Drenched in Light | Chapter 25 of 37

Author: Lisa Wingate | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1767 Views | Add a Review

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Chapter 17
020
While the rest of the crew was busy arranging Jumpkids materials for tomorrow’s performance, I went to my car to make calls on my cell phone. I started by dialing home to check on Bett and tell Mom and Dad I’d be late. Waiting for Mom to answer, I drafted a mental list of explanations for my all-day trip to some little town she’d had probably never heard of. Fortunately, Dad picked up. Mom was still over at Bett’s, making chicken soup to help my sister along the road to recovery.
Dad was stuck home babysitting Joujou and gathering his income-tax materials for the CPA. When he was finished with that, he had an online meeting with his fantasy baseball club. Every week without fail, Dad gathered with numerous other perfectly sane adults who, as nearly as Mom and I could decipher, pretended to be the managers of major league baseball franchises. Before the season started, they drafted teams, and then all summer long they carefully tracked the imaginary progress of their imaginary players, in hopes of eventually winning the pretend World Series. Dad had never even made the division finals, but struggled on through the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, dreaming of one day achieving fantasy baseball glory.
“How’s the baseball draft going?” I asked, after he’d run through his list of evening activities and finished complaining about income taxes and how this year would surely leave him in the poorhouse. “Hope those fantasy baseball players work for fantasy paychecks.”
Dad gave a sardonic laugh. “You all can ridicule me now, but when I win the World Series, you’ll be sorry. I won’t invite you naysayers to the awards ceremony in Las Vegas. Joujou and I’ll go alone. Just the two of us.” I could tell he was cuddling Joujou close to his face. She was growl-whining into the phone, enjoying her daddy time.
“Be sure you buy her something nice to wear.”
“Very funny.”
“Just think, you’ll fit right in with the high rollers in Vegas, with that fine-looking blonde on your arm, or . . . well . . . in your arms . . . or on a leash. Anyway, she’s blond.”
Dad scoffed indignantly. “At least Joujou believes in me.” No doubt this was one of those times when my father wished he’d been blessed with a houseful of boys, rather than three women and a neurotic Pekingese.
“I believe in you, Dad.” It felt good to be joking with him rather than talking about food, or Mom, or what I was doing and when I would be home.
“I know you do, honey,” he said tenderly.
I was filled with a rush of warmth that I couldn’t put into words. These past months, Dad had been a rock, always solid, always on an even keel when the rest of us were falling apart. I wished I could tell him how much that meant. Instead, I talked about baseball. “Hey, I heard that one of the teachers at school might have a pair of Kansas City Royals season tickets to sell. I thought maybe I’d check into it—what do you say?”
Dad didn’t answer at first; then he finally smacked his lips suspiciously and said, “You hate baseball.”
“Yeah, but for you, I’d do baseball, Dad.” There was a world of unspoken appreciation in the statement. I hoped he understood the things I couldn’t say.
“That’s my girl.” He chuckled softly, then let me off the baseball hook. “Maybe instead of season tickets, we could just do a game or two.”
“All right, Dad. I’ll see you later on this evening. It might be late.”
“Leave your cell phone on, all right? Mom tried to call earlier and got your voice mail. You know she worries.”
“Yes, I know, Dad.” I could feel us slipping into the same old routine.
“Where did you say you are?”
My body tensed up. Now we would have to go through the litany of explanations. “Helping with an arts minicamp. I’m going to stay for dinner, so it’ll be a while.”
“All right.” And then the sound of papers rustling. His mind was already back to the taxes and fantasy baseball. “Be careful driving. Call us when you’re headed home.”
“I will. Bye, Dad.” Hanging up the phone, I fished the substitute teacher list from my briefcase and began making calls. Once people went out for Saturday night, it would be that much more difficult to fill the vacancies.
Propping the paper on the dashboard, I started down the list. The sad story of the teacherless algebra class netted me three answering machines and four negative replies. The prospect of having to teach math all next week, on top of having been AWOL half of the weekend, loomed large on the horizon. I said a little prayer that one of the answering-machine owners would call back and accept the job.
A knock on the passenger window startled me from my thoughts, and I looked up as Dell opened the door.
