Friday, June 19, 2015

Eighty and Out by Kim Cano

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Traumatized by visits to the nursing home to see their elderly aunt, Louise and her sister Jeannie made a youthful pact to not live past age eighty. Was it a silly childhood idea, or were they wise beyond their years? Most importantly, will they go through with it when the time comes?


Back in the fifties, when my younger sister Jeannie and I were kids, we made a pact not to live past age eighty.
We’d seen our fair share of old people doddering around, struggling to make it from point A to point B with their walkers, and decided that wouldn’t happen to us. We’d live life to the fullest and leave this planet with our dignity intact.
As we grew up, the plan dissolved into a silly idea we’d had when we were young and na├»ve and knew little about life. But now that I’m an older woman, one who has grown wise in her years, I’ve given the pact more thought.
And I’ve decided to keep my end of the bargain.

Chapter 1

I was sitting in the alcove under the stairs reading Young Romance when I heard my mom call me, but I ignored her because I was at the best part of the story. A few minutes later, I heard my sister’s footsteps growing louder, thumping on the hardwood floor, making it difficult to concentrate.
Jeannie poked her head into my hiding spot. “C’mon, Lou. Mom said we gotta go.”
Fine.” I groaned, rolling up the magazine to bring along.
I dreaded these trips to the old folks’ home to see Aunt Violet, but I wasn’t allowed to say so since I was only eleven years old. Last time I complained about going, I had my mouth washed out with soap.
We piled into the car and before we’d even left the driveway, Dad was already talking with Mom about his favorite subject: Communism and Senator McCarthy. I tuned out, preferring to stare out the window and watch the neighborhood go by.
Chicago wasn’t very pretty, I decided. It was too plain. Too flat. And the homes all looked the same. When I grew up, I planned to move out west and marry a rancher. I’d have horses and live on acres of land surrounded by mountains. I’d never been out west, but I felt it was my fate.
You wanna play dolls?” Jeannie asked, interrupting my thoughts.
I’m reading,” I stated while unrolling my magazine.
Jeannie gave me a look that said, “You’re not reading. You’re looking out the window.” I ignored her and buried my nose between the pages. I hated when she bugged me to play dolls. I wasn’t a little kid anymore.
Shortly after getting immersed in the story, I heard the crunch of gravel under the tires. I looked up and saw the faded green building, and my heart sank. The place was depressing. Even the exterior looked tired.
On the way in, my mom turned to face me. “Remember what I told you,” she said with a stern look.
I remember.” I nodded.
Jeannie grinned at me, and I almost giggled.
On our last visit, I’d made the mistake of asking, “What’s that awful smell?” I guess I’d said it loudly too, because everyone in the room looked at me: the nurses, several old men and women, my mother. The look she gave me promised the spanking of all spankings once we got home.
I smiled at Jeannie. At least I could get away with that.
As we walked inside, the familiar stench hit my nostrils, and I cringed. I wondered how everyone could be going about their business acting normal, showing no reaction to the nauseating smell. Once we made it to Aunt Violet’s room, Mom opened the door and smiled brightly.
Hey. Look who’s here to see you,” she said in a sweet voice.
Everyone smiled and waved on cue. We all lined up to give her a hug and a kiss. When it was my turn, I couldn’t decide which was worse, the smell of the old folks’ home or her powdery perfume, applied in layers so thick it lingered in my nostrils long after I pulled away, threatening to suffocate me.
While my parents talked to her about how she was feeling, I gazed at the framed photos on the wall. They were pictures of Aunt Violet and her late husband, Irving, through the years. My favorite was the one of Aunt Violet in her blue sequined gown. She was so elegant and beautiful when she was a ballroom dancer.
I glanced at the old woman who sat on the bed, her snow white hair pinned in place in an attempt at beauty, her skin heavily wrinkled and her hands gnarled. As I stared, she tried to get out of bed and cried out in pain. I jumped at the awful sound.
Mom and Dad rushed to help her while Jeannie and I watched, horrified. Aunt Violet looked frightened and frail. Once she got her footing, Mom helped her shuffle to the restroom.
I looked up at her when she came back in the room on her own. I was certain she would fall. Somehow, she made it back to her bed.
And how has Miss Louise been lately?” she asked, smiling. “What have you got there?”
I tucked my chin, embarrassed. “A romance comic,” I mumbled.
She nodded approval. “I see. Already learning the ways. You’re growing up so fast, kiddo. And getting so pretty. I’ll bet you’ll have so many suitors wanting to marry you they’ll have to fight to the death to make you their bride.”
I smiled. Aunt Violet had a flair for drama. Mom had said when she was little Aunt Violet used to tell her bedtime stories, but not the kind you read in a book. Aunt Violet made them up. Mom had always looked forward to story time.
