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The purple cow is gone.

It had always been her favorite vacation landmark. She'd practically fog up the window in her eagerness to see it, palms flat against the glass and eyes wide open. It meant that the car trip, the horrible limbo between normal life and vacation life, was almost over. It meant she was tantalizingly close to those Sea City smells of sunblock and bathing suits and the ocean. It meant that the best part of the year was only just starting, and there was a whole two weeks until they had to leave again.

But now it's gone. In its place is some billboard for a fancy new resort.

 

*

 

Her suitcase isn't heavy, but it's too unwieldy to lug up the narrow stairs without help. Eventually, she and Adam manage to shove it through the doorway of her and Claire's room.

Of all the blue bedrooms in the house, this one is the girliest. For years and years, it's been the room she shares with Claire. It was a decision made out of necessity back when the boys would gag at the sight of floral wallpaper.

Margo spends a half hour carefully unpacking her clothes and lining her books along the windowsill. None of this year's selection is particularly exciting. She'd tried to do the usual pre-vacation trip to the library, but she came home empty handed. She felt too old for the kids' section. She felt embarrassed in the young adults section (too many books with garish pink covers, or a sex-drugs-and-suicide storyline) and overwhelmed by the sheer size of the adult section. Packing books that have been in the house for years had just been easier, if a little dull.

Claire's in and out in two seconds, barely long enough to dump her luggage on her bed. As always, she would probably be content to spend the two weeks living out of her suitcase.

 

*

 

"Where is everyone?"
She'd woken up early. Well, early for summer vacation. By the time she rolled out of bed, Claire had already vanished. And now, Mom and Dad are the only ones in the kitchen.
"The triplets drove to the surf beach," says Dad, swallowing a mouthful of Cheerios.
"What about everyone else?"
"They're around," says Mom. "It just feels empty like this when the triplets aren't home."

 

*

 

This summer is unusually cool, and a few days pass before she feels even a little bit like swimming. She stands hesitantly in ankle deep water, trying to decide how badly she wants to do this. When did I stop throwing myself into the water the second we arrived? She's giving herself a moment to feel vaguely sad, when-

"Hey!" she shrieks, as a wall of icy salt-water drenches her from head to foot.
She whips her head around to see Adam with a wicked grin and a bucket. Not a cute little bucket for building sandcastles: a proper, five-gallon bucket from under the laundry sink.
"I did you a favor!" he laughs, dodging her swift kick. "The worst part is over with, all thanks to me!"
"You jerk!" She starts chasing him halfway up the beach before slowing down, knowing she has no chance of catching him.

Around lunchtime, she takes herself to the quieter end of the beach and carefully fills the bucket with a little water and a lot of seaweed. She's not strong enough to fill it with water, but it's better this way. She knows a thing or two about how to avenge practical jokes, and the cardinal Pike rule is to always go half a step further.

She bides her time, and waits til he's trying to look cool on his beach towel for passing college girls. It's the icing on the cake.

 

*

 

In the evening, she finds herself at a loose end. She spends too much time meandering aimlessly around the house, trying to avoid reading through her pile of already familiar books too quickly. She decides it's time to go outside when she trips over Jordan's guitar case for the second time in twenty minutes.
She wanders listlessly outside, where Nicky and Byron are sitting on the porch rail.
"Hey Marg!" Nicky grins. "We're gonna go eat dinner at a tacky mushroom table, wanna come?"
Last summer, Nicky wouldn't even walk past Gurber Garden. He'd insist on crossing the street, putting as much distance as he could between it and himself. This year, he's enthusiastically diving into his favorite childhood haunts and mercilessly mocking them.
"Sure." Margo shrugs. Nothing better to do. "Anyone else coming?"
"Dunno yet. Hey, Claire!" He shouts over the porch rail. "Wanna have dinner with us?"
Claire glances up from her book, frowning. "Where?"
"Gurber Garden! You coming?"
She shoots a glare up at the porch. "No, I'm not!" she snaps, leaving her towel and storming off down the beach.
Nicky blinks. "What's her problem?"
"She doesn't like it when we call it Gurber Garden." Byron frowns. "Dad said it yesterday, she nearly bit his head off."
"Why?"
"Because it's what she used to say when she was little. I think she thinks we're making fun of her."
Margo had completely forgotten that little piece of family history. She's so used to saying Gurber Garden that she never thinks about why she does it in the first place.
She rolls her eyes. Claire can be so touchy lately.

