It was a hot summer day and for the first time ever, I rode my bike up and down our street by myself without using training wheels. It was embarrassing to admit that it had taken me until the end of the second grade to learn how to do it, considering the amount of time I spent outside. When the weather was nice, I wasn’t allowed to stay in the house; I had to disappear and that was fine with me. I didn’t even want to go back inside for meals, but as soon as the sun set, I was forced to return to the confined space of the house where there was no magic.
I had reprieves on the weekends for Saturday morning cartoons and church. I could have done without ever going to church—it was torture. It made me angry that my father never had to go. Sometimes, we went to my aunt’s house afterwards and occasionally we went to Woolworth’s where we’d eat lunch in the Harvest House Café. Those outings almost made it worthwhile spending what felt like all morning at church.
But today was a weekday, and I was outside riding my bike. My father was working and my mother was somewhere in the house, probably doing something boring. There were only seven houses on my street; eight if you counted the one that was being built. Four houses lined the canal and four were on the opposite side of the street. I thought it was good, because there weren’t a lot of annoying people living here. There weren’t any other kids living on my block either, but that didn’t bother me. I liked being outside and watching the wildlife. Sometimes the animals would hang around and keep me company even though they usually didn’t get too close.
I was also glad that the land to the south of us was wild or I would have had nothing to do—my parents wouldn’t let me ride past the Steege house. It didn’t make sense to me that I wasn’t allowed to go further than that house, since the rest of the neighborhood was more developed and held fewer places for me to hide. The Steege house was three doors down from ours, towards the end of the street. I couldn’t see what the house looked like in detail, because the property was surrounded with thick, prickly, green hedges that were taller than my father. I thought it was weird that someone would put up such ugly things that blocked the view of the canal.
I didn’t like Mr. Steege because he seemed angry all the time and I wondered why my parents spoke about him in hushed tones. I was grateful that I didn’t see him outside often. In fact, I had never seen him up close, and had only glimpsed him through the vine-covered gate. He never answered the door on Halloween, so I thought that maybe he was one of those monsters that only appeared normal in the daytime. I never felt brave enough to approach his yard, but sometimes I wanted to. I thought he must be hiding something fascinating, such as a magical garden that housed living fairies and other mystical beings which I couldn’t name. I imagined that they flitted around the yard blinking in and out of sight in brighter colors than fireflies. The more I thought about it, the more I almost didn’t blame him for wanting to keep it all to himself.
Today, I decided to park my bike on the street across from his house. I never knew when Mr. Steege was home, but I figured that since it was Tuesday, he should be working like all the adults who lived on the street. I looked up and down the street several times, even though I knew there was rarely any traffic this far into the neighborhood. I tiptoed onto the driveway and right up to the gate. It was very tall—the black metal bars were spaced wide enough apart for me to put my hand through, but the vines were woven tightly around them, so that I couldn’t push my hand through without obviously damaging them. Because they were so dense, I couldn’t see much on the other side of the gate. I only caught brief glimpses of the driveway, the white garage doors, and a cobblestone pathway where leaves fluttered in the wind. I gave the gate a slight push, but it didn’t budge. I wondered how it opened as I wasn’t able to move it by just pushing on it.
The wind picked up while I was standing there and the hedges began to rustle. After a while, the wind’s rustling morphed into something that sounded like many whispering voices. I stood there for several minutes more with my ear against one of the gate’s bars, because I thought I might be able to hear the voices better through the metal. It was discouraging because it didn’t help me make out any of the words. I began to feel nervous as the whispering grew louder and more intense, but I still couldn’t understand them. It felt threatening so I ran to my bike without looking where I was going. I jumped on it and, just before I kicked back the kickstand, I noticed a car turning onto the street. I turned around and rode back home as fast as I could, before the car got too close to me.
I parked my bike on the side driveway and waited, but no car came, so I decided to head inside for lunch. My mother didn’t look too happy that I was back in the house, but it was after noon. She plopped a bologna sandwich on a paper plate and handed me a paper cup filled with Tang.
“Katie, take it outside and eat it on the deck. Throw the plate and cup into the garbage when you’re done.”
“It’s hot,” I whined. “Can I turn the sprinklers on after I eat?”
