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Authors: Gina McMurchy-Barber

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BOOK: Reading the Bones
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At the shore Shuksi'em stands just close enough so that the waves wash over his feet. The cool water sends a shiver up his bent old spine. Later, when the tide pulls the waves away from the shore, the villagers will dig for clams, mussels, and seaweed. He hopes Talusip will prepare his favourite dish for their evening meal — limpets and mussels soaked in tasty fish oil.

With the help of his cedar stick to lean on, Shuksi'em bends his knees until he is close enough to fall gently to the
sand. It takes great effort, but he manages to stretch his neck so he can gaze across the bay to the land and the giant mountains beyond. He knows the young men are nearly ready for the big hunt and may even leave tomorrow. Soon there will be fresh deer meat, and if the men are lucky, succulent elk or bear. This is the season when every meal is like a feast and his old bones get padded with extra flesh.

Shuksi'em does not hear the gentle swish of the sand as Talusip approaches, though he senses her before her hand rests upon his grey head. He grunts gently to acknowledge her presence.

“Ah, another good day for gathering.” She yawns and stretches before she eases down beside her husband. “You did not sleep well again last night, Husband. Would you like some spruce tea to ease the stiffness?”

She is a good woman, Shuksi'em thinks as he shakes his head.

“Q'am says he will take the boy with him on the big hunt. I say it is too soon, but he will not listen. You should talk to him. He listens to you.”

Shuksi'em's stiff backbone will not allow him to turn his head to face her, but she sees his smile from the side. “You said the same to me when I took Q'am out to the hunt for the first time.” His voice falls silent as he thinks back to that day. “We both know the journey of life is often dangerous. You and I have travelled a long way on its path together. Whether we went slow with cautious steps or raced along fearlessly, we have always known it was not us who decides when the journey will end. Q'am is a good father to the boy, and I say we let him do what he thinks best for our grandson.”

“Old man, do you ever have a simple answer? After all these seasons together, it would be nice if sometimes you
would just agree. But that is not possible for you. No, no, no!” Talusip slaps teasingly at his bare arm but does not hurt him.

Shuksi'em smiles at his good wife. He knows why her heart is filled with fear. The clan has lost many of its young over the years. Some died on the hunts or out on the ocean when the waters turned angry. Then there were many seasons of terrible sickness, and the clan lost many children, including two of their own young ones.

Talusip rolls onto her side like a round sea lion and pushes herself up. Before she leaves she strokes Shuksi'em's long silver hair. “Don't forget, Husband. You promised your granddaughter you would help her design a necklace for the fall ceremony.”

With his wife gone, Shuksi'em steals back to the last few peaceful moments of the morning. Behind him, at the forest's edge, the families are beginning to stir and will soon emerge from the clan lodge. He pushes his rough, rigid hands past the sun-warmed surface to the cool sand below. Over and over, he churns up the warm and the cold, the dry and the wet. Then he lets the sand sift through his thick, leathery fingers until all that remains are a few small spiral shells. They will not do. He will need something special for this youngest grandchild.

When it is time for the fall spirit dance, the guests will come to the village for the feast. The elders are to announce each daughter's passage to womanhood. Shuksi'em wants his granddaughter, Sleek Seal, to sparkle brighter than the dew in the morning's light. He will send her mother out to the flat, muddy shore around the bend to search for the precious tusk shells.

I'd had a great time with Mrs. Hobbs, and I'd made a good start on my shell necklace, too. When the light began to fade outside, I knew I'd soon have to go home.

Mrs. Hobbs beamed. “You've made wonderful progress, Peggy dear. And if you want, you can come tomorrow and work on it some more. I don't mind telling you that I'm glad to have your company.”

I felt the same way.

As I walked home, I was all warm inside. But when I entered the house I was hit by a wave of tension. Aunt Margaret was talking on the phone, and her voice pierced the air. “Oh, here she is. Honestly, that child needs to learn to be more responsible and considerate. I want you to tell her that this kind of thing is definitely not okay with me! She just wanders off, God knows where, and never thinks about telling someone where she's gone. You need to talk to her.” Then she angrily shoved the phone at me. “Peggy, it's your mother.”

