I sat by the edge of the little dirt path underneath a big, leafy maple tree, thinking somberly about what I had to tell. My spine straightened as I heard the gravelly roar of a dirt bike rocketing down the path, and I got to my feet and waited.
A cloud of dust blocked my view of the Yamaha YZ45OF dirt bike that I knew was coming. As the dust dissipated, the bike came to a sliding stop in yet another cloud of dust.
Bradyn could be so dramatic.
I walked over and hopped on behind him, gripping tightly around his waist. As the dirt bike roared to life again, I leaned against him and closed my eyes, waiting for the energizing jerk that meant we were going way past what would be normally safe on the bumpy trail.
A couple of bumps on the chin later, I could feel Bradyn slowing down for the big curve in the trail and held my breath as we aggressively slid around the turn. I let out a laugh as we finished the bend and whipped back straight, my brown hair swooshing.
The big turn meant we were nearing our destination, Wildwood Creek.
I suddenly felt my stomach drop into weightlessness and knew we were airborne.
“Braaaaaaadyyyyyyynnnnn!!!” I heard someone shouting, a voice that could only belong to my other best friend, Mike Smith.
When we crunched dramatically to the ground, Bradyn revved the engine before sliding to another dramatic stop. It was awesome.
Bradyn hopped off, kicked down the kick-stand, and went over and stood next to Mike.
The two were about as different as night and day.
Both were tan, but Bradyn had shaggy blonde hair, blue eyes, and could be a surfer model dude, especially since he was never seen without a hemp necklace. In addition, he had a mischievous, daring, and fun-loving personality.
Mike, on the other hand, had dark brown hair, deep green eyes, and would make a great snowboarder model guy, all decked out in North Face. His more serious, calm, steady, and wise personality balanced Bradyn’s, shall we say, untamable personality.
Together, they make a great team.
“We weren’t that far above the ground, Mike,” Bradyn teasingly assured.
“You could have landed wrong and killed Jo, and then what would we do? The least you could have done was give her a helmet,” Mike accused in his sensible tone.
“No need for a helmet, I wouldn’t have landed wrong, and besides,” he turned to me and gave me a roguish smile, “she liked it. Didn’t you, Jo?”
I laughed and walked over to them both, “I loved it! That was a blast! Don’t worry, Mike, I won’t get killed.”
I suddenly remembered what I had to tell them, but realized they were back to arguing over my safety. It could wait, couldn’t it? I didn’t want to spoil the enjoyment of this day, not now.
“Hey, guys, let’s get going!”
Bradyn and Mike stopped arguing and jogged over to their dirt bike and four-wheeler.
“Did you remember the video-camera?” Bradyn asked as he put his leg over the dirt bike and kicked the kick stand.
Mike nodded and I hopped on behind him, holding the big black canvas bag that held the video-camera and other supplies.
Mike turned the key in the four-wheeler, and the engine calmly revved, before he eased on the gas and we drove after Bradyn. I could see Bradyn’s blonde head bouncing as he hit dirt ramps.
We were headed for the Wildwood Bay, as we called it, to start filming our first day of our summer documentary on Bradyn, the “Survival Man” from Australia.
Two summers ago, we’d started our own website, featuring our documentaries of Bradyn, supposedly roughing out the Tennessee wilderness. It was laughable. Surprisingly enough, however, fans began piling in, asking for more videos and footage. Bradyn really could pull off a pretty good Australian accent. And he did look a teeny teeny bit like the Crocodile Hunter. I said teeny.
So we were headed out to Wildwood Bay to begin shooting where Bradyn’s helicopter “supposedly” dropped him off in frigid, below 32 degree, water.
When we reached the end of the dirt path, Mike swung the four-wheeler to the right onto a rarely traveled dirt road and accelerated.
“This better than that crazy maniac speed?” Mike questioned, his brown hair billowing in all sorts of directions as he turned around to face me for a second.
I wouldn’t tell Mike this, but I loved doing the jumps on the dirt bike and flying through the air before landing to rev off again much more than this rather slow speed.
“This sure is more, uh, relaxing,” I said in response.
He smiled and gently accelerated a little more, the wheels crunching through leaves and increasingly sandy soil as we rode through the woods.
When the trees began to clear, I could begin to see Wildwood Bay, and Mike parked the four-wheeler out of the way before we hopped off and I grabbed the black bag. The bay was a sparkling sheet of calm, crystal clear water, bordered by maple woods to the right and left of the sandy shore that the water lapped in peaceful undulating waves. To the left, an old deer path led up to the top of a cliff that overlooked the large lake.
Mike unzipped the black bag and took out the video-camera’s tripod, plugging in various cords here and there.
Bradyn dashed to the right into the woods, where he proceeded to put to use his tanned, strong arms in climbing a towering maple.
Mike finished plugging, and hollered, “Hey, Bradyn! You ready to drop?”
“Yeah!” came the hollered reply.
Mike gave me a nod and I snapped my hands together yelling, “ACTION!”
The ‘record’ button was pressed and there was a loud splash as Bradyn was “dropped” from his “helicopter”.
Resurfacing from the clear water, Bradyn dramatically swished the water out of his hair. What a nut.
