On the day before Izzy Mancini started sixth grade, she waded through the shallow water of Oceanside Pond carrying a clipboard, a weighted string, and a summer full of worry.
From the bow of her anchored skiff, Flotsam watched patiently. His salty wet fur sparkled in the afternoon sun.
“One more measurement,” she told him as she lowered the weight, attached to its long knotted string, into the salt pond. It settled to the silty floor with a soft poof, causing a hermit crab to scurry away. Izzy pinched the string where it met the water’s surface, then pulled it out, counting the knots.
“Almost three feet deep,” she told Flotsam as she recorded the number next to its GPS coordinate on her map. When she finished, she waded back to the skiff, holding the clipboard safely above her head. Water lapped at the frayed cuffs of her shorts.
At mean low tide, each day since she and her dad and Starenka had moved to the marina, Izzy measured a new section of Oceanside Pond. With everyone and everything in her world changing, mapping the pond had become a way for Izzy to make at least one thing stand still.
At the back of the skiff, she tucked her maps carefully into their patchwork bag, then checked her phone for the millionth time, hoping to discover a new clue inside Zelda’s text. But no matter how many times she swiped open the screen, the message stayed the same:
meet at sea star HQ @3:00 i know what to do
She tossed the phone inside her patchwork bag, which she slung over her shoulder.
“It’s time, Flotsam,” she said. “Let’s go.”
On the word go, he leapt from the boat in a black-and-white streak, splashing Izzy before scampering onto the pond’s rocky shore. She shook her head as he disappeared inside thick green sea-rose bushes.
Oceanside Pond was a coastal lagoon. Three miles long, it was created by a barrier beach that protected it from the Atlantic Ocean. Izzy made her way onto the sandy path that led to the ocean side of that barrier, careful to avoid the rocks and shells hidden there by angry waves on stormier days.
She squinted at the hazy sun, shining in its new end-of-summer slant. She scowled. Izzy didn’t like any ending, but the last day of summer was the worst ending of all.
It’s Labor Day, she reminded herself. Technically not the last day of summer, but an ending just the same.
The bushes rustled and Flotsam popped out, grinning a goofy dog smile as if to say, Surprise, I was here all along. Izzy couldn’t help but grin back.
As they emerged onto Brogee’s Beach, the Atlantic roared its welcome. Its giant gray waves slapped the beach before sucking back sand and stone with a gravelly growl. Izzy wanted to cover her ears. Instead, she felt for the key tucked deep inside her pocket and held it tight in her fist. Somehow this small act comforted her. She took a deep breath, then continued down the beach, wishing she could have met her friends on the pond side instead.
Her bare feet sank into the hot sand as Flotsam trotted about—one moment falling behind to nose a clump of seaweed, the next racing ahead to chase a gull. Wagons, piled high with toys and chairs and kids, tipped from side to side as parents dragged them from the beach.
“Always first,” she said to Flotsam as they reached their destination—a short, hollow concrete box that she and her best friends, Zelda and Piper, had dubbed the Sea Star Headquarters in a sacred ceremony when they were six.
According to her dad, the box was a relic from World War II. It had a square window that the girls used to decorate with seaweed curtains, and a circular opening on top that they could shimmy into. Back then, it was the perfect size for three best friends.
She adjusted her patchwork bag, then climbed onto its “roof.” The sun-warmed concrete felt rough and solid beneath her feet. Even though the girls couldn’t fit inside anymore, it was still where they met to discuss important business. Right then, nothing was more important than their move to Shoreline Regional Middle School.
The new school brought in kids from four towns. Izzy’s town, Seabury, was the smallest. Although she wouldn’t see her schedule until the first day of school, it didn’t stop her from imagining the worst. She worried that Zelda and Piper would be in the same classes while she was stuck with kids she didn’t know. She agonized over being lost in long hallways, late to class, and surrounded by strangers. She envisioned herself scanning the cafeteria for a familiar face—only to eat alone. She had nightmares about missed homework, missed buses, and missed friends.
A loud whoop from a cluster of surfers brought her thoughts back to the beach. They looked like busy seals in their black wet suits as they took turns paddling and catching waves. She shuddered, remembering her own one-time attempt at surfing when she almost drowned. The roar of the ocean had filled her head then too. This memory was enough to make her want to cover her ears all over again.
“Hey!” Piper interrupted her thoughts. She walked toward Izzy, still wearing her soccer socks and carrying cleats.
“Hey.” Izzy crossed her arms. “The ocean seems extra angry today, doesn’t it?”
Piper shrugged. “I don’t know. Offshore storm maybe?”
Izzy suddenly felt exposed. She jumped down into the hot sand, her patchwork bag slapping her leg.
“I can’t believe summer’s over and we barely got to hang out,” Piper said.
“The move … you know…,” Izzy said. “Everyone’s been real busy working at the marina and I had to help and—”
“Sure.” Piper half smiled. “Well, we’ll see each other every day now.”
Izzy couldn’t make herself smile back.
Piper stared into the ocean’s gray waves. “We’re still doing our annual back-to-school sleepover Saturday night at your house, right?”
“Oh … yeah. I forgot about that.” Izzy swallowed hard. “Or we could do your house.”
“How could you forget?” Piper fell back against the headquarters. “You were the one who made it a Sea Star annual tradition. We have to do your house—we’ve barely gotten to spend time at the marina. It will be so cool. Is your mom back yet?”
“We’re picking her up from the eight o’clock ferry tonight.” Izzy squinted across the sound to Block Island, where her mother had spent the summer working at her family’s restaurant, Loretta’s Kitchen. She could barely make out the North Lighthouse at the tip of Sandy Point.
