FRIENDSHIP FOR TODAY
By Patricia C. Mckissack
On a September day, the last day of summer vacation for the children of Camden Falls, Massachusetts, a chilly breeze blew through town.
“Good gravy, it’s cool this morning,” Min Read exclaimed to her granddaughters as they stepped outside. “I think I need to grab a sweater. Are you two going to be warm enough?”
“Yup,” Flora and Ruby answered. And Ruby added, “We don’t need sweaters.”
As Min hurried back inside, the girls danced through the carpet of acorns on the sidewalk in front of the Row Houses, where they lived with their grandmother.
“Are you nervous about tomorrow?” Flora asked her sister.
“About starting school?”
“A little,” admitted Ruby. She would be starting fourth grade and Flora would be starting sixth. “But I’m not going to think about that. I’m trying to memorize all the songs from Annie. That’s my goal."
“Your goal for what?” asked Flora.
”Just my goal. In case I’m ever asked to audition for a production of the show. It could happen, you know.” Then, seeing the expression on Flora’s face, she added hurriedly, “Well, it could.”
“I didn’t say it couldn’t.”
“You were thinking it.”
“How do you know what I was thinking?”
“Girls?” said their grandmother as she emerged from their house wearing a sweater she had knitted herself. “Do I hear squabbling?”
“No,” said Flora as she set off down the sidewalk.
“Yes,” said Ruby. “But not bad squabbling.” She kicked an acorn ahead of her as she ran after her grandmother and sister. For an old lady, Min was pretty quick. And busy, which was why, when Flora and Ruby were much smaller, they had begun to call her Min. It was short for Mindy, which was her name, and for “In a minute,” which she used to say all the time.
Ruby skipped along. “Send a flood, send the flu, anything that you can dooooo,” she sang, and she let her voice rise, “‘to little giiiiirls!”
Ahead of her, Min turned around. “What on earth is she singing?” she asked Flora,
It’s okay. It’s a song from Annie.
“Lord love a duck,” murmured Min.
Flora retreated into silence. She was cataloging the signs of fall that they passed on their way to Needle and Thread, the sewing store that Min owned with her friend Mrs. Walter. Above, the dry leaves in the oak trees rattled in the breeze. In the yard of a house on the other side of Aiken Avenue, one entire garden was now overrun with lavender autumn crocuses, their long leaves spilling over the rocky border and onto the lawn. On some of the fir trees, Flora could see tiny pinecones She thought of collecting a basketful of them and painting them gold and silver to use in Christmas decorations And with that one simple thought, which last year would have brought her such pleasure, a curtain fell across Flora’s brain. She drew in several deep breaths as she trotted along with Min.
Min glanced at her. “Everything all right, honey?”
“Yup,” said Flora. She loved Min, but she found herself unable to share her new worries with her. She willed herself to chase away the thoughts in her head and tried concentrating on the sounds behind her.
“. . . betcha they’re smart. Bet they collect things like ashtrays and aaaaart!”
Flora thought about the photo in her pocket, the one that had so frightened her the night before. She put her hand on it to make sure it was there. She planned to show it to her friend Olivia later that morning.
“Hurry up, girls!” Min called as she turned onto Main Street. ‘We’re late this morning, and it’s all my fault.”
Moments later, Min Read and her granddaughters reached Needle and Thread. Flora flung open the door, the bell jangling above her. Mrs. Walter, Olivia’s grandmother (called Gigi by her grandchildren and by Flora and Ruby), had already put the coffee on and was arranging new sewing and quilting magazines in the rack near the cash register.
“I’m sorry we’re late,” said Min breathlessly. “I had to go back for a sweater.”
“No worries,” replied Mrs. Walter. “I’ve only been here a few minutes myself.”
During the next hour, Flora and Ruby helped Min and Gigi get ready for the day, and then Flora plopped herself down on one of the couches at the front of Needle and Thread, the couches where customers sat when they dropped by for a chat-and-stitch. She gazed out the wide window and watched Main Street come to life.
Flora and Ruby had lived in Camden Falls for just over two months, so watching Main Street come to life was still interesting, at least to Flora. She wondered if it would always be interesting. Or would she one day be so used to this town that she wouldn’t notice the details anymore? She thought about her old home, the town in which she and Ruby had grownup. She didn’t remember many of the details. Was that because she had been so used to everything?
Flora stared moodily out the window at Stuff ‘n’ Nonsense across the street. Maybe she should have paid more attention to her old town, to her street, her house, her room, her parents. But how could she have known it would all be taken away from her? She was thankful, of course, that after her parents’ accident Min had been able to care for her and Ruby. And Flora liked Camden Falls. She did. She was making friends. There was Nikki, who’d recently started visiting Needle and Thread. And, of course, Olivia, who lived next door in the Row Houses. Although Olivia was a year younger than Flora, she had skipped second grade and would be in Mrs. Mandel’s sixth-grade class with Flora and Nikki when school started the next day.
