This story is from a book of interrelated stories called The Nutmeg Tree (most of the time. I change my titles a lot!) I managed to work in some of my favorite things: snow, Narnia, Wendy houses. I hope you enjoy it!.
The Winter Prince
Bobby Harris decided regretfully that he was just too bloody to go to the library. Everyone would make a fuss and Miss Carver would be upset. He was disappointed; he loved to go to the library any day of the week but especially on Friday afternoons. Miss Carver always saved him a piece of the gingerbread cake she brought in on Fridays to celebrate the end of the week, and she usually had a few minutes to sit and talk to him about new books for the children’s department. She called him her acquisitions consultant. Miss Carver would order the books he recommended, as long as he had good reasons to back up his choices.
He loved sitting in her cozy office with books piled neatly on her desk and on the table under her window. It must be the best job in the world to be a librarian, he thought, but he knew only ladies could be librarians. He had the publisher’s catalog she’d lent him last week in his bookbag with his choices all circled, and he had his arguments all ready in support of the books he’d chosen.
For the little kids he picked books with funny rhymes, or books of fairy tales with beautiful, detailed pictures. For every age group he liked interesting books about animals, usually with pictures. For bigger kids, like him, he chose books about regular kids who got involved somehow with magic.
Sometimes they found an old lamp at a flea market and it turned out to grant three wishes, or someone happened to give them a magic lotion that made them able to fly. These magic things always came with their own problems that had to be worked out in real life, like explaining to your parents how you came to get stuck on top of a church steeple. There were some good ones in the catalog today. He couldn’t wait for them to come in so he could read them.
Well, it was all his own fault that he had to miss his visit to the library this afternoon. Bobby paused where the path veered off towards home and reflected. He couldn’t go home, either. His father had a class and his mother was in Boston showing some of her pottery to a gallery owner. No one would be home to let him in because he was supposed to be at the library. He could spend the whole afternoon in the woods behind the old mill.
He loved the silent winter woods, the icicles on the trees, the way the little stream froze with all its little ripples and waves in place like they had been carved from glass. Maybe he could wash some of the blood off with snow before he went home, so he wouldn’t have to have a big discussion with his father. Beaten up again. Weak. Unpopular. Bobby struck off across an empty clearing towards the woods. It was all his own fault. He’d been stupid, stupid and careless.
The first stupid thing had been the spelling bee. Every week he told himself he wouldn’t win this time. This time he’d mess up on purpose, sit down with the other boys, let Becky and Martha fight it out. They were both pretty good spellers. While Mr. Smathers was busy picking out the next word and listening to the smart kids spell, the kids who were out of the spelling bee kidded around and passed notes. Bobby wanted to be part of that for once, instead of always being the last kid left standing, the ultimate winner in a sport nobody cared about. But he was the best speller in the class. He could spell any word he’d ever read, lots of words he couldn’t even pronounce, some words he couldn’t remember ever even seeing.
When Mr. Smathers said antipathy or expeditious or strategic, Bobby saw the word hanging in front of him in the air with each letter clear and in its own place, and somehow he just didn’t have the heart to do anything but name each letter in turn just as he saw it there. I’ll just spell this word, he thought every time. Maybe I won’t know the next one. But that never happened and eventually Becky or Martha would mess up on a word he couldn’t believe they couldn’t spell, a word like experience or coronet, and he would be left standing up in the front of the room all alone again.
Today had been awful even before the spelling bee began. Mr. Smathers had said right out in front of everyone, “I’ve got a new list here for you, Bobby. Ninth to twelfth grade words. Maybe we can find you some challenging ones on here.”
“But we can’t spell high school words, Mr. Smathers,” protested Martha, bobbing up and down in her seat with indignation.
“No, no, this isn’t for you. I’m only going to take words off this list for Bobby, just to make it a little harder for him. The rest of you will have words off the regular list.”
Bobby felt like running out of the room, out of the building, far out into the snowy woods where no one could see him, no one could know what a freak he was, no one could hate him. But he sat quietly looking down at his desk, feeling his ears get all hot and with a shameful pain in his throat like he might cry.
They picked teams for the spelling bee and he was picked almost last, but not dead last like he was for soccer and softball. He was the best speller in the class, but he never got picked first. The kids on his side didn’t really want him, even though he always won. He was never really on their team.
And then he made the biggest, stupidest mistake of all. He laughed at Jeff Conover when Jeff spelled maximize “maximeyes.” Most of the other kids laughed too, and Martha laughed the loudest.
Martha Patterson had long straight blonde hair and could say mean things in a funny way. She was the most popular girl in their class, and even the eighth graders talked to her. Bobby hated her. She reminded him of the evil witch in The Snow Queen. He always pictured her little white face surrounded by white fur, and her mean little red mouth laughing, showing her little pointed teeth, as she drove a splinter of ice into someone’s heart.
But everybody knew that Jeff Conover loved Martha. Maybe she knew it too; maybe that was why she laughed so long and loud at him. Jeff was the biggest kid in the class and he was almost a whole year older than most of the other kids. Bobby was the youngest. He’d been able to read before he turned five, so he went to first grade that year instead of kindergarten. Jeff wasn’t all that smart but he was big and mean and tough. Usually nobody messed around with Jeff or his buddies Mark Johnson and Steve Ferrars, but today the whole class was laughing together at Jeff.
Being laughed at made Jeff feel bad, and when Jeff felt bad he acted even meaner than usual, because he needed to make someone else feel bad too. His teacher last year had explained that to Bobby and his parents. She seemed to think that this was an interesting and unique thing about Jeff, and it seemed like understanding it made her feel better. She seemed to think that understanding it should make Bobby and his parents feel better too.
But Bobby had forgotten about this special feature of Jeff’s, or hadn’t thought about it enough, or at all really, when the bell rang at the end of the day. He was in too much of a rush, too eager to be on his way to the peace and comfort of the library. That was when he’d done the biggest stupid thing. Even now, with his head throbbing and a strange burning feeling in his stomach, he had to laugh a little at his own stupidity.
He had so many systems worked out for moving around the building safely. Never go to the boys’ room. It was their second favorite place to jump him. Their very favorite place was the locker room by the gym, so on gym days he wore gym clothes under his regular clothes so he could change fast, or pretended he had forgotten them so he wouldn’t have to change at all.
The best thing to do after school was to fiddle around in the hallway by his locker until everyone left. They might lose interest and leave without getting him. If they did get him they would have to make it quick there in that open space where any minute a teacher might walk by. But today he had headed for the main doors as soon as the last bell rang. He wasn’t watching his back or looking to see when Jeff and the others left. They got him right outside the door.
He also had systems and rules for what to do when they did get him. The most important thing was to stay on his feet. Only one guy at a time can hit someone standing up against a wall or a bank of lockers, but a lot of guys can kick him if he falls down, and shoes hurt worse than hands.
He also had to be prepared for being slammed against the wall, to keep his head from hitting it. He felt the back of his head now, gingerly. No lump, at least. Actually, the back of his head felt strangely flat, but his hair was sticky with blood. He’d sure blown that rule today. And just his luck that they’d gotten him outside so his head slammed into the brick wall of the building instead of the usual metal lockers.
Usually he didn’t care too much about getting hurt. What bothered him most was the embarrassment, and knowing that everyone, everywhere he went, would know that people hated him. And he knew people noticed, because everyone gave him advice. The ladies at Angelica’s bakery would all look at him and click their tongues when he went in with his mother. Just ignore them, they’d tell him. If they can’t get a rise out of you they’ll lose interest.
When his father took him along to the observatory, the other astronomers and their students would tell him it would be better in high school and much, much better in college. He would meet other smart kids like him; he would have friends.
He understood what they were saying because of the library book he was reading now, a great book about wolves. He liked reading about the wolf packs and how the wolves smell out a wolf from a different pack and attack it, but they try to protect a wolf of their own pack, even from humans. He was a wolf from a different pack, he told himself, but someday he would find a pack that thought he smelled just right, a pack that thought he smelled like he belonged.
His parents tried to help too. They went to school and talked to his teacher and the principal. Best to let the boys sort this out on their own, everyone told them. His father finally told him to hit back. Maybe it will surprise them, he said. Maybe they’ll decide it’s not so much fun. But his whole life Bobby had been taught not to hit, not to hurt anyone or anything at all. His mother carried bugs out of the house in Kleenex to avoid killing any living creature. Bobby never even wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings, never mind punch them in the nose.
