About the Author

Julie Johnston

JULIE JOHNSTON is the author of five novels for young people, two of which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Text in Children’s Literature. Her work has received numerous awards and accolades throughout North America, including the IODE National Book Award, the Ruth Schwartz Young Adult Book Award and starred reviews in such publication as Publisher’s Weekly, Quill & Quire and the School Library Journal. As If by Accident is her first novel for adults. The mother of four grown daughters, Julie Johnston lives with her husband in Peterborough, Ontario.

Books by this Author
Adam and Eve and Pinch-Me
Excerpt

CHAPTER 1
Just shut up. I’d like to tell my brain to just shut up. Have you ever noticed how you ­can’t make your mind stop thinking even though you try to think about absolutely nothing? You still keep on thinking about how you’re trying to think about nothing because you want to avoid thinking about the thing you ­don’t want to think about? Oh, shut up.

I appear to be talking to a machine.

I can blank out people. Wipe them right off the board. Paint over them. Close the book on them. Click, erase, gone. It’s me I’m having trouble escaping. A computer is very close to perfection. I love the way you can press cancel or delete and it actually happens. To the printed word, that is.

I’m leaving this place. Mrs. K. and Frank are past tense. It’s not breaking my heart to leave because as a ward of the Children’s Aid I’m used to it. Any idea what that means? Not bloody likely.

Here’s a hint. What do you do with something you ­don’t want? Throw it out, of course. And what do you call the junk you throw out? You got it.

I’m losing it, obviously. Do I expect this machine to give answers?

My new address will be: Sara Moone, c/o E. Huddleston, RR 3, Ambrose, Ontario. An easy address compared to this one: c/o Mrs. Avartha Koscyzstin, 319 Campagnola Street East, North Malverington, Ontario. And let’s see, what was the one before that? Station Road. No number. That was the Lomers, I think. The only thing I remember about that place was, Arn never laid a hand on us kids. He made us memorize that statement. Sonia, his wife, got slapped around on a regular basis, however.

I have no idea exactly how many foster homes I’ve been in. I was in a group home once and hated it more than anything. Kids kept stealing my stuff. I hide everything now, money especially. Having my own money is very important to me.

A lot of cruelty went on in that place. One of the older kids broke my finger by tricking me. “Put your finger in the crow’s nest,” he said, “the crow’s not at home.” So, like a sucker, I stuck my finger into his big, crunching fist. My finger’s still crooked. I used to get sucked in by Adam and Eve and Pinch-­Me, too. Until I found out the right answer.

­Don’t plan on digesting my whole life story here, because I’ve forgotten most of it. And what I remember would bore the brains out of a dead cow. I came to stay with Mrs. K. (everybody calls her Mrs. K., including Frank, her elderly husband) when I was about thirteen. I’m fifteen now. That’s the longest I’ve stayed anywhere. I’ll be sixteen at the end of August and then kaboom. I start living. No more social workers. No more foster parents. No more school. I will be me, alone, untouchable.

I’d better start packing. They took Mrs. K. off to the hospital about an hour ago, although she ­wasn’t supposed to have her operation until next month. “I’m a bit sickly,” she always said to me. Sickly! She’s been at death’s door since day one. There were times when I ­wouldn’t have minded nudging her right through it. I’ve been playing nursemaid here for the past year and a half, almost. Oh well, so what? It’s February, which means only six months left in limbo. I can hardly wait to start my life.

I’ve got everything packed except this machine. One suitcase and one cardboard box hold the contents of my so­called existence. Another cardboard box contains my books. My other existences. I’ve got my money pinned to my underwear. Frank said he’d carry down my stuff. I said forget it. The stuff weighs more than he does. Especially the books. Frail old Frank, sitting down there by the window in his La­Z­Boy, waiting for Ruth to pick me up so he can go and sit in a chair at the hospital and listen to Mrs. K. belch and moan about how sickly she is. “I’ll be along later, love,” he said to her. Love! How pathetic!

However, I will say this about old Frank, he’s generous.

“Take the computer with you,” he said.

I said, “You’re kidding!”

“Why would I be kidding?” he said. He’s just retired and the place where he used to work bought all new computers so he got a deal on this old one. “Maybe you’ll relate to it, because, God knows, you ­don’t relate to people.” Suddenly he’s a psychologist. Frank Freud. I hate that. I hate when people think they have you figured out. Of course I ­don’t relate to people. Why would I? I’m not related to anybody and nobody’s related to me.

Ruth insists this is not true. ShutupshutupshutUP.

Forget it. That’s what I ­don’t want to think about. Ruth’s here. I have to unplug this thing and lug it out to her car. She’s my case worker and will be driving me to my new foster home. I’m pressing exit. Yes I’ll save this. Temporarily.

***

O give me a home where the imbeciles roam – I can’t believe this place. A farm! They’ve placed me at some kind of a farm. Am I being punished? Do they think I have animalistic tendencies? I mean, look! I’ve never done anything wrong in my life. I obey every rule in the book. The way to get along in this world is be invisible. Flatten yourself out and wait. That’s what I thought I was doing. Just hanging around blending in with the wallpaper, waiting until my sixteenth birthday. I thought it was my darkest hour when I ended up with Mrs. K. and Frank exuding compassion for the homeless in their house haunted by every cabbage they’d ever boiled in their lives. They went in for boiled fish, too, and deeply waxed floors and they were death on open windows. But this place!

Actually the house smells okay. It smells like the inside of a bakery, which is not too hard to take. Outside is a different story. They insisted on showing me a bunch of beady­eyed chickens and a barn full of decaying sheep. When I held my nose, they laughed and said I’d get used to it. I said, ­“Don’t bet on it,” but they ­didn’t hear me. I have this affliction. When I talk to strangers, I sound as though I’m trying out my voice for the first time.

These people have some kind of a mangy old dog that sidled up to me and put its head under my hand. I mean, what was I supposed to do? I’m no great lover of animals, but it seems a natural reaction to pat a dog’s head if it’s right there under your hand. ­“Don’t pat the dog!” somebody yelled at me. “Is this a n­n­n­nut house?” I tried to ask them, my other affliction making its presence known.

“N­n­no, it’s the loony b­b­bin!” shrieked this jerk­ass kid, who ran before I could grab him and tear the living mouth right off his face.

But wait. I’ll go back to this afternoon. Ruth and I clunking along in her car heading out of town. No heater. Weather cold as a witch’s tit. Slithering around icy corners. No treads on the tires. Me, minding my own business, not saying anything, even though Ruth is one of the few people I can talk to without sounding as though cracker crumbs are stuck in my throat, and looking out through a little patch on my window I’d defrosted with my bare fist. I was watching the houses peter out until there was nothing left but field after snowy field of nothingness. Ruth said, “How do you feel about moving to a new place?”

“Okay,” I said. She tried to give me one of those in­depth eye­contact looks but gave it up when we started to go into a skid. She was managing to get enough warm air blowing onto the windshield to give her an egg­shaped view. She decided to look at the road.

