The Summer I Saved the World ... in 65 Days (4 page)

BOOK: The Summer I Saved the World ... in 65 Days
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“Make sure you take equal amounts of the colors when you mix,” she comments.

I nod, and she moves on, pauses at the heavy girl's desk. “Nice,” she says, looking at her color wheel, then holds it up to show everyone else.

The only word I say all morning is “Here” during attendance. Great first day.

Jorie and I have to take the bus home, which she isn't happy about. The air is hot and thick, even with all the windows open, and her cheeks are bright pink. Like her tank top.

We see Eli getting into a car with some boys. Jorie cranes her neck and watches the car drive away. “Isn't that Eli's friend Tyler? And his older brother? I think he's a junior. He must have his license.”

I'm looking at the syllabus for art. Drawing, painting, ceramics. Wow.

“What class is Eli taking?”

I shrug. “I don't know.”

Jorie leans back in the seat and exhales dramatically. “I'm going to tell you a secret.” She says this all the time, so nothing with her is ever really secret.

“What?”

“This is the summer Eli and I are going to get together. I've got it all planned. I'm going to get him to ask me to homecoming. We'll start our freshman year as a couple. The boy next door. How cute is that?”

Technically he's the boy next door to me.

You know that memory with the chalk? Eli writing on my driveway? Yeah, well, Jorie was there too, decorating his backward
Es
with flowers and peace signs. Even at six, she had a little thing for him.

“He's gotten so cute, hasn't he?” Jorie breathes.

“Yeah, I guess. You like him?”

“Duh.”

“Oh. Really? Eli?”

“Yes,” she sighs. “Why do you sound surprised? It's there. I feel it. Certain things, you just
know
.”

The bus pulls up at the entrance to our cul-de-sac, and the driver opens the doors.

“Well, good luck with that,” I say as Jorie tears off toward her house.

“Text me later!” she calls, running, her tote bag banging against her hip.

“My phone's still being weird!” I shout.

“Get a new one already! Your phone is ancient!
From, like, when? Sixth grade?” She slams her front door.

I dropped my phone, and now it randomly decides when it wants to work right. I dropped my last phone too. The thing is, Dad said if I broke this one, I had to pay for another. With what, I don't know.

No one's around, except Thomas, who salutes me from his driveway. He's throwing his sword into the air and catching it. It falls more times than it ends up in his hands.

“I'm practicing for the bad guys,” he yells. “You gotta do these tricks!”

I smile and give him a thumbs-up.

I look around at the houses. I'm on good thing number six, but after the police episode with Mrs. Millman, I missed a day. Should I keep this up? What if she finds out and gets me in trouble somehow? That wasn't part of my plan.

“They're all around here! Hiding and stuff!” Thomas says. “You see them?”

I laugh. “Yeah!”

I pause in my driveway. Mrs. Chung's marigolds are wilting. She can't possibly water them. I look toward Mrs. Millman's. No sign of her. I get that air-rushing-into-my-lungs feeling again as I quickly turn on our hose and start spraying the flowers before I change my mind. While I'm watering, the mail truck drives by. I
get Mrs. Chung's pile from her mailbox and leave it at her front door.

Number six. And seven.

“Pow!” Thomas roars, making a tough face. “I got one! I got a bad guy, Nina!”

I wave at him. He leaps high, then does a somersault on the grass.

Hmm.… Good thing done. Bad guy gone.

Mrs. Millman or no Mrs. Millman, I don't want to stop.

It feels right to keep going. I sound like Jorie talking about Eli, but that's totally different. I don't get exactly why I know; I just
do
.

T
his is how dinners are at my house these days.

I'm starving by six p.m., but Mom and Dad are still at work. So I make myself something like macaroni and cheese or a frozen pizza, then debate between a healthy dessert (apple) or an unhealthy one (Reese's). Most times, I end up eating the Reese's in two bites. (With milk to take the edge off the guilt.)

Matt goes to Subway with his friends. How do I know? The floor of his car is littered with paper napkins, and his T-shirt has that bread smell.

My parents usually get home around seven-thirty
with square black plastic carryout containers. They are divorce lawyers, in their own practice. Fine and Ross, Attorneys-at-Law. My mother is Fine. (She kept her maiden name, and she is not really fine much of the time.) My dad is Ross (his last name, mine too). They're on a mission to get to the top. Of something. They take one of the earliest trains into the city every day and the six-thirty train back. Sometimes an even later one. From what I can tell, their job is to get the person who is divorcing the other person the most money possible. The Fine and Ross formula: divorce + money = happiness.

Mom texts me every morning:
All okay?
and Dad calls in the afternoon when I'm home from summer school, but I hear him shuffling papers in the background. Matt's supposed to be checking in on me. But he's at work a lot, and then, just, out.

Summers when I was younger, someone was always home when I got off the day camp bus—Matt or Mom or Grandma. And after camp ended, Grandma took me on special outings: afternoon tea at a fancy downtown hotel; and to the butterfly house, where if you stood still and quiet, one might land on you.

When my parents finally get home, they spread out at the kitchen table with their containers of food, laptops, and phones, and they work and eat and strategize. For months, they've been immersed in the biggest
case of their careers, apparently the kind they've always wanted. Dad told me, “Divorces don't come any more high profile than this,” and Mom, while she was dipping a lettuce leaf in fat-free dressing and reading an email, said, “This case has catapulted us to an entirely new category.” Like they were holding on to those wobbly high-jump poles and hurtling over the Lawyer Wall of Fame.

