Fall has a certain appeal
come the dog days of summer.
"I wonder if there's a way to make the music play backward."
Haley Miller, slumped on the couch in her father's study in a pair of cutoff overalls and a tank top, snapped her head toward her seven-year-old brother, Mitchell, who was busy fiddling with her MP3 player. "What did you just say?"
"Say it again."
Mitchell didn't reply.
"Come on, Mitchie. Humor me."
"I mean, if I took your MP3 player apart and put it together backward, would it play music, you know, in reverse?"
Haley could hardly believe her ears. She was so amazed she barely noticed that her brother was about to ruin her carefully programmed listening device. "One more time, Mitchie."
It wasn't what Mitchell said, but how he'd said it. For the first time in over a year he'd used complete sentences and spoken in a normal, human voice. Up until that very minute Haley's brother had insisted on speaking in a robotic monotone. Just. Like. This. It had worried Haley's parents no end, and of course drove her crazy.
"Mitchell, what happened? You spoke. And not like an alien."
"Duh. Why shouldn't I?" Mitchell said. "I don't live on an asteroid."
"Dad! Mom!" Haley jumped up, grabbed Mitchell's hand and ran into the kitchen, where she found her father, Perry, and her mother, Joan, scraping corn kernels off three dozen ears. They were making creamed corn to freeze for winter. Freckles, the family's excitable dalmatian, stirred from a nap and began barking, caught up in the excitement of the moment. "Listen to Mitchell!"
"Please, Haley," Joan said. "Between all the tests, exercises and recordings we've done with him, I can't take another sentence."
"Just listen." Haley dragged Mitchell by the hand and stood him in front of her parents. "Okay, Mitchell. Go. Talk."
Mitchell, who sometimes--make that always--seemed to enjoy bothering his big sister, just smiled and said nothing.
"Talk or I'll break both your thumbs!" Haley snapped.
"No!" Mitchell cried. "I need them for playing video games."
"Exactly." She smiled triumphantly at her parents. "Did you hear that?"
"I don't see what the big deal is," Mitchell said. "I didn't grow purple wings and fly." Joan's mouth fell open. Perry fell to his knees and hugged his little boy. "It's true!"
"Oh, thank God," Joan said. "Just in time for second grade, when the teachers don't take to eccentricities quite so kindly."
"What happened, Mitchell?" Perry asked, tousling Mitchell's hair. "Who deprogrammed you?"
"Yeah," Haley said. "It must have been hard to keep that robot gag up for a whole year."
For much of that time, Haley's parents had been dragging Mitchell from expert to expert, trying to understand their son's quirky stutter. Psychologist after psychiatrist after speech therapist had tested Mitchell and declared, much to Joan and Perry's dismay, that the robot voice was probably just a phase. "Just a phase?" Joan kept uttering. "His imaginary friend, Marcus--that was a phase. The only-eating-brown-foods bit one winter--a pretty time-consuming but ultimately harmless phase. But this? I've never seen anything like it. And I've read all the textbooks."
Since no one seemed to be able to help little Mitchell, the Millers finally just decided to let it go for a while and see if, in fact, he would outgrow his strange and annoying speech patterns. And, much to everyone's relief, it looked as if he finally had.
"This is quite a milestone," Perry said as he jumped to his feet and left the room, returning a few seconds later with his camcorder. As a documentary filmmaker, he liked to record every event in the life of the Miller family, no matter how tedious or embarrassing.
"Are you going to make a movie about me?" Mitchell asked, looking into the camera.
"Do you want me to?" Perry asked. "I could make you my freshman class project," he teased. After taking the summer off, Perry was about to return to his job as an adjunct professor at Columbia's film school.
"What do you think is my best angle?" Mitchell asked, suddenly posing like a Mexican wrestler. "Look, Dad, I'm like one of your trees," he added, holding his arms up like branches and swaying to a make-believe breeze. Perry's most recent documentary was on the life cycle of deciduous trees.
"You're certainly a natural," Perry replied, chuckling from behind the camera as he captured Mitchell's performance.
Haley thought she still heard a slight jerkiness in her brother's speech occasionally, but whatever--this was a huge improvement. "Thanks, Mitchie."
"For what?" he asked.
"You've already improved all our lives a gazillion times over. You have no idea how annoying it was listening to you at the dinner table night after night."
"I'm glad I could be of assistance," Mitchell said, and bowed. With that, he snatched Haley's MP3 player from where he'd left it on the counter and ran out of the room.
"Oh, Mitchell," Haley called after him. "If you try to take that thing apart, I really will break your thumbs."
Haley doubted her brother would listen, but unfortunately she was too sweltering hot to chase after him. The Millers didn't believe in air-conditioning, or as Joan called it,
"That carbon-hogging contraption that anesthetizes you from feeling the effects of climate change." Summer was dragging on into its last days, and the muggy New Jersey weather had Haley's brain in a fog. For starters, she could hardly believe she was about to enter the junior class at Hillsdale High. This time last year, when the Miller family was in the process of moving cross-country from Northern California, her future had seemed completely open. Unknowable. A blank slate.
But now everything was different. Haley knew who her friends were. Or at least she thought she did. She understood the lay of the land at her new school, Hillsdale High, and she only very rarely got lost in the maze that was the math wing these days. And yet, a lot of loose ends had been left hanging when she finished up her sophomore year and plunged into summer. With school about to start in just a few days' time, Haley was once again unsure of where she stood in the Hillsdale hierarchy.
Everything and everyone had changed so much in the past year. When she came to Hillsdale, Coco De Clerq, Whitney Klein and Sasha Lewis were the social queen bees who lorded it over the class and much of the rest of the school. Now Coco was obsessed with the gubernatorial campaign of Eleanor Eton, the mother of her boyfriend, Spencer. Perpetual beta girl and Coco-sidekick Whitney was coming into her own as a local fashion designer, and Sasha had abandoned the populette life for soccer and rock 'n' roll.