Cross your fingers for good luck.
Aaron and I barely even look at each other as we walk home together on the wooded road that runs down the center of the island. My flip-flops slap the road, sounding extra loud in the quiet between us.
Near the shore, Bethsaida is a busy place. The houses sit close together, people are often outside, and things are going on --- especially in the summer. But once you lose sight of the water, the island is mostly forest and the buildings are far apart. On the inner roads, you can even forget you’re on an island.
But that feeling doesn’t last. A few miles forward or back, and there’s the water again. Because no matter which route you choose, every road on Bethsaida ends at the ocean.
Aaron kicks a rock. It bounces along the cracked and patched-up tar. “What do you do out here?”
The flatness in his voice prickles me, like he’s already decided the answer to his question. “Plenty of things! Besides all the stuff I’ve already told you, there are picnics. Clubs. Basketball games. Movie nights.” I pause, because even to me that doesn’t sound like a lot. “And I’m fixing up my own boat.”
If I said that to an island boy, he’d say, “Oooh,” but Aaron just stares at the cat-o’-nine-tails growing in the swampy ditch near the post office.
“Come on,” I mutter. “I need to get the mail.” I want to see if Amy sent me a letter. I promised myself I wouldn’t write any more letters to Amy until she wrote to me again, but I miss her. Summer isn’t much fun without her. And Amy was the one person I could tell anything to, and now it feels like all my worries are stacking up inside me. What if this doesn’t work out with Aaron? What if we’ve gone to all this trouble of bringing him here but he hates it so much he begs Natalie to move him? It’ll be extra bad if this whole plan fails because of our family.
Or what if Aaron runs away? That’s what Bud did in Bud, Not Buddy when he got sent to a foster home he hated. Of course, it’s not really the same. Bud’s foster brother was so mean that he stuck a pencil up Bud’s nose while he was asleep. I was so nice that I made popcorn for Aaron --- even if he didn’t eat it.
When I push open the door, the postmaster looks over his half-moon glasses at Aaron, then at me. “Hi, you two.”
“Mr. Moody, this is Aaron.” I glance over my shoulder.
“Where are you from, Aaron?” Mr. Moody asks.
Aaron hesitates. I watch his Adam’s apple roll as he swallows. “You mean right before here?”
Mr. Moody looks embarrassed. “Oh, yes. I didn’t mean to --- ”
“He lived in Rangeley,” I add quickly. “Before here.”
“Rangeley? I was up there fishing two years ago,” Mr. Moody says. “We rented a cabin from some very nice people. Let’s see, what was their name?”
I cross my fingers for good luck before I open our mailbox. Let there be a letter today. I pull out the stack of mail and flip quickly through bills, advertisements, and an oversized envelope. Glancing at the return address, I see STATE OF MAINE at the top.
Oh! My breath catches in my throat. I know I shouldn’t open mail addressed to Mom and Dad, but this must be the State’s official answer about our school staying open or closing. And that affects me, too.
I pause only a second before ripping open the envelope.
“What was the name of the person you lived with in Rangeley?” Mr. Moody asks, behind me.
“Mrs. Armstrong,” Aaron says.
Hands shaking, I reach in the envelope for the letter. But I’m surprised to find a smaller envelope inside: a lemon yellow one, addressed to Aaron.
For Aaron? My whole body slumps with disappointment. I suppose I ought to have guessed the State could be sending my parents mail about Aaron now, too. But I thought for sure it was about the school.
I should’ve wished for a letter for me. Up in the lefthand corner of the yellow envelope, it says “C. Spinney” with an address in Connecticut. A purple Post-it note stuck to the front says: Hi, Mrs. Brooks, This letter is from Aaron’s mom. I checked his file, and it says he can receive mail from her. So when you think he’s ready for it, go ahead and give it to him. Sincerely, Emily (Natalie’s assistant)
Today feels like one giant snowball of bad luck, getting fatter with every turn. First, Aaron doesn’t like anything about being here. Then I didn’t get a letter from Amy or an answer about the school. Now Aaron’s mom writes to him --- like she’s claiming him, before we even get to know him! And when I get home, I’m gonna have to admit I opened Dad and Mom’s mail, and ---
“Will you tell her, Tess?” Mr. Moody asks. I startle. Aaron has come up beside me --- I didn’t even hear him coming! Mr. Moody looks at me from behind the counter, but Aaron gasps, staring at the envelope in my hands.
