by Eloise Hawking
The bell rang to end the day, and I breathed a sigh of relief. It came as no surprise though, as I had been watching the clock creep to 3:30 for the last half an hour. Learning about geographic landforms just wasn’t doing it for me today. I closed my Social Studies book and gathered my things to meet my mom in the lobby.
When I found her, she was chatting with another teacher. She had set her school bag down on the bench. I know my mother well and could see she was deep in a conversation. Mother Eloise could tell a story like no one else. She was talking with her hand and I could hear the inflection of her voice as I approached.
I knew she’d never remember to pick up that bag before she left. To deny the inevitable, I grabbed it for her. She never saw me. I slung it over my shoulder opposite my already heavy load I was carrying of my own books. The load was doable through, because over time, I’ve learned that it’s less about strength and more about balance. I secured my load like a pack horse and headed to the car.
Mom caught up with me in the parking lot. She was patting her pockets and pawing through her purse all while trying to navigate around the parked cars. After she bounced off of the front end of a Honda Accord, she set her purse down on the hood to search a little further. It was then she realized that she had forgotten her bag.
“Oh crap, Ellen,” said Mother Eloise. “I left my bag sit on the bench in the lobby. Can you run in and grab that for me, Cinderella?” never noticing it on my shoulder.
I sighed while my mom continued to paw through her pockets for her keys. I moved to the van without an explanation, slid open the door, and tossed her heavy bag behind my seat. I called, “Shot gun” to no one and slid into the front seat. Riding in the front seat wasn’t as much fun when no one was there to challenge you for it.
I watched through the windshield as Mother Eloise finally retrieved her keys that were hiding in a deep purse pocket. She was muttering away to herself, as she opened the driver’s side door and plopped in, sighing heavily. “Wow, that was fast,” she exclaimed. “You are speedy just like your father.”
I smiled and pushed the on button to the van’s CD player. I hit song 5, the next in the series of hymns we were playing this morning.
“No, Ellen. Skip ahead to number 17. That is a good 80’s hair-band tune for you. Back from my high school days. It will wake us up on the drive home. I’m feeling a bit drained.”
Mom reached over and cranked up the tune. Soon lots of screaming and heavy guitar squeals filled the air around me.
I slunk down in my seat a bit since we weren’t even out of the school parking lot yet. Straggling kids and parents and even a few bus drivers looked over to see where all of the noise was coming from. I just stared straight ahead, praying that no one would see us, or rather, hear us. If you don’t make any eye contact that means nothing is unusual, right?
Mom burns all of her CD’s from our on-line music account. She calls her musical arrangements “masterpieces.” She spends hours choosing the perfect songs and puts them in a special order so that every song is significant in some way.
She shouted over to me as we were turning out of the school parking lot, “Can you guess why this song is on there, Ellen?” Always a guessing game with my mother.
I thought a few seconds and shouted back, “It is a song from your high school days, and you listed it as track 17, so that must have been your age when you liked the song.”
Silence and a pause, then my mother’s famous broad smile. “You’re on to me, Sherlock. Looks like I’ll have to change up my game a bit to keep you thinking. Good job.”
We listened to the song the rest of the way home. She must have been in a hurry to get there, because we were pulling in our driveway before the song even ended. She yanked the wheel, turning into the garage, running over just one stray tennis ball and just missed my bike by a few inches. Mom threw the car in park, listened to the last fifteen seconds of the guitar squeal, and went inside to start dinner.
I grabbed a juice out of the garage refrigerator eyeballing the can of soda I really wanted but was only allowed to have on the weekends. A handful of dog biscuits found their way into my sweatshirt pocket and I headed down to see my canine friend Rocky.
I was in need my afternoon pep talk with him. Rocky always gave me that little recharge I needed before round two of the day--- battling my little brother. At the moment, Sam was nowhere in sight.
Rocky bellowed his low coon dog like yelp as he saw me coming. “Shhhhh, Rocky! You don’t want Sam finding us so soon do ya’?” To that Rocky rolled onto his back and wriggled and writhed beneath my scratching.
“Ohhh, how’s my good boy? How’s the smartest dog on the block? Did you keep the robbers away while we were all at work? Nobody would ever DARE come around with you on watch.”
Rocky liked being thought of as tough, although I think he full well knew he could only move in a four foot radius from his dog house.
