Grounded

By Christl Call-Cook

Monday. Jeremy and Daniel didn’t show up to school. Dan was my best friend, which is a bit weird because I’m a girl. Normally, I wouldn’t be bothered at all by the fact that he didn’t show up, but he had my ball and we always play at recess. Some of the kids wouldn’t let me play before because I’m a girl, but that stopped when I brought my own ball. Then they decided that I looked like a boy with my short hair and I played okay, so I was in. At recess all the boys were mad at me because I didn’t have the red ball and we had to play with one of the orange, flat balls from school.

We lived on Fidalgo Island, but it was only technically an island. It is surrounded on all sides by water, but there’s a bridge to the mainland. Fidalgo Island is a lumpy bit of land covered with evergreens and lakes. A small town, Anacortes, takes up one third of the island. I’ve been here fourteen long months-long like years. That means fourteen months of rain, fourteen months of nothing to do but hang out at the smokey bowling alley, fourteen months of less-than-new movies in the theater converted from an old Baptist church and fourteen months of wandering the beaches like a Victorian maid, wringing my hands and wailing for a lover lost at sea-when there’s nothing else to do. Someone saw me once, Jason, the kid next door. He’s kind of mean. He’s one of the ones that didn’t want me to play ball with them because I was a girl. So, of course, I had to fudge a bit or he would tell everyone I was weird. So I told him I was singing beer-drinkin’ songs that my uncle had taught me-and I sang one:

Well, I smoke my pipe and I drink my beer

Until my belly goes way out here.

He was impressed. Idiot.

This is the longest we’ve ever been in one place. We’ve always moved. It’s the one constant thing in our family-we move, regularity. We will be moving in a week to Maryland where the Navy has a station. Dad will be working on the base evaluating the training of the new recruits. Right now, he works at the naval base in Oak Harbor, the next island over.

I came home from school and went straight into my bedroom to put down my books. The phone rang and I ran down the long hall past the overdone seascapes on the wall and into my parents’ room to pick it up. On the third ring, I dove across the bed and grabbed the receiver.

It was Auntie Bev, our next-door neighbor. She wasn’t really our aunt, but she insisted that the kids in the neighborhood call her aunt. She was a dumpy old lady who was obsessed with disease. She was a nurse before she retired, so it made sense.

“Hello, Auntie Bev. How is today for you?” I said.

“Oh goodness! Is this Melissa? It’s been a bad day today. It’s so hot that my body aches, and I’m soaked.” I lay back on the pillows and stared at the ceiling. Bev continued to talk, her voice sounding like the lady on the AM radio. I started to count the slats in the closet doors.

“I can’t even wear a bra because it’s so hot and sticky today-too many layers. I’m just wearing that orange house dress your mother made for me. Who is this?” she said.

“Lissa,” I said.

“Isn’t your mother at home?”

“Yes. . .”

“Well get her, dear,” Bev said. I went for my mother, who was our in the side yard looking after the roses. She thought it a bit silly to walk all the way around the house to talk on the phone with a lady who lives next door. Our rose bushes are in the side yard right next to Auntie Bev’s.

“Modern inconvenience,” she said. My mother is a wonderful woman. Occasionally she says to me, “Let’s go to the beach.” She calls the middle school and tells them that I won’t be attending that day and we go to the beach instead. She has kept me sane through all of the moves. I suspect that she would say the same about me if a twelve-year-old can keep an adult sane. They say it usually goes the other way around, you know, twelve -year-olds keeping adults insane.