“Brrr, this ‘ere water is frigid, mate,” Bradyn shivered in his authentic accent. Here he looked straight into the camera, “If I don’t get outta this ‘ere water I’m likely to freeze.”
As he waded out of the water, his wet clothes clinging to him, he kept talking.
“I’ve been dropped in the Tennessee wilderness, and if I don’t get to work building a shelter, I’ll be in trouble.” Although it sounded like he said, ‘sheltah’.
And so he proceeded to explain how he was going to build his crucial ‘shelter’ and how this flower ‘ere was edible and would help provide supper.
Bradyn caught my eye and his filled with a mischievous twinkle.
“M’ girl back ‘ome always gets worried if I don’t eat enough, know what I mean, mate?”
I rolled my eyes and Mike covered his mouth unless a snicker would escape. Those two weirdos.
Mike cut the shot, and we all burst out laughing.
“So, Bradyn, who’s your girl “back ‘ome”, Sheila?” Mike mimicked in an Australian accent.
Sheila was a snobby Australian girl who had a thing for Bradyn. Guh-ross. And when she’d first moved here, she’d gotten all jealous and catty towards me because she thought that I had a thing for Bradyn because I hung out with Mike and him so much. Bradyn practically snorted the orange soda he was drinking out his nose when Sheila snootily asked if we were dating.
While Bradyn choked on his soda, I stated in a bit of a disgusted tone, “That would be, like, like…”
Bradyn interrupted with a choked, “Like dating my sister!”
“Yeah,” I agreed, wrinkling my nose, “that would be gross!!”
Mike sealed it with, “Uh huh, all three of us are just good friends.”
Sheila got a relieved smug look on her pretty face before flipping her bleach-blonde streaked golden locks over her shoulder. She was one of those girls who always looked amazing, and wore strappy shoes and sundresses. And sunglasses atop that perfect head.
Bradyn’s choking brought me back to the present and I watched as Bradyn’s face turned a bit red.
“No,” he retorted.
“Who, then?” Mike teased in a sing-song voice, “Surely not, Mikayla Lewis.”
Bradyn turned even more red, “No! Now cut it out, and let’s get back filming! I was just using a bit of poetic license, give me a break!”
Mike and I shared a smile that said, yeah right, before we began shooting again. Mikayla Lewis was another one of the beautiful girls that was part of Bradyn’s fan club.
Soon, we followed Bradyn up to the cliff, the wind blowing his blonde hair into his face.
After we got several hours filming in, we all crawled underneath the thick underbrush to the edge of a river that meandered into the bay. We pulled out popsicles and took a break.
Lying side by side on our backs, it was a comfortable silence broken only by the occasional slurp or lick.
“It’s always going to be like this, isn’t it?” Mike asked.
“Like what?” Bradyn replied.
“Well, like, all of us together, being best friends.”
“Yeah,” Bradyn said in a firm, sure tone.
I guiltily looked away.
“Hey, guys, I have something to tel-“
A beep interrupted me and I glanced at my watch and groaned. It was already 4:30, and I was supposed to have been home by then.
I jerked myself up, leaves and dirt falling off.
“What is it?” Mike questioned.
“Oh, drat, I was supposed to have been home to help Mom by now,” I groaned.
Bradyn sat up quickly and volunteered, “I’ll run you home.”
Mike vied, “No, I’ll take her home, she might not even get home with you!”
“But at least I’ll get her home quickly,” Bradyn countered.
I held my hands up, before I began to crawl through the brush, “Thanks, guys, but I need to get home really quickly, I promised Mom, and then I totally forgot. She’s going to be so disappointed.”
Bradyn bounded over to his bike and revved the engine expectantly.
I mouthed, “sorry” to Mike before I was behind Bradyn and we were turning gravel and leaves into a whirlwind behind us.
I held on tightly again and silently kicked myself for not paying better attention to the time. As Bradyn roared down the path, he hit another dirt ramp and we both flew up, my body not even touching the seat. I held onto Bradyn’s waist a little tighter and waited for the rough landing.
When we reached the edge of the woods, Bradyn peeled out onto the paved road that led into town, and to my house. The speed limit sign read 40, but I had a feeling that we were above that by at least ten. I hoped that that sign didn’t apply to dirt bikes carrying girls who were late.
Right before we entered our small town of Winchester Valley, Bradyn veered the bike to the left onto a bumpy foot path, out skirting town, and the strictly enforced speed requirement of 20. Soon he turned onto the roughly paved road that had several tumble down houses. Poplar Avenue. We slid to a stop in front of a modest little blue cottage that could use some repairs, but was neat. My home.
“See you tomorrow, Jo!” Bradyn called, waving, as I dashed into the front gate and to the door.
“You, too! Thanks for the ride!” I hollered back.
Bradyn gave me a smile before he revved the engine and sped off. I hope he didn’t kill himself one of these days.
As I opened the white door, I could hear the radio playing quietly and dishes clanking in the sink.
“Mom, I’m home!” I called as I placed my shoes by the door.
My mom’s fluffy brown head appeared out of the kitchen doorway, and I could see disappointment in her pretty green eyes.
Before she could say anything, I quickly apologized, “I’m so, so sorry, Mom! I lost track of the time, and there’s no excuse.”
