THE CITY pool was full of children that day, but I don't think that's what bothered me. I was fourteen and happy to be out with my friends. It was sunny but cool for mid-July in Iowa. A breeze flipped up the edges of our beach towels as we lined them up on the crumbling cement, anchoring them with clogs, a bottle of coconut oil, and a transistor radio which seemed to play nothing but Sammy Davis, Jr., singing "The Candy Man." My friends flopped down on their backs and fell asleep, but I couldn't relax. I sat cross-legged in my faded bikini, a hand-me-down from my sister Daisy.
Daisy was lifeguarding, but she couldn't see me, didn't even know I was there. She looked like a stranger perched above the masses in her red tank suit and mirror sunglasses, her nose a triangle of zinc oxide. In one month, she was going away to college, leaving me to take care of our father. I couldn't let myself think about how dreary life would be without Daisy. I gazed out at the pool, which was circular, with the deep part and diving island in the center. A group of four or five children splashed around at the edge of the deep water, shrieking and dunking each other. A smaller girl in a green one-piece bathing suit dog-paddled near the splashers, barely keeping her chin above water. She wanted to play too, but the other children--friends? neighbors? sisters and brothers?--ignored her. Teenagers were doing cannonballs off the high dive, and their waves sloshed over her head. Nobody except me seemed to notice. The girl was paddling as hard as she could, getting nowhere.
I stood up and waded into the water, which reeked of chlorine, and began swimming the breaststroke toward the group of children, holding my head up as a snake does. The older kids moved off toward the slide, leaving the little girl behind. When she saw me, she opened her eyes wide and reached out. I didn't have a clue how to rescue someone. I took her hand and she clawed her way up my arm. She was on me like a monkey. Her legs swung up and wrapped around my neck, dunking me, choking me. I tried to stand, but I couldn't touch bottom. She kicked me, hard, in the jaw. I shoved her away but she held on to me. I'd had enough of this kind of treatment. My hand gripped her head like a rubber ball. I held her underwater and watched her thin body squirming in its green ruffled suit.
Someone finally screamed, and the lifeguards began blowing their whistles. Daisy dove from her chair in a red flash. Still I held the girl under. It's too late now, was the only thought I remember having. A man tackled me from behind, and Daisy jerked the girl from the water. The man gripped me tightly to his blubbery chest, as if I were trying to run away. Over on the cement Daisy knelt beside the girl and gave her mouth-to-mouth. After a few seconds Daisy stood up, holding the squalling girl, stroking her wet hair. The ruffles on the girl's suit were flipped up and plastered to her body. "Daisy," I called out. When Daisy looked over at me, her face slack with shock, I realized what I'd done.
Everything after that seemed nightmarish but inevitable. Daisy and I were taken up to the pool manager's office, dripping wet, to sit in plastic chairs and wait for the police. The detective who came wore a velour shirt and looked familiar, like someone I might've seen at church. Daisy reported what had happened in a businesslike voice, while I stared at the tufts of hair on my big toes, wondering if I should shave them. The detective asked me if I had anything to add. "She tried to drown me first," I said.
"That's not how the witnesses tell it," he said.
I glanced over at Daisy. "Sorry," she said, ever the honest one. "I didn't see that part."
At my hearing, we sat on a bench in front of the juvenile judge--first the detective, then my father, hanging his head, then my sister Daisy, her arm around my father, and then me. My mother, who'd washed her hands of us, didn't show. Because of my previous record--shoplifting and truancy--the judge decided to send me to the Cary Home in Des Moines for one school year.
The Cary Home for Girls was an elegant brick house tucked into a cul-de-sac on the edge of an upper-class neighborhood. From the outside, you'd never know it contained six teenage delinquents and their live-in counselors. We bad girls attended class in the large attic of the house, ate pizza burgers, did homework together, and watched reruns of "The Dick Van Dyke Show." It hardly felt like punishment.
