"B is for Basil, assaulted by bears," I reply, continuing the morbid rhyme we memorized off the poster on my bedroom wall. Each letter of the alphabet has a rhyme about a little kid meeting some bizarre end. I like the poster because it is in black and white to everyone else, but inside my head, it's in color. "Could it be any hotter out?" Jenna asks, panting with the effort to keep her footing on the slippery slope.
The sweat dripping down my face is enough of an answer. August has rolled around too soon, and we only have a few more weeks before eighth grade starts. If we lived a little farther south, a tumbleweed would tumble by. As we stumble down the familiar path of tall, sun-bleached grass and dry earth, I can feel the air thickening, preparing for a storm.
At thirteen, Jenna and I are much too old for day camp. We already live out in the country, with all the fresh air we could want.
We entertain ourselves by pretending there is still some square inch of countryside that we haven't discovered yet. Every day we explore the hills, the valley in between, the ravine, the woods. Last summer we found an arrowhead half buried under a bush. My father said it might have been from the Blackhawk War, the one that Abe Lincoln fought in when he was young. This year all we've found is the same old crabgrass, same old bugs, same old us. But still, exploring passes the time. The absence of wind today means we're spared the smell of manure from the Roth's farm across the valley. That's something to be thankful for.
When we were younger, we used to pretend that the ravine, always dry like this during the summer months, would lead us someplace else-somewhere magical, with adventures and swords and talking animals like in the Narnia books. Sometimes I still catch Jenna peeking behind bushes for hidden doorways. She's trying to find a way to reach her mother, who died three years ago from some kind of cancer that only women get. Mrs. Davis was so sweet and pretty, with red hair and freckles just like Jenna. Except Jenna is short like me, and Mrs. Davis was really tall. Before she died, Jenna's mom bought us the rope friendship bracelets that we have never taken off. She said that as long as we kept them on, nothing could come between us. I explain this to my own mother every time she begs me to cut off the bracelet, which is now too tight to slip over my hand. Who cares if it's gray and fraying and maybe even a little smelly?
The wind starts up slightly, and a big green leaf sticks to the sweat on my leg. I hold still and count to twelve before it flutters and falls to the ground. The color of the leaf is exactly the same color as Jenna's name-a bright, shimmering shade of green with some yellow highlights. I think part of why I liked Jenna right away is that I like the color of her name. But I'd never tell her that, nor would I tell my older sister, Beth, that her name is the murky brown of swamp water. Beth is sixteen and in the process of wearing down our parents' patience. She changes her hair color the way normal people change their underwear. We used to be a lot closer, before she went to high school and dropped me like a piping-hot bag of microwave popcorn. Before she left for the summer, she told me the boys would pay more attention to me if I colored my hair blond. I told her I'd stick with my boring brown, thank you very much. The only natural blond in the family is Zack. He just turned eleven, and his name is the light blue of a robin's egg. Zack has a lot of strange ideas. He can tell you exactly how many McDonald's hamburgers he's eaten in his lifetime. He has a detailed chart on his wall. The local paper ran a story about it once.
Jenna stops walking and points at my feet. "Your sneakers are untied," she says. "For a change."
I kick my sneakers off, tie the laces together, and drape them over my shoulder. I prefer to be barefoot anyway. Every night, the water in the bottom of my shower turns brown for a minute as the dirt runs from between my toes. Beth refuses to shower after me. Jenna starts to say something, but her words get drowned out by a helicopter flying overhead. The roaring sound instantly fills my vision with brown streaks and slashes, and I look up to see the familiar markings of my father's chopper. He sells and repairs small farm equipment and uses the helicopter to get to out-of-the-way places. Jenna and I wave, long hair whipping around our faces, but I don't think he sees us. When Zack was little, he was scared Dad wouldn't be able to find his way home. Zack cried and cried every time the helicopter took off. Finally Dad took me and Beth and Zack up in the chopper with him to show us how easy it is to spot the landing site. Beth threw up the entire time and hasn't gone for a ride since.
"Are you ever scared to fly with him?" Jenna asks when we can hear each other again. "That thing looks like it's ready to fall apart."
