Authors: Lin Kaymer
With appreciation for the professionals and volunteers who work to rehabilitate sick and injured wild animals.
Shifting restlessly in French class, I stare at Mackenzie Allison Spence, but not for the usual reasons. Sure, she has long, dark hair, mischief-flashing eyes, and curves as sweet as a well-placed ball on goal. But lately I've been trying to figure her out, which is odd because we've been friends since we were kids.
The big news about Mackie is that she almost drowned over summer break, when her family's boat capsized in a storm off Yaquina Bay in Oregon. Her parents and sister were rescued within twenty minutes. In the deep troughs of fifty-two-degree water, Mackie wasn't found for three hours and then she was in a coma for a week. A Coast Guard captain called her survival “one for the record books.”
That was just a few months before we started our junior year. Soltrice Island, a fifteen-mile square piece of land in Puget Sound, has only one high school. It's a small place where everyone knows everyone. And it's the kind of place where it's nearly impossible to keep a secret for very long.
After she returned from near death in Oregon, I didn't see much of Mackie. So, it surprised me when she appeared one August afternoon at the Olympic Wildlife Shelter.
As part of my volunteer duties, I was cleaning the Large Flight Cage, a wood and wire structure built to give big, injured birds a place to relearn flying. Mackie arrived outside the cage with our volunteer coordinator. Because the shelter has a low-contact policy that forbids talking around the animals, I could only nod to her when she walked outside the enclosure. Mackie nodded back at me as her eyes searched the inside of the cage.
But Number 26, our mature female bald eagle in Large Cage rehab, had a bizarre reaction. She lit on a low perch, turned to Mackie, put her head down, and pulled her wings in. All signs of deep respect from an eagle. Mackie gave Number 26 a smile like she'd just bumped into an old friend. How was Number 26 an old friend? I tightened my lips to keep quiet.
Since then, I've been with Mackie for five work sessions, and every time, the mammals, birds, and even a turtle acted weird. It's like some pecking order kicks in and the animals calm down. An injured animal's natural response to humans is fright and flight. Not around Mackie. She gets respect, every time.
I stretch my legs out under my low desktop, trying to get comfortable. That's not easy when you're sixteen years old and six foot one. How can Mackie sit so still? Maybe she's concentrating. I know a thing or two about needing to focus. I've always had trouble with reading, and my spelling isn't great either.
“Jeremy Tarleton, Ã©coutez-vous?”
Madame Purcell asks me.
“Oui, Madame. Il regard les femmes et pose le question pour les garcons,”
I translate, fumbling for the words. Not good. French isn't my best class.
Mackie turns to me with a sympathetic grin. Her smile is sweet, but her eyes look sad. The sadness thing started after the accident, and seems to be getting worse.
When Mackie returned home after her near drowning, she didn't act like herself. She'd always been really friendly, with a laugh like she was being tickled. After the accident, her smile hasn't come as quickly, and she hasn't laughed as often, either. I asked Jen about it. Jen and Mackie have been close friends forever. Jen said we had to give Mackie more time to recover; that it must have been awful to be trapped in those huge waves, and then lost in a coma.
Also after the accident, Mackie stopped seeing Brody Cameron, All-State soccer forward, senior letterman, and self-appointed alpha. He acts like their break up is no big deal. But I think it's the first time that Brody has been dropped by a girl.
After French class, as I hurry to the locker room for cross-country team practice, I flash to Mackie's face when she first saw Number 26. Her eyes had opened, and she'd let out a happy sigh like it was some kind of a reunion.
How can Mackie and Number 26, our rehab eagle, know each other?
In the locker room, Brody stands talking with a few of the guys.
“Hey,” he says, as I set my gear bag on a nearby bench. His chin juts up for what passes as a smile from his cheerleader-magnet face. Brody's a senior, so he doesn't usually have much time for me. He signals for the others to go ahead without him.
Brody and I walk out of the gym building to the hot, dry grass on the practice field. He surprises me by chatting about our next meet. Finally he asks, “You see much of Mackie these days?”
“We have some classes together.”
“Does she seem different lately?”
“She's been pretty quiet.”
“Right. She's a real quiet one. She seeing anyone?” he asks, flexing his jaw muscles like a fish opening and closing its gills.
“I don't know. She's usually with the girls when we leave class.”
“Huh. Jilly wants to hang with me. Might as well,” Brody says, flicking a small stone aside with the toe of his shoe. Not particularly wanting to know more about Jilly and Brody's new relationship status, I offer no comment.
We move into our warm-up drill, and my focus shifts to Coach. He stares at James Spooner like Spooner is a piece of meat beyond its expiration date. Terrific. It doesn't take long for us to learn why. Spooner has been kicked off the team after failing our latest drug test.
After practice, I catch a ride home with our neighbor, Ben. Ben's a senior, on cross-country, and started giving me rides to school last April. He's smart, and on track to graduate in late December. My dad says Ben will âgo places.'
Entering through our front door, I hurry past our family photos along the length of the hallway. In all of the pictures I have dark hair and wide, greenish-gray eyes. After my sixth birthday the photos show a wide crease at the outside corner of my left eye, a reminder that I'd tripped and fallen on a rake. My badass, gardening-tool scar.
