Half of the Puzzle
If I don’t make the golf team, I’ll never see my dad again. That may be a slight exaggeration, but that’s the way it feels. After he moved out of the house, leaving my mom and me to fend for ourselves, I’ve only seen him twice. Without golf, I probably wouldn’t see him at all.
No pressure, but I need a personal best score to earn a spot on the high school team this year. My throat tightens as I swallow a sip of water. The bagel I ate for breakfast feels like a golf ball in my stomach. If I make it, my dad will practice with me and come to my matches like he did last year when I played on Junior Varsity. Our coach already told us he won’t take any juniors on JV. He wants to develop the skills of the younger players on that squad. I’m a junior, so Varsity is my only chance.
I bogeyed the last hole and doubled the ones before that. I need to make par for the rest of the round or I’m history. I approach the thirteenth tee, exhaling the static from my brain. I relax my shoulders and focus on the dimples of the small, white sphere near my feet. The stress squeezes my chest in a vice, pushing bile into my throat. When my club contacts the ball, it shoots to the right, slicing through the trees and flying out of bounds. Not again. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I hit my driver today?
“I’m hitting a provisional,” I say to the other girls, grabbing another ball from my bag and resetting the tee. I take a practice swing and remember my dad’s instructions. Line up with your target and cradle the grip like a delicate bird. I take a deep breath and one more practice swing. Think about golf, not the divorce. My second ball soars off the club face, landing on the right side of the fairway.
“Nice shot, Penn,” says Lynda, captain of the varsity team last year.
“Thanks,” I say, wishing I had hit it like that the first time.
After the rest of the group hits their tee shots, we walk down the lush expanse of freshly cut grass. Lynda takes the lead, striding out ahead, pushing her new golf cart bag in front of her. She’s wearing a pink and white Lululemon skirt with a matching top. Leila and Emily follow, whispering and giggling to each other, but I can hear them. “Did you see her hair?” “What’s up with that color?” “It’s so effing ugly.” “I wouldn’t be caught dead looking like that.”
They’re talking about me. I dyed my hair a color called midnight violet. I love it, and so does my best friend Tara, but my mom freaked out. Why can’t she just smile and say it looks cool? It’s only hair. I lag behind, bag strapped over my shoulders, thinking about my parents. Why did my dad have to leave? After twenty years of marriage, can’t they stay together?
When I get to where my errant shot vanished into the trees, I pull out my five-iron and drop my golf bag in the rough. I leave the other girls while I search for my ball, a white Callaway with a smiley face drawn in black marker. They’re expensive, and I can’t afford to lose another one. I poke around for a minute, visualizing the ball’s height and trajectory before it got swallowed by the vegetation.
I’ve hit into the cemetery before, this same area last week, and find comfort in the tangle of weeds and aging headstones. The eerie silence soothes my nerves, but the smell of raw earth surprises me. As I peek around a blue spruce, jagged chunks of stone crunch under my feet. A man in blue jeans and a flannel shirt crouches near a grave, sifting through the dirt with his bare hands. He hears me approach and quickly stands. “What are you doing here?” he asks.
“Did you see my ball?” I ask. For a moment, our eyes lock, then a prickle moves up my spine to my neck. He has a crazy look in his eye and I grip my club in both hands in case he attacks.
“No,” he says, glancing around then scurrying away toward the road. I watch him disappear, then turn my gaze to the scattered soil and an irregular hole scratched into the ground. I’m ready to give up on finding my ball, when I spot it a few yards away. As I bend down to pick it up, something shiny catches my eye, and I creep closer. A glass vial rests in a small pile of soot. Although concealed by a knot of crabgrass, the silver top glimmers in a shaft of sunlight. Dust clings to the bottle, but the label is clear: Lot C5402, Clinical Trials TR-97. I pick it up and scan the area over my shoulder, then study the bottle. My grandma was in a clinical trial when she had cancer, but why is this here in the cemetery? I need to get back to the group, so I shove the vial into my pocket and hurry back to the fairway, wiping my dirty fingers on my shorts.
For the rest of the round, I’m distracted by the vial, the odd-shaped hole, and the guy digging in the dirt. Was he looking for the vial? My hand grazes the front of my shorts to make sure it’s still there. I don’t mention it to the other girls, not to Lynda. She would tell me to forget about it and focus on my game. She’s right. I’m thirty over par. I won’t make the team with a score like that. And what will my dad say? When I finish the round, I calculate my total and turn in my card.