"It's fun," I tell her, tucking my hair back in its ponytail. "It feels like you 're a bird up there. Everything looks different. You're always welcome to come with us, you know."
A look of horror flits across Jenna's face. "No thanks." In all these years, Jenna has never accepted my offer. "So have you gone up to the cemetery yet?" she asks as we continue walking along the bottom of the ravine.
"No, not yet. I still have to finish the painting." It was Jenna's idea that I bring my grandfather a present on the one-year anniversary of his death. She brings her mother something each year, and her mother gives her gifts from the grave. Well, sort of. When Mrs. Davis knew she wasn't going to live much longer, she stocked up on presents and wrote long letters about her life. She gave them to my mother to keep, and each year on Jenna's birthday, my mother sends her one of the packages in the mail. One of these years, the gifts are going to run out and that will be a very sad birthday indeed.
"Can I see the painting?" Jenna asks, even though she knows better.
"You know it's bad luck to show it before it's done." "Why are you so superstitious?" she asks, wiping her sweaty brow and leaving a streak of dirt. "I thought your brother's superstitions drove you crazy."
"They do," I insist. "I'm not half as bad as him. If a black cat crosses his path, he locks himself in his room for the rest of the day. And forget walking under ladders. If he sees our father do it, he makes him walk around the house backward. Twice. Zack says that if Dad really wanted to make sure he undid the bad luck, he would cross his fingers until he saw a dog." "But you don't have a dog."
"I know." "And what's with the ladder thing anyway?" I shrug. "I have no idea. But you definitely don't want to walk under one." "There's a lot of weirdness in your family," Jenna says, picking at a scab on her elbow.
She doesn't even know about my own personal brand of weirdness. Like everybody else, she seems to have forgotten about my third-grade incident. Which is just fine with me. "You know," Jenna says, stepping carefully over a gnarled branch, "my father told me it could take a soul a whole year to reach heaven. Maybe that's why it took you a year to finish the painting of your grandfather."
I have my own theory on my grandfather's soul, but I haven't told anyone. After all, I am good at keeping secrets. "That could be it," I respond. "C'mon, let's get back so it doesn't take me any longer. I want to bring the painting to the cemetery before dinner."
"Do we have time for a quick PIC mission?" Jenna asks as we climb back up the slope.
I hated to skip out on the best part of the day, our PIC mission. Partners in Crime. The term was another gift from Jenna's mom. She made it up after she caught me standing guard while Jenna stole quarters from the cow-shaped cookie jar in their kitchen. After that we learned to be more careful. In fifth grade, we hid in Beth's closet when she had a slumber party. We heard lots of juicy gossip, as well as some stuff about how babies are made that cleared up a few lingering questions. To this day, Jenna and I count that as our most successful mission.
"I really can't today," I tell her. "Oh, it's okay. I can't think of anything good anyway. This town is just too boring." She kicks up a pile of dirt with the toe of her sneaker and sighs loudly.
It takes longer than it should to get home because we have to walk all the way around the Davises' fields. Jenna's father actually farms his land; he grows soybeans and the sweetest corn for miles around. My father plowed under our fields to make the landing space for his helicopter. Jenna's father thinks my father is lazy since he only flies three times a week and is back by dinnertime. My father thinks Jenna's father should mind his own business. "Is your dad ever going to stop working on your house?" Jenna asks as we come into view of it. Everyone in town, including the rest of my family, wants to know the answer to that question. The helicopter is now parked out back, and my father is already halfway up the ladder on his way to the roof.
"I don't think so," I reply honestly. My sprawling house is famous in these parts and never fails to get a reaction. First, people stare. They look up; they look down. Sometimes they even do that twice. The house is almost like a living creature that keeps expanding and contracting and remaking itself. Every inch of it was built by my father and grandfather from all different kinds of wood-whatever they could borrow, barter, or beg for. They could never agree on how the house should be laid out, so they each did their own thing and eventually met up in the middle.
