Watch Your Step
It’s funny. Once upon a time, summer was my favorite season. Come June there was no school or homework, no alarm clocks or early bedtimes. There was only three whole months to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. All year long I counted down to that stretch of freedom.
But this summer? I wouldn’t mind skipping it. Because there’s what I want to do . . . and there’s what I have to do. And those are two very different things.
“What can I get you, Seamus? Fish-stick pancakes? Fish-stick
waffles? Fish-stick bacon? Fish-stick home fries? A bagel with cream cheese and fish sticks?”
It’s the first day of vacation. Mom’s spiraling around the kitchen like a tornado in a cornfield. Dad and I are sitting at the table. He’s reading the newspaper and drinking coffee—the only breakfast item not featuring my favorite food.
Mom gasps. Spins toward the table. Waves a spatula like it’s a hundred degrees in here and she’s trying to keep me cool.
“I know,” she says. “How about . . . a fish-stick omelet?”
“Sure,” I say. “Thanks.”
“Believe me.” Mom spins toward the stove. “It’s my pleasure.”
I bet it is.
“So, son.” Dad folds the newspaper and places it on the table. “Your first day off. Three free months ahead of you. Have you thought about how you’d like to spend them?”
“Well, they’re not totally free. We’ll still have weekly homework.”
Dad sits back like I’ve just sneezed without covering my nose. “But it’s summer vacation.”
“And a great opportunity to sharpen our skills.” I sneak a
peek at Mom. She stills at “skills,” then cracks another egg over a bowl. “It’s okay. I don’t have any other plans.”
“Then we should make some. How about a few rounds at the Cloudview Putt-n-Play this weekend? Some quality father-son time? Just like the old days?”
Dad gives me a small, hopeful smile. Behind his thick black-framed glasses, his eyes are bright. So much has happened since the old days, it’s hard to imagine going back. But Dad didn’t do anything. None of it was his fault.
“Okay,” I say. “Sounds fun.”
“Wonderful! I’ll call when I get to the office and reserve a cart.”
“You’re leaving?” Mom asks as Dad brings his dishes to the sink. “Already?”
“The numbers won’t crunch themselves,” Dad says proudly.
“It’s Seamus’s first morning home. Can’t you go in a little later?”
“Sorry, my dear. But I’ll be back soon, and we’ll have a great night. Together. As a family.”
I’ve just taken a bite of omelet and now force it down my throat. Not because it tastes bad—although I must say, despite being made with my favorite food, it’s not my favorite dish—but
because the thought of Mom, Dad, and I as a family, the kind that talks and laughs and plays board games, is so strange and unexpected that I almost choke.
Dad kisses her cheek, then comes over and gives me a hug. When he’s gone, Mom catches my eye, quickly turns away, and continues cooking.
This is it. We’re alone. For the first time since Christmas morning, when I found her in the attic, surrounded by boxes of—
My K-Pak buzzes. I take the handheld computer from my shorts pocket and press the K-Mail icon.
Happy to be home. You?
I smile at the five-word e-mail. This is typical Lemon. The only thing my roommate uses less than syllables is exclamation points.
I press reply.
I look up.
“I just remembered,” Mom says, emptying the frying pan. “I need to go to the dry cleaners. And the post office. And the grocery store. And the vet.”
“We don’t have a pet,” I say.
She drops the spatula. It lands on the floor with a thwack. “I think I read that they’re having adoptions today. Wouldn’t that be nice? To welcome an adorable puppy or kitten into our family?”
Our family. It sounds even stranger coming from her.
She steps over the spatula and places a plate of mushy eggs and seafood onto the table before me. “Don’t worry about the mess. I’ll take care of it when I get back.”
My chin drops. This is easily the weirdest thing she’s said since she and Dad picked me up yesterday afternoon. Before I left Cloudview Middle School for Kilter Academy for Troubled Youth—or was yanked out of one and left at the other—I had a list of daily chores that needed to be completed before I did anything else, including homework. The first item on that list was making my bed. The second was cleaning the kitchen after
breakfast. Skipping either was never an option. One time I was up late playing video games, overslept, and had eight minutes to get ready for school—and I still swept the kitchen floor and loaded the dishwasher, even though my breakfast was a handful of granola that I gulped down while sprinting to the bus, which I almost missed. Another time, Mom found crumbs because I forgot to wipe the table, and I lost TV privileges for a month. After that I didn’t want to find out what she’d do if I skipped the task entirely.