But his father seemed to think that it would work, so he tried it a couple of times. It turned out he just wasn’t very good at hitting. He certainly wasn’t as good as someone like Jeff Conover who’d been practicing every day for as long as Bobby could remember. And it made him feel ridiculous. Even while he was trying to punch Jeff and the other guys he felt stupid and unconvincing.
So mostly he tried to ignore them while it was going on, even though they didn’t seem to be losing interest at all. He concentrated on observing his own rules about staying on his feet and protecting his head, and he tried to imagine he was somewhere else while he waited for it to be over.
Often he imagined that he was with his own wolf pack, that they banded together and drove away the humans, and that they all crowded around him and pushed their long beautiful gray and black muzzles against him and breathed in his good, familiar smell. He buried his hands in their thick ruffs of fur and they licked him with their rough pink tongues and surrounded him as they walked through the snowy forest to their pack’s own lair.
He was in the outskirts of the woods now, and the special hush that he loved there surrounded him. The sun glowed red behind the trees, turning the bare branches into long fingers pointing at the sky. He didn’t have much time before it was dark on these gray winter days, so he headed for his favorite place, the little stream that he had found this winter. Looking at its ripples and miniature waterfalls, he could pretend it was a tiny river preserved in ice.
A light snow started to fall as Bobby knelt by the stream. He wondered if he could really see fish at the bottom of the stream, or if he just thought he could. The snow blew around him, swirling and dancing in the crisp air. This, he thought, was how it must have been when the four children first went through the wardrobe and found Narnia motionless under its enchantment of snow, before they broke the winter spell and became kings and queens of his favorite imaginary land. For a minute he felt he could step through the shimmering veil of snow into a whole new world of magic and adventure. It was just about to happen.
A bright drop reddened the ice and Bobby shivered. The moment of almost-magic was gone. The blood seemed to be coming from the corner of his mouth, but his lip didn’t hurt. Too cold, probably. He didn’t really remember being hit in the face, but maybe he had been. He dabbed at his lip with some snow. He didn’t always remember exactly where they hit him.
He felt cold suddenly, and tired, and his stomach hurt worse than before. He would go sit on the fallen tree on the other side of the stream and rest for a while before he went home. When he got to the tree he didn’t feel like climbing up to perch on top of it like he usually did. He just sat down in the snow and leaned against the side of the tree.
He wouldn’t think about school anymore, not until Monday. Even God took the weekend off, as his mother would remind his father when he worked too hard at the end of the semester. He would think of something nice, something to take his mind off the pain in his stomach and his head, something warm.
He remembered when he and Becky Mintz had played Peter Pan all one summer when they were eight and nine. It started when they heard Becky’s grandmother call the kids’ playhouse in the Mintzes’ yard a Wendy house. They played there all summer, not caring that the other kids thought nine year old girls shouldn’t play with boys, not caring that the other kids thought pretend games were babyish.
It only lasted until school started again in September, but he could remember how real Peter Pan had been for him and Becky all that summer. The Lost Boys, sometimes imaginary and sometimes represented by the single figure of Becky’s little sister, Penny, were their loyal band, and Never-Never Land unfurled like a map over the summer Massachusetts landscape around them.
Bobby was feeling better now. He was almost lying down in the snow, and as long as he didn’t move his head it didn’t hurt. His stomach still burned, but it felt very far away. His legs seemed even further away. That was right, he guessed. No matter what, your legs are always further away than your stomach. It was a silly thought, the kind he sometimes had just before he fell asleep.
Darkness was drifting through the trees and settling all around him. When he heard the crunch of snow underfoot he thought his wolf pack had come for him. But when he opened his eyes there was only one big white wolf sitting in the snow in front of him. Behind the wolf, a horse with a tall rider waited. With the wolf running ahead to lead the way, it was as easy as sleep to ride northward with the prince through the darkening woods.
Amy doesn’t know if she has a sister. She has a mother and a father, a best friend named Leah, and a pink room. Amy loves pink. Every day, she wears something pink to all-day school. Her mom teases her in the mornings by asking which sweater she wants to wear, which pants, which socks. To every question, Amy yells, “Pink! My pink sweater, my pink socks. Pink, pink, pink!” Almost everything she has is pink.
Amy’s father says she has a sister.
“Your sister, Jessie,” he tells Amy, showing her the picture he takes down from the bookcase. A big girl, almost a teenager. In the picture Jessie wears black, no pink, and she doesn’t smile.
Leah says Amy doesn’t have a sister.
“You’re an only child,” she says to Amy, kind of like teasing and kind of like jealous. Leah has sisters out the wazoo, she says. Amy likes the sound of that but she knows she could never say it herself. Wazoo isn’t a polite word, she’s pretty sure.
Leah’s two older sisters talk on the phone all the time and are always nagging Leah’s mom to take them to the mall, and her little twin sisters cry a lot and leave trails of Cheerios all through the house. After a play date at Leah’s, Amy has to agree that maybe she really doesn’t have a sister herself.
Then her dad tells her something she can’t wait to tell Leah.
“My sister,” she says proudly, talking right out loud even though the class is supposed to be working quietly on their math worksheets, “My sister, Jessie, is coming for a visit.”
“Sisters don’t come on visits,” Leah says firmly before the teacher hushes them.
Before the visit, Amy’s mom cleans and moves everything in the house even though most of it she ends up moving right back again. The fourth kitchen chair has been broken forever. It stands at the end of the counter. Old newspapers sit there waiting to be recycled but people never do. Amy’s mom has four new kitchen chairs delivered.
“You could have bought one,” Amy’s dad says, but Amy’s mom says no, she doesn’t want Jessie’s to be different.
Amy’s mother buys new blue and white striped sheets and a bedspread for the sofa bed in the guest room. Besides the sofa bed, the guest room has Amy’s father’s computer and Amy’s father’s exercise bike that he never rides on any more. Amy’s mother’s winter clothes hang on the exercise bike and lie on the sofa bed. Amy’s mother cleans everything up and puts the new blue and white sheets and bedspread on the sofa bed.
“There,” she says. “A nice girl’s room, like yours.”
Amy’s room has pink and white striped sheets and a pink checked bedspread and curtains that match. It has fluffy stuffed animals on the white wicker bed and a fluffy white rug like a pretend bear on the floor. Amy loves to lie on her stomach on her rug-bear and read Curious George all by herself. She keeps Curious George and her other books in a little pink iron bookcase by the door. Amy doesn’t think that the guest room, with its old brown sofa and the computer on the folding table under the window, looks like her room at all.
Amy’s mom and dad argue about who will go to the airport to pick up Jessie.
“We should all go. We should go as a family,” Amy’s dad says.
“She hasn’t seen you in five years. You’ll have the whole ride back together.”
Amy’s father looks unhappy at that. “I’ll take the baby with me, let her see her sister.”
Amy’s stomach does flipflops at the idea of going all the way to the airport and seeing her sister get off a plane. Amy’s wearing her favorite pink seersucker sundress and her new pink sandals and she can picture herself waiting in the crowd at the airport like she’s seen people do on TV, waving flowers as her father lifts her up and her sister walks towards them.
“No,” her mother says. “Amy and I will stay home and get everything ready.”
Everything is ready as far as Amy can see, but her mom walks back and forth through the house, picking things up and putting things down, going to the guest room door over and over again as if she hopes when she looks in this time something will be different.
Amy’s dad comes back from the airport extra loud and cheerful like he is when Amy’s mom is mad at him. He makes so much noise that he almost covers up the spaces where other people aren’t talking.
“Eileen! Amy! We’re home! Jessie’s here!” He’s yelling even though they are right in the living room, waiting. Amy puts down her book right away and goes to look at her sister, but her father is all alone in the hall.
“Here we all are.” Her father opens and shuts the hall closet door a few times even though he doesn’t have anything to hang up. Amy looks out the front door. The car is parked in front of the house and a girl is sitting in the front seat, not moving. She has blonde hair that sticks up all over, and she is looking straight ahead, not at Amy.
After a minute, the girl gets out of the car and gives herself a shake that makes her hair stand up more than ever. She is wearing a black leather jacket, black pants that flare at the bottom, and big black boots with high heels all the way to the toes. She is tall and skinny like a model in a fashion show on TV, and like them she doesn’t smile. She is definitely a teenager. The girl opens the back door of the car and starts tugging at a big black bag.
