The Thing About Leftovers (12 page)

BOOK: The Thing About Leftovers
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“Brussels sprouts,” Mom said cheerfully, passing me a big bowl filled with stinky-ness and what looked like tiny heads of lettuce.

“No, thank you,” I said, pushing the bowl away and coughing a little.

Mom raised her eyebrows at me. “Fizzy, I've worked hard on this dinner. The least you can do is taste it—you can't know that you don't like something unless you taste it.”

I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe I was going to have to put something that smelled so awful on my plate, right next to my
food
! But Mom and Keene were waiting, so I spooned
one of the little green things onto my plate and coughed some more.

Neither Mom nor Keene seemed to notice my cough. But
I
noticed, as we passed food around, that Mom only took a few of the stinky little green things, too.

The sweet potatoes were the good news. The bad news was that there wasn't anything else on the table that I liked even a little. So I ate my sweet potato and then just mushed and pushed everything else around on my plate.

Mom and Keene talked, mostly about work.

When there was a pause in conversation, I said, “May I please be excused?”

Mom inspected my plate and said, “Not until you try the brussels sprouts.”

I looked right back at Mom's plate and said, “You haven't tried yours.”

Mom looked like she wanted to say something but instead she speared the green thing with her fork and put it in her mouth.

I watched her chew, and I have to say, it didn't look like Mom enjoyed brussels sprouts.

Even so, she swallowed, touched the corners of her mouth with her napkin, forced a smile, and said, “Your turn, Fizzy.”

Okay, now I'm not going to describe the gagging and coughing I did in detail, because . . . gross. No, let's just say that in my opinion, brussels sprouts not only smell like feet; they taste like feet, too!

“You may be excused, Fizzy,” was all Mom said.

• • •

When I was back in my room, I added to Keene's Dislike List:

10) Likes brussels sprouts.

11) Took my mail key!

12) Has a weird thing about clean floors—eye roll.

13) Brought the ugliest chair in chair-history into our living room!

Then I added to Keene's Like List:

5) Is good at math.

6) Loves my mom.

Chapter 25

I smiled a little secret
smile when I saw Zach waiting for me in the distance, on Wednesday morning, as usual.

The first thing I said to him as he headed down his front walk to meet me was, “Do you like brussels sprouts?”

“I don't know,” Zach said. Then he grinned his crooked grin. “Why? Were you thinking of cooking some for me?”

I felt myself blush. “
No.

Zach smiled some more.

I took off walking and he scrambled after me.

“Admit it,” Zach said, coming up alongside me. “You missed me.”

I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. “When?”

“I knew it,” he said, nodding and smiling to himself. “You missed me.
Bad.

I laughed.

“I missed you, too, Fizzy,” Zach said. “But I had to be in court yesterday.”

“Because you really are a violent maniac?” I teased.

Zach laughed. “Nah, because my grandmother wanted to legally adopt me.”

“Oh. Where's your mom?”

The smile faded as Zach shrugged. “Who knows? Haven't seen her in a few years and I don't remember my dad at all.”

“I'm sorry, Zach,” I said.

“S'okay,” Zach said easily.

I didn't know what else to say, so I just gave him a sympathetic look.

“Don't look at me like that,” Zach said.

“Like what?”

“Like you feel sorry for me—I hate that—I'm
fine
.”

“Oh yeah, I know that,” I said quickly, because I understood: He just wanted to be a normal kid, like everybody else. I wanted that, too—for myself and for Zach.

“And Gran's fine, too,” he said. “She's tough, but fair.”

“So . . . then it's good that your grandma wants to adopt you?”

“Very good,” Zach said. “It means I'll never have to go back to living with some other family or in a group home for foster kids—because I have my own family, my own home.”

My heart ached for Zach. It must've been awful not having anyone who wanted him, even temporarily. And I knew how hard it was to live with one stranger, let alone a house full of strangers.

“Fizzy?”

“Yeah, sorry—so how'd it go in court?”

Zach smiled, remembering. “Gran stood up in front of the judge and the lawyers and everybody and said that she's capable of caring for me, that she wants me, and . . .”

