Just because Bernie Bolton turned ten that summer, don't get the idea it was a great summer for her...because it wasn't. In fact, it was probably the most awful summer of her whole life, so far.But, don't get the idea it was a hideous summer either, because it wasn't. What it was, was the summer she would remember forever...the summer she started to grow up for real.
The first day of fifth grade was tomorrow, and Bernie was so excited she could hardly stand it. After a miserable fourth grade year of suffering with Miss Boggs, the meanest teacher at Hope Valley Elementary School, and having to put up with awful Freddie White, the biggest, most conceited jerk, and the cutest (Oh my gosh, where did that thought come from?), Bernie was definitely ready for a change. Well, anyway, the gods of unhappy school children had smiled on her, and allowed her to get Mr. Soren for fifth grade. He was, without doubt, the coolest teacher in the entire universe. He never yelled at kids, he gave easy tests and practically no homework, and did amazing things like field trips and stuff. Bernie had been so jealous of her best friend, Emmy Holloway, last year because Emmy got Mr. Soren. But this year, Mr. Soren decided to teach fifth grade. Emmy got Mrs. Thompson, who was okay, but sort of boring, and Bernie got the most fabulous man ever born...if you don't count Elvis, who was Bernie's favorite human who ever lived.
Bernie's real name, Bernice Blossom Bolton, was still mainly an embarrassment to her, but as she got older she was beginning to realize that someday she would age into those names the same way her grandmothers did. She was named after both of them, and after all, they must have been kids once, too. Right?
The rest of fourth grade went pretty much as expected, except Bernie didn't get the lead in the school's Annual Spring Play, but she got over it fast enough. Of course, until she did she made everyone's life a nightmare. Except her best friend, Emmy, who thought Bernie was being a spoiled brat and a poor sport. Whatever!
Also, her father and Priscilla got married on their Christmas trip to Las Vegas. That was when she took that fabulous trip to New York with her big sister, Lizzy, and Lizzy's husband, Sam. She had the best time of her life, but was very surprised when she got home to find her father was married. The only thing she didn't like about Priscilla was her silly earrings. You know...like skeletons on Halloween, and big silver bells with red ribbons at Christmas, and naked babies on everyone's birthday. The naked babies were the most embarrassing. She also had pretty strange taste in clothes, like lots of ruffles, and polka dots, and bows and things, and a five-year-old son named Kirby. But, aside from that, she thought Priscilla was pretty terrific.
The week after New Years, there was a huge wedding party at her house. Absolutely everyone was invited. There were lots of people she knew and lots she didn't; and the food was very grown-up. She didn't know how normal people could eat black fish eggs or smashed goose's liver, but they did and actually acted like they enjoyed it. Hmmm! She mainly stuck to the cheese and crackers, just to be safe.
The other thing that happened before the end of fourth grade was that both her new step-mother and her sister found out they were going to have babies, and they would be born at almost the same time. Priscilla, thank goodness, was only going to have one baby...but Lizzy was going to have TWO. Twins! And all three of these new people were going to be BOYS!! The thought of it made Bernie feel faint. Combine that with Kirby, and Bernie spent a fair amount of time asking God what she did wrong.
So, here it was, the night before the first day of school, and as a special treat, Priscilla gave her permission to take a bubble bath in the new Jacuzzi bathtub.Since her bathroom just had an old, regular bathtub, it was a real treat to be able to wallow in a huge tub that jetted water all around you and tickled your feet, and other places. It reminded Bernie of standing in front of the filter pump thingies at the swimming pool in the summer. The best part was that she made an amazing discovery. Priscilla told her only to use a capful of bubble bath, but she accidentally poured in almost half of the bottle. OOPS! And before she knew what was happening, the bubbles grew and grew until they started to spill over the sides of the tub. It looked like a washing machine overflowing, like in one of those silly cartoons Kirby watched on TV. It was the coolest thing in the world! By the time Bernie could find the button to turn off the motor, the only thing sticking out of the bubbles was her head. That was exactly the moment her father stuck his nose in the door to check on her, and started to laugh.
"Now not too long, young lady! It's getting late and tomorrow's..."
