Early in the morning--well, not too early--Reverend Ashford and I are walking along Bellmore Avenue on our way back from the corner store, where we bought a newspaper and two Tootsie Roll pops. We used to buy his cigarettes there, too, but he quit smoking and now he wears a nicotine patch on his arm.
"Guess what. I'll be starting fifth grade next week," I tell him.
"Fifth grade. Hmm. Can't say I remember it at all," he says.
It's the Friday before Labor Day weekend, and Mama has the day off. My mom is the resident supervisor at a home for some elderly people who need medical help. We all live together in a group of little apartments. She doesn't get too many days off, the way I see it.
The weather today is beautiful, with puffy white clouds and a little breeze to keep things cool. The breeze is tugging at my T-shirt.
"You want to come to the beach with us?" I ask as we turn onto Robin Lane.
"The beach?" Reverend Ashford stops walking and glares at me. "Nope. Too hot," he mutters. "Way too hot."
He always says that. Too hot. Reverend Ashford has emphysema. He likes to sit in his La-Z-Boy recliner and watch game shows while the fan blows on his head. But my mom wants him doing activities. She's the one who made us start taking walks together.
Reverend Ashford and I sit on the bench in the small grassy area at the end of Robin Lane. In June, I planted a little maple tree here, the size of a tall twig. I've been watering it like crazy, but it's taking its time growing.
Reverend Ashford takes the classifieds and folds me a hat, then makes one for himself. We put on the hats and chew our lollipops.
With that breeze, today would be a perfect boatyard day. Great for sailing. I worked at the Fair Haven boatyard all summer, but my friend Ron down there doesn't want me hanging around in September. That's the time everyone is trying to get his boat hauled in and set up on big sawhorses for the winter. I guess Ron's afraid I might get bonked on the head by a boat. Or maybe he knows I don't want to scrape barnacles every weekend.
Mama's best friend, Harriet, will be driving us to the beach. Harriet lives at the Auburn Street projects, the place we used to live, the place Mama won't let me even visit anymore.
Harriet will be here any minute, but Mama's still rushing around getting ready. Why does it always take my family an hour to get out of the house? I like to do things fast. I check Reverend Ashford's gold pocket watch. It's already nine-thirty. I want to get going now. My buddy Robert's going to be at the beach today, and I can't wait to see him!
I don't have to look in the house to know what Mama's doing. She's shoving everything in the world into our beach bag--towels, flip-flops, sunglasses, radio, lunch, and two packs of chocolate cupcakes, one pack for me and Tasha and one for Robert. The cupcakes are his favorite kind, with creamy goop inside. Robert's got a cupcake thing.
"My mother sure is slow." I sigh.
"She may be slow, but she's one determined woman. She knows how to get her way."
He's talking about how Mama makes him get out and about--the library, a baseball game, picnics, walks with me. She is pretty bossy, with me, too.
She wouldn't let me visit Robert once all summer. Not once! She thinks I might get caught in the middle of some fight or shooting or drug deal. I don't know.
Mama wants me to make friends here. But the only kid nearby is Brandon, and he went to live with his grandmother for a while because his mom's in the hospital. Anyway, I won't ever forget about Rob-ert. She shouldn't be choosing my friends for me. That's not right. I feel as if she doesn't trust me or something.
Reverend Ashford opens the sports page and checks for news of the NBA. He's looking for players' sports contracts. He wants to complain about their enormous salaries.
My six-year-old sister, Tasha, has come outside to wait. She's got headphones on and is wearing a lime-green bathing suit. She's bopping around barefoot on the grass as if she doesn't have a care in the world, singing some hip-hop song at the top of her lungs. I bet she's been watching MTV. I thought she wanted to be a ballerina. Ballerinas usually dance to weepy old violin music.
Wait a minute! Is she using my Walkman? How did that happen? Well, I guess I can let her borrow it, at least for a few minutes. "Yo! Tasha! Ask next time," I holler.
She points to the earphones to show me she can't hear me. She's probably got the volume on blasting. I run over, pull one earphone off, and lean forward.
"Ask me next time!" I shout.
"Okay! You got it!"
