Middle Grade Contemporary - Janet Johnson
When they'd first started the cemetery, Annie always hoped for rain.
She thought it was more dramatic. But common sense won out. Rain turned the holes into mud baths.
Fortunately, today was perfect, clear-sky burial weather. If she had to wait any longer, it would be too late.
Annie eavesdropped from the top of the stairs. Matt and a friend droned on about healing plants for boyscouts. That'd keep him out of her hair.
She tip-toed down the hall and peeked in her mom's room. Busy with bills. And Kate was out of the house. Perfect.
Still, to be safe, she sneaked the phone into the hall closet where her sister's faux fur parka would muffle the sound. She speed-dialed 7 and let it ring once, then hung up and called again. Their secret code. It rang twice before Jason answered.
"It's me." Annie was all business. "I've got a body count."
Jason hedged. "I don't know. My parents are talking to this lady, and . . ."
"Jason, you're ten. Find a way. This is important." Without waiting for a response, she hung up.
Jason wouldn't find a way. Annie knew. She'd just have to go to his house and get him, like usual.
After listening at the door for several seconds, she slipped out of the closet and replaced the phone. In seconds, she extracted the pre-packed bag from under her bed then ran down the stairs.
"I'm going outside, Mom!" She bounded out of the house before her mom could protest and ran smack into Kate.
"Watch it, squirt!"
For a split second, Annie thought she might escape her sister's usual torment, until Kate's mouth twisted into a grin. "Where are you going, anyway? To your boyfriend's?"
Annie puffed out her chest. "He's not my boyfriend!"
Kate laughed as she pushed past. "Right."
The door banged shut, and Annie forced herself to unclench her fists.
She wasn't in the clear yet and needed to be on alert. Spies could be anywhere.
Annie slowed to a casual stroll and whistled as she scanned the area.
Across the cul-de-sac, Mrs. Schuster---aka Mrs. Meany---pulled weeds from her perfect flower garden. The old woman paused to eye Annie---a clear sign Annie was being watched.
Next door, Billy pedaled on his trike while his mom watched from the garage. A picture of innocence. But was it? Annie doubted. She kept up her guard.
Still, Annie was a seasoned pro and knew just how to handle it. She breathed in the warm September air, hitched up her pack, and sprinted around the corner house to Jason's.
As always, Mr. Parker's beat-up truck sat in the driveway. Lumber jutted from the back as though Jason's dad was headed to his next framing job. It had looked that way for a while now. In addition to the truck, a shiny off-white Lexus was parked at the curb.
That must belong to the lady, Annie thought.
She rang the doorbell and put on her best especially-for-adults smile.
It ebbed at the sound of squawking turkeys coming from Jason's backyard, but she'd completely recovered by the time Mrs. Parker answered.
"Hello, Annie dear. Let me go get Jason." A strand of her curly dark hair had escaped her up-do. A brief frown crossed her face before she brushed back the stray hair and glided toward Jason's room.
Mrs. Parker looked and dressed more like a model than a mom. Today she wore sleek black slacks and a sparkly sweater that swooned at the neck.
Annie tried to imagine herself in such an outfit but failed. It just wouldn't be the same with Annie's frizzy hair and freckles.
From the doorway, Annie saw Mr. Parker and a skinny, blond-bobbed woman at the table in the rear. They both stared at some papers.
When Mrs. Parker scooted Jason around the corner, Jason threw Annie an annoyed look and jerked away to stand by his dad. "I don't have to go, dad. I could . . ."
"Can't you see we're busy?" Mr. Parker barked. "Now, go play and let us finish."
Annie stepped back at Mr. Parker's anger. He was usually pretty cool.
The one playing catch with them in the yard---the turkey-free front yard---while Annie's dad worked late. She hardly dared look at Jason as his mom hustled him to the door.
"Now you two go have fun." Mrs. Parker spoke a little too brightly.
"Be back in time for dinner, Jason."
When the door closed, Jason kicked the porch rail before clomping down the steps. Annie knew better than to say anything. She was almost glad when something glinted in the Pierce's window across the street.
Slugging Jason's shoulder, she picked up the pace. "Hurry! Before Lila sees us."
Jason folded his arms, but walked a little faster. "There are worse things than being seen, you know."
Annie stared at her friend in disbelief. "Are you kidding? We're going to the cemetery," she said. "That would be a catastrophe!"
Jason shrugged. "Let's just go," he mumbled.
They ran to the garden at the side of Annie's house and found their secluded patch between the corn and the cherry tree.
Every spring, with the forced labor of her three children, Annie's mom planted a giant of a garden---one of the biggest in the neighborhood.
It spread from the house all the way to the ditch and had a little of everything. But the best part was the five full rows of corn next to the big fat cherry tree. The combination made the perfect hiding spot in summer and fall which Annie and Jason turned into their unmarked cemetery.
This side of Annie's house had no windows, so no one could spy on them from above. And not wanting to hurt the roots, Annie's mom never planted anything too close to the tree. The graves wouldn't be disturbed.
Annie dropped to her knees, her bag in front. Reverently she pulled out the dead peanut butter and jelly sandwich and handed it to Jason.
Though two of the edges looked like normal bread crust, the center was smushed flat. Purple jelly spots seeped through the now gray bread.
"The two-liter of soda fell on it," Annie explained.
Since they had started the cemetery five years ago---after a tragic incident involving a fanny pack, an orange, rock jumping and several falls---they had scrupulously followed the SPB&J (Smushed Peanut Butter and Jelly) Burial Rules. And rule #1 was clear: Thou shalt bury all smushed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which are unfit to eat, in the secret cemetery.
"How old is it?" Jason asked.
"Three days. I had to save it from the trash when my mom wasn't looking."
Jason nodded grimly then performed the inspection. He turned the sandwich frontwards and backwards then slowly rotated it to check all the sides. "I hereby pronounce this sandwich mold free and worthy of burial."
Thanks to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich Jason found squished at the back of his school desk last year, they'd added rule #7: Thou shalt not bury any sandwich with any non-peanut butter and jelly growths in the cemetery.
Some things were just too gross.
With her mom's gardening spade, Annie dug a sandwich-sized hole then winked solemnly at Jason. Rule #3: Thou shalt not speak during the ceremony, except the official sermon.
Jason extracted the sandwich from the baggie and held it up with outstretched arms. Before Annie could do her part, he squinched up his face and looked away.
"Time out," Annie said. Rule #6: If an emergency shall arise, thou shalt call a time out to allow speaking. "Don't be such a drama king.
I haven't missed in ages."