Carrie Ann Lahain
Grace’s parents always said that they had the pool put in to keep her occupied. It was large and rectangular and twelve-feet at the deep end. When she was in the water, Grace sometimes imagined herself a deep-sea explorer, whose team had discovered the lost city of Atlantis. After their diving equipment vanished under mysterious circumstances, it was up to Captain Grace, with her amazing talent for holding her breath, to swim to the bottom of the sea and retrieve lost treasures one at a time from the sunken ruins. It was hard work, but she managed to haul up the entire contents of the Great Temple before her father came out of the house with a package of burgers for the grill and could not find the BBQ tongs or the big fork.
“You’re gonna scratch up the bottom of the pool, you keep throwing my tools down there. Where’s your brain, Gracie?”
They’d only had the new pool a month when Hurricane Gloria came and dumped great chunks of the McGreevey’s, the Grau’s and the Foster’s backyards into it. Grace woke the morning after the storm to her mother yelling over the phone at her father. He was a police officer and, having just come off a midnight-to-eight shift, still had to drive back from Manhattan before he could see what she was talking about.
“Don’t tell me to calm down,” her mother screeched. “You get a hold of that good-for-nothing builder. He never said we needed a retaining wall. I told you we should have bought the place out in Ronkonkoma . . . oh, to hell with you and your commute . . . it’s only ten extra miles . . . two exits.”
Grace watched from the dining room as her mother slammed down the phone and started crying. That weekend some men came and cleaned out the pool. The weekend after, a different set of men came with a pickup truck full of cinder blocks and built a wall along the perimeter of the back yard. They staggered the height, starting at Grace’s chest and raising it by one cinder block every ten feet or so. By the time they’d reached the section bordering Mr. McGreevey’s woods, which were on much higher ground than her yard, Grace had to stand on a leftover block, grab on to the wall, and swing herself over to the other side, a performance which became more arduous once the men returned and coated the wall with white stucco. Grace had to be careful then, or she’d scrape herself good.
It was easier getting to the Foster’s. They lived behind the lowest point of the wall. If Grace stood on the diving board and rose high on her toes, she could see the top of Francesca Foster’s rabbit hutch. Francesca lived with her husband in a tiny cottage surrounded by a huge vegetable garden. Her real name was Frances, but she did not mind Grace’s attempt to dress her up a little. This was unlike her mom’s friend Mary, who protested loudly and strongly at being re-christened Maria.
Francesca and Grace often spent whole afternoons weeding or deadheading roses, while the Foster’s baby boy waited on the back porch in his mechanical swing. Grace didn´t really like being around other kids, but little Michael was so small and quiet Grace didn´t mind singing to him or bouncing him on her lap while Francesca prepared their grilled cheese sandwiches. It didn’t even bother her that he threw up on her almost every time he ate. The three of them would sit down together in the kitchen, the table covered with a vinyl sheet to protect it from plaster dust from Mr. Foster’s latest home improvement project. The Fosters had great plans for the small house and spent every weekend scraping and plastering.
“Do you see this back wall here?” Francesca asked, pointing out a feature on a blueprint tacked up on the kitchen wall. It was of a much grander place than the one they were sitting in. “It’ll be all French doors looking out on the patio and garden.”
“Then you can watch the rabbits without leaving the house.”
Smiling, Francesca squinted at the blueprint and considered the future drawn out in lines and angles. “When Michael gets a little older, his father’s going to build him a tree house right there . . . in the big maple. There’ll be a ladder up to a trap door in the floor.”
Grace felt herself tingle with the possibilities. “If you get Michael a telescope, I bet he’ll be able to see all the way to the Great South Bay from up there.”
“Maybe,” Francesca said. Then, before Grace knew what was happening, Francesca was up and rooting around in an old storage cabinet. She gave grunt of triumph as she turned around dangling a pair of chunky binoculars from its fraying fabric strap. “Could you carry Michael for me? I’m going to climb that tree.”