 

*

 

She hops up the stairs like a billygoat, stomach full of orange sauce and diet coke. The half-empty soda bottle bulges out of her bag in a way that was mildly irritating the entire walk home. It's worth it, though. She'll drink it tomorrow; she's always kind of liked flat coke.

She opens the bedroom door and stops dead. She'd been expecting to see the usual explosion of Claire's various possessions. Clothes and books and charger cables, plus other random junk, all encroaching on her own side of the room. But there's nothing. She checks the closet and the drawers to see if Claire had one of her sudden cleaning frenzies, but she only finds her own stuff.

"Sorry," says Vanessa, appearing in the doorway. "I was going to warn you before you came up here."
"Warn me about what?"
"Well..." Vanessa hesitates. "Claire's moved into that small room, the one by the upstairs bathroom. She barricaded herself in there about an hour ago."
"Oh."
She keeps quiet. She wants to ask why, but she doesn't quite trust herself to sound sufficiently nonchalant.
"I don't know, I think she's just... you know. Claire being Claire. I wouldn't take it personally."
"I'm not."
She gazes at Claire's unmade bed, vaguely wondering when she last slept in it. She just assumed her sister was getting up early and going to bed late.
"Okay, well... I wanted to let you know. So you don't think there's been any Baywatch-style kidnapping drama going on."
"Yeah." She tries a grin. "Thanks."
"No problem."
Once Vanessa's gone, Margo sinks onto her bed. Perhaps she'll have an early night tonight.

 

*

 

She sits on the porch, watching the waves roll in and out. Something about Sea City just doesn't feel right this year. She's not sure if it's the place itself or her family or her, or all three, but she doesn't want to dwell on it forever. She just wants to fix it.

The idea to send a message in a bottle seems to spring out of nowhere. Or, well, not exactly nowhere - she's wanted to do this for as long as she can remember. Sending a letter into nothing, and hoping for a reply, always seemed like such a mind-blowingly exciting thing to do when she was a kid. It could go anywhere. You hear stories of people sending letters that end up halfway around the world, and the idea always seemed irresistible to her. But, somehow, she always forgot. Every year, she'd be too busy with the usual Sea City excitement, and would only remember during the car trip home. She'd swear to herself that, next year, she'd remember.

Today seems as good a time as any to finally do it.

 

*

 

The previous night's coke bottle is next to her on the table, label removed and smelling like lemon dish soap.

My name is Margo Pike. I'm thirteen years old. I decided to write this letter and throw it into the ocean. I'm from Connecticut, but I'm sending this from Sea City, NJ. I wonder where this bottle will end up.

She pauses, and stares out the window for several full minutes. This whole thing is so much harder than she expects. She wishes she'd done it when she was younger, and less inhibited. What on earth do you say when you're writing a letter to no-one?

I guess I should say something about myself... The most interesting thing I can think of is that I ate a lime popsicle for breakfast this morning.

She feels like an idiot the second she finishes that sentence. Who on earth would want to read that? She can't think of anything to replace it, so she ends up leaving it as is.

If you want to write to me, my address is:

134 Slate St
Stoneybrook, CT
06800

She doesn't bother rounding it out with a bye or a from Margo. She rolls it up and slides it into the bottle, closing the lid as tightly as she can.

 

*

 

The jetty is deserted. She shivers in her light sweater, partly from late-afternoon chill and partly from a sudden attack of nerves. Now that she's here and ready to do it, she's a little uneasy. The part of her brain that speaks in Mallory's voice questions the wisdom of flinging her full name and address into the ocean, into some unknown person's hands.
"Shut up, Mallory," she mutters, and winds up an almost-perfect baseball pitch. It lands too far out for her to hear much of a splash, and she wonders why she can never throw this well when people are watching.

 

*

 

She comes back home to what seems like open war.
"Colder."
"Give it back!"
"Freezing. You're icy."
"NICKY! I WANT MY SKETCH BOOK!"
"I'm trying to help you find it, you're just not letting me. Colder-colder-colder!"
"I'm not playing this game with you! I'm not a little kid!"
"Didn't say you were. All I'm saying is you're north pole levels of frozen."
Claire glowers at him, arms crossed.
"I don't even know if you're telling the truth with this game. Just give it back!"
"I'm more than happy to point you in the right direction, all you gotta do is pick one! Pick a direction!"
"NO!"
"Nicky," says Mom wearily, sticking her head around the corner. "That's enough. Give it back to her."
After an eyeroll and a quick rummage through the kitchen drawers, Nicky hands Claire the sketch book. The subsequent angry stomping is enough to make Margo feel a little relieved; maybe having her own room right now is for the best.