“Karen said I could show you the way out to the farm, and they’ll be along in a little bit. Kate needs to get some stuff at the grocery store for tomorrow, and Keiler’s gotta fill a prescription for pain medicine for his leg. Kate said he’s probably not supposed to be riding around on a Harley, and he ought to leave it here tonight and ride out to the farm with her.” With an exasperated eye roll that was a perfect imitation of Karen’s, she added, “He’s such a goofus.”
“He seems to be,” I agreed, moving my briefcase out of the way so that she could slide in.
She reacted with a look of concern. “But Keiler’s, like, real smart and stuff. He only seems like a dope. He’s really not.”
“I can see that,” I agreed, charmed that she felt the need to defend her friend.
“He’s, like, really cool and stuff. He does all those silly things on purpose, so the kids will have fun. He calls it the Jumpkids secret—if he’s the biggest gooberhead in the room, none of the kids feel too embarrassed to try stuff.” Her face brightened with sincere amazement. “It works, too. It’s hard to feel stupid when Keiler’s around.”
I started laughing, and Dell smiled sheepishly as we pulled out of the parking lot. “Turn left here, then right at the next one, then left on the highway,” she said, pointing down the road. “It’s about ten minutes to the farm.”
“All right. Here we go.” Piloting the car through the small-town streets to a winding ribbon of highway into the hills, I had a sense of moving farther from my own world and deeper into Dell’s. I imagined her growing up in this tiny town, living in some ramshackle house along the riverbank, maybe riding her bike up and down the rocky slopes by the water, like the kids at the edge of town were doing. Far from any house, unsupervised and unrestricted, they glided down the slope with their jackets flapping and their feet spread out like stabilizers. At the bottom, they zipped under the highway bridge, then pumped up the other side.
I slowed to watch, recognizing Sherita among the group, and thinking that where I came from, kids would never be allowed such unstructured folly.
I was struck again by how it must be for Dell, having one foot in this world and one foot in another. It was no surprise that she felt like the shoes would never fit. Beside me, she leaned closer to the window, as if she wanted to be with the other kids, gliding down the riverbank in the late-afternoon sunshine. “Want to go for a walk when we get home?” she asked. “Just for a little while, and then we can study?”
I felt a rush of sympathy. She looked tired, worried, slightly lost—a little girl in mismatched shoes. “Sure. That sounds great. I bet both of us could use a break.”
“We could go down to the river.”
I pictured the river being like the one in my dream. “That sounds good. I’d like to see it.” We fell into silence, Dell lost in her thoughts, while I remembered the sensation of dancing on the current, bathed in sunlight. Before the dream, I’d been empty and useless, ragged as I drifted into sleep. Those emotions seemed far away now, and I realized I hadn’t fallen into that pit lately. I was healing in some way, growing stronger, slipping more firmly into the body of this new woman, this guidance counselor who was searching for a mission in life.
When did that happen? How did it happen? I couldn’t say, but looking over at Dell, I knew that she was part of the answer. Somehow in helping her, I was finding my way out of the darkness.
“Turn there.” She pointed. “That’s the road.”
I piloted the car into what looked like a long gravel driveway leading lazily through a winter-bare farm field, then uphill toward an old two-story white house, high atop a bluff overlooking the river.
“What a pretty place,” I commented as we drifted past an ancient hip-roofed barn and started uphill toward the neatly kept clapboard structure.
“That’s Grandma Rose’s house.” Leaning to peer out the front window, Dell pointed toward it. “Kate and Ben live there now, though. And their kids, Josh and Rose. Grandma moved out and gave them the big house. She said the little house was closer to the river, and she liked it better because she could open the windows and hear the water passing.”
I imagined having a river running by my bedroom window, falling asleep to the sounds of the current trickling over rocks. “That must be wonderful.”
Dell nodded solemnly. “I used to hear the river from my granny’s place. Sometimes I’d lay and listen to it until late at night. It’s a good sound. Like music.”
“You must miss it.”
“Sometimes,” she whispered, then lifted her shoulders and let them fall in a gesture of helplessness. “Karen got me a little fountain for my room. It doesn’t sound the same, but I like it.”
“That’s nice.” Reaching across the car, I squeezed her hand. “It’s OK to miss the way things used to be. It doesn’t mean you’re not grateful for the way they are now. Both lives are always going to be part of you, Dell. That’s the way it should be. The past is always part of who we become.”
Her eyes searched mine, as if she knew those words weren’t just about her. “Do you miss being a dancer?”