“How do you feel about leaving the Koscyzstin’s?”

“Okay,” I said.

“It’s too bad about Mrs. K. If we could have avoided this move we would have, but the situation looked pretty hopeless. I’m sorry about your friends.”

“Friends?”

“You’ll miss your school buddies.”

“Oh. Right.” The best way to handle Ruth is tell her what she wants to hear. She’s spent her entire adult life picking over misery, sorting out disasters, trying to bring a little joy into people’s lives. Why burden her with my lack of friends?

“Are you happy, Sara?”

“Intensely.” She was trying to look at me again, so I gave her my Little­Orphan­Annie look. Like the comic strip character with zeros for eyes?

We drove along, leaving the flat fields behind, and started chugging up and down some serious hills. The road narrowed and became lined with trees. A wall of trees. We were surrounded, boxed in, by some kind of primeval forest. Deep, impenetrable, hostile. Ruth was still going on about my friends and wanting me to talk about myself. I told her I thought I was coming down with laryngitis. What’s there to tell, anyway? She must have a file describing the vital statistics of Sara Moone, height, weight, etcetera. All she has to do is look me up on her computer if she wants to know what I’m like. What she sees is what I am. Tallish. Thinnish. Reddish of hair. Dis­tinguishing features? None. No, maybe they keyed in burn scars, left leg. That sums up Sara Moone.

Ruth ­didn’t believe I was coming down with laryngitis. “Tell me about your school friends,” she said.

If I’ve learned one thing in my life it’s this: if you ­don’t want your heart broken, ­don’t let on you have one. It’s the motto I live by. It allows me to keep my personality flat. No heart, no brains, no guts. At school this girl who sat in front of me in computer class asked me over to her house one day. At first my insides started knotting up, and I thought I’d puke right in front of her until I remembered I had no guts. ­“C-­can’t,” I said and walked away. How could I? What would be the point? The girl would find out that I had about as much substance as a dropped ice cube, that I ­wasn’t based on anything, and that would be the end of it. I’m disposable. ­“Can’t make it,” I always say. I ­don’t make excuses; I never aim for a soft little smile of regret. I am so incredibly cool it’s becoming my trademark. I only have one problem. After I say no, after I turn people down, just seconds later, I sometimes think I have become solidified, fixed. One of my foster things once yelled at me, “Your face is gonna freeze like that!” I think I was trying to look like an attack dog with rabies. Frozen. That’s the way I feel after I say no. I’ve become frozen – in a negative position. Then the feeling goes and I can move.

Ruth was still waiting for me to tell her about my friends. “A fun-­loving and loyal group,” I said. She shook her head and frowned into the darkening afternoon. It was starting to snow. Sherwood forest was easing up a bit. The road ran crookedly between pink slabs of rock. It could have been chiseled piece by piece out of the hill by some sculptor obsessed by a single idea: Get to the other side! Find a way through!

“I’m not trying to pry, you know,” Ruth said. “I just want to get to know you a little bit better. What do you do when you’re not in school?”

“Drugs.” I was making another peephole with the palm of my hand, but I sensed by the way we slid into another skid that she was looking at me instead of the road. “Kidding,” I said. I was, too. Only dimwits and emotional screwups do drugs. Fortunately, I am neither.

I could see a few scrubby farms, now, poked into the frosty hills, some with lights on as if they were expecting someone to drop in. Or hoping.

“Seriously,” she said, “do you have any hobbies?”

“A little embroidery now and then. Paint-­by-­numbers. Candy striping.”

“I said seriously.”

“Teaching Sunday school.”

“Sara!”

“Of course I ­don’t have any hobbies. What do you take me for?”

At the Koscyzstin’s, I used to spend weekend after blank weekend just sitting around listening for Mrs. K.’s next feeble request and waiting for time to pass. I admit I did a lot of reading – everything I could lay my hands on, novels, magazines, newspapers, cereal boxes. I get involved in books to the point where it becomes embarrassing. When I read The Secret Garden, I began to sound quite snotty. When I read The Color Purple, I developed a southern drawl. I’m not safe around books.

Sometimes I spend time studying, not to pull off high marks, which I get whether I study or not, but because I like knowing things. Knowing things will allow me to survive when I start my life. That and money.

Mrs. K. was never what you’d call a robust woman, up and down with one ailment or another over most of those two years. “Do you think you could come straight home after school?” she’d say with her voice one notch away from a whine. “I ­couldn’t get up the steam to start hoovering the rugs at all yesterday, and they’re just thick.” Or she’d say, ­“Don’t make any plans for Saturday, I’ve a list for you a mile long. It just gives me the pip thinking about it.” She’d sit there casting her gloomy eye on me, rubbing her belly. And then she’d ease out these long and mournful belches. “Now stay within earshot, Sara,” she used to say. “You never know when I might need something from the drug store.”

But big deal, so what? Being bogged down with household chores ­didn’t kill me. I got kind of used to running errands and carrying bowls of pale soup and plates of dry toast to her. I’m not complaining. I ­didn’t exactly feel sorry for the old girl. I felt sort of … responsible. Who else did she have? Frail Frank? Anyway, why would I need friends cluttering up my present life? Reality starts at sixteen.

Picture me as something like a little hyphen on a blank screen. A cursor. Unattached to anything before or after. I move along and down, along and down, until finally I get to page sixteen. That’s when the story starts. Me, alone, in a very sturdy, very compact, glass fortress where I can see out but no one can see beyond the surface. Queen of cool. Of course I’ll need a job because I ­haven’t been able to save much money, but I’m not fussy. Night watchman at the morgue would suit me fine.

My real dream is this: I’m going up north, as far north as I can go and still get a job, some remote outpost where I’ll have my own space unshared by any other human being. I might have a dog. One of those Huskies, intelligent and loyal. I would like to be a pilot who flies supplies into even more remote places.

“I think you’ll like the Huddlestons’,” Ruth said. “There are other kids there. A ready-­made family for you.”

No clutter. No noise. No responsibilities.

“Two boys younger than you.”

“O joy divine.” I took off my glove again and pressed my hand against my side of the windshield to broaden my horizons. Nothing to see except angry snowflakes attacking horizontally and disappearing. The road was becoming narrower and more twisted. We were beyond the boonies. Way beyond. “Turn on your headlights,” I said.

“They’re on.”

I’ve never driven a car, but I know I could do it. Ruth, on the other hand, seems to have skipped driver’s ed. She was intent on putting us in the ditch. She kept turning the wheel too far coming out of a skid, which any damn fool knows – But who cares? I ­didn’t.

Ruth glanced at me a couple of times as if she had something important to say but ­didn’t know how to start. Finally, she said, “I’m not trying to pressure you, but ­couldn’t you agree to read one letter from your mother? It’s been over a year now since she contacted us, looking for you. You’re under no obligation to answer it. But maybe you should give her half a chance to prove herself. You’re prejudging her.”

