We lived in a perfect stucco house, just off the sparkly Pacific, with a lime tree in the backyard and pink and yellow roses gone wild around a picket fence. But that wasn't enough to keep my daddy from going to jail the year I turned eleven. I told my best friend, Frankie, that it was hard to tell what something was like on the inside just by looking at the outside. And that our house was like one of those See's candies with beautiful swirled chocolate on the outside, but sometimes hiding coconut flakes on the inside, all gritty and hard, like undercooked white rice.
Things that look just right come undone quicker than the last day of summer. And one day, it happened right in front of me. The horoscope Mama read to me that morning should've been enough warning: Expect the unexpected. I'd raised my eyebrows and smiled, thinking the unexpected might be finally discovering a way to chop onions without crying or finding a dollar on the street-something unexpected but in a good way.
Officer Miguel surprised Daddy and me, stopping us as we were walking out of the Swallow Shop & Ferry on our way into town. I walked with Daddy on his way to work every Saturday because I had no school bus to catch then.
"Mitch?" the officer asked my daddy. "There's a problem." He stood on the main corner of town, like he'd been waiting for us. Like he knew we'd be there at this time on this day.
"What problem?" I asked. I looked up at Daddy, thinking he must've forgotten to pay another parking ticket.
"I can't be late for work. I just started a new job at the hardware store," Daddy told the officer. "I'm sure this can wait." He took my hand quickly like he suddenly remembered he needed to get to an appointment, and we started across the street.
"But-" I turned to look back at Officer Miguel.
"Let's go," Daddy told me, pulling my arm just a little.
"You better take a look at this." Officer Miguel ran up to us fast, waving some papers, leaving his patrol car parked on the street.
Daddy sighed and stopped on the opposite sidewalk, where someone had used gray chalk to draw a small bird flying over a tree. His left foot covered the leaves of the tree and half the bird. He squeezed my hand hard, like he was trying to decide what to do. But then he let go softly, and his hand fell to his side.
"What's going on?" I asked him.
But he didn't answer. Instead, he watched the sky for what seemed like a million minutes-and just then, it seemed perfectly stitched to the horizon in the west where the cumulus clouds made shapes-like he was looking for an answer. Like he was waiting for the clouds to form the words, Say this.... Finally he pointed to the side of the road without looking at me or telling me anything.
So I walked there, knowing he wanted me to by the way he pushed his lips together. He held his arm high and stiff, like a command to go to my room.
Maybe it's true there's no such thing as a sign from above, but as I stepped onto that curb, I felt something. Even worse, I noticed Mr. Tom, the homeless man, suddenly standing up the street looking like he knew something too. Like he was saying, Groovy Robinson, be ready, because things could be changing.
My hands became sweaty. I waited while Officer Miguel showed Daddy the papers, trying to steer clear of Mr. Tom. I crossed and uncrossed my arms a million times. They had a mind of their own. Finally I pushed my hands deep into the pockets of my jean skirt just to keep them still.
I'm here to tell you I listened the best I could, but every time Officer Miguel talked, it was too hushed.
Daddy was louder and angrier than I'd ever heard him. And he kept taking little steps backward. And I kept thinking that he should not be talking to that policeman like he was.
Then I saw his shoulders slump down. He got into the backseat of the police car while Officer Miguel stuffed his handcuffs back into his pocket, like he'd decided it wasn't going to be necessary to use force.
Mr. Tom covered his face with his hands and sat down on the curb.
I ran over to the car as fast as I could, blinking tears back into my eyes. I wondered what Daddy could've done to make Officer Miguel put him in his car. I told myself, Don't cry, don't you even think about crying. Who cares if they have to take him away? He'll be back after everything gets straightened out.
"I can't go into this right now, Groovy," Daddy told me through the crack in the window. His eyes shrank to the size of tiny dots, and his face turned stiff. Quiet floated between us, the kind that makes people uncomfortable when there's nothing to say.
Then he seemed to change his mind about talking, and with a sad voice he said, "Sometimes when you figure out the answer to a problem-something you know you need to fix-it's too late. You know what you have to do, but you've run out of time." His eyes looked at me, but like I wasn't there. "Groovy, listen to me." He put his hand on the window, his fingers smudging the glass. "Things can start out on track, but end up different. I'm sorry." And he looked away before I could say anything.
"Groovy, is your mother at work today?" Officer Miguel asked me.
"Yes, sir," I answered, but it didn't sound like the normal me.
Excerpted from The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice Copyright © 2009 by Kathryn Fitzmaurice. Excerpted by permission.
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