So why the sudden rule change? Like the morning fish-stick overload, is it meant to butter me up? Or distract me? Or make me forget what she did?
Hearing her hurry around upstairs, I return to my K-Pak.
SUBJECT: RE: Hey
So great to hear from you. I can’t believe it’s been less than 24 hours since we left Kilter. It already feels
like 24 days since you made Abe, Gabby, and me our last black-bean breakfast burritos of the semester.
How are your parents? And your little brother? He must be really happy you’re home.
Everything’s okay here. Different, but I guess that’s normal since I was away for so long. My dad and I already have some fun things planned, so that’s good. I missed him.
But it’s still a little weird. I bet—
There’s a loud bang upstairs. It’s so loud I jump in my chair. My thumbs shoot across the K-Pak screen. I accidentally send Lemon’s unfinished note. The sound’s followed by several smaller, quieter thumps. When I land back in my seat, I register where they’re coming from.
Mom’s cell phone rings. It’s on the counter, next to her purse and car keys. I hurry over to it, glance at Dad’s smiling face on the phone screen, and tap the red rectangle to ignore the call. The ringing stops. The screen goes black.
“Sorry,” I say.
And I am. For sending Dad to voicemail before Mom can hear her phone and rush downstairs. For doing what I’m about to do, which is something I never would’ve done eight months ago—or anytime before I found Mom huddled in the attic, surrounded by Kilter Academy boxes.
Most of all, I’m sorry for having that reason to do what I’m about to do.
Taking Mom’s keys from the counter, I slide the key ring onto a dish towel. I hold both ends of the towel so that the keys slip to the middle, raise my arm, and start making small, slow circles. Then I lift my arm higher and make bigger, faster circles. Soon the towel is whipping above my head like a lasso.
As my eyes look for a target, my head fills with other images. I see the Cloudview Middle School cafeteria. A shiny red apple flying toward a cluster of fighting kids. Miss Parsippany, my substitute teacher, collapsing to the floor. A big, open field. A line of apple-headed mannequins defenseless against the archery arrows headed their way. An ancient school bus flying through the desert. Flaming paper airplanes.
Me, throwing the shiny red apple. Firing archery arrows. Hurling flaming paper airplanes.
And then I select my current target. And the other images disappear.
I spin the keys again, then snap my wrist. The key ring slips from the dish towel, sails through the air across the kitchen, and descends in a perfect arc toward the stove.
Where it lands with a plop into a pot of fish-stick oatmeal.
I put the dish towel back on the counter, then return to my chair and pick up my K-Pak. I’m reading about Kilter’s plans to expand the Kommissary, the school store, when Mom enters the kitchen a few minutes later.
“Well, that’s strange,” she says.
“What?” I ask, not looking up.
“My car keys were right here.”
“On the counter. Between my cell phone and pocketbook.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. That’s where I always put them.”
“You must’ve put them somewhere else.”
“I didn’t. I distinctly remember placing them here when we got home.”
“Oh, well,” I say. “Guess you can’t do your errands now.”
I peer over my K-Pak and watch her rummage through her purse. She turns the bag upside down and dumps its contents onto the counter. Her fingers tremble as she sifts through tissues and breath mints, loose change and coupons.
“We can spend all day together,” I add. “Won’t that be nice?”
Her hands freeze. They thaw a second later, and she throws everything that’s on the counter back into her purse.
“No problem,” she says. “I’ll walk.”
“Town’s four miles away.”
“The exercise will do me good.”
Taking her bag, she flies from the kitchen. The front door opens and slams shut.
Still in my hand, the K-Pak buzzes.
SUBJECT: RE: RE: hey
Weird in what way?
I press reply, start typing.
SUBJECT: RE: RE: RE: hey
You don’t want to know. Trust me.
I wish I didn’t.