Aunt Violet turned her attention to Jeannie. “What’s your doll’s name?” she asked.
Jeannie glanced at me. I nodded toward Aunt Violet. “Tell her,” I whispered.
Jeannie turned back to Aunt Violet. “Jane,” she said, lifting the doll.
Everyone smiled, and the adults resumed their conversation. I pretended to read, but this time I was really eavesdropping. They talked about Aunt Violet’s health and words like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation levels, and joint destruction filled the small room. I didn’t know what any of it meant, but none of it sounded good, and I was thankful when it was time to go.
Later on, after I’d helped with the dinner dishes, I went outside to play. Some of the neighborhood kids were pitching pennies, so I joined them.
Where have you been?” Bernice asked.
Old folks’ home.” She knew better than to ask how it went. I’d already told her how much I disliked going there.
You wanna play?” she asked, holding up a coin.
I don’t have anything to lose today,” I said.
Bernice nodded. She was the best at the game, but instead of collecting the loser’s coins, she got paid in candy. She preferred bubble gum, but she’d take marbles, baseball cards, or whatever they’d agreed on beforehand if her opponents didn’t have any.
I watched as each of the players took their shot. Frankie’s penny got pretty close to the wall, but when Bernice threw hers, it hit the brick surface and dropped straight down.
Damn it,” Frankie cursed. “How do you do it every time?”
Bernice smiled. “Just lucky, I guess.”
The first two boys each handed her a piece of gum. Frankie reluctantly gave Bernice one of his marbles, spat on the ground and walked away.
He’s such a sore loser,” I said once we were alone.
Bernice shrugged. “You want some gum?”
Sure.” I took a stick from her, unwrapped it and popped it in my mouth.
We spent the next half hour practicing pitching pennies. She showed me her technique, claiming it was all in the wrist, but I was never able to master it.
It was still light out, but getting late.
I better get back home and put this away,” Bernice said, holding up the marble and winking. She had a wooden box where she stored her winnings. It was so organized the marbles were separated by color in their own compartments.
Okay. See you tomorrow.”
I should have gone home too, but I decided to climb my favorite tree instead. It was the one place where no one could disturb me. It’s where I always went when I wanted to be alone.
The sun began to set, so I leaned against a large branch and watched. As the sky turned varying shades of orange and pink, I let myself visit a familiar daydream. Imaginary mountains filled the horizon, and I glanced at them from atop my black horse, Maximilian. We’d just returned from an exhilarating ride, and it was time to put him back in his stall so I could eat dinner with my handsome husband and well-behaved kids.
I heard someone whistle and looked down. There was just enough light left for me to see a colored boy walking down the street by himself.
But he wasn’t alone. The whistle had come from one of the older neighborhood boys, who was silently gesturing for his buddies to follow.
Shit,” I said in a half-whisper.
I wanted to head home, but I couldn’t climb down because it would attract too much attention. So I waited. When the colored boy turned the corner, the group of white kids took off running after him, so I slid down and dropped to the ground, scraping the palms of my hands on the bark and twisting my ankle in the process.
Shouting erupted in the distance, and I took the opportunity to run away as fast as I could. Fear trumped the pain in my ankle, and I made it home in record time. As I bolted through the front door and slammed it shut behind me, I came face to face with my mom. Her arms were crossed in front of her chest, and she glared at me.
Do you know what time you’re supposed to be home?” she asked, anger bubbling just beneath the surface of her words.
I looked down. “Before dark,” I mumbled.
You’re grounded!” she shouted. “Now get to your room.”
I didn’t make eye contact. I just ran past her as quickly as I could in the hopes I might avoid a spanking. I made it to my room unscathed, changed into pajamas and climbed into bed. As I lay there, I wondered what the colored boy was doing walking around all by himself. They had their side of the tracks, and we had ours. And no one ever crossed them.
Chapter 2

The next morning, my mom took my romance comics away and handed me a sponge, Ajax, and a bucket and told me to clean the bathroom. I had planned to meet Bernice and go bike riding. Instead, I was stuck doing chores.
I scrubbed and scrubbed the clawfoot tub and was surprised to find out just how much elbow grease it took to clean. You’d think all the dirt would just drain away after every bath. An hour later, I had finished the whole bathroom and stood to examine my work. The room sparkled and smelled fresh, filling me with a sense of accomplishment.
My dad came up beside me. “It’s spotless. Great job,” he said, glancing over his shoulder. He turned back to me. “Here. Take this.” He handed me a Fanny May Pixie from the box Mom had just gotten for her birthday.
Thanks.” I smiled, and as I did he put his finger to his lips to indicate it was our secret. I nodded, then went to my room and enjoyed the delicious treat, a mixture of caramel and nuts drenched in milk chocolate.
