This Means War! chapter one
Juliet had hardly spoken to Lowell in weeks, or maybe he was the one who hadn’t spoken to her. Whichever way it was, she didn’t like it. So on Friday afternoon, even though she could see that Lowell was with his new friends, Mike and Tommy Lambert, Juliet hitched up her self-confidence like droopy kneesocks and crossed the alley to his yard.
Lowell and Tommy were sitting on the concrete under the carport, tightening, or maybe loosening, the back wheels of a go-kart that had showed up at Lowell’s house just that week. Mike was sitting on a rusty lawn chair, a stack of comic books next to him, flipping through a Mad magazine.
“Hey, what are you guys doing?” Juliet barked out her question nervously, and it hung in the air for all of them to behold, like underwear on a clothesline.
“What does it look like we’re doing?” Tommy said, without taking his eyes from the wheel. He was gritting his teeth as though screwing or unscrewing a bolt were an almost impossible task.
Juliet stared hard at Lowell until he looked back at her, a twitchy smile—here, then gone—the only sign that he recognized her. She pulled at the ends of her tight curls as if she could stretch them out longer than the tips of her ears. How could her best friend act like this?
Juliet and Lowell had been inseparable ever since his parents moved in across the alley six years before. They’d gone through school together since kindergarten, played a million games of Clue on his back porch, and gotten into trouble for tracking tar into her house on their bare feet. They’d spent whole summers filling water balloons and throwing them, first at cars and then at each other, and they’d ridden their bikes over every inch of Wisdom Hill, Illinois. Until suddenly, this fall, for some unfathomable reason, everything changed.
“When did you get a go-kart?” Juliet asked Lowell, trying another tactic. “I didn’t even know you liked go-karts.”
“I like them!” he said, glaring at her. “You don’t know everything.”
“It’s ours,” Mike said, throwing down the Mad and picking up an old issue of Superman, which Juliet figured was Lowell’s, since he collected them.
“Why is it over here, then?” Juliet said. She wasn’t happy with the way her voice sounded—it reminded her of her mother asking, “What are your shoes doing in the
middle of the living room floor?” instead of just telling her to take them upstairs.
“There’s no good place to work on it at our new house,” Mike said. “We don’t have a garage or a carport.”
“We had a great garage in Omaha,” Tommy said. “I liked that house better than the one here.”
“Yeah,” Mike agreed, “but I liked living in Virginia best of all.”
Just as Juliet had suspected, the Lambert twins were Air Force brats, like so many of the new kids at school. Everything that was going wrong this year had to do with Lathrop Air Field, which lay on the outskirts of Wisdom Hill. Even the fact that there were two fifth-grade classes this fall instead of one was because they lived so close to the Field. Juliet’s mother had said Lathrop was gearing up for the possibility of war, which was why more airmen and their families were moving to the area. Lathrop was one of the biggest air bases in the country, but living a few miles away from squadrons of bombers did not please Juliet.
After all, it was because of Lathrop Air Field that Lowell had been put into a fifth-grade class with a new teacher, Miss Abshire, who was young and pretty, while Juliet had been stuck without her best friend in crazy old Mrs. Funkhauser’s class. And it was because of Lathrop Air Field that Lowell had met Mike and Tommy, who were also in Miss Abshire’s class. And it was because of Lathrop Air
Field that there were two lunch periods now, and Juliet was in the first one and Lowell was in the second one. And it was because of Lathrop Air Field that she had nobody to trade sandwiches with anymore or chase around the baseball diamond at recess or laugh with about Mrs. Funkhauser’s big mop of terrible hair. It was because of Lathrop Air Field that Juliet was, for the first time in her life, lonely.
Juliet realized she’d been staring at the cover of the Superman comic Mike was holding in front of his face. It was one of Lowell’s favorite issues from last year—1961—when he’d begun collecting them in earnest. The Man of Steel was catching bombs in his hands and throwing them back at the bad guys. If only the United States had a hero like that on their side, she thought, they wouldn’t need so many Air Force bases.
Mike caught her looking at the comic book. “We’re kind of busy,” he said. “You should probably go home.”
“You’re not busy,” she said. “You’re reading Superman.”
“Well, we’re busy,” Tommy said. “And we don’t need any girls around getting in our way.”
“I could help you,” Juliet offered. “I make model cars sometimes, don’t I, Lowell? Remember that Model T Ford we made last year?”
Lowell pressed his lips together and pulled at the back wheel of the go-kart with all his strength, but Juliet still
couldn’t tell if he was making sure it was on tight or trying to take it off.
