Alexandra hated being grounded. It happened with disturbing regularity, especially lately, and her parents had become ever more strict about the conditions they imposed. No TV, no going outside (not even into the back yard), no having Brian over to visit. About all she was allowed to do was read.
Which did not, of course, mean that that was all she was going to do. Grounding Alexandra was not terribly effective when she was left alone and unsupervised in the house.
Her mother sometimes admitted to some anxiety about leaving Alexandra home alone during the summer. She was only eleven, and while quite clever and resourceful for her age, she was also entirely too clever, and her sense of responsibility was not nearly as precocious. But her parents didn't have much choice. Her mother was a nurse and her stepfather was a police officer, and while they tried to arrange their work schedules so one of them was always home when Alexandra wasn't in school, it just didn't always work out that way. (Alexandra suspected that Archie didn't even really try very hard to get his schedule changed when her mother had day shifts.) Neither her mother nor Archie had any relatives in town who could watch Alexandra. When she was younger, she would go to daycare or a babysitter, but she had been kicked out of three of the town's daycare centers, and not many babysitters would watch her anymore. All her mother's yelling hadn't made Alexandra any better about taking orders or staying out of places she shouldn't be (and of which it was said she had an almost supernatural ability to get into), and anyway, some of the things that happened to the babysitters she didn't like couldn't possibly have been her fault.
So starting this summer, her parents had, reluctantly and with deep misgivings, allowed Alexandra to stay home by herself. Her mother called at least three times a day, and when Archie wasn't assigned to desk duty he would stop by in his patrol car now and then to fix himself a sandwich and make sure Alexandra wasn't getting into any trouble. For the most part, she behaved herself – when Archie was around.
Of course she could go over to Brian's house, and did frequently. Her parents encouraged this, since they liked the fact that Brian's mother would usually be keeping an eye on them. But Mrs. Seabury only barely tolerated Alexandra, finding her to be a nuisance and a troublemaker. She was polite enough when her son's friend visited, but it was clear that she was not about to volunteer to become Alexandra's unofficial babysitter, and had started discouraging Brian from inviting her to stay for dinner.
Being grounded, Alexandra wasn't even supposed to visit Brian, and she knew her mother would be calling frequently to make sure she hadn't left the house. She spent an hour rereading An Encyclopedia of Spirits, Sprites and Fairies, made herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (her mother rarely prepared lunch for her and Alexandra had been making her own lunches since she was seven), answered the phone when her mother called and assured her that she was still at home and not watching TV, and then went to watch TV.
She wasn't supposed to be able to watch TV since Archie had rolled the television and its stand from the living room into their bedroom. They didn't trust her not to turn it on just because she'd been forbidden. But locked doors hadn't stopped Alexandra for at least two years, so as soon as she got off the phone, she went to her parents' bedroom door and stood in front of it. She thought a minute, then said:
"So I'm grounded, what a bore,
Let me in, unlock this door!"
With the addition of a little flourish of her arms, the lock clicked and the door swung open.
She wasn't sure if she really needed to make up a spell, since sometimes she did magic without saying anything at all. But she had convinced herself that magic worked better when accompanied by a rhyme, and (according to other rules she had made up for herself), using the same rhyme twice was cheating, so she had to think up a new one each time.
Her parents' bedroom was never exactly neat. There were papers her mother and stepfather had both brought home from work sitting on the nightstand, and shoes and loose change on the floor. Her mother's bathrobe, the classifieds, and a magazine about health care workers was sitting on the unmade bed, and Alexandra noticed, wrinkling her nose disdainfully, that Archie's underwear had again missed the hamper sitting in the corner. Ignoring that, she jumped up on the big king bed, shoved the robe, newspaper classifieds and magazine aside, and grabbed the TV remote from the nightstand and lay back to watch cartoons and one of those silly talk shows where adults screamed at each other for an hour about who had had a baby and if its parents were going to get married or stay married, or something like that. Alexandra didn't quite understand all the issues involved, not finding them that interesting, but she always felt sorry for the babies.
