Unfortunately, Nellie had forgotten exactly how big the Mendelson backyard was
Eli: This little boy, Shlomo, told us that he could show us the way to the brook, so we all biked with him to the spot that he found.
Nellie: I felt so bad for him! His bike was too small, so I told him that I’d bring him one of Eli’s old ones. We’re going to raise money and buy him a brand-new bike.
Squizzle: The brook was a dud, but Eli found a globe from the treehouse in the woods. And I’m looking forward to “raking leaves,” whatever that is.
Whomever had given Nellie a sharp object and then put her in charge of probably the most boring job ever had made a terrible, terrible mistake. Nellie stares at the rake in her hand and wonders if she could throw it at their neighbor’s garage roof with enough force to embed it in there. Maybe. Or, better yet, she could make herself a little leafman — like a snowman, but better. If she sticks the rake upside down into the ground, then pokes red and brown leaves into the prongs, it might look like hair at the top of a person —
“Nellie, wake up,” Eli says from where he’s already started to make a pile at the center of the Mendelsons’ backyard. Mrs. Mendelson had been enthusiastic when she’d heard about their goal and had offered 30 dollars for them to rake her backyard.
Unfortunately, Nellie had forgotten exactly how big the Mendelson backyard was. It stretches out along the woods so far that it takes Kivi over a minute just to run from one side to the other. And there are trees towering over the whole thing, which means a lot of leaves.
Kivi spots Eli turning to talk to Nellie, and seizes the opportunity, careening across the yard and flinging himself into Eli’s leaf pile. “Kivi!” Eli goes after him with a rake, and Kivi squeals and races across the yard, his eyes on the half-started pile that Nellie had half-heartedly raked. Nellie holds up her rake like a sword, threatening Kivi, and he giggles, ducks under it, and rolls down the slope of the backyard instead. By the end, leaves are stuck to him everywhere, and Squizzle has leaped onto him.
“He’s helping,” Eli says with satisfaction. Nellie is pretty sure that he’s bothering, as Squizzle does so well. She has no idea how Eli is so good with animals. To Nellie, every single animal — except maybe the really cute ones — is just looking for a reason to hurt her.
She drags more leaves toward her pile. “Every time I finally clear one area, the wind blows and it’s covered again,” she complains. “This isn’t even worth 30 dollars.”
“You’ve got to move faster,” Eli reminds her. “You can’t get distracted by every single thing that—”
“Ooh, look! A butterfly!” It’s a pretty shade of green, and she wanders after it before she remembers what she was doing. She darts a glance at Eli, who is watching her with his arms folded and his eyebrows raised. “I know, I know. Raking.”
Eli’s eyes glint in that way that they get right before he has a really fun idea, the kind that ends with relay races in the backyard or a mock color war. “Let’s make it a competition,” Eli offers. “Biggest pile wins.”
Oh, he knows her so well. Nellie springs into action, racing across the yard with her rake and pushing huge wads of multicolored leaves toward her pile. She doesn’t bother clearing specific spots, only raking wherever she sees a bunch of leaves and leaving huge, pockmarked sections of the yard behind. There’s no time for distraction now, not when Eli is moving methodically, covering each tiny bit of yard until there’s nothing behind him but clean grass.
Nellie’s going to get more, she knows it; she shoots one wary stare at Kivi and is relieved to see that he’s busy chasing Squizzle in circles. No one is interfering with her leaf pile. No one. It’s so big now that it goes almost to her neck, so wide that she could stretch out across the entire thing and still have leaves to spare. It’s perfect, the kind of leaf pile that she might have jumped into when she was Kivi’s age and didn’t care about leaves getting stuck in her hair or whatever muck she might’ve raked up with them.
Eli looks at Nellie. Nellie looks at Eli. Eli says, “Three… two… one…”
At once, they’re both racing across the yard toward Nellie’s pile, and together, they jump into it with gusto. Nellie finds Eli in the pile and throws more leaves on him, pushing him under; he laughs and yanks her down, too, until they’re both buried in leaves and Kivi is crouching over them. “Are you drowning?” he asks curiously, and then shouts, “COMING THROUGH!” and topples onto them feet first.
Nellie grabs a handful of leaves and hurls them at Eli just as he does the exact same thing, laughing when she manages to trap some in his mouth. Eli spits them out, making a face. “Oh, you’re absolutely going to pay for that,” he says, and he dives back into the pile and emerges with something green and squirmy in his hand.
Nellie scoots back. “Is that a lizard?”
“He’s cute,” Eli says, holding it out toward Nellie threateningly. “Don’t you think he’s cute, Nellie?”
Nellie yelps and buries herself in the leaves again as Eli laughs. She rolls away and something presses into her side, flattening against her arm for a moment. When she moves a few leaves aside, she sees something beneath them — a little strip of vine, colored deep red, stretchy and distinctive. It looks exactly like the vines that she’d seen in that Treeo obstacle course room, and she slips it into her sweatshirt pocket to examine later.
When she emerges again, the lizard is curled into Eli’s pocket, and Eli has plucked a beetle off the ground to feed it to the lizard. “Eww. Isn’t Squizzle enough of a pet for you?”
“Squizzle isn’t a pet. He’s a friend,” Eli says primly. “Lizzie is going to live in my sock drawer.”
“Until he sneaks out and gets into Rikki’s room and she throws him out the window,” Nellie warns him. Eli pouts, but he removes the lizard from his pocket and lays him back down on the ground.
By now, the backyard is nearly clear, except for the bits that Nellie had skipped. Eli takes his rake and collects the remaining leaves while Nellie starts putting the leaves into garbage bags. Somehow, it’s even more boring than raking. She fills up four bags before she quits, stretching out across the soft, lumpy bags, while Eli takes over, his eyes following airplanes as they cross the sky. “I can’t do this for another week or two,” she says, yawning. “It’s awful. Worse than the time Ima made us scrub all the toys before Pesach.”
“It’s not that bad,” Eli says, shrugging. “I kind of like it. And we’re doing it for a good cause. Don’t you want to get Shlomo that bike?”
“Sure, I do. But not like this. Why can’t I just do a bake sale? It’ll be much more fun than raking, and we’ll make way more money. Miri and Lebee would totally help me.” An idea occurs to her. “Hey, why don’t we split up? You could rake the yards and I could have the bake sale. We’ll make double the money.”
“Not really,” Eli points out. “I’ll only be able to rake half as quickly. It’s better if we do it together.”
“If we do it together, I might put myself in one of those leaf bags and refuse to come out,” Nellie threatens. “Come on, Eli. It’ll be perfect. We could make the money for the bike in a week. And I’ll save you some of the chocolate-chip brownies that you love,” she wheedles. Eli is super smart, but sometimes he forgets that Nellie can have great ideas, too. And in this case, she’s sure that her idea is better. Everyone loves a good bake sale. And her friends are both fantastic bakers and awesome help at this kind of thing, which means more profits and more tzedakah for the bike.
And it means no more leaves, which is the best part of all.
Eli shrugs. “I can’t really stop you, can I?”
Nellie grins at him. “Never,” she says.
“Just as long as we have time for other things,” Eli says, peering back into the woods. “Remember the treehouse?”
Oh, Nellie remembers it. Nellie’s looking forward to searching for it again as soon as they can. “We’ll get to it,” she promises. “Some other time, when we’re not so busy.”
“You’re always busy.” Eli laughs, but his face is kind of stiff, like he isn’t joking, and he turns away from her and back to the leaves before she can ask why.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Treeo, Issue 983)
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