Since I seem to be serializing this story, in this segment, Theo Dubois ends his first day at Cherry Street School feeling lost and alone.
Theo rolled the paper grocery bag under his arm and turned left at the end of the school sidewalk where it met Cherry Street. He looked back at the school and felt dizzy. The day had been a blur of unfamiliar voices and pointed directions –boy’s room is down there, cafeteria downstairs, all with a wrist wave and why-don’t-you-know scowl — and heads turned then turn away as kids entered the office and Theo was still sitting on the bench, and all of Mrs. Sternman’s twitch smiles and frowns had not found him a classroom.
His stomach grumbled with hunger and an uneasiness of not belonging. More than once he wondered of anyone would notice if had just left.
Then the last bell and the hallway behind him rumbled with kids banging and slamming toward the doors. When one of the secretaries walked out of the office with her coat and handbag, Theo stepped out behind her because no one stopped him.
Alone on the sidewalk, he closed his eyes to recall in reverse the path he walked that morning.
Cherry Street crossed County Road, a wide, four-lane street. Then it was three blocks up to a no-name street with a green house with a white fence where he turned right. But that street jogged left at a tall wooden fence that had a locked metal gate, so he walked along that fence for a block, turning right to follow the fence for another half-block to an intersection where Theo went straight and the fence turned right. He paused and glanced back at the street he had followed and down the fence to its end, for a moment confused. All those turns the fence took hadn’t sunk in that morning when he ran past on his way to school, but now, walking, it seemed odd. He leaned his eye up to a crack in the fence and saw a red building.
I wonder how to get in?
Crap, the kids.
He started to run. His younger brother and sister Paul and Annie were probably home already. And the boxes are still in the middle of the room and there’s no food. They probably got a handful of papers like Mrs. Sternman gave me.
It was easier in Laketown. All the kids jumping out the school door getting yelled at by the teacher to watch for trucks that couldn’t stop in time rolling down the steep hill past the Franklin farm; thirty kids peeling off to their houses yelling and waving like a joy bomb going off. And if was a Tuesday or a Thursday, Theo would run into the side door of the coffee shop, pour a Coke, throw on an apron and go to work.
He wasn’t supposed to use the grill or any of the hot stuff, but Teddy, the high school kid, would let him flip burgers now and again.
Theo had learned how to serve coffee without spilling it, to make milk shakes on the blender and not make a mess, and slap a scoop of egg or tuna salad on bread, flatten it out, add tomatoes and maybe lettuce and cut it diagonally without losing a finger. Mostly he served chocolate milk and Cokes and donuts to his friends, even though he would tell them the donuts were probably stale, but they didn’t care and laughed and joked and dunked them in their chocolate milk, except for Jeff, who dunked them in his Coke.
The memory made him feel heavy; he shuffled the last three blocks home.
Annie and Paul were asleep, curled up on the mattress in the middle room. On the table were two piles of papers, one in a wad, Paul’s, and Annie’s neatly stacked.
Theo wasn’t surprised they fell asleep. They all had been running for three straight days after their father said without warning, pack up, you’re moving to New York. He remembered that a couple friends stopped by on their bikes and asked what was going on. “Don’t know,” Theo said. “Guess we’re leaving.”
He wondered if the kids dozed off at school like he had at one point sitting on the bench; a slam of the door to his left woke him before Mrs. Sternman noticed. She would have frowned.
The trip from Maine took twelve hours. Their father loaded all their furniture and stuff in the rental van and drove off. Theo, the kids and their Mom made the trip later in her little sedan. Theo tried to sleep in the passenger’s seat, head resting on a pillow propped against the bouncing window glass. The kids stretched out on the narrow rear seat, waking and grabbing when they rolled onto a pile of suitcases wedged between the seats.
Theo through one open eye watched his mother as she drove, face crumbling in hurt, hands clenched on the steering wheel in anger, sometimes singing wordless tunes, but always smoking, her window open a crack to let out the smoke and allow her to toss out the finished cigarette after lighting a new one with its glowing butt. Sometimes she seemed calm, but then her face would tighten and the car would lurch forward at higher speed for a few miles. One time he reached over to touch her arm and ask if she needed to rest. She shook her head and stared at him with wild eyes as if she didn’t recognize him and had just returned from someplace else. “I’m okay, Honey,” she said. “We’re almost there.”
Theo had heard the shouting, the stomping, seen the dishes flying across the room to shatter at his father’s feet; had seen her rage and pain explode as he stood treelike unmoved. The first time, Theo thought, he was just calm; later Theo realized he just didn’t care.
No, Theo thought, as he pulled the pillow into a ball, we left “there.” We’re nowhere.
His father had left an envelope with ten $20 bills. Theo took two and wrote a note: “Gone to store. Don’t leave house.”
The house was at the corner of a busy wide street, and a street without sidewalks. It was gray and three stories tall. It had a big side yard and a barn at the end. The kids will like the yard, Theo thought.
A post on the front porch had a number: 311.
A metal street post had two signs. One running in the same direction as the big street said, “Main.” The other one was broken and said only: “Ow.”
There was a doctor’s office across the big street. A good landmark, he thought, like the busted up oak on the side of the hill above halfway rock that let you know you had taken the right trail off Bear Hill. He had missed that sign one time and ended up at the far end of the lake out near Butternut Swamp at nightfall. He spent some time splashing around the edges of the swamp until he saw the light at Bachelor’s store. There had been another fight. His father was gone whwen he got back and his mother was in her room with the door closed and didn’t respond to his knock. At least the kids were asleep.
He slipped to the lakeshore and sat hunched, arms around knees, head sunk, squinting across the dark water wondering if they even knew he had been gone.
He didn’t really know what to get at the Red & White. Milk, that made sense, and bread and peanut butter and grape jam. Some hotdogs, and ketchup. A couple boxes of cereal. Cookies. He wondered how he was going to carry it all home, about eight blocks.
He added canned spaghetti, the little letter kind that Paul liked, and raviolis.
The woman at the cash register smiled and handed him the change. It had cost about $35.
Theo rolled the tops of the bags and grabbed the lighter one by the top and encircled the other heavier one in his arms. He juggled the bag to get one hand under the heavier bag. At the automatic door the heavier bag broke open and the cans rolled toward the sidewalk.
Only then did Theo collapse against the wall and weep.