It seemed like a happy, lazy, sunny day. My sister and I had been home from boarding school for a week.
I woke up late. The corrugated metal roof was already making popping noises from the hot sun. Sandy's bed was empty. I could hear Mom and Barnabas, the African man who works for us, talking on the porch. I stretched and smiled. It was very good to be home.
A few minutes later I was hanging up sheets with Mom. The damp sheets blew cool against my cheeks as I reached up to peg them to the line.
"Ut uu ona uu uday," Mom said around the clothespins in her mouth.
"I don't know," I said, laughing. "I'll do whatever happens."
When the wash was done, I wandered across the station toward Lisa's house with the warm sun on my back. Lisa Barnes is my best friend.
Traci and Sandy followed me a few minutes later. Traci Stewart is ten, the same as Sandy. Her parents work at the Bible school too. She and her little brother, David, have been in Kenya ever since they were born. We ended up playing Monopoly with them.
"Did you hear that?" Traci hissed suddenly. She dropped her Monopoly money, jerked her chair forward, and said, "Listen!"
Without paying attention, I'd been hearing Lisa's dad talking to someone on their porch. He was bellowing, really, but that's normal for him.
"It's just my dad," Lisa said.
"It's Uncle Joey. So what?" Sandy said at the same time.
"Listen to what he's saying!" Traci insisted.
"... we hustle, we could be heading up the mountain tomorrow." Uncle Joey's voice came in loud and clear even though he was out on the porch.
"Mountain?" Lisa muttered. "What mountain?"
I caught my breath. Could he be talking about climbing Mount Kenya, or maybe even Mount Kilimanjaro? Those were the two biggest mountains in my world.
"... two-day hike," Uncle Joey was saying. "Mark said he'd lend us gear. If we can't have winter, we can at least find the kids some snow on the top of Mount Kenya. Wouldn't want them to forget what it is." His laugh boomed through the wall.
Mount Kenya, I thought, and he's taking kids! A wave of prickly electricity washed through me. Maybe... maybe he'd let me come. I knew people who had climbed. Some of the older kids at school had. It's hard to make it to the top. People notice the ones who make it. No kids in my grade had even tried.
"Lisa," I said, reaching for her arm. "If you guys go, I want to come too. You've got to get your dad to let me come with you. Please?"
"Me too," said Sandy, shoving her chair back.
Traci jumped up, bumping the table. Houses and hotels flew in all directions. "It's not fair if you guys get to go and I don't! I'm coming too. Can I, Lisa? Can I?"
Lisa stared at us with her mouth open. She hadn't been in Kenya very long. Still, I thought, she should know by now how important the mountain is.
I sighed and said, "Mount Kenya, you know, Mount Kenya! Right? The one you can see from a hundred miles away. The biggest mountain in Kenya, the one they named the country?"
"Stop it!" she said. "I know about the mountain, but why do you guys want?"
"Shhhh! Listen!" Traci said.
"You think I'll bite off more than I can chew, do you?" Uncle Joey said, and he laughed again. "I don't know about that. I've heard that kids as young as nine years old have made it up to Lenana Peak. I'm a pretty tough old hombre, and my kids aren't wimps either."
Lisa rolled her eyes and whispered, "Da-ad!" She hates it when her dad does the hearty-American act.
"Who's he talking to?" Sandy asked.
I shrugged. Whoever it was didn't talk as loud as Uncle Joey, but that didn't narrow it down much.
Traci suddenly headed for the door. "I'm going to ask my mom and dad. If they say OK, Lisa's dad can't say no."
"Me too. Come on, Anika!" Sandy said and bolted out the door.
I jittered nervously on one foot. I didn't think Traci was right, but it wouldn't hurt to ask Mom and Daddy. I could hardly believe that Uncle Joey wanted his kids to climb. Maybe some nine-year-old did make it up once. He must have either been practically Superboy or his father carried him. I'm twelve, and if there was any chance at all, I didn't intend to miss it. If I could just get Lisa to ask her dad to bring me ...
"Look, Lisa," I said. "We're friends, right?"
"No way, a geek like you?" she said, but she grinned.
"Come on, you've got to listen," I begged. "I've wanted to climb Mount Kenya forever, and now you'll get to go. Please, you've got to get your parents to let me come with you. Ask for me, please?"
"OK, OK! I'll ask already. You guys are nuts," she said and then grinned. "Besides, I want you to come anyway if I have to climb up that mountain."
"Don't you want to?" I asked in a voice that squeaked with surprise.
She shook her head.
"Why not?" I asked. Then without giving her time to answer, I blurted, "I've got to go before Sandy wrecks it with Mom and Daddy. You're the greatest, Lisa!"
My stomach was in a tight knot. "Please, God, let it work. Let me get to climb with Lisa," I prayed under my breath as I trotted up the hill. The peaceful mood of the day was completely shattered.
All I could think about was Mount Kenya. I wanted to climb so much it ached. Mountains had always seemed magic to me. Among all the mountains I knew, Mount Kenya was best. It wasn't flat on top like Kilimanjaro, or just part of a long string of peaks like the Rocky Mountains I'd seen in Canada. It was a perfect mountain, all alone with three high, jagged peaks.
I whispered their names, "Nelion, Mbatian, and Lenana." The names of three Masai chiefs. Nelion and Mbatian were the highest. One could only climb there with ropes and special gear. Lenana was the one normal people climbed.
"Lenana," I whispered again. I would get there if I could, if I possibly could. Not watching where I was going, I ran smack into Traci's father.