Francesca didn´t even bother with her sandals, just strode outside in her cutoff jeans and bare feet, her long brown-blonde hair falling in streamers down her back. Grace scooped up the squirming baby and hurried after her. The maple was huge, with a trunk so thick, Grace’s arms could not reach all the way around it. Francesca grabbed hold of a fat lower branch and hauled herself up. Higher and higher she climbed, until she was nearly halfway to the top and the branches got too thin and bendy to go on.
“Can you see water?” Grace leaned her cheek close to Michael’s round head. He craned his neck after his mother, then turned to look at Grace, eyes wide and questioning.
Only Francesca’s legs were visible, dangling long and tanned. “Yes! Yes, I see the bay! Just past the Junior High School. It’s all hazy and blue.”
Michael let loose with one of his random shrieks – a happy sound, despite the decibel level. Grace danced with him in wide circles, bouncing and singing a song her mother had taught her.
“Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside ...” It was silly, and Grace only knew that one line. So she sang it over and over as Francesca slowly returned to earth.
The trio did not get much time to celebrate their discovery. It was nearly five and one of the rules Grace’s parents had set on what they called her “wanderings” was that she be back in time to set the table for dinner.
That night her father was working from four to midnight, and she and her mother would have tomato soup and rolls in front of the television.
* * *
Grace’s grandmother always liked to say that nothing very good or very bad lasts forever. Grace came to understand that she was only half right. It was not too many weeks after she and Francesca discovered the Great South Bay that her father caught her on her way over the retaining wall and into the Foster’s vegetable garden. She heard him call her name, but barely had time to turn her head before she was jerked back hard by a pair of hands driven under her arms. He deposited her on the ground and glared down at her. “I don’t want you bothering those people.” Before Grace could protest or explain her open invitation, he jabbed a silencing finger in her face. “Their kid’s in the hospital.”
“No he isn’t. I just saw him —“
The finger again. “Leave the Fosters alone.”
Grace nodded, knowing better than to open her mouth again. Her father was not a man for broad explanations. Especially not after he’d given an order. Grace found her mother in the kitchen slicing strawberries for a fruit salad, and her mother explained. Did Grace remember the tumor Grandma Felice had in her breast? Michael also had a tumor, but his was in his stomach.
All at once, Grace felt better. Grandma Felice was fine. Her hair had grown back. She and Grandpa Marty now lived in a long, silver RV they drove all over the country. Grace’s mother handed her a strawberry.
“Babies have very small stomachs, Gracie.”
Her mother did not answer at first. “All right,” she said, finally. “You’re getting to be a big girl now, so maybe you’ll understand.”
“I’ll be nine in September.”
“That’s right. The thing is, Michael’s stomach is small, and his tumor is very big. The doctors don’t think he’s going to get better.” She rubbed Grace’s cheek with the back of her hand. “I’m sorry.”
Was she saying that Michael was going to die? He was just a baby. Grace’s eyes filled and she felt her insides push up into her throat. Her mother went to hug her. Grace pulled away afraid she was going to be sick. She wasn’t, but the feeling stayed, threatening her.
Grace spent the rest of that afternoon sitting cross-legged in the narrow crevasse between the retaining wall and Mr. McGreevey’s woods like a hobbit in his hole, snug, out-of-sight. She went there a lot over the next few weeks, especially after news came that Michael was gone. The Fosters took him to be buried upstate, in a town called Amenia where they had both grown up on neighboring farms. Francesca’s husband came back at one point – Grace spotted him from the diving board feeding the rabbits – but Francesca stayed away. Grace’s mother said it would only be for a while, but the rabbit hutch was down now, its inhabitants moved upstate. As the summer wore on, Grace spent some part of each day behind the wall. She liked to read back there, or sometimes she’d watch the family of crows living in Mr. McGreevey’s woods fly back and forth between oaks, squawking and squabbling and flicking their glossy feathers. Then, one day, it was so hot even the crows were quiet in the shade of the tree branches. Grace thought about taking a swim, but then she would have had to go inside and put on her bathing suit. Her fingers closed around a stick laying next to her. Half the length of her arm, it was deep brown and brittle, the bark falling off in thick chips. Grace peeled it smooth and drove the pointed end into the dirt as deep as she could. It went down about three inches before snapping in half. After a moment of consideration, she fetched her mother’s old gardening trowel and got to work scraping and digging.
