Back at Dee’s yard, the game begins. Phoebe is at a disadvantage, not knowing the territory, but she’s fast, and that helps. A boy named Gregory with a shock of bright red hair is It, and Phoebe runs past the vegetable garden and into a clump of evergreen bushes. When she sees Gregory move towards the woods, she makes a run for the garden. She crouches in between the stalks of corn. At this angle, she notices that the roots are like talons clutching the ground. The leaves are rough against her face, and when she pushes them away, she sees Dee two rows over.
Dee is a mimic, a cunning improviser, a born actress. She picks up accents and mannerisms, adopts phrases like “Be a peach, won’t you, and fetch me a mint julep,” which is what she says now.
“Shh!” Dee says, but they don’t need to worry. Gregory is way on the other side of the house, calling out names. Dee slips through the rows and joins Phoebe. It’s growing darker, so it feels as if they’re in a clubhouse, here between the cornstalks, the leaves a kind of roof. Phoebe has forgotten about Dee’s antics, how funny she is, but also how hard it is to follow sometimes–what is silly and what is real? Who is she being–herself or some character? Her face is serious now, and when she speaks, her voice doesn’t have that embellished, giddy quality of imitation or slapstick. But Phoebe can’t take in her words. She hears them, something about her parents, and knows this: she must flee, get away from Dee, and what she is telling her.
When Gregory goes after another player, Phoebe darts out of the row, runs hard across the yard, through the thick grass. The air is soft, balmy against her arms and legs. Her braids flap a crazy rhythm on her back as she races through the darkening night air, away from Dee and her strangely solemn face. When she kicks the can, it sails into the air, lands with a clatter in the driveway. She shouts as Dee has told her to, “All-y All-y in Come Free!” Exhilarated, breathless, she lies down on the still warm driveway as the other children flock in, hooting and laughing.
To Elaine, sitting in the screen porch where the adults have gone after clearing the dinner dishes, the children’s game appears senseless. She can’t tell what the objective is, though it’s too dark to see much. She accepts a cup of tea from Nora. The conversation turns to the children, a safe subject for the most part.
“How are you finding the schools?” Elaine asks.
In Toronto, Dee and Phoebe attended a progressive school, where the teachers were addressed by their first names, and snacks meant carrot and parsnip sticks or whole grain cookies, as dense as bricks. Kids worked at their own speed and interest, and so Phoebe spent most of her time in the art room, constructing elaborate dioramas with tissue paper and clay.
“We were worried, you know, about how structured everything was here–worksheets and spelling tests, but Dee loves it, just loves it.”
“Kids are conservatives in sheep’s clothing,” Jim says.
“So true,” Ed says.
“Mom! Dad!” Phoebe shouts. “Look!” She is right outside the screen porch, panting, a sheen of sweat on her forehead. The night is black velvet with pinpricks of light, flickering here, then there around her.