Stacey was a girl. I hadn't been sure at first. Her hair was short and messy. It hung down at the front like two curtains over her eyes. "His eyes," I whispered, thinking she might have lied and she really was a boy. I wondered how I could check. She had very straight teeth and marks on her cheeks that could be freckles like mine, but were more likely dirt.
We were walking down an overgrown path that Stacey said led to a river. I had never been this way before. I thought back to the rain barrel and the nail polish hidden underneath it. I wondered if Stacey had seen me hide it. I opened my mouth to confide, but stopped myself. Perhaps I should wait a while: I would tell her if we were still friends tomorrow.
"Here, want one?" Stacey said, offering me a candy from a little foil packet.
"Thanks." I popped it in my mouth, and my lips crinkled at the perfumed taste. I shivered and swallowed quickly, picking the remains out of my teeth.
Stacey had picked up a stick and was beating the nettles down on either side of the path. She stopped abruptly and pointed to a giant stinger on our left.
"I dare you to pick it," she said.
"No." I twisted my fingers into the hem of my sweater. I didn't like this game. It felt dangerous.
"Fine. I will." And she bent forward and picked it.
"Didn't that hurt?" I said, my fingers contracting in empathy. She dropped the nettle and looked at me sympathetically.
"Watch what I do," she said, a smile playing around the corners of her mouth. She moved her hand toward another nettle, and just as she got to it, she placed her thumb and index finger on the underside of the two lowest leaves. Pushing up, she clamped the leaves to the stalk and pulled. The whole nettle uprooted itself and hung from her fingers.
"Ha!" she cried, swinging the plant to and fro and looking at my uncomprehending face. "The underside doesn't have prickles. Here." She proffered the nettle to me. I took a step back. "Fine. Come on, let's go." Dropping the nettle, she pranced away.
I watched her running, feeling a flush of admiration cross my face. Setting off after her, I mounted some concrete steps that led to the river.
At the top I stopped. Stacey was already at the bottom, making her way toward the water's edge. I turned and looked back at Braër. I had never been out of the garden before. Not without Dad. My hand went to the mole on my cheek, stroking it distractedly.
She turned and raised her eyebrows. Her upturned nose was pink.
"I don't think I'm allowed to go any farther." As I said the words, I felt shame in my tummy. It made me want to go to the loo.
"Well, I'm going to look for buried treasure under the bridge." And with that, she turned and skipped toward the water.
I took a deep breath and gripped the railing. Slowly, step-by-step, I started to descend the concrete steps. Every second I expected Dad to come running up behind me, shouting at me to stop, but he didn't. Letting go of the rail, I ran down the remaining steps and joined Stacey at the water's edge.
She was staring into the gray depths below. The heat of a late spring had dried the banks, and the water had slunk back to reveal foul-smelling mud on either side. We made our way to the bridge, and Stacey started climbing down the bank, gripping handfuls of marram grass as she went. I looked at my shoes. They were my favorites: plastic trainers with planets dotted all over them. I took a deep breath and followed her.
Stacey was already under the bridge when I reached the muddy bottom. I had to duck to join her in the shadows. A thrill rushed through me as I straightened up under the planks of wood. The river made a roaring sound here as it channeled under the bridge. It looked a lot more powerful close-up.
My trainers were sinking into the mud. Every few seconds I had to pull my feet out. The mud made a sucking sound, and a great gassy waft hit me in the face. The planks of wood that made up the bridge above us echoed dully as someone walked across them. Grains of dust fell down onto us.
Stacey was scanning the ground, her eyes bright, her hair tucked behind her ears. Then, she dropped down, her fingers slipping into the mud and withdrawing just as quickly.
When she straightened up, there was a small gray pebble in her hand. The excitement I had felt when she first dived in died at the sight of it.
"It's a stone." I couldn't keep the disappointment out of my voice. Stacey glanced at me, her eyes glinting in the dark shadows, but kept silent. Pocketing the stone, she continued to look at the ground.
I pulled my feet out of the mud with a slurping sound and, ducking out from under the bridge, made my way up the bank, wiping dust from my face and clinging to the marram grass to help me up.
When I was at the top I sat down to wait for Stacey. I looked about for the person who had walked across the bridge, but the land was flat and empty as far as I could see.
This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
Monday, August 24th we begin the book The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim.