Frida marveled at how quickly Sandy and Jane got across the creek. They knew which rocks would hold them and which ones were slippery with algae and should be avoided. Jane was barefoot like her brother, but Sandy wore hiking boots. Once across, she introduced herself and her two children. Jane was seven. Garrett was three. Up close, Sandy looked older: the face of a woman who worked outside without sunscreen.
"Bo and I," Sandy said, "we've been watching you two for some time. Making sure you were safe."
Frida nodded slowly. She and Cal hadn't counted on a family of spies. Making sure you were safe. Did that mean they were judging them, or protecting them?
"The birds!" Garrett cried. He was pointing at Frida now, as if he had just figured something out.
Frida raised an eyebrow.
"We took to calling you the birds," Sandy explained. "As in lovebirds. You two sure do like each other."
In a different context, Frida might have blushed. Instead she said, "It's cheaper than going to the movies." She was trying to keep her eyes off Sandy's chest. Her overalls had shifted in her commute across the water, and one breast, all nipple, peeped out from the bib, its tip long and knobby. It reminded Frida of a caterpillar.
"You're living in our shed," Sandy said. She didn't seem mad, and so instead of apologizing, Frida thanked her for building it.
"I assume you don't want us to move out. It was empty when we arrived."
"Oh no, we love that you're there. It's where Bo and I first settled. We built that well you're using, you know. We like the little outdoor kitchen and fire pit you've added. I told Bo it was proof of your ingenuity."
"How long have you been here?" Frida asked.
"Forever," Sandy said.
That was the thing about the Millers: they never got specific. It was easy to deduce they'd arrived at least seven years before, since Jane was born on the land, but that was as much as Frida could figure out on her own. Sandy and Bo wouldn't say where they were from, either, though Los Angeles didn't seem to register much familiarity on their faces, nor did Cleveland, where Cal had been raised. It wasn't that their speech was accentless but that it shifted, from bland to twangy and back again in a single conversation. Once, Bo wore a Duke shirt, but Sandy said she'd gotten it from a friend, years and years ago. "Be protective of your past," she finally told Frida. "Our children don't need to know too much about ours."
On that first meeting, Sandy told her the names of the fish in the creek. "We don't know what that one's called," she said, pointing to a thin silvery one, "so we call it a princess." Frida wished she had a Device that worked, to take notes. She hadn't felt this happy inmaybe ever. Sandy's eyebrows were light as dandelion fuzz, and Frida loved the surprise of them. She hadn't realized how tired she'd gotten of Cal's face.
Sandy offered to help Frida with her laundry, and Frida accepted. Garrett ran up and down the creek, collecting rocks, and Jane stayed to help the women. Frida hadn't been taking much notice of her until Sandy said in a stern voice, "Hand that over." When Jane hesitated, Sandy snatched Cal's red bandanna out of her daughter's hand. She threw it to the ground as if it were on fire, her eyes squeezed shut.
"You okay?" Frida asked.
"She likes red," Sandy said. She affected a breezy laugh, but there was something shaky and nervous behind it. "We don't let her have too much of it."
"Sorry, Mama," Jane whispered.
The next time Garrett sped by, Frida tried to keep her voice casual. She didn't want to freak Sandy out again. "What's with his shirt?"
Excerpted from California by Edan Lepucki. Copyright © 2014 by Edan Lepucki. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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