The Girl from Across the Street
Despite the sizable number of chocolate chip banana waffles in her stomach, Binny Jordan came rocketing out of the house ready to attack the day. Skateboard in hand, helmet firmly on her head, the trials of the previous night were forgotten given the promise of a beautiful day, her skateboard, and lots of empty sidewalk.
The skateboarding world had dozens of different tricks to learn. Binny had only been riding for a few months. In that time, Binny’s desire to perform even the most basic of these tricks had only grown. But so far, the only trick she had mastered was how to break a skateboard.
Binny had tried to learn how to Ollie. This trick would allow her to jump over objects. But weeks of repeated failure tempered her goals. Instead, Binny decided to set her sights on an interim step – the Hippy Jump. It would still let her jump over objects, just not with her skateboard. When executed properly, Binny would jump up and over the obstacle and then land on her skateboard which should have rolled forward to the exact spot of Binny’s landing. Despite Binny’s lack of progress, she pursued mastery of the Hippy Jump just as stubbornly as she pushed her agenda with her parents.
Since the Jordans lived on a steep incline, Binny had to walk a couple of houses uphill to get to a clear expanse of flat sidewalk where she could practice her tricks in relative safety.
One of the houses had a low slung wall in front of the yard, and more low walls around flower beds out by the curb. Binny placed a long stick from wall to wall to create a “high jump” of sorts.
Binny grabbed her skateboard, double-checked her helmet strap, and walked a dozen steps to give herself some room to pick up speed. Her right foot still on the ground, her left foot on the front of the board, Binny crouched slightly. Binny steeled herself and pushed hard against the sidewalk with her back foot.
The skateboard shot forward with Binny along for the ride. When she thought she was going fast enough, she brought her right foot to rest across the back of the board. Her crouch got even more pronounced and her face scrunched up tightly with added focus and intensity.
This was typically where things started to fall apart, and today was no exception. Instead of both feet leaping from the skateboard simultaneously, Binny was only able to lift her front foot from the board. This had the unfortunate effect of tilting the board backwards, causing Binny to lose her balance.
In a desperate attempt not to fall, Binny slammed her front foot back onto the skateboard. Her foot made sloppy contact just in time for the front of the board to hit the stick that was suspended about a foot over the sidewalk. The stick broke and Binny sprawled forward onto the sidewalk.
While Binny’s proficiency at the Hippy Jump was still a ways off, she was getting pretty good at falling with minimal damage. The wrist guards she asked Jay to get her took the brunt of the fall, but the fire in her knees told her that they’d taken some of it as well. Her skateboard did a couple of spins before sliding out into the street. It couldn’t have looked very impressive. Luckily, no one was watching.
“Nice try.” Came a voice from above.
Oh no, Binny thought.
Across the street from the Jordan house, and up the hill a bit, a gray house with lots of windows had been sitting empty for several months. The ‘FOR SALE’ sign had sat there so long it had come to feel like a permanent fixture on the front lawn. But one day it was gone.
Like most kids, Binny didn’t notice much about the real estate transactions in her neighborhood, but it did occur to her that the absence of the sign meant that a new family would be moving in to the neighborhood. And maybe that family would have kids. Maybe even someone her own age. To Binny’s surprise, they did. Ten-year-old Penny Yang and her mother had moved in three weeks earlier. Binny hadn’t seen a dad around. But she often saw Penny ‘lurking’ about. To Binny, the girl just seemed weird.
Binny hadn’t had many encounters with the girl from across the street so far, but the ones she’d had were enough to let her know that this girl was definitely not friend material. On one occasion Binny was walking by the girl’s yard only to find her stacking rocks. The girl started with big flat ones, then laid progressively smaller stones on top to make several decently sized piles. Binny’s mistake was to stare a little too long as she walked by only to have the girl offer “They’re sculptures, you know.”
Penny Yang was sitting cross-legged and barefoot, wearing long army shorts and an over-sized plaid flannel shirt over a tie-dyed t-shirt. Her super straight black hair was of medium length but looked like she’d cut it herself. The girl’s glasses weren’t much cleaner than her feet.
But Binny didn’t care much about how the girl looked. It was the ‘lecturey’ tone in the girl’s voice that set Binny off. It was a tone you would expect from a teacher or a parent. And it put Binny on the defensive right from the start.
“Oh.” Binny responded, not quite sure what to say next.
The girl continued, even though Binny hadn’t asked for further explanation, “They’re totems.”
“Oh.” Binny responded again. A totem? She was starting to feel stupid. She hadn’t asked what the girl was doing. She’d just been walking along. She hadn’t even said anything to the girl, but now she was stuck in a conversation with her. And what the heck was a totem anyway? Binny suspected the girl was using this fancy word to make Binny feel dumb.