At night, though, things fell apart. I had relentless dreams about Lisa Lazar, the little girl from the pool. She came to the Cary Home in her ruffled bathing suit and invited me outside to play. When she smiled, crooking her finger at me, I woke up terrified. I would stare at the buzzing streetlight outside my bedroom window and wonder what someone like me was doing at the Cary Home, someone who, until recently, had played by the rules, was fairly popular, had a semi-cute boyfriend, and tried her best to get decent grades.
In April, near the end of my stay at Cary Home, my father called to tell me that his sister, Marie-Therese, was coming to see me. "She wants to help out," he said. I'd never met my aunt before. She and my father exchanged Christmas cards and birthday phone calls, but that was about it. "Marie stays on the move. She's a wheeler-dealer," was my father's only explanation of why we never saw her. I wasn't sure what a wheeler-dealer was, but it sounded intriguing.
On the evening of her visit, I stepped into the living room and saw a fattish woman in baggy shorts and huiraches sprawled on the sofa, snoring. I recognized her dark curly hair and sharp features from an old photo I'd once found in my father's desk at the Magruder Times, of which he was the editor--a photo of my father and Marie-Therese as children, posing in chaps and cowboy boots in front of some mountains in New Mexico, where they grew up. I said, "Hello?"
She bounced up, wide awake. "I'm your aunt Merry," she said, shaking my hand. "M-E-R-R-Y, as in Christmas."
We sat down across from each other and she explained that she'd recently changed her name to Merry because she'd moved to Columbus, Ohio. "Midwesterners don't like anything Frenchy," she said.
"That's true," I said. I was disappointed that she'd changed her name and looked so ordinary and lived in Ohio. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my roommate, the klepto, in the yard, peering in through the screen window. She was sneaking out to meet her boyfriend the arsonist. She bugged out her eyes and flicked her tongue. I ignored her. I asked Merry, "Why'd you decide to come see me?"
"Brother said family could visit," she said. "And I'm family, last I checked."
"Thanks," I said. My parents had never once been to see me at the home. My father was too ashamed, and my mother was too busy looking after her own father, Smitty, who owned the Times. Daisy, who'd postponed college for a year, drove over every Sunday and took me out to the movies or the Frozen Custard. We always got teary when we said good-bye. She would ruffle my hair and call me Squirt, willing me to be innocent again.
"Listen, sugar," said Merry, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees. "I called Brother last week 'cause I got the feeling something was wrong. He's worried sick. I offered to look after you, just for the summer. Transitional period. Before you go home."
So they didn't want me back. "I committed a crime," I said. "That's why I'm here."
"Nice place, too." Merry looked around at our cozy living room, furnished in Early American sofas and chairs that could swallow you whole.
"I don't want to be in the way," I said. "Don't you have a family in Ohio?" I knew she'd been married twice and had step-children.
"Oh, sure," she said. "But we won't be going to Ohio. We'll be staying out at the homeplace, in New Mexico."
My father once wrote a piece for the newspaper about what it was like to grow up on a ranch--haying, feeding livestock, planting and watering alfalfa--but he never talked to us about New Mexico. His parents had been to visit us a few times when I was little, but I barely remembered them. Now his father was dead and his mother was a sick old lady. "Why do we have to go out there?" I asked Merry.
She took my hand and squeezed it. One of her eyes was blue, the other green. "I'm a psychic," she said. "You're going to be helping me with a job. Mom has offered us the use of her home."
"I tried to kill someone," I said. "A small child."
"I know, sugar," Merry said. "You did an extremely vicious thing." She stood up and slung her purse strap over her shoulder, as if that settled that.
I was relieved, if only for a moment, to think that it did.
Aunt Merry and I left for New Mexico the last week of June. In Kansas she insisted that I drive her Lincoln Continental. I had my learner's permit, but I'd never driven on the interstate.
"Don't sweat it," Merry said. "The Queen Mary handles like a dream."
I sat up straight, my hands gripping the wheel as we rolled across Kansas at 70 miles per hour. Merry propped her bare feet up on the dashboard, knees tucked under her purple caftan. If I dropped down to 65, she would bark out, "What are you waiting for? A tow?" If I sped up to 75, she'd imitate a police siren.
