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About halfway through Tennessee, I decided that I would never, not ever, forgive my parents for dragging me to live in some dirt town in rural Nevada.
“Not Nev-ah-da. Nev-a-da. A-like-in-apple right in the middle. Better learn to pronounce it like a native,” Dad said for about the millionth time, “or they’ll make you move to California.”
Whatever. I didn’t want to be a native of Nev-a-da or Nev-ah-da or anywhere but Wildwood, New Jer-sey. “At least California has an ocean.”
“Are we going to the beach?” my little sister, Harper, asked. “I want to go to the beach.”
“Yeah, right,” I said. “We’re never going to the beach again. We’re moving to the desert.”
“You’re pouting so hard, I can hear it, Gideon.” Dad tilted the rearview mirror so he saw me through it. I barely suppressed the urge to stick out my tongue.
“So, will we be in Tennessee forever or what?” I asked.
“Would you like to be?” He flicked on the blinker and slowed, swerving toward the shoulder. “I mean, it wouldn’t be my first choice, but…”
I scrunched in my seat, arms crossed over my chest. “No.”
“You’re sure?” Mom turned in her seat and looked at me. “I hear Nashville’s real nice.”
I was tempted to call her bluff and say yes, leave me in Tennessee. Mom wouldn’t even let me go to the boardwalk with my friends without making an adult cross their heart and hope to die that they wouldn’t leave us alone.
Dad clucked his tongue against his teeth. “I have a job all lined up in Logandale. Nashville’s out for me. But I bet we could find a circus around here somewhere that would pay good money for you, if your heart’s set on staying in Tennessee forever.”
“So”—he stuck out his bottom lip and lifted one shoulder like it didn’t matter to him one way or the other—“you want to keep going?”
“Right-o, Boss.” He shot me a little salute and somehow turned things around so that continuing this drive west in an SUV pulling a trailer full of our stuff was my idea.
Harper leaned forward in her booster seat and said, “Hey, Giddy’s not the boss. I’m the boss!”
“Don’t call me Giddy,” I said.
Harper bounced in her seat. “Giddyup! Giddyup!”
Mom said, “Okay, Harper. That’s enough now.”
I turned my scowl out the window and waited to get to Arkansas.
* * *
Three more days of driving made me even grumpier.
Between Dad playing screaming old rock-and-roll music for hours on end and roughly three thousand games of tic-tac-toe with Harper and so many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that I felt like I might die if I ever saw another one, I hated just about everyone and everything.
Maybe I liked seeing the world’s largest bottle of hair tonic in Oklahoma and standing in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and Colorado all at the same time—but I’d never admit it.
And anyway, none of that mattered, now that we were almost to our new home.
Nevada was ugly. Okay, so the mountains were nice. But there wasn’t anything on them. No trees. Nothing green. We were moving to a very brown state.
It didn’t have the Atlantic Ocean. No boardwalk. Probably no hoagies. Definitely no Wildwood Middle School. I hated Nevada and no one could convince me otherwise.
I was still in the car, grinding my teeth, waiting as long as I dared before I got out to help unpack the trailer, when I saw her.
She was about my age, twelve-ish, with dark hair hanging in two braids almost to her waist, and she was tall and skinny. Grandma Ellen would have said that she was all knees and elbows. And she would have been right.
What yanked me right out of my sourness, though, was everything else about her.
She wore cutoff jeans and a white T-shirt with purple polka dots. Pretty standard stuff. But she also had rainbow-striped socks pulled up to her bony knees and roller skates that looked like blue-and-yellow running shoes strapped to her feet. And over her clothes, she wore a red swimsuit with a purple stripe running down each side. She had something tied around her neck, flapping in the hot, dry breeze as she skated in slow circles on her porch.
Was this strange girl my new next-door neighbor? She looked like she came from another planet. Despite myself, I was curious enough to open the car door and step my first foot in Nev-a-da.
I felt a little bit like Han Solo or Indiana Jones. An explorer, exploring new lands with strange creatures. And that was kind of cool.
“See, there’s a kid next door,” Dad said, rubbing my head as he passed me. “You’re going to be fine, Boss.”
I ducked away from his hand and looked at the girl to check if she was watching. She wasn’t. Her eyes stayed on the road that ran in front of our houses.
I looked that way, too. She seemed to be waiting for someone, but not even a single car had driven by since we pulled into our new driveway.
Our street was just her house and ours, next to each other with one other house on either side. Just four houses with a wide patch of bare desert across the street, and some kind of farm behind.
Whoever she was, she was focused on the empty street. She didn’t even seem to notice me.
I mean, us.
* * *
Step #1: ignore her back.
I walked back and forth with boxes of dishes and books and clothes. I stacked two boxes on top of each other. I tried for three the next trip, but Mom stopped me before I could break something.
The girl didn’t even glance my way.
* * *
Step #2: boss Harper.
I marched my little sister around the yard like a drill sergeant.
“Hurry up,” I told her. “And don’t forget, that box goes in the bathroom.”
“I don’t have to do what you tell me to, Giddy,” she said. “Mom said so.”
Harper was five and young enough to still get away with all kinds of stuff I’d never slip past our parents. Case in point: she stuck out her tongue, even though Mom was right there. Then she headed off to unpack her dolls when I tried to make her carry my skateboard into the garage.
The girl next door still didn’t look at me.
I mean, us.
* * *
I didn’t have a step #3.
When the trailer was finally empty, I was sent to my new room to make up my bed and start to unpack. Instead, I stood at my window and watched her skate in her slow circles between her front door and the edge of the porch steps. She never took her eyes off the road. Never once looked up at me.
Copyright © 2019 by Shaunta Grimes