Mom returned to the kitchen sink and I followed her, picking up a dish-towel to dry the dripping, hot dishes with.
“You’re right, there’s no excuse,” Mom said, her red and calloused hands scrubbing at a tough stain on one of our chipped blue plates.
Her eyes filled with sympathy, “But no one’s perfect. We’re all human, and I know it can be pretty easy to forget about the time when you’re with Bradyn and Mike,” she broke off with a laugh and shook her head, “those boys.”
She rinsed the plate and handed it to me, asking, “Did you tell them?”
I silently kicked myself again.
“Jo?” Mom said, stretching out the name.
I looked down at the steamy plate in my hands and shook my head before mumbling, “There wasn’t really a very good time to, until this one point, and I tried, I really did, but with the day being so nice and all, I didn’t want to spoil our fu-”
Mom interrupted me, putting her soapy hands on my shoulders, “Honey, I know it’s hard, but you need to tell Mike and Bradyn sooner or later. They’re going to be… going to be…” she searched for a word.
“Heartbroken?” I offered.
“Excited for you, is more along the lines of what I was thinking,” Mom sighed, shaking her head.
I put the dish-towel down and turned earnestly to Mom, “Couldn’t we just look around town for another job? Then we wouldn’t have to move and I wouldn’t have to tell Mike and Bradyn that I might not ever see them again!”
Mom turned to me, and I could see the tiredness in her face. Being a single mom had taken a toll on her, and I felt bad for pushing her. My dad had left when I was two, leaving Mom to pay all of the bills with her low-income salary and to take care of a little toddler by herself.
“Jo,” Mom pleaded with a tired sigh, “this is already difficult enough! Do you think that I want to move, that I want to make you leave your best friends and the house that you love?”
I looked down in shame, “No.”
“Well then know that I’ve tried every option I could think of to stay in Winchester Valley. Every. Option.”
I thought I could hear a hint of tears in her voice and turned away. I hated seeing Mom cry. It broke my heart. Yet I promised myself that I was going to look into the options myself, and see if we couldn’t still stay in my home town, Winchester Valley.
The bell rang shrill and long, announcing that the last day of school was accomplished, and that we all had survived our freshmen year. Chairs screeched, desks slammed, and voices babbled as Ms. McGivney called out a last good-bye.
I watched as all the kids pushed and shoved themselves out the crammed doorway, laughing and chattering, excited for the future.
How unlike me.
I looked around lovingly at the cheerful yellow room with the neat desks and chairs, and with the inspirational posters hung on the walls. My future wouldn’t ever include this cheery classroom again, and I could feel a lump forming in my throat.
“Jo? Do you need some help?” came Ms. McGivney’s soft voice in the now silent classroom.
I startled and turned to our kind, middle-aged teacher. How I would miss her.
“Uh, no, Ms. McGivney, but thank you. I was just taking one last look at the room,” I said, packing books into my backpack.
“Oh yes,” Ms. McGivney said in a kind voice, “I forgot, you’re moving. I wish you the best of luck in your new town! I know the teachers will be glad to have you, you’re one fine student. I’ll miss you, JoJo Houser.”
My old nickname. I felt a little laugh bubble in my throat, but it faded as quickly as the tears came.
I struggled to keep my voice normal, but it quavered, “Thank you, thank you, Ms. McGivney. I’ll miss you!”
And with that, I hurried out into the deserted hallway, my backpack thumping on my back. I suddenly noticed Sheila slyly standing by the classroom door, with a very pleased and smug look on her face. Oh great. Who would she tell? She flipped her hair and clopped in her strappy high heels out the door. I stood for a few minutes before I pushed the green doors open and walked out onto the steps above the crowded, noisy lawn abuzz with kids.
I looked around and saw Mike standing with Bradyn and several other popular guys, being mobbed by girls. Among which Mikayla Lewis and Sheila stood. Uggh.
Kids were handing out yearbooks, signing pages, and giving each other teary hugs.
I sighed deeply as I looked down at my empty yearbook. It was time to change that. This was my last day being with these kids, and I was going to fill that yearbook with every single signature I could.
I started down the steps and some of the nice girls in my classes rushed over to me.
“Jo!” cried Nicole Hathe, “Would you sign my yearbook?”
“Mine, too!” echoed Jamey Reeve.
As I signed her already full page, Nicole went on.
“It’s so sad you’re moving, Jo! I’m going to miss you so much!”
“Yeah,” Jamey sighed, “Science is going to be so boring without your funny personality and jokes.”
I felt my blood growing cold, and horror creeping through me. Sheila had already told them?! I tried to laugh but miserably failed, finished with my note to Nicole, and took the outstretched yearbook from Jamey. Four more yearbooks were pushed in my direction.
After I finished the notes, I looked over at a group of boys. Why not?
Now normally, I wouldn’t approach them, and they wouldn’t approach me. I used to think it odd whenever a boy would act nervous around me, or whenever the new boy walked up and was about half-way through a conversation with me when he would get a scared look all over his face and quickly excuse himself. Until one day I noticed that Bradyn was behind me, pointing at the “offending” boy and performing a slit the throat movement with his finger, sending dagger sharp glares his way. I hoped he hadn’t done that every time, but there wasn’t much to point else wise. Sometimes I wondered if there was a such thing as too much brotherliness.
