He awoke as slowly as humanly possible. With eyes still closed, he lazily identified the various busy bird voices outside his open window. The house was silent. No alarm, no radio, no parental morning cheeriness. He shifted slightly to get the maximum morning sun on his stomach, stretched one leg, then the other, then each arm. Finally, with a sigh of pure pleasure he opened one eye, surveyed the familiar clutter of his room, and uttered the single most pleasant word he could imagine: "Summer!"
Opening the other eye, he gave several minutes serious thought to his activities for the day. He could take the issue of Scientific American he had almost finished up to the hayloft on the Carter farm next door, or stay right there in bed and catch up on the back issues of X-men piled within reach on the floor. No. The absolute most perfect way to start summer vacation was down on the river. All alone, in his private place, on top of the big rock that hung over the bend, invisible from the river behind its screen of willow branches. He could almost feel the sun warmed stone against his chest - no, that was the sun right here in his room. And besides, he was hungry, now that he thought of it. Maybe Mom had put out some breakfast for him before leaving for work. Dad would be long gone, too; meteorologists actually liked to be up at dawn, figuring out what the rest of the day would be like.
Grabbing the pair of shorts he fully intended to wear all day, every day, all summer - until his Mom made him change - he pulled them on, struggling to pull an old Tshirt over his head at the same time. Figuring that was as much energy as he was likely to exert all day, he ambled down to the kitchen. There was a bowl of blueberries on the table and a slice of melon and even his favorite bagels - pumpernickel raisin. After smearing a generous amount of cream cheese on a bagel half and scarfing down the melon and berries, he went outside and headed down the front walk, walking a bit gingerly. His tender "winter" feet were not used to even the small pebbles on the path. By the end of summer he knew he'd be able to dance barefoot on hot coals without feeling a thing.
Everything looked new and old at the same time. The same old mailbox, the same old road, but gilded with the late morning summer sun they had an air of promise. Something good was going to happen today, he just felt it. But it would have to come to him, because his plans were to be doing alot of nothing, maybe just watching the reflections of the ripples on the willow leaves for the whole day. Smiling to himself, Tom strolled unhurriedly down the dusty road toward the river.
She awoke with a start, her eyes flying open. Was she late to school again? No, it was someone whistling she had heard, not the teakettle heating water for her coffee. Smiling, she called "Good morning, Grandfather!" as she swung her feet off the bed and into her sandals. He didn't hear her, and no wonder, she thought. The kitchen was probably a mile away. She shook her head, laughing a little as she contemplated the room which was to be hers, maybe forever. Her eyes wandered from the plumes of pampas grass, in their elephant's foot stand, to the mullioned window, draped sedately in green velvet. It's like living in a story, she thought. She would miss her mother, and the little dog at the apartment next door, but not the snobby girls at Hartridge's, that's for sure. And now that Mom had a good part in a show, Mary knew she wouldn't see much of her anyway, except at holidays.
She and her Mom had visited Grandfather at Christmas. This had been her room then, too, and she had already located the "ring of returning" she had taped to the back of the full length mirror. She glanced at herself in the slightly tarnished oval, hung at a such a stately angle in its polished wooden frame, and pulled her hair into a ponytail.
Grandfather was reading at the kitchen table when she got downstairs, and he gave her a quick hug, then held her away to take a good look at her. "You look all right," he decided. "Not missing your Mom too much?" he asked.
"A little," she replied. "But I feel real good being here. Thank you so much, grandfather. I hope I can stay forever!" she added impulsively.
"And whyever not?" he said with a smile. "But my dear, I have quite a bit of work to attend to this morning. Will you be all right on your own, at least until lunch?"
"Sure," Mary said confidently. "I'll just explore."
Grandfather nodded, and picking up his coffee cup, he disappeared down the hall to his roomy library and shut the door, his mind already engaged in some argument with an author long dead and buried.
"I guess there's food around here somewhere," Mary decided. "Hey, I could put some stuff in a bag and take it outside."
It was going to take some getting used to, being able to wander wherever she liked, but Grandfather had described the extent of the grounds, and assured her that it didn't really matter, no one was going to chase her off anywhere in the little town. She made one trip back up to her room to get her notebook and pencil. She had started a map last night after her mother had left, but hadn't gotten very far. There was this pond she remembered seeing on the way in, and Grandfather had talked about a river somewhere close by.
