What Could Go Wrong?
Every other summer we have a family reunion. Aunts and uncles and cousins come from all over the country to spend a week together, having fun. Having fun means mostly eating a lot and sitting around talking, if you’re a grown-up, or eating a lot and playing games and swimming if you’re a kid.
There are plenty of kids. My mom has three brothers and two sisters, and except for Aunt Molly they all have kids. Some of my cousins are great—like Charlie—and some of them are jerks—like Cheryl. The rest are in between. I’m Gracie Cameron, and I’m eleven.
The Portwood side of the family all look alike, including my mom. They have dark hair and brown eyes. They talk a lot—too much, my dad says, and every year there’s a
reunion he wants to know why it can’t be just for a weekend or over a three-day holiday instead of for a whole week. He says it’s a good thing we only have the reunions every other year, because he couldn’t stand that many Portwoods any oftener.
This last summer the reunion was held at Grandpa and Grandma Portwood’s. This wasn’t such a treat for my brother, Max, and me, because we live only six miles from them and we go there all the time. (Dad likes Portwoods okay in fewer numbers.) But it’s a good place for a reunion, because they have a farm and there are so many things to do, like fish or swim in the Pilchuck River or milk cows. Unless you’re like Cheryl; she wouldn’t think of going in the barn or touching a cow.
Grandma and Grandpa Portwood also have a huge house, with five bedrooms and a big front porch where the kids could sleep in sleeping bags. That was fun, too, except that Uncle George and Aunt Monica slept in the front downstairs bedroom, with the window open, and Uncle George kept saying, “You kids stop giggling and go to sleep.” Cheryl was the
only one who shut up before Uncle George got up and closed the window.
Uncle Jim and Aunt Lila didn’t sleep in the house. They parked their motor home on the front lawn—Grandpa’s not very particular about his lawn, says he doesn’t have time to keep it mowed, anyway—and Charlie has his own bunk in it, but he slept on the porch with the rest of us kids.
We were the last ones to get to the farm, even if we did live the closest. Dad kept finding things he had to do right up to the last minute until Mom said, “Donald Cameron, if you aren’t in the car in five minutes, we’re going without you.”
Dad said, “Is that a promise?” She gave him one of her looks and he sighed and said, “Okay. Let me get something to take along to read.”
Dad’s the only one who reads at a reunion. He says he only does it after his ears ache from too much conversation.
We could see everyone else had already arrived. There were cars parked everywhere. Old Jack, Grandpa’s collie, came out and barked a welcome, wagging his tail. Max hugged him
and then ran toward the kitchen, hoping Grandma would have something to eat to last us until suppertime. She almost always did.
I was looking for Charlie in the bunch of kids running and wrestling on the front lawn. Charlie’s my favorite cousin; he’s always interesting. He lives in Puyallup, which is only about fifty miles away, but we don’t see each other real often.
At the last reunion, when I was nine and Charlie was eleven, we had a terrific time until we fell off the barn roof together. I broke my arm and Charlie needed twenty-two stitches. My mother kept saying, “Gracie, how could you have been so foolish?” and my dad said, “That Charlie is going to get somebody killed yet if he doesn’t stop doing these harebrained things. How do you stand it, Jim, having a kid that gets into trouble all the time?”
Uncle Jim just laughed. He and Aunt Lila couldn’t have any kids—nobody ever explained why—so they adopted three of them. Cissy and Dawn are dark, like the Portwoods, and they’re nice little girls. Everybody likes them because they hardly ever cause any problems.
And then there’s Charlie. He doesn’t look like anyone else in the family, and he does cause problems. Uncle Jim and Aunt Lila were so happy to have a son that it didn’t bother them when he did things other kids never thought of, like taking a leaky boat out on the river and sinking it with his two little adopted sisters along. The water wasn’t deep, but everybody got wet and the girls ruined their shoes.
“He’s just being a boy,” Uncle Jim said about the incident when we fell off the barn roof.
“But he took Gracie up there on the barn with him,” Dad said, “and she’s a girl. With a broken arm.”
