Authors: Elaine Marie Alphin
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to stand fast
against great odds
“Need a hand with your bag?” Dad asked over his shoulder.
“No.” I looked at the wreck of a house in front of us as he started down the driveway to Mrs. Hambrick's home.
“Come on, Alexander. You'll seeâthis spring break is going to be specialâfor both of us.”
For him, maybe. I slung my backpack over my shoulder, but I didn't pick up my duffel bag. “What if Mom comes back and finds our house empty? She'll never know to look for us down here in North Carolina.”
Dad's knuckles whitened on the handle of his suitcase. He was already puffing a little from his own suitcase and computer bagâhe doesn't work out except when he runs with me, so he's kind of overweight. “It's been over three years,” he said, not turning back to me.
Three years, two months, and twenty-three days, I thought to myself. She left on New Year's Day, just before I turned ten.
Dad finished, “I've told you beforeâshe's not coming back.”
He keeps saying that, but I don't believe it. My dad's okayâhe writes computer software for a living. That makes the other kids back home in Indiana think I'm the luckiest guy in the world, because our house is wired with the latest computer stuff. I agree it's great to mess around with new systems and know all the Easter Egg secret programs and jokes the programmers hide in their software. But Dad has lived with computers so long he expects everything to work out logically, like programming code. Mom isn't anything like computer code. She's like the music she plays on her recorder and like the flowers she growsâone minute bubbling over with happiness, then sad and droopy the next. I was sure she'd just appear one day, the way she'd left, so I'd tried to keep everything perfect for her.
I picked up the duffel and glared at Mrs. Hambrick's overgrown yardâthe sight of this disaster made me feel even worse about getting dragged here. The ivy and Virginia creeper grew thick, choking any flowers that even thought about pushing up through them. Shrill crickets hid in the undergrowth, but the grass was really sparseâonly a few limp blades trying to grow in the shadows of oaks and maples that hadn't been pruned in what seemed like forever. I hadn't let our yard grow wild like that. Our bulbs had already come up.
“This place is falling apart,” I muttered.
But Dad just said, “Look at these quiet streetsâit's a great place to run.” He grinned. “I bet you'll get a ribbon at your next meet.”
I remembered him cheering the last time I competed. It was embarrassing and great at the same time. The only thing that would have been better was if Mom had been there, too. And if I'd placed, of course.
But I wasn't going to let him change the subject, no matter how important track was to me. “I mean itâlook at the bricks, with all those white smears. How hard can it be to keep two stories' worth of bricks red? And look at those overgrown treesâ”
“The Hambricks bought the place to fix it up,” Dad said. “The walls used to be whitewashedâthat's why the bricks look funny. They'd barely stripped the whitewash when the accident happened.”
I didn't answer. I just stared at the dingy white louvered doors, half hidden behind once-white columns whose paint was now cracked and peeling. Wind chimes hung from the front porch, jangling shrill musical notes and flashing unexpectedly when a ray of sunshine squeezed through the trees and hit them. Was I supposed to say I was sorry Mr. Hambrick died? I was. He'd been killed in a car accident. Some driver who wasn't paying attention ran a red light and hit him. Sure I was sorry it happened. If he were still alive, we wouldn't be here visiting Mrs. Hambrick and her kids.
Before Dad could say anything else, one of the louvered doors creaked open, rattling the wind chimes, and Mrs. Hambrick came out. Her short blond hair stuck up in every direction like she'd forgotten to comb it.
“Bill!” Mrs. Hambrick smiled at my dad as if she'd just gotten the most terrific present. “Even after your last e-mail, I could hardly believe you were really on your way!”
“Hi, Paige,” he said, his voice so low I could barely hear him.
Then she tore her eyes away and looked at me. “AlexanderâI was delighted when I got your father's e-mail saying that you'd decided to come. Carleton and Nicole are excited to meet you!”
