Exhausted from her life in the trees Corky-Belle falls fast asleep. She dreams of ways to slip away from Mother, Father, her sister Chloe-Marie, and ballet classes.
Her hair flies out from under broken red goggles. Her clothing shows rips and tears from tree-climbing. She wears a cape made from one of Mother’s worn tablecloths. Corky-Belle’s world at eight years old is rich. She imagines she is able to save the world from high above the southern seaside neighborhood.
“COR-KEE, BE-ELLE, DINNAH!” sings Corky-Belle’s mother, smiling to herself as she watches her daughter shinny up then down the backyard tree without a scratch. She pleads with her to come down out of the trees. Her mother reminds her that she can take a bath, do a bit of homework, or read a book!
As Corky-Belle races through the kitchen Father calls out. “Mon petite cherie! My cherished one!” He says this in his best pretend-French-accent, even though he is Irish. “How was your ballet lesson today with Madame Bertozzi (bear-TOTE-zee) from Italy, huh…huh, huh?” he teases as he smiles down at her. He taps her tiny chin. He pats her goggled head.
Tomorrow comes and guess what? Corky-Belle McHazzard leaps out of bed to discover that it is a NO SCHOOL DAY! “Yippee! Watch out world! Here I come! Me, me, me-me-me!” rejoices Corky-Bell.
She skips and hops around her bedroom in her favorite camouflage pajamas. She then grabs her goggles and cape from her headboard.
Mother pokes her head around the corner of Corky-Belle’s bedroom door, pausing to announce, “Corky-Belle, I hope you don’t mind, Sweetheart . . . you are going to the beach with Madame Bertozzi (bear-TOTE-zee) and her son, Baby Gianni (gee-AH-knee). This will be such a help to Madame Bertozzi and I promised her that . . . that . . . ”
Her mother slowly lowers herself to Corky-Belle’s bedside as her words trailing off. Corky-Belle’s joy grows silent. She stops singing and dancing around her bedroom. She stares into her mother’s soft face, then down at the floor.
“Corky-Belle,” her mother continues quietly, taking Corky-Belle’s hands, “I can see your disappointment. I know your trees are very important to you. I’m sorry I didn’t ask you first. I should have.” Her mother sounds tired and far away as her voice grows softer and softer.
Corky-Belle’s anger melts. She does not want to go to the beach yet she does not want to cause her mother’s weariness. This all happens way too fast for Corky-Belle’s taste, and well before she can slip away to her newly built tree fort.
Corky-Bell is so disappointed she cannot make her bed, or brush her teeth, or comb her knotted hair. She can’t even pet her little black dog, Daphne-Renee, who follows Corky-Belle around standing on her hind legs and whimpering for attention.
She yanks on her swimsuit and grabs her goggles and her cape. She glowers darkly as she walks to the front door with lower lip trembling. Mother sighs while Father wrinkles his forehead from behind his writing desk. Sister Chloe-Marie clears her throat and pushes her glasses back just a bit, pretending to be studying.
Later at the beach, Madame Bertozzi, Baby Gianni, and Corky-Belle gingerly wade out into the water, holding Baby Gianni between them on a tiny blue float. Madame Bertozzi chatters to her son in Italian. She speaks to Corky-Belle in English and French because, as many people know, ballet words are usually in French.
The sun dances on the reflecting water like pieces of shiny jewelry while birds sing in search of their breakfast. For awhile, Corky-Belle forgets about her secret fort. She even forgets to be angry with her mother.
Gentle swells of waves form and Corky-Belle takes a deep breath, filling her lungs with the fresh ocean air. She wonders if there might be some scary creatures in the waves.
As each swell comes, the ballet teacher, the little girl in her tablecloth cape and red goggles, and the laughing baby with the tiny blue float lazily ride the short quiet journey over the small swells of water. With each small wave, Corky-Belle’s feet lift off the bottom of the ocean and then lightly touch back down.
Suddenly and without warning a ground swell becomes an enormous wave and crashes down on the threesome. Corky-Belle’s head jerks backwards and feels as though it has been hit with a sledge-hammer. It knocks her off her feet and forces her body to twist upside-down. Her head bounces off the floor of the ocean. She turns around and around under the water.
She cannot breathe or see, and the saltwater burns her eyes. The undertow pulls like giant long arms around her body. It will not release her.When Corky-Belle finally gets her feet under her she stands up. She turns to see a very pale Madame Bertozzi, screaming and crying, and reaching her arms out to the sea as blood streams down the left side of her face.
Corky-Belle cannot understand a word Madame Bertozzi cries. Then, losing consciousness, Madame Bertozzi sinks to her knees as a small crowd of onlookers run into the water to help her.
Corky-Belle’s head aches. Her stomach boils up into her throat. People on the beach are jumping and yelling, sirens are sounding, and people are running. Lifeguards and beach police surge toward Madame Bertozzi.
Corky-Belle looks toward the sea, and there, right there! . . . is the tiny blue float bobbing further and further out to sea . . . with no Baby Gianni.
Corky-Belle takes a deep breath and dives headfirst into the dark waters. She reaches and reaches and swims and swims and kicks and kicks. Still holding her breath deep down under the sea, she can see nothing but darkness below and sunlight above.
Feeling as though she may explode Corky-Belle keeps swimming under the water searching for Baby Gianni. Her heart beats the seconds inside her little head as she surfaces for air only to dive again under the sea. The waters churn with lifeguards and police boats. There is more yelling, sirens, police radios, and now, the sound of emergency helicopters.
Suddenly her arms brush against something! Corky-Belle lunges toward a whiteness in the water, wraps her arms around it, and pushes with all her might off the floor of the ocean.
She prays it is Baby Gianni. Bursting out of the water like a cannon-shot comes Corky-Belle clutching Baby Gianni! Oh, glory! Running toward the children, the lifeguards form a human net with their arms, surrounding them. They cradle and carry the gasping little girl and lifeless baby to the shore.There is silence as the crowd looks at Baby Gianni, blue and lifeless in Corky-Belle’s arms.
Corky-Belle looks down at Madame Bertozzi’s body lying so still. She lets out a sob, burying her wet face in the tiny baby.She squeezes him as the medics work to peel her clenched arms from around Baby Gianni.
All of a sudden, everyone freezes. Baby Gianni picks up his head, burps up sea water, and chortles and pull at Corky-Belle’s hair and goggles.
Corky-Belle hugs and hugs Baby Gianni. Madame Bertozzi hears her baby’s laughter and jumps up reaching for her son.The three dance and hug, jumping for joy while laughing.
The teams of lifeguards, police, pilots, and onlookers stare at the little girl in broken goggles holding the laughing baby boy while his mother holds them both.
Exhausted from her day at the beach, Corky-Belle McHazzard goes to bed with elaborate plans to slip away. Tomorrow. She will save her family and play with her little black dog, Daphne-Renee.
For now, she rolls over, pulls her dog up close, and buries her face in the sweet-smelling black fur.
exhausted ~ without energy
shinny ~ using one’s inner thigh muscles to climb up or down a tree
glowers ~ looking mean
chortles ~ laughing with throat sounds
elaborate ~ fancy