Sprawled out on the bed, listening to yet another couple yell at each other, Alexandra was glad Archie and her mother didn't yell at each other like that. Alexandra was like some of those children on the show, in that she didn't know who her father was. Archie Green was just her stepfather. He had started dating Claudia Quick when Alexandra was about four years old, and married her two years after that. So she supposed she should think of him as her father, but she didn't, and despite still being naïve about adult relationships, she had a fairly sophisticated understanding of her role in Archie's life. It was her mother that he'd married, and Alexandra was the baggage that came with her. She didn't even blame him, particularly, as she had never been willing to call him Dad. He was always "Archie."
Her mother was not particularly generous with her affection either. Alexandra did know that her mother loved her, in a distracted, detached sort of way, but she worked so hard and her life had been so difficult as a single mother before she met Archie that she seemed to have never quite gotten over it. It was fortunate that Alexandra was so independent and self-sufficient. Her bursts of initiative could have frightening results, but if she ever suffered from the benign neglect of her parents, she was unaware of it.
The only thing she actively resented her mother for was refusing to tell her about her father. Alexandra knew that women who had babies with men they weren't married to were sometimes treated badly. She understood that from listening to the names women got called on that talk show. But as far as she could tell, her mother was treated like anyone else, even in a small town like Larkin Mills, and after all, it hadn't stopped Archie from marrying her. Maybe being an unwed mother had been the reason Claudia Quick moved to Larkin Mills from Chicago in the first place; Alexandra had been too young to remember that. But all Alexandra knew about her father was that her mother left him when she was still a baby. And that knowledge (which her mother had let slip once, when Alexandra was six) was very likely the reason she had failed to form an attachment to Archie. In her mind, somewhere out there she still had a father.
She'd queried her mother, of course. Alexandra had asked if her father was a bad man, if he'd been abusive, if he drank a lot or if he saw other women. (This was before she even really understood what that meant; she'd been learning too much from TV talk shows at a young age.) Claudia just shook her head to all those questions, and told Alexandra that she and her father didn't belong together and they were better off without him.
It was the more poignant questions that sent her mother into moody silences, as if to punish Alexandra for daring to be curious about her father. "Doesn't he miss me?" she asked once. "Don't you think he'd want to meet me?"
And to herself, she wondered if he even knew she existed. She was pretty sure he must have, though, since her mother had admitted that Alexandra had already been born when she left him.
The talk show was ending, and Alexandra was getting bored again. As was so often the case, boredom turned her thoughts in dangerous directions, and she thought about her mother's closet, where she had found that gold bracelet. It had seemed like a nice piece of jewelry, if rather plain, and Alexandra had wondered why her mother had it buried at the bottom of her closet. Maybe it had been a gift from her father? She had no evidence of that, and it was as likely that it had just been misplaced and forgotten, out of sight, but it was the reason she'd taken it.
She shouldn't have been in her mother's closet in the first place, of course, just like she shouldn't be in her parents' bedroom watching TV now. But after getting up to go look cautiously out the window, in case Archie might stop by for lunch (she thought he was working at the station this week, but she wasn't sure), she crept back into the large bedroom, and then opened the closet door again.
The closet was mostly filled with her mother's clothes, a lot of it stuff she hadn't worn in years. There were also old nursing manuals, Christmas decorations (and this was also where Alexandra's mother hid her Christmas presents every year, which was the reason Alexandra always knew what she was getting ahead of time), an old pair of tennis racquets, a cordless phone that didn't work, and under a quilt and a sleeping bag, the box with her mother's high school yearbook. In that box, Alexandra had found the bracelet, so now she wondered, pursuing her unproven but captivating theory that it had once been given to her mother by her father, whether perhaps her mother's high school yearbook offered more clues. Perhaps her mother and father had been high school sweethearts!
Pulling out the quilt and sleeping bag, and the little beaded bag on top of the box, Alexandra withdrew the yearbook. Andrew Donelson High School, 1992, it said on the cover. She opened the book and began looking through it.