“Sometimes.” The word hung in the air between us, barely a whisper. “I miss how it felt. The good parts of it.”
Her fingers squeezed mine. “Me too,” she said.
Pulling up behind a detached three-car garage, I turned off the ignition. By the yard fence, a dark-haired man was trimming the winter-bare branches of a climbing rose and tossing the clippings into a barrel.
Dell waved to him as we got out. “Hey, Uncle Ben. This is my guidance counselor, Ms. Costell.” She introduced us from a distance. “I’m going to show her the river before everybody else gets here, OK?”
“Sure, go ahead.” Smiling, he lifted the pruners into the air in greeting, and we waved in response.
“Where’s Rowdy?” Dell called.
“Not sure.” The man returned to his pruning. “Out chasing rabbits or burying bones. You might run into him on your walk. He’s missed you.”
“My old dog lives here now,” Dell explained. “He wasn’t happy in the yard in Kansas City.” Leading me away from the car, she angled toward a small guest cabin out back. “The trail’s behind the little house.” She glanced over her shoulder at the driveway as if she were afraid someone would prevent our escape. Skirting the yard fence, we slipped through a seemingly impenetrable wall of barren blackberry brambles to a well-worn forest path. Ahead of me, she moved with a natural grace, her body twisting and curving in and out of overhanging branches and dangling briars, her passage as soundless as a slip of breeze, as if she were as much a part of the landscape as the soil and the trees.
I stumbled along behind her, stopping to push back tree limbs and pry myself from the clutches of marauding brambles. Dell moved farther ahead, seeming to have forgotten I was there. When she disappeared around a bend in the trail, I had the disquieting sensation of being alone in the forest. A moment later, I passed through the last of the dry underbrush and emerged on the riverbank. Dell was standing at the water’s edge, mesmerized by the play of light and shadow. I watched, thinking of the girl in the river. Even now, was part of her wishing the current would rise up and carry her away?
She looked over her shoulder at me, her eyes narrowing contemplatively.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, but my voice seemed out of place.
“I’ll be back,” she whispered, then turned and crossed the shallows, hopping easily from rock to rock. On the other side, she used a nest of exposed sycamore roots as a ladder and disappeared into the tall brown grasses.
Glancing uncertainly up and down the river, I considered following or waiting, then finally decided to cross the water myself. Other than sliding one toe briefly into the icy water, I made it across relatively unscathed, and climbed the opposite bank to a well-worn path that led through the dry leaves and up the hill. At the edge of the woods, the trail disappeared among thick unmowed weeds and cattails, now clothed in winter brown. A dog barked somewhere nearby as I pushed through the tangle and emerged on a gravel road. Turning toward the sound, I surveyed a row of decaying cracker box houses, the yards strewn with the carcasses of rotting furniture, trash, and discarded bits and pieces of automobiles. In front of one of the homes, a dog was straining at its chain, barking at Dell, who stood motionless in the road. She seemed oblivious, transfixed by something beyond the bend. Moving closer, I followed her line of vision toward a tiny house crouched in an overgrown field where the road turned. The place may have once been painted pale green or white, but was now just a fading relic with weathered wooden siding and a sagging roof partially bare of shingles. The entire structure leaned toward the river, as if it might slide down the slope and float away when the spring rains came.
“That’s where we lived.” Dell spoke the words with some amazement. Her eyes reflected the road, the decaying houses, the cornucopia of trash in the ditch. “I guess somebody else lives there now.”
I was momentarily mute. It was hard to believe that anyone could be living there, or had lived there recently. The distance Dell had come in the months since her grandmother’s death suddenly seemed so much more vast, her talent for music that much more amazing.
“I guess so,” I whispered, tugging the zipper upward on my jacket as a puff of breeze traveled past, warning of a cold night ahead. I tried to imagine what it would be like surviving the winter in that tiny house, where, as Dell had written, the walls were paper-thin.
Her gaze moved slowly back and forth, scanning the yard, the house, the rotten mattress, box springs, and recliner in the ditch. Watching her, I understood her in a deeper sense, and I realized something important about my job. Dell was coming from a place I couldn’t imagine, but so were all of the kids who passed me in the halls at Harrington. Some lived in good places, and some lived in difficult places, and I would never be able to tell the difference just by looking. In order to know who they really were, I had to go below the surface.