I stood up, brushed the dirt from Rocky’s well worn circle of patrol from my knees, and handed him a few biscuits. “So Rocky, help me out. What is the key to all things? A neighbor who brings you biscuits, right?” I watched Rocky happily devour the biscuits. I gave him a pat on the head and headed to my tree house.
My tree house is the envy of the neighborhood. It is an eight foot by five foot kid’s paradise. Forty square feet to call my own. It rests in the perfect tree in our backyard. It is the kind with a roof, a door, some benches to sit on, windows with real shutters that open and shut, and even a little front porch. My stairs are slanted at a 45 degree angle for easy climbing. I even rigged up a bucket on a string to use when I have too much to carry up the stairs in my hands. I just drop things in the bucket and haul them up.
I earned every board of my tree house, literally and figuratively. My parents made me a deal that if I read all the books in the Magic Tree House series, they would build me my own tree house. 1, 343 pages encompassing forty-five books. I read so much about the characters that I had to remind myself that they weren’t real. My parents said that I also earned it for being a good sister to my older sister Hope and my little brother Sam.
Earning the tree house was all my doing. However building the tree house was a family affair. My dad and grandfather made the design. My siblings and I got to stain it the perfect shade of brown—Burnt Walnut it was called. My mother complained that it sat too high up in the tree. My grandma, in her funny sort of way, said that it “looked like an outhouse up in a tree” and made my dad change the roof design. Grandma also worried that it may not be sturdy enough to withstand the strong winds of the tornado that was sure to blow through these parts on any given day.
I had no sooner climbed the steps and latched the door shut when Emily arrived for our daily after school debriefing. I heard her before I saw her.
Rrrrrooooooaaaaarrrrrr---the tell tale sound of skateboard wheels racing over the cement of our driveway, then I waited for it. 3-2-1 CRASH! CLATTER! BANG! I opened the shutters and looked out to find Emily lying next to the toppled garbage can.
I ran down the tree house steps two at a time to see if my friend was still intact. Upon my decent I called out to her, “Em! Are you okay?”
Emily was bent at an odd angle. She didn’t seem to be in pain and reached for something beside her. “Hey, what happened to this tennis ball? It looks like someone squished it,” said Emily, dodging the question to avoid facing her own clumsiness.
I outstretched my arm to pull her up. We grasped hands in the strong hold where your thumbs interlock. Her left, black Chuck Taylor Converse was untied and she wasn’t wearing a coat. She never does. Em wears shorts most of the year which is simply ludicrous living in the Great Lakes Region. I think she needs to wear jeans more often just to spare her heavily scarred knees from further abuse.
“Mikey was gross today. It is just plain old wrong to flip your eyelids inside out like that,” said Emily, moving on from her graceful entrance.
“I agree. It seems like you could damage your eyes that way,” I mused.
We climbed into the tree house and settled into our spots. I usually took the bench seat by the window and Em sat on the floor and leaned against the tree that grew right up through the middle of the tree house. Unbeknownst to our parents, we scratched out initials in the trunk with a steak knife we swiped from the kitchen, and marked how tall we were when we did it.
“So what do you think it is Ellen…..your mom’s assignment? What do you think is the key to all things?” Emily questioned.
I smiled thinking how proud Mrs. McG would be of herself. She got Emily thinking and that was always her goal: to teach children to think.
Kids were always asking me to find out answers for them. They also wanted to know good scoop on teachers like who they were dating or what their real first names were. They were always disappointed when I had nothing good to give them. I try to tell them that Mrs. Eloise carefully guards her lesson plans and does not talk much about school stuff in front of me. I don’t think the other kids believe me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It must have something to do with rocks. Maybe there was a stone that was a key to something important.”
“You’re a good thinker, Ellen. I bet that is it. You just have to find out what it is. When you do, tell me first, ok?”
First of all, it was doubtful that I would figure it out any time soon. My mother’s thinking puzzles were always hard and involved days of pondering. Second of all, even if I did, I would keep this one to myself. I wanted all of the credit for this one.
I didn’t know quite how to answer Emily. I don’t like to leave questions hanging like that, and I certainly don’t like to lie. This usually leaves me in a quandary, having to decide what to do in a few seconds, but today I was spared. Saved by my little brother, Sam.
“ONION! Where are yooooouuuuuu?”
I peeked out my shuttered window to see my three and a half year old brother coming through the yard, which made the both of us shudder. “Buckle your seatbelt, Em, and whatever you do, remain calm. Here he comes.”