“My Mom says that the totems will keep us safe and happy in our new home.” The girl added.
Now this unwanted conversation felt definitely distinctly like a lecture. And a lecture was the last thing Binny was interested in, especially from this girl.
“I’ve got to go.” was all Binny could think to say.
“I’m Penny. Nice to meet you.” the girl offered and went back to her stone stacking.
She hadn’t even waited for Binny to respond before she’d turned back to her “sculptures” or “totems” or whatever it was she insisted on calling them. Binny had never seen sculptures like these. Were they supposed to be stacks of fat misshapen pancakes? Ugly alien accordions? Honestly, what they resembled most were piles of rocks. And Binny was quite certain that forming a stack of rocks out of a stack of rocks did not quite qualify as “sculpture”. But instead of sharing her art critique, Binny just said, “Uh. Nice to meet you too. I’m Binny.”
Penny responded with a quick smile and went back to her arranging. The girl’s smile seemed smug to Binny. Just Binny’s luck – a girl Binny’s age did move into the neighborhood, but the girl might as well have been from another planet.
After encountering the girl a couple more times with equally unsatisfying results, Binny made every effort to avoid passing in front of the gray house. She had considered her makeshift skate park to be a good enough distance from the house since it was all the way across the street. Quite clear of the usual spots the girl hung out.
Maybe the voice from above was someone else’s? Maybe a new new girl had moved into the neighborhood. Binny put her palms by her sides and lifted herself up. Sure enough, there was that crazy haircut, a bespectacled face with, and a smug smile. The girl’s eyes were wide and expectant as if she expected Binny to be happy she was there. Ugh.
What was she doing over here? Where had she come from? Binny was quite sure she had been completely alone when she’d arranged her obstacle course. There was no doubt the girl had snuck up on her. This girl was so stealthy she must have practiced her lurking on a daily basis.
“Hi.” Binny said, grimacing as she slowly raised herself on her stinging palms. Binny collected her skateboard from the street and regrouped. She didn’t want to practice her trick in front of this girl, but she also didn’t want to turn and leave after only one failed attempt. If she did, the girl would know that Binny was leaving because of her. But more importantly, Binny felt that this was her spot, and leaving immediately would cede it to the girl.
Binny tried again. And again. And again, to do the hippy jump, with no success. Each time her feet wouldn’t quite leave the board at the right time, and she wasn’t able, in even the best of circumstances, to get more than one foot over the new stick she’d placed across her path.
“Maybe a few deep breaths would relax you.” the girl suggested to Binny. More ‘wisdom’.
“Maybe a swift kick in the butt would keep you quiet.” Binny said using the voice in her mind that only she could hear. Binny wondered if she could project the thought telepathically to the girl, but the girl’s smile made it clear that the Binny’s message had not gotten through. Could this girl really be unaware of how superior she acted? She was so obnoxious.
Binny took a deep breath and tried again despite her irritation. Still no luck. And all the while the girl’s face remained patient, and could it be – supportive? Had Binny asked for this girl’s support? Certainly not. Yet this girl now seemed to think she was Binny’s skateboarding coach.
“I’m sure you’ll get it once you get more comfortable.” The girl sounded encouraging.
“I’m not used to having an audience.” Binny responded sharply, punctuating her sentence with her trademark raised eyebrows. The signals were lost on Penny. After realizing this, Binny added, “I really would prefer if nobody was sitting there judging whether or not I’m any good at this trick.”
Without missing a beat the girl responded in a measured tone, “Oh don’t worry. I’m not judging your skateboarding skills. The only thing you seem to be no good at is reading my mind.” The girl looked pleased with herself, but if she was hoping to put Binny at ease, she’d had the opposite effect.
Now Binny was getting really irritated. “I need more speed, I think.” Binny muttered to herself. This time Binny walked her skateboard all the way to the point where the sidewalk turned the corner on its approach to the Jordan house. Binny thought that maybe she could get enough speed to end her trick by landing feet first on the girl’s head.
Binny flipped the skateboard down on the ground hoping to project some confidence and indicate to the girl that she didn’t really care what she thought. Rather than landing on its wheels, the skateboard ended up upside-down. Even her trusty deck was against her today.
Binny bent down and righted the skateboard. Just then, a flash of light caught the corner of her eye. As she looked down the sidewalk to her left, there was her sister Cassie playing in front of their house, something reflective and shiny in her hand.
