Authors: Jeanne Birdsall
“I saw him!”
“How did he talk?” Jane made a buzzing noise and flapped her arms. “Like this?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t say anything.”
“Then you have no proof.”
“The important thing is that Funty’s not hurt.” Jane picked up her pen, for Batty had interrupted work on
Sisters and Sacrifice.
So Batty wandered off, and no matter what anyone else said, she did know one thing: That stranger had not been a nice man, even if he had stopped his car in time. Batty knew another thing, too. It was good that she and Hound had practice being secret agents. Just in case Bug Man ever came back to Gardam Street.
Passes and Pizzas
HE FOUR SISTERS STOOD
in a cluster outside their father’s bedroom door. He was due to pick up Lara the Skating Coach in fifteen minutes.
“Knock again,” said Jane.
Rosalind rapped on the door. There was no answer.
“Do you think he’s sick?” Batty was anxiously clutching Funty. She hadn’t put him down since his adventure with the green car.
“Of course he isn’t sick. He’s just getting ready for his date,” said Rosalind, knocking once again. “Daddy, do you want help picking out a tie?”
The door swung open. Mr. Penderwick was wearing a suit and had three ties hung around his neck. “I won’t be fussed and brushed over like last time, and I’m capable of selecting my own tie.”
“But none of those match your suit,” said Jane.
“I don’t care.” He closed the door in their faces.
“He’s upset,” said Rosalind. “He never acts like this.”
“The strain is getting to him,” said Skye. “Too many more awful dates and he’ll go bonkers and we’ll be virtual orphans and get stuck living who knows where.”
“We could be separated and starved and put into cold garrets until we’re rescued by rich old gentlemen with Indian manservants.” Jane had read
A Little Princess
so many times she’d lost count.
Batty, not liking the sound of starvation and cold garrets, hugged Funty even tighter.
Rosalind raised her hand to knock, then didn’t. Maybe all the knocking was bothering him. “Daddy, we’ll just wait out here for you.”
The door opened again, and he came out with just one tie this time. It wasn’t any of the three he’d had a minute ago, but somehow he’d gone further astray. The new one not only didn’t match his suit, it absolutely clashed.
“That tie—” said Jane.
“—looks great,” said Rosalind, elbowing Jane into silence.
“Mendax, mendax, bracae tuae conflagrant,”
said Mr. Penderwick. “That’s
Rosy. M-e-n-d-a-x. Look it up after I leave.”
He led the way downstairs, his daughters straggling along behind and exchanging guilty glances. Hound was at the bottom of the steps, looking woozy—he’d spent the last hour throwing up pieces of towel.
“Woof,” he said sadly.
“Poor Hound,” said Batty.
“Poor Hound, indeed.” Mr. Penderwick was not sympathetic. “Even he should know not to eat towels. Now, as for dinner, I’ve ordered pizzas, which should arrive in about forty-five minutes. I’ve already told the babysitter that I’m leaving the money for the deliveryman on the kitchen counter.”
“Babysitter!” exclaimed all the sisters at once. This was a terrible shock. Now that Rosalind was in charge in the afternoons, surely she could handle evenings, too.
“Yes, babysitter,” said Mr. Penderwick cheerfully, just as the front doorbell rang. “Here he is now.”
Jane opened the front door. There stood Tommy, with a football tucked under his arm.
“Why, Tommy, what a pleasant surprise,” said Jane. “But where’s your helmet tonight?”
“I decided it looked, you know, goofy,” he answered, looking past her. “Hi, Rosalind.”
“You’re the babysitter?
” The blow to Rosalind’s dignity was too great.
“No, I am.” An older version of Tommy—with the same long arms and legs, the same unruly hair and big smile—stepped out from behind him, holding yet another football.
“Nick,” said Rosalind bitterly. Tommy’s older brother as a babysitter wasn’t as humiliating as Tommy himself, but still she wasn’t happy.
“Coach Geiger, if you please.” Nick picked up Batty and hoisted her, squealing happily, high above his head.
“Daddy, if Nick’s in charge, he’ll make us to do football drills,” said Skye. Nick wanted to be a coach when he grew up and was always practicing on anyone he could get hold of.
