Excerpted from The Summer I Saved the World . . . in 65 Days by Michele Weber Hurwitz Copyright © 2014 by Michele Weber Hurwitz. Excerpted by permission of Ember, 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.
It starts with Mrs. Chung.
My grandmother believed in what she called STs--Simple Truths. This was one of her favorites: Things happen when they’re meant to happen, and the sooner people realize that, the more content they’ll be. Most people, she said, don’t understand, even when those things are right in front of them.
Today, the first day of summer vacation, while I’m on the hammock in my side yard, listening to music and trying to figure out why my phone is being weird, and tanning, and letting my freshly painted toenails dry, am I meant to see Mrs. Chung hobbling around on her crutches? Is this one of those things that is meant to happen?
Mrs. Chung has lived next door to us for as long as my family has been here--nine years--and way before that. There was a Mr. Chung, and two kids, but he died and the kids grew up and moved away. So Mrs. Chung lives by herself in that big house. With Christmas lights strung across her trees all year round. Never on, not even in December. Kind of sad, the wires just hanging off those trees, like there’s no one to light them for anymore.
She’s leaning on her crutches, looking at two plastic trays of flowers in her front yard. Her wrinkled face is like a drawing on a paper fan, folded in disappointment. She’s mumbling to herself and shaking her head and pointing with one crutch to where she always plants her flowers in the spring, around the neatly trimmed evergreen bushes.
Two things I am not: a genius, and the kind of person who goes out of her way to help people. The first one, I can wish for, but it simply isn’t going to happen, and the second one, well, I really admire those types. It’s just that I don’t usually step up. I think a lot of people are like that. They let someone else take care of things.
I don’t have to be a genius to figure out that Mrs. Chung can’t plant the flowers with her leg in a cast. I’m watching her, the hammock rocking slowly in the breeze, when I remember how Mr. Chung used to shovel the sidewalk when we had big snows, and how he went all the way from his driveway to ours, even though we should have shoveled our part. But somehow we never got around to it. Dad was working late, my brother was lazy, and Mom couldn’t stand the cold. Me? I guess I kept thinking one of them would do it eventually; plus I had tons of homework. Or another excuse that seemed important at the time.
Mrs. Chung goes into her garage and half pushes, half drags a chair over to the flower trays. She sits, pats her forehead with a tissue, and then leans down and takes out one marigold. She holds it for a few minutes, cradled in her hands. Then she pulls herself up with the crutches, places the flower gently on the chair, and goes inside.
For some reason, I start thinking about what Mr. Pontello told us on our last day of eighth-grade US history, everyone sweaty and hyper and impatient, aching to peel their legs from their seats and leave that classroom forever.
He said, “It is very often the ordinary things that go unnoticed that end up making a difference. As you embark upon your high school careers, be unnoticed, but be remarkable.”
I think I was the only one listening.
The little boy from next door, Thomas, runs out of his open garage and starts hopping. From his grass to mine, and then all the way to Mrs. Chung’s driveway.
He turns toward me and shouts, “Nina! I learned how to hop!”
“You have to switch feet,” he says, out of breath but smiling big. “So one foot doesn’t get too tired.”
I touch the edge of a toenail to see if it’s dry as Thomas hops over to Mrs. Chung’s flower trays. He stops, then looks over at me. “Why are the flowers in here?”
He stares at them. “But how will they grow if they’re not in the ground?” He hops over to the chair and picks up the wilting marigold. “Poor flower.”
Thomas puts the flower down and hops all the way back to his house. Pretty good for a five-year-old.
Two birds are on the love seat at the edge of my patio. I watch their jerky head movements, like they’re talking to each other in their secret bird language. Go ahead, I think. No one else sits on the love seat anymore.
All-weather wicker with dark green cushions that Mom ordered from a catalog a few summers ago. She kept saying, “It’s all-weather; it won’t fade or tear or stain. It will last forever. Forever.” She copied the layout exactly as it had been on the page in the catalog, right down to the vase of huge droopy white flowers on the all-weather wicker-and-glass table.