I lay on my bed, fully aware it was only a matter of time before my mom gave me another task, which was her special way of driving home the “you will submit to the rules” message. The rules really weren’t that difficult to follow. My parents were kind and fair. The problem was me. I was headstrong. Where Jeannie listened and behaved like a model child, I did the opposite, and no amount of punishment seemed to alter my behavior.
Jeannie opened the bedroom door, her doll tucked under her arm.
What’s going on?” I asked.
Nothing.” She came and sat down next to me. “I’m bored.”
If I weren’t grounded, I would’ve been outside with my friends. I didn’t know what Jeannie did while I was away and mostly didn’t care. But today I felt a kinship with her. “You want to play a game?” I asked.
Her eyes brightened. “Sure. Which one do you want to play?”
How about Candy Land?” It was her favorite.
Jeannie smiled and went to get it from the hallway closet. An hour later, I was surprised to realize how much I was enjoying playing with my usually annoying sister. I made a mental note to spend more time with her from now on.
Jeannie belched loudly, and we both started laughing. Mom walked in wearing a serious look, which was quickly replaced by a happy face when she saw us enjoying ourselves. I made eye contact with her, and she suppressed her smile just enough to remind me who’s boss.
Do you want me to clean anything else?” I asked, standing up. I hoped it would make me appear obedient. I wanted her to know she’d won.
Not right now,” she answered. “I’m going to start lunch, and then we’re going to the store to shop for school supplies.”
When she left, I noticed Jeannie had braided her doll’s hair. I looked at Jeannie’s unruly mane. “How about I braid your hair to match the doll’s?”
Her face lit up. “Okay. Let me grab my brush.”
Jeannie rushed from the room, and after she returned, I spent the next half hour removing the tangles and weaving her hair into an intricate ponytail. “There. Now you and Jane match,” I said as she inspected the finished result in the mirror.
We sat down to eat egg salad sandwiches, and Mom eyed Jeannie. “Your hair looks pretty.”
Jeannie smiled. “Lou did it.”
Mom glanced at me, and I grinned. I could tell she didn’t want to stay mad at me, but she always tried to keep a serious face for a day or two after I’d disobeyed – like that made the punishment stick better or something. She’d grounded me for a week once before, when I’d slipped up and said the wrong thing at the nursing home, but that was different. She wasn’t just angry that time, she was embarrassed. Mortified was the word she’d used.
On the way to the store, we passed Bernice and some of the neighborhood kids. They were having fun playing hopscotch. I wished I could join them, and realized if I listened to my parents more often, I wouldn’t suffer so much.
Which notebook do you prefer? Blue or green?” Mom asked as she held up one of each.
Doesn’t matter.” I had an opinion on everything I wasn’t supposed to have an opinion on, but when asked about topics relevant to my little world, I couldn’t care less.
I rounded the corner to look at the comic books while Mom and Jeannie continued shopping. A teenage boy stood reading a magazine. I recognized him as one of the boys I’d seen following the colored kid. When I reached for Young Romance, I noticed his eye was black and blue.
He leered at me. “Beat it. I’m reading here,” he said.
I put the comic back on the rack and left, irritated he had bossed me around and secretly delighted he’d been smacked in the face. They might have beaten up the colored boy, but it looked like he had gotten at least one good punch in.
I didn’t know what all the fuss was about over people’s skin color. It seemed silly, and it wasn’t like any of us had a choice in the matter. Conveniently, the subject came up at the dinner table that night.
They’re coming to the school this year,” Dad said, sounding concerned.
Mom sighed. “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
We could send the kids to private school.”
That costs money,” Mom said. Dad frowned at that.
I wanted to say I didn’t care and not to worry, but I kept my mouth shut. I continued eating my meal in silence while Jeannie played with her food, oblivious to their concerns.
A few days later, my confinement ended, and I was allowed to leave the house. Dad had given me a watch so I could keep better track of time, but in my rush to get outdoors, I’d forgotten to put it on.
The hot wind tousled my hair as I rode my bike to the park. I usually wore it in a ponytail so it wouldn’t get messy, but today I left it loose, a fitting symbol of my newfound freedom. On my way there, I kept my eyes peeled for Bernice. I didn’t see her in any of the usual places, and when I got to the park, she wasn’t there either.
Oddly enough, no one was there. I had the place all to myself.
I hopped off my bike and ran to the swing set. After I’d gotten situated in the center swing, I grabbed hold of the heavy chains and pushed off the ground. I pumped my legs to propel myself upwards, and the higher I climbed, the more exhilarated I felt. It was almost as if I could touch the sky. I leaned back and let my legs go limp, gliding back and forth like a human pendulum.
When Mom was around, she wouldn’t let me do it. She claimed it was too dangerous, and I could get hurt. But it was my favorite thing to do.
After I’d taken a few more turns, I was ready to leave. I was just about to get on my bike when I saw Bernice. She put her hands on her hips. “Let me guess. You were grounded.”