Flora liked Needle and Thread, too. She liked her other neighbors in the Row Houses. She liked lots of things here. But here wasn’t home for Flora. Not yet. Now autumn was arriving. Ordinarily, this was Flora’s favorite time of the year. Ruby’s, too. Autumn meant pumpkins and new shoes and a fresh school year. And it meant that the holidays were on the way. Halloween first, then Thanksgiving and Christmas. This was what made the curtain fall across Flora’s brain: the holidays. How could she face them without her parents? How could Ruby and Min face them?
“Flora?” Flora felt her grandmother’s hands on her shoulders and turned to see Min standing behind the couch. “It’s your last day of vacation. Do you really want to sit here all morning? Soon enough you’ll be complaining that you don’t have any time for sewing or knitting or making cards.”
Flora heaved a great sigh. “I know,” she replied. She stood up wearily and looked around Needle and Thread. “Where’s Ruby?”
Running errands for Gigi and me.
Flora thought about strolling up and down Main Street until she found her sister. One of the best things about living in Camden Falls was being allowed freedom and independence. Her old home had been two miles from town — a town that was much bigger than Camden Falls. Flora and Ruby had never ever been allowed to roam it by themselves. But this new town was different. Main Street really was the main street, even though it was only a few blocks long. A person could walk from one end of downtown Camden Falls to the other in fifteen minutes. The Row Houses were a seven-minute walk, exactly, from Needle and Thread.
While Flora stood by the couch, deciding whether to find Ruby or to work on the patchwork quilt she had begun the week before, the bell over the door to the store jangled, and in walked Robby Edwards and his mother.
“Flora!” exclaimed Robby. “Good morning! We start school tomorrow. Are you excited? Are you scared?” Flora smiled. “Hi, Robby,” she said. Robby was seventeen years old and one of the most cheerful people Flora had ever met.
"I'm going to be in the high school", Robby went on.
Flora knew that Robby, who had Down syndrome, attended a special education class at Camden Falls Central High School.
“I’ll be at Camden Falls Elementary,” Flora said. “In sixth grade. Olivia and Nikki are going to be in my class. Ruby will be in fourth grade.”
“I have Mrs. Fulton,” said Robby. “I always have her. She’s very nice. She has lots of glue.”
Robby left Flora and began wandering around Needle and Thread. He let his hand graze bolts of fabric as he passed the racks of quilting cottons. He examined the displays of buttons and laces. He eyed with interest the small table near the back of the store where old Mary Woolsey sat when she took in mending. He passed his mother, who was leafing through pattern books. Finally, he returned to the front of the store and looked at the flyers by the register.
“Make a teddy bear,” he read aloud. “Learn to sew, have fun, and help a kid in need.’ Flora,” he said, “what is this?”
“It’s a class we’re going to have here at the store,” she explained.
“And it was all Flora’s idea,” a voice said. Flora turned around to see Olivia come jangling through the door. “Hi, everyone!” Olivia called. “Hi, Gigi. Hi, Min. Hi, Robby.”
“Hello, Olivia,” replied Robby.
Olivia peered at the flyer Robby was holding. “These came out really well,” she said.
“Camden Falls Art Supply printed them,” said Gigi. “I picked them up on my way to the store this morning. They did come out well, didn’t they?”
“But what do you mean, ‘Learn to sew and help a kid in need’?” asked Robby.
“It’s a really cool idea,” said Olivia. “You can take the class for free. You sign up ahead of time, and when you come to the store, we give you everything you need to make a teddy bear. We’ll help you make it — if you don’t already know how to sew — and then all the finished bears will be donated to kids who.. .“ (Olivia paused and glanced at Flora) “to kids who really need them.”
“That’s okay,” said Flora. “You can say it. Robby, after the car accident —“
“The one you and Ruby were in with your parents?”
“Yes. After the car accident, when the police officer came to tell Ruby and me that our parents had died, she gave each of us a teddy bear. And then I read about this organization that gives teddies to kids who need them — kids who are in the hospital, or who have lost their homes, or who are really sad.”
“Like you and Ruby,” said Robby.
Flora swallowed. “Well, yes.” Talking about the accident had become a little easier, but not much.
“I want to make a teddy bear,” said Robby.
“Great. You can be the first one to sign up for a class, said Olivia.
Robby grinned and shouted across the store, “Mom, I’m going to learn to sew, have fun, and help a kid in need!”
The bell over the door jangled again. . . and again and again as customers came and went.
“Land sakes, what a busy morning,” said Min.
Ruby returned from her errands, and she and Flora began assembling teddy bear kits for the classes. Olivia, who got paid to work at the store since her father had lost his job, rang up purchases while Min and Gigi helped customers. Olivia took her work very seriously.
It wasn’t until after lunch that things quieted down, and when they did, Nikki arrived. She stepped cautiously through the door, barely causing the bell to ring.
“Hi,” she said shyly.
“Nikki, dear,” said Gigi. “How nice that you could stop by.”
Nikki Sherman, scrawny and unkempt, lived on the outskirts of Camden Falls. Until her brother had found a bicycle at the dump and fixed it up for her, she hadn’t had a way to come into town on her own. And she had even fewer reasons to do so. She almost never had money to spend, and until recently she’d had no friends, either. But the summer — and Flora and Ruby’s arrival — had changed that.