“She prejudged me.”

“Oh, stop. You know as well as I do how many reasons there are for a woman to give up a baby.”

“None of them good, if you happen to be the baby. Ex-­baby.”

“You were adopted immediately. You know that.”

“I ­don’t remember. Anyway, big deal. They died.”

“Sara. They ­didn’t do it on purpose.”

“I ­didn’t say they did.”

“Well, you sound so – The fire was a tragic accident. It ­wasn’t anyone’s fault. No one set out to deprive you, personally, of a home and a family. It was one of those things.”

“I’m not really interested in pursuing this any further.”

Ruth heaved one of her big, dramatic sighs as if she were going to let the subject drop. But no. “I really should confess,” she said, “that your mother knows you are moving to the Ambrose area.”

“How come? Is there some sort of conspiracy against me? Why are you trying to spoil my life?”

“I ­didn’t do it,” Ruth said. “But I’m afraid the information got leaked out by mistake. We had temporary help for a while – and the woman is persistent. The last time she contacted me she said she intended to ask everyone in the whole county, if necessary, to track down the family who had adopted her daughter.”

“What’s her point?”

“Your well-­being, I gather. She wants to see if you’re happy, and to let you know she’s out there. Seems harmless enough.”

I stared into the ranks of snowflakes driving against the windshield and tried to make out a formation, some pattern, but it only made me dizzy. “Wait a minute,” I said. “I’m not adopted. She’s looking for some kid who’s adopted, and that ­ain’t me.” I smiled. Safe. Anonymous. “Right?”

Ruth glanced at me and we narrowly missed a snowbank. “You might want a mother someday.”

“I’ll be the judge of that. What does this woman look like?” If I was going to be involved in some kind of cloak-­and-­dagger chase, I needed a running start. Ruth ­didn’t know, as it turned out, nor did the woman have a picture of me.

I do have one thing, however, which I’ve never told anyone about. The ad.

Sitting beside Ruth, I returned to my dream of being sixteen, of splitting off, separating myself from people. All people. What I want is sole control of Sara Moone, because up to now my life has had no more importance to anyone than a scrap of paper, scribbled on, torn up, thrown away, burned to an ash. I have never had a say in what happens to me. When I was eight, my foster mother at the time became pregnant with twins. She sat me down for a heart-­to-­heart talk about this. I was so excited about the twin babies we were going to have that I ­didn’t hear her tell me that she was giving me back to the Children’s Aid. I was grinning away like an idiot, thinking about how I’d get to feed the babies their bottles, and she was saying, “I’m very sorry, I ­don’t know what else I can do.” And things like that. And I just stood there when it finally sank in, my lips frozen in a wide stretch across my face and my eyes turning into round empty circles. In my next home, my foster mother was ruled unfit and the family fell apart. Then there was another one, and another, until I stopped being able to sort them out. I’ve been plucked up, plunked down, shuffled and re-­dealt so many times my mind refuses to remember it all.

However, sixteen is the magic age. That’s when I can legally drop out of school, legally drop out of foster homes … and legally drop off the edge of the world, I guess, for all anyone would care.

“I really care what happens to you, you know,” Ruth said. She looked at me quickly and then back at the road. We were at the top of a long, slow grade lightly dusted with snow. “You could write to me.”

“And say what?”

“Tell me how you feel about things, about what your life is like. You have that computer; you might as well put it to good use.”

­“Can’t. I ­don’t have a printer. Even if I did, it ­wouldn’t do you any good. I ­don’t feel anything about anything, so you’d get nothing but blank pages.” Actually I was beginning to feel us going into a slide down this hill. Ruth felt it, too, and hit the brakes. We did a slow-­motion, complete spin and drifted off the road nose-­first into the ditch.

“Oh, great,” Ruth said.

“Any survivors?” I said.

She tried gunning the engine. The wheels spun uselessly. “What are we going to do? We’re miles from anywhere.” Her purse was on the seat between us. She opened it and started rummaging around. She took out a package of cigarettes and a lighter.

The inside of the car seemed incredibly small all of a sudden. “What are you doing?”

She started lighting her cigarette. “Do you mind?”

The lighter was turned up too high. I could see her face, her eyes questioning mine, wondering if I minded her smoking, but hoping I ­didn’t because she needed to smoke, and her hair, pale brown, like dried grass, wisping out from under her green knitted hat toward the flame. The way the flame flared up, I ­don’t know, I guess it made me panic. I may have screamed. I yelled, anyway, because Ruth jumped and her cigarette flipped out from between her fingers. I saw a rain of sparks in front of the flare from the lighter and I – Forget it.

I got out of the car. Smoke inside a car is sickening.

I remember Ruth running after me. The two of us standing in the middle of snowy nowhere shouting at each other. She tried to put her arm around me, but I gave her a shove and then the bus came along. Out of the white screen of blowing snow, headlights. And Ruth sprawled on the road in its path. One instant Ruth was lit up and the next she was in semi-­darkness as the bus’s headlights swerved from side to side down that glassy hill with the tortured sound diesel brakes have drowning out everything else. I grabbed her arm and yanked her into the ditch as the bus crunched past and came to a stop a little farther along the road.

***

It’s fairly quiet here, now, at Château Huddleston, except for me clicking away on this machine. Supper was a major ordeal. Food has never been a big item in my life. Here, however, quantity is everything. God knows what the quality is like. I ­didn’t eat enough of whatever was being served to tell. After they’d all sucked back about forty tons of unidentifiable, gravy-­covered, cooked objects, they paused long enough to breathe and looked at my plate, still brimful. “Edith-­Ann will like it,” someone said. Whoever that is. Probably some idiot daughter locked in the attic. This would not be entirely out of the question.

The lord of the manor has retired as has his charming wife. The two delightful foster sons have gone beddy-­bye in the room next to mine after surgically removing each other’s windpipes, I gather. They were fighting over a jackknife and then one of them started choking and coughing until Ma (can you dig it?) Huddleston put a stop to it. “And no dessert for three days,” she said. I ­can’t believe this place.

I see I left off when the bus came along. I was interrupted. No such thing as privacy around here.

To go back: It was the Ottawa bus and we got on. Ruth told the driver where we were going and he said that was his next stop. Sitting beside each other in the last two seats on the bus, we ­didn’t have a whole lot to say. Pressed close to the window, I looked out. The snow had stopped coming down and was just blowing around now. I’d already told Ruth I was sorry. I was, too. I ­hadn’t meant to shove her under a bus. I’m cool, but I’m no murderer. “I’m sorry, too,” she’d said. “I should have remembered that you ­don’t like to be touched.”

Elbows tucked into my rib cage, legs tight against the bus heater, I ignored her remark. Through the bus window I watched the clouds part, revealing the moon, a mean little curved blade slung low in the darkening sky. It was following us.

