Authors: Mary Sullivan
DEAR BLUE SKY
NANCY PAULSEN BOOKS
A division of Penguin Young Readers Group.
Published by The Penguin Group.
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Copyright Â© 2012 by Mary Sullivan.
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Published simultaneously in Canada.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Sullivan, Mary, 1966â
Dear Blue Sky / Mary Sullivan. p. cm.
Summary: “Shortly after Cass's big brother is deployed to fight in Iraq, Cass becomes pen pals with an Iraqi girl who opens up her eyes to the effects of war”âProvided by publisher.
[1. Brothers and sistersâFiction. 2. Iraq War, 2003âFiction. 3. WarâFiction. 4. Pen palsâFiction. 5. Down syndromeâFiction. 6. Family lifeâFiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.S95315De 2012 [Fic]âdc23 2011046952
For my mother and father
IN THE DREAM
it was dark and Sef called me in a whisper. “Cass. Come on, Cass.” My brother was standing in the doorway of my room, like he used to when he'd wake me to go running. I threw back my covers and touched my feet to the ground. Right when I stood, he blew up into about a million pieces. There wasn't a sound. Each piece of him was like a snowflake falling, slowly cutting through the air. It was strangely beautiful.
When I woke, I knew one thing: Sef couldn't go to war.
On the Saturday before Sef was supposed to go to Iraq, Dad stood outside our house smiling at the giant flag that flapped like a sail over the sky in front of the brick apartment building at the end of our street. Whenever Dad gave directions, he'd say, “Then turn left onto Hawthorne. You'll see an American flag straight ahead. You can't miss it. It's got to be the biggest flag ever made. We're the tan house on the left.” If it weren't for that flag, our street would have been just like every other street in Hillview. The middle of nowhere.
Hillview, otherwise known as Hellview, had cornfields, tobacco farms, apple orchards, Swallow River, Layla's Pizza, Fresh CafÃ©, and a state hospital on top of the hill where we went sledding every winter. Dad would tell Mom sometimes, “If you don't watch out, that's where you'll end up.” She'd say, “I'll be visiting you.”
Anyway, Dad must have forgotten about daylight savings when he said that about the flag. It was early November, and the sky was charcoal gray by the time people started arriving for Sef's going-away party. You couldn't see anything, just the lights in the houses around us. Everyone in our neighborhood was invited, even the Klinmans, who had a
WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER
sign staked in their front yard. Mom was against the war too, though she wouldn't say so in front of Dad and Sef.
Upstairs, my sister, Van, was putting on eyeliner in the bathroom. Her long dark hair hung down her back. I was the only one in our family with light hair and pale skin. “It must be some long-lost relative on my side,” Mom said. She was Irish, and Dad was Italian. I didn't care. I just pulled my hair back in a ponytail anyway.
Van was so pretty, I couldn't stand to look at her. And she always did everything right. She dabbed her eyelashes with a wad of toilet paper.
I asked her, “What if he doesn't come back?”
“Of course Sef. Who else?”
“He has to come back,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Why? Why does he have to?”
“Because if he didn't come backâ” Van stopped, glancing up.
Mom was standing behind me in a blue cashmere dress and stockings. We waited now to see if she had heard what we were talking about.
“What? Did I miss something?” She turned to me and asked, “Are you wearing
I had on the same thing I always did, black jeans, a T-shirt, and Converse sneakers. I wasn't into dressing up, and I was never going to be a beauty queen, especially not with a scar like a crescent moon on the side of my eye from when I ran through a glass door. Not that I
to be a beauty queen. I didn't. When she was eighteen, Mom was Miss New Hampshire. She was beautiful, like Van.
I said to Mom now, “Do you think Sef really cares what I'm wearing?”
For a second, she looked like she was about to cry, just like she did that night Sef told us he'd joined. He said it like he was just telling us he'd gone to the movies.
“No, you can't do that to me,” Mom had said that night. “Troops are dying there. They're coming home in body bags.”
The war had been going on for two years.
Sef had stared at his lasagna. “I have to. Besides, Dad said I could go if I wanted. He did it. His father did too. I'm just carrying on the family tradition.” He smiled a little.
“What about college?” Mom's voice rose. “I thought you were taking a year off and then you were going to college, like your friends?”