Olivia, Ruby, Flora, and Nikki sprawled on the couches at the front of Needle and Thread. Min and Gigi sat behind the counter while a sole customer roamed the store. “I can’t believe summer’s over,” said Olivia, letting out a loud sigh. “It always goes by too fast.”
“I thought you liked school,” said Ruby.
“I do. But I like vacation just as much.”
“This summer seemed really long to me,” said Flora.
“Me, too,” said Nikki. “But I still don’t want to go back to school.”
‘Why not?” asked Ruby. “School’s fun. You get to be with your friends.”
“You don’t have friends yet,” Flora said to Ruby. “I mean, friends your own age.”
“I do, too. Lacey is my age. Almost. And I’ll have more friends soon. Nikki, how come you don’t want to go to school?”
Nikki shrugged. “I just don’t.”
“Not even if you and Flora and I will be in the same class?” asked Olivia, who knew why Nikki didn’t want to go to school. It must have been awful to be a Sherman in Camden Falls. The Shermans had an unfortunate reputation, mainly because Mr. and Mrs. Sherman drank too much and Mr. Sherman had a terrible temper. The three Sherman kids showed up at school in ill-fitting clothes and were able to bathe only when the plumbing in their little house was in working order. Olivia hoped school might improve for Nikki now that they were all friends.
“Well, that will make it better,” Nikki agreed. “Plus, we’ll have Mrs. Mandel.”
Every student at Camden Falls Elementary hoped to get Mrs. Mandel for sixth grade.
The girls lounged on the couches until Nikki looked at the Needle and Thread clock.
“Oh!” she cried. “I have to go! I promised Tobias I’d get home by three to take care of Mae so he can go to work, He got a part-time job at John’s.”
“John’s?” said Flora.
“That auto body place out by the new grocery store.” Nikki jumped to her feet. “Okay. I’ll see you guys at school tomorrow. Wish me luck on the bus.”
“Good luck,” said Flora and Ruby dutifully.
And Olivia said, “Stick with Mae. Maybe no one will bother you if you’re sitting with a first-grader.”
The door closed behind Nikki, and Flora felt in her pocket for the photograph. Then she glanced at her sister. “Hey, Ruby. If you’ll go to Ma Grand-mere to get chocolate chip cookies for you and Olivia and me, I’ll pay for the cookies.”
“Cool,” said Ruby, who grabbed the money from her sister and was out the door before Flora could change her mind.
Flora scooted down the couch to Olivia and thrust the photo in front of her. “Look. Look at this,” she said.
“What is it?” Olivia squinted at the picture of a young woman posing stiffly with a little girl.
“I found it in this box of papers that was in the attic,” Flora replied. “1 haven’t told anyone about the box yet,” she added, squirming slightly. “It’s old family stuff and I kind of want to keep it a secret.”
“Min’s stuff? How come you want to keep it a secret?”
“I just do.”
“Okay.... Who are these people?”
“That’s just the thing. I’ve been looking at the picture over and over, thinking the woman is familiar. The little girl is my mother when she was four years old. See?”
Flora turned over the photo to show Olivia the writing on the back. “It says ‘Frannie and Mary — nineteen-seventy.’ Frannie is my mother, and at first I thought Mary might be Min’s sister, Mary Elizabeth. A nice photo of my mother with her aunt. But take a look at the necklace Mary is wearing.”
Olivia brought the photo closer to her face and gazed at it for a moment. Then she screamed and dropped the picture to the floor.
“Shh!” hissed Flora. She grabbed for the photo and turned around to look at Min and Gigi, but they were busy talking with the UPS woman who had arrived at the back door with a delivery. Then she clasped Olivia’s hand. “It’s who I think it is, isn’t it?” she said quietly.
Scary Mary, whispered Olivia, wearing her star necklace.
“What was my mother doing with Mary Woolsey? I didn’t think Mary knew my family back then.”
“I have no idea,” Olivia croaked, and she cleared her throat.
“Really? You don’t have any idea at all? You’ve told me everything you know about Mary?”
“Cross my heart. She’s, like, eighty years old. She lives alone — you saw her house. She’s possibly a witch and definitely crazy. She’s buried some kind of treasure in her garden and she keeps a child hidden in her basement.”
Flora narrowed her eyes at Olivia.
“Okay, those are just rumors. But they might be true.”
“She catches rats in her attic and fries them up for dinner?” suggested Olivia.
“Come on. Tell me something that will help.”
“I don’t know anything more. I mean, anything more than you do. She comes here three times a week to take in people’s mending and stuff, and to return it to them when it’s finished. She’s been doing that ever since the store opened, I think, and that’s how she earns her money, thanks to Gigi and Min.” Olivia looked at the photo again and shuddered. “I really don’t know what she would have been doing with your mother.” She paused. “Maybe your mother had a secret past.”
Flora was about to reply when Ruby entered the store, holding aloft a paper bag from Ma Grand-mere. Flora stuffed the picture back in her pocket and whispered to Olivia, “Vie can discuss this later.”
Now she had even more questions. . . and no answers. Although she did like the idea of someone, anyone, having a secret past.