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June First
Author: Jennifer Hartmann

 


PART I

 

 

THE FIRST TRAGEDY

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

“FIRST BLOOD”

 

 

Brant, age 6

 

 

“You’re such a fartknocker, Brant!”

Wendy and Wyatt speed away on their bicycles, the tires spitting up mud and grass blades as they cut through the neighbor’s lawn.

A fartknocker.

What does that mean?

I watch them go from the edge of my driveway, while Theo kicks up one of the loose stones that rims our mailbox. Dad is going to blow a gasket if he sees a rock out of place. He loves weird stuff like mailbox rocks, perfectly edged sidewalks, and grass that looks greener than my babysitter’s new hairdo.

I don’t really get it.

I don’t get “fartknocker” either.

“Wendy is a dweeb,” Theo mutters under his breath.

“Sounds better than a fartknocker.”

“It is.”

The sun sets behind an extra fluffy cloud, making it look like a giant piece of cotton candy floating in the midwestern sky. My stomach grumbles. “Want to stay for dinner?”

Theo tries to fix the stone with the toe of his sneaker, but it doesn’t look the same. Dad will notice. He sighs, popping his chin up and gazing down at the end of the cul-de-sac to where the dreadful Nippersink twins disappeared. “Is your mom making that chili?”

“No, it’s fish.” My mom loves to cook. Aside from giving me cheek kisses and tummy tickles, I think it’s her favorite thing to do. I love the food she makes, even Brussels sprouts.

Even fish.

“Yuck,” Theo says. He glances at his property, the ranch-style house made of bricks, two down from mine, and shrugs his shoulders. “Besides, I think my mom might have a baby tonight.”

“Really?”

“Maybe. She said her belly felt like a hyena was chomping through her loo-der-us.”

“That means the baby is coming?” I shove my hands into the pockets of my shorts, frowning at the image that pops into my head. That sounds really bad. It sounds worse than when I got bit by Aunt Kelly’s cat because it looked sad, and I wanted to feed it one of my apple slices—I caught a fever the next day. “I thought babies were a happy thing. What’s a loo-der-us, anyway?”

“I dunno. I think it’s the thing in my mom’s belly that the baby lives in. Sounds gross to me.”

A shudder ripples through me. That does sound pretty gross. I always wanted a brother or a sister to grow up with, but Dad works too much at the office or in the yard, and Mom says it’s hard to take care of little babies that poop and cry all the time, so I guess it’s just me.

At least I have Theo.

He’s my neighbor and best friend, and maybe his new baby brother or sister will feel like mine, too. Maybe we can share.

“What do you think you’ll name the baby, Theo?”

My eyes follow Theo as he hops onto the ring of stones around the mailbox, trying to balance himself. He slips and lands on his butt, right in the wet grass, and when he stands up, blotches of brown mud stain the back of his jeans. He rubs at his bottom, making a groaning sound. “How about Mudpie?”

We both laugh, picturing a cute little baby named Mudpie. I skate my gaze around the cul-de-sac, a new name flashing to mind when I fixate on a fluttering insect with sunshine wings. “I like Butterfly.”

“Yeah, okay. Mudpie if it’s a boy, and Butterfly if it’s a girl.” Theo nods, still massaging his sore butt. He sweeps sandy blonde bangs away from his forehead, revealing eyes glinting with the same dark blue color of his shirt. “Hey, Brant, maybe you can come over and meet her after she’s out of Mom’s belly?”

I’d love that!

I’m about to reply when I register what he just said. “Her?”

Theo shrugs again, scrunching up his nose. “I think it’s a girl. I can just picture her wearing little pink dresses and giant bows. She’ll be real pretty, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, I bet she will be.”

“I’m going to take good care of her. I’ll be the best big brother ever,” he says, bobbing his head with a prideful smile. It’s the same smile Dad has when he stares at the lawn after a fresh mow. “I’ll be like Mario, and you can be Luigi if you want. She’ll be Princess Peach, and we’ll protect her from all the bad guys in the world.”

I picture it. I envision grand adventures and battles, sword fights and bravery. The images shoot a tickle straight to my heart.

I always wanted something worth defending, and Mom won’t let me have a puppy.

Theo’s new baby will have to do.

“I like that idea, Theo. We’ll make a great team.”

Our daydreams are interrupted when Theo’s mother pokes her head out of their house, her belly so round and large, it holds the screen door open all by itself. There must be something as big as a watermelon inside—there must.

Maybe we should name her Watermelon.

“Theodore! We’re heading to the hospital!”

Theo’s dad rushes out, carrying at least seven bags, two dangling from around his neck. His face is beet red, the same color as the van he tosses the belongings into, and he looks like he might faint. He might even have a heart attack. He’s sweating a whole lot.

“Now, son! We’re having a baby!” his father shouts, tripping on a divot in the driveway as he races back to the front of the house.

My friend’s eyes pop. “She’s coming, Brant! Did you hear that?”

“I heard it,” I say eagerly, a little bit jealous of my friend. I want a baby sister. In fact, I’d trade anything in the world for a baby sister.

You hear that, sky? I’ll trade anything for a baby sister!

I’m not sure why I tell my secret to the sky, but Mom always looks up at the ceiling when she says her prayers at night. Maybe she’s talking to the sky.

Maybe it listens.

The cotton candy cloud doesn’t answer back, and neither does the setting sun. The birds don’t sing. The treetops sway and shimmy, but they are also silent.

My wish is stolen by the early summer breeze, never to be heard.

Theo mounts his bicycle, waving goodbye at me as he scoots along with his feet. He nearly topples over on the sidewalk, shouting with excitement, “See you later, Luigi!”

I grin at the name. Luigi. It means I’m a fighter. A protector.

A hero.

And it’s a lot better than “fartknocker.”

“Bye, Mario,” I yell back.

Theo almost tips over again when he tries to send me another wave, the bike swerving madly, but he catches his balance and darts home just as his father races his mother to the van. She’s holding her plump belly, making awful, painful sounds. She sure doesn’t look happy.

I don’t get it.

“Brant, honey… it’s almost dinner time.”

I startle in place, glancing over my shoulder. Mom is waving me inside from the doorway, her dark honeyed hair whipping her in the face when a gust of wind rolls through. “Coming,” I call to her, stealing a final peek at my friend hopping into the vehicle with his parents. One more excited wave from Theo sends me off as they pull out of the driveway with squeaky tires.

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