“If I can go on a date with Anna’s skating coach, you can do a few football drills.”
“More than a few, I think,” said Tommy.
“I’m working on a new passing pattern that I want to test out,” said Nick. “You told me I could push the girls hard, Mr. Pen.”
“So I did. Push them hard and promise me you’ll never get suckered into a date.”
“But, Daddy!” Rosalind had planned a quiet evening of baking almond cookies and talking to Anna on the phone. The Geiger brothers and their footballs would ruin all that.
“I have spoken,” said Mr. Penderwick. He made a quick round of his daughters for good-bye hugs, then left.
“‘I have spoken’?” Jane appealed to the others. “Since when does Daddy say things like that?”
“He’s not himself,” said Skye. “I tell you he’s being pushed too close to the edge.”
!” said Rosalind.
Nick put Batty down and ruffled her curls. “Time for the drills. Outside, everyone. Assistant Coach Geiger, you know what to do.”
Tommy pulled a whistle out from under his shirt and blew a sudden, sharp blast on it. Rosalind clapped her hands over her ears, giving Tommy so withering a look it was astonishing he didn’t perish right there on the spot.
“Rosalind!” Jane was astonished that Rosalind would say such a thing. Penderwicks never called a friend an oaf, especially when the friend was Tommy Geiger, who in Jane’s opinion could never be close to oafish.
But Rosalind wasn’t done. She stomped her foot angrily, and when even that wasn’t enough to express the depth of her annoyance, she ran upstairs.
“What did I do?” asked Tommy, staring woefully after her.
“You didn’t do anything. She’s fine,” said Jane. “Let’s start the drills.”
Skye wasn’t so sure that Rosalind was fine. She never called people names and stomped her foot. Losing tempers was Skye’s job—Rosalind was supposed to be the imperturbable Penderwick. Someone needed to check on her, and though Jane was the best one for talking about emotions, she and Batty had already followed the Geiger brothers outside. The only one left was Hound, still too sick for football drills. Skye prodded him with her foot, but he just sighed and looked pathetic. He was no help. Skye was on her own.
She marched resolutely upstairs and found Rosalind in her room, leafing through a Latin-English dictionary.
“What did Daddy say in Latin, Skye?
Skye was relieved. Latin was easier than feelings. “
Mendax, mendax, bracae tuae con
I think,” said Rosalind, flipping pages. “I’ll start with
It means liar. Daddy called me a liar!”
“You’d just told him his tie looked great.”
“Oh, right. Let me look up the rest of it. Okay,
is next. It means ‘trousers’ or ‘breeches.’
I already know—it means ‘your.’ And
is a verb form, I’m pretty sure. Yes, here it is.
. ‘To burn.’” Rosalind shook the dictionary as if it were malfunctioning. “That couldn’t be right. ‘Liar, liar, your trousers are burning’? What does that mean?”
It means Daddy’s going wacko and it’s our fault, Skye almost said, but she stopped herself. She was here to make sure Rosalind was all right, not get her more upset. There must be something soothing to say. Skye started out tentatively. “Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. Maybe we got the Latin wrong. Or”—she had a sudden inspiration—“maybe the stuff Daddy’s been saying all these years never made any sense, and we just didn’t know it. Just forget about the
“You really think I should?”
“Yes,” answered Skye firmly, and proudly, too, for it wasn’t often that Rosalind asked her for advice.
Rosalind flopped onto her bed and stared mournfully at the ceiling. “I guess I shouldn’t have called Tommy an oaf.”
“Well, it’s just Tommy.”
Rosalind sank into a reverie, and Skye wandered around the room, vaguely aware that something was different. Had Rosalind moved furniture around? No. And she still had the same plaid curtains and bedspread she’d always had. Then Skye realized that it wasn’t that something had changed. It was that something was missing—a framed photograph of their mother holding Rosalind when she was still a tiny baby.
“Rosy, where’s Mommy’s picture?” It was always by Rosalind’s bed. She’d even taken it with her to Arundel that summer.
Rosalind flushed. “It’s in my drawer.”