“What do you think of when you look at your old house?” I asked.
Shrugging, she turned her shoulder to it and started back the way we had come. “I think it’s gross,” she said flatly, her lips a thin, determined line. “I can’t believe I lived there.”
Falling in step beside her, I sighed softly, and she glanced over, surprised. “But there’s part of you that misses it,” I said.
“No, ma’am.” Her steps quickened, as if she couldn’t be gone from the place fast enough and wished she hadn’t been drawn to return there. “What’s there to miss? It’s a rat heap, and my granny was out cold on the couch most of the time from all her prescriptions, and I slept on a mattress on the floor, and half the time nobody got me up for school, or all the clothes were dirty, or there wasn’t any food in the house and all the food stamps were used up. Who would miss that?”
“Someone who suddenly feels a lot of pressure to keep up,” I said, watching my tennis shoes crunch through the dead grass as we crossed the ditch again. “To keep a schedule, keep up with grades, and music practice, and spring performance with the symphonic, and relationships with a new foster family.”
She shrugged. “But those are good things.”
“Yes, they are, but, sometimes we can get so focused on all those outside things that we don’t find time for the inside ones.” I pointed to my heart, swallowing an unexpected rush of emotion. “And while we’re doing all those outside things, the to-do list in here is getting longer and longer and longer until it’s so big we can’t face starting on it.”
Lips twisting into a one-sided smirk, she turned toward the trail again, her hair swinging around her shoulders. “Like when you clean the room by stuffing everything under the bed, and pretty soon you don’t want to look under there at all,” she interpreted. “Grandma Rose told me always sweep out under the bed and clean the closets; then you’ll be happy to have folks over to visit.”
I chuckled at the analogy. “Exactly. That’s it exactly. We all need time to look through the closet and consider what’s in there. We’ve stored all that stuff for a reason. It’s all part of who we are. If we let it stack up, then pretty soon we’re afraid to have anybody over, because we’re hiding a mess.”
Grabbing an overhanging vine, Dell flipped herself onto it like a gymnast, then sat looking down at me from above. The vine was worn smooth, as if she’d completed the maneuver many times before. “You sound like Grandma Rose.”
“Thank you,” I said, and moved on down the path, feeling surprisingly content with the footsteps I was walking in.
By the time we reached the farm, Karen and Kate were in the kitchen preparing supper, and Keiler was in the yard giving lawn-chair airplane rides to Kate’s kids, preschooler Josh and toddler Rose. The afternoon was growing dim, and an evening chill was coming in, so they followed us inside. We sat at the table with Ben as Kate and Karen took prepackaged lasagnas and garlic bread from the oven, and set them on the table with a hastily prepared salad and bottles of dressing.
“Sorry it’s nothing fancy,” Kate said as she and Karen sat down. “I figured easier was better, considering that there wasn’t anyone home to cook.”
Coughing indignantly, Ben raised his hand. “Excuse me, what am I—Casper the Friendly Ghost? I’ll have you know I slaved away all afternoon putting this together—boiling those noodle . . . things, and putting those other”—he leaned over to examine the concoction in the prefab foil pans—“things in there.” Grabbing the spoon, he scooped small portions onto Josh’s and Rose’s plates to cool. “See? I sliced mushrooms, and made minimeatballs, and put in some kind of white . . . cheese-looking stuff.”
Frowning, Rose bent close to her high chair tray, then curled her top lip. “Eeewkie,” she said.
“Not eewkie,” Ben countered, pilfering a minimeatball and popping it in his mouth. “Good stuff. Daddy made it.”
“Eeewkie,” Rose insisted, and the rest of us laughed. Then Keiler said grace over us, and Ben began dishing up lasagna. Only when my plate came back with a huge helping and a butter-covered piece of garlic bread did I consider the ramifications of having to eat in front of strangers—especially having to eat something as fattening as lasagna and garlic bread.
As I took a helping of salad, all the old excuses ran through my head—
I’m not feeling well. . . .
I’m on a diet. . . .
I have this food allergy. . . .
I ate a big lunch. . . .
That was delicious. May I use your restroom?
The rest of the table, completely unaware of my insane mental dialog, fell into a conversation about Keiler’s road trip from New Mexico.
Taking a deep breath, I started picking at my food, trying to focus on the table talk rather than my plate. Keiler was telling the ski lift story again. The kid who fell on him was up to a hundred and eighty pounds by now.