She was able to find her mother fairly easily. Claudia Quick, three years before Alexandra was born, was a pretty girl with blond curls quite unlike her daughter's straight black hair. Alexandra learned that Claudia had played the flute, was a member of the Spanish Club, and made the Superintendent's Honor Roll. Whether or not she had attended the Senior Prom Alexandra wasn't able to determine, since she found no pictures of her mother in the prom photos. In fact, of the three photos Alexandra found of her mother in the yearbook, none of them showed her with a boy. She began reading what her mother's friends had written on the inside covers and throughout the pages of the yearbook. Katie P. wrote "Claudia, best of luck!" Sarah wrote "I will never forget taking biology class with you! Stay away from frogs! Hahahah!" Matt (or maybe "Mark"; his handwriting was really lousy) wrote something about Claudia being a really cool person, best wishes, etc. Alexandra squinted at that signature, and indeed, examined anything that looked like it had been written by a boy with particular scrutiny, but aside from a few who called her "Cutie" or "Babe," her mother did not seem to have inspired anyone to profess his love for her or write about their future plans together.
Frustrated, she slammed the yearbook shut and tossed it back into the box. This knocked the beaded bag off the lip of the box where it had been resting, and a little gold locket tumbled out onto the floor of the closet.
Alexandra stared at it, with her mouth making a silent, surprised little 'O.' Why had she just ignored that bag before? She picked it up and shook it out, but the only other thing that came out of it was a chewing gum wrapper, a few pennies, and little piece of paper which turned out to be her mother's Chicago Public Library card, dated 1989.
She carefully scooped all these things back into the bag, and then picked up the locket and studied it. It was bright gold, though a little dusty, hanging on a fine gold chain. Alexandra buffed it against her shirt, and then examined it for a latch or some other means by which to open it. She could see a seam running along the edge and a tiny hinge on the same side as the fixture where the chain was attached, but no latching mechanism. So she gently tried to pull it apart, but it would not open. Then she tried not so gently, and then she was prying at with her fingers, suddenly frustrated that this new, mysterious piece of her mother's past was denying her access to its secrets. She stopped only when she feared she might damage it.
A car door slammed shut outside, and Alexandra jumped. Hastily, she tucked everything back into and on the box in the closet, except for the locket, which she stuck in her pocket. She hurried out of her parents' bedroom, hoping she hadn't left too much evidence she'd been there, and had just shut the bedroom door when Archie came through the front.
He was wearing his gray Larkin Mills Police Department uniform, and as he turned around after shutting the front door his face was a little red, so he must have been outside before stopping at the house. Probably he had been writing people traffic tickets, though sometimes he actually had to chase people and arrest them, mostly in Old Larkin. He wiped his forehead, and regarded Alexandra suspiciously. She was in the middle of the living room by the time he'd turned around, and was doing her best to look innocent and not at all like she had just been in the master bedroom two seconds ago.
"What have you been doing this morning?" he asked, gruffly.
"Just reading," she replied.
Archie was never precisely mean to Alexandra, and every once in a while he would take her fishing or drive her around in his patrol car, in an awkward attempt to be more fatherly. Alexandra was certain that such gestures were always at the urging of her mother. He was dutiful about buying her birthday presents, he was cooperative when she needed field trip permission forms signed by a parent, and he'd never spanked her, though she was pretty sure he'd wanted to more than once. But she frequently heard Archie referring to her, to his friends and coworkers, as "Claudia's daughter," and that about summed up their relationship. Claudia's daughter.
"Uh huh," Archie said, as if he knew that she had been up to something. He started towards the bedroom, and it took all of Alexandra's self control to remain casual and not betray herself with a glance at the door – which, she realized with horror, she had not locked behind herself. Oh, how she wished she could make it lock again magically! But even if she did, Archie would notice the click. Although he might have trouble actually accusing her of anything just because the door made a funny noise, he'd certainly give his bedroom a thorough inspection.
But midway to the bedroom door, he apparently changed his mind, and instead tossed his hat on the sofa and went to the kitchen to get a soda out of the refrigerator.
"Remember, no TV, no computer, no playing outside, and you can't have Brian or any of your other friends over," he called from the kitchen, popping open the soda can.
"I know," she replied, a bit irritably. It wasn't as if he and her mother hadn't already gone over her restrictions a zillion times already.
"Watch your tone," he said, coming back into the living room and picking up his hat. With effort, Alexandra just looked at him instead of rolling her eyes. Suddenly, she wondered if Archie knew anything about her father. She'd never actually considered the possibility that her mother might have told him more about her father than she'd told her.
He tilted his head a moment, as if trying to decipher Alexandra's odd, speculative expression. For her part, she knew if she were to ever ask him about her father, it wouldn't be now. He was already annoyed with her, and she was plenty annoyed with him as well.
