The Dog Days
We were ticking down to the dog days of summer. The grass, once green as, well, grass, was beginning to go brown and felt scratchy and crackly underfoot. Trees all over the neighborhood that just days ago seemed full and proud now looked droopy and kind of embarrassed, leaves fading and wilting in the late August heat. Full-color fall hadn't arrived yet, but the beginnings of it were creeping up on us like a sneaky peacock. Right now, though, everything just seemed worn out, dried up, bored with itself almost.
Jake and I, though we hated to admit it, were a little bit bored too. Jake's annual trip to North Carolina had come and gone. He'd been back for three weeks, and the most I could get out of him about it was this: "It was okay."
Mom and I had gone to the shore for our yearly vacation. We'd spent a week in a tiny cottage at Rehoboth Beach, and six of the seven days it had rained. We'd come back home feeling cranky and moldy.
Even the neighborhood pool had closed for the season, the water drained out, the lifeguards gone back to college. Newspaper advertisements warned there were only days left to hit the back-to-school sales before the Labor Day barbecues began.
Yes, summer was just about done, and the first day of school loomed large. Jake sat above me in the highest branches of our favorite maple, smack in the middle of the Calvary Methodist Cemetery. I was well below him, reclining on a big hammock-shaped branch, the leaves motionless in the hot, muggy air. I hate to be obvious, but the day was as still as the grave.
"It's what I hear," said Jake knowingly. "If you can't find your classroom, forget it. Ask an eighth or ninth grader for directions and they'll get you totally lost on purpose."
"Then I'm screwed." I didn't need any help getting lost; I have a lousy sense of direction. My dad always said I could get lost on my way from the fridge to the stove.
"Maybe we'll be in the same classes. Safety in numbers."
"Maybe." I wasn't hopeful about this. Jake and I hadn't even been assigned to the same homeroom. The chances of our class schedules being the same seemed remote.
"Hey, you guys, coming up," a horribly cheery voice rang out. It was Cheryl Egby. She lived down the street in a Tudor with a pinky-pink rose garden. A year behind us, she was now heading into sixth grade, where she would absolutely rule the school. She was the kind of kid who practically had the words "born to win" stamped across her forehead.
I looked down to see her hoist herself up into the bottom branches of the tree, her blond ponytail bouncing behind her as if it had a life of its own. Gracefully, she launched herself from limb to limb like the perky little gymnast she was, reaching me in no time flat.
Jake looked at her witheringly. "Sitting in a tree in the middle of a graveyard, Cheryl. What does it look like we're doing?"
"Duh. I know that. Whatcha doing later? My mom's taking me shopping for new school clothes." She looked as proud as a toddler who'd just pooped in the potty for the very first time.
Needless to say, shopping for clothes was an exercise in torture for both me and Jake. His mom was forever hemming pants and shortening shirt sleeves. My mom, on the other hand, was always looking for clothes with hems she could let down, sleeves she could lengthen. Nothing ever fit, nothing ever would.
"We're going to Strawbridge & Clothier in Philadelphia," she crowed. "I'm getting a Pandora skirt and sweater set and some Pappagallo shoes. Mom already said. Where are you going for school clothes? Wilmington Dry?"
I fought the urge to boot her out of the tree. Jake saved me from myself.
"Lucy's going shopping in New York."
"Really?" She sounded skeptical. Could I actually be taking a shopping trip to New York? Would she have to be jealous? She looked like she was just about to buy it, but Jake had to take it a step too far.
"Then after New York, Paris."
"You are not." Even Cheryl wasn't so gullible.
"I don't really care about clothes, Cheryl," I lied. My clothes always looked altered. It was impossible to hide, and the best thing to do was to act like it didn't matter one bit.
"How can you not care about clothes? I mean, you're starting junior high."
"Like that changes everything?"
"Well, it does, and I've got a little fashion tip for you. Stop wearing shorts under your dresses. Nobody's going to see your underpants when you're hanging upside down on the jungle gym. There's no more recess in junior high."
"I know that."
"Oh yeah? How come you're wearing shorts under your sundress right now?"
Clearly, she was a moron. "I'm up a tree, Cheryl."
Jake snorted with laughter, a little pig sound coming out of his nose. That started me laughing, then he laughed harder, then I laughed even harder, then we were roaring. It really wasn't that funny, but it was one of those things where every time you wind down to going, "heh, heh, heh," you set yourselves right back off again. Cheryl wasn't laughing.
"You guys are too weird," she huffed. "If you don't make a little effort, you're going to be complete freaks in junior high." And with that, she neatly swung herself out of the tree and trotted off home like a prize pony.
Our laughter wound down real quick. Because it was true. We were bound to be the junior high freak show. Elementary school had been tough enough, but at least we'd grown up with all those kids--they'd seen us all their lives.
Caesar Rodney Junior High combined students from five different elementary schools in the district, and we were going to be mixed in with kids we didn't know at all: kids who had never even seen us before. For a while, we sat in the comforting embrace of the maple tree without saying a word.
Suddenly the stillness of the day was shattered once again, this time by the roaring sound of a backhoe rumbling out of the cemetery maintenance garage.
"Hey. It's Otis," said Jake, craning his neck to see.
We looked down to see Otis, the grave digger, driving the backhoe, wearing faded coveralls, his cocoa-colored face shaded by a battered red cowboy hat decorated with blue jay feathers.
We'd had a love-hate relationship with Otis since we'd first moved in. Fascinated by the perfect rectangular holes he dug, we'd hover around, gaping at the sheer walls of earth going six feet straight down. Though he enjoyed our appreciation of his work, mostly he didn't want us hanging around. He made a sport of being grouchy, threatening us with unspeakable horrors and nightmares if we were to actually witness a burial. We didn't entirely believe him, but we couldn't exactly doubt him either: terrible things just might happen if we watched him bury the dead.
"Let's get out of here," I said.
"You go on. I'm gonna stay and watch."
"We've seen him dig a hundred graves."
Jake was clearly in a mood now. I decided to let him be. "Fine. Whatcha doing later?"
He sighed mightily. "Nothing. My mom's got a date. You?"
"Dunno. Come by?"
"Yeah. Maybe." He sounded unconvincing. His mom's dates always made him melancholy.
"Okay. See ya maybe." And with that, I carefully picked my way down the tree. I did not possess any great natural grace, but at least I could run fast, and once on the ground I sprinted like a giraffe, past Otis and his infernal machine and into the relative peace and quiet of my own backyard.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Heights, the Depths, and Everything in Between by Sally Nemeth. Copyright © 2006 by Sally Nemeth. 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.