Authors: Jeanne Birdsall
“Duck,” he said.
“Duck yourself,” said Skye. “Where’s your mother?”
He swung up out of sight, and now the door opened, and there was Iantha. She was holding Ben and smiling in a way that made Skye forget to worry so much about feeling intelligent.
“Why, it’s Skye, the second Penderwick sister. And you’ve brought Asimov back—how nice of you. Ben keeps letting him out. Don’t you, Ben?”
Ben had been intently studying Skye. “Pretty,” he said.
Iantha almost dropped him. “What did he say? Did he say you were pretty?”
“I’m sure he didn’t,” said Skye, making ghastly faces at him to prove that she wasn’t.
“No, no, he said ‘pretty’! How wonderful! Say it again, Ben.”
“Well, he did say it once. You must be a good influence, Skye.”
The last thing Skye wanted was to be a good influence on a baby. She put Asimov down. As he stalked—ungratefully, Skye thought—into the house, there was a sudden increase in the clamor coming from the Penderwicks’ backyard. It sounded as though everyone was shouting and blowing whistles at once.
“Football drills,” she said, just now realizing how loud they’d been. “I hope we haven’t been bothering you.”
“No, I like it,” said Iantha. “Your father was a football player?”
“Daddy? Good grief, no. He played squash and chess.”
The clamor next door increased even more, with cries of “PIZZA, PIZZA, PIZZA!” added in. Which meant that dinner must have arrived, and the football drills were finally over.
“I have to go,” said Skye.
“Yes, of course you do. Thanks again for bringing Asimov home.”
Skye started to leave, then impulsively turned back, for she’d seen a look—of what, loneliness? She wished Jane were there to help—flit across Iantha’s face.
“Would you like to come home with me?” she asked. “We’re having pizza. Ben can come, too, if babies can eat pizza.”
“Ben loves pizza. I mean, if your—” Iantha suddenly looked as shy as she had the first time Skye met her. “Well, your father might mind.”
“He’s not there. And he wouldn’t mind, anyway.” Skye wasn’t sure how she knew this, but she did. “Please come.”
It wasn’t the best time to introduce new neighbors to the Penderwick home. The kitchen floor was wet, for Hound had knocked over his water bowl during a game of Chase the Tennis Ball. Jane was loudly describing the big fight in the last soccer game to Tommy at the same time that Rosalind was scolding him for starting on the pizza before the table was even set. And Nick was on his hands and knees, with Batty being a broncobuster on his back and Hound trying to knock them over. Still, Iantha didn’t seem to mind the chaos, not even when Hound jumped up and licked her face—she said she loved dogs—and Ben clearly adored it, especially when Tommy got down on the floor and let him be a broncobuster, too. By the time the floor was mopped, the table set, and the pizza served—and instantly devoured—the kitchen was so full of happy noise that no one heard Mr. Penderwick’s car pulling into the driveway. Which was why it was a shock to hear the front door slam, followed by an impassioned burst of Latin.
Nam multum loquaces
—how does it go? Blast the woman! She sucked my brain dry.
something. Oh, yes—
merito omnes habemur, nec mutam profecto repertam ullam esse aut hodie dicunt mulierem aut ullo in saeclo.
And I mean it! Except for my Elizabeth, who never talked over an orchestra. Never!”
Mr. Penderwick reached the kitchen and went silent at the same instant. His hair was sticking straight up, his tie was stuffed into his pocket, and he was gaping at Iantha.
“I do apologize,” he said after a moment. “I didn’t realize we had company.”
“Sure you did, Mr. Pen,” said Tommy. “Remember you asked Nick to babysit and you said I could come along?”
“He doesn’t mean you and Nick,” said Jane.
Blushing, Tommy shoved a stray bit of pizza crust into his mouth.
“Daddy, I invited Iantha and Ben over for supper,” said Skye into the silence.
Mr. Penderwick ran his hand through his hair, apparently trying to flatten it but only making it stick up more. “You’re always welcome, Iantha, though pizza…”
But Iantha was also talking. “Maybe I shouldn’t have come without your—but Skye was so friendly…”
They both trailed off at the same time, and once more silence filled the room.
“How was your date, Mr. Pen?” asked Nick finally.
“Ghastly.” He surveyed the kitchen, checking even under the table, where Hound was gnawing on a pizza box. “Anna’s not here, is she?”
“No, Daddy,” said Rosalind.
“Well, tell her that Lara the Skating Coach talked through Bach’s first five concertos.” He turned back to Iantha. “The Brandenburgs.”