"Well, I just stopped by to check on you," he said, putting his hat back on his head with one hand and raising the soda to his lips with the other. After taking another sip, he said, "I'll be out in the patrol car today, but you can reach me or your mother at the usual numbers, if it's an emergency–"
"I know," Alexandra said, even more exasperated. She really wanted him to leave so she could get back to examining the locket. She bit her tongue so she wouldn't say anything more or make a face, and Archie narrowed his eyes at her, and then grunted, and headed out the door.
Alexandra watched out the front window and waited until Archie had actually driven away in his patrol car, before she returned to her parents' bedroom and did her best to make the closet and the bed look like they had before she'd gone in there. Then she carefully locked the door behind her, and went upstairs to her bedroom and took out the locket. Once again it resisted all her efforts to open it. She found a nail file and tried gently inserting it into the crack along the locket's edge, but was unable to pry it open even a little bit. For a moment she considered breaking it open. And then another possibility occurred to her.
She held it out in front of her, letting it dangle on its chain, while she composed a suitable rhyme in her head. Then, taking a deep breath, she said:
"Locket, you're hiding something from me,
So open up and let me see."
And with a tiny click, it opened.
She wasn't sure why she'd been expecting it not to work, but a thrill of excitement went through her. Almost shivering, she held the locket with both hands and looked inside.
There was a small photograph of a handsome, dark-haired man with a mustache and a goatee. He looked older than her mother, but not slumping ungracefully into middle-age like her and Archie. His eyes were bright and his expression alert. He looked wise, and confident. Perhaps even a little arrogant. Alexandra stared at the picture, studying the man's features, his eyes, his hair, everything about him.
"Are you my father?" she wondered aloud.
And the man in the picture winked at her.
She almost dropped the locket. Her fingers trembled a little as she clutched it and looked at the picture again.
It wasn't obvious, because the picture was so tiny, but the man in the photo was definitely moving. He folded his arms and tilted his head to regard Alexandra imperiously, with a little smile, and as she turned the locket this way and that, he frowned slightly while his eyes followed her.
"Who are you?" she asked out loud. But the man didn't answer, just kept watching her.
"I see you moving!" she said, a little angrily. "Who are you? Answer me!"
He just shook his head and waved a finger at her. His smug expression infuriated her; she could almost hear him saying, "Tsk! Tsk!"
Alexandra let the locket drop until it dangled at the end of its chain, and with her other hand she spun it about. Then she grabbed it and turned the picture towards her again. The man had his arms stretched out to either side, and appeared to be bracing himself against the edges of his picture. When the locket stopped moving, he returned to his previous pose with his arms across his chest. His expression returned to normal as well, though Alexandra thought he looked just a little annoyed.
Alexandra watched the man for a long time. He didn't do anything else. He shifted a little, sometimes turned his head, and winked at her again, but he didn't really seem to have much of a range of reactions.
Abruptly, she snapped the locket shut. She stared at it, and wondered if the man was now peering around in the darkness, or looking angry. Then she wanted to open it again, but even after she tried several different rhymes, the locket remained closed.
That night, she had to endure another round of griping from her mother, who came home tired and hungry from the hospital where she worked, which meant microwaved dinners, as usual. Archie was poking dispiritedly at the formerly frozen meatloaf and potatoes, and while Claudia sputtered and fumed at Alexandra, he occasionally contributed a "Don't you know people have drowned in that pond?" or "You need to start showing us we can trust you enough to leave you alone." Alexandra wanted to snort and point out that they didn't really have much choice unless one of them was going to quit working, but then the subject might have turned to why they could no longer find affordable daycare for her. Personally, she thought her mother was more angry at the fact that Mrs. Seabury would be even less likely to let her spend much time with Brian and Bonnie than she was at the possibility that Alexandra might have drowned.
Her hand slipped inside her pocket, and turned the locket over and over. She thought about the man in the picture, and how her mother had come to possess it, and she was burning to ask about it, but once again, she couldn't say what she wanted to say without getting into more trouble. But as her mother's incessant nagging wore on, accompanied by her stepfather's grating passivity as he agreed with everything she said, Alexandra's patience (and restraint) wore thin.
