Authors: Jeanne Birdsall
“Fat chance,” said Skye. “Since he’s a professor.”
“How old do I have to be to read
War and Peace
?” asked Jane. “It would soothe my wounds to find a kindred spirit in Mr. Tolstoy.”
“Older than ten, that’s for sure,” said Skye. Unwilling to be pinched in the ankle again, she headed back for the sugar mixture in the skillet, but this time Rosalind was ready with a body block.
“No more,” she said. “I’m making a pineapple upside-down cake for Aunt Claire, and you’re ruining it.”
“Aunt Claire is visiting!” Jane’s face lit up. “In my agony, I’d forgotten.
will soothe my wounds.”
“And while I’m finishing the cake, you two can get the guest room ready for her.”
“Homework…,” muttered Skye, drifting toward the door.
“You never do homework on Fridays,” Rosalind said briskly. “Go.”
Despite Skye’s attempt to avoid helping, she was an excellent worker, and the next hour at the Penderwick house went smoothly. The clean sheets and towels were taken care of, the living room was straightened up, and, as a special touch, Batty and Hound were both brushed. Just as Rosalind pulled the finished cake out of the oven, Jane’s joyful yell rang through the house.
“Aunt Claire’s here!”
The Blue Letter
HIS VISIT OF AUNT CLAIRE’S
started out like her visits always did. There was the usual tussle to see who could hug her first, and she had dog biscuits in one pocket for Hound—just like she always did—and in the other pocket, chocolate caramels for everyone else. And when Mr. Penderwick came home she sat on the kitchen counter, just like always, while he made dinner—eggplant parmigiana—getting in his way and teasing him every time he mislaid a cooking spoon, or his glasses, or the salt, which was every two minutes. All through dinner she continued to be the same old Aunt Claire—telling funny stories about her job and peppering the girls with questions about school. It wasn’t until everyone had stuffed themselves with eggplant and the table had been cleared that the visit started to turn odd. Rosalind was just bringing out the pineapple upside-down cake when Aunt Claire abruptly pushed back her chair and stood up.
“I think—” She sat down again. “Maybe not.”
“Maybe not what?” asked Jane.
Aunt Claire stood up again. “I mean, I guess this would be as good a time as any. Though, actually, later would be better.”
She sat down yet again, and smiled at everyone. They would have smiled back if it hadn’t been obvious that her smile was a guilty one, though the idea of Aunt Claire being guilty of anything was beyond imagination.
Mr. Penderwick frowned. “What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m fine. Just ignore me,” she said gaily. “The cake looks delicious, Rosalind. Aren’t you going to cut it?”
Rosalind picked up the cake knife, but before she could make a cut, Aunt Claire was back on her feet.
“No, no, definitely best to get it over with. I’ll go get the presents from my car.” And she rushed out of the room.
“What presents?” Skye asked, but no one knew. It wasn’t Christmas or a birthday.
“Is Aunt Claire going crazy?” This was Batty, and no one could answer her, either. If Aunt Claire wasn’t going crazy, she was doing a good job of acting like she was.
Then she was back, pulling a shiny new red wagon full of interestingly shaped packages and talking very quickly. “The wagon is for Batty, of course. Sorry I couldn’t wrap it, dear, but it’s too big and bulky. The wrapped packages are for the other three girls.”
“All right, Claire,” said Mr. Penderwick. “What is all this about?”
“Can’t I bring gifts without a reason?”
“You never have before,” said Rosalind. Aunt Claire was making her nervous.
“You’re hiding something, Claire,” said Mr. Penderwick. “You know that never works. Remember my submarine?”
“What submarine?” asked Skye.
“Your aunt destroyed my favorite model submarine and blamed it on our dog, Ozzie. But I knew it was her.”
“It’s nothing like your submarine this time!” cried Aunt Claire.
“Then what is it?” Rosalind burst out—she couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Are you sick, Aunt Claire?” asked Jane, looking suddenly pale and sickly herself.
“No, no, I’m not sick. It’s—I mean, I should have started all this with your father later, in private. Not that it’s anything so terrible. I just—Oh, Martin!”
Mr. Penderwick took off his glasses and cleaned them on his sleeve. “Girls, give me a few minutes alone with your aunt, will you?”