It was not long before she heard the satisfying sound of the metal trowel scraping against something hard, as clods of dirt, leaves and small stones rained down from Mr. McGreevey’s woods. Instinctively, Grace hunkered down, hands over her head, letting the dislodged earth hit her back and roll off. When it was over, Grace saw that a chunk of the hillside had cleaved away, exposing the roots of a big pine as they stretched down through a thin layer of humus, then a thicker band of sand. There, below the sand, half nestled in the hillside . . . Stones?
They couldn’t be stones. So large and round and piled together the way they were. Grace gently dislodged one. Feeling its heaviness in her two hands, she leaned in to examine it. Dusky green. Oval-shaped. Perfectly smooth.
Unsure what to do next, Grace put her ear to it and gave it a gentle shake, but she did not hear anything. Could it be a fossil? Her father had taken her to the science museum once, and in the central gallery was a life-sized model of a triceratops tending her nest. The eggs in the display looked just like the what she’d uncovered.
Grace set the egg she held at the base of the wall and went back to the nest. There were five or six of them there, still half-buried in earth. She worked with care, using the blade of the trowel to dislodge them one by one.
Grace lined them up along the base of the wall and patted the loose soil into a mound around them as if, though abandoned millions of years ago, they could still benefit from the warmth.
When she’d finished, Grace looked up at the gaping space she’d left in the side of the hill and wondered what to do next. She knew what she would have done if Francesca were home. Francesca knew all about rocks and history.
But Francesca was not home, and it was soon time to get ready for supper – a huge job considering how filthy Grace had gotten from all of her digging. As for what to do about the dinosaur eggs, the answer did not come until two days later when, taking in the mail for her mother, Grace spotted a small, square envelope with the stiffness peculiar to Christmas and birthday cards.
Her stomach did a flip when she saw the return address. There was no name, but the town was Amenia, New York. Grace scribbled down Francesca’s address before giving her mother the mail. The card turned out to be a thank-you-for-your-sympathy note.
“Now, that was thoughtful under the circumstances,” her mother said. “And, look, there’s a message for you.”
Tell Gracie we miss her.
Her mother gave her the card to keep but tossed the envelope in the trash. Grace would have pulled it out, but her mother then cleaned out the cat’s litter box. The whole mess ended up in the outside garbage can. It didn’t matter, really. Grace had Francesca’s address. That was all she needed to proceed.
The first sentence was the hardest. After Dear Francesca. She wanted to ask about Michael, but she was afraid that would upset Francesca. Dear Francesca, I hope you are well. I think about you every day. I found something that I want to tell you about...
Grace stalled as she tried to describe the eggs. The slight variations in size, shape and color. How heavy each had felt in her hand. That one had a crack down the side of it, a narrow, zig-zag about the thickness of her thumbnail...Do you think it may have been close to hatching? In the end, Grace decided it would be best if Francesca could see a picture of the eggs for herself, and she grabbed her colored pencils and a notebook. Just as she was about to head outside, her mother walked in and glanced out of the sliding glass doors at the darkening sky.
“You’d better stay in. It’s supposed to rain straight through to tomorrow. Why don’t you give me a hand with supper?”
Grace set down her backpack and spent the next hour staring out of the kitchen window peeling small, white potatoes and chopping carrots into thick rounds. By the time the stew was on the stove, it had begun to rain. Light sprinkles at first. Then there was a flash and a loud crack, and the water poured down. It was not long before the side yard was a marshland. Grace’s mother began predicting disaster. “The basement’s gonna flood. Your father was supposed to waterproof the foundation months ago. But did he? And he lent the sump pump to your uncle.”