Tuesday, Daniel and Jeremy didn’t come to school either. I began to wonder if I was ever going to see my ball again. Did they move? No. On the way to school I saw their stepfather’s car. Just as the bus turned off the main road and approached Briar Circle, he pulled out from behind and sped off down the main road. Maybe they’re sick. I hope not; I’m getting lonely. It’s hard for me to make friends. I never got used to moving; after the first ten times, I gave up. Dan and Jem befriended me. They had watched me collect worms one day before school. It had rained-not a surprising thing for Washington-and the ground was wet that morning. Worms were all over the sidewalk. I had started just throwing them off the sidewalk into the rich soil to save their lives but picked out a few that I wanted to keep because they were so big. Daniel had watched a bit with his brother before he asked me if I was going fishing with them. I said I’d never gone fishing but that I’d like to and thank you for inviting me. I was being sarcastic, as my mother puts it; it’s the best way to be left alone. But they took me up on it, and we went the next day.

After school, I decided to walk home so I could stop by Dan’s. At least I would find out what was going on. Their house was on Boston Street at the very end. Right next door was an empty field where we would look for worms to go fishing-it’s really muddy. Their house was plain but clean, a one-story wooden house, beige with dark-brown trim. Their lawn was always mowed short and was green, but they had no flowers or trees. I checked in the garage window for cars. Their mother’s little brown Datsun was gone, but their stepdad’s white Toyota was parked in the middle of the garage. There were puddles of water around the car so it must have just returned home from driving in the rain.

I lowered myself down to the ground and leaned against the garage. Their stepdad made me nervous; it wasn’t something so much noticed as sensed. He seemed really nice-he bought us pizza and joked with all of us. He would tease Daniel about having a girlfriend and talk about kissing. The boys never talked about him. One day, I came over to play. Jem answered the door. His eyes were red and he sniffled a little. He said he wasn’t crying, and I hadn’t even asked. He shouted for Daniel and ran down the hall. I heard him in the kitchen asking if he and Dan could play. They came out to the living room and we played games from their games closet. We stayed at their house because their mother warned them to be home. We were laughing when the front door opened.

“I’m home!” said their stepfather. “I’ve brought pizza.” He walked into the living room, grabbed the feather duster and began tickling me with it. I was laughing when I noticed that Daniel and Jeremy weren’t. Daniel looked angry and Jeremy bit his lower lip and looked at his hands. Later, when I asked Dan what that was all about, he wouldn’t say anything other than, “He’s a jerk.” He never talked about his stepfather after that. Once aware of the tension, it was easy to pick out of harmless conversations. The boys’ silence, their mother’s fast whistling, their father’s bad jokes at night-they were all clues. That is why I debated so long about ringing their doorbell. I decided to ring it and see.

I followed the curve of the sidewalk through the neat square of lawn. Standing at their doorstep felt like standing on the stage for the school play again. I knocked instead of ringing and waited. No one came. I couldn’t hear any noise inside the house, though their father should have been home since his car was. He’s not prone to taking walks around the neighborhood. There wasn’t a sound until I turned and started to walk away. I heard a sort of thumping like a cat jumping off a cupboard or knocking books over. I didn’t know what it could be, so I went home. Anyways, it certainly wasn’t someone opening the door or shouting “Come in!”

{break}

“Hello, Auntie Bev. How are you?” I said.

“It’s a bad day, a bad day. My temperature has really been up. I’m soaked. I’m on Tegratol until they switch my meds, you know,” Bev said. I was back to counting wood slats in the closet doors. I swear I must have counted them every day; she called every day. The closet door was open so I categorized my mother’s clothes by color. I never noticed before that everything was either blue or green. There is one red dress.

“My home nurse stopped by today and took my blood, and I don’t know what I’m going to do. My physical therapy is screwing up my arm. It’s black and blue and green and yellow and stuff, I don’t think it will ever heal. Yes, it will never be the same.”

“Would you like to speak to my mother?” I said.

“Melissa! I call to speak to you, too; I like to know how you are doing, too! How are you?” she said. I could hear the vacuum that Mom was using on the car through the open window and through the phone. My mother was right; it was strange to talk to someone on the telephone who lived so close.

“I’m fine. How are you?” I said. I propped a pillow against the headboard of the bed and flipped a corner of the blanket over my legs.