It couldn’t be, Binny thought to herself. The mirror. Again. That brat had gone into her room and taken it again! And now she appeared to be doing some kind of singing performance with it on the sidewalk. Binny silently scolded herself for not putting her precious keepsake on a higher shelf earlier that morning when she’d had the chance. On the plus side, this was a convenient excuse to give up on the trick and get away from the annoying girl from across the street. Binny jogged her skateboard a quarter turn and launched, hurtling downhill towards her sister and the mirror.
The man thought. A lot. Sometimes he would think about the home he’d left. Sometimes he would think about his work. Work that he loved. And sometimes he would think about the choices he’d made that he regretted. He thought about those a lot more than he’d like.
Time has a way of making some people question their thoughts and memories. The man was no exception. His recollection of the day before had gotten a little fuzzy. This was despite the fact that he’d thought of almost nothing else since the little girl’s ‘performance’.
The man wasn’t prone to flights of fancy, and he didn’t believe in the supernatural. Quite the contrary. He was a firm believer in facts, and science, and evidence. But was this not evidence from his own senses? While he hadn’t witnessed her disappearance (Thanks Rembrandt!) he had definitely seen her reappearance, literally out of thin air.
His formidable intellect, so used to difficult scientific problems, was now chewing on how to react to the evidence his eyes had collected. It wasn’t exactly logical, but the man felt drawn back to the spot of the event, as if maybe it could provide some answers. He had witnessed what happened from a fair distance down the hill and across the street. Maybe a closer look would help him understand what had actually happened.
Rembrandt’s love of a good walk was an excellent excuse for the man to revisit the spot of the disappearance. Whether Rembrandt knew he was serving a higher purpose or not was irrelevant. Rembrandt was happy for the exercise.
Binny often let her frustrations get the best of her, but she learned quickly from her mistakes. And on this sunny morning, Binny had already learned one particular lesson well – her shouting from the day before had given Cassie time to escape and abandon Binny’s mirror on the ground. This time there would be no warning.
Even from the top of the hill, Binny could tell that Cassie was lost in her world of imaginary stardom. Binny would shoot down the hill to catch Cassie red-handed, and only then would she administer a verbal smackdown. Binny smiled as her board picked up speed.
The man was now past the spot to which Rembrandt had dragged him a day earlier, and this time he was on the correct side of the street. The man figured that if anyone was watching, Rembrandt’s relentless search for some scent he absolutely had to find was the perfect cover story for the man’s nosing around.
Satisfied that he’d prepared an excuse if he was caught snooping, the man looked up only to see the very same little girl putting on an encore performance in the very same spot. Maybe she would repeat her disappearing act as well?
As Binny hurtled down the hill, she had already started composing the speech she would give to her parents about the virtues of honesty and respecting boundaries, and her sister’s complete lack of both. She could see herself bringing Cassie by the ear, or wrist, or shirt, or whatever she could grab onto, before her parents’ stern but fair judgment.
This fantasy was quickly set aside as Binny saw a strange man with a large dog approaching her baby sister. The man hadn’t done anything wrong exactly, but there was something about the look on his face that bothered Binny, and he was going to reach Cassie before she could.
It was Rembrandt’s enthusiastic snuffling that brought the little girl out of her trance. She wasn’t scared of the dog, but she did pause mid-performance to regard Rembrandt suspiciously.
“Hi,” said the man.
“Hi.” Cassie responded.
“Sorry to interrupt your concert.”
Cassie paused, slightly sheepish for the briefest moment realizing she’d been seen putting on her show. But her eyes sparkled and she flashed a toothy grin and said, “It’s okay.”
Rembrandt was a little less formal in his approach to meeting new people. He started sniffing the little girl. “Don’t worry, he’s friendlier than he looks.” The man said this in a confident and reassuring manner, as if he were practiced at it.
“I know.” The little girl replied dismissively while petting Rembrandt gently on the top of his bobbing head.
It occurred to the man that there were probably very few things you could tell this little head of curls that she wouldn’t claim to already know. He grinned.
Even though the man had already dismissed the possibility that his eyes had played tricks on him, some part of his brain was not done arguing the point. This was the exact spot where he had seen something impossible happen the day before. He kept sneaking peeks out of the corners of his eyes to see if he could spot some sort of hole or shrub that might have provided the little girl a place to hide.
There’s a moment when one is riding on something that one realizes their speed has exceeded their ability to stop without hurting themselves. It can happen when one is learning to ski. It can happen when one is learning to roller skate. And it was happening to Binny right now. Binny continued to accelerate.
“Know of any good hiding places around here?” The man realized that perhaps the little girl’s presence was to his advantage in explaining her disappearance from the previous day.
The little girl just looked at him, puzzled.
“My dog’s name is Rembrandt,” the man tried another angle.