I’d gotten used to being detoured around by the boys, and they’d spread the word that Jo Houser was off-limits. Way off-limits.
I looked over to where Mike and Bradyn were with their jocks, being hypocritically swarmed by girls. There was something a little wrong with this picture.
I sent a little frown over their way and determinedly marched over to the group of boys, armed with my prettiest, friendliest smile.
“Hey, guys!” I said in a friendly tone, “You want to sign my yearbook?”
I saw them casting nervous looks over toward Mike and Bradyn.
“Don’t worry,” I assured, “they won’t do anything to you.”
The boys didn’t look too sure, but Brad Vela stepped forward, his blue eyes smiling.
“I’d love to,” he said, grinning.
That broke the wall, and soon they were all crowding in to sign it. I was surprised to see comments like, “I laughed so hard when you told that joke about… It was awesome when you spurted orange juice out your nose when Jimmy… Good luck in your new town, we’ll all miss you..,” Who else had Sheila told? But one note in particular made me wish I didn’t have to leave, “I admire your determined and hardworking attitude, you make a great friend, and I wish that we could’ve been…”
I looked at the signature along with it: Brad Vela
My head jerked up and we met eyes, and I gave him an appreciative grin. Suddenly, his eyes looked nervous, and I glanced over to see Mike whispering at an annoyed looking Bradyn.
Bradyn began pushing out of his crowd and coming over.
The boys scattered, and I strode up to Bradyn and pushed his chest back with my palm.
“Come on, Bradyn!” I said in a bit of frustration. “Here,” I said, thrusting my yearbook at him, “sign this.”
Bradyn’s blue eyes caught mine, and he gave a smug smile, running his hands through his blonde hair.
When he finished, I grabbed his arm and guided him back to his little social group. I saw Mike giving a little frown over at the boys I’d been with, but then he relaxed and continued to bask in the admiration of all of his fellow football players and the popular girls. As Bradyn and I walked back toward the circle, Sheila Andiron sashayed over and smoothly stepped in front of me, sliding her arm through Bradyn’s in one fluid motion.
“Oh, Bradyn,” she gushed, “You’re such a stud…”
I tuned out the sickly sweetness, content to just walk behind them. When we reached the circle I stepped forward, but Sheila neatly moved in front of me, blocking the only space available in the circle.
“Oh, guys,” she squealed, “I can’t wait till next year! We’ll all be sophomores together, won’t it be fun?! We’re going to have so many bonding and amazing memories together!”
I felt the slam, and it reverberated down into my bones. Ouch. I could barely breathe, and I couldn’t help but hope that she hadn’t told this group that I was moving. I quietly walked away from the chatter over to where the un-popular girls huddled.
“Hey,” I called, trying to sound normal, “want to sign my yearbook?”
They looked at me hesitantly before they all came over and began signing.
“Hey, Jo!” I heard someone call.
I turned and saw Mike waving me back over. The last thing I wanted to do.
I gave the girls a smile, and trudged back over to the laughing party.
“Hey, Jo, you didn’t sign my book,” Mike said, giving his book to me.
I quickly signed it with a flourish and a smiley face, and wrote a note.
Several of the football jocks thrust their books at me, and grabbed mine, passing it around.
“Oh, alright,” Sheila said, grabbing my book with a heaved sigh, as if I’d been down on my knees groveling, “I suppose I’ll sign this for you.”
I looked at her in disbelief.
When she’d finished, she carelessly tossed my book towards me, and as I leaped forward to catch the book that was no where close to being a reachable distance, it crashed to the ground, pages splayed down.
I rushed to pick it up. The binding was broken. Two pages were ripped.
My eyes burned as I looked up at her.
“Ooops,” Sheila said in a fake voice, covering her mouth with a hand, “did I just do that?”
I knew she’d meant to. I could feel my hand itching to reach up and haul that face to the ground by her perfect golden locks. Bradyn and Mike were too preoccupied with their jock friends to have even noticed.
I carefully picked up the broken book and turned on my heel to leave. Sheila’s smug satisfaction seared into my brain as I walked away.
I ground my teeth and began running. As I reached the sidewalk, I could hear her laugh, and then her voice.
“Hey, did you guys hear about Jo moving? That’ll be… a pleasant change,” I could hear her laugh in that perfectly innocent tone.
I ran faster and faster, my feet slapping on the sidewalk, my backpack pounding on my back, and my hair flying in a long billowing torrent behind me as I fled the school, fled the lawn, and fled Sheila Andiron. So much for my last day of school in Winchester Valley.
Soon the sidewalk crumbled into dirt and patchy pavement. I still ran, but not as fast as before. Until I heard the roar of the dirt bike. And then I ran faster than ever.
I didn’t want to face Bradyn. Or Mike. Not now. Not ever, for that matter. Not after all that.
I could hear it peeling closer, but I just kept running. If only I could make it to my house, then I’d be safe, then all would be okay.
I focused on that thought as I sprinted forward. Only one more street to go, only one more street.
But it was too late. I felt the heat that the bike put off brushing my legs.
“Jo!” cried Bradyn, reaching to scoop me up behind him on the bike.
It was a stunt we’d practiced for summers to get right.