“Oh, not so good. Isn’t your mother at home?” Bev said.

“Yes.”

“Well, fetch her for me. I’ll wait,” said Bev. Rolling my eyes had become an art form. My mother said that it’s not a good idea to do it when you talk on the phone because you get in the habit and then you might slip someday when you are talking face-to-face with someone. I indulged myself and “fetched” my mother.

Wednesday. For the third day Daniel and Jeremy didn’t come to school. I started to worry. They’re my best friends. What if we move without saying goodbye? What if they ran away? They would have told me so I could have gone with them. I decided to walk home again and stop by their house. Again, their mother’s car was gone, and their dad’s car was parked in the middle of the garage. Walking up to the front porch seemed to take a long time. Their house is visible from all the other houses in the neighborhood. I felt like all the ladies on the block were in their front rooms staring at me and talking on the phone with one another about my dirty jeans and short hair.

“That McEntire girl doesn’t look like a girl at all.”

“Her father is in the army, you know.”

“It shows. Doesn’t she have a mother?”

I turned the voices off inside my head and knocked on the door. Waiting always takes longer when you wait for something that’s not guaranteed to come. I made myself stand there two minutes longer than I wanted to. Then I heard that cat sound again but much louder. It was a thumping. It wasn’t sharp enough to be a hammer and nail but had that same sort of power in it. I knocked again. The thumping ceased and I stood there with all the gossiping crowd at my back. I heard footsteps and backed away a couple of feet from the door. My father says it’s polite to step back. The stepfather opened the door and stood smiling down at me.

“Hi, Melissa,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

“I was wondering if Daniel and Jeremy arc okay,” I said, suddenly very awkward in the face of his smile. He noticed my fidgety hands and stretched his smile wide.

“It’s hard to talk to adults you don’t know very well, isn’t it?” he said and rested a hand on my shoulder. It was heavy and large and pulled my shoulder down like my backpack when it is full.

“Yes,” I said. “I was wondering if they’re okay because they haven’t been to school.”

“Of course. They’ve both been grounded but will return to school soon.”

“Oh. Can I see them? Should I get their homework assignments for them?” I said, looking behind him into the entryway. It was usually quite neat. But there were letters piled on the small cherry table by the hall mirror and assorted coats on the floor by the coat closet. The hat standing the corner had a man’s coat on it which was weird because Dan’s mom never let anyone hang anything on it. It was only for decoration or for guests to use. They don’t usually have guests. I didn’t count.

“No, on both counts,” he said.

“Huh?” I said.

“That was no, twice. I’m sorry; you can’t see them, and they don’t need their homework assignments-but thank you,” he said. He took his hand off my shoulder and stepped back into the house. Before he could close the door, I said, “Do you have a cat?” I don’t know why I asked; I know they don’t because their mother is allergic to them.

He pulled the door back open quickly and looked at me. His smile still hung about the corners of his mouth, but he narrowed his eyes. “We’ve never had a cat; we can’t have them,” he said. “Why?”

I no longer felt comfortable, and I probably should have stopped there, but I didn’t. “I was here yesterday, and when I knocked I heard a sound like a cat playing.” I continued to fill the silence because it was uncomfortable. I looked for something silly to say, to erase that pointed look. “Our cat always gets on the top bookshelf and knocks the books off; that’s what it sounded like. Cats are better outside. ”

He looked down at me and laughed. “Well, we did get a new puppy. It’s not ours; we’re watching it for a friend. ”

“Oh. Can I see it? What kind is it?” I said, though I just wanted to leave.

“No. I need to ger back to work. Goodbye. I’ll tell Daniel you came by.”

“And Jeremy, too,” I said. “He would be offended if I didn’t stop by for him, too.”

“Okay, Jeremy, too,” he said and closed the door.

At home, I walked in the door as the phone was ringing. I wondered if Bev just waited until she saw me walking up the driveway.

