It was the third day of summer vacation. Kristin, a year younger than me, had been out of preschool for a month already. We played on the swing set in the backyard. The house sat alone atop a hill in Northumberland County. To the north we could see the sun reflecting off of the lake and in the other three cardinal directions we could see only forest. Along one side of the house our driveway ran from Lakeview Drive, our street, to our dilapidated garage and the even more dilapidated chicken coop with no chickens in it. Across the driveway from our house was an old abandoned one room schoolhouse which we were forbidden from exploring. Along the other side of our house ran a gravel road with a street sign claiming to indicate Ardaugh Road (which we pronounced "our dog"). The gravel road ran into the woods where it eventually became a dirt path before disappearing entirely. Over the next twenty years, Ardaugh Road would be paved, made to circle back around to Lakeview Drive on the other side of our house, and be rechristened Ardaugh Crescent. Thirteen additional houses would be built atop our hill and the schoolhouse would be renovated and turned into a quaint little home. But none of this had happened yet; For the time being, the hill belonged to Kristin and I.
It was about ten in the morning when we were playing on the swing set. Our father was at work and our mother was asleep inside, pregnant with our new baby sister. She would never get a name; miscarried at seven months. The game we were playing involved swinging as high as we could and then jumping off. We competed to see who could perform the most impressive dismount. Mine involved a difficult half twist in the air such that I landed in a crouch facing the swing set. Kristin's technique was to simply spread her arms and legs out like a starfish and stay that way until her feet touched the ground. Often she would flop forward onto her face after landing. Leaning against the crumbling stone fence which stood between our yard and Ardaugh Road I watched as Kristin flew high and straight, limbs reaching out as far as they could, and landed gracefully almost eight feet from the swingset.
"Yours is good," I said generously, "but mine is better."
She stuck her tongue out at me. "Says who?"
"Mom," I asserted, resting my case.
Kristin looked confused for a second before objecting, "Mom's asleep".
"No stupid," I explained politely, "Olden Days Mom."
Kristin nodded sagely as I climbed onto the swing and began pumping my legs. She had long blond hair and blue eyes. If she had been wearing a pale blue dress she would have looked as though the oil portrait hanging in the hall of our mother when she was six years old had sprung to life. The resemblance went away as she got older.
"Yeah well," she said, "Olden Days Dad thinks mine is better."
"How do you know?" I asked, swinging ever higher, "all he ever does is stand there and smoke his pipe."
"I can just tell," she persisted, "I can tell by the way he looks at me. See the way he's looking at me?"
"No." I had always been the more inclined to make-believe. Olden Days Land was my invention. Kristin could affect change there, but she had to work for it.
"He's tapping the end of his pipe with one finger," she elaborated, "and looking at me with his nose all scrunched up. That means that he thinks mine is better."
I was unable to answer her. Swinging demanded my undivided attention. I was swinging higher than I ever had before. At my peak I was above the crossbar of the swingset. Each time I reached the top of my trajectory the chain of the swing went briefly slack and for a precious half second I was in free fall before being jerked back into the swings natural arc. I knew that if I jumped just at the exact moment the chain went slack I would fly further and higher than either of us had ever gone before. "Move!" I shouted to get Kristin out of the way. And then I jumped. I sailed upwards, well above the crossbar. Time slowed to a crawl and I could see Kristin, with a fistful of torn-up grass staring up at me in wonder. On a whim I stayed facing straight ahead and stretched my arms and legs out like a starfish. I didn't think I would ever hit the ground. I felt like a grasshopper caught in a breeze. I hit the ground laughing. I fell forward onto my knees and looked over at Kristin. "I guess we're tied then."
I rolled over onto my back and plucked a dandelion out of the lawn, my bare, grass-stained toes pointing at the sun. I closed my eyes and began to chew on the dandelion's stem, enjoying the bitter taste. After a moment Kristin said, "Franko?"
I lifted my head and opened my eyes slightly, squinting against the sun. She was swinging standing up now, one hand on the chain of the swing and the other reaching upwards, her arm a few inches too short to reach the crossbar. "Yeah?" I replied.
"Do we have an Olden Days puppy?"
I let my head back down onto the grass and took a big bite out of the dandelion stem before answering. "Do you want to have one?"
Kristin gets married next month.