That would be correct,” I replied as I set the bike against the kickstand. I said it without shame even though I knew it wasn’t something to be proud of. There were lots of kids who thought that kind of thing was cool, but Bernice wasn’t one of them.
Well, you missed some neighborhood gossip,” she said as she sat on the park bench.
Yeah? What’s that?” I sat beside her.
Frankie’s older brother got into a fight with a colored boy who was walking around here the other night. I guess a group of older kids chased him back to his side of town, but before things ended there was a fight, and the colored boy clocked him good.”
I thought of the boy at the store. Bernice and I had never discussed race, and I wasn’t sure how she felt about the situation, so I didn’t voice my opinion. With my parents I was abrupt, often to my own detriment, but I tended to be more careful when I spoke with Bernice.
I heard they’re going to be at school with us this year,” I said, giving no hint of my feelings on the matter.
She stared at the other side of the playground. “My mom was talking to my grandma about it on the phone the other night. They don’t think it’s a good thing.”
I raised an eyebrow.
My family isn’t prejudiced or anything,” she said. “They just think there will be trouble at school. And you know my parents. It’s all about learning with them. They don’t want anything to interfere with that.”
I thought about my dad’s comment, that he’d like to send us to private school but couldn’t because it was too expensive. I was going to tell her about it but decided not to since her family had more money than ours. It wasn’t like they were rich. I mean, they lived in our neighborhood and all, but they definitely had more. Bernice told me a story once about her uncle being a successful author, and that he had left them some money when he died.
Well, let’s hope there won’t be any trouble then,” I said.
Bernice sighed. “If the rumors I’ve been hearing are true, I don’t think hope will make a

Chapter 3

The first week of school, there was tension in the air. Bernice and I took a seat in our classroom as a few colored kids arrived and sat at desks in the back. Mrs. Jenkins looked nervous. Her eyes darted around the room, and as she wrote her name on the chalkboard, she accidentally bumped the eraser with her hip and it fell to the ground, sending white powder into the air. A couple boys snickered, and she quickly turned, trying to figure out who had mocked her but couldn’t as they’d all become blank-faced.
Okay. Settle down everyone. We need to take attendance,” she said.
Mrs. Jenkins called our names one by one, and afterward she asked everyone to write an essay about what they did over the summer.
Yes?” Mrs. Jenkins said to the new colored girl who had raised her hand.
Everyone stared at the girl.
I don’t have a pencil,” she said. “I forgot to bring one.”
She made eye contact with me, and I instinctively rose and handed her the extra one I had.
Thanks,” she said.
No problem,” I replied.
I sat back down and caught Frankie glaring at me. Apparently he had a problem with my not having a problem. I held his gaze and smirked, making it clear I wasn’t looking for his approval. I began writing the essay, describing in vivid detail the highs and lows of my summer. Mrs. Jenkins came around and collected it when everyone had finished.
I played tag at recess with Bernice and some other kids. As I ran to tell the other girl “you’re it,” I saw the colored girl from our classroom sitting on a swing by herself. She was staring at the ground, looking lonely.
When there was a pause in the game, I ran over to her. “Do you want to play with us?” I asked.
Okay,” she said, smiling brightly. We ran back to the group to start another round.
Sandy is going to play with us,” I said. “Who wants to be it this time?”
My question was greeted with silence. The other kids just glanced at each other and wordlessly walked away. Stunned by their response, I suddenly wished I hadn’t invited her. I was just trying to be nice, not make my friends mad at me.
Bernice was the only one who stayed, but she didn’t look happy about it.
I’ll be it,” Bernice finally said, stepping forward.
I nodded, thankful she’d put herself on the line so I wouldn’t look foolish in front of Sandy, who stood next to me showing no outward sign of how she felt inside.
Bernice shouted “Go!” and Sandy and I took off running across the empty field. The sound of chirping birds mixed with our laughter made me smile. The sun was blinding and bright, and I soaked it up, enjoying the warmth and the joy of the moment. But when I went to shield my eyes, I noticed a group of kids watching the developing scene with displeasure. A few teachers also looked on with folded arms and some kind of quiet judgment.
On the way home from school, Frankie caught up with me. His plump face was twisted in anger.
You think you’re real smart, don’t you?” he said.
I grinned. “Well, my grades are above average. Not straight A’s, but—”
Cut the crap, Lou. You’re treading into dangerous territory.”
I laughed. “Those are some big words, Frank. Did you read that line in a Superman comic? You can read, can’t you?”
Frankie pushed me, and the books I was carrying fell into the street. “I don’t have to listen to this shit. You’re the one that’s going to lose all your friends. Then let’s see how smart you are.”
