By Jacqueline Haskins
Danny’s bedroom was silent except for the scratch of his yellow number-two pencil across the paper. Mom says Dad is just going to church until the judge decides, Danny wrote. I don’t know. He took Sis and me to church yesterday. Dad knows all the prayers and stuff. And they had chocolate chip cookies.
Through the open window, Danny heard galloping feet, then a soft thud. He looked out and saw the neighbor dog was over, the two spaniels running in crazy circles on the lawn.
* * *
In her bedroom down the hall, Danny’s sister Thea wrote: My birthstone is opal. Thea hummed, breezing through the journaling homework every student had every day now, because of the new superintendent. Now identical royal-blue “School of Distinction” banners flapped above every weathered public-school front door. Whatever.
Opal sounds pretty, but it looks really ordinary. I wish mine were ruby, Thea wrote.
Her desk was crowded with soccer trophies, a sand-dollar leaking sand, a starfish, bleached nearly white now from sun and time, all her horse statues – she’d just cleared her shelves, getting ready to paint her bedroom this weekend. Aunt Becky was coming over from Seattle to help. Thea smiled, distracted for a moment, thinking about Aunt Becky. When Aunt Becky was around, you had to laugh. While she was here, Mom might not be so angry all the time.
* * *
Sucking on his pencil, Danny wrote, I wish Dad lived someplace me and Sis could spend the night. Dad’s absence ached, like homesickness, every day. Dad says he can’t because Mom took all the money. Mom says any fool can have a house if they get a job. I don’t know. Danny tapped his teeth with his pencil. I hope Dad does get a job. He drummed the chair legs with his heels. When I grow up, I’m going to be a vet. At Woodland Park Zoo.
Then Danny saw the new, jagged teeth marks in his pencil. Shit. Another one he’d have to hide, or lose his allowance. Danny shoved the pencil to the very bottom of his school bag, to throw away at school. He glared at the clock. He hated homework.
Danny chose a pencil topped by a football eraser. It made the pencil wobble, but it would remind him not to put it in his mouth. Mr. Thornton says to forgive my parents. Danny looked toward the window, seeing nothing. I forgive Dad. He doesn’t yell so much now, sometimes. He nodded slowly toward the window. But I will never forgive Mom for HIM, he wrote all at once. Danny underlined “never,” hard. Then a second time.
* * *
Thea slapped her journal closed, moved it to the left edge of her desk, and reached for her math folder and calculator. No calculator. Danny.
Thea slipped through his door without knocking and leaned over his shoulder, scanning his desk. “Hey, Danny, did you–” It was so quiet in Danny’s room for a moment, you could hear padded feet bounding across grass.
Thea rocked back on her heels and sighed. “Homework, Danny. This is homework.” She shook her head. Sometimes her brother so didn’t get it. “And what do you think Mom’s going to do when she reads that.”
“Mom’s not going to read it, it’s …” Danny trailed off, watching his sister’s face.
“Aw, no, I’m not writing a whole dumb page over!” Danny’s voice, held low, boiled.
“Suit yourself.” Thea shrugged. “Guess you’d rather have another Fa–mily Mee–ting.” Her last two words slow as taffy.
* * *
Pain where his teeth dug into his lip just barely let Danny stay in his chair. He might burst. He hated school, hated his parents, hated his life, and he really, really hated his sister. He needed to break something, feel it splinter in his hands. But then Thea would laugh at him even more. Danny grabbed the paper off the table, smashed it into a tiny ball, and punched it to the bottom of the schoolbag beside the chewed pencil. He slammed a fresh sheet to the center of his desk.
* * *
A breeze fanned through the window, thumbing the blank page. Thea half felt like laughing. But he really was next to tears. It was amazing – her little brother just didn’t get the most obvious things. Poor kid. “Do you want me to tell you what to write?” She kept her voice soft.
He swung his head sharply to look at her again. Tears stood in his eyes. He nodded.
Thea took a breath, closed her eyes, then opened them. “I love to fish,” Thea began. “Fishing is my favorite thing to do.”
Thea looked out the window, across the lawn and the patch of trees, to Camas Hill in its brown grass of late autumn. “The best place to fish is Banks Lake,” she continued. Danny wiped a quick arm across his eyes and began to write.
“Before we sold the boat, my family drove out to Banks Lake almost every Saturday. We had to get up so early you could see stars. Mom packed sandwiches and drinks, and a cooler just of ice, for the fish. Sis and I carried the poles and tackle to the truck. There was a special cabinet then for the fishing tackle.” Thea remembered its wooden curves under her fingers. “We had to be very quiet. Especially closing the pickup doors. So we wouldn’t wake the neighbors.”
Writing, Danny’s face looked a little dreamy now. Thea had a half-smile too, remembering the whisper of gravel as they rolled down the driveway. Like the pickup was tiptoeing off into adventure. And the smell of coffee from the front seat, and all of dewy spring dawn pouring through the open window.
Now, out Danny’s window, was a jumble of splintered lumber. “That shed’s going to collapse if you don’t shovel the roof,” Mom had sneered at Dad across the breakfast table last winter, morning after morning.
Thea used to want to be a marine biologist. But lately she is thinking: the Principal. Or the Superintendent. Not to be the one in charge so much as the one who keeps track – the one who, with that steely, gracious smile, makes sure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to. Thea watched the dogs racing across the lawn gone scraggly and weedy since Dad moved out – really, since before that – and listened to the scratching of Danny’s pencil, and waited for him to catch up to her.
Copyright Haskins 2011