“I’ll get it. I told you I’d get it,” Amy’s father says, pushing past Amy and heading for the car. “Come on in and say hello to your family. I’ll get your stuff later.”
The girl says nothing but continues to tug at the bag. It plops out onto the sidewalk, arriving just as Amy’s dad does. It barely misses his feet. He hoists it up on his shoulder, pretends to stagger, fooling around. The girl—Jessie, Amy reminds herself—isn’t watching. She walks up the path to the house by herself and comes inside.
“I wanted my stuff,” she says, not looking at Amy or her mom.
Somehow, after a lot more noise from Amy’s dad, and a part where everyone tries not to trip over Jessie’s bag that he’s dumped down in the little front hall, everyone is in the living room. Jessie sits on the couch and Amy sits across from her.
Amy’s dad is standing behind Jessie, looking unhappy because he keeps offering to hang up Jessie’s jacket and she keeps saying no, thank you. She has her hands in the pockets, the collar turned up. She’s huddled on the couch like she’s cold, even though it is June and Amy is perfectly warm in her sundress and her new pink sandals.
Amy’s mom is standing behind Amy, looking unhappy because Jessie doesn’t want a sandwich or a coke or even a glass of water.
“No, thank you,” Jessie keeps saying very quietly. She’s looking straight ahead of her at the glass coffee table that Amy’s mom says she has to dust every day because Amy leaves so many little fingerprints all over it. Amy wonders if Jessie is looking at some fingerprints her mom forgot to wipe off.
“How about some soup?” Amy’s mom says to Jessie. Amy thinks that’s a good idea; Jessie looks cold enough for soup or even for the tea with honey and lemon that Amy only gets when she has a sore throat or a chill. Jessie says no, thank you, again. She just keeps looking at the table.
“You need to get settled in,” Amy’s dad says. “Amy, take your sister upstairs and show her her room. Eileen here fixed it all up for you,” he adds, and Jessie, who has been looking at Amy for the first time, looks back down at the coffee table.
“Why don’t you give me your jacket? I’ll hang it up for you,” he says, following them into the hall, and this time Jessie shrugs it off and hands it to him. She’s wearing a very short shirt that shows the pale middle of her all the way around. She should get a tan, Amy thinks, remembering how evenly brown and pretty her mother is by the end of the summer. As Jessie turns towards her, Amy catches a flash of silver from that white middle.
“Ooooh, look,” she starts to say, but Jessie shoots her a look that shuts her up fast. One of the rules about sisters, she knows from Leah’s house, is not to be a tattletale. Amy’s never had anyone to tell on before. This is her first chance to act like a sister and she takes it, but she thinks Jessie better take that earring out of her bellybutton for the summer or wear longer shirts. Dad is going to notice that pretty fast whether Amy tells or not.
Jessie must think the same thing because as soon as they get up to the guest room she starts digging around in her bag without even looking at the blue and white bedspread or the little vase of flowers Amy’s mom has put on the three-drawer filing cabinet next to the sofa bed. She pulls out a long black t-shirt, says “excuse me,” and turns her back to Amy. Amy knows it is okay to look at backs, at least the tops of backs, when people are changing. Jessie is wearing a bra with the littlest straps Amy has ever seen. The strap across the back is almost as tiny as the straps that go over her shoulders. The material is black but Amy can see Jessie’s pale skin right through the middle of it.
Jessie turns towards Amy and winces as she pulls her shirt down over her stomach.
“Can’t you take it off?” Amy whispers.
“The ring? No, I just got it done, it has to stay in for a month,” Jessie says. It is the longest thing Amy has heard her say so far. “Don’t tell, okay? Not, um, your dad, or your mom either, okay?”
Amy has never kept a secret from her mother in her whole life except at Christmas, but she promises without any hesitation. “I’m not a tattletale,” she says.
“Good,” Jessie says, and smiles at Amy for the first time, a small, quick, pink smile. Amy smiles back. Now Jessie knows what Amy decided downstairs. They are sisters.
For the next few days, Jessie stays in her room most of the time, lying on the bed with her walkman on her ears. Amy goes in to visit her when her dad tells her to—“Go check on your sister,” he says—or just on her own. She has to go right over to the bed and wave her hand in front of Jessie’s eyes if her eyes are open, or pat her gently when they aren’t.
Hi, Jessie,” she always says, once she has her attention.
“Hi squirt.” Jessie always calls her peanut or squirt, never Amy. Amy doesn’t mind.
She asks Jessie lots of questions. If the questions are interesting, Jessie will talk to her for a while. If they aren’t, Jessie puts the walkman back on and Amy goes away for a while and tries again later. Even Curious George is not as interesting as a new sister in the guest room.
“Who’s that?” Amy asks, pointing to the pictures on the filing cabinet next to the bed. The flowers, drying out now, are on the table by the computer.
“That’s Pam.” Jessie picks up a picture in a purple plastic frame. Jessie and another girl are pushing their faces together, close to the camera, smiling as hard as they possibly can. Amy learns that Pam is Jessie’s best friend. She also learns that Pam lives around the corner from Jessie, that she has no curfew, that she likes coffee yogurt, macramé ankle bracelets, and swimming. Pam has a rose tattooed on her left wrist. She likes Friday the Thirteenth movies but Jessie thinks Halloween movies are better. Jessie can talk about Pam all day.
Another picture comes and goes from the top of the filing cabinet: Jessie and a woman with a long braid of gray hair. The woman is smiling in the picture and she has an arm around Jessie but Jessie is hardly smiling at all. They are outside and a mountain is in the background. Jessie must keep the picture in her big black bag when she doesn’t have it out.
Sometimes Jessie lets Amy hear some of her music, a quick listen through the headphones, then she takes them right back. It reminds Amy of when her father gives her little sips of his beer, and like the beer Jessie’s music is something grownup she should like but doesn’t. Lots of noise and men yelling. When Jessie gets bored with talking and goes back to her music, Amy doesn’t blast her tape of Disney hits while she plays with her paper dolls, like she used to. She doesn’t want Jessie to hear her baby music.
The first few days, Amy’s mom and dad offer Jessie trips: does she want to go to the zoo, to the beach, to New York, to Philadelphia? The aquarium in Camden, or the one in Baltimore? It seems like Jessie just wants to stay in her room. Amy thinks that’s a shame. She would love to go to the zoo or the beach or the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia where you can walk through a giant human heart.
“Leave her alone,” Amy’s dad says finally. “She’s adjusting in her own way.” He says he was going to take some vacation time but if they’re not going to go anywhere, there’s no point, so after the weekend he goes back to work. Amy’s mom seems mad. Amy wonders if maybe she wanted to go to Philadelphia too.
Jessie doesn’t come downstairs for meals until after Amy’s mom calls, and then Amy’s dad calls, and then Amy’s dad puts one foot in the bottom step and calls in an annoyed voice. When Amy’s dad comes home from work and calls Jessie for dinner, Amy waits and goes downstairs with her. Every night, Amy’s dad grabs Jessie and gives her a big, kind of sideways hug and kisses the side of her head. “How’s my big girl?” he says. Then he grabs Amy and picks her way up: “How’s my little girl?” He kisses her too.
Jessie hardly eats anything. Amy watches her mom get upset and then mad, watching Jessie pick, pick, pick at her food, watching her push it around the plate with her fork. Amy isn’t allowed to push her food around with her fork, even food like peas that is hard to pick up without pushing it a little. In the first few days, Jessie picks at meatloaf and spaghetti; she pushes chicken and salad around with her fork. She pushes at hamburgers with the very ends of her blue-painted fingers. No one says anything to Jessie about picking or pushing, but Amy can tell that her mom is getting mad. She probably thinks Jessie doesn’t like her cooking. Amy tries to help.
“Jessie doesn’t eat much,” she remarks to her mom one day after breakfast. “I guess that’s why she’s so skinny. She was really skinny when she came,” she adds, so her mom gets the point.
“Yeah,” her mother says, even though she doesn’t let Amy say yeah because it’s slang. “She sure doesn’t eat much.”
“Teenagers,” Amy says like Leah does about her sisters, and her mom laughs.
By the end of the week, Amy’s mother gives up.
