I trudged up the sidewalk of my neighborhood and enjoyed the wind through the trees. I walked nonchalantly but fast. I didn't have much more time until it got dark, and if I was late coming home I would get in trouble. It was a very warm day at the start of fall, but it felt like one of the last judging by the chill that ran through the air. The final light of the day, a hint of dim blue, was quickly growing darker like an leaking ink pen. All of the flowers were gone but the scent of the oaks, dogwoods, maples, and the occasional pines drifted through the trees. The land next to the sidewalk rose up into a small hill, scattered with clover plants and a few dandelions that had little afros of white fuzz. Crickets chirped in one of the clover tufts.
I swung on a street sign to make my turn around the block sharper, and started to finally approach the last corner. The streetlights lit my way on the sidewalk, casting long shadows on the pavement as I walked. I looked at my watch, or where my watch should be. Nothing was there. Great. I ran a stretch of sidewalk. I was definitely going to be late.
After a long day at school, I was ready to take my time and enjoy myself without a rush. That was what my whole week had been like. Rush, dash, whirl, scamper, etc. Being in the tenth grade did that to a person. I liked my teachers, the classes I was taking, and heck, the lunches were pretty good too if you can take them like an optimist. It was the schedule that was my problem. Go here, practice there, field trip tomorrow, then club banquet next. It was all a big jumble in my head. I wondered how large a human brain could get before it exploded in frustration. My frustration faded slightly as I approached my home.
We lived in a charming brick house on the prettiest street in the neighborhood. It had a symmetrical look to the front and glowing windows that watched over you like a pair of kind eyes that streamed golden light in the evenings. My mom worked at Bank of America and my dad worked at a local college, so money was never too tight. They could afford the place. They met each other in an odd way though, really. My father wrote a weird book and nobody ever bought it, not even a signed copy. Except for my mom. And that's how it happened. Love at first sight, folks. I hoped that one day I'd find something like that, but I was just the funny girl that was sometimes perceived to be "the outcast", "nobody" or just plain old "dork". At least that's what I thought.
I mean, as far as appearances go I wasn't Bigfoot or anything. I had my father's dark brown hair which I kept relatively long, and my mom's bright green eyes. A slight spray of freckles dusted my nose but only became noticeable in the summertime when the sun brought them out. I was average height and slightly skinny, a bit awkward sometimes. There was nothing too spectacular about me. I didn't have perfect hair that waved down my back or an impressive chest like some more popular girls in my grade. But I wasn't ugly. I'd often been called pretty or cute by my friends and had the occasional whistle from a random dude thrown in my direction. But I wasn't anything extremely special.
I am a very friendly person and I get along well with mostly everyone. Believe it or not, if I really tried, I could probably be popular. But I'm more content as myself than I am as a Dolly Parton Barbie doll. I'm smart, not into cheerleading, and aren't exactly a star athlete. I really can't do much of anything athletic because of my well-known tendency to trip over air. Even if I was as graceful as an ice skater (which I ALSO can not do) my dislike for hair-twirling popularity in cheer would get in the way. So, considering my high school was full of preps and jerks, not too many people in the school understood me. Other than my best friend, John.
John Gates was, without a doubt, my best friend in the whole world. We were always together. Well, unless he was at some sort of sports practice or something. John had known me ever since we were newborns. Our parents were best friends so we were destined to be buddies at some point. His mom and dad and my father went way back. So, therefore, so did we. John and I were pretty smart, and both had more than one sibling. John was interesting, extremely smart, sporty to some degree, could get obsessive over certain things, had a great sense of humor, and was always there for you when you needed him. Now John was on a trip to a two week history camp, so I was sort of bored. He said that he was coming home tomorrow, so I was basically counting down the days on my fingers.