“Hello, Bev. How ate you?” I said.

‘Auntie Bev, to you. Not so well. Somebody called about the house but I was too sick to talk to them. I told them to call back later. I have to move probably.” My mother’s closet was open so I counted the dresses again. The red dress was gone; she must have been wearing that.

It’s Wednesday so she’s probably at a meeting. “Poor James, I don’t think he left me much for money, but the lawyer is writing some papers to get me into the bank account. Poor James, I’m glad he’s dead; it was awfully painful. But I miss him. Yesterday, I was crying and crying my knees out.”

“Don’t you mean crying your eyes out?” I said.

“What did I say?” said Bev.

“Knees, crying your knees out,” I said.

“Oh. It’s a saying from my mother. It means crying so hard you’re bent over to your knees,” Bev said. “Do you understand?”

“Sure.”

“I’ve sure been weepy these last few days, but it’s okay. I’m okay. I’m just fine. There’s not a thing wrong with your aunt. I’ve got good neighbors and a bank account and I’m fine.” Bev sounded shaky; my mother could get home before she got off the phone. “I’ll get that bank account with my lawyer. I’m just a little lonely for James; I’m lonely, oh but I’m lonely. There’s no one to talk to”

I wondered if I should say that I had to take something out of the oven. I would be fudging, but I could be on that phone for hours; when Bev started rambling on about death, she usually talked a long time. Last time, I did half my math homework before my mother came and rescued me. It didn’t help that no matter what their stepdad said I still felt like Daniel and Jeremy were missing.

“Well, tell your mother . . she’s at a meeting, right?”

“Yes.”

“Tell her to call me or come over. ”

“Okay,” I said. “She’ll probably come over.”

Later that evening, I found my mother in the living room. Dad was staying late on the base in Oak Harbor. I walked in and sat beside her on the couch. I leaned my head on her shoulder and looked at her book.

“Mom, can parents ground kids from school? Isn’t it the law for kids to go?” I said.

“Yes, if they’re underage.”

“Is underage under eighteen?” I said.

“Yes.” She put down her book and leaned against the couch so she could look at me.

“Daniel and Jeremy haven’t been to school for three days. I went over there yesterday, the day before, and today. Their mother wasn’t home; yesterday their step dad was there, but he wouldn’t answer the door. At least his car was there. Today, he answered the door but wouldn’t let me in.” I switched positions on the couch so I was leaning against her and looking at the picture above the piano. It was some Impressionist thing with pastel colors; it came with the house. Mother didn’t like it because it was boring. “He said they were grounded and couldn’t come to school, but you told me kids have to.”

“Yes, they do. Are you worried about them?” she said.

“Well, I don’t like him and I don’t think he likes them. They aren’t his; he has no reason to,” I said.

Mother put her arm around me and laughed a little. “They are his kids by marriage. \7har are you thinking? Don’t get carried away. He’s a pretty normal type.”

“Mom, I think he comes across that way. He’s very nice to me, but sometimes it’s very uncomfortable at their house.” I explained to her about the first time I felt that.

“If they are not in school by Friday, will you try to find out why for me?”

“Well, I can try. It really isn’t any of our business, so I’d have to be careful,” she said.

They still weren’t in school on Thursday and I wanted to stop by their house again on the way home, but I didn’t want to see their dad. Besides, he might get upset if I was always dropping by. My mother was in the garage when I got home. She called through the doorway, “Were they at school?”

“No,” I said. I walked into the garage and sat on the bumper of her car. She stopped sorting through a box to turn and look at me.

“Did you stop by their house today?” she said.

“No, I didn’t want to talk to their dad,” I said. “Yesterday was enough.” I could hear the phone ringing inside so I got up.

“It’s Bev. I’ll be right there,” my mother said. I ran into the house and picked up the phone.

“I was wondering if you were going to get the phone or not,” Bev said. “Today is not a good day. I’ve just been thinking about my dear James all day. He was a good man, wasn’t he?”

