My Diary from the Edge of the World
I’m on top of the hill, looking down on the town of Cliffden, Maine. It’s an early fall day, and so far no one’s noticed that I’m where I’m not supposed to be. It’s one of those days where the clouds and the sun chase each other. A pretty breeze plays with my hair as I sit here with my back against the crumbled stone pillar that makes my seat. I can almost imagine I’m Joan of Arc surveying the siege of Orleans.
It’s been almost two months since I got this journal (for my twelfth birthday—from Mom), but I haven’t felt the urge to write until now. I’ve seen two bad omens since breakfast: a crow sitting on the fence at the edge of our yard, and a deathwatch beetle on my windowsill. These are both signs that someone is going to die, so I
thought I’d better write them down in case someone does die and no one believes me later. I want to be able to prove that I knew it first. Though now that I’m here nestled in my favorite spot, I have to admit it’s hard on such a perfect day to imagine anyone ever dying.
Mom says that to tell a story you have to set the scene, so I’ll try that here, even though this isn’t really a story but just a diary. From here the town is drenched in light and shadows. To my right is Route 1 with all the fast food places: McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Wendy’s. To my left is downtown, a cluster of old colonial brick buildings. I can see the green cast-iron steeple of Upper Maine Academy, which I attend, and the fairgrounds beyond.
The valley is bustling: People are scurrying along the crisscrossing streets, rushing to finish their errands and get back indoors. It’s not exactly safe to be out: The dragons are on their way south again, from the northern reaches of Wales and Scotland and Ireland, to hibernate in South America. It’s the time when everyone takes cover in their houses, and when we mostly use the tunnels under downtown to get from shop to shop.
The dragons have been especially destructive this year. People are blaming it on the weather: It’s been colder than usual, so the migrations started early. (Dragons
hate the cold I guess, and I do too. I wish I had wings to fly to South America every year.) Last week one burned down the T.J.Maxx in Valley Forge (all those bargains literally up in flames).
I’m not allowed to sit out here during dragon season, but today it’s too hard to resist. My mom would say I’m just “looking for trouble,” which I do manage to find surprisingly often. Sam’s scooter is still sitting neglected in the garage from when I crashed it into a boulder over Christmas. Last year I had to get stitches after falling off the lunch table while I was trying to get my classmates to throw Cheerios into my mouth. I’ve broken my collarbone—which is supposed to be the hardest bone in your body to break—twice. Dad calls me the Tasmanian she-devil. Millie calls me Mrs. Bungles, but I never listen to what Millie says. At least I’m not like the guy who was featured last week in the Cliffden Dispatch, who was found putting hundreds of dollars worth of 7-Layer Burritos from Taco Bell in his front yard so that the dragons would come and eat them.
The sky is a cool crystal blue except for one very distant Dark Cloud. It’s the same cloud my dad was looking at through his telescope first thing when I woke up this
morning. He’s a meteorologist for a local TV station.
“I don’t like the looks of it,” he said when he came down to breakfast, his forehead all wrinkled. That’s about as much conversation as you’ll ever get out of my dad unless he’s going on and on about scientific theories of some sort. Millie says he’s “not the communicative type” and a “misunderstood genius,” but I know that he embarrasses her just as much as he does me.
I have to admit though, I agree with him about not liking the looks of the Cloud. He and I have both decided that it looks a bit like a misty galaxy with a black hole in the middle (the kind of black hole from Dad’s amateur astronomy lessons that swallows up everything in its path).
Dark Clouds come for people when they die. Usually the person is sick beforehand, and most of the people Clouds come for are old, but sometimes Clouds arrive with no warning at all. They wait outside people’s houses until it’s time, then they scoop up their souls and carry them away. Just last week, a Cloud floated up our block and collected Mrs. Elton, who was ninety-six.
Millie thinks this particular Dark Cloud looks like the face of an evil circus clown—but I think that’s just because she’s never gotten over her fear of the circus
from when she was little (she fell in a pile of elephant poo and it scarred her for life). Dark Clouds are like regular clouds in that everyone who looks at them sees something different. I wonder what Mrs. Elton’s Cloud looked like to her.
Millie and I discussed it. “Maybe it looked like an old friend. At ninety-six,” I suggested, “you’re probably only half-alive anyway, so you don’t mind dying as much.”