She nodded. “How about the sixth?”
“We left before the sixth,” he answered grimly.
Ben, impelled by no one knew what sympathetic urge—though they were all certain he knew nothing of Bach—staggered over to Mr. Penderwick and tugged on his pants. Mr. Penderwick crouched down until they were eye to eye.
“Duck?” asked Ben.
“Indeed, one should always duck out of misbegotten dates,” said Mr. Penderwick. “I might add, Ben, that the state of datelessness is not to be lightly discarded.”
“Amen,” said Nick, who didn’t believe in romance during football season.
Rosalind, who thought she’d scream if another silence descended on the room, suggested dessert, but Iantha said that it was already long past Ben’s bedtime, and soon the impromptu party was over. The Geiger brothers left for their home, and Iantha and Ben for theirs, with Mr. Penderwick insisting on carrying Ben.
Now it was just the four sisters.
“Poor Daddy,” said Rosalind, for his “Ghastly” had stabbed her heart, though it was exactly what she’d hoped for.
“I—” began Skye.
Rosalind stopped her. “Do
say I told you so.”
“I wasn’t! I was just going to say that I’ll have dessert if nobody else will.” Skye took an ice cream bar from the freezer and bit into it.
“Rosy, what was that Latin Daddy was shouting?” asked Jane.
“I don’t know. I won’t know that much for years and years, but I think he was complaining about Lara.”
“Anyway, two awful ladies down. Now we just need to find two more.”
“How?” asked Batty from under the table, where she’d curled up with Hound and his pizza box.
“I don’t know that, either.” Rosalind wearily prepared herself to re-embark on the bad-date quest. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
FTER SCHOOL THE NEXT DAY
the sisters tried to come up with a new awful woman, but with so little enthusiasm, they decided to put off the vile discussion until the morrow. The morrow was a soccergame Saturday, and Antonio’s Pizza won, with Skye never losing her temper once, and no one wanted to spoil the celebratory mood with a depressing topic. Then that night there was an early frost, and by Sunday morning, autumn had truly arrived. The sky was a rich cloudless blue, the air still and dry, the maple trees glowing with glorious reds and oranges and yellows, and everywhere on Gardam Street squirrels bustled about with self-importance, burying their nuts in the most unlikely places. The Penderwicks agreed it would be sacrilege to conduct a serious MOPS in the midst of all that splendor, so instead they organized a dam-building in Quigley Woods, and Batty fell into a deep part of the creek and was pulled out by Tommy, though only Jane remembered to thank him—Rosalind was too busy wrapping her own sweater around Batty and racing her home to a hot bath.
Then it was the school week again. Batty took it upon herself to teach Ben more words, though after several afternoons at Iantha’s, she still hadn’t got him past “duck” and the occasional “pretty.” Jane finished writing
Sisters and Sacrifice
and took it to her Enchanted Rock for luck before giving it to Skye. Skye handed it in without reading even a page, then forgot all about it. Rosalind aced two pop Latin quizzes, and for a science project, she and Anna built a catapult that turned out to be the perfect thing for tossing dog treats to Hound. With so much going on, nearly the whole week went by without anyone mentioning dates or stepmothers. Rosalind’s fears drifted into the background. After all, she told herself, no one can worry constantly, and anyway, maybe she should learn to trust fate a little more.
Humming cheerfully, Rosalind plucked ingredients from the kitchen shelves, measured them, mixed them, then dropped bars of dark chocolate into a saucepan for melting. She was making brownies, and she knew the recipe by heart.
” she said.
It was because of her heart that she’d memorized the recipe. Cagney the gardener had professed a great fondness for brownies, and so that summer she’d baked brownies for him again and again and again, until she figured she could whip up a batch in her sleep. These brownies weren’t for Cagney, of course, as he was far away in Arundel. No, these were to be snacks for the eighth graders’ dance—the Autumn Extravaganza—coming up that weekend. It was traditional for the seventh graders to organize the Extravaganza, just as in the spring, the eighth graders would organize the Spring Spree for the seventh graders, and Anna and Rosalind had volunteered to be snack providers. Anna, after much deliberation, had decided on potato chips, since, as she said, Rosalind’s brownies would be luscious enough to cover for both of them.
Stirring the chocolate, Rosalind wondered what the Spring Spree would be like. She pictured herself—in the blue sweater Aunt Claire had given her—walking into the decorated gym with Anna. And then they would dance, she supposed, though probably not with boys, since she couldn’t think of any seventhgrade boys she’d like to dance with. Briefly, she tried to imagine dancing with Cagney there in the gym, but the thought made her shudder. How juvenile it would all seem to him.
