Like most kids I usually round up my age.
This time Mommy rounded up without me.
“You’re almost ten,” she said.
“That’s old enough to stay home
with your sister this summer.”
I panicked—“I’m just nine and a half!
Why can’t we stay with Grandma?”
Mommy looked a little sad, then angry:
“This is our home now.”
We didn’t talk about it again.
The first week was the hardest.
I checked the locks again and again.
Anyone could come up the steps
to our back door in no time
and look right in the kitchen window
to see just two kids at home.
So I stay out of there unless I’m making lunch.
Ham salad or bologna, white bread, American cheese, chips.
When we get tired of that sometimes
I try to scrounge up something different
with what’s on hand—pasta, no-bake cookies,
and yellow cake with chocolate icing.
The cake didn’t turn out because I used regular sugar
since we didn’t have the confectioner’s kind
and the icing crunched like sand in my mouth.
I hid the cake in the bottom of the trash, under papers
so I wouldn’t hear about being wasteful.
Even though Mommy’s not here
she’s watching us for mistakes.
One time she took the TV’s cable to work
after she noticed our chores weren’t finished
and she put her hand on the still-warm TV
trying to see if we had watched more than two hours.
Since then, we stick to watching The Price is Right
which eats up an hour, so to be fair
we each pick one half-hour show.
Our shows are over by noon
so the TV is never warm when Mommy gets home.
Sister exercises with Denise Austin
and I learn how to cook from The Frugal Gourmet.
The only bad thing about cooking is the dirty dishes.
That’s one item on Mommy’s chore list with bold, capital letters
she typed at work and put in a plastic sleeve.
We hate that list and never looked at it again
after the first time. We have a routine now.
Sister cleans the bathroom, dusts, and vacuums.
She refills the ice cube trays and sets out the trash.
I wash all the dishes, spray the roses, water the plants,
wash all the clothes and towels,
and hang wet laundry out to dry.
Music helps us get through our work.
We blast The Doobie Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, and Bob Seger
so loud we hope the neighbor lady will notice.
Our friends get paid to do chores
but we don’t, and we won’t ask again.
At least we have some time in the summer
to play games like Parcheesi or Battleship,
to wash and style our Barbies’ hair,
to make crafts from old junk in the basement,
and to read lots of library books.
Mommy lets us to ride our bikes to the library.
On library days I check the lock ten times.
I check my pocket for the key another ten times.
I check the air in our bike tires with my thumb.
Sister is impatient—“Let’s just GO.”
She’s just seven—she doesn’t understand
someone must be in charge.
We pedal across two big streets as fast as we can.
Then it’s downhill all the way to the library.
I love the cool rush of air conditioning
and the finches twittering in the birdcage.
We take as long as we want
then we lug our heavy backpacks outside in the heat.
On the way home I pray no one will notice us
or follow us or talk to us or try to kidnap us.
We walk our bikes on the last uphill stretch.
For a few seconds I almost panic
when I can’t find the key right away
until I jam my hand deeper in my pocket
and feel its toothed edge.
I sigh with relief once we’re inside.
Still I check the back door and the deck to make sure
no one is waiting underneath, swinging on our swing.
Some days Sister and I have screaming contests.
We thrill at the idea the cops may come.
Our screams blend and clash, like dark music.
Sometimes she kicks and kicks me
and I’m forced to kick back so she’ll stop
but she always cries and blames me for the hurt.
I know she’s mad and bored, like me
but she has a harder time keeping it in.
Sometimes I slip into Mommy’s room
and try on her pretty clothes and high heels.
I pretend I’m grown-up and no longer afraid.
I sniff her perfume and make believe
she’s in the kitchen
so I can play and dance and daydream
like I used to do in our yellow house.