“One-oh-two? Is that the best you could do today?” asks Coach Moore.
“Sorry. I had a bad day.”
“You’ve had several bad days in a row, Penn.”
“I know. I’m struggling a bit, especially off the tee, but I’ll work on it with my dad this weekend.”
“You better. There’s only one more qualifying round before I choose the team. You’ll need to shoot much closer to par to make the top eight.”
“Okay.” I bite my quivering lip and nod my head.
“Practice more this weekend, and I’ll see you Tuesday morning for the final tryout.”
“I will,” I say, trying to sound upbeat, but the familiar cloud of defeat surrounds me. Last year on JV, I only played in one match and finished last. I hoist my bag and amble to the parking lot. The vacant bench near the clubhouse entrance welcomes me, and I sit before texting my mom. I need a ride from the golf course.
While I wait for her reply, I pull the vial from my pocket and examine the label. When my grandma had ovarian cancer, she took part in a clinical trial at the university. The new drug didn’t work, though. She died anyway. I return the bottle to my pocket and my mom responds. I’m showing a house. U have 2 wait. Or call a friend.
K, I text. I’ll find someone else. It could be hours if she has a motivated client. I didn’t have to worry about a ride last year. My dad picked me up from every practice. We talked about my progress and made plans to play over the weekend. But those days are over. He and I haven’t spoken to each other or played golf together in weeks. I text Tara. Can u pick me up at the golf course?
On kid duty, she replies. Can’t leave the brats alone.
K, I text. I look up from my phone and watch a parade of twenty girls march toward the parking lot. Lynda drives a brand-new Mustang, of course. Grace and Brooklyn always ride together in Grace’s old Suburban. Anna doesn’t even glance at me before lifting her clubs into the trunk of a Tesla and taking a seat next to her mom. They’re headed to Starbucks or Jamba Juice. I study the others in silence as they insert their AirPods, stroll to their vehicles, and load their gear. Nobody looks at me or asks if I need a ride, so I text Mel. We’ve been friends since fifth grade when he showed me how to build a paper mache volcano for science class. I helped him by eating every vegetable his mom packed in his lunch.
U around? Need a ride from the golf course.
Yes. I need a break! C u in 10.
These days I depend on Tara and Mel more than either of my parents. After their last argument, my dad stormed out, and the silence invaded. My mom won’t utter his name and insists there is nothing to talk about. She was furious because he quit working. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me, and Dad said it was temporary. But Mom doesn’t believe him. I thought it would be great. He and I would spend the summer together like when I was in elementary school, but that hasn’t happened. He forgets to schedule tee times and doesn’t show up when I make them. What’s wrong with him? He used to be mister organized.
After a few minutes of my checking Instagram, the brakes on Mel’s ancient car squeal as he pulls up beside me. I open the hatch of the Volvo and hoist my golf bag inside. Old sneakers, several sweatshirts, a few books, boxes, and grocery sacks occupy the back of the wagon. “You’ve got a ton of crap back here,” I say. “I swear those shoes have been in here since Christmas.”
“I know,” says Mel. “I promise to clean it. Maybe tomorrow.”
“It’s not like you. Are you still moping because Tucker broke up with you?”
“Are you sure?”
“It hasn’t been that long.”
“That’s all summer, Mel. You have to move on.”
“He wasn’t good enough for you anyway.”
I hop into the front passenger seat. “Thanks for getting me. My mom’s showing a house.”
“No problem. Your hair looks great, by the way. Better than in the selfie you sent last night.”
“Thanks. My mom hates it, and the other girls think it’s stupid, but I think it kicks ass.”
“Screw them. It’s dope. You could be Leela from Futurama.”
“Not what I was going for, but I’ll take it. What’ve you been up to?”
“Practice exams. My head is spinning. They really try to trick you.”
“SAT prep? Still?”
“I need a high score so I can apply to Chicago and Michigan, and maybe Princeton.”
“But you have a whole year to take the test.”
“I know, but I want a good score right away so I don’t have to worry about it. I’ll have subject tests and a shit-load of essays to write.”
“You’re going to do great. I know it. You’ll get into a bunch of good colleges.”
“I hope so, but I won’t have a chance without a near perfect SAT score.” Mel shifts the car into drive and pulls out of the parking lot. As I fasten my seat belt to stop the annoying dinging, the bulge in my front pocket draws my attention.
“I saw something in the cemetery today. It kind of creeped me out.”