The other night, she took a minute to ask if everything was going all right in my life.

I said, “Sure.”

She nodded. “We'll talk more later, okay? I just need to finish something.” Her phone rang, and Dad said, “It's Melanie.” (The big, important client.) Mom answered immediately.

If I said my family was different once upon a time, no one would believe me.

But I swear it was.

I remember me and Matt and Mom and Dad before we got separated. Or divorced, I guess you could say, but still living in the same house.

Everything's faded, like the few photos I have of my grandma. I don't like to look at those, because I get too sad.

But if I do allow myself to think about the memories, it's like watching a video of how family dinners used to be. There's one from when I was around
nine … before Grandma lived with us … when Mom and Dad had low-profile clients … and before the whole thing that happened with Matt.

The video is funny, and sweet: Dad cutting spaghetti with a knife and fork because it was easier to eat, Matt sticking his foot on my chair and me telling him to stop (but laughing because his toes were tickling my leg), and Mom smiling at us while she sliced a loaf of garlic bread, crumbs scattering across the table like pebbles.

Was that really us?

Sometimes that video feels like it's someone else's. A different, happier family.

M
rs. Millman has pulled a patio chair around to her driveway. Every morning when Jorie and I leave for summer school, she's sitting out there with a newspaper, holding it the way people do in old detective movies, when they're pretending to read but are really snooping on someone. I heard her tell Mrs. Cantaloni that she's watching so she can find out who is
doing things
.

Should I tell her it's an inside job?

I think I've figured out a good strategy, though. When I get home, Mrs. Millman's guard chair is folded
up and she's walking around with Beanie on a tight leash. After Beanie takes care of business, Mrs. Millman, being a considerate, law-abiding neighbor, picks up the poop in a little blue bag, deposits it in her garbage can, and brings Beanie inside. She comes back out with a tote bag over her shoulder that says
MAHJONG, ANYONE?
, then gets into her car and drives off. Some of Grandma's friends played that game, with the tiles that have Chinese symbols.

Mrs. Millman has a very predictable schedule. With her two-hour mahjong outings every weekday afternoon, that's more than enough time to go ahead with my plan.

Not only do I worry about Mrs. Chung (number eight: untangled a plastic bag caught on one of her trees; and number nine: hung up the wind chimes that had fallen off the hook by her door), but I've been concerned about Mr. Dembrowski. Does he have food in there? How old is he now? Maybe he's become a hoarder and can't get out the door. Is that why no one ever sees him?

Mr. Dembrowski used to be the guy all us little kids were scared of. There's one in every neighborhood. He yelled when a ball went into his yard, or someone ran across his grass, or someone left their bike on his sidewalk.

When Jorie, Eli, and I were eight, we were playing
hide-and-seek on a sweltering summer night. Our cheeks were red and hot and we were buzzing with the electricity and heart-pumping thrill that happens when a neighborhood goes from day to night and you're finally old enough to stay up and be outside in the dark.

Eli and I were hiding from Jorie. We were in back of Mrs. Chung's house, behind a row of bushes, hugging our knees tight. I could hear the sweet piano music coming from her house and wondered if she was giving a lesson. Jorie's voice was getting madder. “Where are you guys? This isn't funny!” But Eli put a finger up to his lips and shook his head. He took my sweaty hand. I swear I could feel his heartbeat through his fingers.

After Jorie found us, someone—and to this day, I don't know who—ran through Mr. Dembrowski's flower bed. He had all these unusual kinds, fragile and exotic, but how were we supposed to know that? We were just trying to find the best hiding places.

It had just rained, and in the morning, there were shoe prints and trampled flowers. Mr. Dembrowski marched over to each of our houses and demanded a shoe. So he could match the print.

This was one of the times when my mother was not fine. She flipped on her lawyer switch and made a federal case about not turning over my shoe. It could have
been anyone, she said. Jorie's dad got mad too (he is a very high-strung stock trader) and said Mr. Dembrowski was making too much out of it and we were just kids. Eli's parents were getting divorced about that time, so no one was even there when Mr. Dembrowski rang their bell.

That was when Eli started to pull away, and I get it, I really do. He had a lot going on. His parents got back together just long enough to have Thomas; then they split again. Messed-up normal.

I've always felt guilty about Mr. Dembrowski's flower bed. We all should have taken the blame. But our parents argued us out of the situation.

So good thing number ten will be for Mr. Dembrowski.

I find a dusty package of brownie mix on the top shelf of our pantry. The expiration date is this month, but I figure that's okay. I'm pretty good at baking when I concentrate. I preheat the oven, follow the directions, and mix with exactly fifty strokes like the package says.

Then I start a sketch for art while the chocolate smell fills the kitchen. The assignment is to do a realistic drawing of a normal household item, with shading, light and dark, and good composition. I choose to draw a chair, which somehow ends up looking like a house on stilts.

I take the brownies out and stick in a toothpick. Done. Let them cool. Cut into neat squares, and place ten (for good thing number ten) on a paper plate, then slide it into a ziplock bag.

BOOK: The Summer I Saved the World ... in 65 Days
2.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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