Authors: Carolyn Marsden
“Here.” Mina handed Ruth the Friendship Ball. “It’s your turn now.” The ball was made of bits of multicolored yarn. Each day a different friend took it home and added to it.
“The Friendship Ball is getting too huge,” Ruth said, holding the yarn as if it were a bowling ball, pretending to stagger. Her ponytail swung back and forth.
“That’s because we’re all such good friends,” Mina said. She stooped to pick up a bit of yarn that had come loose and floated to the sidewalk.
They were walking in the feathery shade of the mesquite trees, toward the entry of the pink two-story building of Elizabeth Morris Elementary. A warm desert breeze stirred Mina’s bangs. The March day would be hot.
“My soccer team took first place on Saturday.” Ruth gave a thumbs-up. “We’re the champs now.”
“Cool,” said Mina, though it seemed silly to care so much about chasing a soccer ball around a field.
“Today’s the big day,” Ruth said.
“What big day?”
“Don’t you remember? Track. Coach said that all fourth and fifth graders would be starting this afternoon.”
thought Mina. She must have forgotten on purpose. If kids goofed around whenever Coach was giving instructions, they had to run laps. So Mina always stood at attention. She hated running. It was easier to put up with basketball. She could sort of pretend to play without doing much. Last year, at her old school, she hadn’t had PE because the yard was too small.
They slipped into the courtyard just as the Pledge of Allegiance started. Mina put her hand over her heart and carefully said the pledge. When that was over, she sang the national anthem, almost hitting the high notes.
The other two Fellow Friends stood in front of her. Alana, who always wore black Mary Jane shoes with jeans shorts, turned around. “Here,” she whispered, sprinkling candy powder from a packet into Mina’s palm.
Mina sucked the sweet grains from her palm, and they turned to sugary, spicy syrup in her mouth.
Sammy, with his cowlick of blond hair, opened his cupped hands to show Mina a cricket.
“Let it go,” she whispered.
Sammy opened his hands wider and the cricket leaped off.
They got into the line for Ms. Jenner’s class. As the kids moved up the steps to the second floor, Mina wondered if she should pretend to be sick so she could miss track.
She noticed her reflection in the glass case full of school sports trophies: Mina Lee with straight black hair and narrow eyes. Mina Lee who cared nothing about sports or trophies.
When everyone was settled in the classroom, Ms. Jenner took attendance, then read the lunch menu: steak strips, French fries, green beans, and pudding.
Mina looked out the big window. The sky was a crisp blue, clear all the way to the horizon. The moon, almost invisible, still hung above the desert mountains. Without thinking, Mina sketched it in the margin of her notebook.
Ms. Jenner had all her students keep moon journals. She was nuts about the moon. Instead of a globe of the earth, she had one of the moon. She had a bookcase full of moon picture books, moon poetry, books of moon facts and moon myths. She had pictures of moon goddesses and of the first men to land on the moon.
Mina had done a report on the Chinese Moon Festival, which was held during the fall, when the moon was huge. Mom had come to school and helped everyone make round moon cakes with red bean paste inside.
It was time for silent reading. Mina took out her mystery,
Seven Steps to Treasure,
and began. The book was too easy for her. It had drawings at the beginning of each chapter. “Can’t you read something more challenging?” Mom often said. Mom was a librarian, and reading was important to her. “You get cold feet when it comes to reading, Mina Lee.” But Mina liked her mystery series.
The heroine had just found diamonds in the neighbor’s yard.
The trunk was too heavy for Francesca to lift. So she looked around, then hid one diamond in her pocket.
“And now, class,” said Ms. Jenner, when the twenty minutes was up, “you have an hour to work on individual projects.”
At the computer, Ruth and Mina traded the mouse back and forth as they clicked through one screen after another, looking for the website on tree frogs.
Once they got to the site, they oohed and aahed over the glowing creatures photographed in their jungle hideouts. They ran the mouse together, Ruth’s hand on top of Mina’s, scooting back and forth on the table.