"Did my father have black hair?" she asked suddenly.
Claudia and Archie Green both became very quiet. Alexandra studied both their reactions intently. Then her mother slapped her cup down on the table and stood up. "If you think asking irrelevant questions at inappropriate times is a clever new tactic for getting out of trouble, you'd better think again!" She looked at her husband. "I'm tired. I'm going to bed. You do the dishes, would you?" And she turned and walked wearily into their bedroom.
Archie just looked at Alexandra and shook his head. "Why do you do that? Why can't you show some consideration for your mother and me? We work long hours so you can stay home and play all day." He rose from the table. "And you're old enough to load the dishwasher, so you can take care of the dishes."
After Alexandra put the dirty plates into the dishwasher, she could hear the TV in her parents' bedroom. Archie was probably watching TV while her mother slept in the bed next to him. Or maybe she was still awake. Maybe they were talking about her. Maybe they were wondering where Alexandra had gotten the idea of asking if her father had black hair. It made sense, of course, since she had black hair and her mother was a blond, but the timing of her question might have been suspicious, and maybe that might lead to her mother looking for a locket in a bag in her closet. But that was what her mother would call a "guilty conscience" nagging at her, although Alexandra didn't really feel guilty at all. She was entitled to know about her father. Her mother had no right to hide things from her.
She pulled out the locket and slowly walked upstairs, letting it dangle and twirl on its chain. Her mother did not burst out of her bedroom accusing Alexandra of poking around in her closet, or demanding to know where her locket was. How could her mother know about a locket with a photograph that moved and never mention it? Or perhaps it had never moved for Claudia. Maybe Alexandra's mother had never even been able to open it. Alexandra had more questions than ever before, and she knew one thing for certain. The locket looked like it was made of gold, just like the bracelet she'd also found in that box. She had to find the bracelet.
Her mother and stepfather were sullen to each other as well as to Alexandra the next morning. She wondered if they'd had a fight, maybe about her father, maybe because of the question she had asked, and she felt a little bit guilty. Only a little, though. Her feelings for Archie did not rise to the level of active dislike, but she knew if her mother ever left him, she wouldn't be sad, not really.
Archie reminded her again that she was not to leave the house, and then foolishly told his wife, in Alexandra's hearing, that he was going to be covering the desk all day because Sergeant Ridenour had called in sick. She suppressed a grin as her mother gathered her things, dressed in her green nurse's outfit, and gave Alexandra one last, harried look. "Please be good, Alexandra," she sighed, and then much to her daughter's surprise, leaned over to give her a peck on the cheek before heading out the door.
Alexandra waited an hour after Archie and her mother had left, and then turned on the computer (which she was never supposed to use when her parents weren't home even when she wasn't grounded, but frequently did). She could call Brian's house, but it was his mother who would probably answer the phone, and Mrs. Seabury might tell Alexandra's mother later that Alexandra had called. So she was hoping Brian might be online, which he often was when not running around outside with her.
Once the computer booted up, Alexandra was confronted with a familiar screen that said:
Digital Babysitter: Protecting Children from Computers and Vice Versa!
Please enter password:
Archie had installed the software when they bought the computer, believing it would keep Alexandra from using the computer when they weren't home. And it might have, if he hadn't used her mother's birthday as the password. Alexandra typed in the sequence of numbers, and hit Enter.
Password Incorrect. Please enter password:
She frowned and tried again, but got the same response. Apparently Archie had changed the password.
She cracked her knuckles and got to work, entering Archie's birthdate, her birthdate, her mother's middle name, Archie's middle name, her middle name, their Social Security Numbers, their phone numbers, and every other piece of personal information Alexandra could think of. She tried reversing and combining various possibilities, and finally had to admit that Archie had actually chosen a password she couldn't guess easily.
She glared at the computer as if it were to blame. There was one last possibility, though she'd never tried it with a computer before. But wasn't this just another kind of lock? She closed her eyes and thought for a few moments, then said:
"I need to chat, so let me log in,
Give me the password so I can begin!"
The computer screen turned blue and then the machine rattled, fizzled, and died. Alexandra stared, taken aback.
The computer would not restart, though it seemed to tremble every time she put her hands on the power switch or the keyboard.