Silence. I risked a quick glance at Zach out of the corner of my eye; he lowered his head.

We kept walking.

Finally, he lifted his chin and continued in a hoarse voice, “She said that I'm a good boy and she loves me. In front of everybody.”

I didn't know why tears gathered behind my eyes, but I blinked them back, sniffed, and said, “So you'll live with your grandma from now on?”

“Yeah,” Zach said. “I've been here, with her, almost a year now.”

“That's great,” I said. “I've been in the valley for almost a year now, too—hey, do you feel sick when your alarm clock goes off in the mornings?”

“No. Why? Do you?”


No,
” I said defensively, and then I admitted, “Sometimes . . . only sometimes.”

“Maybe you're not a morning person.”

“Maybe,” I agreed.

“Or maybe you need a new alarm clock,” Zach said. “But me? I wake up feeling all right. Living here with Gran's been the best—it's better than foster care for sure.”

A big dog barked ferociously from a fenced backyard as we approached. “He kinda reminds me of our new math teacher,” I warned.

Zach grinned. “Can't wait.”

• • •

In math class that afternoon, when Buffy entered the room, she smiled and trilled her fingers at Zach.

Zach smiled back.

Then, as soon as Brian sat down at his desk, he turned around in his seat and said, “Man! I gotta tell you about the omelet I had for breakfast this morning—diced tomatoes, feta cheese, fresh parsley! Man! I think it was the best omelet I've ever eaten.”

I leaned over my desk, and said, “Let me ask you something.”

“Yeah?”

“Do you like brussels sprouts?”

Brian looked at me like he was having serious doubts about my taste. He shook his head and said, “Aw, man . . .
brussels sprouts
?
For breakfast?
Disgusting.”

I was about to say that brussels sprouts are disgusting for breakfast, lunch,
and
dinner, but before I could, Brian—who was clearly deeply upset by the revolting turn in our conversation—turned back around.

I was still thinking about brussels sprouts when Mrs. Ludwig started our math lesson. Which is how I missed the exact page number we were supposed to turn to in our books. I looked around and tried to catch someone's eye so I could ask.

Zach's eyes were already on me, from the desk beside mine, across the aisle.

“What page?” I whispered.

“Two thirty-one,” Zach said.

“Thanks.”

“Who's talking?” Mrs. Ludwig boomed, looking around the room.

I sat up in my chair and stared straight ahead without blinking.

Finally
, Mrs. Ludwig gave up, turned around, and started writing on the board.

I peered over at Zach.

He grinned, mouthed the words
Who's talking?
and made a funny face.

A giggle escaped me.

Mrs. Ludwig spun around. “Fizzy Russo, was that you?”

My face and ears went hot.

Just as I opened my mouth to apologize, Zach's math book slammed to the floor.

Mrs. Ludwig turned her evil eye on Zach. “Now that you have our attention, Zach Mabry, is there something you'd like to say?”

Zach shrugged his shoulders and gave Mrs. Ludwig a bored look.

What's wrong with you?
I thought at him.
Say what she wants you to say!

“Get your things, Zachary, and move to the table at the back of the room, please,” Mrs. Ludwig said.

Zach looked around, then pointed to himself, and said, “You talking to me?”

Mrs. Ludwig stared him down.

“Because my name's not Zachary,” Zach informed her. “It's Zachariah.”

“Get your things,
Zachariah
,” Mrs. Ludwig growled.

Zach did as he was told and Mrs. Ludwig moved on with our lesson on word problems.

I hate word problems.
Hate
them. Word problems are the brussels sprouts of math. Yuck.

When Mrs. Ludwig finally started winding down, I snuck a peek back at Zach: He'd built a fort out of the old textbooks
stacked on the back table, and all I could see was the tip-tip-toppy of his blond head moving around in there! I don't know why it struck me as so funny, but it did. I laughed out loud.

Mrs. Ludwig whirled around. “Fizzy Russo!”

I tried to stop laughing. But the harder I tried, the harder I laughed. I laughed so hard my whole body shook. I couldn't stop. Not knowing what else to do, I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my face with both hands. And then, somehow, I laughed myself right out of my chair and onto the floor.

The whole class roared with laughter.

