Chris huddled beside Emily, their hands twined together around the telephone receiver. "You're chicken," he murmured, as the dial tone swam in his ear.
"Am not," Em whispered.
There was a pickup on the other end. Chris felt Emily's fingers flutter above his wrist. "Hello?"
Em lowered her voice. "I'm looking for Mr. Longwanger."
"I'm sorry," the woman said. "He's not available right now. Can I take a message?"
Em cleared her throat. "Does he really have one?"
"Have what?" the woman asked.
"A long wanger?"
Then Em slammed down the receiver, rolling to her side in a fit of giggles and a flurry of phone book pages.
It took Chris a while to stop laughing. "I didn't think you'd do it," he said.
"That's because you're a dork."
Chris grinned at her. "At least my last name isn't Longwanger." He skimmed his hand over the page where the phone book had fallen open. "What should we do next?" he asked. "Here's a Richard Ressler. We could ask if there's a Dick in the house."
Emily flopped onto her belly. "I know," she said. "Call your mom and tell her you're Mr. Chambers and Chris is in trouble."
"Like she's going to believe I'm the principal."
Em smiled slowly. "Here, chicky chicky chicky," she crooned.
"You do it," Chris challenged. "She won't recognize the school secretary."
"What will you give me?" Emily asked.
Chris dug in his pockets. "Five bucks." Em held out her hand; he shook it, and handed her the telephone.
She dialed, pinched her nose. "Yesss," she drawled out. "I'm looking for Mrs. Harte? This is Phyllis Ray at the principal's office. Your son is in trouble." Emily looked wildly at Chris. "What kind of trouble? Uh, well, we'd like you to come down here and get him." She quickly hung up the phone.
"What did you do that for?" Chris groaned. "She's going to drive all the way down there and find out I left an hour ago! I'm going to be grounded for the rest of my life." He ran his hands through his hair and then fell onto his side on Emily's bed.
She spooned behind him, her chin hooked over his shoulder. "If you are," she murmured, "I'll stay with you."
CHRIS SAT WITH HIS HEAD BOWED, his parents standing over him like sequoias. He wondered if this was what marriage was all about: one of them picking up to yell when the other one's voice trailed off, as if they were really one giant with two separate heads. "Well?" his mother huffed, finishing the tirade. "Do you have anything to say for yourself?"
"I'm sorry," Chris automatically returned.
"Sorry doesn't make up for stupidity," his father said. "Sorry doesn't bring back the appointment your mother had to cancel when she went to get you at school."
Chris opened his mouth to say that if she'd reasoned logically, she would have realized no kids were at school that late in the afternoon-but thought better of it. He ducked his head again, staring at the weave of the carpet, wishing that while he and Em were making prank calls he hadn't forgotten that his mother was in the middle of starting up her own business. But it was so soon into it, how was he supposed to remember? And what kind of job was hanging around in lines nobody else wanted to waste time on?
"I had expected better of you and Emily," his mother said.
Well, that wasn't a surprise. Everyone always expected better of him and Emily, as if they all knew some grand plan that Emily and Chris did not. Sometimes Chris wished he could sneak a peek at the back of the book, so to speak, and see how it was all going to turn out, so that he wouldn't have to bother going through the motions.
"Except for school, you are to stay in this room for three days," his father said. "Let's see if that gives you enough time to think about how many people you've inconvenienced with your little jokes." Then, one giant monster, both of his parents stepped out of his bedroom.
Chris flopped back on the bed and threw his forearm over his eyes. God, they were such pills. So what if his mother had demanded to speak to Mr. Chambers, who of course knew nothing about Chris getting into trouble? No one was going to remember a month from now.
He opened the curtains at one of his bedroom windows. Facing dead east, it stared directly at Em's bedroom. They couldn't really see each other from that distance, but they'd realized that at least the small square of light in the window was visible. Chris knew that Emily was being read the riot act, too; he wasn't sure if her parents disciplined in her bedroom or in the kitchen or whatever. He sat down beside the lamp near his bed and flicked off the switch, blackening the room. Then he flicked it back on. And off, and on. And off, and on.