“That was your idea, not mine.”
“Tell me you're joking, honey.” She smiled at him. “You're not really doing this, are you?”
“I don't like body bags. No body bags,” Jack groaned. He rolled his head back and forth.
A choking sound came out of Mom's mouth. “No, baby,” she said to Jack. “Don't even say it, because he's not going.”
Though he was eight, Jack was the baby. He was small and waddled when he walked, and he wore thick glasses. He was “special,” Mom liked to say with a smile. “Just a little slow, that's all
He was her Down syndrome baby.
To me he was just Jack. Sef was the favorite, and Van and I were in between.
“Say something, Joe.” Mom turned to Dad. “Please.”
The only noise around the table was Dad's fork scraping his plate. He didn't look up. He finished chewing and then said, “He's old enough to decide what he wants to do with his life.”
“With his life?”
Mom repeated. “With his
Sef tapped his fingers on the table and looked out the window over the sink.
“I don't want you to go, Sef,” Mom said.
“Me either,” I said. For once I agreed with Mom.
â¢Â â¢Â â¢
In the dark on the porch, I could hear the flag slapping against itself. The smoke rose in thin streams from the grill, drifting in between Sef and his friends, who were sitting on coolers of drinks. Jason pushed his long red hair back. “Isn't it, like, two hundred degrees in Iraq?”
“I think about three hundred,” Sef said.
“Whatever it is, it's good I'm not going. I wouldn't last a day.”
“I hope I do,” Sef said.
“Don't even say it, man. In fourteen months, we're going to be sitting here again, and I'll personally kick your ass if you're not,” Greg said. The biggest of them, he played football at UMass.
Dad poked the charcoal and popped a cannoli in his mouth. Inside, people were arriving. We could hear the bell, then the
of Mom's high heels each time she swung open the door and said hello in her party voice.
I was standing by the porch door, watching and waiting.
Sef glanced up at me. “Hey, Cass.”
When Sef smiled, lines appeared around his mouth and eyes that I hadn't noticed before. He was bigger since training, or harder or something. His long hair and baby face were gone.
“Hey,” I said.
“You're going to keep running, aren't you?” he asked me.
“Yeah.” Sef and I had been running in the morning for the last two years. When I ran with him, nothing else mattered. The whole world was ours. Sef tried to get me to join the track team, but I liked running to run, and because it was with him. I reached into the cooler and pulled out an orange soda. I said, “I'll keep running if Dad goes with me.”
“I'd like to see that,” Sef said.
“What?” Dad said. He slapped his thigh. He was wearing his plaid shorts, even though there was a cool breeze. “You think I can't run?”
“Ever seen Homer Simpson run?” Jason asked.
Dad sucked in his stomach and stirred the charcoal, the smoke rising, disappearing in the night.
They laughed and tossed their empty soda cans. I was going to miss thisâhaving all of them around like this. But things had already changed when Sef's friends left for college. Sef was the only one to stay in Hillview.
Van's boyfriend, Finn, came to the porch door with his guitar. He was a junior, and his band, Solar Train, had won second prize at the high school talent show. Van had never had a boyfriend until this year. Now she had Finn, and she was freshman Homecoming Queen. Mom was thrilled, but Van seemed anxious all the time now, like someone was going to see her doing something wrong.
“It's Finn,” I told the others.
“All right, our live entertainment's here. How about a little Sinatra, Finny?” Dad sang out, “I get a kick out of you. I get a kick every time I see you standing thereâ”
Jason and Greg started cracking up.
Finn frowned and brushed his curly brown hair back from his face. “Is he joking?” he asked.
“I don't think so. He's Italian, remember?” Mom laughed.
“I don't know any Sinatra,” Finn said.
“Go on out there and sing something.” Mom gave him a little push.
Finn's hand lifted nervously in a half wave as he stepped out onto the porch. He ducked when everyone clapped and hooted. Someone placed a chair in the middle of the porch, and Finn sat down and started tuning his guitar. On his case was a sticker that said
MAKE MUSIC NOT WAR
Van watched from the other side of the screen door. She was a vegetarian, and the smell of burgers, steaks, and hot dogs made her sick.
“You taking requests?” Jason asked.
