Matt poked his head into the bathroom. “Aren’t you ready yet?” he asked casting a quick glance his watch. Late. Today was setting up to be as bad as usual.
“I have to brush my hair,” Emma replied in an exasperated voice, accompanied with her usual preteen eye roll.
“You’ve been at that for ten minutes, get your book bag ready. We’re leaving in five minutes.”
She huffed and slapped her brush down. “Fine. Just ruin picture day,” she said, breezing past him.
Matt whispered to the ceiling. “Good God, what is she going to be like when she starts her period?”
No response. Thanks for nothing once again. He turned and caught sight of the hairbrush. It lay on the sink counter, a few stray auburn hairs dangling from the bristles. Same auburn color as his mother’s hair had been. How long ago had that been? Forty years?
Eleven-year-old Matt Stevens stared at the ceiling of his bedroom listening to the steady staccato of the alarm clock. Sunlight poured through the windows, pushing shadows back into the corners of the room. The high-pitched buzz dug deeper into his ears. After swinging his feet out of bed, he stumbled over and slapped his hand on a clock. Another school day. He rubbed his head. It was something else as well, but what? FRIDAY! Tomorrow is the weekend! Whoohoo! Time for the Friday victory dance. Fists in the air, he shook his hips. Today is Friday. Today is Friday.
Suddenly another thought bubbled up from a dark corner of his mind. Uh-oh, it’s also picture day. If there was one day he could live without, it was the prospect of having his ugly mug plastered on photographic paper. From his closet, he pulled out his “nicest clothes.” Ha! Nicest meant those he wouldn’t get caught dead in but passed parental inspection, suitable for church or other public floggings. The outfit consisted of a hideous paisley shirt and rust colored corduroys–none of it new, but acceptable. Though hand-me-downs from the Bodean’s, a feral family down the street, at least they hadn’t been worn by Dan Bodean (who was Matt’s age) and, therefore, did not reek of urine. To be sure, he gave them a reassuring sniff. Ugly clothes were bad enough without them being fruity.
After changing clothes, he drifted across the hall to the bathroom. In front the mirror he stared at the red-haired, freckled faced, big-eared freak glaring back at him, and the shock of hair impudently perched on his head, defying his angry gaze. He licked his fingers and tried to flatten it, but it jumped to attention the moment he let go. Even a dollop of tap water refused to discipline the mangy creature. Through clenched teeth he growled. If you can’t beat them, join them. Digging fingers into his hair, he tousled it. He studied himself in the mirror and sighed. Now his head looked like a strawberry colored haystack. It’ll have to do. With a shrug, he quickly finished the rest of his morning routine.
Let’s review the hallway procedure. Step right, skip left, move to the right and slide. If all worked well, he would avoid spots of known creaks and groans in the floorboards just outside his sister’s bedroom. He had to avoid disturbing the slumber of “The Beast”–his seventeen-year-old sister, Karen. One must never wake “The Beast” so early in the morning. Not that it mattered, she was pretty much a psycho at any time of day, and all because he had committed the sin of being the youngest.
Once beyond that cave of horrors, he stood in the doorway to his brothers’ room. It stood empty as it had been for the last two years after Scott went off to the Army to fly helicopters, and Wayne moved on to work in Peoria assembling and testing scuba equipment. When would he see them again? He tried to remember the last time they were home but drew a blank. What would he say to them if they did? The problem was they were thirteen and eleven years older, so other than the same set of parents, he had nothing in common with them.
Now they were gone, he seldom had time to think of them. But when they were here, they apparently thought about him, “the late mistake.” What did that mean? Well, maybe he’d see them during the holidays. Reason enough to tolerate each other for a few days. At least their presence kept “The Beast” preoccupied. Then again, they ate anything and everything, leaving the refrigerator nearly empty for days at a time. So, Mom would get stressed; Karen would start barking at shadows. It got to be like a three-ring circus. No, maybe it was for the best.
A couple more steps down the hall and he stood at the entrance to the master bedroom once his parents’ bedroom. The queen-sized bed sat empty, covers pulled tight; the room showed no signs of habitation, but that was no surprise. Dad was a shadow except for court-ordered visits every other weekend, and Mom… well… he knew the reason for that. With a sigh, he turned his back on the bedroom; there was nothing for him there.
Down the steps, he went, careful not to let his footfalls echo in the foyer. Stealthily he passed through the dining room into the kitchen.
“It’s about time,” a growly voice said.
Matt cringed. His timing, as well as his luck, stunk. “The Beast” had been awake after all. She sat cross-legged on the kitchen counter, like a spider surveying its prey. “Yes, I came for breakfast,” he said walking over to the pantry.
“I’ll just get some cereal,” he said, grabbing a box of Rice Krispies and a bowl.
From the silverware drawer, he dug out a spoon, and from the fridge, he grabbed a carton of milk.
“Don’t use too much,” she prattled.
With his back to her, he rolled his eyes. Karen always obsessed over how much milk he put on his cereal. Dumping a couple tablespoons into the sink after finishing his cereal was a felony offense in her bizarro world.
“Don’t be making faces at me,” she hissed.
What is she, a bat? X-ray vision must be something you get from hanging upside down all night. He sat in the breakfast nook and prepared his cereal.
But just after he shoveled the first spoonful into his mouth, Karen suddenly asked, “You want toast?”
He stopped mid-chew and looked sidelong. Was she serious? Did hell just freeze over? Then again, there always is a first time. “Sure.”
“Sure what?” she quickly rejoined.
“P … L… E… A… S… E,” he spewed, hating his mom’s ill-formed tradition of saying please and thank you, even if you didn’t remotely mean it.
He read the cereal box while Karen stuck bread in the toaster. “What’s going on at school?” she asked.
Ha! Like you care. No way am I mentioning picture day. “Nothing, just the usual.”
The toaster dinged, Karen grabbed the bread and quickly buttered it. “I heard it was picture day, so Mom wants to have a look at you.”
He groaned. Oh, God no. She placed the toast in front of him and gave a tight-lipped smile, “Here you go.”
“Thank you.” He picked up the toast and took a bite, only to gag and spit it out. A bitter, metallic taste coated his tongue, and he glanced at the bread; furry green mold swam under a thin layer of butter. “HEY! This is moldy!”
With a lopsided smirk, Karen replied, “What are you whining about? The heat from the toaster killed the mold. Now eat.” She stared at him with narrowed eyes.
“I’m not eating this.”
“If you don’t, I’ll tell Mom you wasted food.”
She snorted. “Fine then, be ready to explain that to Mom.” Turning on her heels, she stormed out of the kitchen.
Now is my chance. He dashed to the sink, dumped his cereal and toast, grabbed his books and bounded toward the foyer. But as he turned the corner from the dining room, “The Beast” stood blocking the front door.
She flashed an impish smile. “Mom wants to see you.”