Four long bleats of darkness, then three short ones.
He stood up and waited by the window. Emily's room, a small yellow square cut by the limbs of trees, went black. Then bright again.
They had learned Morse code at camp last summer. Emily's room kept flickering. H . . . I.
Chris flicked his thumb over the lamp's base again. H . . . O . . . W ... B ... A ... D.
Emily's room darkened twice.
Chris signaled out three.
He smiled and leaned back on his bedspread, watching Emily's words to him light up the night.
Outside in the hallway, Gus and James collapsed against the wall and tried not to laugh. "Can you believe," Gus gasped, "they called a man named Longwanger?"
James grinned. "I don't know that I would have been able to restrain myself, either."
"I feel like such an old fart shouting at him," Gus said. "I'm thirty-eight, and I might as well be Jesse Helms."
"We had to ground him, Gus. Or else he'll be dialing around and asking for Prince Albert in a can."
"What is Prince Albert in a can?"
James groaned and tugged her down the hall. "You're never going to be the old fart, since I'll be holding that title."
Gus walked into their bedroom. "Fine. You can be the curmudgeon. I'll be the crazy lady who barges into the principal's office and insists that her son's done something wrong."
James laughed. "They did get you, didn't they?"
She threw a pillow at him.
James grabbed her ankle, making her squeal and roll away from him. "You shouldn't have done that," he said. "I may be old, but I'm not dead." He pressed her body beneath his, feeling her go soft, tracing the undercurves of her breasts and the cords of her throat. His mouth came over hers.
Gus let herself remember what it had been like over a decade ago when the house still smelled of planed wood and fresh paint, and time was a gift given from the hospital scheduler. She thought back to how she and James would make love on the kitchen table, in the mud room, after breakfast-as if the pressure of being a resident had knocked all those Mayflower sensibilities from his mind.
"You," James said against her temple, "are thinking too much."
Gus smiled against his neck. She was rarely accused of that. "Maybe I ought to just feel, then," she said, slipping her hands up under James's shirt as the muscles in his back tightened in sequence, like a tide. She pushed him onto his side, slid down his zipper, and took the heat of him into her hands.
Then she looked up, eyes sparkling. "Mr. Longwanger, I presume?"
James grinned. "At your service."
He moved over her, into her. She drew in her breath, and then she was not thinking at all.
The class guinea pig Blizard is having babys.
Today in school Mona Ripling said she kissed Kenny Lawrence behind the wall mats during gym. Which is totaly crazy cause everyone knows Kenny is the grossest of all the other boys in 4th grade.
Except for Chris but Chris isnt like all the other boys.
Chris is reading an autobiography of Muhomad Alii for his book report. He asked what I was doing and I started to tell him about Lancelot and Guinevere and King Arthur but then 1 stopped. He'd probaly want to know about the knights and those are the parts I've been skipping.
The best chapters are where Guinevere spends time with Lancelot. He has dark hair and dark eyes. He does things like lift her off her horse and call her MY LADY. 1 bet he treats her like the kristle egg Mom has that she won't let anybody even BREATHE near. King Arthur is an old guy and a jerk. Guinevere should just run off with Lancelot because she loves him and because they were ment for each other.
1 think its very romantic.
If Chris knew 1 was crazy over fairytales I'd just die.
Later that week, on a dare from Emily, Chris stole The Joy of Sex from the library stacks.
He hid it under his coat until they were home, and at their secret place. The boulder was shaped like an upside-down right triangle, the broad slab of rock at the top providing a ledge to perch on or cower beneath, depending on one's imagination. At different points in their childhood, it had been home base for hide-and-seek, a pirate's cave, an Indian's lean-to. Chris scuffed away some of the soft pine needles on the ground. He pulled the book out and sat down beside Emily.
