This Is My Happy Place
I didn’t expect my summer sister to ditch me the first minute of vacation. She could’ve at least waited until I emptied my suitcase.
“But . . . but . . .” I sputter like the last seconds of microwave popcorn. “What about going to Lolli’s?”
Poppy sighs. “I’m sorry. I wish I could, but the last time I didn’t show up for a shift, my dad totally freaked out.”
I sink onto what will be my bed for the next month. “But we always go to Lolli’s for milkshakes first thing. It’s tradition.”
“It sucks, I know, but . . .” She shrugs. “Our tradition will have to change.”
Change? What’s she talking about? The best thing about Thomas Cove is that nothing ever changes.
I stare at the stack of neatly folded T-shirts on my lap. “Couldn’t your dad wait for you to start working at the store until you’re older? Nobody I know back home works full-time when they’re twelve.”
She sits next to me cross-legged and examines the bottoms of her bare feet. “It’s different here. Kids start hauling lobster traps by the time they’re eight years old. Consider me lucky.”
Poppy’s parents own Quayle’s Market, the only grocery store on Cedar Island. Her two older sisters have worked there for years. I guess it was only a matter of time before she got roped in. But why did it have to be this summer, the first one without my parents?
Sunlight streams through the window, making Poppy’s auburn hair glow like a maple tree in fall. “You could come with me. I have to stock the shelves and stuff, and it’s kind of boring, but at least it’s not the fish counter.”
“Thanks, but I guess I should stay here. I’m ready to get this project going, if you know what I mean.” I tug on the top drawer of the pine dresser in an attempt to put my clothes away, but it’s stuck shut. The one under it opens easily, but it’s full of miniature glass ducks, piles of old comic books, and several cat calendars. Looks like my grandmother’s been trolling the yard sales . . . again.
My cheeks puff out. This is going to be a bigger job than I thought.
I catch my reflection in the cracked floor-length mirror. The damp Maine air has wreaked havoc on my curly hair already. I pat down the puffed-out ponytail at the base of my neck. Ugh, I look like a beaver.
Poppy rolls onto her stomach, smooshing the ruffled blue throw pillows beneath her. Together we peer out the window. The view outside is postcard pretty, the kind parents pay top dollar for at a hotel. A lobster boat cuts through the water; its motor drones steadily as it passes anchored skiffs that rock gently back and forth in its wake. Next door to us, a hulk of a man wearing a camouflage baseball cap chops firewood. Sweat darkens the back of his dingy gray tank.
“Is that the new neighbor?” I ask.
“Yup, that’s Cranky.”
“His real name is Mr. Holbrook, but I call him Cranky, because that’s what he is. Every time I see him, he has this look on his face like he just bit into a vomit burger. He’s so mean, Shayne. He’ll yell at you if you cut through his yard. You can’t use his dock—”
I gasp. “No dock jumping?”
“Nope. All his property is off-limits.”
Drat. The old neighbors, the Krafts, used to let us have full run of their place like it was our own private playground.
“When he moved in, my mom made me bring over a plate of cookies. As soon as I stepped into his yard, he appeared from behind a tree, clutching a great big ax, his eyes wild and crazy. I screamed and took off, dropped the cookies and everything. He started yelling at me, and his voice was so gravelly, like he ate pebbles for breakfast.”
“Hold on. Important question. What kind of cookies were they?”
“White chocolate chunk.”
I press my hand over my heart. “Tragic waste.”
“You know what else?” Poppy lowers her voice. “Mona said that when he moved in, there was no moving truck, nothing. He has no furniture and he sleeps alone on the bare wood floor with nothing but a hunting knife beside him.”
Goose bumps cover my arms, even though I’m not sure if I should believe her. Poppy always says that her sister is a big fat liar.
I reach for the tin box where I keep all my supplies for making friendship bracelets. Last year, Poppy and I cranked them out like crazy, and I’m happy to see she still has the blue-and-green one I made her wrapped around her wrist.
“I brought a whole bunch of colors,” I say, showing her my new pack of embroidery thread.
“Oooh, I like the neon green,” she says before twitching her nose. “No offense, but you need to air out this room. It smells like old people.”
I open the window, and the scents of salt, fish, and pine needles blow in at once. “Don’t worry. When I’m through with this place, you won’t even recognize it.”
“I can’t believe your mom’s making you clean up your grandmother’s house,” she says.
“She didn’t make me. I offered to come. Anyhow, it’s not so much about cleaning up as getting her ready to sell her stuff at the Cedar Island Flea Market.”
I place my bracelet tin on top of a tower of National Geographic magazines so old and worn they’ve practically molded into a small table.
Poppy glances at her watch, then hops off the bed. “I better go. Don’t want the boss to ground me.” She rolls her eyes.
I walk her down the stairs to the front door. Wooden signs of various shapes and sizes decorate the walls, some with beach themes (life is better in flip-flops), some spouting puns (gardeners know all the dirt), and others offering warm fuzzies (this is my happy place).
Poppy shouts over the sound of a blaring TV. “Bye, Bea!”
Everyone calls my grandmother by her first name. Even me.
“Bye, Poppy!” Bea yells from the family room.
Poppy squeezes my shoulders and gives me a friendly shake before she leaves. “Don’t worry. We still can have the Best. Summer. Ever. You’ll see.”
Doubt prickles my skin. The best summer ever means morning swims in the cove, searching for sea glass, riding bikes to Lolli’s, gorging on lobster rolls—stuff we’ve been doing for years. Now she’s sort of available. What am I supposed to do when she’s sort of not?