“Can’t they open the presents first?” pleaded Aunt Claire. “Or at least take them with them?”
“They may take them.”
It was a miserable group that filed into the living room, with Rosalind dragging the red wagon, and Skye dragging Hound, who would have preferred to stay in the vicinity of the pineapple upside-down cake. No one was in the mood for presents.
“It would be ungrateful not to open them,” said Jane after a few moments of gloomy silence. She still wasn’t in the mood for presents, but she’d noticed that the package with JANE on it was the right size and shape to be books.
So Rosalind handed out the packages. Jane’s was indeed books, six of them by Eva Ibbotson, one of her favorite authors. Skye got an impressive pair of binoculars, army issue and with night vision. And Rosalind’s gift was two sweaters, one white and one blue.
“Two!” she said. “Something is definitely wrong.”
“And my books are all hardbound, and two of them I haven’t read even once yet,” added Jane. “These must be Aunt Claire’s dying gifts.”
“She said she wasn’t sick. Besides, she looks perfectly healthy.”
“People often look perfectly healthy right before they die.”
“Then we could all die.” Batty climbed into her new wagon. Perhaps it was safer in there.
“Nobody’s going to die,” said Rosalind.
“Shh,” said Skye, and now everyone noticed that she was lurking near the door.
“You’re eavesdropping!” said Jane.
“Eavesdropping isn’t honorable. I just happen to be standing here, that’s all,” said Skye.
Her reasoning was so logical that her sisters decided to stand with her, and if they were quiet because there was nothing left to say, was that really the same as eavesdropping? Whether it was or not, it didn’t do them any good, for all they heard were bits and pieces. Aunt Claire was talking quickly, and their father said “NO” once loudly, and then they went back and forth, and the girls heard their mother’s name—Elizabeth—several times. Then there was silence, until without warning the door flew open, almost hitting Skye in the nose.
It was their father, his hair rumpled and his glasses sliding down his nose. He was holding a piece of blue notepaper, holding it gently as though it were delicate and precious. At the sight of it, Rosalind suddenly felt cold inside, so cold she shivered, though none of it made sense—the letter, the cold, or the shivering.
“It’s all right, girls. Not a tragedy. More of a comedy, or perhaps a tragicomedy. Come back in.”
They filed back into the kitchen, sat down, and thanked Aunt Claire for their gifts. The pineapple upside-down cake sat, ignored, in the middle of the table.
“You tell them, Claire,” said Mr. Penderwick. “This is your doing.”
“I explained to you, Martin, it’s
my doing,” she said.
“Tell them,” he said.
“Well, girls—” She paused, then hurried on. “What would you think of your father beginning to date?”
There was a shocked silence. Whatever anyone had imagined, it wasn’t this.
“Dates? You mean, like movies and dinner and romance?” asked Jane finally.
“Romance! Bah!” said Mr. Penderwick, his glasses falling off altogether and clattering to the floor.
Aunt Claire picked up the glasses and gave them back to him. “Movies and dinner, yes, but there’s no rush for romance.”
Again, no one could think of what to say. The only sound was Hound’s snuffling search for crumbs on the floor.
“I don’t think you’re the type for dating, Daddy,” said Skye after a while. “No offense.”
“None taken,” he said. “I agree with you.”
Batty slipped off her chair and onto her father’s lap. “Why would you, Daddy?”
“Your mother thought it best, honey,” said Aunt Claire.
“Mommy?” This was Jane, whispering.
Rosalind was feeling dizzy. The kitchen now seemed too warm and the lights too bright. “No, I don’t believe it,” she said. “There’s been a mistake.”
“It’s true, Rosy. This was your mother’s idea,” said Mr. Penderwick, looking down at the blue paper he was still holding. “She was afraid I’d be lonely.”
“But you have us,” said Rosalind.
“Grown-ups sometimes need the company of other grown-ups,” said Aunt Claire. “No matter how wonderful their children are.”
“I don’t understand why this is happening now,” said Skye, picking up a fork and stabbing the table. “Is there someone you want to date, Daddy?”
“No, there is not.” Mr. Penderwick looked like he wouldn’t mind doing some stabbing himself.