For a moment neither said a word, tilting their heads to take in the drawings of twined limbs and grasping hands. Emily ran her finger over the pen-and-ink flanks of a man rearing over a woman. "I don't know," she whispered. "I don't see anything joyous about that."
"It must be different when you're really doing it," Chris answered. He turned the page. "Wow," he said. "That's like gymnastics."
Emily flipped back to the beginning of the book. She stopped at a page that showed a woman on top of a man, stretched along the length of him, their hands clasped together over their heads.
"Big deal," Chris said. "You've pinned me a million times."
But Emily didn't hear him. She was captivated by the facing page, which depicted a man and woman joined but sitting up, their legs splayed like two crabs, their hands holding on to each other's shoulders for purchase. Their bodies, together, looked like a big bowl, as if the whole reason for having sex was to create something that could hold all the feelings they had for each other. "It must be different when you love somebody," Emily reasoned.
Chris shrugged. "It must be," he said.
Gus WAS CHANGING the sheets on Chris's bed when she found The Joy of Sex hidden between his mattress and box spring.
She picked up the book and leafed through the pages, finding positions she had long forgotten existed. Then she hugged it tightly to her chest and walked outside, heading toward the Golds'.
Melanie opened the door with a mug of coffee in one hand and took the book Gus held out wordlessly to her. "Well," she said, studying the cover. "This certainly goes beyond the call of neighborly duty."
"He is only nine," Gus exploded, dropping her coat on the floor of the kitchen and sinking into a chair. "Nine-year-olds are supposed to be thinking of baseball, not sex."
"I think they're mentally linked," Melanie suggested. "You know, getting to first and second base and all that."
"Who let him check this out at the library?" Gus demanded, turning to her friend. "What kind of adult lets a child do something like that?"
Melanie scanned the rear of the book. "No one," she said. "This was never checked out."
Gus buried her face in her hands. "Great. He's a pervert and a thief."
The kitchen door swung open again, and Michael came through, carrying a large box of veterinary supplies. "Ladies," he greeted, dropping the box heavily to the floor. "What's up?" He peeked over Melanie's shoulder and, grinning, took the book from her hands. "Wow," he said, flipping through the pages. "I remember this."
"But were you nine when you read it?" Gus asked.
Michael laughed. "Can I take the fifth?"
Melanie turned to him, surprised. "You were aware of girls that young?"
He kissed the top of her head. "If I didn't start early," he said, "I wouldn't be the dynamo I am now." He sat down in the chair across from Gus and slid the book toward her. "Let me guess. You found it under his mattress. It's where I used to keep my Penthouse."
Gus rubbed her temples. "If we ground him again, Child Protective Services is going to show up at our door." She glanced up miserably. "Maybe we shouldn't even punish him," she said. "Maybe he's just looking for answers about girls."
Michael raised his brows. "When he finds them, will you tell him to come talk to me?"
Melanie sighed sympathetically. "I don't know what I'd do, in your shoes."
"Who says you're not?" Gus pointed out. "How do you know Em isn't in on this? Everything else those two do, they do together." She looked at Michael. "Maybe she's the mastermind."
"Em's nine," he said, appalled by the thought.
"Exactly," Gus said.
Gus WAITED UNTIL she heard the sound of her son tearing his room apart.
Then she knocked on the door, to be met by a whirlwind of clothing, mitts,
hockey sticks, and anguish. "Hi," she said affably. "Lose something?" She
watched Chris turn several rich shades of red. Then she drew her hands out
from behind her back. "Lose this?" she asked.
"This isn't what it looks like," Chris said immediately, and Gus was
astounded. When had he learned to lie so easily? "What do you think it looks like?" "Like I've been reading something I shouldn't have?" Gus sank down on his bed. "Are you asking me, or telling me?" She
gentled her voice, stroked her palm over the cover of the book. "What
makes you think you shouldn't be reading it?"