“I’ll pay the bills if your insurance company doesn’t,” Uncle Jim told him, and Dad said that wasn’t the point. I never did hear him say what the point was.
Anyway, Charlie was easy to spot in all those Portwoods. He was the only one with bright copper-colored hair. I’d have died to have hair like that, instead of plain old brown. It was not only a beautiful color, it curled.
When I got old enough to dye my hair, I intended to have hair exactly like it.
Charlie was on the ground, rolling over and over with Wayne, who was the same age, thirteen. Suddenly Wayne yelled, “Ow! Let go, Charlie, you’re breaking my arm!”
“Not again this year,” Dad muttered behind me. “Gracie, if I have to spend another three hours in the emergency room with you because of something Charlie talks you into, you’re going to be sorry.”
“We’re all grown up now, Daddy,” I told him patiently, and then ran toward the kids.
Wayne was still yelling, and Charlie sat on his stomach, grinning, while my cousin Eddie cheered him on. Wayne often picks on Eddie, because Eddie is small for twelve.
“Hi, Gracie,” Charlie greeted me. “Sit on his feet so he’ll stop kicking.”
I eyed Wayne’s size ten Nikes. “I don’t think so,” I declined. “Do they have any snacks out yet?”
“Peanut butter cookies, apples, and bananas.” Charlie suddenly got up, leaving Wayne gasping on the grass. “Let’s go get some
more, Wayne, before they decide it will spoil our supper. You coming, too, Eddie?”
I tagged along, saying “Hi” to the other cousins who were horsing around or, like Cheryl, standing there watching. Cheryl was twelve, and instead of jeans and a T-shirt she was wearing a skirt and blouse and panty hose, of all things. She came with us, though.
“Everybody’s here except Aunt Molly, and she’s not coming,” Charlie said.
I stopped so short that Cheryl stepped on my heels. “How come?”
“She’s bought a house and she’s moving into it right away, because the lease is up on her apartment. It’s big enough for us to visit, two or three of us at a time. It has a studio where she’s going to paint. She said she couldn’t move and come here the same week. The new place is within walking distance of Golden Gate Park, so we can go to the zoo and the museum where they have that big gorilla, and the planetarium, and the aquarium.”
Aunt Molly was our favorite. She was Mom’s youngest sister, even prettier than Mom, and she liked to do all kinds of things
the other grown-ups wouldn’t do: kick-the-can, sack races, play Monopoly or Clue or Pictionary, swim in the river, build a raft, or go on those rides at the fair that made other adults throw up. When I fell off the roof, she was the only one who didn’t think I’d been stupid to be on top of the barn in the first place.
“I broke my arm falling off there, too, when I was ten,” she said. And then, to my mother, “Remember, Margaret, I fell on top of you and knocked all the wind out of you so you couldn’t even cry at first, and I thought you were dead?”
“And you ran screaming for the house,” Mom confirmed, making Dad give her one of those what-can-you-expect-from-a-Portwood looks.
Last reunion Aunt Molly had opened up some trunks in the attic to get out old clothes for costumes, and we’d put on a play she wrote. I was a princess in a pale blue satin gown (that was before I had my arm in a cast) and Charlie was a wicked old villain with a white wig and a sword who kidnapped me; Eddie rescued me with another sword, and we lived happily ever after. What were we going to do this year for entertainment if it rained?
“It’s probably just as well Aunt Molly didn’t come,” Cheryl said primly. “Mama says she’s too wild. And she has all those peculiar friends. Writers and artists and actors, instead of ordinary people.”
I glared at her. “You’re still jealous because she chose me to be the princess in the play instead of you.”
“Well, I was older. More mature.”
Charlie made a rude noise. “Gracie was a great princess.”
He lunged at me with an imaginary blade, leering. It wasn’t quite the same without the costume and the makeup, but he was pretty good. “Now yer in my clutches, me beauty, and I’m going to carry you away forever!”
“Now I suppose we won’t see Aunt Molly for another whole two years!” I mourned.
Charlie dropped his pose of villain. “Yes, we will. She called my mom just before we left home, and guess what, Gracie? She’s invited you and me and Eddie to go to California and visit her for two weeks, after the reunion. Later some of the other kids will be invited, when she’s recovered from us.”
