Linda’s bike screeched to a stop next to the lawn where Jill was pulling weeds. “Can you finish your paper route by three o’clock today?” Linda asked.
“Sure, I’m always finished by then. Why?”
“My dad has a business meeting in Santa Cruz, and he says that he could drop Mom and us off to swim while he goes to the meeting.”
“We can’t be late though. We have to be ready when he gets here.”
“No problem,” Jill said. “I’ve been working all summer for a chance like this. Every day I try to do my route faster than the day before so that I’ll have more time to play. Now my practice is really going to pay off.”
“How fast can you do it?”
“Forty-three minutes, when the papers are small. Then I usually stop at Widow Wiggen’s for a few minutes before I come home.”
“Are you nuts? She’s a real weirdo.”
“She is not.” Jill stood up. “She’s just like a grandma.”
“She talks to herself.”
“You would, too, if you had something to say and no one to listen to you. Mrs. Wiggen has all kinds of exciting stories to tell about the old days, and she imitates what everybody sounded like until you feel like you know them all. It’s fun to talk to her. Besides, she’s really lonely. I think the main reason she takes the newspaper is to have someone to visit with. And since she can’t see very well, she usually asks me to read her the headlines, the weather, and the obituaries.”
“Yes. She wants to know if anyone she knows has died.”
“Well, you don’t have to visit with her today, do you?”
“I’ll have plenty of time. The papers get here around one o’clock.”
“OK. But remember to be at my house by three o’clock. If you’re not, we’ll have to leave you.”
“Fair enough. I’ll bring my skimboard.”
Linda spun away on her bike, and Jill continued weeding. By the time she headed for her route, she had finished pulling the weeds, assembled all the things she wanted to take to the beach, and had them in a neat pile on the porch. She even wore her swimsuit under her jeans.
Jill whizzed along toward the pick-up corner, ready to jump off her bike, grab the bundle of papers, and whip through her route.
“Oh, no!” she groaned when she saw the empty corner. “The papers can’t be late today.”
But they were late. And later. And even later. As the minutes ticked by, Jill’s hopes faded.
While she waited, Jill tried to think of any shortcuts that she could take. The only thing that came to mind was to eliminate her visit with Mrs. Wiggen. Then, just as the papers finally came, Jill had another idea. If she didn’t go down the widow’s long lane at all, she could save five minutes. Jill looked at her watch. Five extra minutes were all that she needed. She would take the widow her paper after coming back from the beach. Mrs. Wiggen would understand.
But as Jill thought about her plan, she remembered what Widow Wiggen had said just the day before: “It’s a good thing that you come by every day to check up on me. You never know when an old lady might fall and break her neck.”
Mrs. Wiggen had laughed when she said it, thought Jill, but maybe she’d really meant it. What if she needed me this very day? Hogwash! Jill told herself. Mrs. Wiggen will be just fine if I don’t see her until later today.
Once Jill had talked herself into postponing the widow’s paper delivery, she tried not to think about it anymore. But the thought that maybe something was wrong at the widow’s kept popping into her head. Jill tried to think about the fun she’d have with Linda at the beach. She could imagine the slap of each paper on a porch sounding like the splat of the skimboard on the water. But every time she tried to imagine that she was jumping onto the whirling disk and skimming along the water, what came to her mind instead were the widow’s words: You never know when an old lady might fall …
I’m only imagining things, Jill told herself. The widow’s fine. She glanced at her watch and knew that Linda would already be waiting.
Slap, slap, slap. As the newspapers hit the porches, Jill again tried to summon the thrilling sensation of slipping along on the skimboard. But she couldn’t do it. Thoughts of Widow Wiggen drowned her attempt the same way a big wave washes away a sand castle.
A new thought shivered up Jill’s neck: The man who cut the widow’s lawn wouldn’t be around until Friday, and the only time the widow’s son came to visit was late on Sunday afternoons. Jill was the only person who saw her every day. What if something had happened to her?
Jill pedaled faster, hoping that she would see the elderly lady waving from her yellow lawn chair. But the lane was strangely quiet; only the whir of Jill’s tires resounding off the asphalt could be heard. When at last she saw the chair under the big oak, it was empty. Jill dropped her bike and ran for the house. Just as she reached the porch steps, she heard a small, desperate cry. “Jill …”
Jill turned toward the sound and found the widow crumpled on the ground beside the porch. Splintered pieces of rotted wood from the railing lay around her. The pain that she felt showed in her eyes, and a single tear slid down her cheek. “I knew you’d come,” she whispered.
Jill shuddered at the thought of how nearly she hadn’t.
“Sorry I wasn’t here sooner, but the papers were late,” Jill explained. Making her voice sound bright and comforting, she continued, “But don’t worry. The Daily News Rescue Service is here at last. Everything’s going to be all right.”
“Yes, I know.” Widow Wiggen’s brave smile assured Jill that it would be.