Dell started laughing. “Sherita told him not to get between a fat boy and the ground.”
“That sounds like Sherita,” Ben observed. “So where does the Harley come in?”
Keiler began telling the tale of his wild night stranded in a truck stop-slash-Harley-repair-shop, during which he developed an understanding of biker Zen while sitting around a burning trash barrel with a traveling motorcycle gang. By morning, he had traded the broken-down green Hornet and the remainder of his ski resort salary, plus a small injury stipend, for a Harley that probably had more miles on it than the green Hornet. He ended the story with a hand over his heart and a few words of homage to his old car and his lost nest egg, then closed with, “Guess when I get back to the folks’ place in Michigan, I’ll have to get a job.”
Kate pointed a fork at him playfully. “Hopefully, something that doesn’t involve ski lifts.”
Frowning at his foot, propped on an extra chair beside the table, he nodded. “Not this year, anyway.”
“I wish we could keep you on at Jumpkids,” Karen said, giving Keiler a weary look. “We’re so understaffed, and Mrs. Mindia’s daughter just called and told me Mrs. Mindia has a serious case of the flu, and they’ve taken her to the hospital, so it might be a while before she’s back. You could stay at our house, but I don’t have any salary money available until summer internships start.” Her brows lifted hopefully. “We’d feed you.” Kate elbowed her, and she sagged, hatcheting the air with her hand. “I’m sorry; ignore me. Begging has become second nature since I took over Jumpkids. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.”
The table fell silent as everyone dived into the food.
An idea struck me, and I jerked upright like a cartoon character with a lightbulb overhead. Everyone, including Keiler, turned toward me. “Are you interested in substitute teaching?” I blurted, and they all sat staring, surprised by the out-of-the-blue question. Keiler leaned forward curiously, and the prospect of having possibly found an algebra teacher for next week sent a tingle of exhilaration through me. “Seriously. It’s not great money, but it’s not horrible. I’m desperate for subs every single day, and there’s almost no one on the list who hasn’t already subbed the maximum number of days.” Raising a finger in a gesture of eureka, I grinned from ear to ear. “But you haven’t subbed at all, so you’d be good for . . . gosh, almost the whole rest of the year, even without teaching certification. School hours are eight to three thirty, so you’d have afternoons free for Jumpkids, or . . . Harley rides . . . whatever.” I realized I was babbling, probably looking as desperate as I felt. The strange thing was that I didn’t care. “Please?”
Karen turned to Keiler expectantly. “She’s not even going to apologize for begging.”
“I have no shame,” I admitted. “If I don’t get someone, I’ll have to teach algebra next week. I hate algebra.”
“It’d be so cool if you were at Harrington!” Dell gasped. “C’mon, Keiler. Say yes. You can stay in our guest room and ride to school with us. You and James can play guitars at night, and stuff. It’ll be . . .” She searched for a word, then finished with, “Cool.”
Tipping his chin back, Keiler pretended to think, his gaze shifting to and fro, as if he were weighing his options. “Sounds cool,” he said finally.
“There are no ski lifts involved,” Kate chimed in.
“We-hell, sounds like I got me a job offer,” Keiler drawled.
“Absolutely,” I rushed out, then bit my lip. “You do have to fill out some paperwork and a few things. You don’t have a criminal history, do you?”
Grinning, he leaned across the table, his eyes twinkling. “Not that anybody knows about.”
“Good enough for me.” I was surprisingly excited about the prospect of his coming to Harrington. “You’re hired.”
“Better get a haircut,” Ben interjected, and the rest of us burst into laughter before returning to our lasagna.
We finished dinner with conversation about Jumpkids, and Harrington, and the question of Jumpkids procuring used instruments from the Harrington storage room. When Dell described the number of discards, everyone was amazed. Keiler, it turned out, had worked his way through high school in a music shop, and knew something about fixing instruments. Soon, we were all making plans to save the world. Or at least add a little more music to it.
By the time we cleaned up the dishes, I felt surprisingly comfortable at the farm, as if I’d fallen into the fold of a second family. Looking at my plate, I realized I’d eaten most of my lasagna and wasn’t even worried about it. As Keiler and Ben took the kids to the living room, I helped Karen carry some of the leftovers out to the spare refrigerator in the guesthouse. Walking along the path, I took in myriad stars, watching my breath float like smoke on the air. In the farmhouse, I could hear Kate’s children squealing and Keiler telling a story that included numerous voice impressions.