Oh, glory. “What?”
Mr. Moody smiles. “I asked you to tell your mother I delivered some packages to the school this morning. I left them inside the door. Looked to me like school supplies or maybe books.”
“Oh, um, yeah. I’ll tell her.” I slam our tiny mailbox shut and spin the combination lock. “Come on, Aaron.” When we’re outside, he makes a grab for the yellow envelope. I let him take it --- it’s his letter. As he’s ripping open the envelope, I take a step closer.
…miss you so much. They took you from me --- I never wanted it to happen. I think about you all the time and some nights I can’t stop crying, wondering where you are and if those people are being good to you.
What does she mean, “those people”? I move a little more. Aaron’s thumb’s in the way. His fingers are graceful-looking, long and smooth. Not like mine, roughed by salt water and calloused from handling rope and gear.
I bet you’ve grown so much I’d hardly recognize you. I’m doing better now. I’m trying to ---
“Do you mind?” Aaron shields the letter with his hand.
I pretend I was looking around me, not reading over his arm. “I’m sorry. Is your mom okay?”
“She only just found out my grandma died,” he says, turning the page to read the back. “I tried to tell her when it happened, but no one knew where she was.”
I sigh. “My best friend, Amy, promised she’d write to me when she moved away last winter. I’ve sent her six letters and three e-mails, and she’s only sent me two letters back.”
Why’d I tell him that? I blush. It sounds so small compared to his problems. But still, I don’t think I can stand him being mean about it.
He nods, though. “Don’t tell anyone about my letter, okay? I don’t want my mom to get in trouble. Natalie probably won’t like some of the things Mom says in here.”
I run my tongue over my bottom lip. I don’t like keeping things from my parents. But I also don’t want anyone to get in trouble (including me for opening mail that wasn’t mine).
“Please?” he asks. “It’s been four years since I’ve heard from her. If Natalie gets mad at her, my mom might not write to me again.”
“Won’t Natalie ask about it?”
He shrugs. “Probably not. But if she does, your parents’ll say they never got a letter. That’ll be the truth.”
I sigh. Natalie’s assistant did say he could have the letter. So I’m only speeding up the “go ahead and give it to him” part. And I’d be sharing a secret with Aaron --- at least that’s sharing something.
“Okay,” I say.
“Thanks.” As he’s folding the letter, I see Eben Calder riding his bike up the road with a Phipps’s grocery bag under his arm.
“Hey, Mess!” he calls. “How’s your orphan?”
“I’m not an orphan,” Aaron says icily.
I take hold of Aaron’s sleeve with one hand to hurry him along. With my other hand, I clutch the rest of our mail so tight that the advertisements crinkle. “Come on. Don’t pay any attention to him.”
I’m relieved when Eben passes us on the post office driveway. “Our island’s only using you, Aaron,” he says over his shoulder. “Once we get those school numbers up, we’ll be shipping all you kids off again.”
“That’s not true!” I say.
“What did you do to get sent to foster care?” Eben asks. “Must’ve been something really bad if your own mother didn’t want you.”
I spin around, ready to scream a whole stream of ugly things at Eben. But Aaron has already wrenched out of my grip and is charging down the post office driveway, right toward Eben Calder getting off his bike --- and punches him smack in the face!
I don’t know who’s more surprised: me or Eben or Mr. Moody, who’s just coming out of the post office. Aaron sends Eben reeling sideways, shoulder first into a thicket of sea roses growing beside the steps.
Aaron takes off running. “Wait!” I yell, but he’s fast.
“Why do you have to ruin everything?” I scream at Eben.
By the time I reach the twist in the road, Aaron’s gone. All the way home, I alternate between feeling terrible that Eben hurt Aaron’s feelings and biting back a tiny smile at how funny Eben looked with his feet in the air, his bike wheel sticking upward, still spinning.
“Mom?” I practice as I walk. “Something happened today.” She won’t be happy that I let Aaron get in a fight and lost him --- all on his first full day with us.
Excerpted from TOUCH BLUE © Copyright 2010 by Cynthia Lord. Reprinted with permission by Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc. All rights reserved.