Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
It all started with a song. That was pretty much the way things worked in our family. When my aaji was born, she claimed she sang so loudly, the whole neighborhood could hear her voice trickling out the bungalow window in India.
I’m pretty sure my grandmother was exaggerating and that she was born crying, like most newborns. But she swore that the babies in our family came into this world singing. Including me. Besides, Aaji and Aai, my grandmother and mom, were two really famous classical singers in India. We came from a long line of Hindustani classical singers, going back centuries, so maybe there was a teeny-tiny chance Aaji’s story was real.
And maybe, in just a few weeks, my baby brother will arrive singing, I thought as my best friend, Penn, and I galloped in place, him on a big bad wolf and me on a pig spring rider, at Deadwood Commons, the park in the middle of our neighborhood.
Just ahead, under the wooden shelter with picnic benches that families could eat lunches on, three middle school kids were huddled around a cell phone, staring intently at it and laughing. I recognized the tallest one, Rohan, who had ridden the bus with us in elementary school, back when we were in third grade and he was in fifth.
“Did I tell you our Bark in the Park song got approved?” Penn asked, bunching his knees up on the wolf so he fit a little better. We had been playing on these old springy toys since we were in first grade, so I guess one of us was bound to outgrow them at some point. “I finally get to sing onstage and not for school. My mom even said she’d take time off work to be there for it.”
“That’s amazing,” I said.
“Guess I should get used to singing in public, huh?” Penn brushed one of his blond ringlets out of his eyes and cleared his throat. “Happy bark day to you,” Penn began to sing, a little shakily, and a lot off-key.
“Bark is for trees. Trees line the park,” I continued, controlling my voice despite the literal spring in the pig’s step. I beamed at Penn, proud of the lyrics I had written for this song full of words that had multiple meanings. Since kindergarten, figuring out the different meanings one word can have was kind of my thing. I already had filled two neon-yellow notebooks and was working on a third.
“Dogs like to bark at Bark in the Park!” we both sang loudly, together.
From under the shelter, Rohan laughed even louder, rolling back on the concrete until his shoulder-length black hair grazed the ground.
“What are you two singing?” he called out to us.
I looked at Penn, my palms starting to sweat. Rohan wasn’t asking in a nice way. He was asking it like he was ready to say something mean as soon as we answered.
“Geetanjali wrote it,” Penn replied, slowing down on his wolf. “We’re singing it at Bark in the Park.”
Rohan looked at his friends. “That makes sense. Because it sounds like this when you sing it…” He threw his head back and howled, “A-wooooo!”
His friends sneered; their laughs seemed to echo in the hollow shelter.
“Ignore them,” I muttered as Penn’s cheeks started to burn pink; I wished they’d stop laughing or that I had the guts to tell them they were being mean. “You were good,” I added, feeling my belly bounce around even more than it did when I was rocking on the pig.
Rohan and his friends finally went back to staring at Rohan’s phone and I breathed a little easier, trying not to think about how we would be going to school with them next fall when we were sixth graders. “You’re going to do great singing onstage at Bark in the Park, just like at school,” I said.
Penn forced a smile and nodded.
I wondered if he knew I had sort of lied about his singing. He wasn’t hitting every note like me, but I had been doing this all my life. Aai taught Hindustani classical singing classes in our basement every week, and each class performed at various Indian cultural associations’ events all the time. Unlike Penn, I practically grew up onstage. In fact, I’d be singing onstage with Aai at a celebration of the Marathi Hindu new year, Gudhi Padwa, tonight. So why was I suddenly feeling anxious about singing with Penn?
I looked at the middle schoolers. Rohan’s back was to us now, and he had clearly moved on to talking about other things.
Penn turned to me. “I’m nervous, but I know it will be good for me to go up there and do it, and you’ll be with me, so I won’t be as scared.” Penn seemed to be saying this more to himself than to me. “Plus, the winner gets a gift certificate to Good Doggy.”
“Wait. You’re getting a dog?” I asked with a quiver of jealousy. Penn had just gotten a creepy pet snake named Gertrude. She was Penn’s reward for getting good grades on his tests last semester. (And his mom-guilt present, since Mrs. Witherspoon had to miss yet another of his Rubik’s Cube competitions because of work.)
Penn adored Gertrude, but I didn’t get the fuss about a pet snake. It didn’t interact with you the way a dog would, which was my ideal pet, and one I’d been begging my parents to get me for ages. My parents decided to give me a little brother instead.
“No,” Penn replied, running his fingers through his blond curls. “Good Doggy sells all sorts of pet stuff. I’m going to get Gertrude a bigger terrarium if we win.” Penn groaned, turning his legs to the side. “Can we do something else now? I’m way too tall for the wolf and it’s really hurting my knees.”
