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Authors: Hannah Roberts McKinnon

Franny Parker (7 page)

BOOK: Franny Parker
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“Okay,” Pearl puffed, rolling to a shaky stop beside me. “Better hide that mouse.” Pearl liked the animal hospital just fine, as long as she didn't have to touch any of the patients. Especially the mice.

We headed into the cool air of Harland's dairy section, and I peered into my Animal Funds can. I felt guilty spending the funds on ice cream. But Pearl had agreed to come along for vet supplies, so I figured I'd chalk it up to employee wages. Besides, the can was good and full at the moment. I'd long ago spent Faye Wakeman's first five-dollar donation, but there'd been plenty since from all the people who sent me new patients. Izzy herself had plunked a twenty-dollar bill in the can when Grandma Rae wasn't looking last Friday.

“Hey,” Pearl said, handing me a Creamsicle. “Is that Lucas?” She pointed across the store to one of the cash registers. It was.

Suddenly I felt foolish with a mouse in my pocket and a melting ice cream in hand. “Let's go,” I said.

“But I didn't pick out my ice cream yet.” She stood in the middle of the aisle, hands on her hips. Honestly, sometimes Pearl was just like a mule.

“Take mine,” I said, glancing quickly at the checkout aisle. I shoved the Creamsicle in her hand. “I'll meet you outside.”

“Oh-oh,” Pearl said, inspecting the redness creeping across my cheeks. “You like him.”

“I do not!” I hissed. Pearl did not know what she was talking about.

I saw Mr. Harland approach Lucas's register and point to his watch. “Lunch break!” he said.

“Hurry,” I told Pearl. I watched as Lucas pulled his Harland's Market apron over his head and tossed it over his shoulder. He closed his checkout lane and headed toward our aisle.

“Pearl!” I pleaded.

She looked me up and down for what felt like a long time. “All right. Let's go.” She grabbed the ice cream from my hand and tossed it back in the freezer. Just as Pearl sometimes surprised me by reading my secrets, she also surprised me with these kindnesses. Small but crucial kindnesses. We hurried up the aisle, ducking our heads, but were stopped by a hideous scream.

“Rat!” a woman howled. “There's a rat in the dairy section!”

Instinctively, I felt my shirt pocket. Empty. We both spun around at once, to a scene that unfolded in slow motion. A large gray-haired woman was waving her purse with one hand and covering her eyes with the other as Jeremy Jenkins, one of the stock boys, ran around her in circles swiping at the floor.

“Stop!” I yelled. “He's not a rat!”

But they didn't seem to hear. Instead, the woman went on yelling and waving, until she got herself so worked up she collapsed on a crate of butter. Jeremy kept chasing the gray blur on the floor as it zigged and zagged up the dairy aisle, shoppers stumbling out of their path and milk jugs toppling to the floor. Finally Jeremy fell to his knees and smacked his hand over the floor. My stomach lurched.

“Don't hurt him!” I hollered, racing up behind him. Slowly he lifted one finger of his cupped hand. A whiskered nose poked out.

“Wait till Mr. Harland sees this!” Jeremy puffed.

“Please don't,” I begged, lifting his fingers one by one to extract my mouse. “His name's Runty.”

Jeremy shook his dark hair, hands on his knees. “We set traps in the back for these things.”

I scooped Runty up and examined him quickly. He was fine. I looked back at the gray-haired woman, now wiping butter off her giant rear end. “So sorry, ma'am. I really am.” She made no reply.

But someone else did.

“What's going on here?”

I whirled around to face Lucas.

“We're just leaving,” Pearl said, grabbing my elbow.

“With their rat!” Jeremy blurted out.

“Rat?” Lucas raised his eyebrows.

“Mouse!” Pearl said. “Orphan mouse!”

Lucas looked around at the tipped boxes, the woman still trying to clean the butter from her skirt. He tried to hide his smile. “Well, you'd better scram fast,” he said. “Before Harland comes.”

“We have to tell him,” Jeremy said, motioning to the mess. “I'm not cleaning all this up!”

