Crickets were the most gourmet item on the patients' menu, loved by Speed Bump and the birds alike. So I stored a big old bowlful in the fridge. Right next to the bowl filled with blueberries. And that's just what Sidda was reaching for. Gabbing away on the phone to her friend Amanda, she stuck her arm in and grabbed the bowl of crickets.
Before we knew it, she'd dumped those crickets right into the pancake mix. She couldn't figure out why it was so lumpy, so she just kept stirring. Ben and I covered our mouths in horrified delight. Sidda just kept on talking; stirring and talking, flipping and talking. Soon, she had herself a whole stack of cricket pancakes and was buttering them up good when there was a knock on the kitchen door.
“Come in, Marilee!” Ben shouted. But it wasn't Marilee joining us for breakfast this Saturday. Instead, Lucas Dunn poked his head in the back door and smiled.
“I got a call about some pancakes,” he said.
“You're here!” Sidda shrieked, swiping at the pancake mix on her cheek and smoothing her hair with her sticky fingers.
What was Sidda up to? I looked over at Mama's fine blue china, the table set for two in the adjacent dining room, and it all walloped me in the head.
Ben and I exchanged looks. This called for a change in plans. It was one thing to watch Sidda eat cricket pancakes, but Lucas? It hardly seemed fair.
“Can I help with anything?” Lucas asked, starting toward the counter.
“Oh no, no.” Sidda laughed nervously, directing him to the dining room table. “You sit yourself down and I'll be right out. It's almost ready!”
Sidda hurtled back into the kitchen with a pitcher. “Make yourself useful, Franny,” she hissed. “Pour us some juice.” She dusted herself off and picked up her pancake platter with a flourish.
“Sure,” I whispered, watching as she scooped up the pancake platter. “But perhaps you should try your special pancakes before you serve them. You know, to be sure they're perfect.”
Sidda stared at the pancake platter before her. “Yes, of course. They do have to be perfect.” Then she looked at Ben and me. “But don't you dare sneak a bite for yourselves!”
This was too much for Ben, who giggled himself right off his stool. “We wouldn't dream of it!” he yelped.
Ben and I were about dying as we watched Sidda pour the syrup over the platter and pick up a fork. She cut herself a tiny bite and dipped it in the syrup. It took forever. By then Mama had joined us in the kitchen, and Ben and I tried to look as innocent as possible.
“Sidda, how lovely to make breakfast for Lucas,” Mama said.
“Blueberry pancakes,” Sidda said, her fork poised in midair. “Fresh from the garden.”
Mama opened the refrigerator. “Did you forget the blueberries?” she asked, holding up the bowl just as Sidda popped the forkful into her mouth.
It didn't take long. Sidda looked at the empty cricket bowl, at the empty fork in her hand, and then at me. I would bet ten dollars that you could've heard the scream clear into town. I didn't mind. Lucas ate cold cereal on the porch with me and Ben, while Sidda recovered in her room under a cold washcloth.
Poor Sidda. Never again would she even look at a pancake.
t still hadn't rained. Not in May, June, or even now, going on the third week of July. Each day dust clouds fluttered around our feet, settling between our toes, covering our skin in gray layers. The drought dragged on. “The worst in over thirty years,” people whispered at the post office, on the library steps, and in line at Harland's. I felt like I was wilting.
“Better keep the water buckets full,” Dad told Ben and me. “It's gonna be another scorcher.” He set the Monday paper on the table, gulped his coffee, and kissed us all goodbye. “Try to stay cool. I'll see you after work.”
“Well, don't count on me to fill buckets,” Sidda informed us. “I'm meeting Marilee at the pool. We have to get there early to get the good lounge chairs.” Sidda had been in a foul mood all weekend, on account of the crickets. Now she wanted even less to do with Ben and me, or the animals.
“Drop your brother off at camp?” Mama asked, clearing the dishes.
“But it doesn't start until nine!” Sidda argued.
“Perfect!” cheered Ben. “I'll have time for a swim.”
“But, Mom . . .” Sidda complained, her blue eyes wide with offense.
“Or,” Mama continued, “you could always help out here.”
Sidda huffed away from the table, snatching her beach bag from the closet. “He's got five minutes,” she said, slamming the
screen door. “And don't even think about bringing those turtles!” she yelled toward his room.
After I'd filled Snort's water trough and watered all the animal patients, I found Mama seated at her art desk in the family room. She rifled through her paintbrushes, a small can of red paint in one hand.
“Working on your portrait?” I asked, glancing at the woman on the easel.
“Nope, working on the mailbox today. Grandma Rae suggested a new coat of paint. Says it's so faded she can't read our name anymore.”
I rolled my eyes. “We wouldn't want Grandma Rae to go to the wrong house.”
Mama smiled. “Come help, so we'll be sure she doesn't.”
I sat on a patch of dry grass at the end of our driveway, watching Mama swirl the red letters of our name, “Parker,” the “P” large and cheerfully potbellied. As bossy as Grandma Rae was, I had to admit it looked real nice when Mama finished.
“What about Lindy's?” I asked, looking over at the Dunns' plain black box.
“Mmm,” Mama said, examining the box. “It does look a bit dark and serious.” In no time she'd spelled out “DUNN” in large block letters, adding a little flower at the end.
