Read Jake Online

Authors: Audrey Couloumbis

Jake

A
LSO BY
A
UDREY
C
OULOUMBIS

Getting Near to Baby
Love Me Tender
Maude March on the Run!
The Misadventures of Maude March
Say Yes
Summer’s End
War Games
(with Akila Couloumbis)

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Text copyright © 2010 by Audrey Couloumbis

All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

Random House and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Couloumbis, Audrey.
Jake / by Audrey Couloumbis. — 1st ed.
p. cm.
Summary: When ten-year-old Jake’s widowed mother breaks her leg just before Christmas while her sister and best friend are both away, a grandfather Jake barely remembers must come to Baltimore, Maryland, to help a neighbor take care of him.
eISBN: 978-0-375-89321-6
[1. Grandfathers—Fiction. 2. Neighbors—Fiction. 3. Hospitals—Fiction. 4. Accidents—Fiction. 5. Single-parent families—Fiction. 6. Christmas—Fiction. 7. Baltimore (Md.)—Fiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.C8305Jak 2010

[Fic]—dc22
2009029383

Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.

v3.1

To a mysterious bald person who prefers to go unnamed

Contents

“Joey Ziglar says
it’s boring, grocery shopping with his mom,” I said. It was our usual Saturday-afternoon trip to the store.

“Lucky for you, I’m not Joey Ziglar’s mom.”

“It’s a little boring,” I said. “Sometimes.”

“You’ve got your own list and a budget,” Mom said. “What more do you want? A dance routine?”

“We-ell—”

“Get real,” she said with a little smile.

“A lot of the stuff on my list is a snore,” I said. “Bread, cereal, canned tuna. Juice boxes, milk, and ice cream.”

“You weren’t listening,” she said. “You have a budget. Figure out how to get yourself a treat out of it.”

It took me nearly an hour to do it. I mean, there’s just one canned tuna we like. And we always try to
pick ice cream that’s on sale. Where’s the wiggle room?

I found it. Two boxes of cereal cost an amazing amount of money—more than ice cream. Oatmeal is cheap and healthy. Cocoa Puffs are neither. Cocoa Puffs don’t taste as good as big, soft cookies that could be homemade, so that decision practically made itself. Mom spotted the oatmeal in my cart. “Figured out how to buy treats on your budget?”

“Cookies,” I said. “Big, soft cookies.”

Mom’s eyes lit up. “What kind?”

“White chocolate with some kind of nuts. And chocolate chip.”

“Good picks.” She looked pretty cheerful about the cookies. She likes the ones with the strange nuts.

I pushed the filled-to-the-top grocery cart outside. Everything up to this point was like any other Saturday.

As we walked out to the car—no, as we skidded and skated across the icy parking lot, sometimes sliding away and then coming back together like we each held the end of a rubber band—Mom said, “Let’s make one more trip to the mall. Last-minute Christmas shopping.”

My hopes that she’d be looking for a bicycle sank. If I was going with her, she wasn’t shopping for me.

I would stand in line to hold the space, and then I’d carry the bag. I shoved the grocery cart around our car to the passenger side, huffing it over an icy ridge running along the ground. “I’m old enough to stay home alone, I hope you know.”

Mom said, “Not a chance. Who’s going to lug the loot ba—” and the locks on the car doors sprang open. I opened the door and unloaded the cart, putting everything on the floor in front of the backseat. It took five minutes, probably less.

“Mom?” I said, looking around when I’d finished.

I didn’t see her.

“Mom!” I yelled. “Mom?”

CHAPTER ONE

This Saturday had
started out like any old weekend. We slept later than on a school morning, just not as late as on Sunday morning.

I was up earlier than usual this Saturday. I had a mission.

I sneaked into Mom’s darkened room. She was snoring a little. I waited a second to see if she’d wake up and then I tiptoed to her closet. It was the likeliest hiding place now that I’d ruled out Aunt Ginny’s and our friend Suzie’s closets.

The jumble of Mom’s shoes across the floor seemed undisturbed. The clothes, on the other hand, never looked the same to me, as if shirts and pants on a hanger and a few dresses changed places when no one was home. I reached in, running my arm through the dark space at each end of the closet, hoping to find a
bike standing on the back tire. When I leaned in a little, I felt the wall. No bike. No luck.

Behind me, Mom sighed a little. I shut the closet door partway, like I’d found it.