"I know, Daddy," Bernie interrupted, "I'm almost done."
As Mr. Bolton closed the door again, Bernie settled back into the hot, steamy, bubbly, wonderfulness, and thought about the summer, and about how sometimes bad problems can happen in a kid's life. And, how important solutions can occasionally be found in very extraordinary places.
Kirby Fitzgerald turned five in February, even though he didn't have a birthday.Leap years were hard enough for ten-year-olds to understand, and Bernie, not really sure she had reasoned it out herself, tried to explain it to a five-year-old, who had been upset about the whole idea since February...and this was June.
As Bernie and her stepbrother, Kirby, sat on the backyard swings on a perfect summer day in North Carolina, Bernie tried to explain it all... again.
"Look, stop being a blockhead and open your ears. You were born on the twenty-ninth day of February. Right? That means you were born in a leap year, and that means you can only have a birthday once every four years."
"Why?That's not fair!" whined Kirby.
"Just because, that's why. Look...we're gonna have your birthdays anyway, okay? So you'll get to be six and seven and everything, it's just that you'll have to celebrate your birthday on February 28th instead of February 29th except every four years," sighed Bernie.
"But I don't get how could I have a birthday with no birthday!" whined Kirby, who really was confused, and had been for four months.
"I don't know, Kirby, it just happens that way, is all. You'll understand when you get big," answered Bernie, determined to end the conversation.
Bernie had grown very fond of Kirby, and very protective. Sure, sometimes he was a major pain, and sometimes she plain couldn't stand to be in the same room with him. But basically, she was glad to have a little brother. Little kids could be pretty funny at times and very lovable, too. And five-year-old, redheaded, blue-eyed Kirby really was a cutie. He even had freckles, just like Bernie's, which made her feel especially connected to him. Everybody who saw them thought they were "real" brother and sister, which, of course, they weren't.
Bernie and Kirby sat in silence for a few minutes watching the clouds go by, and watching Jasmine chasing a big yellow butterfly.
Jasmine was the Bolton's new dog. They all went over to the animal shelter in April and picked out the most adorable dog they could find.
Of course, Bernie thought they were all pretty cute, but Priscilla insisted on a small, non-shedding dog that was already housebroken. That didn't leave much to choose from, but they finally settled on this miniature something-or-other.
It was a boy dog, but Kirby liked the name Jasmine, so Jasmine it was. Bernie just hoped the dog never figured out he had a girl name or he'd be really mad. He was sort of long, and sort of curly, and sort of brown, and sort of smart...and sort of housebroken.
It was actually hysterical to see Priscilla chasing him around the house with a bottle of rug shampoo. Mr. Bolton said everyone had to be patient with him because he needed to get used to his new home. Things definitely were improving, but unfortunately, not fast enough for Priscilla. Jasmine spent a lot of time outside or in the kitchen.
"Bernie, are green beans the same as string beans?" asked Kirby.
"Yes.Do we have to talk about green beans?" answered Bernie.
"Well," said Kirby, "it's just that I like green beans, but if they're called string beans I won't like them anymore, because strings aren't good things to eat and they might make me barf or something."
"Don't say barf, Kirby. It's not nice to say barf. Instead, just say throw-up or puke or something. It's much more polite."
Kirby thought about that a minute, and then shrugged his shoulders."Bernie," he asked, "if Jasmine was born in the same year as me, how come Papa says Jasmine's thirty-five years old and I'm just five?"
"Because, that's in dog years and you're not a dog," answered Bernie.
"Why?" asked Kirby
"Leave - me - alone! I have more important things to do than talk about dogs and beans that make you throw up!" Bernie jumped off of the swing and went to the back door. "PRISCILLA, PRISCILLA," she shouted.
"What is it, Bernie? You don't have to shout. I'm right here," said Priscilla as she came to the door.
Bernie thought that Priscilla actually looked very pretty lately. Of course, she'd never be as pretty as Bernie's real mother who died when Bernie was seven, but being pregnant really made Priscilla happy, and the happiness showed all over her face. She still wore dorky clothes though, like the shirt she was wearing today with big white polka dots, and the pink leather pants with bows at the ankles.