This technique resulted in a number of doors that lead nowhere and stairs that go inside walls like secret passageways. That is how Jenna and I managed to wind up in the back of Beth's closet, so I guess the spider web filled tunnels are good for something. My father is usually on a ladder hammering away at the roof when he's not tinkering with the chopper. I call him Casper because we hardly ever see him at ground level. He calls me Wild Child because I'm always running around barefoot feeling the earth under my feet and predicting rain.
"Hi, Mr. Winchell," Jenna shouts. My father waves at us with his hammer, his mouth full of nails. "Bye, Mr. Winchell," Jenna shouts again as she heads toward her own smaller and much more normal house. He tries to wave again, slips slightly, then quickly regains his balance.
"How long will you be up there?" I call out. "Till your mother makes me come down." "Great," I mutter. That means at least a few more hours of hammering until Mom brings Beth back from the airport. Beth 's been gone for six whole weeks at a summer college-prep program in California. She won a full scholarship by writing an essay on the pressure of writing an essay. It was Zack 's idea. Her return is all too soon if you ask me. It was nice not having anyone boss me around.
The hammering begins and the familiar mottled gray bursts of color appear about a foot away from my face. The color and shape of a hammer hitting a nail has become such a part of my existence that I barely notice it. I can see right through the color-bursts, but they still distract me from whatever I 'm doing. If it was a nicer color, I might not mind as much.
I slip into my sneakers as I approach the back kitchen door, stepping cautiously around wooden planks, hammers, nails, and one very scary-looking chain saw. As always, the smell of sawdust is in the air and on my clothes and in my throat. It is inescapable around here, and it has long since mingled with the taste of multicolored chalk dust that still haunts me from third grade.
I go up to my room and look for Mango, whose official name is Mango the Magnificant. He usually sleeps at the foot of my bed on my old Winnie-the-Pooh baby blanket, completely covering the faded Pooh and Piglet walking into the sunset. He's not there now, but he left behind his favorite toy-a stuffed Tweety Bird that he likes to carry around in his mouth. I call out his name and hear a faraway, orange-soda-colored meow in response. I trace the sound to Beth's room and find the little gray-and-white traitor curled up on Beth's pillow. I swoop him up in my arms and glance at Beth's night table. By some huge oversight on her part, Beth left her diary right out in plain sight when she went to California. When I first noticed it, I thought maybe she wanted me to read it. Then I decided that she had probably booby-trapped it somehow and she'd know if I peeked.
I deposit Mango on my blanket, where he belongs. I start to shut the door behind me, when Zack sticks his foot in the way. "Just a sec, Mia," Zack says, pushing the door back open. "I need to do something."
"You need to do something in my room?" I ask, instantly suspicious. Zack has only recently gotten over his destructive phase. For years, nothing in the house was safe. He was very good at taking things apart but much less skilled at the art of putting them back together.
"Don't worry," he insists. "It will only take a second." "On one condition," I say, trapping him in the doorway. "You have to tell me why it's bad luck to walk under a ladder." He rolls his eyes. "That's easy. It's because you're disrupting the sacred triangle of life formed by the ladder, the ground, and the wall."
"Huh?" I let my guard down,, and he takes this opportunity to brush past me into my room. He heads directly over to my clock collection on the far wall. I follow him and notice he's clutching several watches in his small hands. Two belong to my father, one is my mother's, and one is Beth's.
"What are you doing with all those wa-" "Shh," he says, cutting me off. "I have to get this exactly right." He stares at the faces of my clocks as if they have a message for him. "Get what exactly ri-"
"Shh!" His eyes dart from the wooden cuckoo clock to the fluorescent star-shaped one, over to the big digital one, down to the clock in the shape of a train, and across to the electronic one that speaks the time out loud. I've collected clocks since first grade.
Every Christmas, I get to pick out another one. "I have to set these
watches exactly right," Zack explains, busily twisting the watch
dials to match the time on my synchronized clocks. "Otherwise, some of
us will be living in the past and some in the future. In the very
same house! Can't have that. Very bad." "What difference could a
minute or two make?" "It has to do with folds in the space-time
continuum, obviously," he replies, as though I should clearly have
Excerpted from A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass Copyright © 2003 by Wendy Mass
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