“Healing does not mean going back to the way things were before.”
“Em? Wanna go bike riding with me today?”
“Can’t,” I mumbled and grabbed my backpack.
“Emma?” Jennifer asked, “Are you OK?” But I was already out the door and sprinting down the sidewalk as fast as I could. “Emma?” Jennifer called, “Emma?!”
I ignored her. I didn’t care. I just ran. I just ran toward nowhere in particular. And I didn’t care. I didn’t care about biking with Jennifer. I didn’t care about moving to Maine. I didn’t. I didn’t! And then, quite suddenly, I realized I was standing in front of Maddy’s house, and just as suddenly I realized that was where I’d intended to go all along. Maddy! I should have thought of Maddy sooner.
* * *
Maddy was the strangest kid in my class. Every day at recess she sat on the swings and rocked slowly. In the beginning lots of kids asked her if she wanted to play with them, thinking she had nothing to do. Maddy replied (very politely), “Maybe another time, right now I’m thinking,” though what she thought about beat me. She was a quiet kid, not the shy kind of quiet but the thinking kind of quiet. Maddy was the kind of person who spoke only when speaking was necessary. No more, no less. Whenever someone was sad, or stressed, or when a pet or relative died, people went to Maddy. When they went away again they were, if not happy, calm. I had only been to Maddy once. It was after Coral died. Coral was my border collie, the first dog I ever had. We got her a few years after I was born. I’d played with her and fed her, and slept with her, and loved her, and suddenly she was gone… I’d stayed home from school, refusing to talk to anyone for two whole days.
Then I found myself at Maddy’s.
Maddy had listened to my story without saying anything. After I finished she was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Pick up a stone.” That had seemed far too simple. I stared at her.
“Just any stone?” I asked.
“The right stone.”
“How will I know which one is the right one?”
I looked down at the ground. It was littered with stones, but sure enough one stood out to me. I picked it up. It was not particularly smooth or shiny. It was just an ordinary gray stone. I closed my hand around it, the hard crust of the stone against the soft skin of my hand. It felt good. Really good. And suddenly I knew that Coral had a long, happy life and that it was time for her to return to the endless circle from which we all come, the circle of life.
I still have that stone under my pillow.
* * *
Maddy was weeding a flower bed when I came to a stop in front of her house. “Hi, Emma,” she said. I took that as an invitation, so I opened the gate and stepped inside. Maddy continued weeding. Was it the rhythm of her work, or was it just the way her light brown hair fell over her shoulders that made me feel at home?
“My family has to move to Maine because of my parents’ jobs, and I really don’t want to go.” I surprised myself. I hadn’t really meant to tell her, because I was trying so hard not to believe it. But deep down I knew what I said was true. I didn’t want to leave my friends. Especially Jennifer. “Mom says we can come back in a few years, but I don’t want to go at all.”
Maddy slowly looked at me. Her soft brown eyes gazed straight into mine. Her face was gentle, yet unreadable. After a minute she said, “Come here, Emma.” I walked over to her. She had turned her attention to the flower bed and was digging with gentle and strong intention. After a minute she scooped up some loosened soil and held it in her cupped hands. “What is this, Emma?” she asked.
“It’s dirt,” I said, knowing all the time that I was wrong. That soil wasn’t dirt. Not in Maddy’s world.
To my surprise, she smiled. “To you,” she said, “this is dirt, but what is it to me?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
She looked at me for a long time before she spoke, but when she spoke she did so with such passion that it touched me to the heart. “It’s a little bit of home, Emma, it’s a little bit of home!”
* * *
Later that night, while my parents were talking in the living room, I slipped outside. I took an old plastic bottle out of the recycling and got a hand shovel from the garden shed. In the backyard I found an out-of- the-way place behind a bush and began to dig. In a minute I scooped some soil out of the hole and put it in the bottle. Now I had my own little bit of home.
* * *
My family’s move to Maine was not as hard as I expected. Though I really missed Jennifer at first, after a while I started to make new friends. I grew particularly close with a girl named Maria. I told her everything. We spent lots of time together: hiking, drawing, talking, or even just sitting and staring at the sky. Life was rich and wonderful.
And then one day, three years later, my mother asked me if I wanted to go back. I felt a great surge of happiness rise up in me. Then I remembered Maria. The happiness melted away as fast as it had come. Mama saw this. “Emma,” she said, “maybe I could arrange for you to go back for, say, three days. You could see your old friends, visit your old school, and see if you want to go or stay.” I nodded in agreement. Within a week everything was arranged. I would stay with my old friend Jennifer and attend school with her for three days.
* * *
Mama drove me down on Tuesday. I was so excited to see Jennifer! I had only seen her once since we moved to Maine.
Jennifer could not wait to see me either. All through dinner she talked and talked, filling me in on everything that had happened in my absence: her new friends, her new bike, her new obsessions. It took way longer than usual to fall asleep that night because Jennifer kept talking, but it was nice to be around her again. On the way to school the next morning she introduced me to her new best friend, Kelly. The two of them talked and talked, all the way to school. I was beginning to get a little bored, so I stared out the window and thought about my Boston terrier, Glitta.
That day at recess Kelly and Jennifer wanted to go down to the tennis court to play tennis. Reluctantly, I followed. I had never really liked tennis. Why couldn’t we just sit and talk? After about three minutes I was bored. I asked if we could do something else. Jennifer thought for a minute, but nothing she liked to do interested me, and she and Kelly were ceaselessly talking about things I couldn’t imagine being interested in. Either I had changed, or Jennifer had changed. Maybe we both had. Finally, I went and sat down on the swing next to Maddy.
“Hi, Emma,” she said absently. Her eyes were fixed dreamily on the horizon, her hair blowing in the wind. I wondered why she wasn’t helping me. I was feeling so… lost. Then I realized that Maddy never made people feel better, she showed them what they needed. I already knew.
* * *
That night, while Jennifer was doing homework, I slipped outside. I walked through the deepening dusk until I reached my old home. There was an unfamiliar car in the driveway. I sneaked into the yard and darted to a specific bush behind the house. From underneath my jacket I withdrew a plastic bottle, the very same bottle I had taken from the recycling three years ago. I took a deep breath and returned the contents of the bottle to its original resting spot.
* * *
Four days later, Maria met me at my front door. “You’re staying?” she asked anxiously. I nodded. “Oh good!!” her face flooded with relief. “I don’t know what I’d do if you left.”
I smiled at her. “I don’t know either!”
Maria smiled too. “Come on, Emma,” she said, taking my hand.
As I walked toward the woods, hand in hand with my best friend, I thought one last time of the bottle I had emptied behind my old bush, my “little bit of home.” If I ever needed one again it would come from my backyard here, in Maine. I silently thanked Maddy for showing me this. Maddy, with her wisdom far beyond her years.