She dances away, jerking her shoulders and doing hand moves with her index and pinky fingers pointed out like a rap artist.
When did she get like this? I swear she's taller, too. Her legs are longer, and her two front teeth are coming in fast, even compared to the other day. She looks sort of normal for a change. I glare at her and shake my head.
Boy, I can't wait to see Robert again. It's been months since we got together. And that whole time, I've been hanging around Tasha for company. Or Reverend Ashford. I mean, I like him, but he is an old guy who needs oxygen.
I go to the door to try and hurry things up. "Mama!" I yell, peering through the screen door. "Did you remember your driver's license?"
"Oh, shoot," she says, and disappears into her bedroom. Harriet thought today would be a good chance for Mama to practice her driving.
Finally Harriet's old green Hornet turns the corner and pulls up in front of our sidewalk. She gets out, and right away she looks at me with a very strange expression on her face.
Huh? I wonder what's up. Something's going on, that's for sure, and it's about to set me off on an asking frenzy. I am always curious, to the point of driving people crazy with my questions. I go after answers like a noisy, stubborn junebug. I am also a junior--Reeve McClain, Jr. So my nickname Junebug is stuck to me like glue.
"What happened, Harriet? Why are you looking at me funny?"
"I have a secret. A huge secret. And don't even try to guess it, Junebug, because you never will. You'll find out in due time."
Harriet's grinning. I glance at Mama to see if she knows anything about this, but she shrugs as if to say, Don't ask me.
Oh, man. I truly hate secrets. When I don't know something, it bothers me nonstop.
Harriet pats the top of my head. "Sorry, Junebug. You'll have to wait on this one," she says.
"Wait? Till when? Next year? Next century?"
"No. Late this afternoon, maybe."
Hmmm. Afternoon. That's a clue. Maybe she made a cake. Or a batch of brownies.
"Is it a cake? Hey, Harriet, is the secret a chocolate cake?"
"Oh, Lord," my mother says. "Don't let him start."
"You can tell me, Harriet. Is it a cake?"
"No. It is not a cake. Now, don't ask me any more. And don't make your mama nervous while she's learning to drive."
Like a chauffeur, Harriet stands by the car door and helps my mother into the driver's seat. Tasha's standing behind me with a doubtful look on her face. Mama hardly ever drives, which is no wonder considering we don't have a car.
"Are you sure Mama can drive okay on the highway?" Tasha asks Harriet.
"Of course she can. She'll do just fine."
We pile into the backseat. Tasha's got Theo, her favorite teddy bear, with her. Right away, she unzips a plastic bag full of doll stuff and starts putting a girl doll's bathing suit on him. Poor Theo.
I sit directly behind Mama so I can help navigate. I crane my neck around to look out the back window. "All right. Go ahead. No one's behind us," I call out.
Mama keeps looking in her mirrors.
"Go ahead now. Back right on out. You're doing great."
I am pleased to notice that I sound just like Ron, who's been teaching me to sail.
"Junior, will you please hush up," Mama says, slowly backing into the street. "I've got this made in the shade."
But she must have turned the wheels too soon. The front tire hits the curb, and we lurch over it. Ker-thud.
"Oops!" Tasha and I yelp.
Harriet turns around. "That's enough, you two! Now, I mean it. No backseat drivers."
Once we finally get going, Mama drives better, except when she's making turns. Then she drives as slow as a turtle. People behind us honk like mad because they want to get through the lights before they turn red. If I had a horn, I'd honk it right along with them. I want to get to the beach so I can play in the waves with Robert. Just me and Robert all day long.
On the phone last night, Robert told me that the city's recreation department would send two school buses to pick up kids and give them a ride to the beach. Probably a lot of kids from Auburn Street will be at the beach today. Fine with me, as long as they don't interfere with me and my buddy. We have some major catching up to do.
When we get to the beach parking lot, I spot the buses right away. I bet they got here hours ago. We unpack the trunk of the Hornet, and Harriet puts on her great big straw hat with a yellow sunflower on it. Then she leads the way as we head down the boardwalk to the beach.
The sun is warm, but not too hot. The tall, dry beach grass on either side of us has a soft, sweet smell and tickles my bare legs as I walk by. The soles of my feet squeak, squeak, squeak in the dry sand.