I was glad when Aunt Margaret stormed out of the room. “Hi, Mom.”

“Hello, Peggy. Your aunt's very upset with you for leaving the house again without telling her where you were going. She's been worried.”

“How was I supposed to do that? She wasn't here at suppertime. She was out shopping for pond fish.”

“You could have written her a note, or stayed home until she got back. Or why didn't you call from wherever you were?”

“Yeah, I guess I could've done that. But then she'd have found a way to ruin my plans.”

“Well, where did you go?”

“I was with Mrs. Hobbs. I'm making something,
but it's a surprise, so I can't tell you about it.”

“Well, honey, I can't see why Margaret wouldn't let you visit Mrs. Hobbs. But next time you need to get her permission before you go out. She's only trying to do her best to look after you. And I shouldn't need to remind you that she's doing us a big favour.”

“Mom, I feel like she's trying to squeeze the life out of me. She has so many rules and she always has to tell me what to do. We have nothing in common. She doesn't even care about the excavation Eddy and I've been working on. She keeps dropping reminders of what a hassle it's all been for her. When are you coming back, Mom?” There was a long, awkward silence.

“I can't say right now, sweetheart. Hey, why don't you tell me what you've been learning about archaeology and excavating?”

She had totally ignored my question. I would have pressed her, but her voice sounded funny, as if she'd been crying. “Yeah, it's pretty cool,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. “But I wish you were here to see it.” There was another long, silent moment, and sniffling noises came from inside the phone.

“There's nothing I'd like better, honey, but I'm afraid it's not possible right now. I didn't get that job at Cobblestone Communications. And I was really counting on it, since money's getting tight.” More silence. “But don't worry, Peggy. I'll find a job soon. And the moment I do, I'm coming to get you, okay?”

It was bad enough that Mom was feeling down for not getting the job. I didn't want her to worry about me, too. “No problem, Mom. I'm fine and I'm happy to be here. Just take care of yourself.” There was a really long silence
this time, and I could actually hear her sobbing. “Mom, please don't cry. Everything's going to be all right.”

“Good night, Peggy,” Mom's voice squeaked, and then I heard a click as she cut the connection.

I had a hard time sleeping and spent most of the night thinking about my mom, crying, alone in some motel room, far from everyone she loved. I must have fallen asleep for a while, but woke up to a large, wet spot on the pillowcase. I turned the pillow over and dried my tears with the back of my hand. For the first time in years I felt angry at my dad for dying.

CHAPTER 6

“Good morning, Peggy. It's time to get out of bed.”

My aunt's stern voice startled me awake. “Things need to change around here, and I'd like to start with this bedroom. Before breakfast it must be cleaned and your dirty laundry has to be taken downstairs.”

“Yeah, okay.” I looked around my room and admitted to myself that it had gotten a little out of control.

“And another thing. You have far too much free time on your hands. You need some structure, so I called up the Crescent Beach Sailing Club. They just started a new class a few days ago, but the instructor said it's not too late if you start today.”

“But that will interfere with the excavation,” I argued.

“You're a twelve-year-old girl. You don't know what's best. Besides, what child wouldn't want to learn to sail?”

“Me!” As soon as I replied, I thought about what Mrs. Hobbs had said about sailing — about being so far away that her mother couldn't tell her what to do.

“Well, anyway, it's a chance for you to make some friends.”

So that was it! “I have friends,” I said, trying to sound normal. I hadn't forgotten what Mom had said last night.

“Yes, well, I think you're spending far too much
time with senior citizens. You need to meet someone your own age.”

Silently, I apologized to my mom before I opened my mouth. “How would you know? I bet you can't even remember what it was like being a kid. Mrs. Hobbs and Eddy might be old, but they know a lot more about kids than you do.”

My aunt's eyes nearly jumped out of their sockets. Then she turned and went out the door. I'd won! Or so I thought.

“Get ready to go,” she said as she stomped downstairs. “They're expecting you in half an hour.”

How could she decide something like that without even asking me? Who did she think she was? “Well, what if I don't go?” I yelled back.