Millie’s long, perfect eyelashes fluttered in annoyance. “You’re an emotional mutant,” she said, then wiped away a tear, which I can only suppose she squeezed out in order to be dramatic about Mrs. Elton. Though secretly I do feel guilty now about saying Mrs. Elton probably wouldn’t mind death. I guess Millie’s right that no one is going to be happy to see that kind of thing arrive on their doorstep, even if they’re ancient.
* * *
The truth is that, other than the occasional Dark Cloud, nothing terrible or exciting ever happens in Cliffden. Only baseball games and lying on the grass and chasing the ice-cream man in the summer, building igloos in the winter, sometimes collecting earthworms in the puddles after rain or hunting for dragon scales in the fall (Mom puts them in a big glass jar on the coffee table
because, she says, “They add a splash of color,”) and trick or treating. (Last year a real ghoul escaped from the Underworld and ran around scaring children and stealing candy on Halloween night, which was pretty exciting. But none of the kids from my neighborhood got to see him, and he was quickly caught and escorted back underground by the local police.) There are science lectures about botany, zoology, the aurora borealis, and all sorts of other discoveries in a lecture hall in the caverns downtown. There’s the occasional parade or party at the firehouse (to thank the firemen for all their work with the dragon fires) or outdoor movies in the spring, and there’s the carnizaar (part carnival, part bazaar) at the fairgrounds for Cliffden Day. But that’s about it.
* * *
I just opened to the inscription Mom made on the inside cover of this book. It says, To Gracie, May this diary be big enough to contain your restless heart. She says I fling my loud personality at everyone and that one day it will poke somebody’s eye out. I don’t completely understand her—she’s a little obscure and poetic. She used to be a professional violinist. She said she gave me this diary because I need something to pour my loudness into. She
says it’s better to sit and write my feelings than to spend all day dreaming up ways to irritate Millie. So far I’ve only filled six pages, and I’ve been here thinking for over an hour. I’m actually supposed to be doing my reading for school, but Sasquatches, Sailors, and Uncle Sam: An American History is, so far, unbearably boring.
So I’ve just been sitting here chewing my pen and trying to figure out how to write what’s around me, but it’s hard to capture. The sun is sinking and it’s getting chilly out. The air smells like fall—that exciting dry smell that reminds you of all the falls of your life. Behind me our big ambling Victorian is winking at me. I’ve always thought of our house as a lady’s face, with the two highest windows as the eyes—and one of the eyes closed because the curtain’s always drawn in that room. My little brother, Sam—whom we call the Mouse because he’s small for his age, and quiet, especially because he always has a cold—is silhouetted in one of the parlor windows practicing the flute (Mom made us each learn an instrument; we’re all disasters). Millie is probably watching Extreme Witches at top volume as usual, where they put six witches together in a big house and film them arguing with each other. Mom tries to get her to watch more informative stuff,
like this segment CNN does once a week on the gods called The Immortals, Where Are They Now? Each week they feature a different god: Last week it was Zeus, sitting on a lawn chair up on top of Mount Olympus, where only authorized camera crews are allowed to go. But Millie couldn’t care less.
With two siblings it’s the quiet that you want, trust me. Especially when you’re not the oldest or the youngest or the beautiful, graceful one but just the one that happened to fall in the middle. I’ll tell you in one sentence what it’s like to be the middle child, in case you don’t know: Everyone on either side of you squeezes you until you almost explode, and all the time that they’re smushing you they’re not really noticing you’re there. So you have to find a place that’s just yours, and that’s how I found this old church stone at the corner of our yard.
Ugh. Mouse just called out the window to say Mom’s looking for me and that it’s time to take a shower. I hate bathing in general. When I was little, Mom used to threaten me into the bath by saying dirty children get sent to the Crow’s Nest, where my grandma lives (speaking of witches), deep in the heart of the Smoky Mountains. Supposedly, in the seventies, Grandma
caused three people to disappear forever just by cursing hairs she got from their hairbrushes. She—
Oops, Mom just spotted me—she’s hanging out her bedroom window yelling. Her hair is all wet from the shower and flopping down the sides of her face like curtains. How’s that for descriptive?