I pulled my face away from the car window and wiped off the oily nose print with the cuff of my sweat jacket. I hoped I wouldn't break out in pimples within the hour. I already had a small one on the hairline by my forehead.
"Puberty,” I muttered. Or stress. Thirteen was harder than I thought it would be. Maybe fourteen would be easier. I tried to catch a reflection of myself in the window to make sure everything else looked okay. Couldn't see the light freckles. Good. Hair tucked behind ear still, not greasy or puffed out. Good. Eyes looked gray in the window even though they were more water blue. I smiled at a funny billboard and caught a glimpse of my dimples. My only good feature, I thought, as far as my face was concerned. Maybe they'd make up for the zit.
"What did you say, Meg?” Mom never took her eyes from the road, keeping a steady speed. She wanted to get there before dark. She was nervous. I could tell.
"Nothing. Will they be waiting for us?”
"They always are.”
I propped my legs on the dashboard. Even though it was twilight, I hoped for a little bit more sun. "Dashboard tan,” my stepdad, Gary, called it.
I watched the car swallow the white divider lines in the road. My mom drives in the smooth middle lane, avoiding the ruts worn into the highway. She stays away from anything bumpy, even conversation. If I start to talk about something that's bothering me, Mom always brings us back into the safe middle again. I hate that.
The car gulped down a lump of uneven pavement. Even the center of the road isn't perfectly smooth.
"Will it work out okay?” I asked.
"It always does.”
But it doesn't always work out okay.
I wanted to talk again about my choices. Would I go back to living with Mom and Gary and the new baby after the summer was over? Would I live with Grammy and Papa and Dad if Dad moved back to Oregon? Would they all be okay with whatever decision I made? Mom said she'd be fine with whatever I decided. She could certainly understand my wanting to spend some time getting to know my dad. I wondered if she really meant that.
I watched the telephone poles pacing the last few miles to the Island. Mom had said she wanted me to think over the decision on my own, and that was the end of the subject. So I didn't say anything about it, either, for now. I stuck to the smooth.
Mom turned the blinker on and we pulled off onto the gravel, crunching and grinding as we drove. You have to slow down when you drive on gravel or it gets thrown to the side of the road. That bugs the neighbors because gravel costs money. When you live in the country, you have to pay for the gravel yourselves.
"I guess you'll call me after the baby's born?”
Mom took her eyes off of the road for a second and winked. "I'll call you as soon as the baby is born, Meg. And we'll talk lots in between, of course.”
She patted her tummy, and I did, too, probably for the last time. I mean, you don't go around patting your mom's stomach when she's not pregnant. It's weird enough as it is. Her stomach was round and hard as an orange in January under the faded T-shirt that said "Baby on Board.” I thought it was totally embarrassing that she wore that. It's kind of goofy and old-fashioned. She said she wore it when she was pregnant with me, too. She seemed to hope those things would make the baby and me closer.
After a minute I felt the baby kick my hand and I smiled, but then I grew a little afraid. Would I like him or her? What if I didn't? If I wasn't really happy it would hurt everyone's feelings. They all wanted me to be happy. But I'm not a faker, and I just didn't know how I would feel. I kind of wanted a brother or a sister. But I kind of didn't.
I wondered if we'd be friends or if we even could be. I'll be a lot older than him or her. The baby would have its mom and its dad, my stepdad, Gary, living all together with us in Seattle.
My dad, on the other hand, was still in the army. He'd just written an email saying he'd be back on leave this summer—at Grammy and Papa's—and that he might be back to stay for good! Or he could go to Washington, D.C.
It might depend on me.
Mom turned the car and slowed down even more.
On Sauvie Island it's hard to see the houses from the gravel. Nobody lives right on the road; you have to turn off and drive in on the dirt a little, even to big houses. As we got closer, my stomach had its own hard lump. I zipped and then unzipped my sweat jacket. It made little metal rubbing noises. I tucked my hair behind my ears and then untucked one side. It looks better when you have one ear showing and one not showing.
A puff of dust announced our arrival. I saw the porch. There are always three rocking chairs there, like at the Three Bears' house. One for Papa Bear—that would be Papa—one for Mama Bear—that would be Grammy—and one for Baby Bear. That would be me.
The chairs have been there for so long that there are ruts worn into the porch boards. Grammy always says she dusts off the third chair each June, getting ready for my visit.
I warmed from the inside out. I wondered if she'd dusted it off already.
