Mom worried that Gertie didn’t have any friends. Gertie never asked to go to someone’s house, and the avocado green phone that hung next to the refrigerator never rang for her. She didn’t talk about other kids from school. She didn’t talk much period. She spent most of her time in the laundry room with our pregnant cat. Sometimes Mom and I could hear her muffled talking through the slatted door, but we could never make out what she was saying.
Mom asked me to keep an eye on Gertie during recess, maybe invite her to play kickball or tag, even though we both knew she was too little and too slow to play with the sixth graders. So on Tuesday, Bailey and Tiff and me went looking. We found her under a tree near the edge of the playground.
“Hey, Gertie,” I said.
“Heeeeeeeey,” Bailey and Tiff sighed after me. They already seemed bored.
“Umm. Aren’t those some kids from your class playing tetherball? Looks like fu-un.” I tried to make my voice sound happy, like a cartoon bird. Gertie didn’t look up.
“Yeah, um, Hills?” Bailey tugged on the sleeve of my t-shirt. “What is she even doing?”
Gertie had a bunch of Koosh Balls— big ones the size of navel oranges, little ones like ping-pong balls, even one with a goofy plastic face and arms and legs poking out from its rubbery spines—tucked into the roots of the tree. Some were sitting in neat piles of grass and leaves. She’d scratched the words KOOSH MOTEL into the dirt and was filling in the indents with pieces of mulch.
Gertie and I had invented this game last summer, before lightning struck and split the only tree in our yard. With all the make-up snow days from the blizzard, we’d been in school until the middle of June, and mom had in-services and classes for her master’s, plus her summer job working circulation at the public library now that dad was gone. Gertie and I were on our own. I woke her up every morning. Made her peanut butter toast. Brushed tangles from sleep-matted hair. Held her hand when we walked the few blocks to the library to eat lunch with Mom. Under the tree, with the Kooshes, I told her things: an idea for a story about princesses in space, how I wished my name was Hillary instead of Hildegarde, how scared I was of sixth grade because of armpit hair and deodorant and periods, how Bailey already had a training bra. Seeing her play that game in the schoolyard made me feel like she was writing out all my secrets at the base of that tree.
“Seriously, what is she doing?” Bailey said, rolling her eyes at me. Tiff cracked her gum and twirled her hair.
It was simple. The Koosh Balls are always traveling. They love to travel, but it’s hard for them because regular hotels are just too much—the beds too large, the elevator buttons too high. And they get lonely without other Koosh Balls around.
“Oh my god,” Bailey said. “Oh my god, it’s like a motel, okay?”
“Yeah,” Tiff said, still twirling her hair around her index finger. “So?”
“So… why do people, like, go to motels?”
“To have SEX.” Bailey screamed the last word.
That got Gertie’s attention. She looked up at us. At Tiff jumping up and down, flapping her arms chanting “Ohmygodohmygodohmygod.” At Bailey laughing, her head thrown back like a Pez dispenser. At me. She looked at me, eyes wide like she was beaming thoughts into my brain: you know it’s not like that. It was just a place for the Kooshes to feel safe. A place where they could belong.
“Let’s go, you guys,” I said, looking down at my sneakers. “If she wants to play her weird game, then whatever.”
I grabbed their wrists and started to pull them back toward the playground.
“What a freak,” Bailey said, her voice hiccupy with laughter.
“Yeah,” I said, not bothering to lower my voice. “I know.”