This started when my father sailed out of the kitchen and said, “You’re here, good. We need to talk.”
I was down on one knee tying my sneaker, mere seconds away from being through the garage door and gone. “What’s wrong?” My mother had spent the weekend shifting perennials in her garden. An open bag of peat moss sent up a smell like something dead.
“Nothing’s wrong,” he said, pulling his pump down from a hook on the wall and standing it on the floor next to his bike. “Can’t a father talk to his son without there being something wrong?”
He wasn’t looking for an answer and I didn’t give him one. Cupped around the shaft of a shovel, my mother’s mud-caked gloves had stiffened like fossils into the shape of her hands.
“This time next month you’ll be in high school. Know what that means?” My father took his time unscrewing the valve caps on his tires, giving me time to consider the many possibilities. “Last chance for a fresh start.”
He let this bit of wisdom sink in while he attached the pump to his front tire and began to work the handle. He was getting ready for a quick half-century—or what the general human population would call a grueling 50-mile ride. My father was anything but general human population. My father was Jack Gold, human tornado and author of the self-help bible Good as Gold: Keys to a Life that Shines. People paid thousands of dollars for his advice. Me, I got it for free.
“Who’s in, who’s out, who’s cool, who’s hot, it’s all up for grabs,” he said, matching his speech to the steady rhythm of the pump. “It’s the perfect time to reinvent yourself. I don’t mean something easy like cutting your hair or changing your clothes. I’m talking a complete change, deep down and all across the board. You hear what I’m saying?”
I couldn’t see his face, but it was a good bet there was no expression there to read anyhow. Life to my father was one big game of poker. “Yes, sir,” I said. You think your son’s a loser.
Thirty minutes after I dumped Barnie at Doc’s, a video of me pulling the squeaky wagon had already gone viral.
Well, maybe not viral, but I know for sure at least two people saw it. When I rolled the Bomber into our garage, I found Lily and Allie on the steps hunched over Lily’s phone giggling. Lily looked up, laughing. “What’s with the dead dog?”
“What dead dog?” I tried hard to see what was on the screen without catching Allie’s eye, which turned out not to be hard. After my panicked retreat from Mrs. V’s pool, it was pretty clear she had no interest in catching mine either.
Lily tilted the phone toward me so I could see for myself. There I was limping along in my beat up running shoes, little red wagon in tow.
“Where’d that come from?” I said, as if there could be any doubt.
“Smiley,” Lily said. “She got it from her brother.”
“You believe that little faker?”
“Smiley’s not a faker.”
“I’m talking about her brother. Why would I be dragging a stupid dead dog around?”
“Don’t yell at me. What’s your problem anyhow?” Lily shifted her fanny on the steps and now Allie did catch my eye. It was not what I would call an encouraging glance.
“I wasn’t yelling,” I said, and if I was, it wasn’t aimed at my sister. She just happened to have the closest set of ears.
“If it’s not a dead dog, then what is in the wagon?” Lily asked seriously.
“A dog, just not a dead dog.”
The offending branch had landed squarely on one corner of the pool house, crushing two of the four walls and leaving what was left on the verge of collapse. The branch and anything worth salvaging had already been removed.
Cooper had resumed his pounding on the far side. My idea would have been to saw partway through the corner posts, maybe pull a few key nails before going to work with the hammer. His strategy seemed simply to beat the whole structure into submission.
Crowbar in hand I cut around to the back of the building. Cooper had on a pair of old shorts and no shirt, his arm and shoulder muscles pumped up under skin shiny with sweat. He had tied a red bandana over his nose and mouth like a bandit getting ready to rob a bank. Stopping mid-swing he glared at me over the top of the cloth.
“What do you want?” he said, tugging the bandana down to his throat.
“Mrs. Radford asked me to help.”
“I don’t need any help from you.”
“It’s what she wants.”
“Fine,” he said, shrugging the sledge off his shoulder and letting the head thump to the dirt. “Just keep out of my way.”
Planting his boots in a patch of tiny pink flowers, he wound up like Babe Ruth and Tiger Woods combined, slamming the sledge into one of the three posts still standing at the corners.
“Watch it,” I said. “It’s gonna go.”
“Duh. What do you think I’m doing?”
“I mean it could fall the wrong way and hurt somebody.”
“I know what I’m doing. Go sit with the other girls if you’re so scared.” He said this last part loud enough to get the girls’ attention. I was at an angle where I could see Allie and her friends and Cooper couldn’t. One of the friends lifted her head from the lounge chair and turned in our direction.
“What are they doing?” she asked.
“Don’t worry about them,” Allie said. “Just boys being boys.”
“One of us is,” Cooper called from behind the wall. He looked at me and made little kissing sounds in the air. “Stand back, Samantha,” he said, and corkscrewed into another power swing.
“What gives?” said Kip. It was just past noon the next day. He had sent word that his uncle’s truck was fixed, which meant his brother was back at work and we had the pool to ourselves again. I rode over and found him and Joe already poolside working on a pair of chocolate shakes. A third shake was waiting for me in a cooler.
“Nothing gives,” I said.
“Bull.” What he wanted to know was why I had felt it necessary to call my mother the moment I arrived, and why I had ended the conversation with, “I’m fine, I swear.”
“You’ve got to admit,” said Joe, joining the conversation right from the start contrary to his usual routine. “It is a bit unusual.”
We sat at the table where Kip’s brother and his friends had held court for three days. A handful of cigarette butts had ended up in the garden and around the base of the table as evidence.
“What do you want me to say? My mother’s a worrier.”
“I don’t think so,” said Kip. “My mother, yes. Joe’s maybe. Yours? No. Your mother’s way chill. There’s a reason she made you call. Just tell us what it is.”
“What are you all of a sudden? The FBI?”
“No, we’re your friends, remember? Tres Dumigos and all that? Something’s going on and I don’t get why you’re not telling us.”
He was right. I had told them a few things, but far from the whole story. They knew nothing about the kids at the park or my run-in with the police. They knew about Baby, but not that he was on the run with his lunatic owners. I had never told them about the pictures in Doc’s hall, the ones in front newer and in color, and the ones in back older, black and white and centered around a boy who never had a chance to explore beyond his own neighborhood.
“I don’t know where to start,” I said.
“How about this,” said Joe, pointing to the scrape on my knee from my dive to escape the charging Wellness van. It was nothing compared to my father’s hamburger shoulder, but still an impressive piece of road rash. “Tell us how you got that, and go from there.”