The screen door slammed behind us as Greta and I entered her grandparents’ kitchen. We had just come back from the barn, where Greta had run to after discovering her mother, whom she hadn’t seen or heard from in ten years, sitting at the kitchen table. This afternoon we’d finished our final day of seventh grade, and Greta’s wonderful father had died less than a week before. The last thing she needed in her life was more turmoil.
Gram and Gramps Rommel were sitting at the table with Greta’s mother, but despite their close physical proximity to the petite woman, I could tell they were angry and on the defensive. When Billy died, they’d lost their son. But they had happily taken on the responsibility of raising their granddaughter. And now this--‘lady’--was telling them that she wanted to take Greta away to live with her. Have I mentioned yet that Greta is my very best friend? I don’t want her to go. More than anything else in this world, I don’t want her to go.
“So,” Greta leaned back against the fridge with her arms folded across her skinny chest, “you think you want a daughter now, huh?”
Greta is normally the most polite of girls, but I knew she was mad and scared, and still very sad, so I suppose I wasn’t shocked to hear the disrespectful way in which she spoke to her mother. Pow! Right on the kisser! Gram stood up and went to Greta’s side and put one of those wonderful, soft arms across her shoulders. I lined myself up beside them, giving my unspoken support.
Greta’s mother smiled sadly but stayed where she was.
“Greta, I know how confused you must feel right now, and I am so sorry about Dad...”
“Pops!” Greta interrupted vehemently. “I called him ‘Pops’, but then, how would you know that? You haven’t been around since I was a baby! And I don’t know why you’ve bothered to come back now!” Greta swallowed and turned her face into Gram’s ample bosom, hiding her tears from this stranger who was barging into her life at the worst possible time. I just stood there, feeling so many things, but not knowing what to say. I really didn’t have a place in this family drama, but it would take one wicked big pry bar to remove me from that kitchen.
“I’m sorry,” her mother responded. “We have so many things to talk about, and I can understand why you’re angry with me. But now is not the time...” She glanced at me, and I could feel mild hostility in her gaze. She didn’t like having the family’s dirty laundry aired in front of a stranger, I could tell. I stared right back. I belonged here. I’d been invited. That was more than I could say for her. “Why don’t you introduce me to your friend?” she asked politely. But I knew she didn’t care one whit whether she met me or not. She just wanted me out of the way.
I watched as Greta’s shoulders lifted in a sigh. She didn’t seem ready to turn around so I did the introducing, myself. I stepped forward and held out my right hand.
“Hello, I’m Katherine Anne Kirby. And you are...?” That put her on the spot!
“Pamela Grimes.” She stood and took my hand in her small one. She had a soft, flaccid handshake. My father always says you can’t trust a person with either a limp handshake or shifty eyes. But maybe I was being too critical of her. Maybe she was a decent person. For the most part, I’m a fair and open-minded girl. But right then, I wasn’t feeling very generous.
“Nice to meet you.” I said the words automatically, because it really wasn’t very nice to meet her. She might be taking my best friend away from me. I made sure my handshake was firm. Just to let her know that I’m trustworthy.
“And you, too, Katherine.” Pamela stood there awkwardly. I could tell she felt like she should go to Greta, but there was no room in Gram’s arms for even a woman that tiny. She couldn’t have been more than five feet tall. At five feet, eight inches tall, I was the biggest person in the room, and I felt like a giant. But I’ll bet I would have fit into Gram’s embrace. Me and Greta, both.
Gramps cleared his throat.
“Pamela arrived only a few minutes before you girls did. We haven’t had much time to talk. Why don’t you two go for a walk, enjoy the first afternoon of your vacation? We probably won’t be going to the movies like we’d planned.” He looked apologetically at me, but he knew I’d understand. I didn’t feel like going to the theater now, anyway. And I didn’t think Greta did, either.
“Sounds good to me. What do you say, Greta? I’ll race you to the old pine tree!”
Greta sniffed and nodded her head, still buried in Gram’s chest. I was pretty sure Gram would have a glob of snot on her blouse when Greta stepped away. Oh, well. It probably wouldn’t be the first time. Greta sighed again and stepped away from her grandmother. Her smile was a little trembly, but she was doing her ‘brave’ act. She’d gotten awfully good at it over the last year or two, and it hurt me to witness it again. She looked lovingly at Gramps.
“It’s okay about the movies. We’ll go some other time.” Then she turned to me, studiously ignoring her mother. “Last one to the tree has to wash dishes tonight!” That said, she whirled and ran back through the doorway we’d just entered. She was already sprinting, and I didn’t have a chance in heck of catching up to her. It’s a good thing I don’t mind doing dishes.
“I guess I’d better go!” I said, and then flew out the door behind her. Only a few months ago, I never even would have attempted to race Greta.... never would have run at all, unless a bear had been chasing me. When Greta and I met last fall, I was fat. Really fat. Forty or fifty pounds overweight. Just walking any distance would make me sweaty and out of breath. I’d been unhealthy and self-conscious, and generally miserable. But since Greta and I had become friends, I’d slimmed down tremendously. She was athletic and always on the go; she didn’t like being still half as much as she liked walking and running and swimming. And because I loved her and loved being around her--well, I started to do those things, too. I stopped consoling myself with food, stopped watching as much television, stopped stopping and started going. And while I sometimes still felt like a fat girl on the inside, on the outside I was leaner and much healthier. And so, I jumped off the Rommels’ porch, cut around to the back of the house, and started running as fast as I could across their back lawn and up the hill that rose behind it. Arms and long legs pumping I flew, up towards the ancient pine tree that stood at the top of the mound that overlooked Greta’s home.