I tried to think up a witty comeback as he walked away but couldn’t. He left with his head held high as I was forced to gather my things from the dirty pavement. When I had finished collecting them, I noticed a few of the girls in my classroom passing by on their way home. I smiled at them, but they ignored me. Then they began whispering.
My stomach tightened. Maybe Frankie was right.
I felt down all during dinner, so after helping with the dishes, I decided to join my sister in the backyard to play, hoping that might cheer me up. She was on a cartwheel kick, but I didn’t care for them much so I stood off to the side, wondering how many she could do before she wiped out. It didn’t take long for my sadness to evaporate. Jeannie was really good at cartwheels – and she was having a ton of fun. It was kind of hard not to get caught up in that.
We played hide and seek for a while after that and then came inside and collapsed on the sofa.
Go get your brush,” I told her. “Your hair is a mess.” It wasn’t that messy, but I knew she liked to fuss over it and figured I’d indulge her. Plus I was enjoying hanging out with her. She didn’t judge me or criticize me like the other kids.
Jeannie grabbed the brush from her room, and we went to the kitchen. She had just taken a seat when Mom turned and said, “Not at the table.” Jeannie and I got up and marched to the bedroom, where I began gently removing the tangles from the bottom before working my way up.
Are you really gonna get married and move out west?” Jeannie asked out of the blue.
I hope so,” I answered, surprised she had remembered my daydream. I finished smoothing the last of her locks and handed the brush back to her. “Why do you ask?”
She turned to me, looking like she was about to cry. “Because I don’t want you to move away. I would miss you.”
Her admission tugged at my heart, and I gave her a hug. “Don’t worry,” I said. “If I move there you can come visit all the time. I’ll be rich, so you’ll have your own room, your own horse.”
I like horses,” she said in a small voice.
See. Nothing to be sad about. We’ll always be together, no matter what.”
Jeannie smiled. And just like that, her worries seemed to be forgotten. Later that night, I lay in bed awake, my mind heavy with concerns of my own. I was haunted by Frankie’s comment. I didn’t want to become an outcast and lose my friends over Sandy. She meant nothing to me compared to them, but I felt it was unfair I had to choose.
Over the next few months, I distanced myself from Sandy. I was polite to her but didn’t invite her to play at recess and didn’t show her any extra kindness. This made me feel terrible in those moments when I imagined what it must be like to be in her shoes. Sure, the other kids warmed up to me again, but rejecting Sandy still made me feel bad.
I spent a lot of time hanging out at Bernice’s on Christmas break. Her mom had become obsessed with baking pies, and we’d both become willing taste testers.
While enjoying a slice, I said to Bernice, “Tell me more about your uncle who was an author.”
She gulped her milk. “You want to know about him or the novel he wrote?”
Both,” I said and took another bite of pie.
Bernice rose and grabbed a book off the shelf. “Here,” she said, handing it to me. I read the title: High Desert Love by Judith Johnson.
Wait a minute. I thought you said your uncle wrote this.”
He did. Judith Johnson is a pen name. My mom said he thought the book would sell better if readers thought a woman had written it.”
Huh,” I said. “Smart.”
I turned it over and read the description: A sweeping tale of romance amidst the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. High Desert Love tells the story of one woman’s journey out west, and the chance encounter that changes her destiny.
This story is set in the west?” I asked, suddenly intrigued. I hadn’t told Bernice my dream. Only my sister knew.
Yeah. My uncle lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, so that’s where he set the novel.”
I held the book in my hand. I was dying to read it even though it was for grown-ups. “Did you ever meet him?” I asked.
Once, when I was little, but I don’t remember much about him other than he reeked of alcohol.”
Oh,” I replied. “I thought he might’ve had a more interesting story.”
Bernice’s mom came into the room and took our plates. “He’s got an interesting story all right,” she joked. “Your aunt’s the best one to tell it.”
I eyed Bernice. “Your aunt?” She’d never mentioned her aunt.
Yeah. I’m going to visit her next summer.”
In Santa Fe?”
Yep. She’s got a ranch out there, and she invited me to stay for a few weeks.”
I was instantly jealous.
Why don’t you come with me?” Bernice suggested. “It would be so much fun.”
I tsked. “My parents would never let that happen.”
You never know,” Bernice said. “Try kissing up to them for a few months. They might say yes.”

Chapter 4

Mom, Dad, Jeannie, and I rang in the New Year with Guy Lombardo and his big band, enjoying it for the first time on TV. Mom had put out a tray of appetizers, which we nibbled on while watching the show and sipping our drinks – champagne flutes for them and apple juice in fancy cups for Jeannie and me. When a song Mom and Dad really liked came on, they started dancing. Jeannie and I attempted to dance too, but we didn’t know the right steps, so we just ended up shimmying and giggling while making silly faces at each other.