Now the chocolate was melted and ready to be poured, but just as Rosalind lifted the saucepan, the phone rang. She plunked the pan back down and answered the phone.
“Rosy, dear, it’s Aunt Claire.”
Never in her life had she imagined that Aunt Claire’s voice on the phone would make her frown. But that’s what happened before she could stop herself. And by the time the conversation was over and she’d hung up the phone, she knew she’d been right to frown. Her week of rest—her week of insane denial!—was over, and danger was once again imminent.
Hands shaking, Rosalind turned off the stove. The brownies would have to wait. There was work to do, and quickly, before Daddy got home. She looked at the clock. They had forty-five minutes. That was more than usual, because it was Parents’ Night at Wildwood Elementary, and her father was stopping there after work to meet with Mr. Geballe and Miss Bunda. But would even forty-five minutes be enough?
Gather the troops, Rosalind told herself. She picked up the phone again, called Anna, and told her to come over as quickly as she could. And now her sisters. Skye and Jane were in the backyard doing soccer drills, and Batty—where was Batty? For a moment Rosalind panicked. And then—of course she knew where Batty was!
Rosalind ran next door to Iantha’s. Loyal Hound, stretched out on the front step, did his best imitation of a neglected dog, but Rosalind knew he was perfectly happy waiting there for Batty. Besides, she saw Asimov sitting in a nearby window, positioned just right for keeping a wary eye on Hound, and vice versa, and she knew that Hound was beyond happiness and into ecstasy. For Batty had been right about that, at least—Hound did seem to love that cat. Now Rosalind noticed watchers at another window, too—Batty, wearing a pair of Jane’s old sunglasses, and Ben, wearing Batty’s old swimming goggles. She rang the doorbell, and the two heads disappeared from view.
Iantha opened the door with what Jane called her among-the-stars look on her face, which meant she’d been wrenched away from her research by the doorbell. How she could concentrate on astrophysics with both Batty and Ben in the house was beyond understanding, but each time Rosalind asked her, she said the same thing—Batty makes Ben happy, and that’s what’s important.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Iantha, but I need Batty right away.”
Before Iantha could answer, Batty popped up beside her, with Ben in tow.
“I can’t leave, Rosalind. Ben and I saw Bug Man drive by, and we have to stay on watch.”
Batty had been reporting Bug Man sightings all week, and Rosalind was sick of him. She, Skye, and Jane had all had imaginary friends in their younger lives—Batty was the first to have an imaginary halfman-half-insect stalking Gardam Street.
“Bug Man will do fine without you,” she said. “Come home now.”
“Batty!” Rosalind rolled her eyes at Iantha, who smiled.
“Batty believes that Gardam Street needs continual surveillance,” she said.
“So does Ben,” said Batty, who had no idea what “surveillance” meant.
“Well, it doesn’t,” Rosalind said in her end-of-discussion voice. “Now tell Iantha thank you for letting you visit.”
“Thank you, Iantha.” Batty, defeated, kissed Ben good-bye and whispered something to him before she went quietly with Rosalind. Hound, after one last yearning look at Asimov, followed them.
“What did you tell Ben?” Rosalind asked as they crossed over into their own yard.
“I told him to keep his goggles on.”
“Because if I wear sunglasses and he wears goggles, Bug Man will think we’re more like him and won’t try to hurt us.”
Rosalind briefly considered a lecture about putting fears in small children’s heads. But then, Skye and Jane had played lots of Hide the Baby from the Monster when Batty was too little to defend herself, and Batty had turned out all right. Rosalind decided she’d worry about lectures later. Right now she had to get Skye and Jane in from the backyard, for in a minute or so Anna would arrive.
Soon all five girls were settled in the kitchen.
“Aunt Claire called,” Rosalind began. “She’s coming to visit tomorrow.”
“Goody,” said Jane.
“She’s going to check on the progress of Daddy’s dating, and if there’s been no progress, she has another possible blind date for him.”
“Not goody,” said Skye.
“Maybe this one will be as bad as the first blind date,” said Anna.
“Except that Aunt Claire says she’s intelligent and funny and likes children. And”—Rosalind took a deep breath—“she’s a high school Latin teacher.”
Groans went round the table.
“What about dogs?” asked Batty.
“She probably raises them,” said Skye bitterly.
“Threatened by the specter of stepmother-dom, the sisters paled with horror.” And Jane did look a little pale.