“Then you can say goodbye to spending time excavating with Eddy or visiting Mrs. Hobbs.”

A half-hour later I stormed out of the house and headed up Sullivan and then right on McBride. I hadn't bothered to brush my hair, and I knew my aunt had seen me leave wearing my ripped skater T-shirt, the one she said I could only wear around the house. I thought about skipping the sailing lessons and going to Mrs. Hobbs for the day, but Aunt Margaret was probably planning to check up on me.

I was so angry that I broke into a run and sped down the road. When I arrived at the sailing club, I was out of breath and gasping. Then I noticed a tall guy standing in the doorway of the clubhouse. His skin was so tanned and shiny that he reminded me of an oiled hot dog.

“Hey, there, you must be Patty. I'm the sailing instructor — Vic Torrino. But the kids just call me
Tornado. Get it? Torrino, Tornado!”

I tried to tell him that my name wasn't Patty, but he only started to babble some more.

“Good to see you're an early bird. That's a good sign. It's like that saying ... something about the early worm.”

“It's the early bird that catches the worm,” I said, doing my best not to let my voice betray the venom I was still feeling.

“Yeah, that's what I meant.” He flashed a smile so brilliant that he looked like one of those models in a poster for a toothpaste commercial. “Hey, here comes Melissa and Jennifer. Good morning, girls.”

“Same, Tornado,” chimed the two teens, who looked as if they had lurched out of a plastic doll commercial as they pranced up the sidewalk.

“This here's Patty,” Tornado said. “She's joining the class today.”

The girls glanced at me for a microsecond. “Cool,” the tall one said as if I were a dead fly.

Were these the kind of kids Aunt Margaret had in mind when she'd said I needed to make friends my own age?

“You can learn a lot about sailing from these two,” Tornado said. “It's their second time taking my class, which makes them a good example of determination, too. Like that saying, if at first you don't succeed, get back up on the horse.”

I didn't know how, but I was going to get my aunt back for this.

The next couple of hours were about as much fun as I'd expected. We looked at a video on the importance of
always wearing life jackets while boating. And then we spent an hour learning to tie a clove hitch, a figure eight, and a round turn with two half hitches.

“Okay, kids, that was fun!” Tornado said, clapping his hands for attention as if we were five-year-olds. “In case you were thinking I forgot — it's time to take a spin around the bay in my new boat.” Tornado flashed his toothy smile and bowed. “It'll give you a taste of the pure pleasure of sailing and me a chance to show off.” At least he'd gotten that last bit right.

All the kids bustled out of the building and followed Tornado down to the dock to where
The Princess
was moored. I tagged along at the end, waiting for my chance to duck out and head home early.

“You ever been sailing before?” a dark-haired boy asked me the moment I was about to run for it.

I shook my head.

“Me, neither,” he said. “I've always wanted to, though.”

I tried to slow my pace so I could be at the back by myself, but he just slowed his strides, too.

“It was my surprise gift just before my parents told me they were getting divorced this summer.”

I felt a stab of pity. An embarrassing silence followed. I tried to think of something to say. “Well, at least you really wanted to take sailing lessons.” By the way the conversation died, I realized I'd been kind of insulting. Fortunately, I didn't have time to feel bad.

“So here we are, class. Meet
The Princess
.” Tornado grinned with pride as the students petted his gleaming white sailboat. All the brass fixtures sparkled in the sunlight, and the polished wood glowed. The sail was
crisp white and fluttered in the breeze. And it was so big that even I felt overwhelmed by it. “Be careful not to scratch the wood or gum up the brass. Just keep your hands in your laps and sit back and enjoy. Today you're going to see a master sailor at work.”

For the next hour we sailed around Mud Bay. I hadn't expected to be thrilled by the sensation of being pushed forward like a feather riding the breeze. And from out on the water I could almost make the houses disappear as I focused on the towering cedars. I didn't even mind watching Tornado, who stood at the helm like a Tarzan of the sea, with Melissa and Jennifer gazing up fondly on either side. To my relief the dark-haired boy had moved to the bow of the sailboat, where he hung over the rail like a happy dog with its head out the car window.

BOOK: Reading the Bones
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