The next day brought the new and improved me. The me who would do whatever it took to schmooze my parents into letting me go with Bernice to Santa Fe next summer. Mom complained of a headache in the morning, so I offered to do the dishes after breakfast so she could rest. At dinnertime I set the table, and I could feel her studying me, probably trying to figure out what was going on. I thought she might say something, but she didn’t. She just continued watching me without comment.
Three weeks later, after I’d done a myriad of chores without being asked, turned in all my homework, and had come home on time every day, I was certain I’d made inroads into my parents’ good graces. The time seemed right to launch into my travel campaign.
Mom and Dad were sitting on the sofa discussing Aunt Violet while Jeannie played with her doll nearby, so I joined them, pretending to be interested in their conversation. When they had finished talking, I glanced at my mom and casually said, “Did you know Bernice’s uncle wrote a romance novel?”
Mom looked intrigued. “No. I didn’t.” She held my gaze, waiting for me to say more, but as she stared, it felt like her eyes were boring holes into my skull, like she already knew my master plan.
Yeah. Bernice said he wrote it under a pen name, so people would think he was a woman,” I added.
Weird,” Jeannie blurted.
I shot her a look that said “Zip it,” then turned back to Mom and smiled. “The book is called High Desert Love. It’s set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he used to live.”
My words sounded stilted, like I was reading a prepared speech. My hands felt clammy as I eyed my mom, hoping she couldn’t tell how nervous I was.
Used to live?” Dad asked, helping me without knowing it.
Yeah. He died, but Bernice’s aunt still lives there. She’s got a big ranch with horses, and she invited Bernice to come visit her for a few weeks next summer. She said I was welcome to come, too,” I mentioned like it was no big deal.
Mom and Dad glanced at each other. I could see I’d thrown them a curveball. Jeannie’s eyes grew wide as she realized the importance of what I had just said, but I nodded at her ever so slightly, warning her to keep quiet.
Well, that was very nice of Bernice’s aunt to offer, but we couldn’t afford to send you there,” Mom said.
I’d already anticipated her response and was ready with a reply. “It’s not going to cost anything because Bernice and her parents are driving there. I’d just be an extra person in the car.”
Mom mulled over the idea, her expression unsure. “But we don’t know Bernice’s aunt. We’ve never even met her, and you’ll only be twelve this summer.”
I turned to Dad. “We’ll think about it,” he said, raising his eyebrows, which meant we were done talking about it for now.
At dinner I was quiet, my mind busy working on trying to find a new angle that would get them to let me go, but I was out of ideas. I went to my room and pouted afterward, certain my life was ruined.
I told Bernice all about it the next day. “Don’t worry,” she said. “They may still let you go. Just stay on your best behavior.”
Being good was exhausting. But it was worth a shot.
For the next few months I was a model child. It went against my nature, but I pretended I was playing a part in a movie. Dad told me Mom was warming up to the trip idea, especially since he had mentioned it would be a great experience for me to have as a child. The only thing she was against was me being in another state with a stranger.
Your mom could talk to my aunt,” Bernice said when I told her the latest. “Just let me know and I’ll mention it to my mom.”
I nodded, planning on running it by my dad when I got home. I glanced at the book in her hand.
So why do you want to learn Spanish?” I asked. We already had enough homework.
Because in New Mexico half the people are Hispanic and speak Spanish. And my parents thought it would be fun to be able to communicate in both languages.”
It sounded to me like her parents were tricking her into doing more work. But Bernice seemed interested, so I was interested, too.
Hola. Como estas?” I repeated after Bernice had said it. We didn’t know if we were saying it right.
Bien. Y usted?” We both said multiple times. Then we practiced the lines on each other.
Bernice’s mom checked in on us.
Boy. You two sound good,” she complimented. “Keep it up.”
After she left, I asked, “Does your mom speak Spanish?”
Then how does she know we sound good?”
She doesn’t. She’s just saying that because she’s happy were learning.”
I thought her mom was odd, but she baked yummy pies and cookies, so I didn’t fault her for being a little weird.
How do you say horse in Spanish?” I asked Bernice when we were finished with the lesson.
She grabbed the Spanish/English dictionary and looked it up. “El caballo.”
It sounded nice. Later, as I rode my bike home, I repeated it over and over in my head. I burst through the front door and shouted, “El caballo!”
Dad lowered his paper and eyed me. “What’s that?”
It’s Spanish for horse.”
That’s nice, dear,” he replied. He lifted his paper and continued reading, oblivious to my dream of living out west, riding into the sunset with Maximilian. But why would he act any differently? I’d never told him my dream. I’d only told Jeannie.
That’s when the light bulb went on.
When Mom came to tuck me in that night, I sat up straight and said, “You know how I want to go with Bernice to New Mexico this summer?”
She sighed. “Yes.”
Well, I never told you why it’s so important to me.”
