Julia’s step-sisters sat up front in the green station wagon with their father. Julia sat alone in the back.
The two sisters were much younger than Julia, noisy girls with straight brown hair, thicker than her own. And fair skin, no freckles.
“You want to guess what it is?” Elsie said over her shoulder, and Tina, the older sister, giggled. Julia ignored them. Elsie had asked the same question all morning. It was a game of suspense. During breakfast the girls had said they wanted to show Julia something. She wasn’t going to go but her mom said she had to. The whole thing was humiliating.
The car moved slowly through the warm air of the New Mexico morning. It pulled out of a suburb of white stucco homes and onto a highway that ran into the desert.
Julia’s step-father adjusted his rearview mirror. He wore a neatly ironed blue shirt that was open at the collar. “Cool enough back there?” he asked, smiling with a silly grin at Julia in the mirror. Julia didn’t break her grim expression. She nodded her head once.
“Fine,” he said. “Fine.”
The step-father was not an overly nervous man, but he was afraid to offend Julia when she was doing something with the girls. Julia took offense easily. She got mad when the girls came into her room or her parents didn’t let her do what she wanted. She got mad when her new father imposed curfews and rules around the house or when any of them asked her too many questions. She got mad a lot.
Once, she had overheard her mother on the phone to her aunt. “Julia’s 15,” her mother had said. “You remember that age. It’s just a stage.” And that made Julia even madder.
She wanted to tell her mother how wrong she was. This new family was her problem. The two step-sisters—Elsie was eight and Tina was ten. They were always trying to hang around her. Always getting into her stuff.
And the step-father. He had no right to control her life. She could take care of herself.
The car stopped by the edge of the desert. “It’s here, isn’t it?” their father asked, looking over at the girls.
“Yeah, close enough,” said Tina quickly. “Thanks.” She grabbed her bag close and pulled Elsie out of the car. Julia climbed out after them, bending her head down against a huge sun.
The dad rolled down his window. “Sure you don’t need me?” he asked. Tina shook her head and waved. “I’ll wait for you,” he called. But the girls were gone.
“How do you like them?” Elsie said. She turned to Julia who was looking down a hill, squinting. The bottom was barren, a dirty yellow expanse covered with specks of gray and blue. Further into the valley the larger forms of sagebrush and cactus were clear.
“Like what?” Julia snapped. They were wasting her time.
“You don’t see?” Tina said. The girls giggled and began to run down the hillside, lifting their feet with high strides. Julia watched the dust they kicked up and flinched. They were wearing white T-shirts. “You’d better follow us,” Tina called, halfway down. Julia followed.
Elsie reached the bottom and the tiny dark gray shapes parted in waves as she ran through. Near the base of the hill Julia stopped, frozen.
“Lizards!” she screamed, but she couldn’t move.
“Yes,” said Elsie, running with both arms raised amid hundreds of tiny, squirming reptiles. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
Julia edged back up the embankment, placing each foot carefully, until she came to a rock high enough to stand on. She took a long look around.
The reptiles were clumped in groups over every part of the small valley, from the break of the embankment to the rise on the far side of a red stone bluff. The ground was always different, in a new arrangement. In the middle, the light figures of Elsie and Tina were dancing. Their voices high, birdlike, echoing across the valley. After a while they ran back to Julia.
“This has to be the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen,” Julia said, staring intently at the moving ground below. Her toes twitched in her shoes. “How could there be so many?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” said Elsie. She picked up a gray lizard tail. “These just fall off,” she added with amusement, holding it up for Julia’s approval. “You know, when you pick them up.”
“You two are so disgusting!” Julia snapped. “I’m going back to the car.” But she didn’t. The ground beneath her swarmed with life, and for some odd reason it was a thing of immense interest. The girls had already discovered that. Along with the fact that the multitude of lizards, sunning themselves in the warmth of the morning, were completely harmless.
Tina pushed her bag over her shoulder and stared up at Julia. “Why are you always so mad at us?” Tina asked. “And Dad and your mom?” Elsie stopped searching for tails.
Julia looked slowly away from the valley floor into Tina’s eyes. Tina had intelligent, green eyes. Julia hadn’t even noticed. “Well, why do you guys have to bug me?” she said, but she didn’t mean it. Tina had caught her off guard and she didn’t know what to say.
“We don’t mean to bug you,” Elsie said.
“I do, sometimes,” said Tina. “Sometimes I don’t think you treat any of us very fair so I try to bug you. We don’t do anything to you.”
The father came to the top of the hill and called down. He had heard a scream. Julia smiled and said she had seen a lizard and the girls laughed. Then he wiped his forehead and started down the hill.
“Why did you bring me here?” Julia asked.
Elsie and Tina looked at each other, their eyes sparkling. Elsie whispered, “This place must be magical.” Her father had made his way to Julia’s rock, but would go no further.
“But why would you bring me?” Julia asked. The girls didn’t know what to say. “Did you think I’d like it?”
“You have to admit, this is—unusual,” said the girls’ father. “They just wanted you to see it. Include you in their secret.”
After a moment he left, walked up the hill, and for a while Julia didn’t say anything. She felt her conscience. They had lived as a family for four months and she had never stopped thinking of herself long enough to talk with Elsie or Tina, ask them about anything. Through all Julia’s anger they still wanted to accept her—love her. Their love wasn’t about being perfect, just about being together, that’s all.
Eventually she stepped down from the rock. “They don’t mind if you pick them up?” she asked, looking at the blue-bellies in Tina’s hand.
“Nah, I guess not. Just don’t grab them by their tails.”
Julia picked her way slowly down the hill and into the moving mass of reptiles. Tina and Elsie stood still, watching her. Julia thought of the girls; that they had brought her there because they wanted to be close, like real sisters. And for a time she played with them, among the lizards.
“I guess this is a magical place,” said Julia.
Elsie was scrambling about on the ground, rounding up lizards like a sheep dog. Julia and Tina laughed. Up the hill the world had ceased to exist. They were young. Friends. Sisters.