I watched Penn turn his head to the Wall of Doom, a super-dangerous, not-up-to-code (in my expert opinion) rock-climbing wall that the homeowner’s association had just installed in our playground last week. It made me nervous just to look at it.
“How about we go home and play soccer in your yard?” I suggested, not wanting to test my luck on risky playground equipment.
Penn groaned. “We just did that yesterday.”
“Okay, then, how about we ride our bikes to the library?”
“We did that Thursday after school, when I wanted to visit the snakes at Reptile Rescue Center,” Penn countered.
I looked around us at the few clumps of snow left in the March grass. It was now my turn to sigh.
“So how about we climb the wall?” Penn asked, heading toward it.
“There’s a reason it’s called the Wall of Doom, you know,” I said to Penn.
Penn shook his head. “Nobody calls it that except for you. You always think of the worst possible things that can happen when you don’t like something.”
I frowned. “Do not.” Although, I kinda did. But it was sort of like Aaji’s exaggerating-things trait. Except instead of making a story better, my habit just made me more scared.
“Besides,” Penn continued, “Deepak told me he’d meet me here to climb the wall, so you might as well join us.”
I scrunched my face up and swung my leg forcefully over the pig. I suddenly didn’t want to be at the park anymore. Deepak, the new kid in our fifth-grade class, had just moved here last month and lived on the other side of the creek behind Penn’s backyard. He was good at everything, from my mom’s singing class to becoming friends with Penn to climbing the Wall of Doom, apparently. I didn’t feel the need to be around that show-off, either.
“Please?” Penn asked, reaching his hand timidly toward a pink grip near the bottom of the wall.
Behind him, Rohan and his friends were running past the bulletin board with the neighborhood announcements and jumping up to tap the lowest wooden beam on the roof. A gust of wind caused a neon-green flyer from the bulletin board to zip near us.
I dug my tennis shoe into the bit of snow crumbling away on the grass. “Why don’t you climb it while you’re waiting for Deepak, and I’ll time you?” I suggested.
Penn’s smile faded, but he quickly nodded and threw me his watch.
My stomach dropped as I hit the timer. Penn scaled the wall, going higher and higher. The word “scale” has lots of different meanings. It could mean the bumps on the skin of a snake. It could mean a musical scale. It could mean climbing higher. The list went on and on. And so did Penn, climbing up and up, till he was almost to the top.
But what if his palms were sweaty and he fell? What if the wall was slick from some tiny remaining drops of the rain-snow mix we had last night, and he lost his footing and fell? What if he got dizzy at the top and fell? What if he got distracted and… yeah, fell?
I shook my head, doing my best to throw out the bad thoughts and stop my imagination from getting the best of me.
“Whoa,” Penn squealed, just missing the grip and almost losing his footing along with it.
Or maybe I should let my imagination do its thing. Clearly, it was better to be prepared for the worst-case scenario than surprised by it.
“You should probably come down!” I rushed toward Penn.
Penn furrowed his eyebrows at me and sighed, slowly making his way down. “Thanks for cheering me on, Geetanjali,” he grumbled sarcastically. “You can stop the timer; I didn’t make it all the way up, so it doesn’t count.”
I cleared my watch and pulled the sleeves of my hoodie down past my hands. What was he talking about? I always cheered Penn on. I was the one who agreed to sing onstage with him in June, despite how embarrassing it might be since he couldn’t sing really well. “You should be thanking me for saving your life. This is why we should stick to doing things I suggest, like soccer. It’s just safer,” I retorted. Then a staticky announcement shouted at us.
Startled, Penn slipped and fell a couple feet, landing hard on his bottom in a pile of mulch.
“You okay?” I asked, rushing to his side.
Penn nodded, brushing himself off as we turned toward the sound.
It was Lark Conovan. Her mom was mayor of Deadwood. They lived on the other side of the neighborhood, where the woods were the thickest, and where all the big, sprawling homes in Deadwood were, with their spaced-out yards and acres of privacy. She was a grade younger than us, but Penn and I saw her on the bus every morning, sitting alone in the first seat.
“Friends and fans, you’re invited to the show of the century. Gather round for my latest hit song!” Lark announced into a blue portable microphone that amplified her voice and matched the navy-blue stegosaurus bike helmet she wore on her head.
Apparently, everyone had decided today was the day to sing in the park.
I bent down to pick up the neon-green flyer and watched as Lark threw her head back and began to belt out the latest Skye Suh-Oliviera hit into the microphone. Except, unlike super-famous pop star Skye, Lark couldn’t hold a tune. Not like Penn, who missed a note here and there. Lark didn’t hit any note. That didn’t seem to stop her, though. She sang loudly, off-key, her voice cracking.