“Not yet. It’s too hot and the grass will burn. You can put them on later, before dinner.”
I sighed and took the food outside. I was grateful that we had an awning over the deck so I could eat without the sun beating down on my head. I inhaled the food and threw the plate and cup into the outside trash can that always smelled like throw up. Because the visit to the Steege’s house felt wrong, I stuck around in the backyard instead of hopping back on my bike and decided to check for crabs on the dock. The thought of crabbing calmed me and it was always a happy surprise when I found one at midday. Most of the time, I wouldn’t find any until after dinner.
After sneaking over the neighbor’s fence and looking on their dock too, and finding nothing, I slung myself around the fence back into our yard. I heard the wind blowing in the cattails. It sounded as if they were whispering secrets, almost like Mr. Steege’s hedges. I tried to figure out what they were saying, but I couldn’t understand them either. They sounded different from those voices in the hedges and that confused me. I thought that maybe if I got closer to them, I might be able to understand what they were saying, so I headed towards the east side of the yard, to where the land was wilder.
We were the last house on the block and there was a large drop from our boardwalk down to the natural shoreline. The reeds and cattails were several feet from the water’s edge because of the shifts in the tides. It was low tide and the water lapped lazily at the furthest edge from the shore, but the foul smell I usually associated with it was missing. I kicked off my sandals and jumped down onto the muddy bank below. I walked a few feet towards the marina and stood facing the plants. They were still whispering.
It frustrated me until an image appeared in my mind. I saw a black car drive up with a man and a woman in it. My vision blurred and suddenly I saw the land change. No longer were there wild reeds, cattails, and tall grasses next to my house. The wildlife fled and the bank was replaced with more bulkheading. It made me angry when I realized that someone was planning on ruining this part of the land. I quietly asked the reeds what I could do to change what I was seeing, but the whispering had stopped and the wind had stilled. I was disappointed, and waited for a while still listening, but they didn’t whisper again. I got bored after a while and climbed back up the side of our bulkhead being careful not to get splinters.
I wiped my feet in the grass and decided to go out front and ride my bike up and down the street again. I wondered if there was a way that I could stop the other house from being built. I walked the bike to the edge of the driveway and before I hopped on, watched as a car slowly drove towards me. It was a large white Cadillac convertible. The top was down. The man driving it had curly brown hair and a huge mustache. He stopped in front of the driveway. I didn’t move and the man stared at me. That’s when I realized that this was the car I had seen earlier turning onto our block.
The man’s face twisted into an ugly expression. He pointed a finger at me and yelled, “I saw you walking in my driveway earlier. Stay off of my property or your father will have problems.”
I just nodded dumbly. The man sneered, and then seemingly satisfied, drove slowly around the cul-de-sac. He sneered at me again as he passed. I stood motionless until he was gone and then ran into the house.
“Mom! Mr. Steege yelled at me!”
My mom paused her vegetable chopping. “What did you do?”
I was surprised by the fear in her voice. “Nothing. I thought I heard something on the other side of his gate. I walked up the driveway, so I could hear better, but there was nothing there, so I walked back to my bike and rode home. I guess he saw me.”
She sighed. “I’ll mention it to your father. Don’t bother him again, he’s not a nice man.”
“I know,” I said.
She stopped me before I could go back outside. “Dinner is almost ready. I want you to set the table.”
That’s how I knew I would probably be stuck inside for the rest of the day. Normally, I wouldn’t mind, but I really wanted to see if the reeds would speak to me again. I knew not to push my luck until after dinner though.
My father didn’t come home early and that was a good sign. I even helped my mother clean up the dishes and put them into the dishwasher. She was so pleased that she didn’t say anything when I headed outside again. This time, I went into the weeds across the street from our house, to see if they would start whispering too. There was a small River birch right in the middle of them that was taller than I was, but not by much. It wasn’t tall enough to hide the rooves of the houses on the next block, but it helped. The field was full of cattails and reeds, and poison ivy in certain places, but it wasn’t thick enough to stop me walking through them. I liked hiding in them when I was bored. I only wished the grasses were higher so that I didn’t have to duck to hide from the occasional passing car. I hid there until sunset and the peepers started calling. I went inside before my mother called for me, figuring I could try again the next day.