Authors: Kevin Henkes
For Laura, Will, Clara, Susan, Anne, Jane, and Bobâ
thinking of, and remembering, Florida
When Alice Rice and her parents were halfway across the bridge, Alice felt strange. Her breath caught high in her chest and she became light-headed. It seemed as though there wasn't enough air in the car.
“Look,” said Alice's mother from the front seat. “It's beautiful.”
“As always,” said Alice's father. He was driving. He slowed the silver rental car. “What do you think, Alice?”
The sun was blazing. The waterâbeneath and beyond themâglinted wildly. Seconds earlier, Alice had been thinking that the surface of the water was like glossy, peaked blue-green icing sprinkled with truckloads of sugar. Now, she had to remind herself to breathe. She was dizzy and slightly afraid. Her hands were clenched. What was wrong? This had never happened to her before. She'd always loved the bridge, loved the feeling of being suspended, like a bird, between the mainland and the island.
The sensation passed as quickly as it had come. “Beautiful,” Alice finally said, relieved. “I wonder who'll see the first dolphin this year.”
“I don't know,” said Alice's father, “but there's the first pelican.” He pointed. To the left of the car and not much higher glided a big, drab, knobby bird.
“They look prehistoric to me,” said Alice's mother.
Alice concentrated entirely on the pelican. The bird was so odd and silly looking, a mysterious, mesmerizing wonder. Alice reached out, pressing her palms flat against the half-opened window. She'd seen pelicans before, every year that she had been here, but when you see something only once a year it's always new, as if you're seeing it for the first time. Everything is new here, she thought. New and exciting.
The pelican plunged out of sight, and Alice's mind drifted back to the feeling she'd had. She was somewhat superstitious and wondered if the feeling meant that something bad was going to happen. She tried to shake the thought out of her head. She was hoping that this would be the best trip she'd ever had. They would be celebrating her birthday on this trip. In a few days. This, alone, wasn't unusualâher birthday always came during their annual vacationâbut what made this year special was that this would be her most important birthday yet. Ten. Double digits.
“Heron to the right,” her mother announced.
“Ibis!” said her father. “Straightaway.”
“Seagull!” said Alice, sinking into a warm, cozy happiness. “Over there. And over there and over there and over there .Â .Â .” Her voice was bubbling with laughter.
Minutes later, they were on land, the island. This was Alice's tenth trip to Sanibel Island in Florida. Her family always came in February when it was cold and dreary back home in Wisconsin. Just this morning they'd left behind three inches of new-fallen snow, icy winds, and a leaden sky.
Alice was thinking that the sky in Floridaâso blue and transparentâwas better than the sky in Wisconsin. “Blue, bluer, bluest,” Alice whispered.
The palm trees, the lacy pines, the bright unfamiliar flowers, and then the town unrolled before her. Everything seemed illuminated, and glazed or made of glass.
Alice was an only child, as were her parents. All four of her grandparents were dead. Her family was small, but in Florida she pretended that her family was big. She pretended that the people who stayed in the neighboring cottages on the beach, the people who returned at the same time each year as she and her parents did, were part of her family.
The Wishmeiers and their grandchildren; Helen Blair; ancient Mr. Barden; and Alice's mother's college friend, Kate. They were Alice's big family. They didn't exactly look like they all belonged together the way some families did, but Alice didn't mind.
Alice had a pale, watchful face. She had straight brown hair and brown eyes and a brown spot the size and shape of an apple seed near the corner of her mouth. The spot was a mole, but Alice hated the word
and referred to it as a speck. She hated the speck, too, and had decided she'd have it removed when she was old enough to make decisions like that without her parents' permission. Her parents repeatedly told her that it was called a beauty mark and that it made her extra pretty, and that one of her great-grandmothers had paid to have fake beauty marks, which she'd kept in a little tin box on her dresser and wore when she wanted to be fancy.
Neither of Alice's parents had moles on their faces, but they did have straight brown hair. Her father was an architect and his name was Tom. Her mother worked in an art gallery and her name was Pam. Alice thought her parents' names suited them. Tom, the name, was short and solid, like her father. And Pam, spelled backward, was map. Her mother always seemed to have the answers, seemed to know what to do. She knew the way, and not just when driving a car or hiking.
Alice liked her last name, Rice, because it rhymed with nice, and she took this as a good sign.
Alice liked her first name most of the time. She didn't like it when her father called her Alice in Wonderland, which he rarely did any longer. He did still call her Pudding, which she didn't mind as long as none of her friends heard him. Pudding was short for Alice Rice Pudding, which he found hilarious.
Alice had given up wanting a brother or sister. “Out of the question,” her father would say. “I'm too old,” her mother would add. Alice thought that a brother would have made her family complete, especially a brother named Eric, because Eric and Rice have the exact same letters. Back home in Wisconsin, Alice had a stuffed polar bear and a purple betta fish called Eric. And she'd already named their rental car Eric, too.
Before Alice knew it, her father was steering Eric off the road onto a narrow driveway of crushed seashells. The crunch beneath the tires was familiar. They stopped briefly at the tiny office to check in and get the keys. Then they drove toward the beach between two rows of low, pastel-colored cottages. They pulled up to number twoâthe cottage Alice and her parents stayed in every year. It was painted cotton-candy pink.
“Here we are, Pudding,” said Alice's father.
And they were.
And Alice was filled with joy.