Chris shrugged. "I don't know. The naked pictures and all." "Is that why you wanted to read it?"
"I guess," Chris said, looking so miserable she almost-almost-felt sorry for him. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
She stared at the crown of her son's head, and remembered how, when he was born, a labor nurse had held a mirror between her legs so that she could see it appear, dark and downy, for the first time.
"Can we just forget about it?" Chris begged.
She wanted to let him off, seduced by the way he was squirming beside her, a butterfly on a pin. But she chanced to look down at his hands, clenched over each bony knee. They were no longer toddler-soft, each digit puffy, like the hands on the balloons at Thanksgiving parades. At some point when Gus was too busy to notice, they had turned knuckled and blue-veined, larger even than hers, hands that already reminded her of James's.
Gus cleared her throat, aware that this boy sitting in front of her, whose face she could have identified by touch alone, whose voice said her name before any other word, was someone she did not recognize. He was someone who heard the word woman and no longer thought of Gus's features and a mother's embrace, but of a faceless girl with breasts and curved hips.
When had this happened?
"If you have questions, you know, about. . . this . . . you can always ask your father or me," Gus managed, praying he'd hit up James. She wondered what had compelled her to confront Chris in the first place. At this point, it was a toss-up as to who was more embarrassed.
"I do." Chris looked into his lap, twisting his hands together. "Some of the stuff in that book ... well, it's..." He lifted his gaze. "Some of it doesn't look like it would work so well."
Gus touched her hand to her son's hair. "If it didn't work," she said simply, "we wouldn't have you."
Emily and Chris sat under the tent of a blanket on her bed, a flashlight balanced between their bare feet. Chris's parents, off to some hospital charity ball, had asked the Golds to sit for him and his sister. Kate had gone to bed after her bath, but Chris and Em were planning to stay up past midnight. Melanie had tucked them in just before nine and called for lights out, but they knew if they were quiet, no one else would be the wiser.
"So?" Chris pressed. "Truth or dare?"
"Truth," Emily said. "The worst thing I ever did. .. . was call your mom and pretend to be the principal's secretary."
"That's not true. You forgot the time you poured nail-polish remover on my mom's bureau and blamed it on Kate."
"I only did it because you told me to," Emily whispered fiercely. "You said she wouldn't know any better." Then she frowned. "Anyway, if you knew the worst thing I ever did, why'd you even ask the question?"
"Okay. I'll ask another one," Chris said. "Read me what you wrote in your diary when I was brushing my teeth."
Emily gasped. "Dare."
Chris's teeth gleamed white in the glow of the flashlight. "Sneak into your parents' bathroom," he said. "And bring back their toothbrushes, so I know you did it."
"Fine," Emily said, throwing back the covers. Her parents had gone to sleep a half hour ago. Surely they wouldn't still be awake.
The minute she was gone, Chris stared at the tiny paisley-covered book into which Emily poured out her heart every single night. It had a lock, but he could jimmy it. He touched his hand to the back of the diary, and then snatched it back, his palm burning. Was he chicken because he knew Em wouldn't want him to read it? Or was he afraid of what he might see?
He shook the book and eased it open. His name was all over the place. His eyes widened, then he slapped the diary back down onto her desk and went back to the bed, certain that guilt was written right across his forehead.
"Here," Em said, breathless, crawling back onto the bed. She held out two toothbrushes. "Your turn." She tucked her feet beneath her. "Who's the prettiest girl in the fifth grade?"
Well, that was a no-brainer. Emily would expect him to say Molly Ettlesley, the only fifth-grader who really needed a bra. But if he did say Molly, he knew that Emily would get pissed off, because he was supposed to be her best friend.
His gaze cut to the diary. Did Em really think of him as some knight?
"Dare," he muttered.
"Okay." And before Emily could edit her thoughts, she told Chris he had to kiss her.
He threw the blanket off their heads. "I what?"