 

*

 

She's finished all her books. The last one is an old, dog-eared paperback that used to belong to her mom. She's brought it to Sea City every year since she was eight, and she could probably recite it in her sleep by now. It always seemed like the perfect book to read on summer vacation - a group of ten-year-olds who spend two weeks at the beach, swimming, eating ice-cream, and solving a mystery.

Vacations in books are always so eventful. The kids in those stories just seem to stumble upon mystery after mystery, or portals to a magical world, or find some kind of ancient treasure. Those things don't seem to happen to older kids in books, but they do somehow have an endless stream of whirlwind vacation romances. This, in theory, shouldn't be so impossible. She vaguely remembers the years when Stacey and Mary Anne would come to Sea City, and there would always something happening, some badly-kept secret or other. Even Mallory kind of had a vacation-boyfriend one year, and she used to think it was cool to carry a briefcase to school.

Those girls were, what, twelve? Thirteen? In a few weeks time, Margo will be starting eighth grade. So far, she's spent most of her beach vacation reading worn-out children's books and letting her hair become increasingly salty. She can't shake the feeling that she's doing something wrong.

 

*

 

She goes for a walk downtown. If anything exciting is going to happen, she can't just sit on the porch and wait for it to find her.

She's not used to walking through Sea City alone. She'd kind of like to buy some ice cream, but the idea of going into Ice Cream Palace alone seems a little too weird. She's always, at the very least, gone inside with Claire. Usually one or two of the others, too.

There are no jewel thieves, no magic portals, no secret meetings of international crime lords. Not even an unsuspecting love interest casually strolling past. The closest thing she gets to excitement is a sudden gust of wind blowing over Pizza Falafel's outdoor sign, nearly landing on her foot.

She turns on her heel and heads towards home, defiantly stopping for a Fruit Rainbow ice-cream cone. She walks home on the beach, licking the drips of melted ice cream from her fingers.

 

*

 

The sun is finally out, properly out. She's laying on a towel and lazily watching the clouds drift by, feeling deliciously gritty from a mid-morning swim. It's one of those stereotypical summer vacation moments that she just loves. Muscles relaxed, skin sun-warmed, toes digging into the sand. Smelling, tasting, and feeling the salt. She sighs. This, right here, is what gets her through the drudgery of the school year. This is bliss.

"Margo, don't chew on your hair."
Mallory's voice startles her out of her reverie. "What?"
"Get your hair out of your mouth, you're not five."
Margo stares at her older sister in disbelief. She's not sure what she's angrier about: Mallory rudely shattering the peacefulness with one of her commands, or the fact that she seems so detached from it. The words she just said sounded infuriatingly calm and relaxed. She's not even looking up from her book.
"Why should I?"
"Because it's disgusting."
Part of her knows that Mallory's right, it is kind of gross. That only makes her more irritated; she loves sucking the saltiness out of the ends of her hair, it's something she's done since she was little. It's something that she only ever does at Sea City, and only ever when she's deep in a mindset of vacation contentedness.

And Mallory just snapped it apart. Who the hell is she to tell her what to do? She doesn't even live with them anymore.

"You're not Mom or Dad, Mallory."
She probably should have tried harder to keep the petulance out of her voice.
"They'd want you to stop too. Trust me."
What a lie. When have Mom and Dad ever nitpicked about childish habits? She wants to storm off and slam a door but, even more than that, she wants to avoid giving Mallory a chance to feel superior. Oh these temperamental children and their sudden bursts of irrational temper. Whatever shall I do with them?

So she lies back on her towel and quietly seethes. The moment's gone, but she keeps her hair in her mouth anyway. Just because.