“I have to apologize for the mess out here,” Karen said as we walked along the stone path. “Kate and I just recently started cleaning out the little house. It took us a while to bring our minds around to the task, after Grandma Rose passed away.”
My focus was still hovering thousands of miles from the earth. “I didn’t realize your grandmother had passed away.” The comment sounded strange and a bit insensitive, so I quickly explained, “Dell talks about her so often, I just assumed she still lived here, and maybe she happened to be gone today.”
Karen shrugged apologetically. “You’re not the first one to make that assumption. Grandma Rose passed away over two years ago, but Dell has never really let go. She has a habit of talking about my grandmother in the present tense. She says she has dreams about Grandma and they talk to each other. It’s one of the things we’ve had a little . . . issue over. We’ve tried not to make a big deal of it. Dell has had so many adjustments in the past few years. I think pretending she can still talk to Grandma Rose is a coping mechanism. They were very close before my grandmother passed away.”
“Does Dell talk about her biological grandmother?” I asked, as we walked up the steps to the guesthouse. “The one she was living with, I mean.”
Karen opened the door and turned on the lights in the cabin. “Not really. She’s never been willing to discuss it, and her caseworker’s advice was not to force her. Her grandmother only died last summer, so it’s all still pretty fresh.” Turning on a floor lamp on the other side of the room, she set the leftover lasagna on a small dining table and regarded me in the uneven amber light. “Has she talked to you about it? About her real family, I mean?”
“Some,” I answered.
Looking wounded, Karen searched my face as if she might read Dell’s words there. “What does she say?”
I wanted to bridge the self-imposed gap between Dell and her foster mother, but I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do. “Give it time. There’s a lot she’s trying to work out in her head, but it wouldn’t be ethical for me to divulge things she has said in confidence.”
Karen sighed. “I understand.”
We hovered for a moment in uncomfortable silence, and I found myself wishing I hadn’t carried the salad bowl out to the little house. Things were easy when the whole family was laughing, talking, joking, and the room was filled with activity, but alone here with Karen, I felt a new kind of pressure.
Flipping on the kitchen light, she came back for the lasagna pan, but stopped instead, facing me. “Is Dell really doing all right in school? I notice that she’s been studying a lot lately, and now you’re tutoring her. But whenever we ask her about Harrington, she gives us glowing reports. Every day we get some glittering story about rehearsal, or her music for the symphonic, or the new friends she’s made in the lunchroom.” Karen’s brown eyes searched my face with a compelling need. “Is she making those things up?”
I winced, caught between loyalty to Dell, Karen’s need to know the truth, and some counseling ethics class I could barely remember. “I think you should talk to her about it. I know she’s having a hard time opening up, but that’s not a rejection of you. It’s a self-defense mechanism.”
“I know.” Threading her fingers together, she kneaded her hands in frustration. “We understand that—James and I. It’s just that we want to give Dell what she needs. We realize that she’s struggling with her past, and we want to help her. We love her so much.”
I had the overwhelming urge to comfort her, but the counselor voice inside me was saying, Be professional; remain detached. . . . “And she loves both of you too. Her deep investment in the relationship makes her desperate to protect you from anything ugly or unpleasant. It’s going to take time for her to believe that your love isn’t conditional upon her being perfect all the time.”
Karen’s lips trembled, and she pressed her fingers against them. “What do we do in the meantime? How hard do we push? How can we help?” Tears glittered in her eyes, and she wiped them impatiently. “James and I have never been parents. We don’t know exactly what’s normal with a girl her age, and on top of that, she’s not an ordinary thirteen-year-old. We thought Harrington would be great for her—that the chance to pursue her music would help her open up to the world. Dell really wanted to get into Harrington, and we wanted it for her, but now I have a sense that things aren’t right. Maybe we should have encouraged her to go to school out in Prairie Village, near our house. But the thing is, with Jumpkids being headquartered downtown and James gone overnight for work several days each week, she would be latchkey, and her opportunities to pursue music would be limited. . . .” She turned away, then back. “I feel like we’re failing her, but I don’t know what to change.”