Once we pass through the dunes, Harriet starts to scout around for the perfect spot to sit. Mama sets our bags down and waits, but I follow Harriet around, trying to figure out exactly what she's doing.
"What difference does it make where we sit? It's all sand, isn't it? Or is that secret you were talking about buried here someplace?" I ask. "Are you a pirate? Maybe you're some kind of pirate."
"What did I tell you? Forget about that secret for now. I have to find the right spot. I'm a professional beachgoer. I can't sit just anywhere."
So I trail after her while she snoops around in search of the perfect location. Dead seaweed is dead seaweed. Sand is sand. What's the big deal? Robert is waiting.
Finally Harriet finds a place she likes. Looks like plain old sand to me. Mama and I glance at each other and laugh. We're both thinking the same thing.
"What?" says Harriet. "You don't like this spot? What's wrong with it?"
"No, no. It's fine. Really!" Mama says.
"Sure is!" I chime in. Mama and I laugh.
"Pfffft! You two don't know how lucky you are to have me around."
Tasha is already spreading out her towel for Theo. I don't know if Theo has been to the beach before. I hope his fur doesn't get all sandy.
Harriet sits down on her neatly spread-out towel. She takes out a big plastic bottle of coconut-smelling oil and rubs it all over her arms and legs. The smell makes me sneeze. Then she smooths the corners of her huge beach towel again and puts rocks in each corner to hold it down. In her bag is a stack of magazines and a big, fat paperback. She plops these down on the towel, too. "There!" she says.
Now Tasha unloads a plastic bucket and shovel and gets to work, digging. "Junebug, you want to dig a tunnel with me?"
"No. I gotta go find Robert."
"The kids seem to be over there, Junebug, by the lifeguard chairs," Mama says, shading her eyes with her hand and squinting. "You make sure you stay in the protected area, Junebug. Do you hear me?"
I yank my T-shirt over my head and take off down the beach. Robert sees me and comes running over. He leads me to where the other kids are, in front of the lifeguards. Most of them are standing ankle-deep in the water, watching as the waves come in fast and tall, with a lot of tumbling white foam rushing over the sand and swirling around their legs.
"Wow! Look at those waves!" I yell.
"Yeah. We just got here, a few minutes before you. Think we can body-surf in this?" Robert asks. "It's kind of rough." That was our plan, body-surfing.
"The waves are pretty big," I answer. "But who cares! Come on."
Robert doesn't move. "Nobody's going in. Maybe there are jellyfish."
"Afraid of 'em?" I tease.
I'm not. Jellyfish, smellyfish. I don't care. "Come on! Let's go!"
I back up and then run full speed for the water, leap over the foam, crash through the broken waves, and throw myself at the next full wave with a loud yell.
Under I go, my ears filling with cool water, and I come up for air like a seal. I wish I had flippers. I turn over on my back and float out deeper. I can feel the tug of the next big wave pull me out toward itself as it gathers into a mountain of water. Without any effort at all, I float up and over the top as the crest goes hissing by, leaving a soft spray in the air like tiny soda bubbles. That was so easy!
I love this! I like feeling that the ocean is big and powerful, and I'm safe and sound in my own little body-boat, riding the waves.
There's only one tiny thing wrong. Instead of leaping and diving into the water right along with me, Robert is still standing near the shore, now talking to Trevor and Angelique, a sixth-grader.
Angelique looks beautiful today. She's wearing a long white T-shirt over her bathing suit. I want her to know I'm here, but I'm afraid to say hi.
And Trevor? He's going into seventh. I really can't stand that kid. He tricked me once back in Auburn Street. He and my Aunt Jolita teamed up and tried to get me to squeal on my buddy Darnell. They wanted me to tell a drug dealer where Darnell was when he had run away. The dealer paid them money, too. But I don't want to think about that stuff. That's exactly why my mom decided to move out of there. So I wouldn't have to live with that every day and end up getting sucked into it the way my dad did. Darnell never did come back. I miss him, too, not just Robert.
Excerpted from Junebug in Trouble by Alice Mead. Copyright © 2003 by Alice Mead. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.