Don't get me wrong, all the kids at my school were…pleasant and everything. And I was never a social recluse. They just didn't associate with me as much as they did other people because they didn't take the time to get to know me. They were just in their own cliques. I was between all of them. It was sort of that way at home, too. My family had always been smart, so I had that going for me at least. But my brothers and sisters were all intelligent and well rounded in sports and social life. I don't know how that happened, to be honest. My dad was never the social butterfly in high school. Let's just say that Riley Poole, the computer nerd, didn't get too many invitations to parties.
Concerning my brothers and sisters…I was never an only child. About seventeen years ago, my older sister, Sydney, was born. Yes, Sydney. As in Australia. Sydney was actually born in Australia, so the name doesn't lie. She had been in the terrible twos all of her life, bossing me and the rest of my siblings around. She loved being "mom" to us, making sure we listened to what she told us. I had always been looked over by Sydney. As we grew older, she became busier with her "personal life" and other "mature" topics.
My thoughts drew back to my lateness as I balanced on the edge of the grass and the concrete where they met. A weed tickled my leg. I looked up and over into the overgrown yard that the weed belonged to. The yard, a mere six houses away, was unkempt and weedy in every way. The window boxes were empty with only dusty soil as an occupant. The place where the bushes should have been was overgrown with weeds as well as shrubs that were impossible to identify apart from each other. It was the yard in front of a huge brick house that had a sign on the overgrown lawn. It said "for sale" on it on the bright red cardboard. English Ivy covered half of the house.
I glanced at the broken heating system in one of the front windows. It was rusted over and useless. I laughed. I liked my own household heating system personally. Suddenly, after seeing a swift movement, I gasped. A pair of large eyes peeped out of the house window. Over them was brown hair. I quickly looked away, a bit embarrassed. Who would be in that house now? I had never seen anyone living there now that I thought about it.
I kept on walking. Maybe the person would forget that I was even there. I tried to recompose myself. But then I heard footsteps behind me. I was too nervous to look to see who was there. I broke into a brisk jog, quickly approaching my house. Even though I drew closer with each footfall, the steps behind me did the same. I started to run, but it was too late. I felt a pair of hands rest forcefully on my shoulders. I almost screamed, but it caught in my throat.
I panicked, beginning to think that I was being kidnapped by whoever this psychopath was. I could feel my knees shaking in fear. The hands didn't move. I was trying to control my terrified hyperventilation.
"I have you now," a voice whispered into my ear, "and I have weapons, so I suggest you come with me."
I felt myself ease for some reason, but I didn't know why. That was, until, a water gun was shoved up to the side of my head. I spun around, and there was John, standing there looking so incredibly smug it wasn't even funny. I was half furious and half ecstatic to see him, so I decided to go with ecstatic for his benefit. I ran at him and, naturally, he thought that I was going to kill him. But instead I gave him a bear hug tackle right there on the sidewalk. I had never been so happy to see him in my life. Well, I think so. Seriously, school without John for two weeks?
"I thought you said you'd be home tomorrow!" I said messing up his hair.
"Yeah, about that…" he smiled. "I decided to surprise you. I came home early. I got a cold and they insisted that I head home."
"Is it so hard to admit that you missed your best friend ever in the whole wide universe?" I said casually as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. I helped him off the ground, spreading out my arms as if to give him another hug.
"Like I needed you. Right," he said sarcastically.
It was so good to see John even after just two weeks. Two weeks seemed like a lifetime when we saw each other every day. His light brown hair was shaggy as ever, and his blue-ish eyes had that same old spark I was used to. I loved that spark. The whole way back home we walked arm in arm and talked about everything. How school had been, funny things that had happened, how I almost lost my retainer in the garbage, all that charming stuff. I could talk to him about anything at all. I could just be myself, and he wouldn't care if I was stupid. We were like that. We didn't really care about personal stuff around each other. We'd never been too stand-offish with each other either. We weren't afraid to occasionally hold hands and do things like that because we know we're close enough friends to do that and we wont take it the wrong way. Some people had assumed we were a couple before.
"John," I finally said, "what…what on earth were you doing in that house?" John smiled and shrugged.
