There are two kinds of people. People who like surprises and people who don’t.
And yet here is Aimee Polloch, my friend since first grade, marching through our front door as loud as a summer crow. “Delsie. I have the best surprise.”
“So,” she begins, “you know that Michael and I tried out for the summer production at the Cape Playhouse, right?”
“Yeah?” I ask.
“Michael got a great part, but I . . . I got the lead! The lead! Can you believe it?” She goes dead serious. “Wait. Autographs. Do you think people will actually ask for them?”
“I think we’ll have to get a red carpet leading up to your front door.”
“This is no joke.” She leans forward a bit. “Do you know how many famous people started acting at the playhouse?”
“I think you’ve mentioned it,” I say, smiling.
After one giant step, she stands right in front of me. “I really need your help, though!”
“My help? Why would you need my help? You know I’d rather hang glide in a hail storm than be in a play.”
She shakes her head. “I don’t need you in the play, Delsie. I just need you to help me with my part. The play is Annie,” she says, wide-eyed.
“The hard-knock-life Annie? The movie we watched?”
She rolls her eyes. “It was a play long before it was a movie.”
“Whatever, Aims. You know theater isn’t my thing.”
“Well, it’s just that I really want to be . . .” She waves her hand in the air like a magician. “I want to be au-then-tic.”
“So? I don’t understand how I can help. Wouldn’t Michael be better?”
“No. He can’t help me. Not like you can. Michael has . . . a family.”
I feel like I’ve tripped but haven’t hit the ground yet.
“Tell me,” she says. “What’s it like . . . really like . . . to be an orphan?”
The ground seems to move.
She leans in. Talking. Talking and talking. Something about me being lucky while I just stand there caught in between wanting to disappear and wanting to help her. I feel around for an answer to her question, but I have none.
I’ve thought about my mother, of course. I’ve wondered where she went to and where she’s been. But, I guess Aimee is right; I was abandoned . . . and I am an orphan. But is it dumb to say that I have never really thought about it like that?
The Best One Yet
“Grammy!” I call, running down our stairs. “Are you almost ready?”
She’s in her work uniform, hanging over her jigsaw puzzle. She presses a piece in. “I know you have ants in your pants because Brandy is back at Seaside,” she says, standing. “No ants in my pants, though. Another season of cleaning all of those guest cottages.” Her hand pats the side of my cheek. “Now, run and get our lunches from the fridge. And don’t forget our favorite root beers.”
I’m to the kitchen and back in three seconds. “Okay. Let’s go!”
We slide into the car. As always, she makes a cross on the dashboard with her finger, looks up through the windshield at the sky, and says a prayer for the car to start. When it does, she pats the dashboard again. “That’s a good Darlin’. Starting for your ole Bridget.”
She puts it in Drive. “You think it’s weird I talk to the car?”
“Only if you think it answers,” I say.
She coughs as she laughs. “You hung the moon, you know that?”
That’s one of Grammy’s best compliments.
At the first stop sign, she looks over at me. “You’re like a tick about ready to pop,” she says. “Excited to see Brandy, I know.”
“I am so excited. But a tick ready to pop? Gross . . . No . . . Ew.”
“I’ll never understand how a girl who loves tornadoes and hurricanes and floods could be scared of a little tick.”
“The weather doesn’t suck your blood,” I say, expecting her to have a comeback, but she just shakes her head.
She flips her turn signal. “So, you talked to Brandy? She and her family staying for the summer as usual?”
“Yeah. She and her mom, anyway.”
“Oh my goodness, I remember the day you two first met,” Grammy says, falling back against the car seat. “Her mom was sweet enough to watch you on a day I had no choice but to bring you along. And you and Brandy, as little as you were, sat side by side in one of those big Adirondack chairs. You’ve been like peanut butter and jelly ever since.”
I laugh. “Grammy. Who wants to be like peanut butter and jelly? That never ends well. For them, anyway.”
Grammy shakes her head again as she pulls into a parking spot, and I turn. “Can I go?”
“Yes, but for heaven’s sake, look both ways.”
As soon as my foot hits the red sidewalk leading into Seaside, I hear Brandy. “Dels!” she calls as she leaps from a picnic table. The place already reeks like sunscreen and burning charcoal, even though it’s barely nine o’clock. Summer has officially arrived.
I race across the grass, and we hug and jump around. “Oh my gosh! How are you?” she asks. “I’m soooo happy to see you.” Then she steps back. “Wow, Dels. You got tall this year.”
“I did?” And then I notice that Brandy looks much older than me, with makeup, a purse, and the kind of clothes you buy in little stores instead of big ones. I feel a little funny about my faded Boston Marathon T-shirt even though it was the greatest tag sale find of the summer last year. But Brandy is smiling, and I am happy to see her.
“I’ve already pulled out our collecting pails,” she says, and that feeling in my stomach melts away. She’s the old Brandy.
Since kindergarten, we have collected rocks and shells each summer and glued and painted them to make sculptures.
“But first,” I say, pulling at her sleeve, “let’s check on the house.”
Underneath a huge group of flowering bushes, there is a small stone house that we made the summer before second grade, hoping fairies would move in. That was five summers ago. Now we just check on it first thing.
I drop to my knees and push the branches aside. The house isn’t there.
“Where is it?” Brandy asks, crouching next to me.
“I don’t know. You think someone took it?”
She laughs. “Well, it wasn’t a mobile home, so yeah. Unless the fairies finally showed.” She takes a step away.
I crawl through nearby bushes to look for it.
“C’mon,” she says. “Let’s just head down to the beach.”
“Don’t you care?” I ask.
“I mean, I wish it were there, Dels, but some little kids probably found it. So, whatever.” She tugs at my sleeve. “C’mon. Let’s go down to the beach. I have a tan to work on.”