“I give up,” she tells Amy. She doesn’t say what she’s giving up on, but she’s standing in front of the refrigerator with the door open. She shuts the fridge and picks up the phone and calls Amy’s dad.
“Please stop and pick up a pizza,” she says. She doesn’t say “I give up” again, but Amy hears it in her voice. “What do you mean? The usual, a large with the works, no anchovies. Oh. Yeah,” she says again. “Okay.”
She puts her hand over the phone like she always reminds Amy to do.
“Go upstairs, hon, and ask Jessie what she likes on her pizza.” She never says “your sister,” like Amy’s dad does all the time.
Amy pushes open the door of Jessie’s room and taps her gently on the shoulder.
“What?” Jessie says. She looks sleepy and puffy.
“They’re wondering what you want on your pizza.” Amy doesn’t think “they” is a very polite thing to call her parents, but she doesn’t know exactly what to call them to Jessie. Even names seem complicated now that she has a sister.
“Nothing,” Jessie says.
“Nothing?” Amy can hardly believe her ears. “You don’t like pizza?”
“I like pizza. I eat pizza all the time at home.” Jessie picks up the picture in the purple frame. “Pam and I eat pizza for lunch and after school and when we sleep over at each other’s houses. We love pizza. Plain pizza. Nothing on it.”
She lies down again and puts the walkman back on. Amy notices the tape inside is not even moving.
When Amy’s mom hears Amy’s report she looks up at the ceiling for a minute like nothing can surprise her any more.
“One of the usual,” she says. “And one small plain.”
When Amy’s dad brings the pizza home, Jessie eats like she hasn’t seen food for a month. She’s eaten three slices of pizza before anyone else has even finished one. Amy can’t understand it. She loves everything on pizza. She’d even like to try anchovies, even though her parents say they’re terrible. Even if they are terrible, Amy would like to find out for herself. Amy’s mom and dad are looking at Jessie eating and eating, and then looking at each other. Amy is looking at that plain, boring, cheese-and-tomato pizza.
“Want a bite?”
Amy says yes, hops down and goes around the table, bites off the point of the fresh slice Jessie is holding out to her. Plain pizza. Not terrible, but not interesting, either. She chews, feeling her parents watching her. Is she still one of them, or has she gone over to the plain-pizza, teenager side? She swallows and goes back to her seat.
“Very good,” she says politely, pulling a piece of pepperoni off her own slice and eating it.
Over the weekend, Amy tackles her mother about the sister question. They’re on their way to the mall, just the two of them. Amy’s mom asked Jessie to come too but she said no.
“My big girl’s going to spend the day with her old dad,” Amy’s dad says, but Jessie is back up in her room by the time they leave, and her dad is on the couch watching a tennis game.
“Is Jessie my sister? Why haven’t I seen her before? Why doesn’t she live with us? Why does she call you Eileen?” Amy has so many questions she can’t wait for an answer before she asks the next one.
“It’s a long story,” her mom says. She takes a deep breath. “Dad and Jessie’s mother were married a long time ago but they weren’t happy together. They lived in Oregon, where Jessie lives now. Then Dad met me and we fell in love and got married and had you.” She pauses. Amy doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t think that was a very long story. In fact it seemed kind of rushed, like her mom was nervous or something. She waits, hoping for more. “Dad had to move to New Jersey for work so he couldn’t see much of Jessie. He went out there a few times but the last few years it’s been so busy…” She sighs. “He always took care of Jessie, though.”
Amy doesn’t know how you can take care of someone without seeing her, but she decides to ask a different question, one that she thinks got missed the first time.
“Is Jessie my sister?”
“She’s really your half-sister, but don’t say half in front of your father. He wants you to feel close, like real sisters. It’s called half because you have the same father but not the same mothers, so half your parents are the same.” When Amy doesn’t say anything, her mom goes on. “It can’t feel much like a sister to you, with the difference in your ages and her living so far away. But you can try to be a friend to Jessie, if not a sister.”
Why not a sister? Amy wonders. Sisters aren’t the same ages anyway, unless they’re twins. She can’t tell if her mom is saying she and Jessie are really sisters or not. She can’t tell if her mom is saying it’s okay to want Jessie to be her sister or not.
“I know this whole thing has been hard on you, sweetie, and you’ve been very good. I’ll see if Leah’s mother can take you for a day next week, and maybe Jessie will go to the beach with us one day.”
“So Jessie lives with her mother?” Amy knows she’s nagging a little, but she wants to get all this straight.
“Jessie lives with her mother in Oregon. They haven’t been getting along too well and her mother thought she should come here for the summer. Your dad agreed,” Amy’s mom says, looking straight ahead at the road.
“Sometime can I go to Oregon to visit Jessie and her mom?”
“No,” Amy’s mom says very firmly. “You will not be going to Oregon to visit anyone.”
Amy can tell her mother isn’t going to answer any more questions right now so she thinks and thinks about what she’s heard. They’re both quiet almost all the way to the mall. Then her mom answers an extra question, one Amy asked but then forgot about.
“She doesn’t call me Eileen,” her mom says. “She doesn’t call me anything at all.”
At the mall Amy’s mom heads automatically for the girls’ department of their favorite store. She looks at anything pink—pink shorts, pink t-shirts—but for the first time Amy looks around for something else. There isn’t anything black in her size. She settles on a pair of navy blue shorts and a navy blue and white striped t-shirt. Her mom is surprised but she says fine, fine. The blue things look odd, like somebody else’s clothes, in the pile of pink and white by the cash register.
Upstairs, Amy’s mom wants to go to the juniors’ department before lunch. She looks and looks. She must look at everything in the whole department twice. Amy doesn’t mind. She watches the teenagers shopping with their moms or in little groups of two or three. Most of them have long, fluffy hair and wear bright colors. A few of them have short shirts that show their middles but she doesn’t see anyone with an earring in her bellybutton like Jessie has. They’re pretty, but Amy decides she likes her own sister better. She’s more interesting-looking.
Amy’s mom finally makes up her mind on a baby blue t-shirt.
“For Jessie. It will be perfect with her eyes.”
The t-shirt is very pretty. It has a wide neck and little white daisies scattered across the front. It doesn’t look like any of Jessie’s shirts.
“I don’t think Jessie wears blue.”
“I didn’t think you wore blue either. She’ll like it,” Amy’s mom says, but Amy still isn’t sure.
Then Amy’s mom takes her to McDonald’s in the mall and tells her again that she is “being very good about this whole thing.” After that they go home.
Amy’s mom gives Jessie the t-shirt as soon as they get home.
“Look what Amy and I picked out for you,” she says as soon as Jessie comes downstairs. “I wish you had come with us. I didn’t want to get too much without you, but we thought this was perfect, didn’t we, Amy?”
Amy doesn’t say anything. She is watching Jessie open the bag and take out the shirt, touching it with the ends of her fingers like it’s a hamburger.
Amy notices her mom is right: Jessie doesn’t say Eileen. Jessie folds up the shirt very neatly and puts it back in the bag. She puts the bag on the coffee table.
“Thank you very much.”
Nothing could be more polite than that, Amy thinks, but her mom doesn’t say “you’re welcome” and she looks mad. Jessie doesn’t take the shirt upstairs with her that day or the day after, and every time Amy’s mom looks at the bag lying on the coffee table, she presses her lips together like she does when she’s mad at Amy and doesn’t want to yell. Finally, Amy takes the bag upstairs one afternoon while her mom’s in the kitchen. She tiptoes into the guestroom and puts the bag on the table by the window, behind the vase. The flowers are all dried up and dropping their petals now. She doesn’t even look at the bed to see if Jessie is watching.
The next week Amy’s mom remembers about the play date she promised to set up with Leah. She makes Jessie come too.
“We’re all going to drop Amy off,” she says. Ever since the t-shirt she’s telling Jessie what to do, not asking her what she wants all the time like Amy’s dad still does. It’s very quiet in the car and Amy’s glad when they get to Leah’s.
“Come in and meet Leah’s family,” Amy’s mom tells Jessie. “There are two girls about your age.”
“They’re fifteen and sixteen,” Amy adds. She knows Jessie is fourteen.
Jessie looks out the window. “I’ll wait here.”
Amy’s mom grabs Amy’s hand and marches her up the path to the door. When the door opens she asks Leah’s mom, “Are Stephanie and Danielle around? Jessie’s in the car and I thought they would like to meet her.”
