Authors: Jeanne Birdsall
“I say Daddy should date the lady next door, and then I could play with her baby.”
“Iantha?” Rosalind was incredulous. “Honey, we don’t want Daddy going out with anyone from Gardam Street. Besides, that’s not what we’re talking about.”
“On top of that, we don’t know that Iantha’s not married,” said Jane. “Her husband could be—well, lost in the Bermuda Triangle and she sits, weeping, at an upstairs window every night, peering out into the darkness, hoping and praying he’ll someday come back to her. Or he could be in prison, falsely accused—”
Rosalind interrupted her. “Iantha’s husband died, remember? Daddy told us. But we’re supposed to be voting on Skye’s Save-Daddy Plan, which would rule out Iantha anyway, because she’s not awful. Now, Batty, how do you vote, yes or no?”
“This won’t be an official vote,” said Skye, still hoping for an escape. “Since Batty clearly doesn’t understand what we’re voting about.”
“I do, too, understand. Rosalind wants to find creepy ladies for Daddy so we don’t have to worry about stepmothers.” Batty popped the last of the crumbs into her own mouth. “I vote yes.”
“And I vote yes,” said Rosalind. “That’s two for Skye’s plan.”
“And I make three votes,” said Jane. “Sorry, Skye.”
Skye groaned loudly, but Rosalind thumped for order until she stopped.
“So speak I, Rosalind,” she said. “It’s a majority. The Save-Daddy Plan is official and in place.”
Now they had to find an awful date, which turned out to be not so easy. Everyone they could think of was too young or too old, or already married, or not awful enough. And the few who seemed just right could cause problems afterward. For example, the librarian at Cameron Library who never let them check out more than five books at a time. What if she got mad at them after a bad date and lowered their limit to four books, or even three? That would be a disaster. Or Jane’s teacher, Miss Bunda, who Jane figured would make the most awful date ever. For if Jane was getting bad marks on her essays before a bad date with their father, what would it be like afterward?
Defeated, they decided they needed outside help. But who could be trusted on such a private and sensitive matter? After much racking of brains, Rosalind suggested Anna.
“Great.” Skye wasn’t any closer to liking the Save-Daddy Plan. “Maybe she can lend us her father’s former wives.”
“At least we’d know how awful they are,” retorted Rosalind, whose headache was coming back. “MOPS dismissed.”
A Skating Coach and an Orange Cat
FTER SCHOOL THE NEXT DAY
, Rosalind asked Anna to come home with her. “For advice,” she explained, and Anna accepted happily. She always jumped at the opportunity to give advice, as she was the youngest in her family—her two older brothers were away at college—and she had no one to tell what to do, not even a pet.
They picked up Batty at Goldie’s and walked home. When Skye and Jane arrived, too, everyone gathered in the kitchen for snacks and to lay out the Save-Daddy Plan for Anna.
“So you’re looking for a date Mr. Pen won’t like,” said Anna when they were done. “Interesting concept. I should have tried it with my father years ago.”
“You don’t think it’s diabolical?” asked Skye.
“I prefer the term ‘Machiavellian.’ When you’re older, Batty, I’ll explain Machiavellian to you.”
“I already know. It’s a kind of nut.”
“A nut!” said Skye scornfully.
“Never mind that,” said Rosalind. “Anna, we came up with the plan, but we can’t come up with any actual women. Do you know any awful ones who don’t already have husbands?”
“Though not totally awful,” said Jane. “Poor Daddy.”
“I’ll try. Let me think.”
While Anna ate pretzels and thought, she let Batty play with her long, honey-colored hair, twisting it into fantastic shapes. Batty adored Anna’s hair, just as she adored Anna’s pointy nose and pixie smile. For Batty, Anna was indeed gorgeous, though not, of course, as gorgeous as Rosalind.
“I got one,” Anna said suddenly. “Valaria, who works with my mother. Her house is full of crystals for meditating and she’s always talking about who people were in their previous lives. She divorced her husband because she decided he was a cannibal five lifetimes ago.”
“No,” said Skye. “No, no, no, and no.”
“Skye’s right, Anna,” said Rosalind. “We want Daddy to have a bad date, but we don’t want to put him through agony.”
Jane agreed about no agony. Still, reincarnation intrigued her. She’d sometimes wondered if she might have been a famous author—Shakespeare or Beatrix Potter, maybe—in a previous life. “Anna, who was she before? Valaria, I mean.”
“Anne Boleyn, Madame Curie,” said Anna, ticking them off on her fingers. “Mary Magdelene, Mary Queen of Scots, Mary Lincoln—there were a bunch of different Marys—”
Skye clapped her hands over her ears. “Stop!”
Anna popped another pretzel into her mouth and went back to thinking.