After Poppy leaves, I join Bea in the family room. She sits at what I like to call Junk Mountain, the epicenter of all her worldly possessions. When it comes to stuff, my grandmother’s a keeper. She keeps everything.
Some kind of table supports Junk Mountain, but I have no idea what it looks like because it has always been buried under an avalanche of old books, cracked dishes, stuffed Beanie Babies, and a gazillion other things. A mothball smell hovers like a rain cloud over the pile.
Whenever we visit, my parents note that Junk Mountain has expanded in height and width, and my mother practically breaks out in hives at the sight of it. You would never guess she and Bea were related. Mom calls my grandmother names behind her back like “pack rat,” “Dumpster diver,” and “eBay explosion.” But Bea sees it differently. She calls herself a “collector of everything.”
My House Was Clean Last Week… Sorry You Missed It
“Sit with me. I need to talk to you.” Bea writes a number on a piece of masking tape and sticks it to the bottom of a pumpkin candle.
I turn down the volume on the TV and pull up a folding chair beside her. A furry key chain dyed grapey purple catches my eye. “Is this a real rabbit’s foot?” When I touch the bottom, I feel pointy toenails.
Bea examines it. “I’m not sure, although, they say if it’s real, then it’s good luck.” She passes me a shoebox with the words good luck written in her shaky scrawl. “Here, add it to the rest of my charms.”
I sift through a jumble of dream catchers, four-leaf clover pins, and tiny Buddha figurines. “So, how long do we have to get ready for the flea market?”
“One week,” she says.
My eyes grow wide. I hadn’t realized it was so soon. “And all this needs to be sorted and priced, right?”
She waves her hands over the merchandise. “So many memories, my treasures. Not only do I remember where I found each item, but I could tell you how much I paid for it and who I was with.”
I inch my chair closer and pull a yellowed teacup from the mound. “This looks ancient. How much should we sell it for?”
“Ah, ah, gentle.” She removes it from my hand and inspects it through the wire-rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose. “Mark that as twenty-five cents.”
I frown. “What, only a quarter? I thought it was special.”
She hands me a Sharpie. “It is special. This teacup may not look like much, but it represents history, memories. It’s—” Her brown eyes enlarge. “Now, what’s this doing here?” She reaches for a beak poking out from under a cowboy hat and pulls out a silver bird statue.
“Nice chicken,” I say.
Her forehead creases. “It’s a pheasant. Look at this workmanship, the detail in the feathers.”
I stifle a yawn. “Mmm-hmm.”
“Your grandpa gave it to me years ago when I was in my bird phase. I remember he paid a couple hundred dollars for it. I could have killed him. We didn’t have that kind of money to spare. But I did some research and found out it was made by a famous Russian artist. I believe it’s worth a lot. Do me a favor, dear, put this on the mantel. It’s not for sale. Not yet, anyway.”
I set it down over the fireplace, next to my favorite picture of Grandpa. He squints at the camera from the helm of his lobster boat. His face is sunbaked and lined like an alligator’s skin. I really miss him.
I dust off my hands on the back of my white shorts. “So . . . is that what you wanted to talk to me about?”
Her face falls. “Well, not exactly. I have some news.” She stands and I notice a black apron stamped with a fish print tied around her waist. “Surprise,” she says, sounding as excited as if it were Meatloaf Monday. “I went back to work.”
“What? I thought you retired years ago.”
Bea retrieves a tube of lipstick out of her apron pocket and paints her thin lips bright pink. “The truth is when Grandpa died, he didn’t leave me with much. You would be surprised how much everything costs—the house, utilities, you know, other stuff.”
I eye the buried table, the couch strewn with magazines and newspapers, the kitchen counter littered with boxes and cans. Yeah, I know “stuff.”
Bea coughs into her fist and catches a glimpse of her watch. “Darn it, I’m late.”
I follow her to the kitchen. “You’re leaving now?”
She grabs her enormous sack of a purse off the counter. “I’m sorry, horrible timing, but it’s just the lunch shift. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
First Poppy’s news and now this. Are you kidding me? I cross my arms in a huff. “Aren’t you too old to be a waitress?”
“I beg your pardon.” Bea tries to swat me with a dish towel, and I jump out of the way. “I’ve waitressed for more than thirty years. Of course, I was nervous at first, going back and all, but then I had forgotten how much I missed the Cod Café.”
Aside from a few roadside takeout shacks, the Cod Café is the only full-service restaurant on the island, known for its enormous lobster platters and famous potato salad tossed in Secret Sauce. The servers are usually college kids from the mainland. I want to remind Bea of this, but from the insulted look on her face, I know I have said enough.
Bea finds a leftover tuna sandwich in the fridge and takes two nibbles before putting it back. “Do me a favor, don’t tell your mother.” She grabs an industrial-sized can of hairspray from her purse and fumigates her frosted mass of curls along with the entire room.
I cough. “How come?”
Bea sighs like she’s already answered this question a thousand times. “Let’s just say she gets . . . funny about money.”
Her pace quickens, and I follow her to her beat-up Subaru wagon.
“Wait, what about our project?” I motion behind me. “I can’t tackle that all by myself.”
She reaches for the door handle but pauses before turning to me. “You don’t need to touch a thing. We’ll sort through my treasures later this afternoon, okay?”
The slam of the door makes quick tears sting the back of my eyeballs. Why is everyone leaving me?
She drives away. A hush falls over the cove except for the occasional tinkling of a distant wind chime. The windswept grass tickles my calves as I cut across Bea’s yard. A thick rock wall separates her lawn from the sea, and the still water has a copper color to it, like an old penny. Maybe I’ll jump in and swim five hundred miles home to Maryland. I’ll say to my mom, “I couldn’t do it. I failed.”