Humming Aladdin's theme from her favorite movie, Mary set forth to whatever adventures awaited her in the sunny uncharted lands beyond the front door.
Maybe this summer he would get to that project he had thought about last summer but not had the time to work on. Bless the dimpled cheeks of Mrs. Murphy, he thought, no summer school this year. Math and science were so easy, why couldn't he remember which came first, World War II or Korea? What good was it being stuck with the nickname "Brainiac" if he was going to fail history? The memory still rankled, even though Mrs. M. had pulled him through American History this year with a C by giving him extra credit on his report on Benjamin Franklin's experiments. After all, it had been, he admitted, a truly sterling report.
He almost missed the rock, wading along the shallows and thinking about static electricity and water. The willows were even thicker than the last time he was here; you had to know just where to push through. "Ah, my little kingdom!" he thought with satisfaction. The sun bathed the rock in light, the river chuckled companionably, and Tom sank happily into the moss-covered depression he always thought of as The Throne.
No more than five minutes later his dreamy thoughts were rudely interrupted by an unfamiliar voice stating in no uncertain terms exactly what she thought of the wild and thorny blackberry vines that grew in profusion behind the rock. There were no berries yet, but the white flowers should have told anybody with eyes to see what to expect.
Tom frowned and slipped down into the deep cleft in the rock, uncomfortably aware as always that it seemed more like a cave than a crack. The thin stream of cool air always present tickled his bare legs unpleasantly, but he waited silently for the intruder to take her scratched knees away.
"I'm bleeding! Ow!" Mary stumbled into the open space on top of the rock.
"Oh no, she came through, I thought she'd turn back. Who is she, anyway?" thought Tom in irritation.
The intruder was angry, too. She was hot, sticky, dirty and now scratched and bleeding. This country life was not what she had expected. Suddenly she missed the familiar city quite desperately. As she stamped her foot and cursed, she lost her balance and began to slide on the mossy surface. With a cry of despair she fell through the willow branches and crashed into the river below. The water was cold, and she was almost stunned, but struggled to the surface. And screamed! Next to her a boy had appeared out of nowhere, and he was trying to grab her!
"Hold still, you brat!" he yelled. "You'll go under again if you don't hold on!"
His arm was strong under her shoulders and despite her fear of him, she was more afraid of the cold deep water and she clung to him like a proper drowning victim. The water was not very deep, in fact, and Tom easily towed her the few feet to the shallows.
"There, stand up now. You're all right," he told her grudgingly.
She was so grateful for the feeling of solid ground under her feet she could have hugged him, if she weren't completely embarrassed at the same time. After a brief struggle, honesty won out, and she just looked at him and said, "I'm so embarrassed. That was so dumb. I don't know anything about this wilderness and I just got lost and almost got drowned. I am so glad you were there. Um, thank you, um."
"Tom," he said without thinking, and instantly regretted it.
"I'm Mary," she replied. "That's my grandfather's place up there and I'm staying with him now and I was just exploring because it looked so neat and oh, I feel like such an idiot!"
"It's pretty steep," he conceded. "I slide off there sometimes later in the summer when it's real hot."
"Oh," she said, catching on quicker than he could follow. "This is your place, isn't it? I mean, I figure it's Grandfather's land, but, well, I had this bench in the city, it was kind of broken so nobody usually sat on it, and the pigeons all knew when I would be out there with bread or something and they would meet me and I'd pretend they were my subjects..." she ran down. "Why am I telling him that?" she thought, appalled.
But he grinned back. "Yeah!" he admitted, "I call this my kingdom. That's my throne you slipped off of up there!" And he also thought, "Oh, what am I doing? She must be some rich kid, visiting the old man, she must think I'm some hick dope."
Mary stood up, dripping and bedraggled, and made a deep bow.
"Permission to enter your kingdom, Sir Tom" she said formally.
And Tom, despite himself, grinned again. "Lady Mary," he replied, making his own deep bow, "welcome to my kingdom. Drop in any time, in fact," he began, but they both dissolved in laughter at that point and after that there really wasn't any reason to worry. By the end of the afternoon they had exchanged life stories as they dried out up on the rock.
It was going to be a good summer.