“Remember?” she asked again.
“No,” he said under his breath, then peered up at her, the lie making his freckles darken on his pale face.
“You do too remember!” she said, anger pushing up into her throat from the sore spot in her chest where she’d tried to keep it hidden. “You had it in your room on the windowsill for six months, and now I have it in my room!”
“So what?” Mike said, throwing down the comic. “Just because you can make a model car doesn’t mean you can work on a go-kart. This is stuff that boys do, not girls.”
“Says who? You think you’re so smart just because your dad is at Lathrop. Big deal.”
“Yeah, it is a big deal,” Mike said. “Have you ever even been to the base?”
“Of course I have. Everybody round here’s been there. I don’t see what’s so special about it. It’s only got about six streets, and it’s out in the middle of a cornfield.”
In fact Juliet had only been to Lathrop once. Normally, civilians weren’t allowed on base, but a few years back her family had gone there to see an air show put on by the Blue Angels, a precision flying team who kept their airplanes in tight formation as they soared and dove and turned somersaults in the sky. They were terribly loud as they came in
low over the crowd, and Juliet had been so scared she’d screamed bloody murder.
They’d had to leave before the show was over, but she remembered what the place looked like: big brick buildings surrounded by long barracks, all of them behind tall barbed-wire fences. The whole place had looked temporary to her, as if it had been set down out there in the middle of nowhere by a big, invisible hand, or maybe a tornado. She had the feeling the buildings might one day decide to up and move to some other patch of flat, dry land, and nobody would know they’d ever been there.
Mike snorted. “You don’t know anything about it. Without air bases like Lathrop, the Communists would take over our country!”
Juliet was pretty sure Communists were Russians, but she didn’t really know much about them. Still, she planted her feet on the concrete, perfectly willing to argue with Mike as long as it meant she could stick around for a while. If only Lowell’s unhappy gaze hadn’t settled on her face.
“You should go home,” he said. “We’re busy. We don’t want any girls around.”
Juliet felt her anger turn liquid and gather behind her eyes. How could Lowell be so mean to her for no reason at all? She would never treat him this way. He was her best friend in the world! Without another word she turned and walked back to her own side of the alley.
As she left, she heard Tommy start a knock-knock joke. The three of them were making boy-noise, just like they did at school—that kind of here-I-am-look-at-me boisterous squawking that made adults frown and other kids notice. When Lowell had been Juliet’s friend, he’d been the quieter of the two of them and the one less likely to steer them into mischief, but things had changed. Now he was a big show-off, just like his Air Force–brat friends. Juliet couldn’t hear the punch line of Tommy’s joke, but she heard the boys laughing, and she imagined they were laughing at her.
This Means War! chapter two
Lately, Juliet had been doing quite a bit of praying, at least for someone whose family only went to church on Christmas and Easter. The year before, after her grandpa passed away, Juliet had started praying not to die. She knew it was a lot to ask, so she asked it only for herself and for her family. She would be willing to lose everyone else if only the four of them could live forever, or at least for a very long time.
But if one of us has to die, Juliet thought, we could sacrifice Caroline.
And, really, she felt pretty proud of herself for even including her older sister in the original request, since Caroline usually treated her like a carrier of the black plague. For example, every time Caroline’s friend Mimi came over lately, they kicked Juliet out of her own room, which was only 50 percent Caroline’s.
Which is what Juliet told her Saturday morning. “This room is only fifty percent yours, Caroline, so don’t boss me around. All you’re going to do is listen to records anyway. And
practice doing the Twist.” Juliet swung her rear end back and forth in an exaggerated imitation of the latest dance craze.
“Jules, can’t you go downstairs for a while?” Caroline begged. “We need some privacy.”
“Yeah, get lost,” Mimi added. Mimi only had brothers, so she didn’t have to share a room with anybody and thought it was a horrible injustice that Caroline did.
“I need some privacy too!” Juliet said.
Caroline rolled her eyes. “Ten-year-olds don’t need privacy. Besides, all you’re doing is sitting on your bed staring out the window.”
“I’m thinking,” Juliet said.
Mimi frowned. “Ten-year-olds can’t think. They can barely read.”
“Maybe you could barely read at ten, but I’ve been reading and thinking for years already.” Juliet couldn’t imagine why Caroline was best friends with such an annoying person. Maybe there was something wrong with their whole family that made them choose lousy best friends.
“Why don’t you go over to Lowell’s?” Caroline suggested.