“Wait a minute,” said Anna. “You’re all giving up too soon.
blind date, Aunt Claire said, right? So it’s not set up yet. We’ll just have to find another awful date before she gets here. Your dad can’t go on two dates in one weekend, so you’ll be safe for a while.”
“But where can we find another date?” cried Rosalind. “We thought and thought before, and all we came up with was your skating coach.”
“Then we’ll think and think again.” Anna took a bag of pretzels from the cupboard and put it on the table. “Can’t think on empty stomachs.”
So they thought and ate pretzels, and ate pretzels and thought, and no one came up with even one new idea for an awful date. Rosalind started to wonder if she should just give in. How terrible could it be, really, to have her father dating a nice woman he could talk Latin to? And he’d have her over for dinner, and then she’d be cooking dinner, and then rearranging the kitchen, and then giving him advice on raising girls, and then—
“Are you desperate enough to try my mother’s friend Valaria?” asked Anna finally. “You know, the one who used to be Mary Magdalene?”
“Maybe,” sighed Rosalind.
“No, we’re not,” said Skye.
“It might be fun to meet Valaria,” said Jane. “She could tell us lots about history.”
Skye looked pleadingly at Batty, but before Batty could vote for or against the much-lived Valaria, a sound came that froze everyone.
“I’m home!” It was Mr. Penderwick, back too soon from Wildwood and the teachers’ conferences. He strolled into the kitchen. “A summit meeting?”
“Not a meeting at all,” said Rosalind. “I mean, we were just talking.”
“But not about you, Mr. Pen,” said Anna.
“It never occurred to me that you were talking about me, Anna.”
“Good.” Anna looked like she wished she could sink into the floor.
He sat down between his two middle daughters. “Anyone interested in reports from their teachers?”
Now Jane looked like she wished she could sink into the floor, for it was close to impossible that Miss Bunda would have said anything good about her. But no, her father reported that Miss Bunda was happy with Jane’s progress in math and even happier with the science essay that she’d written.
“About antibiotics, I believe,” he finished up.
“I think so,” said Jane. “I mean, of course, yes, it was about antibiotics.”
“Skye, I saw Mr. Geballe, too. He’s quite impressed with a play you wrote about the Aztecs.”
“What did he say about it?” Jane asked excitedly before Skye could stomp on her foot.
“Apparently the play shows a great deal of imagination and flair, not what Mr. Geballe normally expects from you. He was particularly pleased because you’d resisted the project so strenuously. He’s so pleased, in fact, that he’s chosen it to be the play in this year’s Sixth Grade Performance Night.”
“What?” Skye was appalled.
“Wow!” Jane was thrilled. The Sixth Grade Performance Night was Wildwood’s gala event of the autumn. Usually they picked some moldy old play from a teachers’ guide. But this year it would be her play! Though, alas, no one would ever know it was hers.
“They’ve never used a student’s play before,” said Skye. “Why this year of all years?”
“Mr. Geballe thought you’d be pleased,” answered her father. “Aren’t you?”
“It puts a lot of pressure on me.” So much pressure that Skye felt like blurting out that she hadn’t written the play at all. But if she admitted to this, she’d never again be able to swap homework with Jane, and then who would write her fiction assignments all the way through twelfth grade? After that, they could give up the charade and become honorable again, because in college Skye wouldn’t need any fiction written—she was going to stick to math and science. “But I can take it, I guess.”
“Well, all right, then.” Mr. Penderwick pulled Batty onto his lap. “Why are you wearing sunglasses, sweetheart?”
“For spying on Bug Man. Daddy, Iantha tried to make pudding for me and Ben, but she ruined it. She says she’s a terrible cook.”
“Then it was particularly nice of her to try anyway, wasn’t it? How was your day, Rosy?”
“Fine.” She gripped the table and looked to Anna for courage. “Daddy, Aunt Claire called. She’s coming to visit tomorrow.”
“She called me, too. Did she mention the Latin teacher blind date? I told her not to bother.”
“Not to bother?” echoed Rosalind, thinking she must have heard him wrong.
“Because I already have a date this weekend.”
“You—” Rosalind choked and could go no further.
“—already have a date, yes. Tomorrow night, in fact.”
His daughters would have been less shocked if he’d said he was going to become a circus clown. Anna asked what none of them could. “Who is she, Mr. Pen?”
“A woman I met recently. I thought she was interesting and decided I’d like to spend some time with her. Nothing very dramatic. Now everybody go away and let me cook dinner.”