Mom raised an eyebrow. “Tell me why you think it’s so important.”
Because it’s my destiny,” I said. “Ever since I was little, I’ve dreamt of moving out west. I want to live on a ranch and have a black horse named Maximilian.”
Mom giggled. “Wherever did you get such an idea?” she asked, shaking her head.
I don’t know. I just know it’s my fate.”
Mom’s expression turned serious. “Well, that may be true, honey. You may move out west and live on a ranch when you grow up, but I don’t see how it has anything to do with going on the trip with Bernice.”
Don’t you see,” I said, locking eyes with her. “This is how it starts. Think about it. I’ve never met anyone who lives out west, yet I know I’ll end up there. And now Bernice happens to have an aunt who lives on a ranch out west, and she invites both of us to visit.”
She still looked unconvinced.
Don’t you see, if I don’t go on this trip, there’s a chance my whole life could be thrown off course.”
Mom was quiet for a moment before she took a deep breath. “I know it seems like some kind of omen that you’ve been invited to Bernice’s aunt’s house, but you’re just too young to go. It would be different if your dad and I were going too, but we’re not. We don’t know Bernice’s aunt. We barely know Bernice’s parents.”
My heart sank. She reached for my face, using her fingers to lift my chin. “I’m not saying Bernice’s aunt isn’t a nice lady. I’m sure she’s wonderful, and it was kind of her to invite you, but I can’t allow you to go on a trip across the country. Not this time.”
My world was being crushed.
I started crying. Mom frowned, like she felt my pain and cared, then reached for me and gave me a hug.
Don’t get so upset,” she said while rubbing my back. “I’m sure Bernice’s aunt will invite you again. When you’re older.”
When she left I lay down and continued sobbing. What if there never was a next time? What if this was my only chance and I was missing it? I resented living in a world where I was told what to do, and vowed never to do that to my own children.

Chapter 5

I sulked for days, and Jeannie was the only one at home who seemed to care. As I sat cross-legged on my bedroom floor reading a book, she poked her head in.
I just did my hair,” she said, turning from side to side. “You want me to do yours?”
I managed to smile. “Sure.”
She came in and took a seat on the bed behind me, brush in hand, and began going through the tangles and smoothing them, working from left to right. She hummed as she braided, which put me at ease and lifted my spirits ever so slightly. When she had finished, she turned to me and said, “You wanna go outside and play? We could climb a tree.”
Jeannie was afraid of heights, but she knew how much I liked climbing trees. Her kindness almost made me want to cry.
I was about to say maybe another time because I was tired, when Mom called out from the kitchen: “I made brownies.”
I had been on a hunger strike ever since she ruined my life, but brownies were my very favorite food. I knew exactly what she was up to, and I wanted to stand my ground, but Jeannie wore an excited expression.
Brownies! C’mon,” she said.
Reluctantly, I followed her to the kitchen and took a seat. Mom set the plate of brownies in the center of the table and poured us each a glass of milk. I took a bite of one, which was delicious and melted in my mouth, but tried not to let the satisfaction show on my face.
I’ve got a fun day planned for us,” she announced. “There’s a carnival nearby, and we’re taking you there this afternoon. They have games, rides. They even have a carousel with horses,” she said, eyeing me and smiling.
All right!” Jeannie exclaimed, practically jumping out of her chair.
I put the rest of my brownie down and pushed the plate away. I didn’t want to go to a stupid carnival.
Mom ignored my reaction. “Okay. We’ll head out as soon as you’re both ready,” she said.
Jeannie raced down the hallway to wash her hands. I went to my room and stared in the mirror, feeling sorry for myself. No wooden horse could ever compare with Maximilian.
After I changed, I shuffled to the family room, where Jeannie, Mom and Dad were waiting.
Who’s ready to have a great time?” Dad asked.
I am,” I answered flatly.
Dad looked disappointed by my lackluster response, but he put on a big smile and said, “Let’s get going then.”
The carnival was packed. Amusement park music filled the air, along with peals of laughter as kids of all ages ran to and fro with pink and blue clouds of cotton candy. Even though we’d just had brownies, Jeannie wanted cotton candy, too. And since Dad was going out of his way to make us happy, he said yes.
After sharing a pink cloud of sticky sugar, Jeannie and I ran around checking out all the rides. On my way past the Tilt-A-Whirl, I spotted Frankie. He was waiting in line with one of his friends and was just about to board. He saw me and waved, so I waved back. He’d been a bit nicer since I’d backed away from Sandy, but I still didn’t care for him. He was a bully.
I watched him climb into the cart and sit next to his buddy. His round face and puffy cheeks made him look like a pig, and I smirked as I thought of the Spanish word for pig: puerco. I could call him that to his face and he wouldn’t have a clue what it meant. As the ride started and he and his friend began spinning, I smiled, the secret knowledge filling me with a sense of satisfaction.