He looked at me, a pleading look filling his blue eyes. I stared down at my legs that were flashing beneath me as they sped over the ground.
“Please,” he called.
I gave up and grabbed his arm, swinging up behind him. He quickly roared off, probably afraid I’d change my mind.
He veered off into the woods, heading toward our old tree-house that we’d all made together.
We stopped when we reached a towering oak tree, with a massive trunk that had a rope hanging down from it.
Bradyn nodded at the rope, and I obediently climbed it up, pulling myself into the little room that had shelves filled with the odds and ends we’d collected.
Mike sat there, patiently waiting, leaning against a wall.
I sat against the opposite wall, stretching my legs out.
Mike scooted over to sit beside me. I could hear the ladder swinging and creaking, and soon Bradyn clambered up and plopped down on the other side of me. It was about as close to having two older brothers as I would get.
There was a long silence. And then, “How could you not tell us, Jo?!” Bradyn exclaimed.
Mike sighed, “Yeah, I mean, how come we were the last ones to hear? I thought we were all best friends.”
I sighed deeply, and tears filled my eyes. “I’m sorry, guys. I’m really sorry.”
I could see Mike and Bradyn exchange a worried expression.
“I mean, why couldn’t you just tell us?” Mike prodded in a more gentle tone, his green eyes searching.
“I should have, it’s just…” I rubbed my thumb, “we were all having so much, and I didn’t want to spoil your guys’ summer with some disappointing, unimportant news of mine.”
“Unimportant?” Bradyn fairly cried in distraught, “Jo, what’s wrong with you!? You’re our best friend, and you’re moving away! You think that that’s unimportant?!”
Mike held up his hand in a calming motion.
I felt like crying. Tears slipped slowly down my cheeks.
“Oh, Jo, don’t cry!” Bradyn said in desperation before mumbling, “I hate seeing you cry.”
I felt a little laugh coming, and brusquely brushed away the stupid tears with the back of my hand.
“That’s more like the Jo we know,” Mike said in a calming voice, “Now why don’t you tell us everything.”
I nodded, and pulled my hair back into a pony-tail.
“Well, at the beginning of last month, Mom’s boss at the factory said he would be laying her off the next month,” I choked a little, “said she was a lousy worker, and some other stuff, and said he was going to cut down on her paycheck up to that.”
Mike gave a sympathetic, “I’m really sorry, Jo.”
“Yeah,” Bradyn echoed, “what a jerk! I’d just like to go and pound his dirty, meaty head to pul-”
Mike glared at Bradyn as he interrupted, “Let her finish.”
“So, Mom decided to go and work at a little factory in, in, Alaska!” I cried in disgusted horror.
“Alaska!?!” Bradyn cried, “That’s like, like, a long ways away!”
“Hush! Let her talk!”
I went back to the story, “Mom tried every store in town she could think of to get a job, but nobody had anything open,” my voice faded off into a whisper, “we have to move. I’m so sorry, guys. I’m so sorry.”
I fell silent. The wind made the tree-house sway along with the branches.
All of a sudden, four pairs of arms were wrapped around me in a brotherly bear hug.
“Don’t worry, Jo,” came Bradyn’s muffled voice, “we’ll scour the town for a job for your mom. And then there’s no way you’ll leave!”
“Yeah,” came Mike’s voice, “Maybe we can marry your mom off to one of my uncles, and then you’ll never have to worry about money again!”
All of us stopped hugging and burst out laughing at the thought of my 42 year-old mother married to one of Mike’s, well, 63 year old fraternal twin uncles that he lived with.
“Well,” I sighed, “that feels better with that off my chest.”
“Let’s promise something,” Bradyn stated.
“What?” Mike and I asked at the same time, grinning at each other.
“Let’s promise to always tell each other everything, everything that should be told to friends.”
“Okay,” Mike agreed.
“Good,” Bradyn said, “Now let’s get Jo home. Her mom is probably freaked out by now.”
I stood straight up and slapped my forehead.
This time, Mike playfully shoved Bradyn back and scrambled down the ladder, hollering in a gleeful voice, “I call dibs on taking her home! And besides, you snooze you lose!”
As I clambered down the ladder, I could hear Bradyn snort, “You and what transportation?”
The dirt bike roared to life and I sprinted for it in fake terror, as Mike wickedly grinned from where he straddled Bradyn’s bike.
“Hey! Wait! Stop! That’s my bike!” Bradyn demanded as he frantically descended the ladder.
But I was already aboard the bike as Mike put his usual caution to the wind and revved the engine, spitting dust and gravel into Bradyn’s face, laughing in that teasing tone, “Adios, amigo!”
I held on tight as the wild side of Mike came out, as we launched over the dirt ramps, both of us still laughing giddily.
When we reached the front door, Mike cleanly stopped and I hopped off.
“Hey, ask your mom if you guys want to have supper with the Uncles. You know they adore you guys,” Mike grinned as I trotted to the house.
“Will do, I’ll be right back!”
I slammed the door behind me and rushed into the living room where Mom was kneeling on the floor, looking at an old picture of us.
“Mom? Are you okay?” I questioned hesitantly.
“Oh, Jo, it’s you,” she replied in an absentminded tone, “Where have you been?”
“I’m really sorry, again, Mom, but at least Mike and Bradyn finally know the truth.”