Amy thinks her mom and Leah’s mom must have had a talk about Jessie on the phone because Leah’s mom seems to know all about her.
“Girls,” she yells up the stairs. “Come down and meet Amy’s sister.”
“Is that the sister?” Leah asks, looking out the door at Jessie, still sitting in the front seat of the car. “She looks kind of weird.”
“My sister is not weird,” Amy says right back to her. “My sister is from Oregon.”
“Go out to the car and say hello,” Leah’s mom tells Danielle and Stephanie. They look at Jessie and then at each other like they think she’s weird, too.
Amy watches the two big girls walk towards the car. They look very big and bright and Jessie seems to shrink and fade by comparison, like the black and white comics in the paper during the week look next to the big, bright-colored ones you get on Sunday.
Stephanie and Danielle come back in a few minutes.
“We said hi,” they announce, and go into the kitchen where Amy can here them laughing and fooling around.
“Well.” Amy’s mom and Leah’s mom look at each other. Amy’s mom shrugs and kisses Amy. “Be good, pumpkin. I’ll pick you up at five.”
Amy has a good time with Leah but she keeps wondering how her mom and Jessie are doing without her. She talks to Leah about Jessie a lot and tries to make it clear that her sister is interesting, not weird.
“Do your sisters have, um, anything pierced?” she asks when they come in from riding bikes. She really wants to tell Leah about the earring Jessie has in her bellybutton.
“Like their ears? Sure. There was the biggest fight and then Stephanie got her ears pierced, and then when Danielle asked it was no problem at all. I’m next. My mom says I can get mine pierced when I’m thirteen.”
Amy decides not to tell Leah about Jessie’s bellybutton after all.
When Amy gets home her mom says she has to go straight upstairs and get out of those filthy clothes before dinner. Amy doesn’t think dirt on the knees of your jeans is really the same as filthy clothes. Dirty knees should be expected after a play date, especially if you ride bikes. When she goes in to say hi to Jessie on her way to her room, Jessie is in the bathroom. After she changes she remembers to wash her hands (she knows her mom would say she should have done that first), but Jessie is still in the bathroom. Another teenager thing. Leah says her older sisters are always in the bathroom, sometimes separately, sometimes together. Amy goes downstairs and washes her hands in the powder room.
“You should have done that before you changed,” her mom says, standing in the doorway. “You put on your nice clean clothes with dirty hands.”
“Jessie was in the bathroom.” Amy says.
“Still?” Without waiting for an answer, Amy’s mom goes upstairs and knocks on the bathroom door.
Jessie?” she calls. “Jessie, it’s Eileen. Are you okay?”
Jessie flushes. “I’m fine.”
“Open the door.”
“Open the door this minute.”
The don’t-fool-around voice works. Jessie opens the bathroom door but she doesn’t come out.
“What?” she says, and she doesn’t sound polite. Amy’s mom is sniffing the air and making a disgusted face. Amy doesn’t think that’s too polite either, but then her mom says, “Smoking! I thought I smelled smoke.”
“You are.” Amy’s mom opens the door wider and marches into the bathroom. Jessie comes out and stands behind Amy. “Why is this window open? It wasn’t open this morning. And look! Just look at this!”
Amy pokes her head in and sees a match floating in the clear water in the toilet.
“Amy, you get out of here!”
Amy retreats back to the hall. She only looked because her mother said to.
Amy’s mom keeps telling Jessie she was smoking, and Jessie keeps shaking her head. No, no, she wasn’t. Finally Amy’s mom sends Jessie to her room. Then she sends Amy to her room. Amy still doesn’t know what she did wrong, exactly, but when her mom is this mad her room is the best place to be anyway.
After a while, and a lot of spraying—it sounds like her mom is cleaning the whole bathroom top to bottom and from her room Amy can smell all the extra air freshener she’s squirting—Amy’s mom goes back downstairs.
“Can I come in?” Jessie is in the doorway of Amy’s room for the very first time.
“Sure. Sure, come on in.”
“What are those?”
Amy has been stuffing her paper dolls back in the shoebox where she keeps them. She hands the box to Jessie.
“Paper dolls, huh? I remember these.” Jessie is looking at them all, the thick ones with fronts and backs from the fancy book Amy’s grandmother gave her for her birthday, the ones Amy cut out and colored herself, the in-between ones from regular books Amy’s mom buys at the grocery store.
“Gimme a piece of paper,” Jessie says. She folds it into a fan and then– without even drawing lines, Amy marvels– she cuts a half-silhouette of a girl and unfolds a string of five identical doll shapes.
“I left their heads big so we could give them different hair,” Jessie says. After some discussion and a few snips, two have long curls, two have straight hair to the bottoms of their ears like Amy, and one has Jessie-spikes all over.
“Let’s color them,” Amy suggests. They take turns but Jessie lets Amy go first so she gets to do three. When they’re done, two are wearing pink and two are wearing black and the last one, the one with the spiky hair, is wearing a black skirt and a pink-and-black striped shirt and high black boots. She’s Amy’s favorite.
When Amy’s dad comes home Jessie has to go downstairs. Amy can hear the deep tones of her father’s disappointed voice, but when they all sit down to dinner Jessie seems happier than Amy’s ever seen her. Everybody but Jessie is eating hamburgers and corn on the cob and salad. Jessie is eating frozen pizza she cooked herself in the microwave. Even when Jessie doesn’t eat what they’re having, Amy’s dad says she has to come down for dinner. With your family, he always says. Tonight, even though she got yelled at, Jessie seems more like part of the family. She even laughs at some of Dad’s old jokes that Amy has heard a million times.
When Amy’s mom passes him the basket with the hamburger rolls, he says, “Bread, bread, the actor cried, and the curtain came down with a roll.”
Whenever he puts ketchup on anything he asks Amy and Jessie if they know the ketchup poem: “Shake, shake, the ketchup bottle/First a little, then a lottle.” Tonight Jessie laughs. Amy wonders if maybe her dad didn’t know those jokes when Jessie was little.
After dinner she follows Jessie upstairs. Maybe Jessie will want to play more with the paper dolls. Or maybe she’d rather play something else. Amy won’t mind, whatever Jessie picks, but Jessie goes into the guest room and sits down on the bed, pulling something out of her pocket.
“Look, peanut,” she says happily. “Dad brought the mail in with him. I got a letter from Pam.”
“Oh,” Amy says. “That’s good.” She wonders if it is impolite to ask what’s in the letter. Pam has pink stationery with circus elephants walking trunk to tail across the top of each page. It doesn’t look go with the way Amy pictures Pam. It looks more like something Amy herself would pick.
“How is she?” she asks finally.
Jessie looks up like she’s surprised Amy is still there.
“She’s fine. It’s just about her summer and stuff. Listen, squirt, I gotta finish this and then I gotta write back. I’ll see you later, okay?”
Amy can take a hint, so she goes back in her room and looks at the string of paper dolls. She tacks them up on her bulletin board, next to her school picture. Then she goes downstairs. Her parents are in the living room. Her father pulls her onto his lap even though he’s watching the news and she’s getting too big for him to see around very easily.
“How’s my little girl?” he asks, settling her back against him and rubbing his sandpapery cheek against hers.
The next day, Jessie says she wants to take her letter down to the mailbox at the entrance to their development.
“Your father can take it to work and mail it there,” Amy’s mom tells her. “His office is by the main post office. Your letter will get there faster.”
Jessie doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t give her father the letter, either. She’s up unusually early, actually sitting at the table and pushing some cereal around in a bowl while the rest of them eat breakfast. After breakfast she puts on her jacket, even though it’s mid-June and warm out.
“Can I go too?” Amy begs. Her mom is getting ready to say no, she can tell. “I want to go for a walk, and then maybe we can go on the swings.”
“I’ll take her,” Jessie says, and Amy’s mom says yes like she is too surprised to say anything else.
“Take your jacket. And be careful on the swings.”
Amy likes walking with Jessie. If she wants to stop and look at a flower or a bug, she can stop. If she wants to run a little she can run. Jessie doesn’t hold her hand or tell her to keep up or make her walk on the inside so if a car drives up on the sidewalk it will hit her and not Amy. There aren’t a lot of cars driving in their development during the day when everyone’s at work, but Amy’s mom likes to be careful anyway.