Which one do you want to go on?” Jeannie asked. She looked eager.
I don’t care. You pick.”
Jeannie spied the screaming kids on the Tilt-A-Whirl. “How about that one?”
I wasn’t sure if I would like it, but we got in line. Our parents caught up to us, and Jeannie asked, “Are you coming, too?”
We’ll watch you from here,” Dad said. Something about his expression told me spinning rides weren’t his thing. I glanced at Mom. She gazed at me, wearing a hopeful expression, but I turned away and started chatting with Jeannie.
When Frankie got off the ride, he looked ill. His pale freckled skin was tinged yellowish-green, and he swayed as he walked. Jeannie and I were next, so we climbed the stairs and hopped in an open cart. Once they were all filled, the ride began. It started off slowly, and I was about to say “this isn’t so bad” when it quickly accelerated, spinning out of control. The crowd blurred as I screamed and slid into Jeannie, the pressure so strong I worried I might crush her. Unharmed, she threw her hands in the air and howled at the tops of her lungs with delight.
I stumbled as I got off, and Jeannie grabbed my arm.
You okay?” she asked.
Just a little dizzy,” I said.
Jeannie grinned. “I loved it. I could go again.”
Mom and Dad approached. “How about we go on the carousel next,” Dad suggested.
I had no interest in wooden horses, but I figured I’d get it over with. At least it would make my parents happy.
We boarded and I searched for a black horse. I didn’t see one, so I chose a white one instead. The saddle was decorated with pink and purple jewels and the reins were painted gold. And soon I was moving up and down, riding in a circle to nowhere.
Mom sat on the horse just ahead of me on the left. Halfway through the ride, she turned back to see if I was having a good time, but I didn’t make eye contact. I just continued staring into the space ahead, thinking how pointless this idea was.
I fell asleep on the car ride home. The sugar buzz had worn off, and so had the adrenalin rush from one last visit to the Tilt-A-Whirl to satisfy Jeannie’s need for speed. I woke much later in my bed, confused where I was for a moment. Wide awake, I reached for the flashlight I kept under my bed and began reading one of my romance comics, preferring the fiction of the story to the reality of my crummy life.
At the end of the school year, my parents hadn’t budged on their decision. Bernice knew I felt awful but told me to keep my chin up, and promised we’d do it again when we were a little older. “It will be even more fun then because I’ll know my way around.”
I guess,” I mumbled.
I couldn’t believe I had wasted all that effort on being good. It hadn’t gotten me anywhere.
You want to go to a movie before I leave?” Bernice asked.
Sure,” I replied.
As we walked to the theater, I kept thinking about how Bernice was embarking on an adventurous journey while I was left to climb the same old trees and take trips to the nursing home to see Aunt Violet.
Once we got to the cinema, I noticed a John Wayne movie was playing, which piqued my interest.
How about The Searchers?” I suggested.
Sounds good,” Bernice said.
The bored ticket attendant took our money without even asking our ages; Bernice treated us to popcorn, and we took a seat. Cartoons played before the movie, and when the film finally started, everybody quieted down.
I was captured by the setting as much as the story. The main character, Ethan, had returned to Texas after fighting in the Civil War, and when his niece Debbie was abducted, he set out to find her. His journey took him to New Mexico of all places, and I found myself smiling despite his sorrow as I watched the beautiful scenery.
Someday it would be my turn.
On the way home, I turned to Bernice. “I have a secret I never told you.”
Really? What is it?” she asked, slowing her pace.
I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t told her before, but it seemed like the right time. As we walked home I told her of my dream to live out west. I divulged every detail.
I know it’s my fate,” I said. “I’m certain of it.”
Bernice held up her arm. “Look,” she said. “I’ve got chills.”
Sure enough, she had goose bumps.
What do you think?” I asked.
I think it’s a shame you’re not coming this summer. I think it’s more than a shame. I think it’s detrimental.”
I studied her. I wasn’t sure what detrimental meant, but I figured it was serious.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this opportunity showed up when it did,” Bernice said.
I know exactly what you mean,” I said. “I tried to explain it to my mom, but she doesn’t get it.”
Maybe she does get it. Maybe she’s just thinking about your age. Isn’t that what she keeps saying? That you’re too young?”
She had a point. Maybe my mom wasn’t stupid after all. Maybe she was only seeing one side. But since she was the one who had the final say, her side was the only one that mattered.
When we got to Bernice’s house her mom was making dinner so I didn’t stay long. I gave Bernice a hug.
Have fun,” I said. I started to leave, but she told me to wait a minute, disappeared into the other room, then reappeared with her mom, who was holding a book.
Why don’t you borrow this,” Bernice’s mom said.
I took it from her and smiled. It was High Desert Love by Judith Johnson.

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