But most of the time she talked about herself. "I wear different-colored contacts," she said. "Throws people off balance. They pop out sometimes, but I always find them. I have ESP. Had it since I was a kid. Once Brother lost his G-Man ring and I led him right to the spot, in the schoolyard, where it fell off his finger. Unfortunately, someone had stepped on it by then. When I was your age, Mom put me on the radio. My own psychic call-in show. I directed a woman right to where her baby wandered off to--the bottom of a well. Brother was so jealous."
I didn't want to reveal how eager I was to learn anything about my father. "Was he?" I said in a neutral tone.
"He was," Merry said. "He got stuck with all the chores. Didn't stand up for himself. Held it all in, till he couldn't take it anymore." She started humming "Rock of Ages" and stared out the window, letting me know she was finished with that subject.
We passed a muddy lot packed tight with cattle that seemed to go on for miles, bigger than anything I'd ever seen in Iowa. Finally I asked Merry, "Do you still have a radio show?"
"Oh no, but I still help people find things. They call me up from all over the U.S. and Canada. Missing dogs are my specialty." She studied her feet and wiggled her red-painted toes.
Merry was more childlike, and more self-confident, than any adult I'd ever known. She didn't seem to realize, or care, how weird she was. I said, "How do you find missing dogs?" Up ahead, in my lane, a station wagon was going much too slow.
"Pass him, pass him!" Merry yelled. We surged around the station wagon and veered back into our own lane. Merry went on in her ordinary voice, "Say, for example, some rich guy calls me from Indiana. He and his wife are missing their yellow Lab, Captain Crunch. Someone stole him right out of his pen. Man and his wife are distraught. Dog's a kid substitute. They've been offering a two-thousand-dollar reward, but no leads. I'm quiet for a while, and then I say, 'Your dog is safe. I see a late-model Ford, dark green, with two men in it. They drag Captain Crunch into their car. I see them driving to New Mexico. They're taking the dog to Los Alamos, for research purposes. But they stop at a convenience store in Espa-ola, and the Captain escapes.'
" 'Thank God,' says the man. 'Where is he now?'
" 'I can't tell exactly,' I say. 'Put an ad in the Santa Fe New Mexican. You'll find him.'
"He says, 'Thank you, thank you' and says he'll send me a check for my commission."
"Are you right all the time?" I felt as if Aunt Merry and I were aliens, flying through the wheat fields in a space ship.
"One hundred percent of the time." She swiveled to face me, the gold trim around the neck of her caftan glittering. "I can guarantee that somebody living with her grandmother just outside Santa Fe will answer that ad, and the happy couple will drive to New Mexico to pick up their dog. My little helper will hand over most of the reward money to me, keeping a bit for herself. All the time I'll be back in Ohio, so nobody can connect us. Not that these people ever try. They might suspect they've been had, but they've got a new dog. Everyone's happy. Even the dog."
I glanced down at the pavement racing underneath us. "I thought you had a gift."
"I do," she said. "I know how to make a living."
"I'm getting tired," I said. "My eyes aren't seeing very well."
"At the next rest area, pull over and take five."
"What if you can't find a dog that looks like theirs?"
"He's waiting at Mother's. Captain Crunch Junior." She swung her feet back up on the dashboard. "It'll be an adventure, sugar," she said.
My grandmother lived in a low brick house with tiny windows, surrounded by ramshackle outbuildings that looked like they were floating in a sea of red dirt. A few cottonwood trees punctuated the gray-green sagebrush. "This is a farm?" I asked Merry. "I thought you lived on a farm."
"We utilized an irrigation system," Merry said.
When we got out of the car, I saw a dog tied to the cornerpost of the front porch. He was yellow, but he looked part Lab and part something else. He was smaller than a Lab and had floppy ears. "They'll never believe this is their dog," I said. He strained at the rope and wagged his tail. "Is that the best you could find?"
Excerpted from The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa by Elizabeth Stuckey-French. Copyright © 2001 by Elizabeth Stuckey-French. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, 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.