“Your mother believed you girls would be old enough by now that Martin could expand his world a bit, and frankly, I don’t think she was wrong,” said Aunt Claire. “So he and I have agreed upon a plan. Your father will jump into the dating pool, shall we say, and stay there for the next several months. During that time he’ll take out at least four different women.”
“Four!” Stab, stab, stab, stab went Skye’s fork.
“If, after that, he wants to go back to being a hermit, at least he will have tried, and I mean seriously tried. No pretending there aren’t any available women in western Massachusetts.” Ignoring her brother’s groan, Aunt Claire soldiered on. “And, since I thought he might have trouble getting started, I called a friend of mine who has an unmarried friend here in Cameron.”
Rosalind’s dizziness was getting worse—her ears were ringing, and the refrigerator appeared to be tipping to one side.
“And?” Skye jammed the fork so hard it bent.
“And thus, tomorrow night I have a blind date with a certain Ms. Muntz,” said Mr. Penderwick. “The die is cast.
Iacta alea est.
Rosalind stood up so abruptly that her chair fell over with a loud clatter. They were all asking her what was wrong, but she couldn’t explain. She only knew that she couldn’t breathe properly and she had to get outside. She stumbled toward the door, pushing away someone’s hands, and heard Aunt Claire saying that they should let her be.
Yes, let me be, she thought, reaching the door.
“Rosy!” That was her father.
Answering him—even looking at him—was impossible. She escaped, slammed the door behind her, and took great, hungry gulps of the night air. Yes, now she could breathe.
“I’ll walk for a while,” she told herself. “I’ll feel better if I walk.”
She set off down Gardam Street.
ND HE HUNG HIS NEW COAT
on the hook for his coat, and his new handkerchief on the hook for his handkerchief, and his pants on the hook for his pants, and his new rope on the hook for his rope, and himself he put in his bunk,” read Mr. Penderwick.
“You left out Scuppers’s shoes.” Batty was in her bed, listening intently.
“So you did,” said Aunt Claire.
Mr. Penderwick went back a line or two. “His new shoes he put under his bunk, and then himself he put in his bunk.”
“And here he is where he wants to be—a sailor sailing the deep green sea,” finished up Batty. “Now for the song.”
“It’s late for songs. Time for sleep, Battikins.”
“Rosalind always sings the song. Doesn’t she, Hound?”
Hound barked nervously from his spot beside the bed. He liked to side with Batty, but after all, it was Mr. Penderwick who fed him.
“Traitor beast,” said Mr. Penderwick.
“Come on, Martin,” said Aunt Claire. “Let’s raise our voices in—I guess ‘celebration’ wouldn’t be quite the word for tonight. Let’s just raise our voices.”
“As usual, I am outnumbered and outmaneuvered. I will sing, but only once, mind you.”
And together all three sang, with Hound barking along:
I am Scuppers the Sailor Dog—
I’m Scuppers the Sailor Dog
I can sail in a gale
right over a whale
under full sail
in a fog.
I am Scuppers the Sailor Dog—
I’m Scuppers the Sailor Dog
with a shake and a snort
I can sail into port
under full sail
in a fog.
When they finished, the two grown-ups tucked in Batty’s unicorn blanket and kissed her good night. She snuggled into her pillow and closed her eyes, and stayed that way while they turned off the light and left the room, and then for another few moments, to give them enough time to go downstairs. Then she turned the light back on, slid out of bed, and tiptoed across the room to her new red wagon. It was the best wagon she’d ever seen, and she wondered how she could have lived without it until now.
“I’ll sit in it and wait for Rosalind to come say good night,” she told Hound.
This was such a good idea that she climbed right into the wagon. And there she sat, certain that Rosalind would be along any minute. True, Rosalind had left the house in a big hurry, even slamming the door—Rosalind, who never slammed doors—but she would be back soon to tell Batty a story like she did every night. Though Daddy and Aunt Claire had read about Scuppers very nicely, it just wasn’t the same.
She sat and she sat, humming the Sailor Dog song to herself, and she sat so long that Hound fell asleep, and still she sat, but Rosalind didn’t come. Finally she couldn’t stand it anymore. She climbed out of the wagon and pulled it down the hall to the room Skye and Jane shared. She knocked, and the door opened and a pair of binoculars peered out.
