The hot sun beat down on us like we were grilled-cheese sandwiches. As I bent down to pick up an empty bag of chips, I fell on the dried-up dirt and a drop of sweat fell to the ground. The thirsty ground sucked it up and I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up and saw Mrs. Porter standing beside me, sneering.
“Getting tired, Bailey?” she asked. With aching muscles I got up off the ground and wiped the dust from my sunburnt knees.
“No, ma’am,” I said triumphantly. As she walked away I stuck out my tongue and hoped that it would rain.
Here we were along the highway, Stacy, Michael, and I, doing our ten hours of community service that were required before our field trip to Hillside Meadows. I thought about how terrible it had been when Mrs. Porter had announced that the class was going to have to work for our trip. Of course, the three of us hadn’t done it yet, so Mrs. Porter had taken charge, postponing our much-anticipated field trip and making the three of us do it all in one day. I watched Michael’s dirt-streaked pants as they shifted slowly around on the other side of the highway. The community service was bad enough, but my fellow workers weren’t exactly the cream of the crop. Michael was rude and seemed never to wear clean clothes. He was one of the worst people to spend a hot Saturday with. Stacy wasn’t as bad, but she always wore about twenty bracelets on each arm so you were stuck with the annoying sound of clacking all day long.
I looked down at the cracked Arizona dirt and sighed. I stuck my pole into an old plastic bag and then threw it into a torn trash bag. Mrs. Porter wasn’t the worst teacher around, she really tried to make class fun, but when it came to the three of us she seemed to have a grudge. I wasn’t a bad kid, or at least that’s what Momma said. “One of these days, you’ll open up and all your wonderful abilities will spill out onto your worksheets and textbooks, and the school will know exactly what Bailey McDowel is truly made of,” she used to say; and I believed it. But that was before Dad had gotten sick, and after that Momma only said, “You can do better.” After that, I stopped believing in both my ability and Daddy getting better. I angrily punched a milk carton, blocking the stressful thoughts from my head, and threw it in the bag with all the strength I could muster.
“Only an hour left,” Mrs. Porter announced happily from where she was resting on a beat-up lawn chair. I heard jingling from across the road as Stacy threw her arms up in celebration.
The hour passed slowly, and soon I saw Momma’s tired face from the bus as we pulled into the school parking lot. Momma didn’t smile much anymore, and that made it harder for me. She always seemed filled to the brim with sadness. Daddy had pulled me into his bedroom one day about a month after he was diagnosed with his cancer, and he pulled me right onto the bed so my head was resting on his, and he whispered, “Baby, don’t you let your Momma’s spirits get down, and trust me when I say that she’ll get a sad sickness worse than my own disease if you do.” Then he had patted my hand and I had promised him I’d take care of Momma. So when I saw her, I thought of my promise to Daddy and I put on a cheerful face just for her as I walked to our Cadillac across the dusty parking lot.
“How was your day, Momma?” I said with a smile as I climbed into the front seat.
“Oh good, honey, just fine. Your daddy just had his treatment today, so be careful to be quiet when we get home, he’s taking a nap,” she replied with a meager smile. I racked my brain for something more to say, but soon the quiet hum of the car seemed to make a canyon of silence between us, and I kept my mouth shut.
I was glad to be home, and glad to see Daddy sleeping with a peaceful smile as I walked down the hall. Our house was made of weathered brown boards and there was a garden in the back. Momma loved to garden, but lately it was overgrown. I didn’t mind, though. Gracie, my best friend, and I enjoyed the wild roses that lay tangled on the granite stepping stones. I often snipped stems to put in a vase in the kitchen or on Daddy’s bedside table to cheer him up.
Sunday passed in a blur, filled with the quiet thumps of feet tiptoeing down the hall past Daddy’s room where he lay asleep. Monday morning, I woke up feeling tired, but I had a little excitement built up for our field trip today, and I had big plans. I had resolved to myself on Sunday that, no matter what, I would make Momma laugh or smile again this week, and keep my promise to Daddy. I ate some toast and orange juice, gave Daddy’s white head a kiss, and hopped on the bus with promises for the coming day.
