“We’re having a little party tomorrow night,” Patty said, as she and her sister followed Jack down the hill from the school, towards the idling school bus. “To celebrate the end of our first year of middle school.”
Jack didn’t really know why the twins walked with him over to the bus stop. Their mom picked them up after school every day, and had ever since Jack had bothered to pay attention to the fact. He’d steadfastly refused their offers to give him a ride home. That would have meant following the bus down Route 3, taking nearly half an hour, and then at least twice that much time to either double-back or follow the state road the long way around until it looped back up towards the town.
It was less of a headache for their mom, and less of a headache for Jack that way. He liked Patty, and all, but the girl talked. And talked. And talked. And when she wasn’t, her sister was, albeit with a somewhat softer voice.
“Jack, are you even listening?”
“Do you prefer red soda or root beer?”
“We don’t drink a lot of soda at my place,” he said. “Water is fine.”
Catty smiled, behind her sister’s back, and then perfectly mimicked the hurt scowl Patty directed at Jack. It wasn’t a difficult task, with them being twins. Most people had a hard time telling the two apart, if they kept their mouths shut. The only difference in their appearance, since fourth grade, had been the frames of their glasses: Patty’s slightly elongated lenses were framed in gold, whereas Catty wore a slightly bigger, rounder lens in a silver frame.
Rather than doodling them as a hamburger and kitten with red curls, Jack had illustrated them ever since as a couple of owls. He valued his life, though, and had never actually shown them the scribbles.
“If you don’t want to come to our party, just say so, Jack,” Catty said.
“I don’t really want to go to your party,” Jack said.
Patty stamped a foot. “Why not, Jack? It’ll be fun. There will be music and dancing and—“
“I’m not really good at dancing,” Jack said. He saw the flicker in the twins’ eyes as they, too, remembered the disastrous square-dance incident of 3rd grade. And the travesty of 5th grade’s week of Ballroom Dancing.
“Besides, my parents are going out, Charlotte and Hannah are going to some party, so I have to sit Ellie.”
“She starts kindergarten next year, doesn’t she?” Catty asked.
“It will be so nice to finally meet your miracle sister,” Patty said.
Jack blushed. The twins had seen the writeup in the paper about the incident at the department store, all those years ago and they’d hounded Jack until he gave them the details.
“Do you still wear that old ring?” Catty asked.
Jack flushed even deeper, and his hand strayed unconsciously towards his chest. When fifth grade started, his parents had decided he was responsible enough to wear the ring to school. Despite promising not to show it to anybody, he’d shown it to the twins, and shortly thereafter had told them the other half of the story behind his sister’s birth. They ‘ooh-ed’ and ‘ahh-ed,’ but Patty lost all interest in the ring after reading the inscription, shushing her sister’s every attempt to discuss it any further.
“You still think about her, don’t you?”
“What? I haven’t—“
“Haven’t thought about her all day? Well, glad I could remind you.”
“What if I said you could invite her to the party? Would you come then?”
“I told you, I have to—“
“Sorry, Jack, no imaginary friends allowed. Maybe she can keep you company and play dollies with your sister!” Patty pushed past him, wiping at her eyes with a sleeve. Catty gave Jack an apologetic smile, and then ran to guide her sister from the path of approaching traffic.
Jack stared after them, his mind spinning.
It was just a party. Did she have to take it — or anything, really, as far as Jack was concerned — so personally?
* * * * *
“Well, you did it,” Charlotte said. “Survived your first year of middle school.” She made a face.
Hannah held out a hand to her sister. Charlotte slapped a five dollar bill into it.
“You’re my favorite little brother,” Hannah said, patting Jack on the shoulder. He leaned back as she leaned closer.
“Don’t you dare kiss me,” he said.
“Wouldn’t dream of spoiling you for those redheads,” his oldest sister said, as she jogged up the stairs.
“Too bad you have to blob-sit,” Charlotte said. “Then you could have gone to their little party.”
Jack looked up from his sketch pad. “How did you know about—“
Charlotte wagged her eyebrows.
Jack’s mother leaned out the kitchen doorway. “What’s this about a party?”
“Jack’s girlfriends are having an end-of-the-year… get together.”
“Your father and I can reschedule our—“
“No!” Jack said. “I mean… you shouldn’t shuffle your plans around because of me.”
Jack’s mother leaned against the kitchen doorframe. “Jack….”
“I have this sketch I want to finish. And I was looking forward to spending an evening playing Candyland with the the Little Monster.”
As if on cue, Ellie grabbed his foot with a very un-monster-like growl.
“Eleanor Margaret, you get out from under that table right this instant.”