“I didn’t know him,” I said.

“Of course, you did. He was a good man, wasn’t he?”

“Yes, he was,” I said and sat down at the dining room table. I ran my fingers along the crack between the two pieces of the table.

“I was there when he died, you know. I stayed the whole day with him because I knew he was going. He needed me; I just couldn’t leave him though I was so tired. I did take a short nap in the afternoon but was right there when he passed away at one minute after eight. It will be two years on Saturday. ” There was some mail on the table so I started looking through it. A catalogue looked most interesting.

“I knew he was going. He struggled though and held on. He had to wait for Gwen to get there, but even once she was there, he still held on for another day. Then he slipped away.” When she said “slipped,” her voice went soprano or something. I wanted to laugh. The catalogue was full of sports equipment and computers but it was very expensive. It was addressed to the former occupant of our house, a Mr. Robert Twitchell. ‘And now that he’s gone, I’m going to want to be gone, too. Last two years have been horrible. Worse and worse it gets. We’ll see what the good Lord would have me do.” Where is my mother? She must have forgotten.

I said, “My mother’s in the garage Auntie Bev. I don’t think she knows that you’ve called. I’ll tell her.”

“Oh, don’t worry. She’s here, walked in the door a minute ago. Bye,” she said.

Friday. Another lonely day. Parents can’t ground kids from school. It’s against the law. After school, I walked to Daniel’s through the marsh behind the school. This was a bad idea because it had just rained the night before. The great thing about Washington is that a statement like that can be true 363 times out of 365. About halfway through the marsh, I stumbled and landed on my hands and knees in the mud. Mucky water splashed up in my face. It tasted gritty and somewhat appealing, like newly picked carrots. I hadn’t once made it through the marsh without slipping. Why did I keep trying? Maybe it has to do with the look of alarm and concern that I get from my mother when I come through the door covered with scratches and mud. using some grass and dried reeds, I wiped off what mud I could.

When I arrived at Dan’s, I checked the garage. It was empty. Now what? I decided to sit on the porch and wait until they got home. I wanted to find out at least how long they were going to be grounded and if I could see them before we moved. What had they done to deserve a week’s worth of what Dad calls house arrest?

I sat down on the cement step and stared at my muddy shoes. I meant to stay there until they returned; I was going to be loyal and brave, but I’m not really that patient. It was about fifteen minutes later that I stood and paced the front walk down to the road and back. I sat down to wait another fifteen.

When it rains in Washington, it is usually more like a cold sauna with a leak, or moist breath on windows. I really didn’t realize it was raining until I got cold. I had nothing else to do, so I went up to the door and knocked.

As soon as I knocked I heard that thumping and it struck me what it could be. It was a hollow, blunt resounding like a dull hammer hitting a wooden dowel. It had the same force as hammer and nail but the blows were farther apart. I tried to open the front door. I would say, “Did you say ‘come in’?” if anyone was there. The front door was locked.

I jumped off the cement steps into the lawn and headed for the side gate to their back fence. I felt my heart accelerate. This was usually a bad sign; it meant I was going to do something I could possibly get in trouble for. I tensed my body to listen as I moved and heard the rush in my ears of blood and silence. I had to rub my hands on my dirty jeans twice before I reached the gate; I don’t know if it was the rain or my sweat. Climbing over their cedar fence was easy but awkward. I had to jump to catch the top and pull myself up to the first cross-board. I stood on that with both hands on the rough pointed slats at the top as I swung one leg over, then the next.

Once over, I jumped backward but I pushed off a bit too hard and overbalanced. I had to catch myself with my hands as I landed. I left four indents in the soggy grass. A sliver from the fence went deep into the palm of my hand.