Groaning with frustration, she stomped around the house a bit, trying to think of another way to contact Brian while bypassing his mother, and then hit upon the obvious – she would just go to his house. With luck, he or Bonnie would see her outside, if only she could avoid being spotted by Mrs. Seabury.
She packed enough lunches for all three of them (sandwiches, chips, cookies, and sugary orange drinks pretending to be fruit juice), and then waited a little while longer for the call she knew her mother would be making. When Claudia called from the hospital, Alexandra said she was bored and she was going to take a nap.
"You could spend your time reading," her mother suggested.
"As if there's anything else for me to do!" Alexandra replied. "Can I at least talk to Brian on the telephone?"
"No, if you talk to him pretty soon you'll have talked him into coming over, and you're grounded. Maybe being bored for a while will curb your habit of doing whatever pops into your head without thinking about the consequences. I've got to go, there's a patient who's – oh, darn it!" And Mrs. Green hung up the phone.
"Couldn't hurt to ask," Alexandra thought, and snuck out the back door, just in case one of their nosy neighbors was watching.
The Seaburys lived in a house down the street much like the Quicks', except that Mrs. Seabury stayed home all day (Mr. Seabury managed a bottled water distribution warehouse), and was proud of her lawn and garden. The front of their house was much nicer-looking than the weed-infested lawn in front of Alexandra's house, which was lucky if it got mowed twice a summer.
Alexandra could see Mrs. Seabury talking to a neighbor on her front porch, so she ducked behind some bushes which concealed her until she reached the Seaburys' back yard. It took her only a moment to hop over the small chain link fence. Brian's back yard wasn't quite as neatly maintained as the front, since it wasn't as visible to the neighbors. It had a little plastic wading pool that she and Brian had played in when they were younger. Now only Bonnie used it, but neither of them were in the back yard now.
Unlike Alexandra's bedroom, Brian's was on the ground floor. Alexandra crept across the yard to the window to his room and rapped lightly on it. After a few moments, Brian pulled up the blinds to look out from under them. He looked surprised (although, not terribly) to see Alexandra outside.
"Open the window!" she whispered loudly. Brian looked over his shoulder, and with what appeared to be a sigh, pushed the sill up so there was only a screen between them.
"Didn't you get grounded?" he asked.
"Yeah, but I need to find my bracelet," she said, as if being grounded were of no consequence. She held up her bare wrist. "You know, the gold one I showed you –"
"The one you took from your mother's closest," he said, and there was a faintly disapproving note in his voice. But Alexandra either didn't notice it or pretended not to.
"Yeah. Anyway, I must have lost it somewhere around the pond, I'm hoping it didn't fall off while I was coming back through Old Larkin –" She faltered a moment, thinking about that horrible possibility, knowing she'd almost certainly never see it again if that were the case. "So, can you come with me and help me search for it?"
Brian stared at her. "You've just been grounded and you're going to ignore your grounding and go back there?"
"I really need to find that bracelet." She lowered her voice again to a whisper. "I think it might have been my father's."
Brian's expression was serious as he regarded her. Alexandra didn't talk to him about her father a lot, but he knew she had been obsessed with learning about him for a long time.
"It doesn't look like a man's bracelet," he said.
She rolled her eyes. "I mean, I think maybe my father gave it to my mother. Look, are you going to come with me or not?"
"But you're grounded!"
"Well, you're not, are you?"
"I will be if I go back to Old Larkin Pond with you! My parents yelled at me for going there with you, and for bringing Bonnie along. You shouldn't have stayed there after dark. Something could have happened!" His tone was accusing, and Alexandra was annoyed that he was sounding so much like her mother.
"Something could have happened!" she mimicked, her voice high and sarcastic. "Well, nothing did happen, except I lost my bracelet."
Alexandra lied cheerfully to her mother and stepfather, but this was probably the first time she had ever told an outright lie to Brian. Although she felt a little guilty about it, his reluctance to accompany her had swept away any thought of telling him about the redcaps. She wanted her bracelet back and she needed help finding it, and that was all that mattered. Only later would she regret this.
Brian still looked unswayed, so she brought all her powers of persuasion to bear. She leaned closer, until her face was almost touching the screen, and gave Brian her most earnest look. "I really need your help. It could be anywhere between here and the pond, and I... I don't want to lose something that might have come from my father. Pleeeeease?"