Fifteen minutes later the bus pulled into the Elite Cafe and Bus Terminal on the edge of the town of Ambrose. “You go inside there,” the bus driver said to Ruth as we stepped down out of the bus into the snowy bluster. “They’ll call you a tow truck and you can get a coffee while you wait.” The bus door eased to, then snapped closed, and the bus disappeared into a turmoil of exhaust and snow.

We looked at each other and shrugged. You could hardly see in through the windows, they were so fogged up. Inside, the warmth of the place almost wrapped itself around us with steam coming up from pots of coffee behind the counter and a frazzle-­haired waitress filling the cups of a few old geezers sitting on stools gabbing their heads off, their big coats hanging open. Fluorescent lights beat down on them like a sunny day. A couple of tables stood empty under the windows. I slid into a chair beside one and waited for Ruth to ask the waitress about a tow truck.

Everybody stopped talking to listen in. “Where am I phoning from?” Ruth called to the waitress from the pay phone on the wall. “Ee-­lite Cafe out on the number seven. He knows where it is.”

“Not a night to be out on the road,” one of the patrons of the Ee-­lite Cafe said to no one in particular.

“That skiffle o’ snow on top o’ the glare ice just slicks her down good,” someone else said.

“D’y’ mind the time we froze up after a long thaw and we were froze up so good there ­wasn’t hardly a toilet’d flush in the entire county? Two year ago now, it was.”

“It ­wasn’t neither. It was last spring.”

Ruth went back to the counter to get change for another call and they all shut up again.

“Mr. Huddleston?” Ruth was saying into the phone. “Ruth Petrie from the Children’s Aid. I wonder if you could come into the Elite, uh, Ee-­lite Cafe to pick up Sara. I’ve put my car in the ditch.” A pause. “Your foster daughter. Sara Moone.”

Meanwhile I was cringing, trying to disappear into the furniture. Obviously I ­hadn’t been programmed into Mr. Huddleston’s memory. When I looked up all I could see was a row of eyes staring at me from the mirror above the counter. I turned to the window but I ­couldn’t see out.

“Yes.” Relief in her voice. “Yes, that’s right.”

The software must have kicked in.

After she hung up, Ruth got us both coffee and then she went to the washroom. There was a general buzz of conversation, some of which I caught.

“Bears for punishment, ­aren’t they.”

“Oh, I ­don’t know. Hud, he’s got a firm hand there.”

“Missus is a bit soft.”

“A bit soft. Salt o’ the earth, though.”

“Oh, salt o’ the earth, no question. But why they keep takin’ in them kids, I’ll never tell y’.”

“Bears for punishment.”

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Hero of Lesser Causes
Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE
It started off as a peaceful, plodding kind of summer, the summer of 1946. We ­didn’t know that our lives would charge wildly out of control.

The war had been over for a year, although my brother, Patrick, and I were still taking part in it as much as possible. We had given up shooting each other, mainly because we were too old – I was twelve and Patrick was thirteen and a half that summer – and also because my mother ­didn’t like to hear me going around ack-­acking and ptchooing at Patrick. “Keely,” she said, “girls ­don’t do that.” I ­didn’t ever tell her this, but I used to think, what if I was in the war and they were coming right at me with guns and bombs and everything they could think of, I’d dig in my heels, grit my teeth and hold up the flat of my hand. I’d wither them. Floor them. You just have to think hard enough about something and you can do anything. Usually. Well, maybe not always.

Being too old to shoot each other ­didn’t stop us from planting stink-­bombs in each other’s beds. Or ambushing each other. Once I leaped out from behind the garage with the garden hose aimed full blast. As it turned out, it was Mother’s footsteps I heard on the cracked cement of our driveway, not Patrick’s. She ­isn’t what you’d call a good sport at times like that. Neither is our father. He’s a judge and has a position to uphold. “And so do all of you,” he keeps telling us. He made this clear the day he heard that Patrick marched downtown with his hair plastered in a straight line over his left eye and a square, black moustache under his nose. I dared him to. Adolf Hitler spent next day cleaning the garage. He vowed to get me back.

By the middle of August, it was so hot that even in the morning we stuck to the chairs in the kitchen. Patrick and I were sitting at the kitchen table after breakfast, trying to think of things to do if we could get off the chairs. Patrick was at loose ends because his friend Donald was away. I had my arms folded in front of me on the table and my head down resting (stuck, actually) on my arms. With one finger I nudged a sweating glass of milk, left over from breakfast, close to the edge of the table. It was one of those finish-­your-­milk-­and-­then-­you-­can-­leave-­the-­table situations. I tapped and prodded until it was at the brink. Patrick had a pencil and paper, and was doodling as he usually did, drawing horses’ heads. He was also watching what I was doing, not taking his eye off the glass. I pushed it a little farther until it hung over the edge. Our eyes met now. We ­didn’t say anything. We ­didn’t have to. Patrick looked at the glass on the verge of falling off the table; he looked at my finger just touching the base of the glass. His eyes flashed a dare and mine answered.

***

“Keely!”

We ­hadn’t noticed our mother come into the kitchen. The glass toppled over. Patrick’s hand shot out and caught it, but the milk went flying all over the floor.

“Outside!” she ordered. We peeled ourselves off the chairs and headed for the door.

“I’ll clean it up,” I offered, standing holding the door open, letting flies in. I pushed my hair back out of my eyes so she could see I was sorry.

“It’s easier to do it myself,” she said, in that last-­straw tone she gets sometimes.

Outside, the heat was so heavy it was like trying to walk through neck-­high bathwater. Patrick said, “I bet you’d be afraid to walk that plank over the falls in Barnet Park.”

“Bet I ­wouldn’t.” I was lying and Patrick knew it.

“Prove it,” he said.

We walked through my friend Ginny’s backyard, taking a shortcut to the park at the south end of town. I hollered for Ginny on our way through but she ­wasn’t around. She could have been anywhere, and usually was. Ginny gets around. Mrs. Dickson, Ginny’s mother, claims that Ginny has an independent streak that she finds most unbecoming. I think it’s just fine.

In the park, we climbed over a fence with a sign warning people to keep out of that area. I looked at the narrow plank that spanned two newly built bridge abutments, mentally trying to measure its width. The plank ­didn’t look much wider than a tightrope. Water cascaded over a falls under the plank, making me light-­headed. The water swirled over jagged rocks and rushed madly to join the main body of the river. Patrick stood on the board, not expecting me to follow, not even looking back. I took a deep breath, raked back my hair with a sweaty hand, and said, “Okay, out of my way.” I brushed past him, sliding one foot ahead of the other. I inched my way toward the middle, mumbling to myself, ­“Don’t be stupid. ­Don’t look down. ­Don’t look down.”

I looked down.