When they get to the mailbox Jessie reads everything on it before she puts her letter inside.
“What’s it say?”
“Just when the mailman picks up the letters inside. One o’clock, it says. About three hours.” She squints at the sky like it will tell her exactly how long it is until one o’clock. “Pam should have my letter on Thursday.”
After Jessie finally gives up her letter to the mailbox, they go over to the little playground on the other side of the entrance. Nobody else is there; Amy and Jessie have the place to themselves. Amy loves the feeling of swinging. Today, with no one to push her she works hard, leaning way back and pumping her knees to go way up. She goes higher than her mom ever lets her, but after a while she decides the fun of swinging is all at the beginning. Now that she’s going way, way up in front and way, way up in back without even trying, it’s kind of boring. She slows down for conversation.
Jessie is sitting on one of the swings, twisting a little, dragging the toes of her boots in the groove that becomes a puddle in the rain.
Jessie looks at her.
“Don’t say anything, okay?” She pulls a green and white box out of her jacket pocket. She takes out a cigarette and a small black plastic lighter.
“I’m not a tattletale.”
“I know you’re not, squirt.” Jessie lights the cigarette. “Where is everybody?”
Amy looks around.
“There’s not that many kids in the neighborhood. Maybe more come down here on the weekend.” She realizes that everyone else is doing something this summer: going on vacations, or to day camp, or at least to the beach for the day. Last year she went to day camp for two weeks and this year she was supposed to go for longer, but then her dad said it wasn’t worth it.
“We’ll be doing day trips and stuff with Jessie.”
Amy doesn’t mind. Day camp wasn’t terrible, but she likes being with her sister better.
“This place is dead. Dead, dead, dead,” Jessie announces. She’s only smoked a little bit of her cigarette, taking fast little puffs and blowing them out again right away. Amy has never seen anyone smoke like that before. Jessie stubs the cigarette out carefully on the metal pole of the swing set and puts the unsmoked half back in the box.
“I think it’s nice here,” Amy says. They stay like that for a long time, twisting a little on their swings, looking up at the sky. The blue seems to reach right down to the grass.
After that, they go down to the swings for a while almost every morning. Jessie smokes a little every day. Amy can smell the cigarette smoke on her and sometimes she thinks her mom must too but she doesn’t say anything. Even though Jessie never smokes more than half a cigarette at a time, pretty soon the green and white box is empty.
“I’m out,” she tells Amy. “Now what’m I supposed to do?”
Amy likes being asked for advice, so she doesn’t say the first thing that comes into her head: why not quit smoking, everyone knows it’s bad for you. Instead, she tries to think about her sister’s problem from her point of view. She tries to be helpful. “You could go to the store and get more.”
“Sure. Out here in the sticks where I can’t go anyplace on my own. At home, me and Pam go downtown whenever we want, we just go…wherever. You think she’s,” jerking her head back towards the house, “going to take me to get cigs?”
Amy doesn’t know what to say.
“I hate it here,” Jessie says after a while. “I hate it, I hate it. I can’t go anywhere or do anything. I hate this place.”
Amy feels bad. She knows they haven’t gone anywhere much this summer, but she thought Jessie was happy going to the swings with her every day, just like she was happy going there with Jessie. All this time she’s been happy just to be with her sister, and her sister wasn’t happy at all.
“Okay,” she says, getting off the swing. “We’ll go to the deli-mart.”
Jessie just looks at her. Amy has to explain that there’s a store, not a real grocery store but a little store with newspapers and milk and cigarettes and ice cream, across the highway from the entrance to their development and a little way down the road.
Amy doesn’t really know for sure, but she enjoys answering like a grownup giving directions.
“Maybe half a mile or so on the right. You can’t miss it,” she adds, like her dad does when he gives people directions to their house. Her mom says people always get lost following his directions.
“Let’s go,” she says.
“I haven’t got any money on me.” Jessie gets off the swing and stretches. “I’ve got money in my bag, though. We’ll go tomorrow.”
That night, after she goes to bed, Amy isn’t so sure about the plan any more. She doesn’t think her mom would let them go to the store by themselves if they asked. She certainly wouldn’t let them go buy cigarettes. Maybe it will rain tomorrow, Amy decides. Maybe Jessie will forget about going to buy cigarettes. She doesn’t really seem to like smoking all that much anyway.
Unfortunately, the next day is hot and sunny. As soon as they get to the playground it’s clear Jessie hasn’t forgotten.
“C’mon, let’s go to this deli-mart place,” she says.
“Why don’t I wait for you right here?”
“You can’t stay here by yourself. You could get kidnapped. There’s maniacs all over these days,” Jessie says. She sounds just like Amy’s mother. Amy looks around at the jungle gym and the slide, startled, as if men with masks and guns might be hiding under there right now. “Anyway, your mom would kill me. Let’s go.”
They set out. Jessie holds Amy’s hand crossing the highway and looks both ways. The traffic is quiet. Amy wants to pull her hand away and remind Jessie that she’s the guide here, not a little sister tagging along. Pretty soon Jessie lets go of her. The day is warm and sticky. Amy thinks Jessie must be awfully hot in her leather jacket. They walk on the sidewalk until it ends and then they walk on the shoulder of the road. The black tar on the shoulder is so hot and smelly it gives Amy a headache. When the shoulder ends they walk on cracked stone and long grass the rest of the way. The store seems a lot further away when they’re walking than it does when Amy uses it as her almost-home landmark from the car.
By the time they see the deli-mart up ahead, Amy has a blister and her nose feels sunburned.
Jessie tells her to pick out a popsicle, and takes it up to the lady at the counter.
“And a pack of Newports, please.” Amy can tell she’s nervous, but the lady slides the new green and white box across the counter and picks up Jessie’s money without even looking at her.
Amy and Jessie take turns licking the popsicle, and the way home goes faster than the walk to the store did. They’re almost home before Jessie takes the box of cigarettes out of her pocket. She examines it closely, taps first the top and then the bottom on the heel of her hand, examines it again. She finds the end of the little gold plastic strip that tears so neatly all around the box. She pulls the short piece of plastic wrapper off the top of the box and the bigger piece off the bottom. Then she goes through the whole tapping thing again.
“Come on, Jessie.” Amy is hopping from one foot to the other. “This is where we cross.”
Jessie has finally opened the box and now she’s fiddling with the foil inside. She looks up.
“Amy! Watch out!”
Amy jumps back as a big truck goes by. The next second Jessie grabs her hand and drags her back from the edge of the road. It wasn’t really that close, she tells herself, but her heart is doing flipflops in her chest anyway because she didn’t see it, she wasn’t paying attention.
She jumps again when a car pulls up very, very close to them. It takes a second to realize that it’s her mom’s car, and that her mom is getting out. Amy can see by her face that going to the store for cigarettes is even worse than she imagined.
Amy’s mom picks her up and holds her very tight. She puts Amy in the back seat of the car and buckles her seatbelt for her like she’s a baby.
“Get in the car,” she says without even looking at Jessie.
When they get home Jessie goes straight up to her room without a word. Amy’s mom makes Amy stay in the living room while she makes a phone call from the kitchen. Amy can’t hear the conversation but her mom hangs up the phone very hard and then calls Amy in.
“Sit.” Amy sits at the table and her mom stands over her. “I want the whole story of what the two of you were up to today, and I want it now.”
Amy nods and tries to start but she isn’t sure how.
“Jessie wanted to go to the store,” she begins, and stops.
She nods. Her mom knows the worst thing and she didn’t have to tell. After that the rest of the story is easy.
“How many times have I told you never, ever, to cross the highway on your own?”
“I wasn’t on my own. Jessie crossed me. She held my hand.”
“She wasn’t holding it when I saw you. And that truck….”
Amy hangs her head. She remembers now that she knew all along that they probably weren’t supposed to go to the store by themselves.
“It’s not your fault,” her mother says. “I don’t blame you. But you have to use better judgment. Older people can do bad, stupid things too, and you have to know not to go along with them.”
Amy knows her mom is talking about Jessie, even though she told her it was her idea to go to the deli-mart. Her mom hugs her.
“We couldn’t stand it if anything happened to you.”
Amy hugs her mom back but she still feels miserable. She hasn’t been good today, and she hasn’t been a good sister either. She goes up to her room and lies down. Miserable throbs all over her like the sun on her skin. When her mom comes in to put lotion on her nose she pretends to be asleep.
