Jeri spent almost the entire night staring out his window the day before they started high school that fall. He had neither brothers nor sisters to make the transition easier; no one to tell him which classes to avoid, or which teachers to get on the good side of. His parents barely acknowledged the fact he was starting a new school, although his mother had stirred herself just long enough to buy him school clothes; the kind she liked, the kind he hated. In the morning, Bobby showed up at his door, pale and looking even more tired than Jeri felt. He wore a new shirt and clean, but patched, jeans.
“Where’d all these other kids come from,” Bobby asked a few hours later as they found an empty table in the cafeteria at lunch time. Most of the faces in the hallways were unfamiliar.
Jeri opened his brown paper bag. “Most are probably from Mark’s Street school. Not everyone lives in Lone Pine. Some might live in Don Park or up by the ski hill. You want my apple?”
Bobby crossed his arms and slouched into his chair, peering suspiciously at the strangers sitting at other tables. “They look diff’rent, is all.”
Jeri shrugged. “So?”
Once classes began in earnest, the dread disappeared and the boys settled into a new routine. The weeks flew by, and new subjects, new teachers and new faces made the experience interesting. But at home, the cabin still remained the boys’ primary focus.
After the summer’s window installation project, they’d chinked the cracks in the walls with old insulation, newspapers, grasses and moss. Then, the messiest and stinkiest part of the job began: mixing mud from the creek and straw from pilfered bales to coat the whole inside into a tight, adobe-style finish. That was Old Joe’s suggestion. Then, they’d tacked yards of salvaged chicken wire to the inside of the walls and the floor to help secure the mixture. The entire month of August was almost gone by the time it dried enough to whitewash. While they waited for the cabin to air out and set, they collected firewood, and chopped, sawed, split and stacked for two solid weeks. Bobby figured they had enough for two seasons. Jeri wasn’t so sure.
“Remember last winter? No matter how much wood we burned, the place never did heat up,” Jeri said.
“Yup, the wind blew through the joint like we were sitting in a field. This year, with all this work and the new rocket stove Old Joe made us, it’s gonna be snug. You can bet on it.”
The day before Christmas vacation, the hallways echoed with good-natured laughter and excitement. No school for two weeks! Bobby hated the holidays, as it meant having to spend long stretches at home trying to avoid his father. The boys spent most of their time at Jeri’s house, but only when Jeri’s parents were gone. They didn’t much care for the boy with the lanky black hair and somber face. “He’s not really our kind of people. Why don’t you make friends with the doctor’s son? He’s your age, isn’t he?” his mother had said. Jeri stood at the window staring out over the snow covered lawn, thinking about Timmy, the doctor’s son, who was constantly knocking his books out of his arms in the hallways at school. Jeri didn’t quite know what ‘our kind of people’ meant; maybe the kind of people who spent most of their time partying and leaving their kids home alone.
His parents were both off work until after Boxing Day, and were excited about a Christmas Eve party they’d been invited to by his father’s boss. They spent two days trying to decide what to wear. In the early afternoon, they’d set out for Nym Lake, hoping to beat the forecasted blizzard.
“This Christmas Eve party is just for adults, dear. Why don’t you watch TV while we’re gone? There’s food in the fridge.” His mother gave his shoulder a vague pat on the way out the door, leaving a wake of cloying, floral miasma. An hour later, the storm blew in with a fury. Jeri spent a restless couple of hours flipping through channels until the snow abated and the sun peeked out. He squinted through his lashes at the glistening sparkle of colors as he crunched his way past Barry Court, his hands rammed deep into his coat pockets against the chill.
Bobby’s mom answered the door gripping a stained housecoat tightly around her stick-thin frame, a cigarette cemented to her thick red lipstick. “Yeah?”
“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Rider. Is Bobby home?”
She glowered at him like he’d spoken to her in Chinese. Her bloodshot gaze skipped over his head and down the drive. “Bobby?” she asked, in a tone suggesting she had no idea who he could possibly mean. She leaned through the doorway and squinted against the light before calling back into the dark house. “Amy, is Bobby home?”
Amy’s pale face peered out from behind her mother, her large, dark eyes smudged grey with sleeplessness. “No,” she whispered.
“He ain’t here,” Mrs. Rider said, and slammed the door in his face.
Something was wrong – Bobby not here, and not tapping on his window as soon as the wind had died? He whirled around and ran for home, heading straight to the garage, where he dragged a pair of snowshoes and the long toboggan to the back door before barrelling into the house for supplies. His Auntie Pat had dropped off a leftover turkey from the Knights of Columbus Christmas party the night before, and he packed the entire thing into the sled. By the time he was done, he had three shopping bags, two boxes and a large backpack full of gear. He spread his sleeping bag over the haul and secured it with a nylon rope. Ten minutes later, he was at the end of the lane strapping the snowshoes on, about to head into the bush toward the cabin. Halfway there, the sun disappeared behind heavy clouds just as fresh snowflakes began to fall.
Photo from flickr – some rights reserved
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