“Mom, it’s nine-thirty.”

She pulled the covers over her head.

“Rise and shine,” I said, heading for her windows.

“I’m shining,” Mom said. “Can’t the rising wait another five minutes?”

“Only if you’re a loaf of bread. Think of Master Kim telling us, ‘Twenty-five push-ups for tardy.’ ”

I yanked on a roller shade and let it go. It racketed to the top of the window and snapped to a halt. The blast of sunshine hurt my eyes for a second, even though I’d already been up for ten minutes.

“Aaaaah,” my mom yelled. “Death rays!”

Sunshine reflecting off snow and ice is like sunlight supercharged. If you close your eyes after you look, the inside of your eyelids are white, white, white.

“I’m feeding the fish.” I went away, knowing Mom wouldn’t get up yet. She never got up on the first call. This used to bother me a lot more when I was younger, like seven or eight. It was almost scary sometimes.

For one thing, I had to catch a bus.

If you saw the look that driver gave me after she
had to wait a few seconds for me to leave Mom and run the last half block, you’d be scared too.

But ten is a turning point, maturity-wise, Aunt Ginny says.

I can really feel it. It doesn’t bother me so much that Mom isn’t always the one in charge. Plus, it makes me feel more grown-up when I’m in charge.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I wish we were more than the two of us. Then if Mom was having one of her not-in-charge moments, somebody else could pick up the slack.

Not that I want somebody to think it’s their job to boss me around. Just a person who knew it was their turn to take over sometimes.

I stood in Mom’s doorway.

“Toaster waffles after we eat an egg,” I said, the way Mom did when she was the first one up. It was the same breakfast every Saturday.

“Okay, okay, I’m getting up.”

So I got out of there. Mom sleeps in her underpants and a T-shirt.

I never noticed this until Matthew Haygood said in class that’s what his mom slept in. Our health teacher, Mrs. Baggs, sent the social worker around to his house.

His mom hadn’t been told anybody was coming. She answered the door in the same outfit. What happened after that, Matthew had to go spend three weeks with his grandmother, who lived two blocks away.

His mom had to go to court to say she was physically fit or had a fit, or something fit, anyway. Which maybe wouldn’t have been enough to convince the judge, except Matthew’s grandmother went to court that day with her lawyer.

Matthew said his grandmother told them
she
didn’t sleep in anything at all and they thought Matthew was safe enough with
her
, so who were they kidding?

Matthew loves that part; he even took me into the kitchen and begged his grandmother to say it again the way she said it that day, and she did. She said it exactly.

It wasn’t so much
what
she said as the way she said it. Like she thought they could all be replaced by hockey pucks and no one would notice. If I ever went to court, I’d want Matthew’s grandmother on my side.

His grandmother told me the lawyer said legal things. He also said Matthew’s mom answered the door that way because her mother lived two blocks away and visited every day. She expected it would be her mother at the door.

The upshot of it was, Matthew got to go home.

But it looked bad there for a while.

Single mothers have to be really careful is what Mom said when she heard about this. I had never heard Mom call herself a single mother. Or maybe it was the first time anything made me think about it.

Maybe I’d only ever noticed when she told people she’s a widow. Until Matthew and his mom had that trouble, being a widow sounded so much worse than being a single mother.

I don’t remember having a dad. Well. Certain things. A deep voice. A certain way of being carried under someone’s arm so my arms and legs hung like a dog’s. Someone who could bounce on my bed so hard I’d lift off the mattress, and all the time I was laughing like a maniac. I wish I remembered my dad better.

The trouble with memory is you can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what you accidentally made up. One time, Mom asked me, “What do you remember about your dad?”

We were sitting elbow to elbow on the couch so we could share the popcorn. She’d turned down the sound on the commercials. So I told her all these things about the voice and bouncing on the bed.

I also thought of this one memory that I sometimes
get when we’re near people smoking a cigarette. First, it’s the smell of the smoke. Then I’m sitting on somebody’s lap and there’s a low voice in my ear, singing—I know this sounds weird—that counting song about beer bottles on the wall. The first time I heard that song when it wasn’t in memory, the hair stood up on my arms.

I told Mom how important that smell felt to me. How I started to pay attention to smokers until I figured out only Camel cigarettes mattered. She gave me a strange look and said, “Your dad didn’t smoke.”

The commercials weren’t over but she turned the sound up.

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