“You told them?” Mom’s face brightened, “I’m proud of you, honey, I know it wasn’t an easy thing to do.”
She wrapped me in a hug.
“Oh, Mom? Mike invited us over to supper with the Uncles, can we go?”
She sighed and let me go, “Well, I can’t because I have to work some extra hours tonight, but you can,” she laughed, “I know how much those crazy old guys adore you.”
We both laughed together, before I gave her another hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“I love you, Mom!” I called, as I trotted out the door.
Mike was patiently waiting with the bike. “Did she say yes?” he asked hopefully.
“Alright!” he cheered pumping his fists, “Supper with my two best friends and the Uncles!”
I climbed on behind him and we belted down Poplar Avenue and took the left down a road deep into the country.
“We’ll have to pick up Bradyn first,” Mike explained, with a mirthful glint in his eyes. “I can’t imagine that he’ll be all that psyched to see me.”
We laughed together before the road ended in a little circle at a cozy mountain cottage.
Bradyn was lazily lounging on the porch.
“About time you showed up, you rotten little pig! Some move you pulled off!” Bradyn’s tone was meant to be serious, but I could detect a hint of laughter in it.
“Come on, sore loser, we’re going to be late if we don’t hurry,” Mike called back.
Bradyn rose from his chair and lazy tom-catted it over.
He jerked his thumb at Mike with a teasingly bossy grin, “You, scoot back. I’m driving, Mr. Smarty Pants.”
Mike scooted back farther, and I was forced to hang halfway off the seat. Uncomfortable!
“Oh, and ladies first, so Mike, you get the tail end seat,” Bradyn gallantly commanded.
Mike gave an amiable grin and willingly hopped onto the last two inches available.
We all roared off down the road, me clinging desperately onto Bradyn as Mike squeezed the breath out of me.
When we got into town, Bradyn turned onto a nice gravel road that plunged down a steep hill. The hill rose above a pretty little valley meadow that was fenced off to the right. A humongous log mansion sat to the left of the road behind the barbed wire fence, surrounded by tall, swaying green grass that also circled around a little pond with cattails. A horse grazed, peacefully swishing its tail.
As we picked up speed down the hill, I began sliding forward into Bradyn and Mike began sliding into me until I felt like the white cream between the two black cookies of an Oreo.
Bradyn slowed the bike down and turned left onto the cattle guard that was between the two fence endings.
As we bumped our way over the cattle guard, I felt a smile creep onto my face as I looked at the log mansion.
Mike was taken care of by his two single Uncles who were slightly eccentric, but extremely rich. Both of Mike’s parents had contracted tuberculosis around the same time my dad had left, and had both died. Mike had lived with the Uncles ever since, and I knew he was happy. The kind old Uncles might be a little strange, but they loved Mike like nothing else.
When we reached the circular drive, Bradyn parked the bike and we all scooched off, heading for the large door.
Bradyn opened it up with a flourish, letting Mike and I pass.
“In the kitchen!” were the first hollered words as we took off our shoes at the large entryway.
We all ambled into the steamy kitchen to see the Uncles, in white aprons, blasting and boiling away at what was going to be supper. They looked more like mad scientists than chefs.
“Help yourself to some Carrolivcream dip and some chips!” shouted Uncle Fergus.
Uncle Ken turned his crazy gray-streaked head around, his huge mustache drooping in the moisture of all the steam. “Jo! You made it!”
I smiled brightly at him and replied, “Yup!”
“Well, now! Help yourself to some of this Carrolivcream dip and grab some chips! Ferg and I, here, are trying to get this blasted beef roast to be edible!”
I looked suspiciously at the brown glop that they professed to be meat. Not buying it.
“Tastes just like puke!” complained Uncle Fergus in a confused tone. “We’ve never had problems with this nice canned stuff before! Are you sure you got the right stuff?”
I sneaked a look in the garbage can as Bradyn grabbed a gob of chips and strange whitish-cream dip with black and orange specks in it.
As I looked at the can, I noticed their problem.
“See here, Ferg, I was in the right aisle and I-”
I interrupted, holding up the slimy can. “Hey, guys, I think I found your problem.”
Emblazoned in bold red letters was “Purina Alpo Prime Cuts in Gravy Dog Food! Spoil your Pooch!”
They both stood silent, billows of steam rising behind them, in complete bemusement.
Then Bradyn choked on his dip, spewing black and orange streaked cream and chip fragments.
The guffaws broke out, both Uncles slapping eachother and laughing, tears streaming down their cheeks.
“Haha, you got, hehe, dog food!” gasped Ken, wiping away some tears before he burst out laughing again.
Let’s just say it was never boring at Mike’s house.
Mike joined in the laughter, shaking his head as he walked through the clouds of steam to the pantry and pulled out two boxes of noodles.
We all settled down for supper, companionably clinking the plates as we tried to stab a stray noodle. The Uncles asked all manners of questions directed at Bradyn and I.
When supper was finally finished, the Uncles headed back into the kitchen to prepare desert, joking that it was going to be real sponges, as the rest of us headed outside.
Meandering down through the grass to the pond, we all lazily lay back on the soft grass and watched the early summer sky.