“Oh, it’s only you,” said Skye from behind the binoculars. “I thought you were Rosalind come home.”
“I need another story.”
“I don’t know any stories. Go back to bed.”
But Skye stepped aside and let Batty and her wagon into the room. It was a room divided dramatically in half. Skye’s side was tidy, with white walls and a plain blue coverlet on the bed. The only decoration was a framed chart showing how to convert from U.S. to metric measurements. Jane’s side was not at all tidy, and lavender, with a flowery coverlet that should have been on the bed but was instead in a heap on the floor. Scattered everywhere was stuff: books, piles of paper, old school projects, and more books. And then there were the dolls, for Jane had kept not only every doll she’d ever been given, but every doll ever given to Skye, too.
Batty pulled her wagon into Jane’s half of the room. There was more space for it on Skye’s side, but Skye would get upset if she knocked against anything, and Batty was still unsure about steering. And, in fact, one wagon wheel did get caught in a towel hanging from Jane’s bureau—and down tumbled a pile of laundry, including a pair of red-and-yellow-striped kneesocks.
Sprawled on her bed, Jane looked up from the book she was reading,
The Island of the Aunts.
“So that’s where my soccer socks have been. Batty, you don’t happen to see the rest of my uniform anywhere, do you? We have a game tomorrow.”
Batty was too sleepy to find a missing uniform in all that clutter. “Actually, I want you to tell me a story.”
“I’m in the middle of a chapter. I could read the rest out loud to you.”
“But I wouldn’t understand it.” Batty knew she was close to crying. She fought hard against it, but one tear managed to escape and roll down the side of her nose.
“She’s going to cry,” said Skye.
“I am not.” A second tear joined the first.
Jane shut her book and patted the bed beside her. Batty gratefully clambered up.
“Let me think of a story,” said Jane. “Oh, I know. Once upon a time—”
“No Sabrina Starr,” interrupted Skye. “I couldn’t stand it. Not tonight.”
“Sabrina Starr happens to be excellent for times of stress. That was not, however, what I had in mind. Once upon a time—”
“And no Mick Hart, either.” Mick Hart was Jane’s soccer-playing alter ego, a rough-mouthed professional from England. During soccer season, Skye heard more than enough about him, as she shared not only a bedroom but also a soccer team with Jane.
“I don’t care who you tell about,” said Batty.
“Thank you, Batty. Onceuponatime”—Jane paused and looked at Skye, who shrugged and pointed her binoculars out the window—“there lived a king and queen who had three daughters, all princesses and greatly beloved by the people of their country.”
“What was the country called?”
“It was called Cameronlot. The oldest princess was beautiful and kind. The second princess was brilliant and fearless. And the third princess was a spinner of tales, a fountain of creativity, a paragon of discipline, and all of Cameronlot declared her the most fascinating and talented princess who had ever lived.”
“Ahem,” said Skye from the window.
Jane ignored her. “Still, the king and queen felt that something was missing from their lives. ‘We need just one more princess,’ said the queen. ‘One who…’”
“One who what?” asked Batty, for Jane had stopped.
“Why, one who can do what the other three princesses can’t.”
“Like what?” This was Skye again, being not at all helpful.
“She could understand the animals,” said Batty.
“Yes, of course!” exclaimed Jane. “The king and queen needed a princess who could understand the animals, and so they had a fourth princess.”
The door opened and Rosalind wandered in, looking as though she’d been staring into strange and unfamiliar places.
“You’ve come back!” cried Batty, running to her.
“And you’ve got leaves in your hair,” said Skye.
Rosalind reached up and seemed surprised to find that, yes, she had leaves stuck to her curls. Nervously she plucked them out and let them drop to the floor.
“Where have you been?” asked Jane.
“I don’t know. Walking. And lying down, too, I guess.”
It didn’t matter to Batty where Rosalind had been. What mattered was that now she was back. “Daddy read to me about Scuppers,” she said. “But then I wanted another story, and Jane was telling me one about princesses, but I want you to tell me one.”
“All right, honey.” Rosalind sank down onto Skye’s bed. “In a minute.”