“How about my ice-skating coach?” she asked after a few moments. “Her name is Laurie Jones, but she calls herself Lara Jonisovich so that parents will think she’s European and pay more for lessons.”
“Daddy hates dishonesty,” said Skye, though making up a new last name was certainly better than crystals and reincarnation.
“Is she pretty?” asked Rosalind.
Anna shrugged. “If you like that half-starved look. Oh, and she never reads. She believes that reading channels your mental energy away from skating.”
“Never reads!” Jane couldn’t imagine a life without reading.
“Does she like dogs?” asked Batty.
“I don’t know about dogs,” said Anna. “But she wears a coat made out of rabbit fur.”
Batty went so pale and dizzy with shock that Rosalind and Anna had to dangle her upside down to get the blood flowing again.
“Okay, so we definitely don’t like this Lara, and neither will Daddy,” said Rosalind when Batty had revived. “How do we do it? I mean, how can we set up a date?”
“I’ll figure something out.” Anna’s face was alight with the thrill of conspiracy. “I have a lesson tonight after dinner. Can you convince Mr. Pen to pick me up at the rink afterward?”
“I think so. Call me at the end of your lesson, and I’ll tell him your mom is working late.”
There was the sound of the front door opening.
“Everyone act normal!” whispered Rosalind fiercely.
By the time Mr. Penderwick came into the kitchen, they were all chewing pretzels and trying to remember what they normally acted like, which meant that they all looked a bit odd.
“Hello, daughters of mine,” he said, lifting up Batty for a hug. “Hello, Anna.”
“Hello, Mr. Pen. Isn’t it a lovely day?”
Mr. Penderwick looked out the window at the dreary clouds hanging over Cameron. “What are you up to, Anna?”
“Nothing, that is,
” Anna was in Rosalind’s Latin class.
“Tell Anna that she’s not fooling me.”
Anna took a last handful of pretzels, then stood. “I have to go home and do homework before my skating lesson. Good-bye, everyone.”
She left with Mr. Penderwick shaking his head. “Either a saint or a master criminal. But how are my girls? How was school? How was Goldie’s? Tell me everything while I fix dinner.”
After dinner, Rosalind told her sisters she’d do their kitchen cleanup chores. She wanted them out of the way before Anna called, since it was going to be hard enough to carry on a sham conversation without everyone watching. Batty gladly retreated to the living room with Hound to play King of the Mountain on the red wagon. Skye and Jane not so gladly went upstairs to their room, for though it was great to skip cleanup, that only meant starting homework sooner.
They settled down at their desks. Skye flew through a book report on
Swallows and Amazons,
filed it neatly in her notebook, then pulled out a fresh piece of paper and wrote
The Stupid Aztecs
across the top. Her play was due at the end of the week, and she had to buckle down and write it, whether she wanted to or not.
The phone rang downstairs.
“That’s Anna,” said Skye. She had a sudden urge to warn her father before there was no going back.
Jane looked as cold feet–ish as Skye felt. “We’re about to be caught in a web of lies and deceit, and lose our honor and integrity forever.”
A minute later, Rosalind stuck her head in the door. “Daddy and I are going to the rink, and Batty and Hound are coming with us. Wish us luck.”
“Luck,” said Jane as Rosalind withdrew.
Pondering the meaning of luck, Skye tipped her chair back and to the side until it rested on one leg. In mathematics, she thought, luck doesn’t exist, only random chance. If there were such a thing as luck, fathers would never go on dates, and Melissa Patenaude would never have been born or would at least live in another state, and it would be possible to balance on one leg of the chair with both feet off the ground. She lifted one foot, then both. Crash!
“If you keep doing that, you’ll crack your head open and only I will be here to listen to your dying confession,” said Jane.
“I don’t have anything to confess.” Skye picked herself and her chair up off the floor. “Except that I wish I’d never had the idea about finding awful dates for Daddy, and the Aztecs bore me, and writing a play about them bores me so much I can hardly stand it.”
“You’re supposed to write a play about the Aztecs? Lucky you.”
There it was, luck again, thought Skye. What would she really want, if she was to be lucky? To visit Jeffrey in Boston. To have someone else write her Aztec play. She looked over at Jane, who was bent over her desk, scribbling on a piece of paper. Maybe she’d finally settled on a science essay topic. Skye picked up her binoculars and found that by standing on her chair and focusing on Jane’s desk, she could read the scribbling.
I hate science essays. I hate science essays. I hate science essays. I hate…
“Jane,” she said, climbing down from the chair. “Remember last year when I built that model wind tower for you and you wrote those poems for me?”
“And you said you’d never switch homework assignments with me again.”
