Whether or not he stayed late with Mrs. Bromley, Donald and Jerry would wait for him. Jonas pictured the peanutstone bridge he had to cross, the woods that ran tight to the twisty road above it. Sometimes on his way home, when no one was around, he sang “The Star Spangled Banner” or “Home on the Range” to make himself feel brave in case the kids ambushed him with pine cones or clumps of red dirt. Today, singing wouldn’t help.
He watched the muscles in Donald’s cheek compress with hostility. Jonas knew he should return the baseball, but his fingers seemed incapable of relinquishing it.
Jerry shoved him hard. Jonas’ head snapped back and he took a step to balance. This signaled a retreat to Donald, who moved in with a quick punch to Jonas’ stomach. Jonas doubled over, pressing both arms against his belly. Jerry whacked him in the ear.
“You chicken!” Donald shouted, pushing Jonas to the ground.
“Ew! I can’t stand to touch him.” Jerry scrunched up his face in disgust.
“Then leave him alone,” a voice said from behind them.
The boys turned to see Martie Trowbridge. She was the tallest kid in class except for Henry Noonan, who was a giant.
“Butt out,” Jerry said to her, without much conviction.
Martie placed her hands on her hips. “No,” she said. Big-boned and squarely built, with cropped dark hair, she was strong like her father, a commercial fisherman. Like Jonas, Martie kept to herself.
Jonas crawled to his knees, still winded but also astonished that a girl would come to his rescue, even a tough one who wore high-topped boy’s sneakers.
Martie took a firm step toward Jerry and stared at him. Jonas watched as Jerry’s shoulders drooped a fraction, as if some of the aggression had spilled out of his body.
Donald was bigger than his friend but didn’t want a confrontation with Martie, either. “Hey, we were only joshin’ a little.” He turned to Jonas. “If you’d just give us our ball back, everything’d be cool.”
Jonas sensed the situation had ratcheted down a notch but was still dangerous. He stood, hunched over to protect himself in case one of the boys socked him again.
Martie brushed past Donald and Jerry and walked over to Jonas. He looked into her large gray eyes and saw no arrows of anger shooting at him. Then she held out her hand. Jonas gave her the baseball and watched her strong fingers grip the red seams.
“Hey, thanks.” Donald extended his hand.
Martie jutted her jaw forward in response, glared at Donald and Jerry, then stepped around the boys, lowered her right shoulder, and hurled the ball over the school fence, across the street, and high above the green roof of a one-story house. Satisfied, she dusted off her palms.
Jonas closed his open mouth and noticed all the girls were gawking as were the other boys. He stood a little straighter and risked a glance at Martie, who flashed a quick grin.
“Come on, pal,” Martie said, throwing a heavy arm around his neck. “How about you and me go play hooky?”
As they were walking up the street past the schoolyard, Mrs. Bromley emerged from the side door and saw Martie and Jonas together, out of shouting range. She shook her head in amazement, raised her eyes to the heavens, crossed herself, and called for the end of recess.
* * *
They walked together in uncertain camaraderie toward Jonas’ house. He wondered why they were heading there since neither of them had discussed their destination or, for that matter, how Martie knew where he lived.
“You got stuff for us to do at your place?” Martie asked.
“Yeah, sort of,” he replied. “I have a Lionel train set with a new locomotive.”
Martie glanced at him. “Always wanted a train.”
A new anxiety was born in Jonas. He had a huge playroom of his own, crammed with books, games, and toys. Although he’d never visited any of his classmates’ homes, Jonas was unaware of how his possessions compared to those of others, but he suspected his collection was unlike any other child’s in town. Suddenly, he became afraid of how Martie would react to seeing his room. Never before had he worried how someone else felt.
“Me, too,” he replied. Martie gave him a confused look, so he added, “I mean, I always wanted a train.”
They crossed the bridge and walked up the hill. “Will your mother be mad that you’re home from school?” she asked.
Here was another gigantic iceberg lurching in his path. “I don’t know,” he began, “I never played hooky before.” He risked a quick peek at Martie. “Actually, my mother probably won’t be home.” This wasn’t true, but he hoped she wouldn’t be wandering around, which she sometimes did when the fever of her writing burned out.
“My mom’s dead,” Martie said.
Jonas caught the note of sadness in her voice. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, well, when it’s your time, it’s time. What difference does it make?”
This bleak attitude was so close to Jonas’ outlook that he was startled. He had always assumed he was the only person on Earth who felt this way. “I know what you mean,” he agreed.
Jonas opened the creaky iron-grille gate and was ashamed of the weeds overgrowing the garden, choking the purple iris and pink peonies, the only flowers his mother had ever planted. Although his house was four times the size of Martie’s—he’d seen hers one afternoon while riding his bike—the Trowbridge’s house was neat and tidy, with square box hedges hugging the porch.
“Sorry about the yard,” he apologized, and was about to add that the gardener had quit a year ago but realized it sounded snobby to talk to Martie about gardeners.
“It could use some work,” she replied. “I take care of our place.” Martie surveyed the property. “Heck, we could fix this up. I mean, if you have tools.”
Jonas had never considered such an idea. All he was required to do was throw his dirty clothes in a hamper for Cassie, their Irish housekeeper, who came in each morning when he was at school and usually left before he returned after she’d prepared dinner. If his father was in the city and his mother up in her writing room, his other task was heating a meal for himself. Usually, he made a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich instead.
“Yeah, we have tools,” he replied, “but wouldn’t you rather play with my Lionel set?” He was eager to hitch up his new train but staying outside had appeal. No mother to contend with.
Martie glanced at the house. “Maybe another time. We got work to do.”
“Well, okay.” Jonas stole a peek at the round window of the cupola that crowned the third floor of the house and saw his mother looking down through a fog of cigarette smoke. Her hair was wild; she wore the same blue blouse as yesterday and the day before. He hadn’t talked to her since Monday. It was likely she’d been awake most of the time, if one of her agitated moods had taken hold. Jonas was relieved when she stepped out of sight and hoped Martie hadn’t seen her.
After assembling a rake, pruning shears, clippers, shovels, and two pairs of stiff leather garden gloves, they attacked the weeds along the front walk. An hour later, Jonas saw his mother again. She nodded and smiled, which made him happier than he’d been in a long time. Although the work was hard and his arms and legs were scratched, he was proud. His mother had noticed him.
About four o’clock, Cassie appeared at the front door with a silver tray laden with cookies and lemonade. She placed it on the front steps.
“The missus told me to fetch this for you,” she told Jonas.
Martie took in the silver tray and cut-glass pitcher that sparkled in the sunlight, then turned away.
* * *
That night, Jonas was physically sore but glad in his heart when his mother came downstairs for dinner. Her brown eyes glittered—a warning she was on a sleepless streak—but otherwise she sat with him, fidgeting with her fork, eating little, and speaking rapidly about the intricacies of her writing, a novel about a family of nineteen, three generations of which lived in India, Holland, Madagascar, and New York. Jonas had long ago lost track of the characters’ names, relationships, and residences. On the few occasions he was permitted to visit his mother’s writing room, he noticed she had trouble, too, since the walls were scribbled with colored arrows that pointed from each character to other people and places and sometimes snaked around two walls. Hundreds of typed pages, newspaper clippings, broken pieces of pastels, and crumbled paper littered the floor.