I have been convinced moving to Iowa was the worst possible thing that could happen. How could leaving my friends and our house on ten gorgeous acres near Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains be anything but bad luck? Our parents’ choice, not mine. Big job or not, why did they have to do it and ruin my life?
“Look at it!” I complained to my brother, Todd, who was working on waddling across our fenced back yard. He stumbled again, landing on his padded bottom. The steps I sat on were splintery so I didn’t dare shift to reach for him. “Everything you see is boring houses or nothing. It’s a mistake, Toddy. It’s killing me to look up and see telephone wires and rooftops, no rocky peaks.”
He grinned at me from his grassy seat, a line of drool slipping down his double chin. It ddn’t matter to him, a baby who couldn’t walk or talk much–any place was perfect as long as he got sustenance regularly, diapers changed and attention. Such an easy life. At fourteen and a half, anything that could go wrong had gone wrong the minute our house was packed up and moved to Iowa. Even the name sounded lame. “Idaho” at least had some punch to it, like you meant it when you said, “Yeah, I’m from northwestern Idaho, it’s amazing!” I was practicing that sentence if and when anyone asked questions.
Todd grabbed hold of a few blades of grass in a fat hand and yanked and yanked until some came up. He popped it all into his mouth like it was tasty, eyes growing rounder as he bit down on some dirt. I got up and pried his mouth open, raked his tongue with my fingers. Todd sputtered and drooled more heavily,
“Oooh, you better get that out before he half-chokes to death! They put every darned thing into their mouths…”
I glanced at the yard next door, saw a girl maybe ten or eleven with a huge lollipop–and another girl enjoying one, too. There were three more kids in a row at the fence, gaswking at us like we were zoo animals on display. I wiped out the grasssy mess with my fingers and picked him up, ready to give him back to Mom inside. But Todd pointed toward the voices from next door, straining in my arms.
“What?” I asked Todd. “You’re too young to meet so many new people.”
He fussed at me and I looked back at the neighbors. Five of them in various sizes and with expressions that felt a bit rude, though I knew they were just curious. I simply was not, yet.
“We saw you move in yesterday,” the next biggest girl said. “So are you new to Cedar Rapids?”
“I’m from northwestern Idaho, and it’s amazing there!”
They said nothing, just sized us up more, but the littler three giggled and one wiggled her fingers at Todd. He held out his arms, a sure sign he was going to work free from my arms, get down and greet this big family nose-to-nose at the fence. I turned to go indoors with him.
“I’m Nance McCullough,” the biggest girl said, and then, one by one, everyone offered up names.
“Ok, hi– and see you later,” I said, nodding their way, and started up the steps.
“What are your names? We’re official neighbors now!” Nance shouted.
I heard a screen door open with a squeaky whine, then slam shut. A pair of feet ran down the back steps of the McCulloughs’ and things quieted.
“Hang on, don’t ambush people, they just got here and have to adjust more than a minute!”
I heard the deep voice, glanced at the speaker and put Todd into the screened porch. Mom reached for him, then also stood on the steps, taking her own good look. Then she left, busy with the huse and Dad.
He stood just behind those five kids, hands jammed in front jeans pockets, the navy baseball cap’s bill pulled to his eyebrows, longer brown hair sticking out from back and sides. His face was half hidden. I could tell he was older by a couple years, with the shoulders and stance of someone in shape and confident. He walked closer to the fence.
“I was hoping there would be a boy, tough luck,” he said, then smiled, showing a small gap between his front teeth. “Name’s Will, who are you?”
I wanted to go inside. Five kids–now there were six. How noisy did it get over there? In Idaho there were huge spaces, no one could see into anyone’s windows — people owned acreage so they could spread out. Here we were crammed between rectangular houses each like the other, and snug, ugly yards. It was true we were renting until we found a house to buy, but still. I felt the heat of tears, then a flash of anger.
“Well, you’re in fact in luck as Todd lives here, too. But he’s not even two, sorry, you’re stuck with us!”
“Oh, one of those–a surprise sibling, I guess, I know how that goes. Well, I’m surrounded by them over here.” He gave a little grunt, shrugged, palms help upward.
I almost shot back: No, Todd was the baby born after my other brother drowned five years ago… but of course I didn’t, wouldn’t. The way he said it, with a hint of sarcasm–his parents obviously had many surpsies– but also sympathy for being a teenager with only a baby brother for company. It nearly dampened the sting of the unhappy move. I walked over to the fence as the younger boy called out in a songsong voice, “Awww, looky that, Will-i-am!”, the others laughing so that Will shooed them all away, even the older ones. But the girls looked over their shoulders as they headed to the street, whispering.
I felt supid standing there in sweatpants and tshirt, arms dangling, mussed hair in my eyes, bare toes with chipped purple nail polish. I hadn’t even showered yet since we got up late. But, really, who cared? He was just a neighbor guy and Mom and Dad had made a big breakfast to make us all feel better. And it had helped for a short time. Dad had found a small market three blocks away, he’d said with glee. Not like back home, where you had to drive at least twenty minutes to get to a decent grocery.
Will sat down and so did I, then we were face to face, his long legs crossed Buddha style, mine splayed. We’d travelled too long in a stuffy, jam-packed car and what Mom called “growing pains” were in fact cramped muscles that wouldn’t ever let loose. Or so it seeemed today.
“So, what’s it like in Idaho? I’ve never been anywhere but Illinois a few times. My uncle and aunt live in Chicago and I admite I love it there. Sorry you had to end up here!”
I studied his brown eyes, saw no shred of meaness; I believed he wanted to know. At least Cedar Rapids was a kind of city, I said; we’d lived in the country most of my life. But I told him how the land was open until it ran up against the slopes of mountains, how our house was like a mini-ranch though we only had dogs–one, Tannner, got hit by a truck two weeks before we moved–and chickens–though she’d wanted a horse, all her friends rode or had one–and there were elk about and not far from them a river and lake where we’d go out on the boat, fish…And then Mom stuck her head out.
“Elise, can you come help with Todd? We’re trying to unpack the kitchen more.” She peered at Will. “Oh, hello! I’m Bonnie Tremain, I met your parents this morning.”
He waved at her then looked me in the eye, one brow lifting a bit. “So–Elise, huh?”
“So honey, will you help us out?” She disappeared indoors once more.
I got up, feeling worn out already, and Will stood, too.
“That’s what they call me. Or Lise.”
He reached over and held out a hand and I took it. “Ok, Lise-Elise. There was a pretty creaky couple here before. Nice people– but sweet you’re here now. No other teenagers for miles! And glad to meet Todd the toddler.” His eyes crinkled. “Wanta walk to the market later, get a cold drink? I’ll show you the fascinating neighborhood.”
I felt the barest squeeze of his palm against mine. It was easy, friendly. I felt lighter as I entered our new boring house. It might possibly be that the initial bad luck was covering up potential good luck; I’d have to find out a lot more about everything. The homesickness was going to be rough, I could feel the weight of it dragging on my heels. I impulsively put my hand to one cheek, and it was as if Will’s warm palm was pressed to my cool skin again. That was something, maybe, wasn’t it.