Flotsam galloped toward them, crashing into Piper. She knelt down to pet him. “Hey, puppy, I’ve missed you!”
He reciprocated by shaking what seemed like a gallon of ocean from his shaggy black-and-white fur.
“I don’t know why he has to wait until he’s right next to people to do that.”
Piper wiped her face with her sleeve. “I needed a shower anyway,” she said, laughing.
Flotsam grinned his silly dog grin.
“I almost forgot,” Piper said. “My mother told me to ask you when is a good time to give your mom all the PTO stuff.”
“I’ll ask her tonight.”
“Text me what she says,” Piper said as she picked seaweed from Flotsam’s fur.
“So what do you think Zelda’s message means? Do you think she figured out how we can stay together in middle school?” Izzy asked.
“I hope so.” Piper looked at her watch. “She better get here soon. I have to be home by four to meet my new tutor.”
“Already? School hasn’t even started.”
“You know my mom.” Piper tucked her black curls behind her ears.
Another loud whoop! came from the direction of the ocean. The girls turned to watch Zelda riding a wave while sending air high fives to them. She’d been surfing all along.
Zelda hit the beach and unstrapped the leash from her ankle. Without drying off, she ran clumsily through the deep sand toward them, shouting. But the ocean air seemed to snatch her words before they could reach the girls.
Piper cupped her hands to her mouth. “What?!”
“I found out”—deep breath, deep breath—“how to make sure we get the same first-period class.” Zelda plopped into the sand, shaking her seaweed-streaked blonde hair. “The waves are awesome today!”
“But what about the rest of our classes?” Izzy said.
Zelda arched her eyebrow. Izzy knew this was her seriously? look. She’d watched her perfect it in the mirror a million times.
Izzy bit her lip.
“It’s better than nothing,” Zelda said. “Plus, at the middle school, your first-period class is also your homeroom. And if we’re in the same homeroom, it means we’ll get the same lunch and X-block and stuff like that.” She flicked a piece of seaweed from her arm. “Why don’t you just say thank you, Izzy?”
“It’s great, Zelda.” Piper’s smile showed more teeth than usual. “We knew you’d think of something. How’d you make it happen?”
“When I told my dad how upset I was about the Sea Stars being split up, he called the school. He talked to Mr. Cantor—he’s the tech ed teacher there. He and my dad used to work together at the university. Anyway, Mr. Cantor runs a class where the students do a news program called the Shoreline Regional Middle School News. My dad took me there and Mr. Cantor gave us a tour of the studio. You get a grade and everything. He’s never let sixth graders do it before, but my dad says a bunch of kids quit at the last minute, so he needs students.”
Izzy looked from Zelda to Piper and back. “What do you mean do the news?”
“We use real equipment like cameras and there’s a green screen and computers and sound equipment, and we put the school news together and then report it.”
“So, we’ll be on TV?” Piper asked.
“Yeah—not TV you can see at home, but school TV,” Zelda said. “Also, we won’t be able to do music or art so your parents have to call the school to say it’s okay.”
“What do you mean we can’t do art?” Izzy asked.
“Tech ed meets first period, same as the specials, so we can only take one or the other, but this is so much better, right?” Zelda leapt into a cartwheel, kicking up sand.
“Couldn’t your dad get us into a different homeroom?” Izzy asked. When Zelda didn’t answer right away, Izzy let her gaze fall to her feet, adding, “I’m sorry, Zelda, but you know art’s my favorite and—”
“What have you done to keep us together, Izzy?” Zelda glared.
The thought of having to speak on television to a whole school full of strangers made the angry-ocean sound grow louder. “You know I can’t talk in front of people, Zelda.” Izzy dug her hand in her pocket, gripping her key.
Zelda rolled her eyes. “Can’t or won’t?”
Izzy wondered if there was a difference.
After an awkward pause, Piper asked, “But you’re going to do it, right, Izzy?”
Izzy felt as if she was being backed into a corner. A mental image of her facing a giant news camera flashed across her brain. Her mouth went dry.
“If you don’t do it, you’ll end up stuck and alone in some random homeroom where you don’t know anyone,” Zelda said.
Piper nudged Izzy with her shoulder. “It’s the only way to keep the Sea Stars together.”
“You have to do it,” Zelda said.
Izzy bit her lower lip.
As if sensing that Izzy was about to lose it, Piper thrust her arm out in front of her. “Sea Star triangle!” she shouted.
Izzy looked at her friend. While Zelda’s crazy schemes often dragged her in over her head, Piper was the calm voice keeping her afloat. As she grabbed Piper’s forearm below the elbow, she felt as if they were five years old all over again.
With a cold, dripping hand, Zelda grabbed hold of Izzy’s arm and Piper grabbed Zelda’s.
Their arms formed a triangle.
Zelda arched her eyebrow as her seaweed-green eyes took on a mischievous glint. “The Sea Stars are magic,” she said. “We will be best friends forever.”
Piper giggled as the girls raised their arms high, letting them slip apart—same as they had done a million times before.
Zelda cartwheeled off. “Make sure your parents call Mr. Cantor!” She ran toward her surfboard, reattached the leash, and carried it into the ocean.
Izzy watched her paddle like mad against the breaking waves. Up and over … up and over, again.
Piper elbowed her. “It’ll be great, Izzy. You know Zelda. It always works out.”
A swell of water curled in a wave. Zelda popped up on her board, raising her hands in the air. The look on her face was pure joy.
As much as Izzy admired her friend, she was also jealous. Everything was easy for Zelda.
“She’s not going to be able to keep us together forever,” Izzy said.
“Can we get through sixth grade for now?” Piper smiled.
Izzy nodded, but she couldn’t smile back.
Copyright © 2020 Jeanne M. Zulick