Lydia believed in dancing wherever she could--on sidewalks, in supermarket aisles, libraries, swimming pools, parking lots. Today her stage was a bench at the bus stop. It was a challenge dancing on something so narrow, but Lydia took measures to keep from falling--small steps, no leaps, and heavy reliance on upper-body motion.
“Music, Maestro!” she said. “What tempo, Miss Penderwick? I believe I’m in the mood for something snappy, Maestro. Snappy it is, then.”
Lydia’s singing wasn’t up to her dancing, and her inner maestro’s humming was rarely on key, but the rhythm! Lydia and rhythm were as one while she bopped back and forth, being what her father called the Embodiment of Music. He’d come up with that when Lydia was too young to know what “embodiment” meant. She was now in fifth grade, though, and knew just about any words her father could come up with, as long as they were in English. (Sometimes he spoke in Latin.) Being the embodiment meant that she brought the spirit of music to life in her dancing.
One last spin, and Lydia bowed, waiting for applause that wouldn’t come. There were no other people at the bus stop, and the Penderwick dogs weren’t paying attention. The older of the two, Sonata, was asleep under the bench. Sonata was often asleep--Lydia’s mother called her Zen Dog. The other dog, Feldspar, was Sonata’s son, with the same goofy bug eyes, but he was no Zen Dog. He considered life an opportunity for excitement, especially these two parts of life: Lydia’s older sister Batty and whatever he’d most recently found to carry around. Today it was a plastic clothes hanger.
“Remember not to chew it up and swallow the pieces,” Lydia told him.
Feldspar eyed her with disdain. He knew better than to do such a silly thing. Somewhere deep in his mixed-breed DNA was a bit of retriever, and retrievers never ate the spoils of the hunt, especially when the spoils were plastic and didn’t taste good. Just because he’d happened to accidentally eat one of Lydia’s headbands didn’t mean that his instincts were dead.
Lydia checked the road for incoming buses. She and the dogs were waiting for the one that would deliver Batty, who studied music in Boston. In Lydia’s opinion, Batty didn’t come home often enough, and left too soon when she did--this time, she’d be gone at the end of the weekend. Of all the Penderwick siblings, Batty was the one who best understood Lydia and her dancing. Probably because Batty was a musician, a singer--they were both expressing music, but in different ways.
With Batty away at college, only Lydia and her brother, Ben, were left at home with their parents. Ben was sixteen and cared primarily about watching and making movies with his best friend, Rafael. Sometimes they put Lydia in their movies. So far, she’d been a child genius murdered by her country’s enemies, a chess champion killed by her insane rival, and Joan of Arc burnt at the stake; in the current project, she was a sentient apple that would be eaten at the end of the film. Weary of dying for her brother’s art, Lydia wished he would find a new theme.
There were three other sisters in the family, grown-ups in their twenties. Two of them, Rosalind and Jane, lived in apartments not too far from home and were always popping in and out. The third, Skye, was in California, working on her doctorate in astrophysics. She’d been out west since she’d first left for college--when Lydia was only four--and could get back home to Massachusetts only a few times a year. Lydia missed her greatly. Family lore had it that she’d been the first tiny baby Skye was drawn to. Skye denied it, saying that she hadn’t bothered much with Lydia until she was three and could speak some sense, but Lydia didn’t believe that. She was certain she could remember being swaddled, safe and warm, gazing up into Skye’s blue eyes.
No bus yet, so time for another dance. For this one, Lydia chose to express great longing and beauty with languid gestures. She’d have to imagine the great longing, as she hadn’t experienced much of that, but beauty was all around her, in the daffodils abloom in the Ayvazians’ yard, across from the bus stop, and--Lydia thought, privately--in her very own hair. She had no pretensions to beauty, but she did have good hair: red, with just the right amount of curliness. It was her mother’s hair, and Ben’s. None of the other siblings had this hair, because they’d had a different mother, who’d died long before Lydia was born.
As she brought her dance to an end, Feldspar began making the weird noise that his family politely called barking, though it was more a combination of whining and throat clearing. Anything else was impossible with your mouth full of a hanger. But he and Sonata had worked out a system--whenever Feldspar made that noise, Sonata chimed in with actual barking, so that together they made enough noise to accomplish whatever Feldspar had set out to do.
That’s what happened now. Sonata woke up and raised her voice high, and Lydia jumped off the bench and took a firm hold on the dogs’ leashes. She’d learned long ago that they could sense Batty’s approach from afar. If they were clamoring, that meant Batty’s bus was about to come into view. And there it was, cresting the hill, steadily approaching with its precious cargo.
When Batty got off the bus, beaming, as pleased to be home as her family would be to have her there, Lydia held back, knowing that the dogs were always greeted first. The dogs knew it, too, pressing against Batty, quivering with joy while she murmured her love to them and gently stroked them head to toe, reassuring herself that they were as happy and healthy as when she’d last seen them. Ben had once dubbed Batty the Saint Francis of Cameron--Cameron was the town where the Penderwicks lived--and no one had disputed him, except for Batty herself, who believed that it should be normal, not saintly, to have limitless love for animals.
Copyright © 2018 by Jeanne Birdsall. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.