Lucas turned to him. “Shall we also tell him about the
free
candy bars you eat in the back?” he asked, handing him a broom.

Jeremy looked away.

“Go on, Franny. Take your orphan home.”

I flashed Lucas my biggest smile, and we took off. We were almost at the door when we crashed into Mr. Harland himself. He was not pleased.

“This is not a racetrack. You'll trample my customers!” Mr. Harland crossed his arms.

I nodded fiercely, covering my shirt pocket. I glanced over my shoulder, remembering the smashed boxes we'd just left. Pearl's cheeks burned crimson.

“We're very sorry, sir. There's something we should tell you—”

“Oh, here you are, sir.” Suddenly Lucas appeared behind us. “Mr. Harland, these girls need your
expert
opinion.”

Mr. Harland's eyes twinkled. “Oh?” Mr. Harland was a man of strong opinions, though it was not every day they were referred to as expert. He straightened his expert back, uncrossed his expert arms. “Why yes, yes, of course! What may I assist you with?”

Lucas nudged me and winked.

“Um, broccoli,” I blurted. “We need your opinion on broccoli.”

Mr. Harland nodded. And very gently, so you almost wouldn't notice, Lucas placed his arm on Mr. Harland's, guiding him slowly toward the produce section, one step at a time.

“And how are you preparing it?” Mr. Harland asked, wringing his mustache.

“Preparing it?” I wondered.

Mr. Harland looked impatient. “How are you cooking your broccoli?”

“We're making a pie!” Pearl shouted.

Mr. Harland cringed. “Broccoli pie?”

I closed my eyes.

“My mother's recipe,” Pearl mumbled.

“I see.” Mr. Harland thought this over, his brow furrowed
in concentration. Indeed, this was a job for an expert. “I can't say I've ever made broccoli pie . . .”

“Then what about banana?” Pearl asked, pointing to the display before us. Far away from the mess in the dairy aisle.

Well done!
I thought, as we headed to the bananas.

Mr. Harland brightened. “We have wonderful bananas. Bright yellow, fresh-off-the-truck bananas!” He smiled widely, pleased with himself. By now we were in the colorful safety of the fruit section, standing before a giant case of yellow bananas. “Behold!” Mr. Harland pointed.

I glanced around. Lucas had long since disappeared. Surely the mess was gone by now.

“A fine fruit for a pie. Banana nut. Banana cream. Everyone loves bananas!” Mr. Harland was practically singing.

“Maybe we'll think it over,” I said, inching back toward the door.

But Mr. Harland wouldn't hear of it. “Nonsense!” he cried. “Let's go, bananas!”

“You still owe me an ice cream,” Pearl muttered as we pedaled away, our bike baskets loaded with bananas. I felt the soft ball in my pocket and breathed relief. The afternoon opened up around us, making me feel brave.

“Hey, Pearl, ever heard of a rain dance?” I asked.

“That's just crazy talk,” she said.

As we turned onto my road I was about to correct Pearl, to tell her what the Busy Bees had said. But I was startled by the roar of an engine coming from the Dunns'. I stopped my bike where the driveways forked. Lindy would love the rain dance; I'd tell both her and Pearl about it.

But when I pedaled up, I saw it wasn't Lindy's truck I'd heard. There, in front of the cabin, a black car idled in a cloud of smoke. It was an old car, with a dented fender and broken taillight. I stopped my bike. A pale-faced man stared back at me from the driver's seat.

“This your house?” he asked in a gravelly voice. I flinched. Before I could answer, the man revved the engine and sped away, dust riding on the heat behind him like a dark veil.

The Black Car

I
t took me a day to get up the courage to face Lucas. Late the next afternoon I found him kneeling in his yard rubbing Jax's belly.

“Come get your ferocious dog,” he teased.

“He bothering you?”

“Nah, he's a great dog.” Lucas was right. “I wish we had one, but Mom says we move around too much.”

“Well, you can borrow Jax anytime you like.” I looked at Lucas, at the tan lines around his arms that peeked from under his T-shirt. “You're not moving away, are you?”

Lucas shrugged. “Not yet. Mom thinks the school here
sounds good. The neighbors aren't so bad either,” he added with a grin.

I grinned back.

“So, how's the orphan?” he asked.

“Sorry about yesterday,” I said. “You really saved us.”

“No apology needed,” Lucas said. “Most exciting lunch break I've had yet.”

I blushed.

“What's Flag up to these days?” he asked.

“He's up to no good. Steals food from the garden, makes Jody's mother pretty mad. But he loves Jody so much, you can tell.” I stopped, aware that I was blabbering away like a fool, but Lucas didn't seem to mind.

“Flag's pretty neat,” he agreed.

“Jody, too. Can you imagine having your own baby deer?”

Lucas frowned. “But does Flag really belong?”

“What do you mean?”

“Just 'cause he's cute and follows Jody around like a dog, well, it's not the same. He's wild.”

I stared at Lucas. Didn't he realize what Jody had done? What a great pet Flag was?

“All's I'm saying is sometimes people mean well, but they don't realize what they're getting themselves into. Things get complicated,” Lucas continued.

I thought of my own wild animals in the barn, of Lucas and Lindy moving in next door, of all the good things happening that summer.

“But Flag's home is with Jody,” I whispered. “They're meant for each other.”

Lucas didn't answer; instead we both concentrated on Jax's belly. Clouds of yellow fur rose up around us, and Jax murmured gratefully in that droopy-eyed way dogs do.

“What about you? Do you ever miss home?” I asked finally.

“Home?” Lucas laughed, but stopped when he realized I was serious.

“How come you've moved so much?” I asked. It was a harmless question, but I wished I could take it back. Lucas shifted to his feet, abruptly wiping the dirt from his jeans.

“It's getting late. I better go help with dinner,” he said. Something crunched under his sneaker, and he picked up a piece of broken red plastic. “What's this?”

The black car popped into my mind. “Oh, I bet it fell off that car. The taillight was broken.”

Lucas flinched. “What car?”

“I don't know,” I said. “Some old car. It was parked in your driveway.”

“When? Who was in it?” He looked at me like I was hiding something from him.

“Yesterday afternoon. Some strange man, but he left.” I pictured the pale-faced driver, the blank look on his face like a washed-out photo.

“What did he say? Did you talk to him?” Lucas's voice was urgent now, his eyes wide with alarm.

“No,” I said, wishing he would sit back down, feeling like I'd done something wrong.

“Did he have dark hair?”

I nodded, wondering how Lucas could have guessed. He lurched toward the house, startling Jax.

“Why didn't you tell me, Franny?” There was fear in his voice, and I felt somehow responsible.

Desperately, I reached for Sidda's invitation in my back pocket. I'd give it to him now. It would cheer him up.

But the cabin door banged shut. He was already gone.

County Fair

W
hat book are you on now?” It was Friday, and Pearl stood on the other side of the screen door, her hair billowing around her like a storm. Jax leaped up and barked at the sight of her.

“Number six,” I groaned, letting her in. In the light, Pearl's hair looked like fire, the frizzy flames leaping off her head.

Sidda clapped her hand over her mouth, then stepped forward. “Wow, Pearl, that's quite a look!” She inspected Pearl's hair, hands wringing behind her back. I could tell Sidda was just dying to get a hairbrush.

Pearl shrugged. “Mother's been busy,” she explained. “Her garden club is setting up their booth for the big fair tonight, and I can't braid it without help.”

“Ooh! Allow me!” Sidda clapped. Unknowing victims and hairstyling opportunities did not often present themselves together, and Sidda disappeared quickly to our room. I imagined her diving into her beauty drawer.

“Hey, Pearl, wanna hold George?” Ben was dangling the turtle dangerously close to Pearl's hair.

“Beat it, Ben! We have work to do.” Sidda returned and wedged herself between them in one deft move, wielding her basket of ribbons and brushes like a small army. She surveyed the battlefield, selected her weapon of choice, and pounced on Pearl's hair with a purple comb.

BOOK: Franny Parker
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