“I don’t want to.”
“Why not? You could take a bike ride together.”
“Maybe they had a spat,” Mimi said. “Did you have a fight with your little boyfriend?”
Juliet glared at Mimi. “He’s not my boyfriend. Why are you so dumb?”
Mimi sneered and chuckled in a way that made Juliet want to bite her. “Just wait,” Mimi said. “In another year or two you’ll have a big old crush on Lowell.”
“I will not!” Juliet scooted off her bed and slipped into her old penny loafers. Who would even want to stay in the room with girls who were so stupid? “I’m going, but not because you told me to. Because I can’t stand to listen to you talk about boyfriends and crushes. It makes me want to puke.”
She slammed the door behind her and clomped down the steep stairway, but she could still hear Caroline and Mimi cracking up, as if she’d just said something hilarious.
There was never any privacy downstairs. The first floor of their house had living quarters only in the back; in the front was her parents’ store, Klostermeyer’s Market, which hosted a steady stream of neighborhood customers, many of whom had been shopping there so long they felt they were members of the family and would poke their heads through the screen door that divided front from back and yell in their greetings. Or they’d smell whatever her mother had run back to stick in the oven, and they’d call through the open window between the store and the kitchen, “Ethel, are you making a pot roast for dinner?”
Even her mother sometimes got peeved at their nosiness. Actually, these days her mother got peeved at almost everything, which was another reason Juliet would just as soon not do her thinking downstairs. If Ethel Klostermeyer
caught you doing nothing—which is what thinking looked like—she’d find a way for you to “make yourself useful,” which meant some odious chore like ironing bedsheets or dusting the useless collection of cups and saucers that sat on a knickknack shelf in the dining room. Juliet’s mother seldom sat still for more than five minutes at a time, and she didn’t see why anyone else needed to either.
Juliet took her favorite cup out of the dish drainer and poured herself some ice water from the refrigerator. The cup, which had been her grandfather’s, had a picture of a racehorse on the side. He’d gotten it at the Cahokia racetrack the one time he’d gone, and he wouldn’t let anyone but Juliet use it. After he died, her grandma gave her the cup to remember him by, not that she could ever forget him anyway.
Out of everybody in her whole family, her grandpa was the one who had always had time for her. Everybody had said he spoiled her, but Juliet had never felt spoiled, only loved. She should have prayed that he’d never die, but she hadn’t thought of it until it was too late. She didn’t intend to make that mistake again. Of course, there was no use including her grandmother in her prayers, because Grandma herself was praying to “join Poppa in heaven.” Juliet figured it would confuse God if they were asking for different things.
Peering out the living room window she could see that
there was nobody outside at Lowell’s house, which was good. She could go out without having to see him and pretend she didn’t. It was a warm, sunny day for October—she might as well take advantage of it and ride her bike. Since Saturdays were always busy in the store, chances were good that her mother wouldn’t have time to stop and grill her about where she was going.
She stepped through the screen door and closed it quietly behind her. Her father was grinding hamburger meat for Mrs. Schneider, who was very picky and wouldn’t buy anything that she hadn’t watched go into the grinder herself; her mother was ringing up a big order for the Mattesons. Juliet stopped briefly at the candy case and reached a hand in to grab two Zero bars and a few pieces of black licorice.
“Is that Juliet?” Mrs. Matteson sang out. “My goodness, I haven’t seen you in ages. You’ve gotten so tall!”
Juliet smiled and quickly stuck the candy bars in her jacket pocket. When her mother turned around, she saw only the licorice strips waving in her daughter’s hand.
“Are you eating candy already? It’s eleven o’clock in the morning.”
“I’m just taking it with me,” Juliet said. “I’m going for a bike ride.”
“Don’t cross the highway. You going with Lowell?”
Juliet shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Ethel’s fingers danced over the tops of the tin cans as
her eyes darted back and forth between the register and the countertop. “Go ask him. I don’t like you to ride alone.”
Juliet sighed. “What difference does it make? I’m just as safe alone as I am with Lowell. He’s not Superman, you know.”
Ethel frowned at the canned goods. “Now I’ve lost my place. Did I ring in those cream corns? Juliet distracted me.”
While her mother was busy comparing the register tape to the groceries, Juliet took the opportunity to sneak out the door into the garage and get her bike. She couldn’t believe her mother hadn’t even noticed that Lowell wasn’t her friend anymore—he hadn’t come over in weeks. But all her mother had time for these days was worrying about how to keep their customers from shopping at the big new supermarkets that had started to open up in town. No time for Juliet’s little problems.