“Hi Rembrandt,” the little girl said as she continued to pet the dog, a little more enthusiastically now.
“Rembrandt, he likes to play hide and seek, so I was wondering if you knew of any good spots nearby to hide out.”
Cassie thought for a moment, and then asked: “Dogs play hide and seek?”
A trip to the hospital seemed to be approaching Binny with frightening speed, but her back foot felt glued to the back of her skateboard. As her foot pressed down on the skateboard, Binny tried to lean forward to get the front of the deck firmly back on the ground. Somewhere in her brain she knew that this wouldn’t do anything more than delay her epic fall by a few more seconds. But her survival instincts had taken over.
The man was getting nowhere. The little girl had no idea what he was talking about and this tiny spot on the Madrona hillside was quite unremarkable. No trenches. No trap doors. No empty tree trunks.
As a child, the man had read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories translated into his native language. And in his current profession he’d found one of the famous fictional detective’s most famous quotes particularly useful: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
The voice inside the man’s head that had been telling him there must be another explanation grew even quieter. If there was nowhere for the little girl to hide, and there was nothing shiny nearby that could have produced that flash of silver light, then the inescapable conclusion was that the little girl was the first human on earth with a –
Binny screamed as she hit the ground. The skateboard had decided that Binny was no longer interesting company and shot out from under her like a missile. For her part, Binny was happy for the separation, landing squarely on her butt on the patch of grass running down the edge of the sidewalk. Binny slid several feet and came to a stop right in front of her sister, the strange man, and his large dog.
“My god. Are you okay?” The man crouched on one knee to see if Binny was hurt, a loud snapping sound punctuating his question.
Binny winced harder at the sound than she had at her own crash landing. She was not much worse for the wear thanks to the patch of grass that she lucked onto. But the same couldn’t be said for her skateboard. Her fourth skateboard.
“I’m fine.” Binny responded to the man, putting her hands behind her and raising herself onto her feet, slightly wobbly from her fall, and trying to hide even that from the man. Binny moved closer to and slightly in front of Cassie, who was still communing with the dog, oblivious to Binny’s explosive entrance.
“Cassie, Dad wants us to go inside now.” Binny said to her sister, keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the man, who was now slowly getting up from his supportive stance. He was taller than he seemed when she was at the top of the hill. Binny put her hand on Cassie’s shoulder, instead of pulling her ear as she had envisioned.
“I don’t want to go inside. I’m having fun.” Cassie whined.
“You should do as your sister says, Cassie,” the man encouraged. Even though he was helping her cause, Binny didn’t like how familiar the man was being with her little sister – the way he said her name, which Binny belatedly realized she herself had carelessly revealed.
Rembrandt finally settled matters by pulling on his leash.
“It looks like Rembrandt is ready to go home.” The man said. “Are you sure you are okay?” he added.
“I’m fine, thanks. Let’s go Cassie.” Binny scooped up the battered halves of her skateboard and shooed Cassie up the hill towards the entrance to their house.
“Bye Rembrandt.” Cassie waved cheerfully as she slowly let herself be herded home.
“He says goodbye.” The man said to Cassie, winking, making Binny doubly uncomfortable and suspicious.
As the man receded back down the hill from where he came, Binny scolded Cassie, “You shouldn’t be talking to strangers. And that dog could have bitten you. And give me back my mirror!” Her concern over her sister talking to the strange man had abated slightly, and Binny remembered the injustice that had made her angry.
“The dog was friendly.” Cassie whined.
“Give me my mirror.” Binny demanded.
“It’s not your mirror.” Cassie shot back while handing it over to Binny.
The two sisters marched up the hill. Once the mirror was firmly ensconced in her pocket Binny finally had a moment to look up only to see that smiling messy looking girl from across the street standing at the gate to the Jordan house.
“Sorry about your skateboard, but that was a really nice slide. Have you been practicing that one?” The girl asked Binny.
Binny couldn’t detect any trace of sarcasm in the girl’s voice. But she was quite certain the girl was just practiced at hiding it.
“I have to go inside now.” Binny responded as she turned Cassie towards the Jordan house with a firm hand on her shoulder.
As they distanced themselves from the neighbor girl, and Binny looked down at the broken skateboard in her scraped up arms, a thought suddenly occurred to her. If the man was walking his dog, why did he choose the exact spot where Cassie was standing to end the walk and head home? It was almost as if he’d come there just to see Cassie. She wasn’t entirely sure why, but Binny had a feeling the man had some sort of interest in her sister. While Binny was only ten, and didn’t know everything, Binny did know that the man’s curiosity about her seven-year-old sister could not be a good thing.