Bob Read online

  “Sure.” Go away, I tell the stomachache.

  “She can’t wait to have some real time with you, you know.”

  “I know.”

  “You’re going to make that cake together, remember?”


  Then Mom asks if I want a story. And of course, I do.

  “Close your eyes,” she says. “Once upon a time, there was a remarkably brave mouse named Leah.” And she tells me about a mouse princess with a baby mouse sister who cries at exactly four p.m. every day, and there’s a giant frog and a magic wishing well and a pie made out of flies and cheese. It’s the kind of story she hasn’t told me in a long time, the kind she used to tell me when I was little.

  My stomach doesn’t feel any better, but it doesn’t feel worse, either.

  “Did you make that up?” I ask when she gets to the happily ever after part.

  She kisses my forehead. “It’s my own silly version of an old fairy tale.”

  A fairy tale about a magic well?

  Mom turns out the light, kisses me again, and whispers, “See you in a few days.”



  “You’re not leaving until the morning, right?”

  “Right.” She blows me one more kiss and closes the door behind her.

  * * *

  “Did you hear that story?” I whisper to Bob when she’s gone. “I wish our well were magic.”

  I feel him turn his head, and all I can see in the dark are his big wet eyes.

  “I wish I had a mother,” he says.

  I don’t know what to say. Bob is alone in the world. Totally, completely alone.

  “Bob,” I say finally. “Maybe you do have a mother. Maybe you have a whole big family!”

  But he doesn’t answer.



  “Are you ready?” Livy asks, standing by the door. She has a pink towel slung over her shoulder and a fresh bar of soap in her hand. She has decided I need a bath.

  “It’s been five years,” I point out, arms crossed. “What’s another few days?”

  She makes a big show of pinching her nose closed.

  “But what if I drown? We don’t know if I can swim.”

  “You won’t drown in the tub,” she assures me. “It’s not even halfway full because of the drought.”

  “What if I slip down the drain? Maybe when a not-zombie gets wet all over he shrinks up into nothing?”

  “I put the stopper in.”

  “Fine,” I grumble, allowing her to lead me out of the room. “But I can’t promise to use the soap.”

  “You’ll use it all right,” she says, pushing me ahead of her into the bathroom. She places the bar firmly into my hands and drapes the towel over the rim of the tub. I notice she has taken the liberty of filling the bathtub with a few inches of water. And bubbles. And is that … one of Gran’s plastic roses floating on top?

  “I thought your first bath in five years should be special,” she says.

  I roll my eyes but pull off the red sweatshirt and fold it carefully on the counter. I step cautiously over to the tub. I wouldn’t want to slip on a puddle and knock myself out.

  “You’re going to wear your tutu in the bathtub?”

  I look down, half surprised to still be wearing it. I shrug. “I’ve grown accustomed to it.” I dip one toe in the bubbly water. “It’s warm!”

  “What did you expect? It’s a bath.”

  I had expected it to be cold, but I don’t know why. I dip my toe again, then extend my foot out to Livy. “Does my toe look smaller to you?”

  Livy groans. “Your toe does not look smaller. You are not shrinking.”

  It’s true. I seem to be my same size.

  “I’ll be right outside, reading.” She waves the book with the half knight, half person on the cover. “If Gran comes up I’ll duck back in. Will you be okay alone?”

  I nod.

  “Don’t forget to wash under your arms and behind your ears.”

  I roll my eyes.

  “With soap!” she says before shutting the door behind her.

  I double-check that the stopper is in place, then put my whole foot in the tub. Then the other. It feels … inviting. I slowly lower myself the rest of the way in, feeling the water cover my legs, then my belly, then my neck and arms. I lean back and feel myself relax.

  “Ahhh, that feels nice.” It does. It really does feel nice. But it’s more than nice. It feels like … like home. Livy must have known the bath wasn’t just about getting clean. She wanted to take both our minds off of last night. She doesn’t know it, but her mother crept into our room early this morning and kissed her good-bye. I stood right in front of her mom and waved. It was dark in the room, but not that dark. She didn’t see me at all.

  I close my eyes to think. If Livy’s mom doesn’t see me at all, and a kid like Danny, who doesn’t know me like Livy knows me, sees a chicken, then maybe age is another clue to my magic.

  Baths are very good at helping one think.

  I had lots of time to think in the closet, of course. I was alone, but I wasn’t alone at the same time. I made a home for myself inside my head and I decorated it with all the things I learned and thought about and made with my Legos. I got in touch with my inner Bobness.

  I know Livy feels awful about leaving me in there all those years, but after that admittedly rocky adjustment period, and once I taught myself to read, it was actually kind of awesome. My eyes pop open. I let her feel guilty when it wasn’t even her fault. I never told her any of the good stuff!

  I quickly scrub the places she told me to—and a few she left out. The bathwater is brown with dirt. Guess I did need a bath after all!

  I climb out of the tub just as the doorbell rings. I stay quiet, clutching my towel and dripping water onto the rug. Livy was right, I should have taken off the tutu.

  “Sarah!” Gran Nicholas says a few seconds later. “How lovely to see you! Come in, come in.” I hear Livy stand up from her post outside the bathroom door and join Gran downstairs. Now Gran says, “Why don’t you and Sarah catch up in your room for a while? You two used to giggle for hours.”

  Ugh. I need to talk to Livy RIGHT NOW and also I need to move my knight to f3 on my next turn instead of sacrificing my bishop as I was going to do. Baths are also good for chess strategizing.

  “I actually only came by for my hoodie,” Sarah says quickly. “I didn’t mean to interrupt anything. It’s just always cold at the restaurant.”

  Okay, I may not know a ton about human nature, but it sounds like the sweatshirt is just an excuse to see Livy.

  “Don’t be silly,” Gran Nicholas says. “We’re happy to have you, aren’t we, Livy?”

  “Sure,” Livy says. “Your sweatshirt is upstairs. I’ll go get it.”

  But Gran insists there’s plenty of time before lunch and they should go up to play.

  Super fast like the Flash, I grab the sweatshirt from the counter, run to the bedroom, throw the sweatshirt on the bed, run into my closet, and close the door.

  The girls come into the room. Livy is talking REALLY LOUDLY to warn me she’s not alone, but she forgets I have super hearing. Or maybe I never told her.

  While they get settled I struggle to put on the chicken suit, which has shrunk at least two sizes. I pull on the neck to try to stretch it out, but it doesn’t help much.

  “You still have Rufus!” Sarah exclaims.

  I put my eye up to the crack in the doorframe. She is taller than Livy, with yellow hair, and she is hugging Rufus. My Rufus. Well, not mine exactly, but more mine than this girl’s.

  I recognize her even though she got a lot bigger. After Old Livy left, this girl used to come up to read the books on the bookshelf a few times. She even took one once. I saw her tuck it under her jacket. She stops by to see Gran now and again with her family, but for the past few years she’s only been a voice downstairs. And now she’s here at a really bad time and I wish she’d