"You heard me," Em said, frowning. "It's not as bad as sneaking into my parents' bathroom."
His hands were sweaty all of a sudden, so he wiped them on the knees of his pajamas. "Okay," he said. He leaned forward and pushed his mouth up against hers. Then he drew back, just as flushed as Emily. "Well," he announced, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. "That was pretty gross."
Em gently touched her hand to her chin. "Definitely," she whispered.
The one McDonald's in Bainbridge, New Hampshire, sported a changing battalion of teenage workers who slaved over greasy grills and oil pits until they up and graduated. But for several years, one man had worked there consistently. In his late twenties, he had long black hair and a walleye. Adults politely said there was "something wrong with him." Kids called him The Creep and fashioned stories about him roasting infants in the french fryer and cleaning his fingernails with a Bowie knife. On the afternoon that Chris and Emily were eating lunch there, The Creep was on clean-up duty in the dining room.
Chris's parents had come over at lunchtime, his mother swooping down like a hawk to kiss his forehead. After gossiping with Emily's mom about who was wearing what to the party the night before, Gus offered to take Emily out to McDonald's with them for lunch-a thank-you for baby-sitting overnight. They had carried their trays to the dining area, but every time Emily turned around, The Creep was at the table beside her or behind her or just in front, rubbing down the slick Formica surface and staring at her with his one straight eye.
Chris sat beside her on the banquette. "I think," he whispered, "he's your secret admirer."
"Stop it," Em shuddered. "You're freaking me out."
"Maybe he'll ask for your phone number," Chris continued. "Maybe he'll-"
"Chris," Emily warned, punching him on the arm.
"What's going on?" Gus asked.
"Nothing," they answered in unison.
Emily watched The Creep make his rounds, picking up ketchup packets people had dropped on the floor and mopping up a spilled Coke. He looked up at her, as if he could feel her eyes on him, and she immediately stared down at the seeded bun of her hamburger.
Suddenly Chris leaned over to whisper again. His breath was hot in the shell of her ear. "Ultimate dare," he said.
An ultimate dare was one that raised you in the other person's estimation by leaps and bounds, if completed. Not that they were keeping count, but if they were, it would definitely put Em in the lead. She wondered briefly if this was Chris's way of getting back at her for the kiss the night before.
The last ultimate dare challenge issued had been by Emily. Chris had mooned an entire residential street from the window of the school bus.
"Go pee," Chris whispered. "In the men's room."
Emily smiled. It was, all in all, a pretty good dare. And it wasn't nearly as bad as sticking your rear end out a window. If anyone was in there, she'd just say it was a mistake and walk back out; Chris would never know whether or not she'd actually gone to the bathroom. She glanced around first for The Creep, because she didn't want to have to walk past him, as crazy as that sounded. He was out of the dining room by now, probably back on shift slinging burgers. As she scooted out of the banquette, James and Gus looked up. "I have to go to the bathroom," she said.
Gus wiped her mouth with her napkin. "I'll take you," she said.
"No!" Em cried. "I mean, I can do it myself."
"Melanie lets you go alone?" Gus asked dubiously.
Emily looked her in the eye and nodded. Gus turned to James, who shrugged. "This is Bainbridge," he said. "What's going to happen?"
Gus watched Emily weave through the maze of bolted tables and chairs to the rest rooms in the rear of the McDonald's. Then she turned her attention to Kate, who was fingerpainting with ketchup on the table.
The men's room was to the left. The women's room was to the right. Emily glanced back at Chris, to make sure he was looking, and then she went inside.
In less than five minutes, she slid back onto the seat beside Chris. "Nice job," he said, and touched her arm.
"It was no big deal," Emily murmured.
"Oh, yeah?" he whispered. "Then how come you're shaking?"
"It's nothing," she said, shrugging, but she would not look at him. She methodically ate a burger she could no longer taste, and slowly convinced herself that she had told him the truth.