Mrs. Ludwig barked, “Out in the hall!”

I glanced back at Zach as I got up off the floor.

Zach rose from his seat just enough so that I could see his face above the fort. He winked and smiled at me. “Don't worry,” he whispered. “I'll be there in a minute.”

“Zachariah Mabry!” Mrs. Ludwig thundered. “You move those books this instant!”

Zach must've given a little push, because the fort suddenly toppled over and books crashed onto the table and floor.

Again, the class erupted in laughter.

Zach was right. Mrs. Ludwig glared at him, pointed at the door, and shouted, “You! Out in the hall, too!”

Zach followed me out into the hallway, where I stuffed my hands into my pockets and studied my shoes.

Mrs. Ludwig followed Zach. She came to a stop just two feet from us, towering over us, hands on her hips—looking very scary. “Zachariah, you
will
pick up every single one of those books.”

Zach shrugged.


And
you will come to my classroom to stay after school every day for the rest of the week.”

Zach smirked. “Mrs. Wilcox has already requested the pleasure of my company after school today. But I'd be happy to join you tomorrow and for the rest of the week—Monday, too, if you like. Thank you for inviting me, Harriet.”

My jaw dropped.

“Do not dare address me by my first name again,” Mrs. Ludwig warned.

I looked at Zach as if to say,
Have you lost your mind?

“And you!” Mrs. Ludwig said, shaking a finger at me. “Get a hold of yourself, girl!”

“Yes, ma'am,” I said.

“Now back to class, both of you.”

When math was over, I paused in the doorway, waiting for Mrs. Ludwig to hand me the sealed envelope I was sure she had for my parents.

But she just gave me a cold look and said, “You're holding up the line, Fizzy.”

Out in the hall, Mike Anderson gave Zach a high five and said to me, “Best math class ever.”

I smiled. For a few minutes, I felt like I'd gotten lucky. Then it hit me: Mrs. Ludwig probably didn't write to my parents because she planned to
call
them. She might as well have punched me in the stomach—what if Keene answered the phone?

Chapter 26

After school, I found
Aunt Liz in her warm, buttery kitchen. Her eyes smiled when she saw me. “I was just making some more Benedictine for you and Miyoko,” she said.

“Thanks, but Miyoko couldn't come today. She said she'd see you next time.”

“More Benedictine for you,” Aunt Liz said as she flipped the switch on her food processor and a loud humming filled the room.

I smiled because I'd arrived at just the right time—Benedictine is best straight out of the food processor.

When Aunt Liz turned the processor off, the phone was ringing.

“Hello,” she sang into it happily, just before her face changed. “Okay,” she said seriously. “Okay. . . . Uh-huh. . . . How long? . . . Okay, I'm on my way.”

I frowned. “I'm on my way” didn't sound like good news for me—or my Benedictine.

“That was your dad,” Aunt Liz said, tearing off her apron. “Suzanne's having the baby!”

“Now? But it's not time yet,” I protested.

“The baby doesn't know that—it's coming,” Aunt Liz said. “C'mon, Fizzy. We've got to go—I'll drop you at home on my way.”

“Why?” I whined. “Why can't I go with you?”

Aunt Liz grabbed her purse. “Because we don't know how long it'll take. The baby could be born in a few hours or it could be tomorrow. C'mon! We've got to go!”

“You promise you'll call, right?”

“Yes, I promise!”

• • •

As usual, my eyes went straight to the pukey recliner when I walked into the town house. The thing that was
un
usual was that Keene was sitting in it.

“Um . . . hi,” I said, feeling awkward, like I should've knocked or something.

“Hi,” Keene said.

I waited for him to say more.

He didn't. He just stared at me.

Had Mrs. Ludwig called? I wanted to ask, but didn't want to have to explain, so instead I said, “Any mail?”

Keene shook his head.

“Any calls?”

He shook his head again and continued to stare at me.

I decided Keene was probably busy making a mental list of all the things he hated about me—my meatball head on top of my toothpick body, the bump on my nose, my freckles, my raggedy old backpack. I couldn't blame him. I hated all those things, too.

“Well, um . . . I guess I better call Mom and let her know I'm home.”

