Coming Apart (9780545356152) (15 page)

BOOK: Coming Apart (9780545356152)
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“Your teacher has only called once so far this semester, and that was to tell me that not only have you been handing in all your homework on time, but you got an A on your geography quiz.”

“Give me a blank map of the U.S. and I can tell you where every state goes,” Ruby had told her proudly.

“That's fabulous, honey. You certainly are growing up.”

Not long after this conversation, the phone had rung and Flora had announced to Min that Ms. Angelo was on the line.

Ruby's eyes had widened. In the past, calls from Ms. Angelo had not brought good news. The worst call had been the one on the day after Thanksgiving when Ms. Angelo had informed Min that she'd decided to put Ruby on probation.

“What did you do now?” Flora had asked Ruby as she'd passed the phone to Min.

“Nothing! I swear!” Ruby had exclaimed, frantically trying to figure out whether this was actually true.

But when Min had hung up the phone, she'd been smiling. “Congratulations, Ruby,” she'd said. “Ms. Angelo just told me that you've been doing beautifully recently, and that if your hard work continues, she'll take you off probation.”

“Really?
Off
probation?” Ruby had cried.

“Off probation. Truly, honey, I can't … I can't get over the change in you.”

(Ruby suspected that Min had been about to say that she couldn't
believe
the change in her, but that was okay. Ruby couldn't blame her, all things considered.)

So … Ruby tallied up the good things that had happened lately. Her teacher had noticed the improvement in her schoolwork and had called Min. Min had praised Ruby. Ms. Angelo had also noticed Ruby's improvement and had called Min. Min had praised Ruby again. Best of all, in Ruby's estimation, was one thing that
hadn't
happened: Min had not noticed that the owl was missing. And (speaking of the owl) Ruby had located a replacement and was socking away her hard-earned dollars as the Doer of Unpleasant Jobs in order to be able to purchase it as soon as possible.

Now it was late on a Saturday morning and Ruby, her weekend homework already started, was off to do several chores for her clients. The first stop was at Mr. Pennington's house, where she was to shovel his walk and his front stoop. Since the blizzard, snow had fallen regularly in Camden Falls, and Ruby and her friends had even had a snow day at last. The most recent snow — four more inches — had fallen the night before, and Ruby wanted to tackle Mr. Pennington's walk before lunchtime.

She arrived at his house with her own snow shovel (well, one of Min's) and announced, “Here I am!”

“Wonderful, Ruby,” said Mr. Pennington. “Just in time. I need to go into town.”

“I'll be done in a jiffy.”

Ruby huffed and puffed and chopped ice and piled snow. When the cleared walk gleamed behind her, she ran back to Mr. Pennington's stoop, collected her pay, and continued to the Fongs', whose walk she had also agreed to shovel. She stuffed several more bills in her pocket as she left the Fongs' house later and, as she walked to her third job, tried to calculate how much money she'd earned altogether, and how much she still needed before she could walk back into the snooty man's jewelry store and show him that she had enough to buy the crystal owl. She envisioned herself dumping a bag of change and dollar bills onto his pristine counter, quarters rolling in every direction, and made a mental note to have the money converted into larger bills before it came time to make her purchase.

Whistling, Ruby made her way through the neighborhood to the home of Min's friend, Mrs. Angrim.

“I'm so glad you're here, Ruby,” said Mrs. Angrim when she opened the door. “You don't know how long I've been putting off this project.” She led Ruby into her kitchen. Every single cabinet door was open, and every item from every cabinet was piled on the table and the counters. Mrs. Angrim handed Ruby a roll of shelf paper. “Are you sure you're ready for this? It's a hideous job.”

It was hideous, but lining the shelves with paper, each piece of which had to be cut to fit its space, would also take a long time, which meant that Ruby would earn a lot of money, and that was fine with her.

“I'm ready,” said Ruby. And she set to work.

Several hours later, when the job, which in fact
had
been rather hideous, was at last finished, Ruby was grubby, tired, and most of all, hungry. But she felt very pleased with herself when Mrs. Angrim looked at her neat-as-a-pin kitchen and her cheerful polka-dotted shelves and said, “Ruby, this is wonderful. Thank you!” And she paid Ruby handsomely for the job well done.

Ruby walked back to the Row Houses, whistling a tune that she thought was from one of Min's Gershwin CD's and might be called “Walking the Dog.” Images of grilled cheese sandwiches and chocolate cake floated through her brain.

“Flora?” she called as she opened the front door. She fingered the bills in her pocket as she ran up the stairs.

She stopped when she reached her bedroom.

The vacuum cleaner was in the middle of the floor and Flora was kneeling next to it, sifting through the contents of the bag, which she had dumped onto a sheet of newspaper. She looked as if she might have been crying.

“What's going on?” asked Ruby. She tried to ignore her rumbling stomach.

“I —” Flora started to say, and Ruby noticed that her sister's hands were shaking. “I guess I broke something of yours,” said Flora miserably.

“You guess?” Ruby's eyes drifted to her china animals, but she didn't notice that any were missing. “What do you mean, you guess?”

Flora sat down with a thump. “I was vacuuming in here. That's my job this weekend — vacuuming the bedrooms — and I was right over there by your bureau, and suddenly I heard something go up the hose. Something like, well, china. It clinked. Only I swear I hadn't knocked anything off your bureau. I
swear
.”

Ruby looked once again at the rows of animals, all of which seemed to be accounted for, and a horrible idea began to take shape in her head. She cast her mind back to the day when she'd brought the crystal owl into her room, and she envisioned its tragic fall to the floor, saw herself with the broom and the dustpan, frantically sweeping up the shards. She must have missed a piece of glass in her haste. And now Flora had slurped it up with the vacuum.