In the kitchen, I find chaos. Mom is home from teaching ceramics. She stands at the stove stirring sauce in a pot and holds an unopened package of pasta in her other hand. She squints to read the small print on the back of the package. Justin, my twelve-year-old brother, leans against the counter. He's been using our salad spinner as a launch pad. Lettuce is all over the place.
“Justin,” Mom says, “you're not being helpful. I want you to re-wash the lettuce and close the top of the spinner this time. Jeremy, would you please put the food in those grocery bags in the pantry?” Her rapidly blinking eyes show me she's in a no-nonsense mood. I don't have to ask what kind of day she's had at school.
I set my backpack on a chair and give Justin a goofy grin. He nods his head and begins to collect the scattered greens.
“How was practice?” Mom asks, as she dumps the pasta into some boiling water.
“Coach cut Spooner from the team,” I say, lifting a bag of groceries off the counter while inhaling the aroma of fennel-seasoned sauce. Mom's pasta sauce is the best.
“He tested positive. Ethan will probably move up.”
“Spooner has had problems for a long time. Maybe this will be a good thing for him.”
“Maybe, but Ethan's not as fast as Spooner.”
“Don't give up on Ethan before he even starts,” Mom says, as she tosses the pasta box in a recycling bin. Without stopping she moves to the overhead cabinets that hold her hand-made plates and bowls. “And maybe Spooner will get his act together.”
We finish setting salad plates, forks, knives, and spoons on the table just as my dad pushes through the back porch door into the kitchen. When he leaves work as a software developer, Dad takes the Seattle-Soltrice ferry right after Mom's commute. We usually eat as soon as he arrives.
Mom shoots Dad a quick smile and Justin pumps the spinner, suddenly very serious about his job.
Setting his laptop case down on a beat-up, red wicker chair by the door, Dad beams as he watches Mom dish up mounds of spaghetti in four large bowls for us to carry to the table.
Can they move any faster? I'm really hungry.
Both of my parents are smart, in their own ways. Not me. My second grade teacher, Miss Mills, described me as “average” and “has trouble remembering words.” I'd seen those comments on a report she sent to my parents. She'd also written the words “tries very hard.” I didn't like the idea that I was just “average.”
“Hi boys. Anyone been good today?” That's Dad's standard greeting to us, which he delivers smiling over Mom's shoulder as he hugs her.
Justin and I sit down at the table with our bowls of spaghetti. Dad pours glasses of wine for Mom and himself.
“Anything new with you?” he asks me, as he adds more dressing to his salad. Justin twirls a massive loop of noodles around his fork. He can't get the full glob in his mouth, and half the noodles slide back to his plate.
“Yeah. Spooner got cut for drugs.”
“Hmm. What drugs?”
“Coach didn't say.”
“And you don't know?”
I ignore the question.
“Do you think the school will let him play soccer this spring?” Dad asks, pointing to a dish of grated cheese and gesturing meaningfully at Justin.
“Doubtful. Coach Davis already gave him a second chance last year. I guess Coach will move someone up.” I try not to think about whether Spooner's not playing spring soccer will mean I'll have to rotate to yet another position.
“Well, too bad,” Dad says slowly, holding my eyes for a few seconds like he always does when he wants me to continue. “Seems like there's more to that story,” he says, and waits. I shrug, and act like I haven't heard him. Actually, I don't want to talk with my parents about the drugs I know Spooner has been doing because it's Spooner's problem, not mine.
Dad frowns slightly before turning to Justin. “What about you, my friend? What happened in your world today?”
Justin launches into something about sliding tectonic plates that he'd learned in his sixth-grade science class. My thoughts return to Mackie.
How can I arrange to be with her again at the shelter? Maybe I should speak with Olivia, our volunteer coordinator, and see if she will schedule us together? She'll think I'm crushing on Mackie, which is close to the truth. That and I really want to figure out what's up with Mackie and the animals' unusual behavior.
After we finish dinner, I help clear the dishes. Mom stands at the sink, washing the pasta pot. “Jeremy, you remember that tomorrow night Dad and I will be in Seattle. Right?” she asks.
“Sure. You have some stuff in a show.”
“Yes, and Justin is going to a sleepover.”
My phone buzzes. It's Olivia, at the wildlife shelter:
Jeremy can U work Friday nite 6-10? Sorry 4 the late Q.
I turn my screen to show Mom the message. She nods.
The wildlife shelter operates on four-hour volunteer shifts around the clock. Olivia won't be there, so I can't ask her about working with Mackie. That will have to wait until next week. Frowning, I send an immediate reply, “Yes.”
I wake to buzzing in my ear. Searching around for my alarm I want, for maybe the bazillionth time, another hour of sleep. But to catch a ride to school with Ben, I need to move.
Looking in the bathroom mirror, I turn on the cold water, splash some on my face, and swipe deodorant on my 'pits. Life doesn't suck, but nothing really exciting is happening either, except what I've seen going down at the shelter. I dry my face in a hand towel, and peer closer in the mirror for traces of a beard.
Dressed and moving downstairs, I head for the kitchen. Mom doesn't teach an early class today. She's set up a breakfast of cereal and fruit, and keeps an eye on the clock for Justin and me. After I rinse my bowl and set it in the dishwasher, she follows me through the hallway and vestibule to the outside door.