“How about the Dropkick Murphys?” Greg asked.
“Those punks?” Finn said.
“What?” Greg's smile disappeared. He turned to Sef. “What punks?”
A branch snapped, and I saw Jack crouched down behind the back of the porch in his camouflage pants and shirt. For days he'd been telling everyone that he was going to war with Sef. Jack was one of the boys, and as Dad said, all the boys were for the war. Jack had been hiding since the party started. His dark hair stuck out of the sides of his Red Sox cap, and his almond eyes were focused on Finn. He had such an intensity when he locked his eyes on you, like he could see right through you.
Finn played a few chords to a round of applause. Then he lowered his head and sang, “I've been happy lately, thinking about good things to come.”
Sef stared disbelieving at Finn, who kept on singing.
“Out on the edge of darkness there rides a peace trainâ”
“What is this crap? Are you kidding me?” Greg said, standing, throwing his arms back.
“âPeace Train'? What is this, poetry hour?” Sef asked.
Dad just shook his head and disappeared behind the smoke of the grill as he set the steaks sizzling. Jack's eyes darted around the porch, finally narrowing on Finn. I knew that look. Jack picked up an aluminum bat someone had left on the porch steps. I should have stopped him then, but I thought if he did something really bad, then Sef would have to stay.
Jack bolted up the porch stairs with the bat raised over his head, running straight for Finn.
“Whoa, Jack!” Sef stepped in front of Jack.
Finn stopped playing and opened his eyes in time to see Sef grab the bat from Jack.
Sef twisted the bat up over his head. “Hey, what are you doing, buddy? The music's pretty lame, but not enough to kill him.”
“Give it to me! It's mine, and I'm going with you!” Jack tried to wrestle the bat back.
Sef tossed the bat and did “the Jack.” That's what we called it when we had to get behind Jack and wrap our arms tight around him until he stopped going crazy. Jack was so transparent. I wished I could be more like that, instead of holding everything in. All week I'd been keeping everything insideâSef leaving, my friend Sonia not talking to me, and Mom walking around with a weird glazed look in her eyes. I wanted to run, swinging a bat and yelling at Sef not to go to Iraq.
Finn backed past me, through the screen door. “Whoa, dude. He's got some totally uncool karma.”
Greg and Jason threw their heads back and laughed so hard, Jason tripped over a cooler.
Jack kept howling. “I'm going with you tomorrow! I'm going!”
“Hey, take it easy.” Sef kept Jack's arms pinned. “And anyway, you don't want to go, I'm telling you.”
“I do! You're going,” Jack screamed. “And I'm going with youâI'm going! Goingâ”
Sef stood Jack on the cooler so they were eye level. “Listen, buddy, I need you to stay here and take care of Mom and everyone else while Dad's at work. You're the one to do it.”
Jack frowned, tears and smudged dirt running down his face. “No. Nooo!”
“You're the next guy in line. You have to stay.” Sef let his arms fall. “Besides, you'd miss Christmas.”
Jack froze. “Christmas presents.”
“No presents in Iraq. It's too far to mail anything. Nothing big anyway, maybe a few chocolate bars, that's it. Listen, I'll be back before you know it, I promise.”
Sef's friends circled Jack, slapping him on the back and laughing. “Hey, we need you here, too,” they said.
“We really need you, man,” Greg said. “Looks like you scared Finn away.”
“Hopefully he's taking a ride outta here on his
” Jason said.
“Peaze train,” Jack said.
Greg put Jack up on his shoulders and marched him around the porch. “This is a peaze train.”
They passed Jack around with his arms extended like he was Superman. They hollered and whooped it up, and Jack went around and around the porch until the steaks and dogs were cooked. Then we all went inside to eat, everyone but Sef. “Come on, you have to eat,” they said. “Better eat while you can, before you get those ready-packs.”
“I'll be right in,” he said. “I just need a minute.”
I could just see his outline in the dark, his arm rising and falling with each swig from his drink. Music was playing inside, so it was impossible to hear if the flag was flapping the way it did, but I wondered if he was listening for it. That
slap flap, slap flap
. I watched him through the door. I didn't take my eyes off him because I was afraid if I did, he'd disappear. I was running out of time.