Skye and Jane were also relieved to see Rosalind come home, leaves and all. She was the eldest—the dependable—Penderwick, and dependable people should rally their troops in times of difficulty. They shouldn’t run out of the house and slam the door. Right now, though, Rosalind didn’t seem to have much rallying in her. Jane decided she needed encouragement.
“Your pineapple upside-down cake was delicious, Rosy.” Jane reached under her bed and pulled out a sticky-looking lump of paper napkin. “I snuck a piece up here for you.”
“No, I couldn’t.” She shook her head vehemently, releasing one last stray leaf, then lapsed back into silence.
Now Skye tried. “This is weird about Daddy, isn’t it?”
“Weird?” snapped Rosalind. “That’s what you think, that Daddy going on dates is
“You don’t?” Skye backed away from her sister’s ferocity.
“Oh, it’s much worse than weird. What if he falls in love with one of these dates? We could end up with a…” Rosalind shuddered. She couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence.
“You mean a stepmother?”
“A stepmother!” Jane had never considered such a thing.
“Think of Anna,” said Rosalind.
Rosalind’s friend Anna had a perfectly fine mother, but her father was forever getting married and divorced, then falling in love and doing it over again. It had happened so many times that Anna no longer bothered to keep track of her stepmothers. She called them all Claudia, after the first one.
“Good grief,” protested Skye. “Daddy’s nothing like Anna’s father.”
“I know.” Rosalind managed to look a bit ashamed.
“Yikes!” said Jane suddenly. “Think of poor Jeffrey and that disgusting Dexter.”
Jeffrey was the boy the sisters had met that summer on vacation. And Dexter was the man who’d dated and then married Jeffrey’s mother, the dreadful Mrs. Tifton. So disgusting—so truly awful—was Dexter that Jeffrey had chosen to go to boarding school in Boston rather than live with him.
“What’s gotten into you two?” Skye was outraged, for her father’s honor was being trampled in the mud. “Now you’re comparing Daddy to Mrs. Tifton?”
Batty had been trying to follow the conversation, but though she adored Jeffrey and loathed Mrs. Tifton as much as her sisters did, she couldn’t understand what either of them had to do with Daddy’s dating. Indeed, she was so tired she couldn’t understand much of anything. She felt like she could fall asleep right there, if only Rosalind would just tell her a story, even a little one. Maybe one about Mommy—that would be nice.
“Rosalind, please,” she said.
But Jane was talking again. “Skye’s right. Of course Daddy would never fall in love with anyone as horrible as Dexter, or, you know what I mean, Dexter if he was a woman.”
“Much less horrible than Dexter can still be horrible,” said Rosalind.
“Dexter, Schmexter,” said Skye. “I trust Daddy. And by the way, everyone seems to be forgetting that the dating was Mommy’s idea.”
“I didn’t forget. Mommy was wrong.”
“Rosalind!” Jane almost shrieked it. Their mother had never been wrong. They all knew that.
“Well, she was.” Rosalind turned and stared out the window.
Batty didn’t like any of this. She didn’t like that Rosalind didn’t seem to notice her, and she didn’t like the leaves—messing up Skye’s side of the room!—and she especially didn’t like hearing about Mommy being wrong. All she wanted now was to get back to Hound and her bed, and if Rosalind wasn’t going to go with her, she would have to go by herself. She tugged on her red wagon, but this time the wheel got caught on a pile of books, and when she tugged again, the whole wagon turned over and she couldn’t seem to pick it back up and now there were so many tears that Skye would see and know she was a coward—
—and finally Rosalind had picked her up and hugged her and was murmuring sweet, loving apologies.
“I just wanted a story,” sobbed Batty.
“I know.” Waving good night to Skye and Jane, Rosalind carried Batty back to her bed and tucked her in. Hound opened one eye to check, then, satisfied that Batty was in no danger, rolled over and went back to sleep.
“My wagon,” said Batty, snuggling in among her stuffed animals.
“I’ll go get it, and then we’ll have a story.”
But by the time Rosalind returned with the wagon and parked it beside the bureau, her little sister was as fast asleep as Hound. “Sleep well, Battikins,” she whispered, then watched over her for a long time, just in case she woke up again, still wanting a story.