Finally Read online

  I hear Annabelle’s voice in my head. Man up. Okay. I take a deep breath. “So do you like school?” Great question, Rory! What kid doesn’t hate talking about school? I’m trying to come up with something better when Emily starts talking. She actually talks for a good ten minutes on all the great things about her school. The small class size. The high-tech computer lab. The homemade food in the dining hall, which is what they call their cafeteria. The way it’s not too cliquey and everyone respects one another’s differences. She says it just like that — respects one another’s differences.

  When she finally runs out of steam, I say, “Wow, that sounds great.” I honestly mean it, too.

  “Yeah,” she acknowledges, “but Jake Harrison is going to be at YOUR school!” She sounds so awestruck that I have to laugh. She laughs, too.

  “It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?” I say.

  She nods, wide-eyed. “Have you met him?”

  I shake my head. “He’s not coming till next week. We’re supposed to stay far away from the cast and crew.”

  “Still, you’re going to try, right?”

  “For sure!”

  We smile at each other. And then a lull creeps into the conversation. She stacks up her books. I drum my fingers in my lap and peek at the clock over the sink. 6:45. That leaves me two hours to fill before Emily’s bedtime. Fortunately good old Rosemary has prepared me on how to entertain the older child. I reach for my backpack and pull out a bag of nail polish (compliments of Mom), a pile of comics (compliments of Dad), and a deck of cards (compliments of American Airlines from when we flew to Florida to visit Dad’s parents last year). I spread them all out on the table in front of us.

  I point to the bag. “A friend of mine likes to paint each of her nails a different color. Wanna try?”

  She looks with mild interest at the bag of assorted colors, but shakes her head. “No, thanks.”

  “Okay, do you like comics?” I spread out the pile a little. “My dad collects first editions.”

  She leans in to look at them. “And he lets you play with them? I mean, read them?”

  I nod. “He doesn’t believe in keeping things all sealed up.”

  “Mine does,” she says. “Wanna see something cool?”

  “Okay,” I say, happy to have something to pass the time.

  “C’mon.” She jumps up, and I follow her down the hall and up the long staircase to the second floor. We pass many doors, one of which I assume is her bedroom, until we reach a room marked KEEP OUT. She reaches for the knob. A bell goes off in my head, thanks to Rosemary. Never go into any other rooms in the house other than common rooms. Never invade privacy.

  “Um,” I say, putting out my hand. “I don’t think we should. I mean, it says ‘Keep Out.’”

  “It’s okay,” she assures me. “We won’t touch anything.”

  Before I know it, she’s pushed open the door and flicked on the light. My eyes widen. Shelves cover the walls from floor to ceiling. And on the shelves? Hundreds (thousands?) of toys, boxes of candy, comic books, games, and sporting equipment. Everything is in what looks like its original packaging, untouched by human hands.

  “Wow!” I say, when I can get out a word. “What is all this stuff?”

  “My dad’s hobby is collecting things and reselling them.”

  I can’t stop staring. My dad’s little comic collection looks pretty shabby right about now, and I’m kind of embarrassed. She must have sensed what I was thinking, because she says, “Imagine having all this stuff down the hall from you and not being able to play with it, read it, eat it, or even look at it.” She gestures over her shoulder at the KEEP OUT sign.

  “That must be hard.”

  She nods, and I realize she’s lonely in this big house that doesn’t really feel like a home. It hits me that this babysitting thing is more than just watching someone’s kids while they go out. Being in someone’s house is like living inside their life for a few hours.

  “C’mon,” I say, switching off the light. “Let’s go back downstairs. We can do anything you want.”

  Anything she wants turns out to be to watch High School Musical on the sixty-inch TV in the living room. So we settle in on the couch, and she puts in the DVD. I wonder if it would be rude to read the book I brought with me for later. I decide it would be, darn it.

  They sing, they dance, they sing and dance some more. Emily gets up and dances along to some of them, which is really cute. She seems really free when she dances. “Do you take classes?” I ask her. “You’re really good.”

  “Oh, no,” she says, laughing. “You have to be skinny to be a dancer.”

  “But you’re skinny,” I point out. “You could totally be a dancer.”

  She just shakes her head and pinches the side of her belly. She’s ten and pinching the side of her belly. I’ve never even done that!

  The movie’s about half over when she asks if I wouldn’t mind making some microwave popcorn. She gets a glass bowl out of the cabinet and hands me a packet of fat-free, butter-free (and taste-free) popcorn. I tell her to keep watching the movie without me. So she goes back as I wait the two minutes for it to pop. I can’t help noticing there’s not a crumb on the counters, no sign of what she ate for dinner.

  I bring the bowl of hot popcorn back to the family room and place it on the table in front of us. She nibbles a few pieces while the movie continues, and I start getting twitchy. Finally it ends. I’m about to suggest we play cards, when she says, “Ready for part two?” with such hopefulness that I nod weakly and say, “You bet.”

  The singing and dancing persist. This time at the country club. Emily happily sings along. I have to fight to stay awake. Emily points me to the bathroom off the hallway. As the credits roll it hits me that it MUST be her bedtime, if not past it! I crane my neck around to look for a clock, and find one over the mantel. 8:20. It’s only 8:20?

  I turn back to Emily, who is now fumbling with the DVD player. “I thought it must be later,” I say, rubbing my eyes.

  “They’re pretty short movies,” she replies, coming back to join me on the couch. “You know, made for TV and all.”

  “Why don’t we go up and get you ready for bed,” I say, stretching. Rosemary warned us to start the bedtime routine early, because older kids are likely to stall.

  “Just a few more minutes?” she asks as she turns back to the TV. To my horror, High School Musical 3 begins!

  I groan and sink back into the couch. This time they’re seniors, and I’m wondering if there’s a way to bring back that temporary blindness. The next thing I know, Emily’s shaking me. “My parents are home!”

  “What, already?” Had I fallen asleep? I jump up and check the clock. 8:30. HUH? How could only ten minutes have passed since the last time I looked? I stare at the clock, then at her, then at the clock again. Events from the night run through my head. Popcorn making. Bathroom breaks. Each time I left the room, she had been turning the clock back! I know I left class a little early, but I’m pretty sure this topic wasn’t covered!

  “I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I won’t tell if you don’t.” And with that, she takes off up the stairs.

  That little sneak! Had she been playing me all along? And to think I felt sorry for her. I’m pretty sure falling asleep on the job is frowned upon, so she’s got me cornered.

  The credits start to roll as the key clicks in the front door. I have just enough time to switch off the TV and try to look awake before the St. Claires come in, laughing and looking as perfect as when they left.

  “How did it go?” Mrs. St. Claire asks, shrugging off her long coat.

  “Great,” I reply, still kind of disoriented. I hope they don’t notice. Please don’t ask me if Emily went to bed on time. Please don’t ask me if Emily went to bed on time. Please don’t ask me if Emily went to bed on time.

  “Did Emily give you any trouble?” Mr. St. Claire asks, pulling out his wallet.

  I shake my head, maybe a little too fast.