Ellie crawled out from between Jack’s chair and the one his mother used during dinner. She was very much a Jacobs, with hair close to Jack’s shade of brown and deep, inquisitive brown eyes. She had the same rounded cheeks Jack’s sisters did, but Jack’s more-pointed chin, which he got from his father.
Thus far, her imagination seemed to parallel, if not overshadow Jack’s.
She wore her large, overstuffed Godzilla slippers, and had tied her green sweater around her waist in such a way so that one sleeve trailed behind her like a tail. As she stood up, she held her arms curled before her like stubby little T-rex claws. She wagged her fingers at her mother, and voiced another roar.
Their mother rolled her eyes, and wrung her hands on the towel she’d been holding. “Oh, eek,” she said in a perfect deadpan. “It’s a monster.”
The monster giggled.
“It’s too bad monsters don’t like cookies, since some just came out of the oven.”
“We do too like cookies!” the monster growled.
“Mom, why must you encourage her?” Charlotte asked.
* * * * *
Jack slid his marker along the winding trail, past blue, purple, pink, until he stopped on orange. Ellie huddled on the edge of the seat across from him, her nose resting on her fingers, which gripped the edge of the table. Monster-eyed view of Candy Land, Jack supposed.
He sat back, and Ellie’s eyes shifted from the red token to the ring as it swung on the silvery chain.
“Hey, your turn,” Jack said.
Ellie drew a card, pouting as she only slid one place along the board.
Jack flipped over the next card, and slid his marker to the end of the track.
“I don’t like this game anymore,” Ellie said.
“You said that last week.”
“I think you stacked the deck.”
“Do you want to go five out of seven?”
She kept pouting. “No. I don’t like this game anymore.”
Jack glanced up at the clock. “Good, because it’s just about bedtime. I’ll pick this all up while you get ready for bed.”
Ellie hopped down from her place at the table, and scurried very un-monster-like up the stairs.
Jack gathered up the cards, including the three his sister had been sitting on, and put the game away in the downstairs closet. He cleared the chocolate milk glasses from the table, and washed them out in the sink. Not that Charlotte would thank him, anyway.
He checked the window and door in the kitchen, making sure they were both locked, and did the same in the living room.
He heard running water as he climbed the stairs, and poked his head into the bathroom, making sure Ellie wasn’t just wetting her toothbrush. He shouldn’t have worried: the girl was happily brushing away, growling at the other monster in the mirror. There was a glimmer of gold in the mirror, and Jack looked over his shoulder. When he looked back, Ellie was looking at the same point in the mirror, but nothing was there.
He shrugged, the ring flashing in the bathroom’s light.
“I think you’ve brushed them enough,” Jack said. “No more stalling.”
Ellie leaned her head back and gargled a growl. She rinsed.
Ellie thought about it a moment, then shook her head.
“You better not wake me up in the middle of the night,” Jack warned.
“I won’t. That’s why I have older sisters.”
Jack grinned as she giggled. “I knew there was a reason you’re my favorite.”
“Well, you’re my favorite brother.”
Jack hoped she was still too young for sarcasm. He’d have to remember to ask his parents when it was the Charlotte had first started.
“Okay, bed,” he said, and Ellie scrambled around the corner into the room she shared with her sisters. “No jumping!”
Jack’s sisters’ room was a study in contrasts. Hannah’s corner, with the bed beneath the window, was so neat it was almost spartan. The bed was made. The binder and notebooks left on her desk were neatly stacked. Books on photography and bird watching manuals checked out from the library were organized by title. Her backpack hung from the chair by both straps, each of which was carefully adjusted to the length of the other.
Charlotte’s bed might have been made, but probably just had the comforter pulled up and straightened. It was hard to tell beneath the two layers of clothes that sprawled over most of her bed. Her backpack lay open and empty on her desk, gaping like some giant, landed fish. A copy of Strunk and White peeked from beneath a haphazard collection of notebooks. A copy of the Chicago Style Manual, bristling with sticky yellow paper bookmarks, crowned the pile.
While Hannah’s desk was devoid of any decorations, Charlotte had hung a beaded curtain across the front of one of the desk’s top cubbies. She had depicted an old Norse rune in mostly red beads against a jumble of greens and blues. Jack thought it looked wrong, and Hannah snickered, pointing out that it was backwards. But when Charlotte lit a small votive candle in the cubby behind the curtain, a fantastic flickering image of the pattern danced along the room’s far wall. Jack was at once shocked (that his sister had come up with the idea) and ashamed (that he hadn’t).