“For good reason. My teacher had a hard time believing I wrote
Tra-la the joy of tulips blooming, Ha-ha the thrill of bumblebees zooming. I’m alive and I dance, I’m alive though death is always looming.
When I finally convinced her that I had, she asked me if I needed to talk to the school counselor.”
“Humph.” Jane couldn’t stand anything that sounded like criticism of her writing.
“Anyway, maybe I shouldn’t have said I’d never switch with you again.”
Jane didn’t answer, and Skye went back to trying to balance on one leg of her chair without any feet on the floor. She figured that if she did crack her head open, at least she’d get out of writing the play.
“I’m truly interested in the Aztecs,” said Jane after a while.
Skye let her chair bang down. “And I’m truly interested in writing a science essay about—what’s it supposed to be about?”
“How Science Has Changed Our Lives.”
“I could write one of those. I could write a dozen of them without blinking. But can you write a play without any tra-las or ha-has?”
“Then, have at it.” Skye dumped her Aztec books on Jane’s desk. “Oh, and no Sabrina Starr.”
“Of course not.” Jane opened the first book, eyes shining.
A half hour later, Skye tossed aside her pen triumphantly. Her essay—
Antibiotics as the Ultimate Warriors
—was a winner, well written, with just the right amount of science thrown in. She was dying to show it off, but Jane was still writing feverishly, happily lost in Aztec land. Skye would leave her to it. She grabbed her binoculars and slipped out onto the roof.
Lights were shining in the houses up and down Gardam Street. It took great strength of will not to point the binoculars at one of the lit windows, and Skye actually did—but just for a second—point them at the Geigers’ house, but Nick happened at that very moment to be looking out his window, and she knew if he caught her spying he’d kill her, so that was the end of that. Instead, she looked up into the sky, clear now, for the earlier clouds had blown away, and searched for geometrical patterns formed by the stars. She particularly wanted to find a rhombus, which was her latest favorite shape. A square askew. What could be more interesting than that?
Then there was a thump, and Skye was no longer alone on the roof. She lowered her binoculars and saw a large orange cat several feet away. He must have come up the tree just like Tommy had.
“Go away,” said Skye, sick of interlopers.
The cat turned his head slowly toward her. He had large yellow eyes and a look almost intelligent, if you believed that cats could be. Skye didn’t. She had as much use for cats as she did for babies.
“You can’t stay here,” said Skye. “Go away or I’ll make you.”
The cat, without taking his eyes off her, calmly sat down and began to wash his left paw. So make me, he was saying. Skye couldn’t ignore such a clear challenge, especially from a cat. Carefully she slid along the roof—closer—closer—but just as she was about to grab the intruder, he jumped lightly into her lap.
“Idiot,” she said, but she put her arms around him and was surprised at how nice he felt there.
Now she saw that he was wearing a collar with a tag that read MY NAME IS ASIMOV AARONSON. So Iantha did have a cat, after all. Batty had said so, but she was always making up stuff. Well, thought Skye, Asimov was going to have to get off her roof, even if he did belong to an astrophysicist. But before she could decide how much force was needed to move such a big cat, he’d settled in her lap as though he meant to stay awhile. And when he started purring, Skye went back to looking for rhombuses through her binoculars, and time passed pleasantly until the lights of the stars were outshone by the lights of her father’s car returning home.
“Now you really do have to leave, Asimov,” said Skye.
Asimov, who seemed determined to impress Skye with his brain power, obediently climbed off her lap, lightly leapt from the roof to the tree, and disappeared into the night.
“And don’t come back!” Skye called after him, just as determined not to be impressed, then crawled back through the window into her bedroom. Jane, surrounded by piles of crumpled paper, was still scribbling furiously.
“They’re home from the rink,” said Skye.
“I’ve got the first few pages of the play already. The title is
Sisters and Sacrifice,
and here’s how it starts:
Long ago in the land of the Aztecs, there was great worry. The rain had not come for many months, and without the rain, the maize didn’t grow, and without the maize, the people starved.
“That’s nice. We should go downstairs now.”
“Nice? That’s all you can say? Nice? It’s a brilliant setup to the drama of what is to come! Two sisters are in love with the same man, and then one of the sisters is chosen to be a sacrifice for the gods, and the other one—”
“Jane, I don’t care about the play! Daddy’s home from the rink!”
This time Jane heard her. She pulled herself away from the Aztecs and ran out of the room with Skye. They got to the bottom of the steps just as the others were coming in the front door. They all looked disgruntled, Batty especially. Skye and Jane learned later that not only had the skating coach been wearing a rabbit coat, she’d had rabbit fur around the tops of her boots.
“Hello, everyone,” said Skye, not knowing how to find out what had happened. “Did you have fun?”