Grace tried to tune her out, though she could already tell what was coming. How when her father got home that night, her mother would complain about having to live “in the house that Jack built.” Her father would agree that they needed to move, but in that tone that meant he had no intention of buying another place this far out on Long Island. Moving meant retreating back to the city, to Queens or even back to Brooklyn.
“You’d put your daughter in the city schools?”
“With what I’ll save in gas, we can pay for Catholic school.”
Back and forth they would go, until suddenly they had nothing more to say and there would be silence between them. The month before, her parents had gone an entire week not saying a word to each other, though they were more than happy to bang the doors and drawers.
Grace put herself to bed early – before her father got home. She did not sleep much, but instead spent most of the night watching the storm play out in the shadows moving across her bedroom ceiling and wondering what the weather was like up in Amenia. She imagined acres of fruit trees swaying in the warm, sticky darkness. Everything still and silent, except for the chirping of the crickets.
The next morning, Grace was up before either of her parents. The rain had stopped, but the sky was still dim. She decided not to risk waiting. It might start raining again. Getting into her jeans and t-shirt, she grabbed her backpack and emptied out the pencils and paper. It was too wet out to sit on the ground and draw. She would bring the eggs inside.
The yard smelled of mud and wet cement, and Grace could hear the tinny pings of water dripping through the aluminum gutters. She stepped onto the cinder block and heaved herself over the wet wall. The soil was saturated. Mud sucked at her sneakers, and she had to place one hand on the wall to keep from slipping.
More sand and dirt had washed down from the hillside overnight, covering the eggs with a layer of muck. Grace set down her backpack. Then, squatting over the first egg, she dug the fingers of both hands around the edges and pried it loose. She gave it a quick wipe with her sleeve and dropped it in her backpack. She was working her fingers into the mud around the next one when she felt a whoosh of air and looked up just in time to see the pine tree begin to fall sideways. She screamed.
The wall stopped it from falling on top of her.
Grace found herself in a thicket of pine boughs. She tucked her chin in and eased backward, pine needles scraping her neck, tearing at her hair. As she ripped free, she heard a shout. Her father, balanced on the top of the wall, clamped his arms around her. Lifting her, he fell backwards and they both landed hard next to the diving board. Then her mother was there grabbing at her and crying. Grace pulled away from both of them and stumbled up the porch steps and into the house, fleeing to her room. She slammed the door shut, then, feeling as if her heart would drive itself through her chest wall, she slid to the floor. Her mother was yelling.
“She could’ve been killed...”
“Jean...please...she’s all right.”
Grace understood she could have been killed. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine what it felt like to be dead. Hear nothing. See nothing. Smell nothing. She held her breathe, but she could still feel the holding...the small ache that grew more and more insistent...until she had to give in, open up, let life rush back into her.
Her mother, a little calmer now, came to check on her. She opened the door halfway, then paused. “Gracie? Are you okay?”
The back of Grace’s neck hurt. She touched the spot and winced at the sticky sting. She looked down at herself – caked with mud and bits of bark.
“How about a nice hot bath?” her mother asked, venturing in a little further. “I’ll run one for you. We’ll put in lots of bubbles.”
When her mother retreated, closing the door behind her, Grace rose to her knees and spotted her backpack laying in a wet, filthy heap at her side.
She reached into it and pulled out the only egg she’d had time to grab. It was slick with smeared mud. She hid it under her bed. Later, when the storm was over – and her parents weren’t around – she would go back for the others.
Grace slid out of her jeans and pulled off her t-shirt. Her underwear was wet through, but she kept it on and, crawling onto her bed, crouched in front of her window. The rain was hitting the glass hard. She could not see through the sheets of water. Pulling her blanket like a robe around her exposed skin, she opened her window as far as it would go.
The sky was even darker than before. Already wide puddles dotted the front lawn and rainwater raced along the gutters towards the storm drain at the bottom of the cul-de-sac. Watching it, Grace knew she wouldn’t be able to get back behind the wall that day. All she could do now was settle in and wait for the bad weather to pass.