Amy’s dad comes home soon after that. He’s home early but he doesn’t call Amy and Jessie to come down so he can yell at them about the morning. Instead, he and Amy’s mom go into the living room and it sounds like they’re yelling at each other.
“Could have been killed,” she hears her mother saying, over and over, and once, “incorrigible, uncontrollable.” Her father’s voice isn’t loud enough for her to hear what he’s saying, and finally it sounds like he stops talking but her mom’s voice goes on. Then her dad goes into the kitchen and it sounds like he’s on the phone for a long time, a long call and then a shorter one. Finally he comes to the bottom of the stairs and calls Jessie and Amy to come down.
Amy is relieved that pretty soon the yelling will be over with and things can go back to normal. She isn’t really listening to her father, because he seems to be saying all the things her mom already said.
“…expected you both to use better judgment, but um, especially you, Jessie….”
Amy’s mom is nodding with her lips pressed together and she looks at Jessie the whole time.
“…talked it over with your mother, and with Eileen here, of course, and she agrees it’s best for your visit to end now. You’ll be going home tomorrow, the arrangements are all made…”
Amy starts crying. Big hot tears slide down her face and make her chin itch. Her throat feels like there’s something sharp inside it and she can’t talk but she shakes her head no, no.
“…sorry this turned out this way…your own doing…irresponsible….” Amy’s dad is still talking to Jessie, but her mom notices Amy crying and picks her up.
“Overexcited.” She carries Amy up to her room. Amy looks over her mother’s shoulder at Jessie. Through her tears her sister is just a blur, as if she’s already far away.
Amy’s mom puts her to bed and brings her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk on a tray like she does when Amy’s sick.
“This whole thing has been too much for you,” she says, stroking Amy’s hair. “Tomorrow everything will be back to normal.”
Amy can tell her mom isn’t mad at her any more, but she still feels terrible. Back to normal means back to how things were before Jessie came, before she had a sister.
Amy gets up early the next morning and goes into Jessie’s room. Jessie is pushing a few things into her big black bag.
“I saved you something, squirt,” she says. “Close your eyes.”
Amy feels something cool and hard in her hands.
“Okay, open ‘em.”
She’s holding the picture of Jessie and Pam in the purple frame. She hugs Jessie and Jessie hugs her back. She can feel Jessie’s hard, spiky hair, and the soft back of her neck.
“It’s okay, peanut,” Jessie tells her. She lets go of Amy and wipes Amy’s eyes with a tissue, then Amy wipes Jessie’s eyes with a tissue.
“Maybe you can write me a letter.”
“Yeah,” Jessie says. “Maybe.”
They go downstairs together. Amy’s dad puts Jessie’s bag in the trunk, no fooling around this time.
“Say goodbye to your sister,” he tells Amy.
“Bye, squirt.” Jessie walks straight out of the house without saying anything to Amy’s mom. Amy watches the car pull away in case Jessie waves, but she doesn’t. Then she goes up to her room.
Carefully, she takes the picture out of the purple frame and pins it to her bulletin board under the string of paper dolls. She wishes she had a picture of her and Jessie on the swings, or that Jessie had gone with them to the mall so they could have had their picture taken together in one of the little photo booths: Amy and Jessie, Jessie and Amy, a whole string of pictures. After a while, she pins her school picture over the picture of Pam. If she squints a little, she can pretend it’s a picture of two sisters, their cheeks pressed together, smiling as hard as they can possibly smile.
This one is known to the members of my former writing group as “the bakery story.” I think it has a wintry feel for this snowy day.
The Nutmeg Tree
Among all the gingerbread towns of the Swift River Valley, with their glittering meringue spires and their streets paved with sparkle-sugar snow for six months of the year, Dana is considered, at least by its own residents, to be the closest to Paradise. Not because of its clear streams, its green surrounding hills, or even its excellent Presbyterian church choir, but because in Dana, standing on the common in the middle of town, across from the old hotel, is Angelica’s.
Angelica’s is that rarest of community comforts, a really excellent bakery. Angelica’s is a sanctuary, a haven where a man can stop on his way to work and buy the most succulent doughnut in the valley, or possibly the world. He can buy a whole box of doughnuts and carry it away with him to the mill, the office, or the station. At Angelica’s, small groups of women sit late in the morning and egg each other on to eclairs with assurances that they can always skip lunch, and two girls can linger all afternoon with one raspberry napoleon and two forks, comparing secrets in the warm coffee-scented air.
Angelica herself is a quiet woman who rises at four o’clock every morning. In the dark before dawn, with her familiars, heat and humidity, she transforms yeast and flour, sugar and soda and salt. Angelica is a tall woman, nearly forty, as plump and golden as a Parker House roll. With her honey brown hair braided around her head and her arms as white as flour, she is a woman who would have been courted by the most prosperous merchant of any medieval town, and even in these later days she is not without her admirers.
Sometimes a man doesn’t know what impulse makes him suddenly change his mind when his number is called, so that he bypasses the fancy pastry he decided on while he was standing in front of the big glass case, and asks instead for a square of Angelica’s gingerbread cake, and notices as if for the first time that it is spicy, and wholesome, and sweet. Another man, paying for his thousandth cup of coffee and his hundredth cruller, feels Angelica’s fingers brush his as she hands him the waxed paper bag, and goes away dazed, remembering her quiet smile, and hardly tasting the cinnamon sugar gritting between his teeth.
But Angelica is not only the enchantress of the bakery, not only the woman who trails vanilla and nutmeg through so many of her townsmen’s dreams. Who among us is only her work, no matter how consuming? Angelica likes to read and sew; she is a good but not stellar member of her church choir. She has her likes and dislikes among the townspeople, although she dispenses her muffins and scones with the friendly impartiality business requires.
Angelica lives over the bakery with a cat and two hundred romance novels. She has a large warm dark living room, a large sunny bedroom, a small bright kitchen and a tiny bathroom with a clawfooted tub. There are always pots of flowers blooming in Angelica’s rooms: crocuses and grape hyacinths, white narcissus and the ruffled pink Angelique tulip she uses as her trademark on the bakery’s bags and boxes. She creates a false winter for the bulbs in the big refrigerator downstairs, and plants them in pots, a few at a time.
It is always springtime in Angelica’s rooms, but in the bakery she keeps all the feasts and seasons. There, every year flows smoothly onward from New Year’s confections through the dark chocolate heart of Valentine’s Day, the pastel-iced Easter egg cookies and the procession of fruit pies and tarts each in their season, from strawberries through peaches to apples, to pumpkin pie and mince, and the thousand cookies of Christmas.
And Angelica has her own private festivals, days she hastens through time to meet. Six days of the year are holidays secret to herself, because every other month Mark Dalton makes his way to Dana from New York City, covering the Northeast as the representative of Mullen and Sons, bulk and wholesale purveyors of the world’s finest spices.
Mark is a small neat man with a black shiny car and a black shiny order book. He usually arrives after the morning rush is over. He and Angelica sit at the big steel table in the kitchen and wrangle happily over her order, sometimes dipping into his case of samples, while Ruth Mintz stands out front and watches over the counter.
Angelica orders vanilla from Madagascar, and Dutch processed cocoa, and cardamom and cloves from the East. She allows herself to be coaxed into trying cinnamon from Ceylon instead of the cinnamon from the south of China that she has always used. The Ceylonese cinnamon is spicier, richer-tasting, Mark tells her.
Out of curiosity, one month she orders a small amount of saffron, the stamens of fall-blooming crocuses that are plucked one by one by hand in Kashmir. She imagines women in bright robes working in the fields, slim brown hands flashing among the purple flowers. It takes seventy thousand stamens to make one pound of saffron; it is the most expensive spice in the world. Mark has told her of how chefs in Europe use a small amount of saffron to perfume a whole bin of rice; she puts her saffron in a bin of flour and produces a ring-shaped, almond-studded saffron bread, purple flowers hazy in her mind as she kneads and braids the dough.
After the order is complete, Angelica always asks Mark to stay for lunch, and for the past seven years he has always accepted. Over the meal in Angelica’s little kitchen upstairs, Mark tells her stories of how the Crusaders brought pepper home with them from the East and how it inspired explorers, and of how greedy men will soak the bark of other trees in cassia oil and sell the bark as cinnamon.