“What were you doing in the cemetery? I thought you were golfing.”
“I was, but horribly. On the thirteenth tee, you know the one in back by the enormous elm trees? I hit it out of bounds again.”
“Why didn’t you let it go? It’s just a ball.”
“You know I can’t afford to buy more balls.”
“I’ll get you some for your birthday.”
“Cemeteries give me the creeps.”
“Shocker. You’re scared of trick-or-treaters on Halloween.”
“Only the zombies and monsters, and anyone who carries an ax or a chainsaw.”
“There was a guy in the cemetery. He was sifting through the dirt with his hands.”
“That’s messed up.”
“I think I startled him and then he took off, but I saw a hole with dirt scattered all over the place.”
“Duh. That’s how they bury people.”
“But this wasn’t a huge hole for a body.”
“Absolutely. The hole was ragged and messy. Seeing it gave me chills.”
“Animals dig holes,” says Mel.
“This wasn’t an animal hole.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because the cut was jagged, like someone just flung the dirt every which way.”
“Animals don’t do that?”
“No, Mister AP Bio. If it was a squirrel or a gopher, the hole would be rounder, and the dirt would be piled neatly on one side, or all around the hole.”
“Do you think that guy made the hole?”
“I don’t know. I also saw a bunch of broken rock in the area that looked like marble. That’s not normal.”
“Why do you know so much about this?”
“Because last summer, when they buried my grandma, they carved a perfect rectangle for the grave.”
“If you say so.”
“Something’s wrong with the hole I saw today. I want to go back and get a closer look.”
“Are you crazy? Why does a hole and some rock fascinate you so much?”
“I’m not sure, but it might have something to do with what else I found.”
“Your long-lost golf ball, I hope.”
“I found this.” I reach into my pocket and pull out the glass vial. It’s about the size of my thumb. I hold it up for Mel to see, and he squints, then returns his eyes to the road.
“What does it say?” he asks.
“Clinical Trials, TR-97.”
“Are those initials? The year nineteen ninety-seven?”
“That’s what I want to find out. The vial looks fairly new. There’s some dust on it, but it hasn’t been sitting in the cemetery for twenty years. Look at the white label and the shiny top.”
“I didn’t have time to look, but maybe one of the gravestones has matching initials or dates.”
“You know, this reminds me of that ring you found.”
“I was thinking the same thing. Remember how it was engraved with initials and a date?”
“How can I forget? The guy couldn’t believe someone found it.”
“Do you think it’s valuable?”
“The vial? Beats me.”
“I think the guy in the cemetery was looking for it.”
“We need to go back and check it out.”
“You said we. We need to go back?”
“Yes, all of us together, like before.”
“And let me guess, you want to go tonight.”
“Exactly. After dinner. It’s light until eight. We’ll get Tara to come along.”
“You say that assuming I’m going with you, but that’s not really my thing, cemeteries at night.”
“But we need you, Mel. You may not be the bravest soul, but you’re an important part of the team.”
“Thanks, coach. I’ll think about it.”
When we arrive at my house on Marinette Trail, Tara stands outside with her three younger brothers. She lives next door and moved to Mendota a couple years ago from Georgia with her family. The boys play tag and run through a lawn sprinkler in their front yard. Mel gets out to help me with my golf clubs, and Tara joins us near the curb.
“Are you free tonight?” I ask. “We’ve got a secret mission planned.”
“Hell yeah, I’m free,” she says. “For once I don’t have to babysit the monsters after dinner.”
“Great,” I say.
“What’s the mission?” she asks. “Are we going to try to buy beer?”
Mel laughs. “Not unless you have a fake ID.”
“What? No!” I say. “This is more exciting than that. Besides, if we want beer, we can just take it from my house.”
“Cool,” says Tara. “Bring some beer for the mission.”
“Don’t you want to know where we’re going or what we’re doing?” asks Mel. Before Tara can reply, we’re interrupted by shrieking and crying. Two of Tara’s brothers hold the youngest one’s face in front of the sprinkler. Tara runs to break up the battle.
“Tell me later,” she yells, sprinting across the yard.
“I’m so glad I don’t have any brothers,” says Mel, shaking his head. “An older sister is more than enough.”
“Me, too,” I say, knowing that most of the time, I really wish I had a brother or sister.
“I suppose I’m the Uber,” says Mel. “What time should I come back for you?”
“Eight o’clock,” I say.
“See you at eight.”