The day the furniture was delivered, Mom made a pitcher of lemonade, because that was in the catalog picture too, and we sat on the patio together, Mom and Dad and me and Matt. Mom poured the lemonade into fancy glasses and put strawberries on the rims. Dad made a joking toast to the new furniture. Matt and I clinked our glasses and took big swallows. But the lemonade was so sour that we both started coughing. Matt went inside, got the box of sugar, and started pouring it into the pitcher, mixing it with a long wooden spoon. Dad said, “Take it easy, Matthew” just as the box fell into the pitcher and the whole thing tipped over. Matt and I stared at Mom. What was she going to do? Would she get mad? He’d ruined the catalog picture. But Dad started laughing and said, “Who’d like some sugar-ade?” and Matt drank a whole glass after I dared him.
The love seat has become almost creepy now, part of the garden, with a long strand of ivy wrapped around one of the armrests and a huge spiderweb underneath. A dry leaf twirls from a tree and lands next to the birds, and they fly off. Empty cushions. How sad--a love seat that needs love.
The last time I sat on it was with Grandma. Just her and me, in the quiet of our yard, holding hands. Hers were white and frail, bumpy with blue veins, and I tried to memorize the way they looked. She’d been sick for a while. Her heart was failing, and I knew she didn’t have much longer.
It has been almost a year since she died. I get hit with these moments, when I miss her so terribly--and can’t even think about what has happened with my family--that I don’t know what to do, how to make it not hurt so much. I’ve tried running around the block and turning my music up really loud, but that helps for only a short time.
Sometimes it feels like the dull ache in my chest is going to spill all over, seep into my cracks and corners, and stay forever.
The warm breeze lifts my hair, skims the back of my neck, moves across the grass like an electric current.
And there it all is, right in front of me. My prompt, I guess you could say. Grandma’s Simple Truth and the empty love seat and Mrs. Chung’s empty garden. Thomas’s question. Mr. Pontello’s advice. Even Mr. Chung doing our shoveling all those winters.
Get up. Do something. Now.
I walk to Mrs. Chung’s and peek through her window. She’s stretched out on the sofa, exhausted, that big, thick white cast covering her leg. How’d she break it? I don’t even know.
I find a little digging tool in our garage, then drag the first tray of flowers to Mrs. Chung’s evergreen bushes. Every spring, she arranges her marigolds in curving waves of color--deep reds on the outside, a middle wave of oranges, to golden, then the lightest yellow. Like a sunset.
As I dig the first hole, I feel a little panicky that she’ll come out and be mad or something. You know how adults can jump to the conclusion that teenagers must be doing something wrong.
I don’t know what I’ll say if she does come out, so I take the flower from the chair and just focus on patting it into the dirt. Then another, and another. And suddenly I have a row.
I get up and look in the window again. Mrs. Chung has fallen asleep, so I keep going.
No one is around. Mom and Dad--at work. Matt--BMIA. Brother Missing in Action. Friends--complicated.
It’s just me and the flowers.
One hour later, I have strips of black dirt under my fingernails and crisscross impressions of grass on my knees, and my back and neck are really stiff. But when I soak the flowers with water from our hose, there is Mrs. Chung’s sparkling, dripping marigold sunset, just the way it’s supposed to be.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t wait for someone else to step up.
And that is the beginning of everything.
I can’t tell Jorie. She won’t get it.
We both know we became friends because we’re neighbors. She lives on the other side of Mrs. Chung. But when you look at us--her with the newest, smartest phone in one back pocket of her skintight jeans and a lip gloss and mascara in the other, and me in need of some reworking--I wonder how it has lasted this long. In first grade, when Jorie moved into the cul-de-sac, we had playdates and did the things first-grade girls do. That was enough back then.
But now? Jorie and I are in between two places. Like an intermission between the first and second acts of a play. I’m not sure how things are going to end up.
It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m in her room. As usual, she’s doing twenty things at the same time: zooming back and forth between five open windows on her laptop, dissecting the advice in three beauty magazines, tapping on her phone, finding some music, talking nonstop. I’ll say this: she’s always been fun to watch.