She wheeled her bike out of the garage. It had once been Caroline’s bicycle, but Caroline wouldn’t be caught dead riding it now. She and Mimi spent hours trying to figure out how to get boys with driver’s licenses to take them places, although so far they hadn’t had much luck. Juliet got on the bike and rolled out of her driveway and down the alley that ran between her house and Lowell’s. She tried not to look over into his yard, but her head wouldn’t obey her brain. Lowell’s mom was out in their garden, pulling the last of the green beans from the vines. She waved.
“Hey, Juliet, we haven’t seen much of you lately,” she
called over. Lowell’s mom looked just like him, small and blond, with big front teeth and a bigger smile.
Juliet waved back at Mrs. McManus. “Yeah, I guess I’ve been… busy.” What she wanted to say was, Don’t you know that your son is being a jerk to me? But instead she just smiled and pedaled on down the alley.
It had been a bad fall all around. Not only had Juliet lost her best friend, but the St. Louis Cardinals hadn’t even come near to winning the National League pennant, which always put her father in a rotten mood. Last night at dinner he couldn’t stop complaining about the president. “The world’s going to hell in a handbasket, and all that Kennedy can talk about is putting a man on the moon. What good is a man on the moon going to do me? Or any normal person?”
“Don’t be such a pessimist, Don,” Ethel told him.
“I’m being realistic,” he told her. “It’s been a terrible year with all this talk about another war. Spy planes. Bombs. It makes people jumpy.”
Juliet had gotten a funny taste in her mouth and couldn’t finish her macaroni and cheese. She hated it when people talked about war. She knew that lots of people died in wars: Her father’s brother, who would have been her uncle Peter, died in World War II, but they didn’t talk about him a lot because it upset her dad so much. And the word “bomb” made Juliet feel lightheaded, like she might pass out. A
bomb, she knew, didn’t just kill soldiers; it killed anybody who was near it. And she didn’t like hearing her father say that grown-ups were nervous too—that meant she wasn’t just imagining how bad it could be.
“Every time the Cards lose, my business goes downhill, the winter’s freezing, and another supermarket opens up in town.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Don, the Cardinals are not in charge of the weather,” Ethel said. “And supermarkets are going to open up no matter who wins the pennant. We’re lucky we live in such a small town that it’s taken a long time for them to get here. We just have to figure out a way to compete.”
Don just shook his head. “I’m getting too old for it,” he said.
“Fifty is not old,” Ethel said.
“How would you know? You’re not even forty yet.”
It was an old argument between them: her father’s age, her mother’s youth. Juliet didn’t like to think of her father being old and wished he wouldn’t dwell on it so much. It made her worry about how much longer he’d be around. And then she’d pray some more. Dear God, please don’t let Dad die for a long, long time. Or Mom, either. Or me. I guess Caroline could stay on earth a while longer too. And please don’t let a war start. In case you don’t know, there are really bad bombs now which can kill thousands of people at one time. Which doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you’d approve of. So keep an eye on that, okay?
Mrs. Shepard’s dog, Boneguard, rushed to the fence as Juliet pedaled by. Most kids in the neighborhood were scared of him; he was an enormous animal who bared his teeth when anybody came near the house and looked like he’d be happy to snack on your fingers before devouring your face. But Juliet was a dog lover without a dog—Caroline had allergies—so Mrs. Shepard had let her come over and play with Boneguard when he was a puppy, and the dog seemed to remember her. Although now that he’d grown to be the size of a small piano, she was more hesitant to test his memory.
“Hey, Boney,” she yelled, and the dog stopped barking. His lip was still curled back, though, and his teeth were larger than the Big Bad Wolf’s, so Juliet rode on. As she passed the Schlossers’ house, which had a FOR SALE
sign on the lawn, and old Cotton Mondale’s big backyard full of dried-up cornstalks and sunflowers, she promised herself that she was going to make some new friends. Or at least one new friend. One good one was all you really needed. Somebody she could ride bikes with and invite to her room when Caroline and Mimi weren’t hogging it. Somebody she could talk to the way she used to be able to talk to Lowell.
It wouldn’t be easy to find that kind of friend, though. The two girls in her class who she’d been most friendly with over the years, Annette Hendricks and Linda Wheeler, ate lunch with her in the cafeteria now, but she mostly just sat between them and let their arguments bounce off her.