I realized she was looking to me for solutions, suggestions, professional advice, and I was woefully underqualified to offer anything. “I think some of those answers are going to have to come with time,” I hedged. “But I can tell you that more quiet hours are needed for her studies. As much as she loves Jumpkids, she needs to spend more time on her schoolwork.”
Karen blinked at me in complete surprise. “I ask her every day if she has homework, and she either says no, or just a little—that she can do it on the drive home, after Jumpkids.”
I couldn’t help smiling at Karen’s naïve reaction. Obviously, she was farther past adolescence than I was. A teenager, lie about homework? “Many days it may be true that she doesn’t have actual homework, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t benefit from rereading some of the day’s lessons. Study time may be something you have to enforce. Her reading comprehension is low, but she is working on it, and the more she reads, the more she will improve. You might think about getting her a tutor a few days each week, maybe a student a few years older than she is.”
“I’ll talk to James about that. Could you help us find someone?” Karen seemed ready to take the situation in hand—perhaps a little too ready.
I felt the need to put on the brakes. “I’m sure I can help you find a student tutor, but keep in mind that Dell isn’t going to be happy about my telling you any of this, so it might be best to progress as naturally as possible into a homework schedule, closer monitoring of her assignments, talking to her teachers. She’s working very hard right now to pick up her averages before the nine-week grading period is over and report cards go home. If she feels like the cat’s out of the bag, she might give up. My advice is to see where she’s at when report cards come out, then slowly begin making adjustments as needed.”
Karen frowned at the wait-and-see approach. She seemed like the type who wanted to keep things under control, which was why she was so good at running the Jumpkids program. Chewing her bottom lip, she nodded slowly, then sighed and said, “Thank you for giving Dell special attention. Other than musically, no one at Harrington seems to have much interest in her needs.”
“School is a busy place,” I replied. At least a dozen other responses ran through my mind, none of which was appropriate to share with a parent.
Karen seemed to sense that there were things I wasn’t saying. She waited to see if I would offer anything else, then finally said, “I want you to know we really appreciate it. Dell has needed someone to talk to—someone with counseling experience, I mean. She sees her caseworker, Twana Stevens, here in Hindsville every two weeks, but it hasn’t been very productive. Dell associates Twana with the trauma of being placed in emergency foster care last summer when her grandmother died. I don’t know if Dell will ever move beyond that issue with Twana. She needs someone else, and we’re very grateful she has you. I know you’ve got a lot of kids to look after.” Glancing at her watch, she winced guiltily. “And speaking of that, Dell was counting on some more time with you before you left tonight. I hope we’re not keeping you too late.” Grabbing the lasagna, she put it in the refrigerator, then came back for the salad bowl.
“No, it’s fine.” I thought of my cell phone in the car with, no doubt, a dozen voice-mail messages from my mother. “It’s a beautiful night for a drive. No rush, but I’d probably better call home, so no one worries.”
“Why don’t you use the phone out here? There’s a lot less racket,” she suggested. Flipping off the kitchen light, she crossed the living room and opened the door, letting in a rush of cold air. After our conversation, she looked as pensive as Dell had earlier. I felt sorry for both of them, trying to feel their way through building a family. “Just leave the lights on when you’re done. Dell and I are staying out here tonight.”
“All right,” I replied. “It’ll only take a minute.” I waited until she descended the porch steps before I called home. To my surprise, Mom still hadn’t returned from Bett’s, and Dad was in the middle of his online fantasy baseball meeting, so I was off the hook with a, “Drive carefully, sweetheart.”
Hanging up, I stared at the receiver in amazement. I felt almost like a grown-up, an independent, responsible adult. I’d called home and there wasn’t one question about food, or when I’d be back.
A light knock sounded on the door as I sat there marveling at the phone.
Dell came in carrying her English books. “Am I bugging you?”
“No, you’re not.” I patted the sofa beside me. “How’s the studying going?”
Opening the book, she handed me her English papers, some of which she must have worked on while the rest of us were chatting after supper and cleaning up the kitchen. “I think I’ve got the study sheet done, but can you check it? I know some of the literary terms, too.” She measured the amount with a narrow eye. “Maybe about half.”
I turned the study sheet around so that I could read it. “You have been working hard.” An unexpected burst of pride made me smile. Suddenly all the lunches in the storage room seemed worth it. “Now let’s see what we can do about getting you ready for this English test.”

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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