Overhead, the blue sky hung, thick as a quilt; like tufts of cotton, the puffy white clouds dotted the sky on that hot summer day. In the air around me, the scent of fruit rotting in the nearby orchards assaulted my nostrils. I scrunched my nose up as a swarming fly zoomed in for a landing and I pushed down harder on the pedals of my bicycle, eager to reach my destination.
It wasn’t every day that I got such an unexpected reprieve — an afternoon to hang out with my friend Casey Ayers — and I didn’t want to waste a minute of it. Casey and her four siblings lived just down the road and around a corner from our house, probably less than a quarter of a mile. Sometimes it seemed to take forever to get there, but today, for some unknown reason, the wheels of my bike didn’t sink into the hot asphalt. Instead, they smoothly sailed along as if my bike tires had sprouted wings.
I rounded the last turn in the road, catching a glimpse of Casey’s blond curls pulled back in the familiar ponytail; I waved ecstatically. She jumped down off the fence and ran toward me, her mouth agape to release her shout of greeting. I pulled into the yard and jumped off the bike, tossing it down against the bushes that jutted out near the stoop. We hugged and then ran quickly through the back door and into Casey’s room, tucked away like a lean-to in back.
As the oldest girl, she had the biggest half of the room, divided from her younger sister’s space by a thick curtain hung on a rod. But today, her sister Cary was nowhere in sight. We threw ourselves onto the bed in a burst of glee and immediately started whispering our secrets to one another. At twelve, we had our whole adolescence ahead of us and we couldn’t wait for all the excitement to begin.
We read Casey’s latest issue of Seventeen, oohing and ahhing over the outfits, the hairstyles, and the makeup. Her eyes huge with anticipation, Casey opened a top drawer in her dresser, showing off three different shades of lipstick lying neatly in a row, just waiting to be sampled.
After we’d tried all three shades in turn, examining our faces with the lights on and then with them dimmed, we finally set them aside, satisfied with our experiment.
One of the best things about Casey’s house was her mother. Mrs. Ayers didn’t bother us…not ever. She stayed in the front part of the house, doing whatever she was doing…Cleaning or sewing or baking. When she made cookies, the scent wafted down the hall to us, beckoning us out to the kitchen. Then, and only then, did Mrs. Ayers appear, wearing a big smile as she placed a big plate of cookies and a pitcher of milk on the table. Then, disappearing into still another part of the house, we were on our own again. She really respected our privacy.
Sometimes we watched TV in the living room while we ate our snacks.
After a blissful afternoon of just hanging out with Casey, I rode my bike more slowly back toward my house. Like a magnet sucking me backward, I had to fight against the pull away from home and back to Casey’s, where the scents of baked goodies and the cozy warm voices still hung in the recesses of my mind, enticing me. Ahead of me lay the heavy darkness of Father’s stormy moods, mixed in with Mother’s nervous silence as she rushed around to try and head him off at the pass. And we’d all be called into service. Trying to keep Father from going into one of his full-blown tantrums, we scurried about like so many mice trying to appease the cat.
On most days, I had to babysit my three-year-old brother Kevin. Not that watching him was such a chore, really; he was actually pretty cute and his adoration felt kind of neat.
He’d follow me around, hanging on my every word, and calling out: “Look, Sylbie, see my tower! I can make it bigger. Look!” Or, “please, Sylbie, push me higher in the swing. I want to fly!”
He couldn’t say my full name, Sylvia, but I kind of liked his version.
I rounded the last curve in the road and on the final stretch, I stood up in the pedals to move myself along faster. I might as well get back and face whatever waited for me.
I strained my eyes toward the front of the stucco ranch house as it came into view, but something was off. I could see Mother running around near the edge of the bushes, calling out something, her frantic movements clearly visible as I pulled into the driveway. And behind her, Father stomped, his face glowering, and when he caught sight of me, he yelled. “Sylvia! Where is your brother? And where have you been?”
My heart in my throat, I braked, dropping the bike where it landed.
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