Her voice was the same soft Southern drawl I remembered from meeting her in Indianapolis. I hadn't bothered to listen to it then, but now that soft heavy accent threatened to smother me. I couldn't think of anything to say, so I kept my mouth shut. But it didn't matter. She wasn't paying attention to me. She was smiling at Dad, and he was smiling back at her. They looked kind of weird togetherâDad with his balding head and what rust-colored hair he did have pulled back in a ponytail, and her with her hair standing up all over the place. Dad's stocky and she's skinny, and both of them were wearing faded jeans and sweatshirts. That's what Dad wears all the time, but he doesn't go to an office or anythingâhe just writes his software programs at home and sends them in by FedEx, so nobody sees him. Anyway, all computer gurus dress that way. It's like a uniform. But Mrs. Hambrick is some kind of professor at Duke Universityâyou'd think she'd look, well, more dignified.
The front door banged behind them, setting the wind chimes ringing again, and a little kid, who looked about seven, with curly brown hair and a big grin ran down the dirt path toward us, jumping over the roots that stuck up in his way. It had to be Carleton.
“Hi! You're Alex, aren't you?” he cried, leaning back to look up at me. I wasn't that tall yetâjust about Dad's height, but I had a lean runner's build. I guess I looked tall to Carleton. “You get to share my room! You even get to sleep on my dinosaur sheetsâthey're my favorite! Mom said you like history. Do you like dinosaur history, or only people history?”
Did this kid ever run down? And why did I have to share a room with him? I looked at my dad, who wouldn't meet my eyes.
“Well, do you?” Carleton insisted.
“People history, I guess,” I said, thinking about the history stories Mom used to tell me. His smile kind of shrunk away, so I added, “Dinosaur history, too.”
He lit up again. “Stegosaurus is my favorite,” he told me.
Dad still hadn't said anything, but he was smiling at Carleton, and I suddenly wished I hadn't said anything good about dinosaur history.
“It's just for the week, Alexander,” Mrs. Hambrick said quickly. “Carleton is so excited at the idea of sharing with you. We have another room upstairs, but it doesn't have furniture yet.”
“Are you Mr. Raskin?” the kid asked, turning to my dad. “Are you going to be my new father?”
Mrs. Hambrick's neck flushed bright red, and my dad practically dropped his suitcase. Even the crickets stopped chirping. I felt like saying, No. Never. He's
father. And I
But I kept my mouth shut. What was the point? Dad never listened to me anymore. He'd even made me go to a counselor at school for a while.
I dropped my duffel bag, stepped over the tree roots, and went around Carleton, who just stood there grinning happily. It didn't matter anyway. Dad wasn't going to marry Mrs. Hambrick. I was going to wait for Mom to come home, no matter whatâlike the family in this story she told me. Mom always told me history stories at bedtime instead of fairy tales. She really liked to tell the one about Odysseus, who went off to war and took ten years to get back home. His wife and son vowed to wait for him. Other men wanted to marry Odysseus' wife, but she told them she couldn't say yes to any of them until she finished weaving a special cloth. She spent all day weaving and all night ripping out what she'd stitched. That way she'd never finish, so she and her son would be waiting for Odysseus when he came home.
I hadn't figured out a way to make Dad take up weaving in order to chase away women like Mrs. Hambrick, though. I'd have to work on that. I just kept telling myself everything would be okay in the end. Odysseus came home, and Mom would come home, too. And Dad and I would be waiting.
I followed the shadowy path as it climbed through damp, spongy soil and undergrowth. There had to be some quiet place where I could be alone. I turned the corner around the far end of the house, and suddenly a voice came down from right above me. “Soâwas the brat right? Is your father going to marry my mother?”
My heart jumped but I looked up, trying to keep my cool. A porch was nestled in an L-shaped cut in the house, and a girl sat there on a wooden swing, staring at me with a half smile. Not a friendly smile. I hoped she hadn't seen any reactionâshe was probably trying to spook me.
“Nicole?” I guessed. I found myself fiddling nervously with the loose ends of the braided leather lariat I'd tied onto my left wrist before we left. Mom had made it. I used to wear it all the time, but I hadn't worn it much the last year or so. I'd made up my mind to wear it every day on this trip, though.