In fact, the more Bernie got to know Priscilla, the more she liked her, because Priscilla had a very funny sense of humor and made Bernie laugh a lot. Papa said laughter was the best medicine...whatever that meant; and Grammy told Bernie she was very lucky to have a stepmother as wonderful as Priscilla. Now if only she would stop hanging her panty hose in Bernie's bathtub, they could really get along famously.
"Can I go over to Emmy's house for a while? I'm really bored," pleaded Bernie.
"Bored? Bernie it's only the first week of vacation, what are you gonna do for the rest of the summer?" answered Priscilla.
"I don't know. I'll figure something out. Can I go?"
"Well, would you mind taking Kirby with you? I'm really tired today, Bernie, and I'd love to take a little nap," said Priscilla.
Bernie hated it when Priscilla made her drag Kirby around all over the place. It wasn't that he was a bad kid or anything. It was just, well, like he had ants in his pants. He couldn't sit still for two seconds and he talked a mile a minute, all day long. He was always climbing on something or jumping off of something else, he never looked where he was going, and he always seemed to trip on stuff that even someone with their eyes shut could see. Once, a few weeks ago, Bernie took him over to Lizzy's house, and he slipped on a piece of old apple that the garbage men had dropped. He skinned both knees and howled for thirty-five minutes straight. Bernie timed it. It was that kind of thing that made it an agony to go anywhere with Kirby. And, of course, when they got home and Priscilla saw his knees all messed up...guess who got blamed?
Bernie groaned. "Do I have to take him? He acts like such a little kid all the time, it's impossible for me and Emmy to even do anything."
"Well, of course he acts like a little kid, Bernie, he's only five," replied Priscilla with a laugh. "I know it's hard to watch him. That's why I'm asking you to do me this little favor. If he stays home, I'll never get to rest this afternoon. Please, pretty please, with sugar on top, and a cherry?"
There she goes again, thought Bernie with turned down eyebrows and curled-in lips.First she wants me to be Miss Grown-up and baby-sit for this miniature wild-man, who is only one step brighter than Bonzo, the chimpanzee that I saw in an old movie on TV. And then, the next minute, she's talking to me like I was still five myself. Grown-ups really should figure this out, 'cause it's darn confusing.
"Okay, but you owe me big time," said Bernie with a scowl.
Priscilla laughed, "You're right, I do. Thank you, Bernie." She leaned over and kissed Bernie on the forehead and then disappeared into the house again.
"Okay, Bonzo, let's go," announced Bernie.
"Who's Bonzo?" asked Kirby.
"Your third cousin," replied Bernie.
Kirby, of course, had no idea what she was talking about. He just gave her a funny look, and bounded out of the yard and half way down the block before Bernie could catch up with him.
"Hold it, Kirby! You better behave yourself today at Emmy's, or else," warned Bernie as she grabbed his arm to slow him down...and to keep him from getting run over by Todd Newcomb's bicycle.
"Or else what?" said Kirby in his, I'm being obnoxious, voice.
"Or else I'll put a spell on you and turn you into a frog."
"That wouldn't be so bad," Kirby replied. "Then I could play with Sebastian all day in his little water bowl at school and all the kids would pet me."
"Yeah, and you'd have to eat bugs. That sounds pretty nifty, doesn't it?" Bernie remarked as she took Kirby's hand and led him across the street to Colony Road, where Emmy lived.
"Bugs might be good," said Kirby, obviously intrigued by this boring conversation.
"Shut up, Kirby," replied Bernie, knowing this would get back to Priscilla, but at the moment, she didn't care one bit.
They walked in blessed silence for a few minutes until Kirby asked, "Are we going to the purple house?"
"Yeah," answered Bernie. She loved Emmy's purple, Victorian-style house with all the yellow and blue curly-cue trim. It looked like a fairy tale house made of candy, and she smiled every time she saw it.
Mrs. Holloway, Emmy's mom, had a real green thumb, and there were flowers everywhere in the summer. She also made amazing double fudge brownies with cream cheese frosting that made Bernie's mouth water just thinking about them.