He had initially been against the use of any kind of open flame, but gave in when Hannah brought home a frosted-glass votive candle holder she’d found at a thrift shop. Jack had helped cut the hole through the top of the shelving piece for ventilation. He also made sure Hannah kept the fire extinguisher by her bed, beside the low trunk that held their escape ladder.
Ellie’s bed sat along the wall closest to the door, and was … pink. The pillows were pink. The comforter was pink, decorated with ponies and unicorns. Most of the stuffed animals were pink. Instead of a full desk with cubbies and nooks, Ellie inherited the low, cream colored bookshelves, along with most of the family storybooks. Ellie had added to the collection with her own activity books and pads of colored paper, and newer versions of Dr. Seuss when the older copies finally fell apart.
Once Jack had stopped her wild bouncing on the bed and cleared a crawl space among the stuffed animals, Ellie wiggled under the covers, the comforter tucked up under her chin.
Jack reached for one of the books, but Ellie frowned. “No, Jack. I don’t want one of those books. I’ve read them a hundred times.”
“Well, what am I supposed to read you for bedtime, then?”
“I want to hear the story you’ve been writing.”
“Please?” Ellie sat up, hugging a stuffed pink pig nearly as big as she was. She started to give Jack the sad puppy eyes. “Pretty please?”
“It’s not even done yet.”
“Well I want to hear it!”
Jack sighed. “Fine. I’ll be right back.” Better to just give in now. He couldn’t imagine reading the story in front of his other two sisters.
* * * * *
Jack turned Charlotte’s chair around, pulled it over towards the side of Ellie’s bed. He propped one of his sketch pads up on his knee, cleared his throat, and turned the cover back. The first drawing was in colored pencils, depicting the beach, where a blonde girl sat in the sand. Footprints in the sand led off into the distance, where gray cliffs reared against the sky.
“Once upon a time, there was a fairy princess who lived by the sea.”
“What was her name?”
“She—“ Jack sighed. “She doesn’t have a name.” He cleared his throat again, and continued. “She liked to take long walks along the beach. Sometimes she collected seashells. Other times—“
“She’s playing in the sand there,” Ellie said, pointing.
“I was getting to that,” Jack said. “Other times, she would create towers or castles or pictures in the sand.”
Jack turned over the page, and the scene was similar, except the girl was dooling in the sand with a stick. A dark-haired boy stood behind her, glancing down at her work.
“One day, while she was drawing in the sand, she saw somebody there who she’d never seen before.
“’What are you doing here?’ asked the stranger, a boy about her own age.
“‘Just drawing with this stick,’ the princess said.
“The boy took the stick and threw it into the sea.”
“That wasn’t very nice of him!”
Jack turned the page, and the blonde princess stood nose-to-nose with the boy, pointing out towards the sea.
“The princess demanded that the boy return the stick.
“‘But it is just a stick,’ the boy said. ‘You can get another one from the woods. Or from the tinder pile.’
“But the princess insisted. It was her stick, she was drawing, and she wanted it back.”
“Good! She should tell him!”
“But the boy refused. He told her that she didn’t need the stick to draw in the sand.
“The princess said that if the boy didn’t go get it, she would call the guards and they would take the boy away to the castle dungeons.”
“‘But,’ the boy told her, ‘if you do that, you still will not have your stick. But I know a secret, and if you do not call the guards, I will share it with you.’
Jack turned the page over, and it showed the girl standing, hands on her hips, as she watched the boy drawing in the sand with his fingers.
“The princess commanded the boy to share the secret.
“She threatened again to call the guards to take him away to the dungeons. There, they could torture him, and make him reveal his secret.
“She… isn’t a very nice princess,” Ellie said.
“The boy told her that if she did that, he could not show her the secret, because he had to be on the sand, by the ocean for the magic to work.
“The princess was intrigued, and rather than command, she asked if he would show her the trick. He agreed.”
“‘Better to ask than tell,’” Ellie said, nodding. “Mom needs to teach this princess a lesson about manners.”
Jack turned the page over, and it showed the boy, still drawing in the sand, but the sand was forming into a sculpted likeness of the same creature — a sea gull, its wings stretched up as if it were going to take flight. The girl stood nearby, her hands brought up to her mouth, green eyes wide with surprise.
“…And that’s as far as I got,” Jack said.
Ellie’s shoulder slumped.
“I told you it wasn’t finished.”
“Well, I’m not sleepy.” Ellie crossed her arms.
“We are not playing another game of Candy Land,” Jack said.
“So tell me another story.”
Jack sighed, and reached for one of the books on the book shelf.
Ellie leaned forward, looking closely at the sketchbook across her brother’s lap.
“Why does the princess in your story look like the girl I sometimes dream about?”