Middle Grade Contemporary by Janet Johnson
Annie waited until her mom buried herself in the bills before sneaking the phone into the hall closet. She pushed aside her sister's faux fur parka and speed-dialed 7. She 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."
"Picnic?" Jason asked.
"Affirmative. See you in five."
Jason hedged. "Annie, I'll try, but 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. With the phone back in place, she peeked into her shared bedroom. Empty. In seconds, she extracted her pre-packed bag from under the bed then poked her head into her mom's room across the hall.
"I'm going outside, Mom."
"Where outside? Is your homework done?" Her mom dropped the pen and rubbed her temple before turning around. She looked more tired than usual.
"To Jason's and then the garden," Annie said. "And yes, homework's done. You okay?"
Annie's mom smiled, but Annie could tell it was forced. "Just going over bills. Have fun, and don't be too long. Dinner's in an hour."
"Will Dad be home?" Annie held her breath.
Her mom's smile got tighter. "Not tonight. He's working late again."
Lately, Mom always seemed to be 'going over bills'---that, or complaining about the price of groceries. And Dad was always working. Two reasons Annie was glad she wasn't an adult.
Annie tiptoed down the stairs of her split-level home. Matt's voice floated up from the basement.
"Aloe is a healing plant with green spiky leaves . . ."
He must be studying for another merit badge. As if he didn't have enough. But Annie wasn't bitter that she couldn't be a Boy Scout. Not much. So what if her dad offered five dollars for every merit badge earned? Or that her brother got to go to Adventure Camp every summer? At least she didn't have to wear a dorky uniform.
Annie waited until Matt and his friend got into an argument about the medicinal properties of aloe before opening the squeaky door. She couldn't afford to be followed. And when you had an older brother and sister, you never could be too careful. The last thing Annie needed was Matt stealing her bag to play Keep Away. Or worse, Kate's sing-songy torment: Going to your boyfriend's?
Because Jason was not her boyfriend.
Outside, she scanned the area for spies. Across the cul-de-sac, Mrs. Schuster (though Annie secretly called her Mrs. Spinster) pulled weeds from her perfect flower garden. Next door, Billy pedaled around on his tricycle while his mom watched from the garage.
The coast was clear.
Annie relaxed. She breathed in the warm September air. Perfect burial weather. When they'd first started the cemetery, Annie preferred rain. She thought it was more dramatic. But practicality won out. Rain turned the holes into mud baths.
Barefoot, Annie bounded down the three front steps and sprinted down the driveway and around the corner house to Jason's. As always, Mr. Parker's beat-up truck sat in front. Lumber jutted from the back as though Jason's dad was headed to his next framing job, but Annie knew he hadn't worked in several weeks. 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.
Mrs. Parker answered. "Hello, Annie dear. Let me go get Jason. Hold on." A strand of her curly dark hair had escaped her up-do. A brief frown marred her features before she brushed back the stray hair and glided toward Jason's room.
Annie thought Mrs. Parker was the most beautiful woman she'd ever seen. With her olive skin, and perfect hair, she didn't look like a mom. She didn't even dress like a mom. Annie had never seen her in jeans or a t-shirt. Today she had on sleek black slacks and a sparkly pink, short-sleeved 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. They both stared at some papers. From the tight expression on Mr. Parker's face, Annie guessed he wasn't having fun. Neither of them looked at her. When Mrs. Parker scooted Jason around the corner, he tried to catch his dad's attention with a timid wave.
"Can't you see we're busy?" Mr. Parker barked. "Now, go play and let us get our work done!"
Even from the door, Annie could see the hurt dripping from Jason's expression 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's face hardened. He kicked at the porch rail then sulked along beside Annie. But Annie doubted he wanted to talk about it.
Across the street, something glinted in the Pierce's window. Annie picked up the pace. "Come on! Before that nosy Lila sees us."
Jason folded his arms, but walked a little faster. "There are worse things than being seen, you know."
Annie stopped and 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: two rows of beans and peas, three of tomatoes, one each of carrots, pumpkins, and watermelon, and a box for strawberries. But the best part was the five full rows of corn next to the big fat cherry tree. The combination provided the perfect little 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 was always careful not to plant anything too close to the tree. The graves would remain unharmed.
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 for consumption, in the secret cemetery.