Brian still looked reluctant, but Alexandra could see his disapproving expression falter, and knew she had already won. "If I tell my mom I'm going outside, I'll have to take Bonnie with me again," he said. "And if she finds out I went anywhere with you, especially Old Larkin or the pond, I'll be so grounded!"
"Then don't tell her," Alexandra said impatiently. Brian was going to come with her, and she was uninterested in the details of how he negotiated it with his mother. She ignored the guilt and misgiving in his eyes, and held up the bag she had packed. "I've already got lunches for us."
Brian's shoulders slumped a little. "Okay, okay," he muttered. "Me and Bonnie will be down at the park on the corner in a little while. Meet us there. Don't let my mom see you..." But Alexandra was already waving, as she hopped the fence around Brian's back yard and made her way down the street.
Alexandra sat on the metal merry-go-round in the park, dragging her feet in the sand as she waited for Brian and Bonnie to arrive. She had already taken out a pack of Oreos and was munching on them when several other kids wandered across the grass towards the playground equipment. Billy Boggleston paused as he spotted Alexandra sitting there. She calmly took another bite from an Oreo and watched him decide whether to keep going or make an excuse to detour around her. He was with his friends, so he wouldn't want to appear afraid of her, but she knew he still remembered the experience of worms squirting out of his nose. The truth was, she had no idea how she'd made that happen, but she wasn't afraid of Billy Boggleston. She wasn't afraid of anyone.
Billy's friends were laughing in that unpleasant way boys did when they were making rude jokes about someone, and Billy forced a smirk onto his face as they stepped off the grass and into the sand across from her.
"Look who's all alone, as usual. How's it feel not having any friends?"
"How's it feel snorting worms?" she replied. Billy turned a little red while his friends laughed as if she'd said something nonsensical.
"Hey, she's got cookies," one of the boys with Billy said, and stomped across the sand towards her. Alexandra regarded this boy with interest, as Billy swallowed, trying to conceal his nervousness. The other boy held out his hand. "Gimme one," he sneered, daring her to refuse.
"Sure," she said, and handed him a cookie.
Surprised and a little suspicious at her immediate capitulation, the bigger boy looked at the cookie, then popped it into his mouth. He began chewing it with a smug expression, turned to look over his shoulder at Billy and the other boys, and then his expression turned to one of horror. He doubled over, gagging, and spat out a mouthful of worms.
"You should've warned him," she said to Billy, who was now shuffling more nervously from one foot to the other.
The boy who'd demanded the cookie was hacking and spitting and trying not to throw up. The other boys watched with mixed expressions of fascination and disgust. "How'd she get you to eat worms, Tom?" one of them asked.
Tom stood up, eyes watering, looking furious. "You... tricked... me!" he sputtered, around more worm fragments. He looked a little green.
"Well, next time ask nicely," Alexandra replied sweetly.
"Let's go. Leave the little freak sitting here all alone where she belongs," Billy said, but Tom was unwilling to walk away.
"I dunno how you did that," he said, reaching for her, "but now I'm going to –"
Whatever he was going to do never happened. Tom expected girls to scream or cower or run away when bigger boys threatened them. Alexandra kicked him in the kneecap, and when he yelled and doubled over to clutch his knee, she stood up and kicked him in the other kneecap. While he cried out in pain, she shoved him hard enough to send him toppling backwards. He landed heavily in the sand, pulling both his knees close to his chest. "She kicked me!" he howled in disbelief. The roles of bully and victim had been horribly reversed, and his world was in disarray.
Alexandra kicked sand in his face. "Get lost or I'll kick you around some more and all your friends can watch you get beaten up by a girl!" she declared. She glowered at Billy Boggleston. "You want some more?" She fixed each of his friends with the same fearless glower. Billy quailed. The other boys weren't quite so terrified, but none of them looked as if they wanted to test their luck. Trying to intimidate the lone girl on the playground had turned out not to be much fun at all.
Tom staggered to his feet, and took a few steps away from Alexandra. "You're crazy! You're sick!" he growled, now spitting out sand as well as bits of worms.