When we arrived at the school, Mrs. Porter fussed about, straightening our collared shirts and swaying skirts. She then lined us up accordingly to get on the bus that would take us the hour ride to the well-known Hillside Meadows. Stacy was there, with a smiling face and four blue bracelets, and so was Michael, with what seemed to be a clean shirt. I gave them a smile and stepped into the noisy bus, ready for the crowded ride.
The bus ride seemed long and was filled with excited chatter as we pulled into the parking lot. I saw a grove of beautiful pines dappled with light as we pulled in. I turned to Mrs. Porter, puzzled, and asked, “This can’t be the meadow, there’s trees everywhere. Is it farther down the road?”
Stacy laughed. “It’s just through those bushes,” she giggled. “Haven’t you been here before?”
My face flushed red at her laughter and I murmured a reply as we filed out of the bus and into the sunshine. Mrs. Porter led our class excitedly down the path near where the bus was parked and through the bushes. I heard robins singing and the sunlight danced on the moss-covered forest floor. Soon enough we emerged into a broad field. Dandelions and fiery-red, blue, and purple flowers dotted the clearing, swaying in the breeze. A willow tree stood tall and proud on the right, and straight ahead was a pond, deep green with cattails hugging the edge. The work I had done along the highway seemed like nothing, it was worth it. I let out a little sigh. I hadn’t seen something so beautiful in a long time.
There were four picnic tables to the left, right under the trees, and everyone sat and unwrapped their sandwiches and snacks that they had brought along. I sat down next to my classmates and pulled out my PB&J. I ate mine quickly and approached the teacher long before the others were done. “Mrs. Porter, do you think I could go down to the pond? I’ll bring a buddy,” I asked with a hopeful smile. Mrs. Porter hemmed and hawed but finally sent a kind girl named Melanie to accompany me. We walked across the meadow, and Melanie swept up a bouquet of flowers along the way.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked, more of a statement than a question. It looked like someone put a paintbrush to the flowers and they were vibrant with deep crimson on each petal. I nodded, taking everything in. The pond sparkled as we approached and I found and sat along a rough rock, watching the rippled surface. Melanie walked along the cattails, and I could just see her blond hair glinting in the sun among their fuzzy tops.
I looked around, enjoying the sun on my face, and was startled to find two ducks sitting only six feet from where I sat cross-legged. They seemed to be mates, one had lighter feathers with speckled brown and the other, the male, had a ring of green around his feathered neck. The female was quacking and making a horrible racket. Her wing was caught in a thistle bush and the male was pecking at it and making strained noises through his beak. He fluttered about, nudging the other in encouragement. I watched as the ducks struggled against the thorny plant, and it reminded me of my mother and father. They were always fighting for his health. After ten minutes the female duck finally was able to peck her way out of the thistles, and the two made such a loud racket with their happy and excited quacks that it sent me into a fit of laughing.
Melanie came running back, breathless. “What’s so funny?” she asked, smiling at my happy face. I grinned and shrugged, already too lost in my thoughts. Why, these two ducks could just as easily have been my mom and dad in duck form. Momma was always fussing around my daddy’s bed, and my daddy was always struggling, struggling, to escape his terrible disease. They were different too, though, the unhurt duck was hopeful, encouraging, and sang with joy, and I wanted so badly for Momma to have more faith, too. I got up, plans in my head, and pulled Melanie along with me. I would make Momma happy. When Daddy was feeling better from his treatment, I would take them both down here. They would get a dose of nature’s medicine, a dose of the pond and wind. I’d let them feel the power of the sun and the crimson flowers, and maybe they would feel more hopeful about the future. I knew I could make them feel that way, and I would. “It is a beautiful day, isn’t it?” I said, knowing the words rang true.