Bradyn broke the comfortable silence. “So, I was thinking, tomorrow, we could go around and scour the town for a job for Mrs. Houser. What say you guys?”
Mike nodded enthusiastically.
“Guys, that’s really sweet of you,” I said, touched.
Bradyn snorted, “Uh, it’s the least we can do as good friends. What type of pals would we be if we didn’t try and keep you here?”
Fergus hollering from the porch that it was desert time startled us, and we all walked back up to the house.
A white sponge cake was set out on the table with several plates and forks.
We all sat down and Ken began slicing. Suddenly, he stopped, and sniffed the air.
“What is that smell?!” Ken sniffed.
Everyone began to sniff.
Fergus’ nose twitched. “Yeah, and is it dog, or human!”
I looked around at them all, looking for a guilty face. All had on innocent masks.
Ken kept on sniffing. “Hey! It smells like you, Fergus!”
“I do not smell like that!” Fergus retorted angrily.
“Yes you do! At least it sure does smell like it’s coming from you! Probably the results of tasting some of that Alpo doggy stuff!” Ken protested.
Bradyn and I were covering our mouths with our hands, barely able to cover our light snickering.
I watched them argue on, and then noticed Marley, the Uncles chocolate lab, slinking off.
“Hey!” I said, over the noise of them squabbling, “There goes Marley!”
Both the Uncles stopped arguing, and took a step from the table, saying in sync, “What?”
And then Fergus slipped on something and fell over, exclaiming, “Oh, gross! I stepped in it!”
Mike hollered, “MARLEY!!”
Ken turned suspiciously toward Fergus and Mike, “Okay, which one of you wise guys forgot to let her out?”
Mike replied quickly, “Not me!”
Fergus just moaned. “I’ll go get a candle.”
And so we proceeded to finish our sponge cake with Caribbean Salsa scent drifting around.
When the sun began to set, Bradyn told us he needed to head home, and we walked him back to his bike.
I grabbed my backpack from where it had been resting, and we waved good-bye before we walked out to where the horse was still grazing.
The pretty chocolate-colored gelding raised his head and ambled over.
I dropped my backpack, my yearbook slipping out.
I groaned as I looked at it, remembering Sheila and all of her nastiness.
Mike looked at me. “What’s the matter?” He glanced down at my yearbook.
“Whoa, what happened?” Mike asked, seeing the damage.
I sighed. “Sheila Andiron. That’s what happened.”
“She did this?!” Mike’s eyes narrowed. “Hmm.”
He paused and was silent for a little while. “You know, Sheila isn’t really all that nice of a girl. In fact, she’s kind of a jerk.”
Oh, really? I thought, slightly sarcastically, I’d never noticed.
Mike frowned and again said, “Hmm,” before mumbling to himself.
When my watch beeped to announce that it was time for me to leave, Mike held me back, pointing toward my yearbook. “Hey, if you leave this with me, I’ll fix it.”
He grinned. “The Uncles have plenty of weird tools in the shop, I’ll jimmy around with this and have it fixed in no time.”
I gave him a grateful grin and we walked back to the house where Fergus had the old truck fired up.
I hopped inside and listened to his prattle the entire way home.
“Hey, let that mother of yours know that we missed her!” he hollered out the window when he dropped me off at the front door.
The blaring of my alarm clock woke me up, and I groggily leaned over and let my hand careen toward the off button.
I moaned, before pushing the covers off with my feet, and stumbling out of bed.
Pulling on a pair of white shorts and a striped blue tank-top, I hopped over to the bathroom where I ran a brush through my hair before pulling it back into a cute messy bun. A hemp necklace with blue beads and a white flower helped complete my look.
Why Bradyn and Mike had decided to start so early in the morning was beyond me, but, hey, at least they were trying to keep me here.
I shoved a piece of toast into my mouth and choked it down before checking my reflection in a mirror that hung in the hallway to make sure there were no crumbs on me and that I looked somewhat decent. I figured if I was trying to convince people to hire my mom, then I’d better look presentable because it seemed most people saw kids as miniature reflections of their parents. I felt bad for some kids. And some parents.
Turning away from the mirror feeling slightly satisfied, I pulled on a pair of cute sandals, plopped a pair of sunglasses on my head, and rubbed my hands together, feeling hopeful and ready to start the day.
I started heading out the door, but snapped my fingers and bounded back up the stairs to my room.
Knowing Mike and Bradyn, they would probably want to do something messy afterwards, the documentary possibly, and it would be smart to bring along a pair of able-to-become-dirty clothes.
I threw a pair of jean shorts, a shirt, and hiking-sandals into a bag before galloping back down the stairs to the sound of a dirt bike pulling up.
I pushed the door open, letting it slam shut as I trotted to the bike.
Mike and Bradyn were having a whispered conversation.
I heard little bits of muttered conversation. Sheila and my names were mentioned, as well as a book, a jerk, and an exclaimed, “That’s going to change!”
I finally cleared my throat, and they turned, giving my outfit a strange look.
Of course they would be wearing casual shorts with several holes and let’s-get-dirty shirts on the day when we were trying to save my mom.
“What?” I asked, as they continued staring at me.
They glanced at eachother with a look I couldn’t read.
“Do I really look that bad?” I asked, tilting my head and putting my fists on my hips.