“Much more handsome,” she said with a laugh.
“Dashing!” I agreed.
“Excuse me.” It was Lindy, hurrying out to the road. “What are you doing?”
“Oh, hi,” Mama said. “We were sprucing up our mailbox. Figured we'd do yours, too. You don't mind, do you?”
Lindy forced a smile, but it was an uncomfortable one.
“Oh, you don't need to bother,” she said, stuffing her hands awkwardly in her back pockets. I looked at Mama.
“It's no bother,” Mama said. We stared at the new box, still wet with fresh paint. “I'm sorry,” Mama added suddenly. “I should've asked you first.”
Lindy shook her head. “No, no, it's real nice. It is. I just hadn't planned on putting our name on it. Out here for everyone to see.” She looked around nervously.
“I can change it if you like,” Mama said, holding up her brush.
Lindy sighed, then shook her head. “No, no, it's okay. I guess I'm being silly. I should be thanking you.”
“You sure?” Mama asked. Now she looked as uncomfortable as Lindy.
“I'm sure,” Lindy said with a nod. “Now, how about some iced tea? You girls must be hot.”
Mama accepted, clearly relieved, and they headed off to the cabin.
“You coming, Franny?” they called.
“Right behind you,” I answered. But instead I studied Lindy's mailbox. The letters were straight and sharp, pleasing to look at. What didn't she like about it?
fternoons were the worst. There just wasn't any escape from the heat. The animals drank up the water as fast as we could drain it from the barn pump. I put my lips to the nozzle, gratefully swallowing the cold water that came from the deep dark ground. Jax wiggled between my knees, his pink tongue lapping at the faucet. Suddenly he turned, and a deep
worked its way up from his throat. I turned, too.
“Is the doctor in?” Lucas Dunn leaned against the door as if he'd been doing it all summer. Jax wagged right up to him, slobbering away at his open hands.
“Hey!” Ben waved. “Where you been all week?”
I'd been wondering the same thing. It was Wednesday afternoon, and we hadn't had a visit from Lucas since the pancake incident over the weekend.
“Been working,” Lucas said. “Got me a job down at Harland's Market.”
So that's where he was.
“Well, come see Speed Bump,” Ben said. “She's almost fixed.”
Lucas followed him into the stall. “Nice work, guys.” He ran his hand gently over the tape, tracing the rough surface of her shell, his fingers following the patterns and grooves. “Do you ever wonder if turtle shells are anything like fingerprints? You know, how no two are ever alike?”
“Like snowflakes!” Ben shouted, growing excited.
“Yeah. They tell a story,” Lucas said.
“What about rings on a tree?” I wondered out loud. Lucas looked over the stall door at me, and our eyes locked.
“What about them?” he asked.
“Well, rings on a tree tell a story,” I explained. “They tell you about its seasons, if they've been plentiful or not. The rings show how much water the tree's had, how much nourishment, that sort of thing.”
Lucas gazed past me for a minute, nodding thoughtfully at the hills beyond the barn. I began to feel uncomfortable, like maybe I'd said something silly, but he smiled at me.
“Plentiful seasons,” he finally said. “I like that.”
Lucas stayed through the afternoon, scrubbing buckets and cleaning out cages. He answered every one of the hundred questions Ben threw at him, from what armadillos eat for breakfast to where stars go when they fall. I wasn't so sure about his answers, but he never lost patience, or told Ben to stop. I realized I liked him best for some of the things he didn't do.
When the work was done, Ben went inside to cool off and Lucas and I plopped ourselves on the edge of a hay bale, sinking gratefully against the wall. Jax settled at our feet, resting his chin quietly on his paws. The scent of dry grass rose into the air around us. It was sweet and dusty, like the day.
“Oklahoma always this hot?” he asked.
I'd forgotten he was still a newcomer.
“Hotter than a flapjack,” I said, borrowing Izzy's line. “We
sure need rain.” We sat like that awhile, Lucas chewing on a piece of hay, me counting the wild beats of my heart, hoping Sidda wouldn't spy us from the window, or Mama call for dinner just yet.
“What do your rings say?” he asked, reaching suddenly for my hand.
“What?” It startled me when he wrapped his fingers around my wrist, turning my palm up so he could see it.
“The lines on your hand. What do they say about your seasons?”
I thought about the old elm tree outside my window, how it creaked on windy nights all year long. About Speed Bump's rough shell, marked by turtle seasons; laying eggs, having babies, hibernating. And the rings of my life: Mama and Daddy, Ben, Sidda, and Grandma Rae, the farm, this dusty little town. All of it rising inside me over the years, so familiar, yet as new and strange to Lucas as he was to me.
Lucas's fingers were cool against the heat of my hand, and he moved them gently over my palm as he studied it. I tilted my head and took him in. His hair, the same color as the hay we sat on, his skin freckled and brown. He smelled like summer, like grass and sun and earth.
“What does it say?” I whispered.
“Well, for starters it says you've had plentiful seasons. Good family. Great dog.” He nudged Jax with his toe. “And you're at home in the outdoors. You're no scaredy-cat.”
“I'm not?” This surprised me, my heart pounding harder in my chest, as if to say, “Oh, if you only knew the truth!”