Papa stood up and waved. "Hey there, it's Meg" he called. Grammy set aside a bucket of spring peas she was shucking. I love peas. A scientist named Mendel figured out how to grow peas so that they were all smooth, because most people like smooth peas better. That was the beginning of the study of genetics. Genetics is what you get from your mom and your dad, and it's what decides what you look like.
I like wrinkled peas best. I don't mind taking extra time to look for them at the farmers' market. I wondered if the baby inside my mom would look like me even though we have different dads.
I got out of the car and started walking to the porch. As soon as the dust cleared, I saw her. Someone was sitting in my chair! "Who is that?” I asked.
Mom shrugged. The girl sat right between my grandma and my grandpa, like she belonged to them. I zipped up my jacket and tugged my shorts into place. I tossed my backpack over my right shoulder and kept walking toward the porch.
When I got closer, our eyes locked. Hers were very dark, almost black. I knew right away this summer would be different in every way.
"Grammy!" I ran up the stairs.
Grammy wrapped me in her arms, soft like bread dough rising. I have a friend whose grandma runs marathons. I'm glad my Grammy's arms jiggle. Grammy smooched me on the forehead, then on each cheek.
"We've been waiting all day, Meg," she said. She ran her hands through my hair. "Still my strawberry blonde. You'll get blonder this summer. Your dad always did."
I patted her back.
The girl on the porch looked down. I stared at her, but she just kept looking down. Papa was already walking back up the steps with a suitcase. The second suitcase and my duffel bag sat on the ground next to the car. Mom started to pick up a bag, but Papa shook his head no. "Now, Nora, don't pick up that bag; it looks heavy." He gestured toward my mom's stomach and she smiled. "I'll bring this one up to Meg's room and be back down for the others." Papa had always made it easy for my mom to visit, even after the divorce.
Grammy turned to my mom and asked, "Can you stay the night? It's pretty late."
My mom shook her head. "No, I'll help Meg get settled and then I'm going back to finish my work in Portland. I've got to leave early in the morning and head back to Seattle."
Grammy gave her a sideways hug. I couldn't tell if Grammy was relieved or sorry that my mom was going home. She was always nice to Mom. I think it was easier when my mom wasn't there, though. It reminded Grammy of things she'd rather not think about and questions that she couldn't answer.
Grammy started into the house, then stopped and clapped her hands. "Where are my manners? Meg, this is Tia. Her family is staying on the farm this summer so her dad can run the farm for Papa. Since you're the same age, I thought it was a real blessing. You'll have a friend to share everything with. Tia's family lives in a mobile home Papa bought for the back acreage."
Papa was getting old, but it wasn't like he'd had a heart attack or anything. Did he need that much help? Besides, what was my dad going to do if her dad ran the farm? A mobile home sounded permanent. Plus, she was still in my chair.
Tia looked up then. She didn't smile, but I sensed possibilities tucked behind the hard shell. I smiled and held out my hand. "My name is Meg. Nice to meet you." In spite of the questions I had, I guess that was honest. It's always nice to meet people. Even if I didn't know if they were coming or going.
She shook my hand. Her long black hair glistened with what little light was left of the fading day. "Nice to meet you, too." Her voice was soft American with little Spanish flecks, like scrambled eggs with a bit of salsa stirred in. She handed the bowl of peas she'd shucked to Grammy. "I'd better get home now. My mother will be waiting." Still no smile. So I didn't smile again. She hugged Grammy, who hugged her back tightly. Then Tia walked down the steps, around the house, and off to the back acreage. I wondered when I'd see her again.
Inside, the house was warm and bright, like always. It smelled like browned butter, greasy and rich, which meant cookies were waiting. Our house in Seattle wasn't very big, so it was awesome to come to Grammy and Papa's. I mean, they have a parlor, for heaven's sake. That's because the house is so old. Grammy's family was one of the first to settle on the Island, and she got to keep the house all these years. Papa was originally a city boy, but he was the better farmer now. He not only had a green thumb, he had black under his fingernails. Some on the Island were gentleman farmers, getting everyone else to do their work. Not Papa. I noticed, though, when he curled his fingers through his coffee mug handle, that his nails were a bit cleaner than I'd ever seen them in June. His hand shook a little, too. I hoped the coffee wouldn't burn him.
"Here, Nutmeg." That was Papa's nickname for me. At least Tia didn't have a nickname yet. Not one that I knew of, anyway.