I’m on her bed, trying to find the right-size mushy pillow to mold under my sore neck. There are about a dozen neon-colored ones to choose from.
Jorie pops her gum and blows a bubble, turns a magazine page. “Hey, did you see Mrs. Chung this morning?”
I sit up. “No. What about her?”
“She was walking around the sidewalk on her crutches, like, crying and all upset. Freaked out, talking to herself.” Jorie looks at me. “Wait. I never remember, is she Chinese or Korean?”
“Oh, yeah. Anyway, so my dad went over to talk to her, and get this. Someone sneaked into her yard and planted her flowers.”
“Really? Was she . . . mad? I mean, what did your dad say?”
“He said she was totally confused but also, like, elated. Over flowers. That’s kind of weird, don’t you think? I mean, who would go plant someone else’s flowers?”
“She was happy?” A funny feeling spreads through my chest, as if a rush of lighter air is shooting into my lungs.
Jorie tilts her head and half smiles. “Yeah.”
I get up and look out Jorie’s bedroom window. I have a perfect view of the marigolds, standing straight, reaching toward the sun. And Mrs. Chung was elated, Jorie said. What a great word. “Elated.” The opposite of “deflated.” How she was before.
“Nina!” Jorie is waving her arms.
“Hello? I’ve been talking to you for the last two minutes. Have you heard anything I’ve said?”
I grin at her. “Yes, everything.” And I did, in the background.
She sighs. “Sometimes I just get the feeling you’re not all there.”
“I’m here. Of course I’m here.”
Jorie pulls a long string of gum from her mouth and winds it around her finger. “I was saying that my mom can drive us on the first day of summer school. I am not walking in by myself, like a loser.”
I walk to her shelf and spot the picture frame from her seventh birthday party, decorated with fake jewels, glitter, and foam stars. “You still have this?”
She laughs. “Apparently. I don’t know why, though. I was such a dork.”
“No, you weren’t.”
She gets up, takes the frame. “Yes, I was. Look, I couldn’t even glue.” She points to the dried spots where nothing is glued, then puts the frame back on the shelf, facedown. “Anyway, you know that was a sad birthday for me; we don’t need to go there.”
“In a way, Jor, it was a great birthday. If you think about it.”
She shakes her head. “Uh-uh. Don’t do your quality-over-quantity thing.”
Jorie had invited the whole class, but just two other girls came besides me. Jorie hadn’t known there was going to be another party at the same time. One of the cool girls. So you know how that goes. But the four of us decorated the frames and ate pizza and cake and tie-dyed T‑shirts purple and green. I had a great time, but Jorie cried at the end, after the other two girls left. Told her mom to throw away the T‑shirt and the rest of the cake. Said she was done with birthdays forever.
Jorie is studying a magazine page. “What about this top and shorts for the first day of summer school?”
I nod. “Cute.”
“Do you like the crop top?”
“Yeah. That’ll look good on you.”
She had twenty-five friends at her thirteenth birthday party this year, so (a) she obviously wasn’t done with birthdays, and (b) the cool girl who ruined her seventh birthday party was there, and Jorie insisted on sitting next to her at the restaurant.
Jorie stands and reaches for my hands, then examines my fingernails. “What’s going on here?” She laughs. “Sit down. Your toenails are fine, but you are in serious need of a manicure.”
In five seconds, she has emptied her bag of nail supplies onto the shaggy purple carpet. She picks up my right hand and starts filing. “You really shouldn’t let your nails get this bad. I mean, it’s important, you know?”
I jump as she nicks a piece of skin.
“No problem,” I say, squirming. “Anything for beauty, right?”
“Absolutely. Sit still.” Jorie concentrates intently on the base coat, then two coats of light pink, blowing softly on each nail.
I look at her array of polish colors. “How come you always do pink for me?”
“Because your nails are so short. Can’t go too dark. Besides”--she holds out her hands, with beautiful oval nails--“I’m red. You’re pink. That’s us.”
She piles everything back into her bag. “You have to let them dry a good half hour.”