“Stupid!” I said out loud. I ­couldn’t move. I tried praying but got stuck after “Our Father.” Panic had me by the throat. I got down on all fours and crept, studying the board, memorizing it. This kept me crawling. I was getting slivers in my knees, but getting closer to the end of the plank all the same. “Thy kingdom come,” I breathed finally, as I reached the other side and scrambled onto firm, grassy ground. I ducked under a chain with a sign similar to the one on the other side, danger keep out, and looked back at Patrick. He was shuffling along, sliding one foot, then the other, his arms outstretched for balance.

“Hey, you guys!” The voice was Ginny’s. Patrick was halfway along the plank when she appeared on the shore on my side of the falls. He faltered, tipping backward, then forward, making circles in the air with his arms. Ginny and I sucked in air. Patrick caught his balance. Without taking his eyes off Ginny, he straightened his shoulders, his arms graceful as a dancer’s, and – placing one foot in front of the other – increased his speed until, with a flying leap, he cleared the chain with the danger sign. Superman had landed. That’s what it looked like, anyway.

“Holy!” Ginny said, her eyes all round and admiring. My heart had stopped for a moment but it started up again.

“You’re such a show-­off, Patrick,” was all I said.

He put his hands in his pockets and strolled away whistling.

Ginny looked as if she were melting away. She had a thing about Patrick. I ­don’t know why. He made rude noises; he swore; he insisted he was right even when he was wrong. He ­wasn’t often wrong, I had to admit. For a boy he was very intelligent. Talented, too, according to his teachers. He could draw and paint pictures better than anyone else in town, not that I cared. I had a talent or two of my own. Probably. Anyway, Patrick Connor was considered a regular Vincent van Gogh. With two ears. Every­­one in town said so.

I flipped over into half a cartwheel and called Ginny. “Look at how far I can walk on my hands, Ginny. Hey, look. Patrick ­can’t go half this far.” But Ginny was still watching Patrick swagger along ahead of us.

What I like about Ginny is that independent streak her mother finds so unbecoming. She ­doesn’t think about things; she does them. Like tobogganing off Old Man Harkin’s garage roof last winter. She ­didn’t think about whether he’d be mad and chase her with part of an old eavestrough. She’s a good runner. What I ­don’t like about Ginny is the way she makes me feel invisible whenever Patrick is around. I’d like to put a question to her sometime. I’d say: If Patrick and I were in front of a firing squad and you had the power to save only one of us, who would you save? I know I’ll never ask her that, because I’d probably be crushed by her answer.

I was right side up again. Ginny and I scuffed along shoulder to shoulder, Ginny smiling, probably thinking about Patrick and herself. I ­wasn’t smiling, but I was thinking about Patrick and myself. And life.

I said, “I know why Patrick sets up dares. He likes to prove he’s a winner. I guess I only do it to keep up to him. Know what I mean, Ginny?”

“No,” said Ginny. She was still gazing at Patrick’s back, which was getting farther and farther ahead of us.

“I mean, sometimes I think I’m only here because Patrick’s here, that maybe without him I’m not even a person. Know what I mean?”

Ginny shook her head. “No,” she said. Patrick turned the corner and was out of sight now.

“Look at it this way. I feel that if Patrick disappeared, I’d disappear too. Now do you know what I mean?” I looked hopefully at her, coming around to stand right in front of her.

“Keely,” she said, “sometimes you’re such a bore.” That was Ginny’s word that summer, the summer of 1946.

So maybe I am a bore. At least she ­didn’t say I was a screwball. Often people did.

Ginny came over after lunch to swelter with me. We sat on our back stoop and wondered if we were too old to run through the sprinkler.

“We could go to the swimming pool,” I suggested.

“Too boring,” Ginny replied. “Anyway, I’m not allowed. Germs, you know.”

“Patrick’s going.”

“We-­e-­ell …”

“We’re not allowed either, but Patrick always goes.”

“What about the germs?”

“You ­don’t get germs; you get polio or something. But that’s only in cities.”

“What a bore.”

Patrick swung into sight just then, his towel stuffed into his shirt. “Hurry up if you’re coming,” he said to me. “Mother’s gone out so now’s our chance.” He flashed Ginny a challenge. “Coming?”

“Of course,” she said, falling into step beside him.

“What a bore,” I murmured, but nobody heard me. I walked along with my hair in my eyes.

Ginny and I were not invaded by germs. We ­didn’t even catch summer colds after all our cannonballs and belly flops with the other kids in Channing’s public swimming pool. All three of us returned to our place and sprayed each other with the hose to explain our wet hair. We lounged lazily on the grass under a maple in our front yard. It was too hot, even, to play cards.

I said, “You can think yourself into being cool, you know.”

Patrick was pulling up grass blade by blade and throw­ing it at Ginny. He stopped long enough to argue with me. “No you ­can’t. You ­can’t think up a drop in temperature.”

“You can do anything if you think hard enough about it,” I insisted.

“You ­can’t fly.”

That nearly stopped me. “Riding a fast horse would be like flying.”

“Some people ­can’t even draw a horse, let alone ride.”

“Here we go again,” said Ginny. She threw grass back at Patrick, but he ­didn’t notice.

“Let’s see you think your way into drawing a recognizable horse, Keel.” Another challenge. Patrick had a way of smiling knowingly and looking sideways at Ginny that infuriated me. If Ginny grinned back at him, I’d kill her. There are times when girls ought to stick together. Boys do automatically.

Ginny lay back in the grass with her arm over her eyes, ignoring both of us.

“I’m not talking about drawing,” I said, “I’m talking about riding. Drawing’s too simple.”

“Simple for me, anyway.” Patrick was right, of course. He just had to pick up a pencil to produce a sleek racehorse. He could spend a whole rainy day drawing horses running or jumping fences or standing still. I always wanted him to give his horses riders but he never would. Even though I believed I could do anything if I thought about it hard enough, I knew from experience that whenever I tried to draw a horse it turned out looking like a potato on toothpicks. Even after deep thought.

“Who’d want to sit around drawing horses when you could easily ride one?” I was kneeling in front of Patrick now, so that I could stare him right in the face. This was an ongoing challenge. So far nothing had come of it.

“You ­can’t ride a horse if you ­haven’t got a horse.” His standard reply.

“I’ve heard all this before,” Ginny sighed. She sounded as though she might fall asleep.

I continued my dare. “We could sneak into Laurence Saunders’ field and ride Lightning.”

Patrick groaned and leaned back against the tree trunk, flicking grass at me now. “Lightning only exists in your one-­track mind, Keely. Count ’em. There’s fat Lola.” He held up a finger. “And there’s dumb Bill.” He held up another finger. “Calling Lola ‘Lightning’ ­won’t turn the old nag into a racehorse. Face it. And anyway, you ­can’t ride either horse without permission.”

“Who’d know?”

“If you fell off and broke something, everybody within ten miles would know.”

I sat back and checked my bare knees for grass stains. I ­didn’t want to look right at him. “You’re scared, ­aren’t you?”

Patrick snorted. ­“Don’t be ridiculous. Look, let’s just drop it, okay? It’s too hot.”