He tells her of how nutmeg and mace come from the same tree, and how when the pale golden fruits are split open the mace is like a net of red thread holding the brown kernel, the nutmeg. The two spices are cured, and then separated, and then cured further. Whole and ground nutmegs and ground mace are shipped to all the ports of the world. Mark cannot tell Angelica what the nutmeg fruit tastes like. He has read that it can be made into jam, he tells her, mostly it is discarded.
Mark does not tell Angelica much about himself. He lives near his office, she has learned. He is a Presbyterian like herself, he has no children, he wears no wedding ring. It is not wrong to think of him. After seven years, she still wears her favorite dress when she expects him, but she no longer makes the bed in the bedroom he has never seen. After lunch, Mark heads home; Angelica’s is the most distant point on his route.
He will be back on the second Friday of the month after next, she tells herself. In the meantime, his days run alongside hers in her mind. She knows that when she gets up he is still asleep but during the morning rush, about eight thirty, she often thinks of him getting up and showering, knotting one of his dark ties with his small neat fingers, having a soft-boiled egg in an eggcup, making a cup of tea. Mark drinks tea only; she keeps his favorite on hand for his visits.
She pictures him walking to his office, looking through his mail, going to lunch. He swaps stories with other men before meetings in the afternoons, then heads home to the newspaper and dinner, maybe back out to see a friend or an early movie. When she knows he is traveling she pictures him drinking tea in hotel coffee shops, stopping on the road to fill up the car. She imagines him sitting in restaurants and bakeries and the finer greengrocers, chatting easily with chefs and businessmen while he fills in the pages of his order book, and all the time working his way back to Dana, and Angelica’s, and her.
But then the second Friday in July comes and goes without Mark. He was last here in May; she checks the order date on the last shipment. A week goes by, two weeks. Finally she dials the New York offices of Mullen and Sons. It is the first time she has called in her seven years as their customer. After she hangs up the words are still there: a short illness; arrangements; hours. She has a piece of paper in her hand.
She does not go to New York. Mark has never spoken of any relatives; she has no idea if his parents are living or dead, if he has brothers or sisters. And what if she now discovers a wife or a sweetheart? She has feared such a discovery for so long, while what she should have feared was circling above her in a future sky. She has been to enough funerals to know that Mark will not be there; she stays home.
She sends flowers to the address she was given by the office in New York. Three weeks later, she receives a letter from a man named James Ziegler. He thanks her for the flowers, explaining that he is the friend that Mark lived with, as she probably knows, he says, just as he has heard so much about her from Mark. Angelica tries to rearrange her picture of Mark’s house: two eggs in matching china eggcups, two cups of tea, cozy chats about the customers, about her.
That night, Angelica dreams of a small tree with one pale golden fruit glowing softly under the dark leaves. In her dream she knows the cool smooth skin, the peachlike texture of the flesh, the taste like spiced honey. Suddenly a hand wrenches it from the branch. Fingers tear open the fruit with sharp neat movements, ripping out the red-veined nutmeg, dropping the two empty halves on the dark earth.
2014 International Book Awards Finalist in the Poetry Category
2014 San Francisco Book Festival Honorable Mention, Poetry Category
2014 USA Best Book Awards “Poetry” Category Finalist
Featured on the USA Book News’s 2014 USA Best Book Awards Website
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Praise for The Weight of Snow
“The poems in The Weight of Snow are heartfelt, skillfully written, and keenly observed fragments of the natural world and our lives there. Bravo.” – Gary Young, Poet Laureate of Santa Cruz County, Award-Winning Author of Pleasure, No Other Life, and Braver Deeds
“[Bruce] is the worthy heiress of Mary Oliver.” – John Gilchrist
There is nothing to say that would be as lyrical and eloquent as…
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Another take on the New Year’s resolution– and on our reading addictions!
How many people are lying in bed on a Saturday morning with a kid’s biography about Madame Marie Curie? Let me know if you did that this morning, please. I bought that book for a pre-teen, but wow! What a story! I berated myself for never learning about this incredible Polish woman until now and I’m … age sixty-four. There are so many good books to read still.
I read books before I give them to kids–are they too hard? Too easy? Maybe not appropriate for the age of the reader? And… I have to admit that many books for young people are darn interesting. Did you know that rich people used radium water as mouthwash until jaws started to rot? That radium was put in lipsticks and suppositories?
I saw a Facebook post that encouraged people to read MORE in 2015. I didn’t clasp that advice to my bosom. I was thinking that…
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Dear readers, if anyone would like a review copy of The Caregiver, please let me know. Amazon reviews are also very much appreciated!
I love children’s books. Some of the best fantasy around is in the “Young Readers 9-12” section of your local bookstore or library. Amazing illustrators lavish their skills on the picture-book set. Children’s books teach values and expose kids to the wider world (past, present future and imaginary). And many are just plain fun.
I know you, my book-loving readers, have equipped yourselves and your loved ones with the basics, so I am not recommending Harry Potter, Stellaluna, E. Nesbit, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, Imagine A Day, Rick Riordan’s Egyptian Gods trilogy, or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. (Your cousins’ little ones have the REAL Alexander and The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and your nieces have Anne of Green Gables and A Little Princess already, right? If not, you know what you must do!).
Here are some less widely known favorites, new and old, for the children’s book lovers of any age on your list.
The Duchess Bakes a Cake–hilarious rhymes, charming 4 color line drawing illustrations.
Custard The Cowardly Dragon and Custard and the Wicked Knight–Ogden Nash for kids–need I say more?
When The Sky Looks Like Lace–Dreamy illustrations and inspired nonsense text.
The Seven Silly Eaters–Adorable story in rhyme, delightfully detailed illustrations by Marla Frazee. Basically anything illustrated by Marla Frazee is a home run.
The Story of Holly and Ivy–This is what I’m giving the little girls on my list this Christmas. Rumer Godden’s gentle, loving holiday tale of a little girl and a doll.
Middle Grades Books
Linnets and Valerians–A beautiful mysterious romp of a book, with magic bees, village witches and a mysterious overgrown house inhabited by a lady who only goes out at night and her pet monkey…I could go on about the adventures of the Linnet children, who go to live with their strict old schoolmaster Uncle Ambrose (and his owl, Hector) but you should really read them for yourself or to someone you love.
The Great Brain–Hilarious adventures of a set of turn of the century brothers, centered on the amazing Tom, who somehow always comes out on top. Even funnier as Tom’s schemes are recounted from the point of view of an admiring (and sometimes resentful) younger brother. There are several books in the series.
Understood Betsy–I adore this book, and rarely find anyone else who has read it. Shy, overprotected Elizabeth Ann is coddled to stifling by her doting city aunts. When a series of events force her to go live with the dreaded Putney cousins on their farm in Vermont, a new world and life open up for the child who is now Betsy. She becomes resourceful, smart, caring and builds a life for herself.
Betsey-Tacy–for the younger end of this range, these books (there are sequels) are a great choice, full of friendship and mishaps. One warning: written in an age when this was a sadly common fact of child life, a baby sister dies in one of the books. Coward that I am, I always skipped that chapter when reading it to my daughter, for my sake as much as hers.
I hope you will add suggestions of your own in the comments. This time of year we can all use all the help we can get!
A nice companion to my blog post on funny books, I think. Hope everyone’s having a humorous holiday weekend!
I keep going back to this Paris Review interview with Kingsley Amis, just because it has so many good nuggets of wisdom and insight. And, yes, I just used the word “nugget.” Be thankful I didn’t say “moist nugget.”
Anyway, here’s what Amis has to say about writing humor:
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Of course I have to reblog this! Makes a nice break from tooting my own horn….
I needed a new hat because Old Man Winter is paying a visit and I hope that he wears out his welcome. If indeed, he is welcome?
I took this selfie on the Patco Speedline from Walter Rand Transportation Center in Camden to 16th and Locust in Philly. It says a lot about commuters that no one paid attention to me taking photos of myself on a train. What does it say about me? I’m too old to embarrass myself?
Retirement is proving to be busier than anticipated, especially since we got our puppy, Finn. I guess I had forgotten how puppies need lots of time, just like little kids. However, Finn has brought a lot of fun and love into our home. My husband, Carlos, and I are a lot of fun, too, but we were lacking certain activities in our lives–going outside every waking hour to look at sticks and leaves, tossing tennis…
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