“I've been going through the stuff in the vacuum cleaner bag,” said Flora, getting to her knees again, “and I did find that piece of glass.” She pointed to a slender chunk, as pointy and as sharp as a dagger, which she'd set apart from the pile of dust and lint in the middle of the newspaper. “It's the only thing that could have clinked. But what's it from? Did I break something of yours? If I did, I'll pay you for it. I'm really sorry,” she said.

Ruby let out her breath. Okay, now what? The easiest thing, she said to herself, was to lie. Just tell her sister that she didn't know what that piece of glass could be from and that nothing in her room seemed to have been broken. Or … she could let Flora think she actually had broken something of Ruby's (but what?) and pay her for it. Ruby could then put the money toward the owl.

But when the new, improved Ruby Northrop opened her mouth, she was very surprised at what came out of it.

“You didn't break anything,” she said. “I did.”

“What?”

“I broke something of Min's.”

Flora's eyes narrowed. “You broke something of Min's? Here in your room?”

“Yeah.” Ruby drew herself up as straight as possible. “And I'm going to tell you the truth about what happened.” She felt that honesty should be part of the self-improvement plan.

“Well … good,” said Flora uncertainly.

“I was looking through Min's drawers,” Ruby began.

“You were
what
?”

“Looking through her drawers. You know, just to see if she had anything interesting —”

“Ruby! You can't do that! It's an invasion of privacy!”

“Well, I did do it, and anyway, tell me you've never snooped. That's all it was. Snooping.”

“Giving it a cute name like
snooping
doesn't make it any better,” said Flora.

“Well, all right, so I found this box of stuff that had belonged to Mom and one of the things in the box was an owl and I just wanted to introduce it to my animals,” said Ruby desperately, seeing the look on her sister's face. “So I brought it in here and I dropped it and it broke and I decided to improve myself and I found another owl at the new jewelry store and I'm saving enough money to buy it and when I do I'll put it back in the box and Min will never know the first one got broken.” She attempted a smile. “And they all lived happily ever after!”

Flora was gaping at Ruby. “What you did is wrong for
so
many reasons,” she said finally. “Snooping, lying —”

“I haven't told any lies!” Not yet, anyway, Ruby thought.

“Yes, you have. By not telling the truth. That's like a sin of omission.”

“I don't know what you're talking about.”

“I'm talking about telling Min what you did.”

“No way!”

“Ruby, you absolutely cannot let Min think that the new owl — if you even manage to get away with all this — was Mom's. The real value of the one you broke wasn't how much it cost. It was the fact that it belonged to Mom. You can't fool Min like this. It is completely unfair.”

“If I tell her what happened, it will upset her. Is it fair to upset her?”

“None of this is fair. The owl must mean a lot to Min or she wouldn't have kept it. And now it's broken, and buying her a new one is not going to make things right.”

“But if she never knows what I did — Flora, I'm very close to getting away with this.”

“Listen to yourself! You just said ‘getting away'! You know what you're doing is wrong!”

“It's none of your business, so stay out of it.”

Flora glared at her sister. “All right. For now. I'll stay out of it for now. But this isn't over, Ruby.”

“Yes, it is.”

“No, it absolutely is not.”

Flora finished cleaning up the mess in Ruby's room and left without saying another word.

“Olivia?”

Olivia, who had been attempting to jerk open her temperamental locker door, jumped at the sound of the voice that had spoken directly into her ear. She dropped a stack of books and a pair of sneakers as kids streamed around her, eager to begin their afternoon activities.

“Jacob!” she said, gasping. “You startled me!” What she wanted to say was, “What were your lips doing so close to my earlobe?”

“Sorry. I'm sorry,” replied Jacob, who did indeed look sorry. “I didn't mean to scare you.” He helped her gather her things. “Where do you want them?”

“I was about to sort them out. Half of the books stay here, the others come home with me.” Olivia jammed the sneakers onto a shelf.

Jacob stood woodenly by the locker while Olivia then selected four books and placed them in her backpack.

“Olivia?” he said again.

“Yeah?”

“What's wrong?”

Olivia turned to him. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I know something is wrong. I think it has to do with us, but I'm not sure. Whatever it is, we need to talk about it.”

Olivia sighed, feeling unbearably guilty. On the day of the snowstorm, which now seemed rather distant, she had promised her mother she would talk to Jacob that week. And she'd meant to talk to him. She really had. Instead, they'd spoken less and less, and seen each other less and less outside of school. Olivia had thought about the conversation, and what she would say to Jacob, and how he might respond, and the more she'd thought, the more uncertain she'd become. About everything. Well, about everything except the fact that she knew she didn't want to be Jacob's girlfriend.

What on earth should she say to him now? How could she tell him any of her thoughts without hurting his feelings? She could barely explain her feelings to herself. Furthermore, and this was something Olivia knew she could mention to no one — not her mother, not Flora, not Nikki, and certainly not Jacob — one small, conceited piece of her wasn't ready to give up her enviable status as Jacob's girlfriend. The image of Tanya or Melody swooping down on an Olivia-free Jacob was absolutely horrifying. What would she do if one of them became Jacob's next girlfriend?

And yet, here stood Jacob, waiting for Olivia to answer him. She knew it was time to talk.

Olivia set her backpack on the floor and straightened up. “You're right. We do need to talk.”

“Oh, boy,” said Jacob.

“I know. I'm sorry.”

“So what's going on?”

Olivia almost laughed. “Jacob, we can't talk here!” Jacob stared at her. “I mean, let's go —” Where
could
they talk? Certainly not at Olivia's house, where her brothers would undoubtedly engage in some creative eavesdropping. Definitely not here in school. “Want to go get a slice of pizza?” Olivia asked at last.

BOOK: Coming Apart (9780545356152)
7.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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