Back | Next

1. Briones Park

“All right, teams,” said Mrs. Gorage-Rhymes-With-Porridge as they filed out of the school bus. “Two by two and keep together.”

Josie Barnes was paired with Mary Jane, the strange orphan girl who had the beautiful blonde hair. No one else had wanted to team with her, because she was so quiet, so confident, and so … self-possessed. It was almost like having a little adult among them. The other girls respected her, sure, but that didn’t mean they liked her. Still, Josie figured it might be good to have someone so smart working with her on this assignment.

The class had come out to Briones Park, in the East Bay hills between Richmond and Orinda, to do an ecology count on the first clear and windy day of spring. Basically, that meant Mrs. Gorage and Melanie, her classroom intern, had gone out yesterday, identified a likely field full of weeds and wildflowers, and marked it off in big squares with orange tape. This morning, as they rode the bus over the Bay Bridge and through Oakland, the two teachers had passed out battered Palm Threes with data wands and explained how to use them. The computers were already loaded, they said, with the field grid and entry points. The assignment was to count the plants and animals—well, insects—and then take soil moisture and pH readings. After that, they had to study the data and draw conclusions. This was the hard part for Josie, because she never seemed to know what to think.

But she figured Mary Jane would be really good at that.

Mrs. Gorage had assigned each of the teams their own square, but right away the other girl broke the rules. And that, too, was kind of what Josie expected.

“We’re supposed to be doing Square Fourteen,” Josie said as Mary Jane walked resolutely over the tapes toward the far side of the field.

“There is more growth over here,” she replied.

“That’s not the point. We’re supposed to count the plants in our square.”

“This will make a better report.”

“But …” Josie had to follow to keep up the conversation. Very shortly, they were a long way from their square and getting farther away all the time. The only good thing was that the teams assigned to this part of the field hadn’t reached their squares yet, so nobody was fighting with them, and Mrs. Gorage hadn’t noticed anything. Josie still had time to reason with Mary Jane.

Before Josie could get her thoughts together, Mary Jane walked right over the last strip of orange tape and pushed on, into the underbrush.

“I’m sure we’re not supposed to go in there,” Josie said, raising her voice.

“Be quiet and do what I do,” Mary Jane told her, taking Josie’s elbow in a hand that was small but very strong for its size. The fingers gripped in a way that didn’t exactly hurt, but Josie could feel the side of her arm tingle. She followed as Mary Jane dragged her out of sight.

Under the trees, Mary Jane looked around as if taking her bearings. She studied the twisted, leaning trunks of the live oaks—Josie was proud that she could identify them—and approached first one and then another. She put a tentative hand on the scaly bark, feeling a humped scar where a branch had broken away. Then Mary Jane nodded and plunged deeper into the thicket.

“What are you doing?” Josie asked.

“I have to find something.”

As Mary Jane climbed over and slid under the low, tangled branches, she reached into her pocket and took out something small and round. It looked like a big glass-and-metal ball, the size of the balls on her uncle’s pool table. It certainly wasn’t anything a girl their age ought to be carrying. But Mary Jane held it up, cupped in both hands, right below her chin. Josie thought she might be talking to it.

The ground dropped away in the direction they were traveling. Soon the two girls were standing side by side on the lip of a rocky ravine.

“We’re not going down there,” Josie said. “Are we?”

“This is the right way. What I want is down there.”

Mary Jane put the glass ball away and started down the bank. She went facing forward, looking down and dancing from rock to rock. Josie turned around and used her hands and feet to climb down backward, feeling with her toes for each step. Mary Jane’s way was faster, and she reached the bottom first.

“We’re going to get in such trouble,” Josie complained.

Mary Jane nodded absently. She was searching the narrow strip of ground alongside a rushing stream. Fifty feet further on, she stopped beside three rocks that were a very light gray, almost white. She stood in the middle of the triangle, faced the one rock that pointed most closely toward the cliff wall, then stepped over it and walked forward.

Josie, following behind, bent to touch one of the rocks. The surface was glazed white, like it had been burned to ash and then the ash fused to glass. What kind of fire, she wondered, could do that?

The gulch was steeper here and more overgrown. Mary Jane reached into the curtain of hanging branches and pushed them aside. Beneath was the entrance to a low cave. The girl crouched down, ducked her head, and crawled in.

This was where Josie stopped. Who knew what was inside? Maybe bats. Maybe a bear. Certainly squishy things that lived beside streams, like toads and salamanders. If Mary Jane wanted to go in there, let her.

After a minute, Mary Jane’s feet reappeared, moving backward, then her rump, shoulders, and head. She was dragging something out of the cave. When the girl had fully emerged, Josie could see it was just a load of trash: two pieces of corrugated cardboard that were torn and bleached almost white, tattered scraps of silver foil that once might have covered them, fluttering bits of black plastic sheeting, a tangle of wire, and some clothes that resembled a pair of child’s pajamas, the kind with feet attached. The clothes were grayish, splotched with mildew, and they smelled bad, even from where Josie was standing.

“Ew!” she said. “Why do you want to touch that?”

Mary Jane turned over a piece of the cardboard, and scraps of foil blew away on the breeze. She looked up with tears in her eyes. “It is … my …”

“It’s garbage. You’ll get germs.”

Mary Jane tried to straighten out the clothing, but the fabric was stuck together with crud.

“Leave it,” Josie insisted, pulling on the girl’s arm.

“They were not like this. We left them in order and packaged against—”

“Well, then someone got to them. A homeless person. Or maybe a bear. My daddy says there are bears in these hills.” Now Josie was growing really scared of the cave. She pulled on Mary Jane’s arm, more gently this time. “Come on.”

Mary Jane stood up slowly. She was still looking down at her trash heap.

“We’ve got to get back before Mrs. Gorage misses us and sends out a search party,” Josie said.

Mary Jane nodded. “You are right.”

“Besides, you can always buy more stuff like this.”

“No,” the girl said with a sigh. “That is one thing I cannot do.”

Back | Next