Only one knee was grass-­stained so I rubbed grass into the other one. Ginny told us we were both being bores.

The reason we were on more or less intimate terms with horses was because of where we lived, at the extreme west end of Channing. Channing is a small town in the lower Ottawa Valley. I should explain about the Ottawa Valley. It’s a river valley, not a mountain valley. But there’s more to it than geography. My father says it’s more a state of mind than a place. It has a personality.

To the east and across the street from us were houses; beyond our place to the west was countryside – farmland and bush. Our backyard looked out on our neighbor Laurence Saunders’ small farm, separated from our garden by a rail fence. Beyond the fence, pastureland sloped gently uphill to where the love of my life, Lola/Lightning, liked to graze on the dry August grass or shelter under a clump of birches. Often, I leaned on the fence and watched the horse take long drafts from the creek that meandered through Laurence Saunders’ property, trickled into a culvert under Fairly Street, our street, and widened into a shallow, nearly stagnant pool in the woods nearby. The pool was known locally as Bloodsucker Pond. You’d have to be out of your mind to put a bare limb into Bloodsucker Pond, for obvious reasons.

If you ­didn’t count the pond, it was a fine part of town to live in. Maybe it was because our father was a County Court judge that he seemed to weigh things one against the other, even when he ­wasn’t in court. Living on the edge of town was as good as living in the country, he was fond of saying. “We have the best of both worlds. Six blocks from our front door takes us to the center of town [the courthouse where Father spent much of his time was in the center of town], and behind us, from our back door, we can breathe in the pure country air.” Our mother shook her head sometimes. Breathing in the country air had its drawbacks, especially when Laurence Saunders got busy with the manure-­spreader. He was a part-­time farmer only, but that part was just too much as far as Mother was concerned.

“You watch,” she had often said. “When the war ends, this street will see houses spring up like mushrooms.” The war had ended, but the street remained much the same. There were rumblings around town, however, my father admitted – about development, about progress, about Laurence Saunders wanting to get ahead in the world. The other part of Laurence’s job was hitching his old horse, Bill, to the bread wagon and plodding up and down the streets of Channing delivering bread to the customers of Quinlan’s Bakery.

Ginny came to life, probably because Patrick and I had finally stopped arguing. We were just foot-­fighting now, pressing the soles of our feet together trying to dislocate each other’s ankles. Ginny sat up, so we stopped. “What’s so big about horses, anyway?” she wanted to know. She had asked the question before, but we had never got round to giving her a straight answer, at least not one that she said made sense. One thing about Ginny, she never gives up. Here she was, asking the question again.

“They’re … noble animals,” I said, not very helpfully.

I’ll admit right here that my passion is horses. I read books about horses; I went to Saturday matinée cowboy movies just to admire the horses. Ginny usually went along too, but she went to admire the cowboys. The thing is, I think I’ve always had this vision of myself charging through a sort of mist on a silver-­white stallion, up and down, say, the Ottawa Valley – probably the only place where this could happen – fixing things, making everything all better, riding like crazy over the vile and the petty to rescue the faint-hearted, while along the roadside crowds cheer and roar, “Keely the Connor rides again!” This is not something I talk about.

Ginny was trying to get Patrick to tell her what was so big about horses.

“Horses,” he said, “are symbolic.” Symbolic was Patrick’s word that summer. I laid claim to it too.

“What does that mean?” Ginny was beginning to sound bored.

“Too hard to explain if you ­don’t know.” Patrick looked over at me; I looked back at him with just a tiny movement of my head. He blinked. Sometimes we were like Siamese twins joined at the mind, catching each other’s thoughts through a nod or a glance. We had decided to enlighten Ginny. I plowed back my hair, yanking it a bit to help me think clearly. I said, finally, “Heroes ride horses. That’s what’s so big about them.”

Ginny ­didn’t say anything. She looked into my eyes, then Patrick’s, as if we were kidding or something. She must have seen that we were serious. Her face was blank, then a little disappointed. “I ­don’t get it.”

Ginny’s mother called her, then, from the Dicksons’ front porch across the street and down a bit. When Mrs. Dickson bellows, you ­don’t hang around. Ginny jumped up. We looked at her mother with her hands on her hips, her elbows pointing east and west. “Oh-­oh,” Ginny said through her teeth. “I’m in trouble.”

“What for?”

“Not sure. ­Can’t remember.” She set off at a trot.

Patrick called, “See you later.”

She looked back, sliced her fingers across her throat and wobbled her head. “Help!” she mouthed.

Patrick and I were still sitting on the grass, leaning on our hands, tanned skinny legs stretched out in front, foot to foot. We looked at each other and laughed because Ginny’s not the type to need help. Neither were we.

Or so I thought.

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In Spite of Killer Bees
Excerpt

Chapter One

Looking out, Agatha says, “This could be in a movie.” Helen and Jeannie ignore her. They usually do, even though she’s fourteen now and believes she’s becoming quite interesting. Agatha has never told anyone this (someday she will), but she sometimes thinks she is both in a movie and watching it. She has the feeling that sometimes she soars.

Helen paid for the car, but Jeannie’s driving it. She’s seventeen, so why not? Of course, to call it a car, Aggie thinks, is flattering the thing – the two hundred and fifty dollar bag of scrap metal on wheels. It groans up the last hill. Agatha leans over the back of the front seat. For a moment all three sisters are breathless as they take in the panorama. “It’s the edge of the world,” Helen says. And so it seems for the fraction of a second they are perched there, the rest of their lives spread before them. Straight ahead, below, is the lake – bluer than the sky, flecked with diamonds in the glancing sun. Off to the right nestles the village of Port Desire.

The car releases a series of relieved backfires as it starts down the other side of the hill. They can see more of the village now: a church spire dazzling, haloed in the westerly sun. Around it, roofs of houses huddle like toadstools beneath tamed forests of trees.

The highway leads right into town to become the main street, LAKE STREET, a sign says. It’s lined with parked cars and on the sidewalks dozens of people in shorts and sunglasses amble along, eating ice cream cones, gazing into store windows. They cross the street wherever they feel like it, especially right in front of the Quade girls’ vehicle. Jeannie slams on the brakes more than once, muttering hostile names through her open window until Helen tells her not to be any more appalling than she has to be.

Agatha has been on the lookout for cops ever since they left Sudbury for the simple reason that Jeannie has only a G-1. Jeannie said, when they set off, “Don’t worry about it. It’s okay as long as you have an adult with you.” At twenty-two Helen counts as an adult, which is fine except that Helen doesn’t have a license, either. Agatha has felt rattled for nine solid hours, with Helen in the navigator’s seat telling Jeannie she’s getting too close to the shoulder, telling her to stay in her lane, telling her to shut her filthy mouth whenever Jeannie’s replies get a little too crass for Helen’s hoity-toity ears. Agatha isn’t used to her older sisters being quite so hostile. Back home in Sudbury, they pretty well ignore each other. She’s surprised they’ve all survived the trip without resorting to homicide.