Annette would say something like, “Billy Holtz is adorable, don’t you think? He cut the grass for my parents all summer and I got to watch him from my window.”
“Billy Holtz?” Linda would say, incredulous. “He’s in high school!”
“So what? I can look at him, can’t I?”
“What if he saw you looking? I would die! Wouldn’t you just die, Juliet?”
Juliet would shrug, and the conversation would go on without her. She didn’t even know who Billy Holtz was, and she didn’t care if he was adorable or not, and she certainly wouldn’t die just because somebody saw her looking at them. Annette and Linda sounded too much like Caroline and Mimi for Juliet’s taste. So she would just pick the crusts off her sandwich and suck her milk container dry and wish she had somebody else to talk to.
When she came to the end of the alley, Juliet turned right onto Boxfield Road, figuring to head out into the countryside and look at the pumpkins that were still left in the fields. She swung her bike out of the alley, around an enormous rose of Sharon bush, and onto the sidewalk, where, unexpectedly, there was another bicycle, stopped dead.
“Whoa!” Juliet cried as she clipped the other bike, steered hers onto the lawn, and then hopped off before it fell over. “Jeez, I didn’t see you there!”
“Sorry,” the other girl said. She had golden-orange hair
that puffed out from her head like dandelion fuzz. “I guess I was daydreaming. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, fine,” Juliet said, picking up her bike. “Are you?”
The girl nodded. “I never get hurt.”
“You should pull your bike off onto the lawn if you aren’t riding it. Kids come flying up the alley and around that corner all the time.”
“Okay,” the girl said, and walked her bike off the path. “Do you live around here?”
Juliet pointed. “Up on Abbott Street. Where do you live?”
“Right there,” the girl said, pointing to the small white house with the blue front door that they were standing in front of. “We just moved here from Arizona. We got here yesterday, and our furniture came today.”
“You did? Wow, that’s… neat.” Juliet smiled a little nervously and tried not to stare at the girl, but it was hard not to. She was kind of strange-looking, tall and skinny with a dark tan and that weird hair. Juliet herself had Toni Home Permanent curls—boring little brown circles, not wild, flying fluff like this girl’s.
“Hey, how come they call this place Wisdom Hill?” the girl asked. “I haven’t seen anything that looks like a hill since we came through southern Missouri. It’s pancake flat around here.”
Juliet nodded. “I know. I guess there’s this little hill on a farm on the west end of town where these people named
Wisdom used to live. I’ve never seen it, though.”
“So Wisdom Hill isn’t hilly.” The girl cocked her head the way dogs sometimes do. “It’s probably not wise, either.”
Juliet laughed. “You’re right—it isn’t. Funny, I never really thought about the name of the town before. It’s just where I live.”
The girl sighed. “Well, I guess now it’s where I live too.” She didn’t sound all that happy about it.
Slowly, it began to dawn on Juliet that here was a kid who seemed to be about her own age who lived just down the street from her. Maybe this was her new friend! Lowell could spend the rest of his life screwing wheels off and on that dumb go-kart with those stupid Lambert twins—she wouldn’t need him anymore.
“What’s your name?” Juliet asked the girl with the dandelion hair.
“Patricia Marie Osgood. But everybody calls me Patsy, except my mother. What’s yours?”
“Juliet Klostermeyer. I don’t have a middle name, because my mother didn’t want to take a chance that people would call me anything except Juliet. She loves that name,” Juliet said, rolling her eyes.
Patsy’s eyes widened. “Klostermeyer! That’s the name of the grocery store up the street.”
Juliet nodded. “My parents own it. We live behind it and upstairs.”
“That’s boss! I was in there this morning with my mom. There’s a lot of candy in your store. Do you get to have it whenever you want?”
Juliet put her hand in her pocket and smiled as she withdrew the slightly smushed Zero bars. The licorice strips hadn’t lasted the length of the alley.
“You are so lucky!” Patsy said. “I’d give anything to live at a grocery store! Can you walk into the store and get Fudgsicles and Twinkies and stuff like that too?”
Juliet shrugged. “Only if I sneak them. My mom thinks everything that tastes good ruins your appetite.”
Patsy nodded. “My mom’s like that too.”
Juliet looked at her two candy bars and made a spur of the moment decision. “You can have one if you want. I can always get more.”
“Really?” Patsy took the Zero bar that Juliet held out to her. “Thanks.”
They stripped away the candy wrappers and bit into the gooey sweetness in companionable silence. Smacking her lips, Patsy downed hers in two bites.