Read an Excerpt
"I won't go," Harriet told her parents. She glared at them.
Her parents had called her down from her room while she was busy on a project. Ordinarily the cook served Harriet her dinner at six in the kitchen while her parents had martinis in the living room. Harriet looked at her watch. It was exactly six. So not only had they interrupted her project, but now they were making her late for her dinner, which was very likely getting cold.
She had been making a time line of her life. By taping sheets of paper carefully together, she had created a strip so long it reached from the door of her bedroom to the bottom of the old toy box that held all her notebooks. It had taken her twelve pieces of paper. Since Harriet would be twelve on her next birthday, she had designated one sheet for each year of her life. Then she had begun to fill in the important events. But she had barely finished half of the first page when her mother interrupted her.
SIX MONTHS. SPEAKS FIRST WORD, Harriet had just written halfway across the first-year page. She thought for a moment about what her first word might have been. She pictured herself at six months old, with her nursemaid poised over the bassinet looking down at her, probably holding a warm milk-filled bottle. What might she have said?
FIRST WORD she wrote as a subcategory. She thought about it for a while, trying to decide what a first word might be, at least a first word from the lips of a highly intelligent New York infant named Harriet M. Welsch. Carefully she printed PROCEED.
Then she went on to SEVEN MONTHS. SPEAKS FIRST SENTENCE. FIRST SENTENCE: PROCEED WITH THE FEEDING, PLEASE.
"Harriet, dear?" her mother had called up the stairs to Harriet's cozy bedroom at the top of the tall, narrow house. "Would you come down, please?"
Reluctantly Harriet had rolled up her time line and headed down the two long flights of stairs to the double living room on the first floor. "I hope we didn't interrupt anything important, dear," Mrs. Welsch said after Harriet entered the living room and sat down on a dark red velvet chair. Harriet shrugged. They would not understand the time line. It would make them feel nervous and uncertain, she thought. Her parents frequently felt nervous and uncertain about her projects.
So she said only, "I was just thinking about my infancy. Do you happen to remember my first word?"
"Of course I do! Parents never forget such things," Mrs. Welsch said. She turned to her husband. "Harry, tell Harriet what her first word was!"
Harriet's father stared blankly at her.
Mrs. Welsch gave a thin laugh. "It was cookie, dear. You were about fourteen months old, and one day you quite clearly said cookie."
"And my first sentence?" Harriet asked, glumly realizing that she would have to start her time line over with the correct information. Cross-outs were unacceptable and Harriet only used pens. Just last Christmas her parents had given her a wonderful green Waterman pen, which she treasured and used as often as possible. "What was my first sentence?"
"Well, you combined a verb and a noun, dear. You said, 'Gimme cookie.' "
"Oh," Harriet said. Well, she thought, I won't bother to erase after all. It's essentially the same thing as "Proceed with the feeding."
"Why did you want me to come down?" she asked her parents.
"We have some news to share with you. Would you like a peanut, by the way?" Mrs. Welsch put her martini down and passed a small silver dish of peanuts to Harriet.
Harriet shook her head. Ordinarily she liked peanuts, but for some reason she could feel her appetite disappearing. It made her uncomfortable when her parents announced news. Their news never seemed to be the kind of news Harriet wanted to hear. "What news?" she asked.
"Your father has received a rather important assignment from the network. Harry, wouldn't you like to describe it to Harriet?"
Mr. Welsch had been looking at the folded newspaper on the table near the peanut dish. He was pretending not to. But Harriet could see him surreptitiously glancing at the day's headlines. "Paris," he said.
"Paris?" asked Harriet with suspicion. "France?"
"We're to leave next week for Paris!" Mrs. Welsch explained in the same perky, delighted voice that she used to describe bridge tournaments or antiques auctions.
"For how long?" Harriet wasn't deceived by the voice. A little vacation in Paris would be okay, she thought. Maybe it would be a pleasant interlude before school resumed next month. But she had an ominous feeling. She was glad she hadn't accepted a peanut. It might have lulled her too quickly into a cheerful reaction, when really suspicion was called for.
Her mother wiped her lips tidily, using a small cocktail napkin printed with a red-and-green design of olives in a stack. She said something that sounded like twamah while holding the napkin in front of her mouth.
"Twamah?" Harriet repeated, wondering if perhaps her mother was speaking French, although Harriet had studied French for two years already, in fifth and sixth grades, and twamah had not been a vocabulary word.
"Trois mois," Mr. Welsch said quite clearly and with an air of impatience. "We're going to live in Paris for three months, beginning next week."
"The network has rented a lovely apartment for us, dear," Mrs. Welsch said. "Quite near the Luxembourg Gardens. Les jardins, I mean."
In her mind Harriet leapt ahead on her time line to the final sheet, the one for her twelfth year, the one that she wedged under a corner of her old toy box when the long strip was unrolled on the floor of her room. AGE ALMOST-TWELVE: MOVES TO PARIS. It was not what she had had in mind for age almost-twelve.
"I won't go," she told her parents, glaring. Then she added, "And in case you missed it, I expostulated that."
Her father looked at her through his glasses. Harriet's father was a television executive. He had an executive face, and hair that was combed in an executive way.
"Excuse me?" Mr. Welsch said.
Harriet imagined how he must look in his office when some poor scriptwriter, nervous and hungry, sat before him with a manuscript held together by a frayed rubber band and pleaded for a chance to be head writer on a sitcom so he could pay his debts and feed his starving children. Her father would probably look down through his glasses the same way. He would probably say in that same executive voice, "Excuse me?"
Harriet sighed. She repeated it. "I won't go," she said for the second time.
"No, no, I understood that part," her father said. He sipped his martini. "I didn't understand what you added, about expostulating."
"Oh. Well," Harriet explained, "Mr. Grenville says–"
Harriet's mother interrupted. "Mr. Grenville is one of Harriet's teachers at school, dear," she told Harriet's father.
He nodded. Harriet could tell he was making a note of that in his head. "Go on," he said.
"Mr. Grenville says we must use strong verbs when we write."
"Strong verbs?" Mr. Welsch took another sip of his drink.
"Yes. For example, instead of just saying ‘He walked,’ we should say ‘He ambled.’ Or ‘He strolled.’
"And instead of ‘She said,’ it would be better to use a strong verb."
"Like expostulate, perhaps?" Harriet's father asked.
"Exactly. Expostulate is my current favorite. I have a list of favorite strong verbs in my notebook."
"And so when you told us that you wouldn't go, you wanted to be certain that we understood you weren't simply saying it. You were–"
"Expostulating," Harriet said.
"She's very clever, dear, isn't she?" Mrs. Welsch said to her husband. She looked proudly at Harriet, who was sitting stiffly on the dark red velvet chair still glaring at both of her parents. Then she held the small dish of peanuts toward Harriet again, but Harriet once more declined. She was hoping that her failure to take a peanut–combined with the expostulating–would indicate to them how outraged she was.
"It is outrageous," she said. "The whole idea is outrageous." Harriet liked the sound of that. Probably, she decided, she would add outrageous to the list of strong adjectives she was also keeping in her notebook. "And I absolutely will not go."
"Harriet," said her father, and now he finished the last drops of his martini, set the glass down, and reached for the newspaper, "we were not planning to take you."