The sliding-glass door on the back porch went to the dining room, but the wide, vertical slats of the blinds were rolled shut, flat against the glass. I tried the door. The pounding sound from inside had stopped but a squeaky shuffling started as I slid the door. I thought at first that it was the door in its track but it continued after the door stopped. It sounded like tennis shoes on tile. I had reached up my hand to pull away the blinds but hesitated. What was that? What was I doing? This wasn’t my house. I started to talk myself out of going inside.

“Lissa?” That was Dan. I brushed back the blinds and looked into the dining room. It was dark and empty. I couldn’t see anyone in the living room beyond, either. I took a step inside and rested my hand on the dining room table. When I heard my name again, I jumped.

“Lissa,” said Dan. He sounded tired. “Under the table.” Their table was oval and made of hardwood. The top was supported by one center pillar with four legs splaying out at the bottom. Dan and Jeremy were snugged up against the one supporting leg.

“What are you doing?” I said. I was confused and cold and disappointed.

“We can’t get out. Could you ger your dad? He’ll get us out. ” Dan said. The words he said were sensational and woke me up a bit, but his tone was flat and tired. I looked at Jeremy. He looked thin and his face was tight. His eyes were red and he was curled up snug.

“I wasn’t crying,” he said.

“Yes, you were,” said Dan.

“Was not,” he said. His voice wavered and his eyes opened wider. “I don’t cry.”

“It’s okay, Jem,” said Dan.

“No, it’s not,” and he began to cry.

“Why can’t you get out of here?” I asked. “Why are you grounded?” Dan looked back at me and moved his arms off his belly. Cinched underneath his ribs was his new bike chain. It wrapped around the table leg.

“You too?” I said to Jem. He nodded, sucking in his breath. “Can he do that?” I said.

“I don’t think so. I don’t know,” said Dan. “But he can’t hit us; look at Jems’ arm.” I shuffled in closer to Jem and reached out a hand. Jem sunk back.

“Don’t touch my arm!”

“Okay, show it to me, Jem. I won’t touch it,” I said.

“Promise?” he said. I nodded and he lifted his good arm off of the other one. The elbow bent too far and there was a smear on the floor where it lay.

“I’ll go get my parents. Is he coming back?” I said.

“I guess so.”

“Where’s your mom?” I said. They didn’t know.

Running home took so long. I kept remembering things I should have done or taken care of. Where was my backpack? I think it was still on their porch. Would he know I had been there? I kept hiding from cars; I had to take the winding roads instead of the main road. I realized that there was no puppy in their house. He had lied to me. That made me mad. I wondered who had answered the phone when Bev called. My mother was usually out in the yard and Dad wasn’t home. Bev was probably back to complaining about her arm and physical therapy. Her arm would never be the same.

When I burst in the door, my mother hung up the phone and ran toward me.

“We heard you went through the marsh again. Lissa, don’t,” she said. Dad came out of the kitchen and threw an orange at me.

“That’s for not calling before you decide to fall in a swamp,” he said. “You need to give us some sort of warning for these things.”

“I found Dan and Jem,” I said. My parents were silent. Mother’s hands fell from my shoulders to her sides; she didn’t seem to know what to do with them.

“He can’t do that, can he?” I said. “I know he can’t break Jem’s arm, but can he tie them up?” Dad shook his head and went to the phone. After Dad hung up the phone, he made me tell him what I saw. Then we got in the car and drove to Dan’s house to meet the police. The lights were on when we arrived, and Dan’s stepdad was standing in the front door letting the light spill out onto the lawn, onto my backpack against the step. His figure cut the light in half and he stood there and yelled into the street, his hands pressed against the doorjamb. His face scrunched up when he opened his mouth that wide. I’d never seen him like this. I can imagine that he talked sweetly to the policemen at first, offered them pizza and apologized that he couldn’t let them in. I slid down in the seat. Dan and Jem came to stay with us that night after the hospital. It should have been fun, but Dan talked like Auntie Bev and Jem listened to him for hours. I didn’t know what to say.