Agatha (Aggie is what she prefers) has eyes like fringed chocolate pies. She has her head out, ogling the sights, memorizing the sounds. She can smell the lake, or maybe it’s the shore – hot sun on seaweed and wooden wharfs, with a hint of boat gas thrown in. The people here all look so nice and relaxed, some are even smiling. Slam go the brakes again as a jaywalking girl dripping ice cream jumps back out of the way of the car. “Oops!” says the girl, grinning. “Sorry.”

Aggie grins back through her open window and thinks she’d like to be able to phone up that girl and tell her everything that happens and laugh for an hour. She’s never actually done that with anyone. At her school in Sudbury, kids aren’t particularly friendly. They have names for her – Baggie, or Shaggie, which she ignores, and sometimes Ditz, which doesn’t even rhyme. Plus, she has to help in the deli after school, which doesn’t leave much time for friends. Aggie senses the girl staring at her shaved head, but doesn’t care. Something she had to do once in her life.

The Quade girls follow Lake Street as it curves past houses, a gas station, a store, a pharmacy, with little glimpses of the lake in between, boats on it zipping this way and that cresting the waves.

“Doesn’t this look like something out of a movie?” Aggie repeats.

“Not much,” Jeannie says.

“Start looking for house numbers,” Helen says.

On the other side of the street Aggie peers at a hardware store, a grocery store, and a stone castle that turns out to be the post office. Glancing back to the water side, across the street from the post office, she finds number 32. “So this was Grandfather Quade’s house!” Jeannie stops the car and they all bend their necks to get a good look.

“Could sure use a coat of paint,” Helen says.

Jeannie says, “It’s a dump.”

“No, it isn’t,” Aggie says. “Predump, maybe. There’s hope.”

Aggie cranes her neck and takes it all in. It’s tall, it’s wide, it’s redbrick with crooked, weather-beaten shutters framing fly-specked windows. Hollyhocks sway lazily at the side, and a rickety veranda in need of paint sags in front. It’s a monster of a place and smack on the main street.

Jeannie puts the car in gear, pulls into a grassed-over driveway on the far side of the house, and follows it around to the back, where the car promptly dies in front of a padlocked garage. They get out with their knapsacks, slam the car doors, and all three turn to make sure the impact hasn’t dismantled the car’s jigsaw puzzle chassis.

The house is closed tight, blinds down, curtains pulled. No point in knocking because who would answer? Helen has a door key sent by their grandfather’s lawyer with his letter. First time they’d ever got anything by courier, which made them all feel important. They are important. Not very many people in Sudbury have a millionaire grandfather die and leave them a huge fortune, at least no one they know. They go around to the front, but the key doesn’t work in the door.

“Wiggle it,” Jeannie says.

“It’s the wrong key,” Helen says.

Looking for another door, and carrying their knapsacks for fear they might be stolen, they retrace their steps around past the car to the back of the house. Stone steps lead down to a low door cut into the foundation. Helen can tell by looking at the large keyhole that their key won’t fit. Behind the house, what should be a back lawn is more like a hay field sprinkled with lacy white flowers they’ve never seen before, or noticed. It goes right down to the water’s edge to a lopsided building, its eaves scalloped and scrolled with the same trim as the house – a boathouse. Aggie lopes down for a closer look and pushes open the unlocked door. She calls, “Come and see it!” Her sisters meander down, Jeannie practically dead on her feet, Helen frowning over the key.

Inside, in the boat slip, in the muted light coming through the cobwebby windows, they make out an old wooden rowboat, its oars resting on the seats.

“I’d like to jump right in and go for a little row,” Aggie says.

“Underwater?” Jeannie says. “Better get a diving suit.”

The boat has buckets of water in it. The older girls head back up to the house, Jeannie’s yellow hair tangling in the breeze, Helen’s swept back tightly, her dark head on an angle.

“You stay out of that boat, Aggie!” Helen turns and calls.

Aggie mutters one or two halfhearted insults. She hates when Helen sounds motherish, although she should be used to it. One of these days, she thinks, smiling. (One of these days is her motto. It means, ‘wait for the future, things are bound to get better.’ She always adds, ‘once Mom comes back.’)

Things are already looking up, she has to admit. With all the money they’re going to inherit, they’ll be able to go anywhere, do anything. Their mom will come home and help them buy a nice little house somewhere and fix it up cute and she’ll cook delicious dinners and they’ll sit around watching videos, funny ones, and laugh till they roll on the floor, or sometimes sad ones, and they’ll pass around the box of Kleenex. Once Mom comes back into the family, they’ll all start liking each other, she’s pretty sure.

Aggie thinks this is probably what it’s like to have a religion. You always have some kind of heaven to look forward to. Aggie is a born-again family-girl.

*

The funeral isn’t until tomorrow at two in the afternoon, according to the letter they got from the lawyer. They came a day early to get their bearings, Helen says; case the joint, Jeannie says; make plans for the future, Aggie thinks.

*

Back in Sudbury, when Mrs. Muntz passed The Globe and Mail across the breakfast table to them, they crowded in to read the death notice and the article about their grandfather. “…considered one of the wealthiest men in Canada “fty years ago,” it said, and went on to tell how famous he was for owning silver mines way back when he was young. Helen clipped the article and saved it because they were in it, too. “Survived by two sisters and three granddaughters,” it said. She pasted it into the scrapbook she’s making about their family along with the letter they got from their grandfather’s lawyer saying that they were among the beneficiaries. Under the newspaper clipping Helen wrote: “Dad always used to say, luck is like an hourglass. When it runs out you turn it over and, before you know it, it comes pouring back in.

*

The key works in a side door almost hidden by the trumpet-shaped hollyhocks ”– pink and purple, clinging defiantly up and down a thicket of stocks. The girls let themselves into a dark passageway that is lit only at the far end by faded daylight filtered through dingy windows on either side of the front door. They stand still for a moment, chilly in the gloom, breathing the stale air. Huddling close, they creep toward the front of the house, past closed doors. An open one, they notice, leads into a vast kitchen, high-ceilinged, with crack-lines in the plaster. All the ceilings are high. Farther along, past closed sliding doors, Helen flicks a light switch. A staircase, its center covered by threadbare carpeting held in place with thin brass rods, sweeps up from the front hall. To the left and right of it are living rooms – one stiffly grand, awash with ornamental knickknacks; the other smaller, padded with overstuffed chairs and couches, faded and sagging.

Aggie whispers, “Not your typical rich-people’s mansion, is it?” Everything looks decayed and dusty, with dreary pictures on the walls of shipwrecks and sheep and waterfalls and more sheep. “Not exactly a fun palace.”

Jeannie shivers. “Who’d want to live here?”

Helen says, “What did you expect? Our grandfather was sick in a hospital, or some place, for a long time before he died. No one has lived here for years, probably.”