 

*

 

The next afternoon, Nicky helpfully suggests eating some of the excess food. Margo figures they'll find something perishable that can't go back to Stoneybrook with them, but they somehow end up settling on microwave popcorn. She'd point out that that's hardly going to make a difference when packing to go home, but... well, she likes microwave popcorn. The two of them sit on the kitchen floor, passing the ripped bag back and forth.
"Remember the year we convinced Karen Brewer that a mermaid was writing to her?"
Nicky snorts. "Yes. That was hilarious. I really didn't think she'd fall for it."
"Yeah, me neither. I don't know though, all the creative touches were Vanessa's. I think she deserves a lot of the credit."
"Wasn't the whole thing your idea?"
"Nah, it was yours. I think. Was it?"
"Oh, I don't remember. It was one of us." He pauses. "I saw her at the Rosebud a few weeks ago. She's hot now."
"Nicky!" Her knee-jerk reaction is to slap his arm, and he yelps.
"What?" he asks defensively. "She is!"
"If you date Karen Brewer, I'll disown you."
"I didn't say I was going to date her, I just said that she's hot. There's a difference. Jeez."

She rolls her eyes at him. At the back of her mind, she entertains the idea that somewhere, someone is saying Have you seen Margo Pike lately? She's hot now. Except... no. No, no, no. She hides a cringe; she doesn't know what's more embarrassing, the idea itself or the fact that she thought it at all. She immediately dismisses the whole thing as unlikely, and does her best to stop thinking about it.

"What were you doing at the Rosebud, anyway?"
"Asking for an application. I need the cash."
"Shouldn't you get used to high school first?"
He shrugs. "What's to get used to? Same people, different classes. Nothing to worry about."
She doubts that he's really this calm about starting at SHS. That comment isn't even completely true, it's not the same people at all. More schools than just SMS feed into Stoneybrook High, Kelsey Middle School does, too. And even the people you think you know have an annoying tendency to change over the summer.

Still, she lets him think that she believes him. They eat in silence for a minute, listening to Jordan's chords waft downstairs.

 

*

 

Packing to go home is always a little dismal. There's nothing quite like watching a pleasantly lived-in house slowly become stark and empty, with no sign that her family were ever there.

This feeling doesn't quite happen when Margo packs up her room, and the whole experience is something of an anticlimax. The room never quite reached its usual homey status without Claire's casual attitude towards keeping things tidy.

 

*

 

On the last night, the Pikes decide to eat takeout on the beach. The general consensus is for Chinese - opinions range from Byron's enthusiastic "hell yeah!" to Claire's unconcerned shrug. By the time all ten Pikes agree on what to order and pick up their food, the sun has half-vanished. They eat dinner in dusky light, watching the sky grow purple and indigo.

"I wish Sea City would get a Thai restaurant," sighs Mallory, picking at her moo shoo pork.
"Oh, here we go," mutters Adam, nudging Margo's ribs. "Five bucks says she'll start yammering on about some Thai place in Boston in the next five minutes."
Margo giggles. "I say two."
"You're on," he says, glancing at his watch.
"If they did," muses Vanessa, "you know it would have the mother of all pun-names."
"Like what?"
"Oh, I don't know... The Thai-ger's Den, or something. Thai restaurants are a goldmine for puns, Sea City wouldn't leave that untapped."
"What about The Thai-trope Walker?"
"Oh, Dad," groans Jordan. "That's awful."
"The Thai-pan's Kitchen!" Nicky grins.
"We went to this great Thai place on a field trip to Boston," offers Mallory. ("Yes," hisses Margo. Not even one minute.) "I don't remember what it was called, but they had amazing Pad Thai."
"Mom, are you going to finish that?"
"Don't you dare steal my noodles, Byron."
"There's ten of us! You should have learned to eat faster by now."
"Yeah, well, some of us like to savour our meals."
"Chinese food at Sea City is hardly fine cuisine, Dee. Kid's got a point."
Margo frowns. Byron does have a point. Mom's food will soon be too cold to be worth eating. "Can I have your spring roll?"
"Guys!" she shouts. "Do I have to spit in all of my food? Because I will!"
"Mom," groans Claire. "Are you eight?"
"Have mine, Byron," says Mallory. "I'm full."
"Mallory, you've barely made a dent in that."
"Really? Score! Hand it over!"
"I'll eat at home, Mom. I'm kind of over Chinese."
Passing takeout back and forth has never been a great system for the Pikes, and Nicky spends the next few minutes picking (and eating) bits of rice out of his hair. Margo chews on her plastic fork, watching the sky gradually darken. Maybe she'll spend her five bucks on some new earrings.