I took one of the cookies off of the blue-and-white plate Papa held out. Chocolate chip. No nuts, no sprinkles, no dried fruit. I folded half a cookie into my mouth and wiped the sandy crumbs off of my lip. It had been a really hot day, which made baking cookies even more of a chore. My mom declined to take a cookie. I took a second one so Grammy wouldn't feel bad.
"I'd better get Meg unpacked a little, then get going. It's forty-five minutes back, and I'm getting tired," she said. She did have circles under her eyes. I'd wondered sometimes if she was too old to be having another baby, but I never said anything about it to Mom. It's not the kind of thing we could talk about even if we'd wanted to. I'd wanted to.
Papa hugged my mother. "I'm heading out to the barn, so I'll say my good-byes now," he said. "Be sure to let us know if there is anything we can do. We'll keep good care of Meggie, of course. And we'll let you know when Paul gets back."
Paul's my dad.
My mom nodded and hugged Papa. The stairway up to my room is one of those cool old-fashioned ones that coils like the licorice twists I eat all summer. Grammy keeps two kinds of twists for me, cherry and mixed berry, in a tall glass jar with a silver lid on it, like those jars they used to keep straws in. I never eat licorice unless I'm on Sauvie Island. Seriously. It's a special thing.
My mom and I wound our way up the stairs. "Papa was puffing as he brought your bags up," she whispered.
I nodded. "I'll be careful to not have him bring too much up here." Once we got into my room, I smiled. Goldilocks was not sleeping in my bed. It was all mine.
"Want me to help you unpack?" Mom asked. "I'd be glad to."
"Nah," I said. She'd want to organize my drawers all in a row or according to color or something, and I just like it my way. "Thanks for asking, though."
She smoothed the quilt on the bed and picked at a loose piece of yarn tying the quilt squares together. "You going to be okay?"
"I always am," I said. Funny how the conversation had turned around.
"Yes. Well, have a good time. Not too good of a time, though." Mom laughed a little, but it didn't sound light. It was the closest she came to bringing up my choice to live with her or with Dad and her real feelings about it. I could see her switch gears as she kept smoothing wrinkles from the covers, and the conversation. "This certainly looks cozy. You'll sleep well."
I leaned over and hugged her. "We'll talk later this week, right?"
She nodded, and we went back down the stairs. After Mom had said good-bye to Grammy, Grammy handed her a bag of cookies. "For the road."
Mom smiled and thanked her. Then we walked out together to the car to say good-bye. I couldn't get close enough to hug her really tightly. Part of it was her tummy, but there are other things that keep people apart, too. She held my hand for almost a minute. Then she opened the car door, got in, and started the engine. Before backing away from the car, I impulsively knocked on the window three times. I-Love-You.
She looked at me and knocked back, four times. I-Love-You-Too. She had tears in her eyes. I did, too.
Later that night I unpacked my things. Waiting in the top drawer was the latest teen devotional.
Grammy. Really. Grammy always wanted me to know what God thought about this or that, which was really sweet in some ways. I was interested in what He thought, too, but I kind of wanted to find out what God says on my own without Grammy's help. I had to admit, I hadn't had much success yet. Maybe I didn't speak the language.
I turned the light out and stared out the window. My breath formed a spot of steam, and I drew a smiley face in it. I reached under the windowsill. Ha! I felt the hard little nubs against my fingertips. My gum collection was still there. Grammy hadn't found it yet. It's very cool that gum doesn't mold.
In the distance, on the back acreage, I saw flickering lights. Tia's new house. I could see a lot in the dark. I slipped into bed.
One year when I was a little girl, some friends of Grammy and Papa's came to stay for a week during the summer. They were from the East Coast, and they had a girl my age. I think I was about seven, maybe eight. I can't remember. Anyway, that girl was a total pill. Everyone thought we were going to be best pals because we were the same age. I felt like saying, I've got a class full of twenty-five kids at school and I'm only friends with like six or seven of them. Just being the same age doesn't mean you're going to be friends. Anyway, we finally found one thing we both liked doing--dress up. In the attic Grammy kept a bunch of old clothes and jewelry from way back. Since things were warming up, I decided to show this girl. She liked it okay, but when she went back East she took at least half of Grammy's jewelry with her. What was I going to say? If I didn't share, I'd be selfish, and I knew that really, Grammy had been generous to share it all with me. The worst part was, I'd planned to give her a piece or two--whichever ones she wanted. No holdbacks. I was glad that girl never visited again.