“Our grandfather,” Aggie says. “Funny how we’ve gone through our entire lives without any relatives and, now that we’ve finally got a grandfather, he turns out to be dead.”

Something makes them turn back toward the stairs, listening.

“What?” Aggie’s eyes are wide.

“Listen.” Helen frowns.

They hear the slow drip of a tap, a fly buzzing a window, a sigh in the floor under them – sounds of a tired house. They turn to head back along the passageway, but out of the corner of her eye Aggie thinks she sees a shadow move. She screams, making them all scream as they race to the side door, stumbling, bumping each other with their knapsacks to be the first out.

“What was that?” Jeannie says.

“This place is haunted!”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Aggie,” Helen says.

Nevertheless, Helen leads the way around to the back of the house, where their car is parked. They get in and Jeannie tries to start it. Wa-wa-wa! it wails halfheartedly. The car has no intention of going anywhere.

*

Aggie and Helen are walking back along Lake Street. They’re looking for a motel, or a house with a room to rent, or a place selling tents cheap. Anything. They’re not going inside that house again, ghosts or no ghosts. Jeannie’s still back there behind the house, in the car, her head lolled against the window, sound asleep, not locked in because the car’s locks don’t work.

They aren’t having any luck at all finding a place to stay. Helen looks hot in her black sweater, buttoned right to the neck. Aggie would like to suggest an ice cream cone, but Helen would just say no. Not as many people around now, not as many ice cream cones going down this close to supper time. Aggie’s hungry. They turn down a short street, pass a booth selling ice cream, and go over a high bridge spanning the water. On the other side is a long weathered wharf, with boats tied to both sides of it – mostly houseboats and cabin cruisers in a variety of shapes and sizes. They read the names: Mamma’s Mink, Syracuse, NY; Ma Rêve, Trois Rivières, Que.

“If we find an empty one,” Aggie whispers, “we can sneak in after dark and spend the night.”

“As if.”

A squat houseboat, square-ended, in need of paint, casts off from the wharf and, churning slowly through the ropey weeds, heads up the shore in the direction of Grandfather Quade’s boathouse. Aggie stares at the people on it, shielding her eyes from the sun. “Hey!” she says. “Hey, that looks like Mom! It is Mom!” She runs along the wharf nearly tripping over mooring lines. “Mom!” she yells. “Mom!”

Helen comes up beside her, trying to get her to calm down. People are staring. People having a five-o’clock beer on the afterdeck of their boat grin at the girls with shaded eyes. “That’s Mom out there!” Aggie yells at Helen, nearly in tears. The woman has slipped into the cabin out of sight. They can see the man at the wheel taking the boat up the lake, not in any hurry.

“Come on,” Aggie says, grabbing Helen’s arm and pulling her back along the wharf and over the bridge. “We can take that old rowboat out and head them off.”

“Don’t be a total idiot,” Helen says. Aggie is always seeing their mother – in crowds, in passing cars, buses. Helen jogs along beside her, though, just to get her to shut up. Up the street they pound, Aggie rounding the house ahead of Helen, heading to the car at the back. She yanks the door open and Jeannie screams in shock, grabbing the steering wheel for balance.

“Mom’s out there in a boat,” Aggie yells. “Come on, we’re going after her.” She runs down and disappears into the boathouse.

Helen is out of breath from running. “Go down and get her out of there, will you?” she asks Jeannie.

“Get her yourself,” Jeannie says, slumping against the back of the seat.

“She’s going to drown herself.”

“Good. Two funerals for the price of one.”

Helen heaves a big, worn-out, why-do-I-have-to-do-it-all sigh.

Jeannie sighs, too. “Okay, okay.” She rolls out of the car and faces Helen. “I’m out of here, you know, the minute I get my share of the money.”

“Well, that makes two of us, honey.”

By the time Jeannie enters the boathouse, Aggie has the boat untied. “Get in,” she says.

“We can’t swim.”

“We don’t need to swim, we have a boat.”

“That thing could tip.”

“It won’t tip.” Aggie is in the boat now, more than ankle-deep in water.

Jeannie scowls, tells her not to be a jerk.

Aggie snorts her disgust. They can hear the putt-putt of the houseboat’s engine.

Standing in the boat alone, gripping one of the oars, teetering, Aggie poles it out of the boat slip into the breeze. She sits down with her back to the pointy end and fits the oars into the oarlocks, not really knowing what she’s doing. Push or pull? she wonders. She gives a mighty push and the boat lurches, blunt end first, out into the lake. Push, lurch, push, lurch, the water in it sloshes forward and back, over her feet and legs.

The houseboat is in sight now, quite close, its wake wedging out behind. Aggie stands up and yells, “Hey, Mom! Mom!” She pulls an oar out of its lock and waves it awkwardly above her head at the passing boat. “It’s me, Aggie!” She can’t see the woman. The man steers the boat without even looking at her. She might as well be one of the swallows darting and flitting over the waves. She lowers the oar and stands there breathing in and out, shoulders drooping, rocking with the waves. The houseboat is heading up the lake. When its swells hit Aggie’s unstable rowboat broadside, it’s enough to send her toppling, thrashing, into the water.

Jeannie, openmouthed, crouches in the boathouse. Through the frame of the off-kilter boat slip door, she watches the lake swallow her sister. She’s paralyzed with panic. She doesn’t know what to do. Aggie’s head comes up, but Jeannie can’t reach her. Aggie gasps in air and chokes, her face distorted. “Grab the oar, grab the oar,” Jeannie believes she calls, but no sound comes out. Aggie goes under again and Jeannie moans aloud. Her stomach heaves.

Aggie’s eyes are open underwater. She sees nothing but brownish green and thinks it must be the color of drowning. She’s lost contact with her arms and legs. They flail and thrash with a will of their own. She only knows about her chest, burning; her lungs, bursting. Up, she thinks, air is up. Her foot touches something solid.

Aggie makes a strangled retching sound as her head and shoulders break the surface. She reaches for the oar angling out from the boat and wraps her arms around it, clinging, gulping air, her throat rasping noisily. She hacks out a cough and sneeze together, then a loud belch. Her head and neck are still above water, but her toes are on the muddy bottom. Now she can swear, and does.

Jeannie gets her voice working. “Are you all right?”

Aggie coughs again and croaks, “It’s not all that deep.” She stretches out an arm and pulls the floating oar closer to her.

“You could have drowned!” Jeannie’s screaming, now.

“A lot you’d care!” Aggie’s still coughing hard, but manages to choke out, “You didn’t even try to save me.” She plows through the shoulder-high water, dragging the boat – her shaved head glistening, her nose running.

“What was I supposed to do? I can’t swim either.”

“You could have thrown something to me.”

“Like what?”

“You could have called for help.”

Jeannie stomps out of the boathouse.

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Love Ya Like a Sister

Love Ya Like a Sister

A Story of Friendship
edited by Julie Johnston
edition:Paperback
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