By Bettyann Moore
“I think I’m brain-dead,” Porpoise McAllister muttered.
On the picnic table before him, 150 Ways to Play Solitaire lay open to Osmosis, the 29th game Porpoise was trying to learn that morning. He wasn’t having much luck. It had been his mother’s idea to come here; he would have much preferred the cool dankness of his basement retreat to the noise and sunshine of the town’s only park. He would have even preferred working on the farm, but he was supposed to be studying for his SATs and his father had declared the month of July “farm-free,” at least for Porpoise.
“Just look at yourself, Leslie!” his mother had cried. “You’re as white as a ghost!”
She had surprised him, sneaking down the basement steps with that look of disgust on her face that said “I should have turned this space into a rumpus room.” He was just thankful that he had finally gotten around to filing away his collection of magazines – alphabetized under various fantasies – and that he hadn’t been in the throes of passionate reading when she had descended upon him.
“Don’t you have some friends to play with?” she asked, obviously mistaking him for a 5-year-old. “Whatever happened to that nice boy … what was his name? Oh, Lionel, Lionel Hill, that’s it! From that nice Hill family up on Summit Hill … the Hills on the hill!” she said, laughing at her own little joke.
She babbled on about the Hill family while Porpoise thought back to the last time he “played” with Lionel, known to one and all (except by his mother, apparently) as Crusher. Crusher Hill liked to crush whatever he could get his hands on – lunch bags (or boxes, it didn’t matter), small birds and rodents, people’s heads. Porpoise was painfully familiar with that last one. He didn’t have the heart to tell his mother that that “nice boy” had been expelled and sent to a reform school for crushing the life out of the science teacher’s white lab mice.
For no other reason than to get her off his back, he agreed to go to the park for “fresh air and sunshine” – she was always speaking in clichés – and hastily snatched up his cards and the solitaire book his father, a realist, had given him for his birthday.
“Damn,” he said for the tenth time as a small July breeze played with the pages of his book and sent cards flying off the table. “I shoulda brought one of my magazines with me instead of these stupid cards.” He’d never read that stuff outside of his basement room before. The idea excited him and he toyed with the thought as he knelt on the grass to pick up the scattered cards.
“Is this your card?” The voice cut into his daydream and startled him.
“What?” He looked up, but saw only a silhouette back-lit by the bright sun.
“I said, is this your card? It came sailing into my lap while I was reading by that tree over there.”
The figure stepped closer and pointed. The hand was definitely feminine, but the fingernails were chewed down below the skin line. The arm was skinny and almost as pale as his own, dotted here and there by defiant freckles. The shoulders … Good God, Porpoise thought, she has on one of those skimpy halter tops. He stood and forced his eyes to the face, not trusting their reaction to a haltered chest. They’d probably embarrass him by popping out of his skull.
The face was homely and familiar, the freckles almost scarlet against milk-white skin. The dark green eyes were set wide apart, the bridge flat between them. The short nose came to a surprising conclusion, tipped with what looked like a small, red ball. Behind chapped lips were tiny white teeth that Porpoise now realized were grinning at him.
He flushed red beneath his sallow exterior. “We … uh …,” he stammered.
“Freaky, isn’t it?” The face spoke. “If I didn’t know better I’d say we were twins. The only thing different is the nose – mine’s sunburned.”
“Freaky isn’t the word for it.” Porpoise finally found his voice. “I thought I was looking into the mirror my mother’s always poking into my face to show me how washed out I look.”
Porpoise stepped back and took in the total picture. His eyes didn’t dwell on the halter top – she was as flat-chested as he was. From the top of her slightly greasy brown hair, down to the bowed legs and large feet, she looked like what he’d imagined himself to look like in drag.
“What’s your name?”
Porpoise flushed again, realizing he had been staring hard at the vision before him. “Uh, Porpoise, Porpoise McAllister.”
The mouth that wasn’t his laughed.
“Porpoise? What kind of name is that? Are your parents freaky on sea life or something?”
“No, my grandfather hung it on me because I could swim before I was two. It’s really Leslie, at least that’s what my ma calls me. What’s yours?”
It was Porpoise’s turn to laugh. “Popper Cooper! Sounds like a baseball player. Were you born at a ball game or something?”
“Nah, it’s actually Penelope. My big brother started calling me Popper while I was in junior high because he said it looked like I was always waiting for my chest to pop out.” She looked down, unembarrassed. “As you can see, I’m still waiting.”
Porpoise blushed again.
“Anyway,” Popper went on, “the name stuck and I figured anything’s better than Penelope.”
Porpoise kind of liked the name Penelope, but Popper suited her. He sat heavily upon the picnic bench and Popper did likewise.
“Queen of hearts,” she said.
“It’s the queen of hearts that blew over to me. Here, you didn’t take it back yet.” She handed over the card.
“It’s nothing. Hey, what are you playing there?”
“Uh, some dumb game called Osmosis. I can’t get the hang of it.”
“It’s also called Treasure Trove and you’ve got ‘em set up all wrong. See, you need four cards in the column, not six.”
“You know the game?”
“Cripes, I just said so, didn’t I?”
Porpoise failed at willing his face not to blush.
“Anyway, if you want, I can teach it to you. I know that book inside out.”
She sat close beside him and though he squirmed on the hard bench, it wasn’t because he felt uneasy being so near her. When they touched – a leg, an elbow – a spark of her energy seemed to leap out at him. He found that, so linked, his thoughts cleared and his grasp of the game improved. Osmosis wasn’t so hard after all.
“See, Osmosis isn’t so difficult with the right person to teach you,” she said, seeming to read his mind. He searched her eyes for some clue to her power, but found only his own face staring back at him.
It was the longest time Porpoise had spent in the company of someone his own age since he and Lizzie Osterman used to play house together – he was always the mommy – and it really wasn’t like being with a stranger. Popper was so much like him it was almost like playing solitaire by himself.
He smiled as he thought about what he’d say to him mom when he got home. “I didn’t do nothin’, Ma, just played two-handed solitaire with myself.”
Popper smiled, too. “Thinking about what you’re going to tell your mom?” she asked, climbing into his brain again. “I doubt anyone would really get it.”
He looked at Popper and this time didn’t blush. “No one could,” he replied.
“You got that right. Listen, I gotta go. I haven’t been out this long in years. You think your mom will make you come here again tomorrow?”
“She won’t have to.”
“I know. See you tomorrow then. Bring something to read, will ya?”
Years later, whenever someone asked Porpoise how he and Popper got together, he’d laugh and say, “Through Osmosis.”