They exchanged another look.
Bradyn spoke up. “Well, no, you look good, it’s just why?”
I laughed. “Well, if we’re going to be trying to convince people to hire my mom, then I want to represent her well.”
“Ohhh,” Bradyn exclaimed, in a moment of revelation, “I guess that would’ve been a good idea.”
Mike smacked his forehead. “Why didn’t I think of that!? And here I am in grungy shorts and an ugly shirt. We’re idiots!!”
I laughed at the two moaning boys on the dirt bike. “You don’t look too horrible,” I teased, “And don’t worry, we’ll just tell them you’re not related to her at all.”
I climbed behind them and Bradyn guided the bike down the streets to the down-town store section.
Two hours and seven store owners later, Mike came to the conclusion that my mom was right. There were no more jobs in town.
We sat, depressed and sweating, on a bench in front of the store we had just questioned.
With a swipe of his hand, Bradyn wiped sweat off his perspiring brow. “Whew, it is hot! What I’d give to have an ice cream cone right now.”
“You know, guys,” I said, turning to look at them. Green and blue eyes met mine. “I think mom’s right in saying there are no open jobs. That was really sweet of you guys to try and help me, but I say we go do something else instead.”
Bradyn looked deep into my eyes and seriously asked, “Are you sure, Jo?”
I nodded. “But you guys don’t have to do something with me for the rest of the day, if you don’t want to. I mean, feel free to go hang out with your football jock friends if you want. Don’t hang around me just cause you feel a duty to because I’m moving.”
I didn’t want them feeling they had to hang out with me because of pity.
They looked at eachother and grabbed my arm and hauled me down the small grocery store in response.
“Let’s get some ice-cream and fried chicken,” Mike said, “that way we’ll be full before we re-start filming.”
As we entered the doors, Mike snapped his fingers. “Oh, I just remembered! Here’s your yearbook, Jo. I fixed it up.”
He handed me the fixed yearbook, and I gave him a big hug, making him go Ooof!
With my yearbook under my arm, we grabbed a box of chicken and some soft drinks and were picking out our ice-cream cones from the freezer chest box by the door when a voice interrupted us.
“Well, if it isn’t Bradyn Akren and Mike Smith,” came the voice in a teasing tone that could only belong to one person.
I inwardly groaned. This would spoil the afternoon for sure. It had happened before. She’d invite Mike and Bradyn to something, conveniently not ask me, and then make a sneering comment towards me.
I kept my face in the freezer that was blasting cold air at me, pretending to still be searching, even though I already had one picked out. I’d rather have frostbite than face Sheila.
To my surprise, both Mike and Bradyn were still bent over, though I could see they had theirs picked out, too.
Bradyn finally answered, head still in the freezer, in a tone that I was shocked to hear as slightly cold. “Hello, Sheila.”
I straightened right up and looked over at the two, wondering what on earth was going on.
Sheila looked puzzled, crinkled her perfect brow, and tried again in a playful kitten voice, “Oh, Bradyn, I’ve got something to tell you! You, too, Mike!”
She was completely ignoring me.
The two finally straightened up, but they both appeared bored with her as Bradyn actually yawned, yes I said yawned, and replied, “What.”
I could see surprise register in Sheila’s eyes, but she persisted, putting her hand on Bradyn’s arm.
“Oh, you just must come! Daddy’s having a barbecue tonight at our house, and I’m having all the gang come over. We’re going to swim in the pool and eat all night! Won’t it be fun?!” she giggled.
Bradyn gently shook her hand off his arm, and replied in a cool voice, “Sorry, but we’re busy tonight.”
Mike nodded in a curt manner.
Surprise and hurt filled Sheila’s eyes as she sniffed, “What could be more important than coming over and hanging out with me and the others?”
Mike and Bradyn shared a glance.
“We’re going to have a barbecue at Bradyn’s house with Jo,” Mike stated without any warmth in his voice.
I just looked on in bewilderment. They were acting as if Sheila were an annoying bug. And what was this about a barbecue?!
Sheila’s face now had a pouty look to it, and she whined, “And you didn’t invite me? I’m hurt.”
To my astonishment, Bradyn just shrugged.
Now, Sheila looked more than slightly miffed, she looked rather angry.
And so she turned her wrath on me.
“What are you staring at?”
My mouth opened to say something but before I could get a word in edgewise she continued in a barrage of insults.
“Ooh, nice shirt. For a weirdo. Oh wait, I forgot, you are one! Didn’t I see one just like that on the, like, 100% percent off bargain rack at Macy’s?” she flipped her blonde hair over the skimpy tank-top with little gray tank-shawl over it that probably literally cost about $250. “Oh, and there’s that stupid little yearbook of yours, although you probably couldn’t get anyone to sign it, you should really be thankful to me that I di-”
Bradyn interrupted her, his teeth grinding. “Sheila, I suggest you shut up.”
My jaw dropped.
Was I dreaming? Or did Bradyn just tell Sheila Andiron to shut up?
Mike turned to me, fried chicken, ice-cream cone, and soda in hand, and guided me by the arm to the cash register.
My mouth was still open when we reached the check-out.
Mike gently reached up and shut it, making my teeth clack.
When we got out the door, I whirled on the two. “What was that?!”