Keene nodded.

I dropped my backpack and kicked off my shoes before I remembered Keene's pet peeve. Then I picked everything up and carried it into the kitchen with me.

“Mom, Keene is
here
,” I whispered urgently into the phone.

“Yes, he lives there now, Fizzy,” Mom said matter-of-factly.

“Oh. Right.” Then why did it still feel like there was a guest in the house?

After I'd told Mom that school was fine and I was fine—in fact, about to become a big sister any minute—I put the phone back. Then I thought about the guest-y feelings some more. I remembered Keene's outburst during The Meat Loaf Dinner: “I am not a guest!” he'd insisted angrily.

It was then that I realized he was right: Keene wasn't the guest.

I
was the guest! In my own house!

• • •

I looked at Genghis every five or ten minutes and waited for the phone to ring all night, hoping it would be Aunt Liz—and
not
Mrs. Ludwig. But it never did. So after I'd—likely incorrectly—finished my math homework, I went downstairs and sort of hovered at the edge of the living room.

Mom and Keene were watching
Survivor Steve
, who was talking about primitive man's survival instincts: “Primitive man did not use a pillow. He listened for danger with both ears while he slept . . .”

I waited for a commercial and then gave a little cough.

Keene looked at me like,
Darn. Are you still here?
and muted the TV.

“Mom, I'm sure the baby's been born by now. Please drive me to the hospital,
please
,” I begged. “You don't have to get out of the car or anything—you can just drop me off.”

“No, Fizzy. I'm sorry, but you can't go wandering around a hospital by yourself. You'll just have to wait,” Mom said. Then she went back to watching TV with Keene, just like she used to watch TV with
me
.

I took a bath and went to bed without saying good night to anyone, because somehow I knew that another interruption would irritate Keene—even more.

The next thing I knew, Mom was sitting beside me on the bed, saying lightly, “Fizzy . . . Fizzy, honey.”

I opened my eyes and propped myself up on an elbow.

Mom switched on the lamp on my nightstand. “Your dad called.”

I pushed the hair out of my eyes.

“You have a new baby brother. He came four weeks early but is going to be just fine. They named him Robert, after your father.”

I nodded. “So you'll take me to the hospital now? Dad—or Aunt Liz—I'm sure somebody can meet me.”

Mom smiled. “No, visiting hours are over—it's almost midnight. But I have a little something for you now.”

That's when I noticed the mixing bowl in Mom's lap. I leaned over and peered in: some kind of chocolate batter and two spoons.

I had to hand it to Mom: She really surprised me sometimes. I scooched over in the bed to make room for her. Mom handed me the bowl and climbed in, under the quilt.

We ate brownie batter and talked about the new baby and what it means to be a big sister.

“As he gets older, your baby brother will look up to you,” Mom said. “He'll want to do everything you do—so you'll need to set a good example.”

I nodded.

“And be patient with him. Be patient when he keeps hanging around and you wish he'd go away. Remember that he does this because he worships you and wants to be just like you.”

“I guess I could stand being worshipped,” I said.

We laughed. We laughed a lot. I felt happy and comfortable.

I felt comfortable enough to risk asking, “Do you really like the pukey recliner downstairs?”

Mom laughed again. “No, but Keene loves it, and I love Keene. Love means compromising. Compromising means sacrificing. For love.”

“Oh,” I said. “I thought compromising meant meeting somewhere in the middle.”

“It does.”

“Well, that chair doesn't look like you met Keene in the middle,” I said. “It looks like . . . a big, sick sacrifice.”

Mom laughed some more. “We met in the middle, Fizzy. There are things of mine that Keene isn't fond of either.”

Like me?
I wondered, but I didn't say it.

Mom stayed in bed with me until the oven timer beeped downstairs. We decided to save the actual brownies for tomorrow, so Mom got up, tucked me in, and kissed me good night.

As I drifted back to sleep, I realized that for the first time in what seemed like a long time, I didn't feel like an interruption or an inconvenience, or a leftover or even a guest. Being home is a good feeling. But I knew it wouldn't last.

BOOK: The Thing About Leftovers
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ads

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