I run the two blocks to pick up Linda and Laura. At the end of their street, we ooch under the chain link fence. Then up the steep bank to the tangle of highway intersections, across two lanes, across the grassy divide, across the other two lanes, then cut through the property of the Dominican Retreat where the nuns live. Marie’s long, unruly back yard abuts their escape from the world.
Marie answers the back door which opens on the staircase. To the right is the living room which leads to the kitchen. Marie ushers us by her older brothers lounging on the uncomfortable oatmeal-colored couch. Kyle Gardner reminds me of Ricky Nelson from Ozzie and Harriet. Blonde David wears tortoise shell glasses. On the opposite wall is an oriental chest with shiny brass drawer pulls and hinges. On either side are Japanese watercolors on silk. I glance at cute, curly-haired Jimmy Schultz leaning against the far wall. His older brother Michael is built like a tree trunk with pimples. He’s plopped in the uncomfortable oatmeal chair next to the kitchen door. As I pass, he leans forward. “Is that an official Girl Scout sleeping bag?”
I nod. The boys laugh.
Marie offers us Twin Pops out of the freezer. Linda and I split a lime. Marie and Laura a grape.
Michael walks around the corner. “Hey, wanna play capture the flag?”
I don’t really want to. It’s getting dark. But with a Popsicle melting in her mouth, Laura says, yes.
We wander into Marie’s back yard, and Michael and David walk into the three-bay garage. Mrs. Gardner never parks her Volkswagen bus in there because it’s full of junk that was left behind by the previous owners. Stuff like torn canvas lawn chairs, lawn mowers that won’t start, an old Victrola with a stack of dusty records. It smells like grease, rusty nails, and dirt, but it's where Marie and I play the Chop Sticks duet on a red upright piano. It’s also where we usually hide out when her brothers and their friends are home.
David and Michael come out of the garage with a mildewed shower curtain and rip it into two flags, one for the girls’ team and one for the boys’.
Michael places his flag on the stoop. “I call the back steps for our base.”
Marie hangs our striped cloth on the branch of an apple tree that marks the boundary between the Gardner’s house and the nuns. “This is our home base.”
The goal is to capture the other team’s flag and race it to your home base without being tagged. If you’re tagged, you’re immediately on the enemy’s team until one of your original team mates redeems you with another tag.
The running and dodging begin. Kyle immediately tags lovely Linda. I try to redeem her, but he hugs her tight, so I can’t get her free. Michael grabs Marie, but Laura frees her. I tag Jimmy, but David tags him back. Linda tags me, making me my own enemy. Marie brushes by in the dark. I touch her by accident. Marie tags Laura, and there is no one left to defend our flag. Holding hands, boys and girls rush the apple tree. A lightening bug blinks. I never meant to become a traitor, capturing my own flag.
Michael parades our piece of ripped fabric. “Wanna play again?”
Linda looks at Kyle. Kyle looks at Linda, but Marie says, “No. Tell mom we’re going to the upside down tree.”
I didn’t even know her mother was home. I watch the boys march back to the living room and notice the blue light of a TV in an upstairs window.
I turn and follow my friends. We call the tree on the Dominican property upside down because its exotic branches dig into the ground as if it doesn’t know which way to grow. Under its claw-like limbs we sit in a circle and plan.
Marie leads our stealth mission towards the retreat house. Her slim body is backlit by the string of dormitory windows. Our shadowless forms clump up on the all-brick end of the building. Laura boosts Marie onto the one story roof. Linda boosts Laura. I boost Linda, and together they reach down and haul me up. On top, I behold an inner courtyard with flowers, fountains, and an illuminated reflecting pool. Marie drops into the garden, and we jump after her. Windows surround the court yard. Surely someone saw our invasion. But Marie confidently escorts us to the French doors by a statue of the Virgin Mary. We walk through the glass opening and find ourselves opposite the front foyer. A large clock above the outer entrance marks ten o’clock. We sneak down the hall. The windows of the courtyard open onto this corridor, so no one could have witnessed our breaking and entering unless they were out of their bedrooms. I guess nuns go to bed early. We don’t see a soul on our circuit until we return to the front foyer.
A tall woman in a traditional nun outfit approaches. I am ready to bolt, but to where?
The pale face encircled by the stiff, starched thingie speaks, “May I help you girls?”
Marie doesn’t miss a beat, “Yes.”
Yes? What is she thinking? No! I want to get out of here, yet I am frozen.
Marie looks the nun in the eye. “We were wondering if you ever hold retreats here for youth.”
“Oh, you mean CYO events?”
Laura perks up as if we are serious. “Yes, for the Catholic Youth Organization.”
I recall that Linda and Laura’s dad makes them attend catechism at St. Helens, but all they come back with are tales of cute Catholic boys like Johnny Cornelius.
“Our ministry is for adults only.” The nun drops her head like she’s really sorry.
“Well, thanks anyway.” Marie leads us out the front door.
“Good night girls.” The nun waves. She must know we’re lying. There is no parental vehicle waiting to steer us home. The Retreat is on a busy highway. She must know we walked. From where? The only house near the ten acre grounds is Marie’s. Are all our shenanigans so obvious? Sister so-and-so doesn’t seem to care.
When we get back to Marie’s, the living room is empty. The boys are gone. Marie turns off the lights. “Hey, wanna levitate someone? Ann lie down.”
Linda and Laura place two fingers under my sides.
Marie sits at my head and places two fingers under each shoulder. “Now, repeat after me, ‘Light as a feather, stiff as a board. Light as a feather, stiff as a board.’”
The girls chant as I lay silent and rigid in the gloom.
Marie places one knee on the floor. Linda and Laura do likewise. “Now, lift.”
They stand, and my body rises to shoulder level seemingly without effort. Linda and Laura raise their eyebrows and lower me to the floor.
Marie remains in her position. “Who wants to go next?”
First Laura, then Linda, finally Marie. I chant like I’m told even though it feels creepy. Each body rises. I don’t know how. I was chin-up champion in fifth grade. I even tied the boys’ record, yet I am not exerting myself. I am relieved when there is no one left to levitate. I‘m ready to brush my teeth and call it a night, but Marie heads towards the door. “Let’s sleep outside.”
Linda and Laura collect their things. I follow them out under the stars. We spread our sleeping bags behind the garage like the spokes of a wheel, our heads the hub. Lying on our backs, we search the heavens.
“Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight,” Marie recites the nursery rhyme we all know by heart, “I wish…” The wish must remain silent, or it won’t come true. In the damp night air I lie quiet, my baby doll pajamas my only pillow, my unused toothbrush at my feet. Waiting my turn in the circle, I’m bursting with longings larger than words, fears I can’t contain.
That starry night, so many nights ago, I probably wished for Jimmy Schultz to like me. Linda probably wished the same for Kyle. Laura, maybe Johnny Cornelius. Perhaps Marie wished her mother wasn’t so tired after teaching other people’s children that she had energy for her own. But it was so much deeper than that. Four pre-teens racing through the dark to capture something just out of reach. Finding yourself on the wrong team by accidental betrayal. Scaling walls. Crashing boundaries. Defying even the physical laws of the universe to find a place where we could be light as a feather without the adult cares zooming towards us at the speed of adolescence. Maybe I should have wished for someone to tag me, to redeem me, to restore me to the winning team, over the wall, and back to the garden.