Of course, she was already there--hands propped on her knees as she caught her breath. I heard her laugh at me as I slowed to a stop. It was a good sound, that laughter.
“Beat you again!” she crowed.
“Yeah, but you cheated! I had to stay and exchange recipes for tuna casserole with your mother before I could leave!” I plopped to the ground beneath the pine tree and leaned against the pitchy bark. If I’d tried that run last September, I would have dropped dead of a heart attack long before I reached the bottom of the hill. Now, I was only pleasantly winded. “I’ll bet she can’t even cook!” Greta sank down beside me and made a face. “I didn’t handle that very well, did I?” she asked quietly. I elbowed her affectionately.
“You surprised me. I didn’t know you could be so--witchy!” I grinned. “And here I’ve been telling people how polite and nice you are! Ha!” I tried to keep the moment light. Lord knows she’d had few enough light moments, lately.
“I shouldn’t have hollered at her, I know.” Greta began sifting orange pine needles through her fingers. The air was warm and smelled of pungent ferns and pitch and soil. Briefly, I longed to be home at Grumble Bluff, my own private woodland sanctuary. Problems always seemed more manageable at Grumble.
“She’s a big girl. She can handle it.”
“Actually, she’s tiny, isn’t she? I can’t even remember her, really, but I never pictured her being so small. I guess that’s where I get my size.” Greta was whippet-thin and about five inches shorter than I was, but she was still taller than her mother.
“Let’s just hope your chest grows bigger than hers did!” I giggled. “She might as well have Hershey’s Kisses taped under her shirt!”
“Shut up!” Greta smacked me in the shoulder and giggled back at me. “I’m going to have massive bosoms, just you wait and see. They’ll be even bigger than yours, if you can believe that!” We loved poking fun at each other, because we were comfortable in our affection. It was different from when other people made fun of us, and we’d both been through plenty of that.
We sat quietly for a few minutes, listening to the lazy sounds of the birds and hearing the occasional noise of traffic as it passed in front of the house. Finally, Greta spoke.
“What do you suppose they’re talking about?” she asked.
“I think Gram and Gramps are giving her the old what-for. I think they’re telling her that they love you, and they want you, and she can just forget about taking you with her. That’s what I think!” And hope and pray, I didn’t say.
Greta scooped the scattered pine needles into a big mound in front of her. Her hands were busy, but her mind wasn’t focused on what they were doing. She was thinking about her mother.
“ ‘Pamela Grimes’, she said. I guess that means she remarried. So I have a stepfather. Yuck.”
“Oh, man,” I said, the thought just hitting me. “Maybe you have brothers or sisters, too!” That worried me. Again, I was being selfish. But I knew how much Greta had longed for siblings. She doted on my younger brothers, Greg and Duncan, and had often said she was envious of me because of them. If Pamela had other children, brothers or sisters to offer Greta, would that make her want to go live with her mother? I couldn’t compete with real live siblings. And that’s what I suddenly felt like I had to do--compete. I could feel a little niggling panic setting in.
At my mention of brothers and sisters, Greta’s hand flew to her mouth.
“Oh, my God. I never thought of that!”
“Me neither,” I said glumly.
I was in an awful quandary. As Greta’s friend, I wanted her to be happy. But what if going to live with her mother was what would make her happiest? I had a mother, and a father, too. Granted, my relationship with them wasn’t the comfortable, affectionate one that Greta had shared with her father, and still had with her grandparents, but I had both my parents, at least. And, I had two bratty but wonderful little brothers, too. What kind of friend was I, if I wanted her to stay in Embden even if that wasn’t what might be best for her? If she might be able to have a whole family, all her own? I felt like throwing up.
“Well,” said the always-practical Greta, “there’s no sense in worrying about all that until I know, is there? And I won’t know until I go down to the house and face the old bat, will I?”
In spite of my dark thoughts, I smiled at her descriptive choice of words.
“I suppose I should call Mom, and ask her to come and pick me up. You’ve got a big family pow-wow to attend. I don’t imagine your mother wants me to sit in on it. I don’t think she liked me.” I was so used to not being liked that the thought didn’t really bother me. As long as I still had Greta’s, Gram’s and Gramps’ love, what Pamela Grimes thought of me didn’t really matter.
At that moment, we heard the unmistakable sound of a vehicle being started. We stood up in time to see the blue Saturn with New York license plates back out of the Rommels’ driveway and start down the road towards Route 16. Greta and I looked at each other, a mixture of pleasure and confusion on our faces.
“It couldn’t have been that easy, could it?” Greta asked tentatively. I shrugged my shoulders.
“Let’s go see. Last one back has to dry the dishes!” And I was off, using the three-second start to my advantage. All was fair in love and war. Please God, I thought as I scrambled down the hill, please don’t let there be a war.