Alexandra sat back down and resumed eating her Oreos as Billy and his friends walked away (except Tom, who limped), calling her even worse names over their shoulders.
She only realized Brian and Bonnie had been watching when they joined her on the merry-go-round.
"You shouldn't have done that," Brian said in a low voice.
"That was cool!" Bonnie exclaimed. She swung her foot out, imitating Alexandra's savage kneecap-hobbling kick, and Alexandra smiled, but her smile faded a little at Brian's expression. She knew he hadn't been talking about the kicking.
"He deserved it. You'd think after what I did to Billy last time, he'd–"
"Forget it," Brian said quickly, and Alexandra realized with a sudden burst of understanding that he didn't want to talk about magic in front of Bonnie. His younger sister had known they were going to Old Larkin Pond to see a naiad, but, Alexandra now realized, Brian had never really expected to see one. He'd been humoring her. Magical creatures were something fantastic and improbable that could be relegated to the land of make-believe. But what Alexandra could do was real, and Brian didn't want Bonnie to see it.
"Okay," she said, not sure why she suddenly felt unhappy.
She handed Brian and Bonnie sandwiches and drink bottles, then said, "Somewhere between here and Old Larkin Pond, I lost my bracelet. So we're going to walk back along the way I came home the night before last. Look on the ground or anywhere it might have rolled, okay?"
Bonnie nodded eagerly, taking a swig from her bright orange bottle, but Brian said, "If you dropped it anywhere on the street, there's no way someone didn't pick up a gold bracelet."
"Maybe you could check lost and found," Bonnie suggested. "Or you could ask your dad if anyone turned it in to the police."
"Archie isn't my dad," Alexandra muttered, and stood up, not wanting to admit that Brian's pessimism was probably justified.
They didn't see a gold bracelet lying anywhere on the streets or sidewalks as they retraced Alexandra's route backwards from Sweetmaple Avenue to the edge of town. They slowed down as they trekked across the dirt lots and fields between Old Larkin and the freeway underpass. Alexandra's eyes darted back and forth, looking in every hole and clump of weeds, while Brian and Bonnie walked a criss-cross pattern to either side of her.
The grass was taller on the other side of the Interstate, and then they were hiking back through underbrush and light woods, and Alexandra's mouth was set in a tight line as she realized just how large the area they had to search was, and just how easy it would be for a small gold bracelet to slip off somewhere where it would remain unseen even if they passed right over it. The distance from Old Larkin Pond to her house was probably not more than a mile and a half, but it was a mile and a half of infinite hiding places. Assuming she had not, as Brian had suggested, lost it in town. But she didn't think so. She thought she had lost it while she was fending off the redcaps at the pond.
They were sweaty and itchy by the time they reached Old Larkin Pond. Even Bonnie had lost much of her enthusiasm and was no longer scrutinizing every square foot in her path with such diligence. The pond was still stagnant and covered with muck. Brian wrinkled his nose a little, but didn't object to sitting down and breaking out the chips and remaining cookies to share.
"I was lying right here," Alexandra said, pointing to the spot where she had fallen asleep and fancying that she could still, just barely, make out a depression in the grass. She also walked around the spot a little apprehensively before sitting down, but saw neither her bracelet nor any other tracks, such as footprints left by undersized boots.
"Then you probably lost your bracelet nearby," Bonnie suggested hopefully. She stood up again to check the area, and Brian said sharply, "Bonnie! Don't go wandering near the edge of the pond, you'll fall in!"
Bonnie gave her big brother an exasperated look. "I'm not a baby!" she said slowly and haughtily. "I'm not going to fall in." And then she looked at the water, and gasped. She pointed excitedly. "There it is!"
Alexandra was on her feet in an instant, followed quickly by Brian. Bonnie was edging closer to the water. "It's right there! It's lying in the mud right there!" she shrieked excitedly, and Alexandra could see it, a little circlet of gold only part-way buried in the mud, in the shallow water where she had fallen that night. Her heart leapt and she half-ran, half-hopped forward as she began pulling off her sneakers, intending to wade into the pond. Bonnie was leaning out over the water, as the bracelet was almost, almost within reach from the shore, and then Alexandra saw a horrid, ugly face below the surface, just before something green and slimy erupted out of the water and grabbed Bonnie and dragged her into the pond.