“Visit her? In San Francisco?” I’d never been there, but I’d seen pictures from a trip my folks took. The Golden Gate Bridge, the Coit Tower, Alcatraz Island with the famous prison on it. The museums, the cable cars, Fisherman’s Wharf, where you could walk around eating shrimp or crab cocktails out of paper cups, and visiting a sailing ship that was over a hundred years old. “Oh, wow!”
And then, even before Cheryl sniffed and said, sounding exactly like her mother, “Oh, who wants to go and visit such a flake, anyway,” my spirits dropped.
“I don’t know if my folks will let me go. How would we get there? Dad says this reunion is all the vacation we’re going to get this year except for a week at Copalis Beach just before school starts.”
Charlie grinned. “We’re going to fly,” he said.
“Me, too?” Eddie asked hopefully. Charlie had flown to a lot of places—to visit his other grandparents in Boston, and to Disneyland, and to visit his cousins on the other side of the family, in Atlanta. On that trip he’d gone
all by himself, though most of the relatives raised their eyebrows about a twelve-year-old flying alone.
“If your folks will let you go,” Charlie confirmed.
I swallowed. “That’s the trouble. I don’t know if they will. Not if it’s just us kids flying.”
“Well, don’t give up before you ask,” Charlie advised. “There’s nothing to flying. We get on the plane at Sea-Tac”—that’s the Seattle-Tacoma airport—“and then we get off in San Francisco and Aunt Molly meets us. She’s even going to pay for the tickets, so nobody can say we can’t afford it. It’s simple enough. And according to statistics, flying’s safer than riding in cars. So why would anybody object?”
I couldn’t see any good reason to object, but I was already trying to think up my arguments for when my dad did. It probably wasn’t the flying he’d worry about so much as the fact that I’d be traveling with Charlie.
I didn’t get a chance to talk to my folks about it until just before we went to bed that night. They had been out for a walk along the river, where they used to go before they were
married, and they came back to the house hand in hand in the twilight.
I was waiting my turn for the bathroom, sitting on the edge of the veranda, and I got up and went to meet them. I hoped I could put it right so Dad wouldn’t give me a flat no without a chance to discuss it. My stomach felt full of crawly things because I wanted so much for my folks to let me go. I was glad when old Jack got up and tagged along with me, letting me rest a hand on his soft furry head.
“Having a good time?” Mom asked, smiling as I approached.
“Yeah,” I said. And then, all in a rush, I told them about Aunt Molly’s invitation and the free plane tickets. They looked at each other.
“Well,” Mom said thoughtfully, “Gracie is eleven. And she’s fairly responsible. If we put her on the plane here, and Molly meets the kids at the other end, what could go wrong?”
“With Charlie heading the expedition?” Dad asked, before I could even begin to feel relieved. “Margaret, your innocence never ceases to amaze me.”
He said it jokingly, though, and I began to
seriously hope. “Eddie would be along, too,” I said. Eddie never got into trouble, as far as I knew.
Mom looked at Dad again. “What do you think, honey?”
Dad considered for a minute. Old Jack was leaning into my side, so I could scratch behind his ears, almost pushing me over. I braced my legs and held my breath.
“You really want to go?” Dad asked.
“Oh, yes, Daddy! Please, please!”
“I’ll tell you what, Gracie. If you can get through this family reunion without being involved in one of Charlie’s disasters—no, let me amend that—if we all get through this reunion without there being a Charlie-caused disaster, you can go with him and Eddie to Aunt Molly’s in San Francisco.”
“Oh, Daddy, thank you!” I hugged him, and spun around, racing to find Charlie to tell him the good news.
Dad yelled after me. “But if he pulls another one of his birdbrained schemes, I’m not letting my daughter go off with him anywhere, you understand? Do you hear me, Gracie?”
I turned around to wave acceptance of his terms, then sped toward the house.
Two whole weeks at Aunt Molly’s, and flying there by ourselves! What fun!
After all, as Mom said, what could go wrong?