“What is she doing?” I whispered to Penn as we neared the impromptu show, my ears burning in embarrassment on her behalf.
Penn shrugged. “I’ve seen her sing into her microphone on her bike before. I think she just likes to sing.”
Lark added some dance moves to her song, twisting and twirling, making it even harder on herself to sing. The kids in the shelter began laughing hysterically. Rohan was wiping tears from his face. Next to him, a girl was holding her ponytail in front of her eyes to cover them and was cringing as she laughed. The other kid took out his phone and began to record her.
This was even worse than when they laughed at me and Penn. What if they sent the video to the entire middle school and everyone teased Lark for the rest of the year? I barely knew Lark, but I didn’t want her humiliated by these bullies.
Penn shook his head. “We have to stop this.”
“Go tell her to stop singing so they’ll stop laughing,” I whispered.
“What?” Penn whispered back angrily as Rohan’s high-pitched laughter almost drowned out Lark’s song. Her lip was trembling in fear, but she kept going, looking at me and Penn for help. “No. One of us needs to tell Rohan and his friends to stop laughing so she can keep singing.”
“Oh. Right,” I replied as Penn gave me a small frown, like he was disappointed in me. He was right. I hadn’t stopped them from laughing at Penn earlier, either. Obviously, I was the wrong candidate for the job: I wasn’t brave enough to speak up.
Lark’s face was flushed and she was stumbling over her lyrics, but she kept going. I opened my mouth but froze. What if I told them to stop and then they started laughing at me, too? Or what if they had a comeback and I didn’t have a comeback for their comeback? I was able to tell Penn he was good and try to undo the damage of Rohan and his friends a few minutes earlier, but this was different. This involved me stopping Rohan and his friends, and I couldn’t find the words to do that. Even if I did find them, I wasn’t sure I could get them out. I nudged Penn. “Do it.”
“They’re seventh graders. You do it,” Penn whispered back as the humiliating laughter grew louder and louder.
“Stop it!” said a voice from behind us.
Lark abruptly stopped singing as Penn and I turned to see Deepak standing behind us, his black hair glistening in the sunlight rather heroically.
“Stop laughing at her,” Deepak said to the older kids so forcefully, his lips almost got snagged in his braces. “Haven’t you heard of being inclusive and empowering each other?”
“Oh. Well, can’t we all just get along?” Rohan snorted, mocking Deepak.
The other kids snickered.
“Let’s go. Let the little kids play at the park,” Rohan added, walking away from us with his friends.
“How long was that going on?” Deepak asked Lark.
“Oh, just, like, half my song,” she announced into the microphone so it echoed loudly in the shelter.
“Why didn’t they listen when you told them to stop?” Deepak asked us.
“We didn’t actually get to that. We were trying to figure out what to say,” Penn answered, a trickle of sweat making its way down his cheek.
“And how to say it,” I added.
“What’s there to think about?” Deepak asked. “You just speak up.”
Lark turned to me with a look that seemed to last forever. One that made my stomach churn with guilt and my throat feel kind of tight.
I broke her stare and quickly turned to pin the neon flyer for the Mayor’s Community Grant that had landed next to my foot back to the bulletin board.
“We’re climbing the wall,” Deepak said to Lark. “Did you know static friction is formed when your hands or feet make contact with the grip? That helps rock climbers climb. And some scientists even climb to monitor bat populations,” he added, like he didn’t know how to make Lark feel better, so he just decided to throw a bunch of random facts her way. “Want to climb it with us?”
“No thanks,” Lark said, her eyes gleaming like they were about to spill over with tears. “My voice teacher is coming by in a few minutes for my lesson. See you around.” She gave Deepak a sad smile and took off on her bike, heading down the path and out of sight.
As Penn and Deepak started climbing the wall, I stared back at the shelter where Rohan’s laughter from just minutes earlier still haunted the air. What did Lark expect from me and Penn? We were just fifth graders. Rohan and his friends were older. It isn’t easy to stand up to middle schoolers or we would have. I think. A queasy feeling was rising in my throat. Sure, we were fifth graders. But Lark was a fourth grader. She must have been even more scared than us.
I slid my hood over my head, wishing I could disappear into it. Was Lark going to cry when she got home? Was she going to tell her voice teacher what happened and quit singing?
Anytime something bad happened, I thought about the moment over and over. That time in January when my dad hurt his ankle trying to help me? I can’t look at his feet anymore. Or that time when I was in first grade and tried to speak Marathi to my cousins in India and everyone laughed? There’s a reason I don’t speak Marathi now.
Had I just helped Lark form a memory like that, one that she would never forget? This wasn’t doomsday thinking. I knew this feeling from experience. And the thought of having played a part in making someone else feel bad about themselves felt gross, like a thick, sludgy soup of guilt stuck in my throat.