A tan? Since when does she care about a tan? I follow, but the little voice that my neighbor Henry always warns me not to ignore—the one people hear in times of danger or when they’re about to do something dumb—tells me a cold front is on the horizon. The air is shifting. I’m upset that the house is gone, but I’m mostly worried that Brandy couldn’t care less.
We grab the pails, and when she runs, I do, too. The Fiesters have an old red pail and a blue pail that Mrs. Fiester and her brother used on the Cape a million years ago. They’re made of scratched-up metal with rust along the bottom edges. We use one pail for shells and one for rocks so that the shells don’t get broken.
“Okay,” she says. “Rocks or shells?”
“You choose.” I smile, just happy to be back on Seagull Beach with Brandy. I miss her the rest of the year. We chat once in a while, but it isn’t the same. We can’t wait until her mother and my grammy let us have our own phones. Although I think I am most excited about the app that tracks global lightning strikes.
We spend the morning hanging out on the jetties, collecting things, and having a couple of splash fights with our feet. Finally, we get back to the picnic tables and spread everything out and talk about what sculptures we’ll make.
Brandy sorts the rocks by size. “So, don’t you think this is babyish to still do?”
“Not if we like it.”
“Yeah . . . I guess. And at least no one can see us.”
I look up at her. “And if they do, who cares?”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” she says.
But I know Brandy. Her mouth may agree, but her brain is thinking something totally different.
Brandy’s mom leans outside and calls to her. “Honey! We have to leave in a few minutes for our appointments.”
Brandy yells okay, and I feel sorry for her. “Bummer,” I say. “You going to the dentist or something?”
She smiles. “No, my mom and I are getting mani-pedis.”
My next-door neighbor Esme gets those, so I know what they are, but I’ve never had one. It’s more likely that Grammy would take me out on a raft in the middle of a nor’easter.
Brandy waves as they go, and I have to swallow an empty feeling I haven’t known before as they disappear around the corner.
I’m an orphan. Like Aimee says. No mother. No father.
I never used to think about this. And I never used to worry, either. But now that I’ve started to, I wonder what I’d do if something happened to Grammy. Would Henry and Esme take me? Even though they have their own girl?
Stuffing my hands in my pockets, I find Grammy to tell her I’m going for a run on the beach and I’ll meet her at home.
“You be careful, now,” she says, and she kisses her palm and pretends to blow it in my direction. Since I was little, I’ve always play-slapped my own face as if getting hit with kisses. But I can’t manage it today.
On the beach I walk at the water’s edge, watching small stones roll back and forth with the waves. The same way Aimee’s orphan question rolls back and forth in my head.
But then . . . I come across something on the beach I never expected.
At first, I think it might be dead, but its dark eyes follow me as I walk in front of it. It looks so unnatural lying on the sand with no legs, looking like it wants to walk. To run, even.
The beach patrol officer is a small woman with a big voice. “Now, stand back!” she shouts to the gathering crowd. “The seal pup is frightened.”
I can tell that most of these people are tourists, with their sea of Cape Cod T-shirts bought from that famous “buy one, get twelve free” place. A true Caper wouldn’t be caught dead wearing one of those.
People won’t move fast enough for the officer. Leaning forward. Taking pictures. “Honey,” a mom says to her daughter in a loud whisper. “Just take a few steps closer to the seal and smile.”
The officer becomes a wall, stepping into the line of people with her arms out like she can fly. “No, ma’am. Move back now.” I admire how she sounds nice but says don’t mess with me at the same time.
The line moves, but my feet step forward without my say-so. The seal is small. Is it sick? Is it going to die? The officer eyes me, and I step back with the others.
A boy nearby speaks Spanish. I don’t remember much Spanish from school, but he uses the word madre. That, I remember, is “mother.”
The officer sticks wooden stakes into the sand and ties neon tape around each to create a giant square of bright tape around the seal. “This is very common,” she says. “A mother will sometimes leave her pup on the beach while she hunts. The baby is left here on the sand. Safe. Away from the great whites who hunt them each summer.”
Relief washes over me. The seal pup is okay.
I look toward the rolling waves and wonder where Madre Seal is. How does she remember where she’s left her baby on this beach that stretches all along the southern coast of Cape Cod?
“Please do not cross the tape,” the officer calls to the crowd. “If Mom sees people too close to her baby, she may leave her behind.”
My mind gets stuck on the two words her baby. Not the baby or a baby but her baby.
The officer turns and seems to speak only to me. “But don’t worry. The mom always comes back.”
I look toward the ocean. If only that were true.
I walk down the beach away from all the people because they make me feel squirrely. And all the way down Seagull Beach, I drag those thoughts of the abandoned pup.
And I wonder if it wonders.
The wet sand squishes up between my toes as I walk. But soon the quietness is interrupted by excited voices carried on the wind. I turn to see that the officer has moved everyone much farther away from the neon tape. All of the noise and pointing toward the ocean tells me there is something to see, so I sprint back, running where the water meets the sand. When I get close enough, I see what looks like a black ball floating in the water. The head of Madre Seal.
The baby seal scurries toward the sea like a fat black inchworm. Under the neon tape. Toward the waves. In the water, Madre Seal swims back and forth, back and forth, and I can feel her worry about all of these people near her baby. But still . . . she is there.
I am surprised at how relieved I am to see her. As the baby hits the water, Madre Seal leaps and dives. Leaps and dives.
And then the most surprising thing happens. I start to cry. Not the kind of cry that you can squelch and swallow but the kind where your whole body knows how you feel. And it’s right then that I realize that when people say you can’t miss something you’ve never known . . . Well, that simply isn’t true.