Sometimes when things got really stressful at home, like the time when Kirby got into her things and she got in trouble for yelling at him, she would think about how great it would be if she were adopted by the Holloways and lived in the purple house. But, even though she truly loved Emmy, who was her best friend on the entire planet, and even though Mrs. Holloway was her ideal, cuddly, cozy mom, she decided there was no way she was ever going to be able to live with Emmy's horrible brother, Malcolm, or Emmy's father, who was a Math teacher. That would remind her all the time how much she didn't like math.
"Is Mr. Ralston a ghost?" asked Kirby, interrupting Bernie's thoughts.
"Stop being stupid, Kirby. Of course he's not a ghost," said Bernie.
"Then how come I never see him come out of his house or even by the window, but his lights are always on?"
"He doesn't come out of his house 'cause he's old. That doesn't make him a ghost," answered Bernie, as she continued to drag Kirby down Colony Road.
"How come Malcolm doesn't wear hair?" Kirby persisted, even though he was out of breath from trying to keep up.
"Because the pirates scalped him when they kidnapped him on their big pirate ship last Thursday," said Bernie.
Kirby stopped dead in his tracks and wouldn't move. "I'm gonna tell Mama you lied at me."
"Shut up, Kirby, and just behave yourself or I won't ever take you with me any place ever again," she scolded as she pulled Kirby up the path and onto the purple porch, knowing definitely that he would tattle on her for telling him to shut up twice...and the day wasn't over yet.
Before she could ring the bell, the door opened and Mrs. Holloway stepped out onto the porch.
"Well, look who's here," she said as she smiled her big extra-white smile. "And you brought little Kirby with you. Now give Laida a big hug here, both of you babies." She then grabbed Bernie and Kirby, one in each arm and hugged them until they could hardly breathe.
"Hi, Mrs. Holloway, is Emmy...?" Bernie grunted under the pressure of Mrs. Holloway's loving squeeze.
"She sure is, sugar." And thankfully she let go just before Kirby started to turn blue. "Emmy, EMELIA, Bernie Bolton is..."
Before she could finish, Emmy Holloway came charging out of the screen door. Emmy looked just like her mother, only a much smaller version. They both had beautiful brown skin, huge brown eyes that twinkled when they were happy, extra-white teeth, and wonderful hair ...all in little braids. Mrs. Holloway usually tied her braids back with a big barrette, but Emmy liked to wear hers hanging loose so they moved when she walked. The only difference was that Mrs. Holloway was very large and always wore hippie muumuu things, and Emmy was very thin and always wore dresses, even on the weekends and in the summer. She said she liked it that way, and when she wore shorts, she always wore a sundress over them. She did, however, draw the line at swimming attire, and actually shed her skirts when it was time to go to the pool.
The two girls had been friends since Kindergarten, and even though they could be heard all the way down the block, from time to time, arguing about just about anything and everything, they were truly best friends and swore they would be forever, even when one of them had to go to the old folk's home and the other had to push the wheel chair all day. They couldn't decide, however, what they would do if both of them wound up there at the same time.
"Hey, Bernie," said Emmy, "I see you got stuck babysitting again."
"I'm not a baby," growled Kirby as he folded his arms across his chest and turned away.
"Of course you're not, Kirby," reassured Mrs. Holloway as she gave him a big hug. "You're a grown-up gentleman. Why you couldn't go to school this coming year if you weren't a grown-up boy, now could ya'?"
She hugged him again, gave Bernie and Emmy the evil eye that meant: be nice to Kirby or else, and she disappeared into the house.
"Now what?" asked Emmy.
"Let's go in your backyard. If we give him a shovel he'll be busy all afternoon. My Papa went and told him if you dig deep enough you can get to China," answered Bernie with a little laugh.
Emmy stared at Bernie for a second and then said, "Is that true?"
Bernie stared back at Emmy for a second and said, "How did such smart parents as yours ever get such a dumb kid?"
"Same to you, BERNICE!" replied Emmy, who stalked off in the direction of the back yard.
Bernie grabbed Kirby's hand and dragged him along as she ran after Emmy, "Hey, I told you never to say Bernice!"