Authors: Janet Tashjian
When my parents leave for their Thursday-night date, I offer my babysitter, Amy, a truce. Usually I torture her by locking myself in the bathroom, running the water, and overflowing the bathtub, or taking my old bike from the basement and riding it down the front hall stairs. Last time I did, I skidded into my father's worktable and his markers ended up all over the house.
“I'll make a deal with you,” I say. “If you help me do some research, I'll go to bed on time with no fuss. I swear.”
She stops texting her friends and looks at me suspiciously. “Is this for a school project?”
“Kind of.” Since my mother grabbed the newspaper article away from me the other day, I searched every wastebasket in the house with no luck. All I can remember about the news story is the date.
When Amy goes back to texting, I stick my face between her and the phone and ask if she can find more information on the computer. She jumps at the chance to use my father's superfast laptop and types in
MARTHA'S VINEYARD DROWNING
, as well as the year. Several articles pop up, but I finally spot the short piece I found in the attic. The girl's name is Susan James. I ask Amy if there's anything else.
“Why are you asking
I tell Amy I've cornered Mom twice, but she gets angrier each time I ask. I even heard her talking to Dad about it in the den with the door shut.
“'You can always write to the newspaper if you're that desperate to know.”
“But then I'd have to WRITE.” I decide I don't like Amy's attitude, so I break our truce, grab my dog, Bodi, and lock us in my mother's car. After a few minutes of trying to coax me out, Amy gives up and goes inside.
I scrunch down in the backseat and think about a girl Amy's age who died. I bury my head into Bodi's chocolate fur and wonder what that must've been like for her parents, her brothers and sisters, if she had any, or even her dog. As if he knows what I'm thinking, Bodi moves in closer and puts his head on my leg. I imagine waves crashing on an island I've never been to but then am startled by bright lights behind me. Mom and Dad, home early.
When I jump out of the car, Bodi does too. “We were just cleaning it. What a mess!”
Amy meets us in the driveway and holds out her hand to get paid. “He locked them in again. Plus, he was obsessed with an article about some girl who drowned. Mrs. Fallon, I tried my best, I really did.”
My mother gives her a twenty, and Amy is back on her cell before my father can offer to walk her home. I yell across the street for Bodi to stop eating the food Mr. Jennings leaves out for his cat.
My mother holds open the back door. “I have no idea why I saved that article,” she says. “I must've been interested in something on the back.”
“There was an ad for a furniture store.”
“See? I was probably looking at couches.”
“On Martha's Vineyard?”
Mom tries hard not to get annoyed. “I know you have a curious mind, but maybe you can focus on something else. Tomorrow's the last day of schoolâlet's have a great summer, okay?” She shoots me that smile she wears when she'd give everything she owns to get me to behave for more than just a few minutes.
I tell her we won't be doing anything in school tomorrow besides watching a DVD so it's fine if I stay home. But she's not buying it and sends me up to brush my teeth.
Later (I didn't brush my teeth) I trace the letters SâUâSâAâN JâAâMâEâS on the wall. Bodi looks up from his spot at the foot of my bed and watches as if he can read. Maybe if he could, the summer reading list wouldn't be such a chore. I tell myself to stop thinking about bad stuff; after all, tomorrow is the start of vacation, the start of sleeping late, the end of being prodded every day by teachers with their mental Tasers to LEARN, LEARN, LEARN.
Tomorrow is also the day I start to investigate what my mother is trying to hide.
The last day of school should be the best day of the year, but it's a disaster. Ms. Williams can't get the DVD player to work, so she points to everything in the room and makes us spell it like we're back in kindergarten. When she points to a photo of Mr. Demetri, I spell
T-H-E W-O-R-S-T P-R-I-N-C-I-P-A-L W-E H-A-V-E E-V-E-R H-A-D
instead. I thought I did a great job with all that spelling, but Ms. Williams is not amused and makes me write out the multiplication tables for punishment. No one appreciates a good joke anymore, that's the problem.
When I get to my locker, Joe Brennan is waiting for me. Joe used to be one of the smallest kids in our school, but he had a growth spurt last fall and now he's the biggest. Joe isn't smart enough to use his new size to shake down kids for lunch money. Instead, his favorite trick is getting in your face with his junk-food breath and making you listen to his lame made-up stories. Trust me, losing your cash is a hundred times better than his fantasy tales about talking gerbils and magic turtles.
I lean against my locker to escape his foul breath. From the orange crumbs nesting between his teeth, I assume he's been eating Cheetos.
“Hey, Derek,” he says, “are you around this summer? I'm working on a great story about a cat with wings who's afraid of heights.”
“Sounds interesting.” I tell him another lieâthat I'll be in skateboard camp in Venice Beach and won't be around.
He doesn't buy it. “You'll be hanging around the neighborhood with that stupid old mutt retriever of yours, same as every summer.”
“My dog might be old and a mutt, but he's not stupid.” I can feel the handle of the locker pressing into my back as I lean away from the orange-y crumbs shooting out of Joe's mouth.
When I burp in his face, Joe finally lets go of my T-shirt. I hurry back to the classroom and run smack into Ms. Williams.
She places a book in my hand. “Consider this an end-of-school present.”
It's one of the books from our reading list.
“Since it's not a library or classroom book,” she continues, “you can write in it. I made you some notes in the margins. I hope you find them helpful.”
“You're giving me a used book?”
She ignores me. “And don't forget to keep drawing your vocabulary words.”
Ms. Williams obviously doesn't realize I'm trying to escape because she continues to block the door. We move side to side in the doorway like two old people dancing. As if on cue, Carly appears beside me. She smiles sweetly to Ms. Williams, then shoots me the evil eye to stop blocking the entrance to her precious classroom.
I move out of the way and thank Ms. Williams for the book. When Carly realizes the teacher gave me a present and not her, she lets out a pathetic noise that sounds as if she's been punched in the gut.
“Carly, are you ready to take Ginger home?” Ms. Williams asks.
Carly volunteeredâof courseâto watch the class hedgehog for the summer. She stands near Ginger's crate like a Secret Service agent guarding the president. Maybe she'll fall asleep with Ginger on her lap this summer and wake up with marks on her legs from Ginger's quills.
When the bell rings at the end of the day, most of the girls hug each other good-bye at the lockers, milking every last second of school time until next September. I vault over the hedge near the school entrance and skid to a halt in front of the crossing guard. When she tells me to have a nice summer, I shout back that I intend to. At home, I throw my backpack onto the porch and let out Bodi. I think about grabbing his leash but decide against it. We're finally free!