Saturday, March 5, 2011
Maximillian Drayson didn't quite like girls, but he figured Annika Britanika was different. She could climb a tree faster than he was able, catch a fish with her bare hands, and spit further than most boys could. Heck, if he had to have a best friend, he couldn't think of a boy better than Annika. He'd never met a girl like her who'd wear overalls and run around barefoot outdoors. For that reason alone, he decided that she would be his best friend, and she reckoned it was okay as long as it didn't involve kissing or anything else annoying of the like.
By 1897, the twelfth anniversary of their births, they'd been friends for some time. Of course, Annika could still climb that tree faster than Max, but he didn't mind it much, since occasionally she'd let him beat her in a game of checkers. He felt bad for Annika because her father was gone--not dead gone--but gone all the same.
Annika's father was from England, and her parents had received a divorce when she was three. They'd been living in Indonesia at the time. Mr. Britanika would leave his wife and toddler girl alone in Bali as he traipsed from one island to another on archeology digs. Annika's mother had had enough and left for England before her husband returned from one such dig, citing abandonment as the reason for the divorce. Mrs. O'Hare down the street gossiped to Max's mother about the shame of it all, squawking that rich people merely had to sign a paper to be done with each other. Annika cared not about the gossip--she couldn't be bothered by the likes of Mrs. O'Hare.
Soon after the divorce, Annika's mother met a banker from Springfield named Mr. Horace Smith while on a steamship from London to Boston. The two had enjoyed each other's company and had married less than a year later. Why would anyone want to leave England and live in Springfield, Massachusetts? Max had pondered. Be it as it may, they'd come here and Max was the better for it. It brought Annika into his life. Her family lived around the corner from Max in Forest Park Heights. The Smith family had a huge three-story house with paid servants and all.
The only thing Annika didn't like about the whole deal was the bothersome little sister whom her mother and new father brought into this world. Younger by six years, Annika's sister, Emilie, was more irritating than poison ivy. The thing Annika liked most was her stepsister, Fallon, Mr. Smith's only child from his deceased wife. At sixteen, Fallon was a beautiful porcelain goddess, but she didn't know it any. It was as if she were an angel plopped here on Earth to remind the rest of us of our shortcomings.
Max's mother had said Annika's real father was a great explorer and archeologist. Max's father added that it was merely fancy words for a treasure hunter. Max thought that was tremendous and could hardly wait for Mr. Britanika's monthly postcards to arrive and for Annika to read aloud from them the tales of her father's adventures.
Today was Annika's birthday and usually she'd receive a spectacular gift from some part of the unknown world that her father had been to. As of yesterday, one hadn't arrived. Annika was in no mood to talk about it when Max asked if Mr. Britanika might have forgotten to send one. Her full lips were trembling and her enormous brown eyes filled with tears when she huffed off and wouldn't talk to him.
He hoped her mood was better today as he sprinkled tooth powder on his brush. For it was the day Annika was to make good on her promise to him. The promise she had made when they were eight years of age, sitting in the tree house that teetered on the limbs of a large oak tree in her backyard. She had said she'd kiss him on her twelfth birthday, and he was determined to collect on it. He scrubbed his teeth with better attention than his usual quick swipe around the gums.
Max shined his best boots and even greased his hair back for the occasion. His brother's hand-me-down gray rugby suit just about fit him now. Well, that is, if he stretched his body upright and didn't slouch so the knickers wouldn't fall too far below his knees. He grabbed a bunch of Mrs. O'Hare's flowers that looked like puffy snowballs when he passed by on his way to Annika's house. Birds sang their sing songs and the grass smelled sweet as he whistled along, kicking a rock up the street. With the flowers in hand, he bounded up the steps and knocked hard on the fancy glass door.
"G'day Master Drayson," Molly, one of the four servants, said when she opened the door. "Aren't you a splendid young lad to bring hydrangeas for Mrs. Smith, eh?"
Max simply nodded and let her take the flowers. He didn't want her to know whom the flowers were actually meant for, or she'd think he was feeling romantic toward Annika.
"Miss Britanika is in the sitting room with a guest." Molly stepped aside to let Max in. "You may go in and join them."
"Thank you, ma'am," Max muttered as he passed her, remembering what his older brother had told him. One couldn't kiss a girl without bringing flowers first. I guess there comes a time when a boy just wants to kiss a girl and Max's turn had arrived. The whole thing seemed complicated by what you should do, and what you shouldn't do. Such as, you should bring flowers, the first kiss should only be a quick one, you shouldn't touch any part of her during the kiss, and don't kiss and jabber to everyone about it. Heck, he just wanted to kiss her without all the ceremony. Besides, she was turning twelve today, and he had turned the same months together now, and they were old enough to kiss.
He dragged his feet the entire length of the hall. At entering the sitting room, his breath hitched against his throat the moment, he saw Annika in a white flouncy dress and a big white satin bow flopped on top of her head. She looked better than any angel could. For she was the earth covered in fresh fallen snow.
The tattered brown package wrapped tightly with twine sat like a small ball in the palm of Annika's hand. In ink, Ayah--the Indonesian name for father she had learned to call him from their time in Bali--had written OPEN ALONE all over the bruised package. That was unusual, Annika turned in her head as she stared at the package, Surely, Ayah wouldn't mind if Max witnessed the unveiling.
"Hurry up already, and open it," Max said all jittery and anxious as he sat on the edge of Annika's white frilly bed beside her. "We're gonna miss the cake."
She frowned at him. "They can't have cake until all twelve candles is blown out. And since I'm the birthday girl, that's not going to happen until . . . well . . . I open this."
Her eyes flicked over Max. He had finally reached her height of five-foot-three. His eyes were a lovely blue and his hair the color of hay. She preferred his hair in its natural state instead of slicked back as he wore it today. There was an extra care to his appearance today, and she wondered if he had spruced up for Shelby McGuire.
Thinking of Shelby brought Annika's attention back to the package in her hand. By some miracle, the package had arrived by post right before her birthday party. The postmark date was over a month ago. Always the early bird, perky Shelby was walking up the sidewalk ten minutes early, flashing her sparkling smile with her red curls bouncing behind her. She'd passed the post carrier as he was retreating from the house after delivering it. Annika's mother took the package from Annika and told her she could open it later since she'd already had a guest to entertain. It was agonizing for Annika to have to wait to open it.
Annika had struggled to keep from giving Shelby a sour face as they sat on the settee waiting for the other guests, who appropriately had arrived ten minutes late. Annika didn't even want to invite Shelby in the first place, but Annika's mother said it would be rude not to since she's their neighbor. When Max had arrived, Shelby hovered over him like a vulture circling the desert for dead animals the entire party. Annika had to wait until after all the gifts had been unwrapped and her mother was busy gathering the wrappings from the floor to sneak to her room. When Shelby was distracted, Annika had dragged Max upstairs and into her room to open the gift alone with him.
With nervous hands, she removed the twine, tore away the brown paper, and pulled aside the wadded up newspaper.
Max leaned over Annika's arm to get a better look. "Well, what is it?
Annika held up the shiny golden globe--its stand balancing on her palm--for Max to see. "It's a globe of the world."
"Is it real gold?"
Max reached a greedy hand out for the globe, and Annika yanked it away from his reach. The last thing Max had touched of hers had been her pet turtle, and it died soon afterward, so Annika figured he had the bad luck touch. Nana Britanika always talked about how once a person got the bad luck touch curse they could never get rid of it. Afterward, Annika had forbidden Max from touching anything of hers that was alive or important, and the globe sure did look important.
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