"Eh, I was on the way to your house and I saw it just kind of staring me down. I decided to go explore the backyard since nobody was home, and it turns out the house was unlocked. So I peeked inside and that's when you showed up."
"You just went inside of someone's house?" I chuckled, not too surprised really. John and I were both extremely curious and adventurous people. And truthfully, him venturing into that house sounded more like something I would have done.
"Well, nobody technically lives there anymore," he said with a comical tone of guilt. I laughed.
"Bring me next time," I said, "Maybe we can help the place out out. You know, do some renovating. Add in a nice granite kitchen countertop, a spacious sunroom. Make it look less like…a morgue."
Both of us finally reached my house and the smell of my dad's grill wafted over to our noses. Thank goodness. I was starving and seriously craving a famous "Dad-grilled steak." We opened the glass front door and I could hear the Fray playing loudly from the radio. I could hear Kari, my youngest sibling who was eleven, practicing something on the piano in the living room. We walked into the kitchen where mom was in an apron, her wavy strawberry blonde hair tied back into a lose pony tail. Her eyes widened when she saw John but she immediately gave him a big hug.
"John! How are you? How was the trip?" she asked, wiping some unidentified food substance from her cheek.
"Great! Besides me getting sick. But other than that, great!"
My mom just loved John. She would probably adopt him if she could even though she had four kids already. John was like another Poole child and I was like a daughter to John's family.
"Well I'm glad you had fun," she said, going back to her mixing bowl.
"I mean, it had its unenjoyable moments…" John said, "We went on a walk and I got poison oak and mosquito bites. And our guest speaker couldn't come. So w were stuck singing Kumbaya with Rainman, his group leader," he grimaced. I chuckled.
John had inherited his father's smartness genes and was a total history buff. His father was a famous treasure hunter, so you betcha John was a natural. He was the president of our school history club and went on all of these really nice trips for advanced students. Both of us were really into having fun and solving things, so we really liked subjects like that.
Eventually John and I made our way into the playroom, our favorite room in my house. It was a gray room with shaggy comfy carpet, a big TV, a fridge, ping pong table, and old blown up LIFE magazine pictures on the walls. The classic photos of people in a 3D movie, the ice-skating waiter, the soldier and the nurse kissing, in Times Square, and the old truck on the road. Each one had a phrase underneath them.
Ever since we were little kids, our favorite place was my ping pong table. We never actually played ping pong that often, but as kids, the ping pong table was our sanctuary. We built countless forts under it, hid underneath it from our siblings, and used it in childhood games as the 'bomb shelter' or 'house.' But as we got older, we would go underneath the table, lie on our backs, and talk. We would just stare at the bottom of the table, swapping stories and drinking Capri-Sun juice boxes. Some of the most memorable times of my life.
The ping pong table tradition had never been broken ever since, so John and I subconsciously made our way to the table. I settled myself on my back, staring up at the underside of the table. I knew where every screw was, the dent where Kari had danced on the table as a three year old, and where it said "made in china." John was next to me, brushing his brown hair out of his eyes. His hair was a little lighter than mine. His shoes kicked the table above us and I put my hands behind my head. For a few minutes we didn't talk. We just lay there, catching our breath from the long week.
"So the trip…it was that bad?" I said. I sensed that he hadn't had a very good time despite what he had told my mother.
"Yeah. It was," he sighed. I felt bad for him. He was expecting such a great trip.
"You sang Kumbaya? With Rainman?" I grimaced, trying not to laugh. He laughed and nodded.
"Every stinkin' verse." he replied as if he were telling the most gruesome part of a scary story. I pretended to shudder.
"Would you like a Capri-Sun, my good man?" I asked, using an accent.
"That would be marvelous, madam." he replied using the same voice. I gave him a Capri-Sun from the fridge in the playroom, and layed on my side so that I was facing him.
"Nice to have you back, Jonnyboy." I said.
"Nice to be back, Andrea." he sighed. We toasted Capri-Sun.