 

*

 

The ten of them split into two cars for the trip home. As always, Margo spends the whole time in the front seat, knees drawn up to her chest. She hasn't actually been sick in the car for years, but she still feels pretty awful. She drifts in an out of the conversations, half-listening to Jordan trying to convince Dad of his car-naming rules.
"I like The Party Wagon, you can't just take it back."
"That's not how it works, Dad."
"I gave you life, I can do whatever I want. You can't stop me naming my car. Especially when you suggested it."
"I wasn't suggesting anything! The Party Wagon is the name of any car with me inside. So, yeah, now your car is The Party Wagon. But if I was in Mom's car, that would be The Party Wagon."
"What about when we stop at Howard Johnson's? Is it The Party Wagon while we're inside?"
"No."
"What if I lock you in?"
"No."
"Does the name follow you around everywhere, or is it exclusive to cars?"
"Dad."
"When you go to the bathroom, is it called The Party Urinal?"
"Stop!"
Somewhere around here, she falls asleep. At some point, she hears the conversation switch to the logistics of eating cereal on the moon, but that part could have been a dream.

As soon as they're home, she stumbles out of the car and checks the mail. Nothing. She waits for Mrs. McGill to come over and drop off their two weeks worth of mail, but doesn't get her hopes up. Really, it's a bit too soon.

 

*

 

School's back.

The first day is never too bad. Honestly, she's always kind of liked the first couple of days. It's a refreshing combination of familiarity and change: same building, same people, same life; different teachers, different classes, different life. It's all kind of new and exciting until she's suddenly loaded down with homework, or Jackie Rodowsky accidentally sets off the fire alarm, and then it hits her. Oh, man. I'm really back at school. That part sucks. Summer vacation isn't really over until that moment comes.

"Lemme see your schedule."
She hands it over, and Carolyn scans her eyes down the list.
"We have English together, and Math. And hey, you have Science with Marilyn."
"I have gym last period. Last!"
"So? I have it second, that's way worse. I'll stink all day. Wanna swap?"
"Last period gym means it'll always run long. Ms Halliday'll let us out at the last possible second because she knows she doesn't have to give us time to change for another class. Gym is going to run long every single day!"
"Since when do you hate gym so much?"
"I don't hate it. But I don't love it either, and I'd rather just get out of there on time."
They wander towards their homerooms, and the hallways feel weirdly fresh and new. SMS is never quite so clean as it is on the first day back.

 

*

 

On Wednesday, Rosie Wilder gets a spitball in her hair during Social Studies. There's a few moments of minor bedlam, with Rosie frantically brushing it out and some boys at the back snickering.

Vacation is over.

 

*

 

Eighth grade is neither more nor less than what she expects. It's one of the good things about having five older siblings, she has a fairly good idea of what each school year holds. Obviously, her experience isn't an exact copy of someone else's, but she can see a lot of things coming. Dances, elections, her workload... none of it is a surprise.

On the other hand, she doesn't get to complain. When all of eighth grade is given an enormous author assignment in English, she holds back any sighs of frustration at home. All she'll get in response is a, "Please, that author assignment is easy. You just wait til you're tenth grade."

Claire groans over sixth-grade math, and Margo does her best to be sympathetic. There's nothing worse than derisive snorts when your homework is making you crazy.

 

*

 

"Ball two!"
"Dammit," hisses Margo. She's not always completely useless at pitching, but she usually is in gym.
"Ball three! Margo, pay attention to your grip."
She nods automatically at Ms. Halliday's advice. The real problem, though, is that there are too many people around. She could throw a great pitch if everyone was inside with their backs to the windows. Maybe.
Mercifully, after the next failed pitch, they're all sent back inside to change. She jogs across the freshly mown grass, vaguely remembering the perfect throw that evening in Sea City, the time she threw the bottle. She hasn't thought about it in ages. It's awhile since she gave up checking the mail every day, secretly hoping for a letter. Nothing has come yet. She can't decide if that makes it irritatingly slow or intriguing and mysterious.

 

*

 

About an hour later, for the first time in months, she curiously checks the mail the second she arrives home. She sifts through the pile of bills, bank statements and magazines before dumping them on the kitchen table. Nothing. Sure, it could be washing up somewhere on the east coast, or even drifting its way to Europe, but she doubts it. She figures her bottle is somewhere off the coast of New Jersey, stuck in seaweed and collecting silt.