“I didn’t want to look at it right now.”
Skye stopped herself from asking why again. She’d done all right with the emotional stuff so far, and she didn’t want to ruin it now. Besides, there was a lot of shouting in the backyard, which meant the football drills were under way. Skye poked gently at her older sister.
“I’m hungry, and you know Nick won’t let us eat until we throw around his football.”
“Right.” Rosalind reluctantly got off the bed. “Let’s get this over with.”
No matter how much any of the sisters complained about Nick and his football drills, somehow every fall they ended up doing them, even without the pizza incentive. And it wasn’t just football. In the winter, he put them through basketball drills—and they complained about that just as much. And one summer it had been the Gardam Street Softball Camp—he’d even managed to make them pay for that with quarters skimmed off their allowances, though they protested the whole time that they hated softball drills even more than football and basketball drills.
Maybe they put up with it all because Rosalind had turned into one of the best girls’ basketball players in her school, and could outshoot most of the boys, too, when it came to that. And Skye was a decent softball pitcher and a much more than decent hitter. And when Skye and Jane had first started playing soccer, Nick taught himself the skills he needed to help them with that, too, though he’d never cared about soccer before and had even been known to call it ice hockey without the ice or the excitement. And all the Penderwicks knew what good soccer players Skye and Jane were now.
Only Batty had not yet shown any marked improvement from being trained by Nick, but Nick wasn’t giving up on her. Though no one else could see it, he insisted that she had the makings of a great athlete.
“Batty, don’t duck and cover your head when Jane throws the ball to you!” he was shouting when Rosalind and Skye ran outside. “Stretch up and try to catch it!”
“Okay,” she said, and did manage to stretch up this time, though long seconds after the ball had flown over her head. “Rosalind, look! I’m playing football!”
Without turning around, Nick barked, “Rosalind, Skye, five laps around the house for being late!”
“I’m too hungry for laps,” protested Skye.
“Make that six laps. Assistant Coach Geiger, you know what to do!”
When Tommy blew his whistle—softly this time, and pointed away from Rosalind—the girls took off around the yard. Skye got hungrier and more annoyed with each lap, but the exercise seemed to cheer up Rosalind. She cheered up more when the laps were over and she joined the drills, especially after tackling Tommy and knocking him down. She didn’t even lose her good mood when Tommy tackled her back and knocked her down, though Nick made them each do ten squat thrusts for it, since they were supposed to be doing drills for passing, not tackling.
He’d worked them through some standard pass patterns, and had just moved on to his own personal creation—the do-si-do, with lots of weaving, spinning, and fake hand-offs—when a new player suddenly appeared, a streak of orange flying after the ball that Jane had just fumbled. Tommy blew the whistle, and everyone stopped to watch as Asimov the cat dove onto the ball, bringing it to a stop.
“Interference,” said Jane, not pleased that a cat was a better ball handler than she was.
“Who’s this?” asked Nick.
“He lives next door,” said Batty, crouching down to stare curiously at Asimov, who stared just as curiously back.
“I’ll take him home before Hound realizes he’s here,” said Skye. She was by now hungry enough to do anything to get out of the drills, even pick up Asimov.
“Hound’s in the house,” said Nick.
“He could bust out through a window if he smells cat,” she improvised. “Really, Nick, this is an emergency.”
Before Nick could come up with another argument, Skye scooped up Asimov and crashed through the forsythia. Her first instinct was to dump him there in his own yard and leave, for she still wasn’t feeling intelligent enough to talk to Iantha, especially one on one. On the other hand, the longer she spent on this side of the bushes, the fewer drills she’d have to do.
“What should I do?” she asked Asimov.
“Mrroww,” he said. Skye got the uncomfortable sense that not only was he judging her, she was falling short.
“All right, you win,” she said. “I’ll take you to your house.”
“Mrroww,” he said again, less sternly this time.
“Stupid cat.” But Skye scratched him under the chin while she carried him to Iantha’s front door.
She rang the doorbell, and a moment later the mail-slot flap flew open. Skye leaned down—for it was set in the door at knee level—and saw Ben peering out at her.