Mina had started fourth grade here in the fall. She hadn’t wanted to leave her tiny private school. She felt comfortable there and had had the same best friend since kindergarten. But the school only went through third grade. All summer Mina had worried about the plunge into the huge public school. Mostly she’d worried about making a new friend.
But it turned out that friends hadn’t been a problem after all. The first day, a group of two girls and a boy had invited her to the shady picnic tables at lunchtime. Sammy wasn’t like the other boys she’d known. He was never bossy, and he liked to talk about things the way girls did. By the end of the first week, Mina had traded phone numbers with Sammy, Alana, and Ruth.
In early October, Ruth had thrown a surprise party for Mina. The Fellow Friends had jumped out from behind the bushes wearing cone-shaped party hats. Ruth had read the official Fellow Friends certificates out loud: herself for being the athlete, Sammy for loving to collect bugs, Alana for being the best reader, and Mina for being the New Friend.
They taught her the Fellow Friends Handshake:
Shake with the right hand, patty-cake twice, snap, snap.
Out on the patio, under the gigantic spreading black walnut tree, they sat down around a cake with
Fellow Friends Forever
on it. Because Mina was the guest of honor, Ruth handed her the knife. Mina had paused before slicing, not wanting to cut into the words linked together in cursive lines of frosting.
Afterward, because the weather was still hot, the Friends threw water balloons at each other and drank huge glasses of red punch.
PE was right after lunch. Coach Lombard waited in the middle of the field in his big, silly straw hat. As soon as everyone stood in formation, he named off the events: the high jump, the long jump, the softball throw, the quick sprint of the fifty meter, the exhausting five-hundred meter, the team relays . . . Mina noticed that as he talked, Ruth stretched her legs — first one, then the other — out in back of her, as though she couldn’t wait to get started on all the events at once. But listening to Coach made Mina feel like lying down in the grass for a long nap.
“In two weeks, those of you who make the track team will be competing against the other schools in District 3 at Duncan Berring Elementary. Anyone who places first, second, or third at that meet will go on to the citywide meet. It’s called City for short.” Coach lifted his hat and smoothed his sweaty hair down with one hand.
Mina pushed at some pebbles with her toe.
“By the way,” he added, “not all of you will practice all the events.”
Well, that’s one big relief,
Coach blew his whistle and gestured toward the field. “Laps first. But take your time. I don’t want to see any showoff sprints. Pace yourselves so you can do at least three laps.”
When Coach blew the whistle a second time, Ruth leaped forward as though no gravity held her down.
Mina took a deep breath, started running, and felt like a desert tortoise, storteling along with clunky, heavy limbs. Ahead, Ruth seemed to fly. How did she run so fast and easily?
Mina had gone only half a lap, and breathing hurt. Maybe thinking about tortoises was a bad idea. There had to be a better animal. She imagined a roadrunner skipping along on tall, skinny legs.
To her surprise, she felt lighter right away. She passed under the mesquite tree, whose long branches provided five strides’ worth of dark delicious shade. Her footsteps began to mark out a rhythm. She ran around the curve by the baseball diamond, toward the basketball courts. Why had she ever hated running? A lap wasn’t so far, after all.
she repeated to herself.
The second time she crossed through the mesquite tree’s shade, she was sailing. Her legs carried her effortlessly. She passed Alana chugging along with red cheeks. Ruth ran half a lap ahead, and Mina began to gain on her.
A warm, dry breeze lifted the hairs around Mina’s face as she ran. By the third lap, she remembered her favorite dream of flying off a snowy cliff and over a landscape speckled with pools of turquoise water. A half-moon hung like a promise in the daytime sky. In the dream, she’d glided, arms outstretched to hold the whole round Earth from one horizon to the other.
“I did the coolest thing at school today,” Mina told her little sister when Mom picked them up from school.