Cleaning, Part 2

“And HOW is my little bird today?” Dr. Jasper had far too much energy to do anything less than sweep into a room.

The Bird wondered if he knew about her new name, given to her last month during one of her first practices with the fencing team. No, she realized, he’d always called her little bird.

“Hmmm?” Dr. Jasper’s eyes grew wide as he looked down at her in the dentist chair, a surprising amount of severity on his face. He had always spoken to her with kindness, even when reminding her about flossing and reaching into the back of her mouth when brushing. And she had always responded to his generosity of spirit, had enjoyed talking to him, telling him about her friends at school or her life at home, at times even sharing secrets she hadn’t even shared with her mother.

The Bird nodded as she looked up at him, not remembering what he’d asked.

“Well I GUESSSS my little bird won’t be SSSSINGING for USSSS today!” The playful lilt, accentuated by his sibilant lisp, had returned to his voice, and The Bird smiled, feeling at ease once again.

The dentist mouthed a command for The Bird to open, and the reclining teen responded like a baby animal seeking to be fed as he turned on the overhead lamp and adjusted it over his head as he leaned over her. She heard the peroxide hygienist mention something about a chip on 36; Dr. Jasper reached into her mouth with a pick, scrapped a tooth on the back of her lower jaw, then nodded in agreement before standing back up, deftly nudging the overhead lamp while turning off its bulb in one motion.

“We need to sssssee you in a couple weeksssss.” The Bird nodded. “But before we sssset that up — ” he looked down at her with parental concern — “could you tell me what’sssss BOTHERING you?”

Cleaning, Part 1

“Dr. Jasper will be in in a moment.” The elderly woman with the peroxide hair and surgical gown the color of robin’s eggs waved her right hand at The Bird. The slender teen nodded silently in response as she sat in the dentist’s chair, an unlit lamp hovering above her head. A second later the hygienist left the room, leaving The Bird alone.

She was in the same room as usual — the anthropomorphic cartoons of animals having their teeth worked on were different (rabbits this time), as were the potted plants, but the cabinets and equipment were as familiar to her as her aunt’s bedroom. She had been coming to Dr. Jasper’s office at least twice a year since the age of six (Bark Bay not being a town large enough to support a pediatric dentist), and had walked past and at times accidentally into the two other examining rooms. Whether Dr. Jasper always saw children in this room (no, she had seen and heard children in other rooms), or was such a creature of habit that he always saw each patient in one room, or sensed that his patients (especially The Bird) would be put more at ease by familiar surroundings — or if what she was experiencing now was an unusual coincidence, or perhaps a faulty memory — The Bird did not know. But considering these possibilities was a form of entertainment for her.

As was the new word game she had invented. Her eyes scanned the room, searching for words. A sign, about the size of a bumper sticker, attached to a cabinet — Good TEETH Means Good HEALTH! She decided to play the game with the word teeth. Last letter h, eight. Two doubles, t and e, divide each pair to get two ones. Five letters in the word, five and one and one — that won’t work. Works with four letters, add the ones to get b, multiply by d, that gets you to h. To make the game fair she knew she’d have to decide on a rule and stick to it, it was either all the letters in the word or all letters except the end result, can’t change the rules at her convenience. E, that’s five, divide into t, gives you d. Two d‘s, and an e, could she make this work into h
The door opened, and Dr. Jasper stepped into the room, followed by the peroxide hygienist.

Parachute, Part 5

By the time Annie had regained her composure and turned back to her class, the mock sword fight between the boys had degenerated into a wrestling match, the girls doing their best to ignore them.

She sensed her plan to get her kids talking, have them get excited about their play time outside of class, wasn’t going to work. They were showing more interest today in her life, her activities, her fencing club at the school.

“All right.” The boys stopped wrestling as her voice cut through the multi-colored air under the parachute. “Who wants to be first in the center?” Amid the squeals of ME ME, Annie herded the Tiny Tots out from under the parachute, back to its edges, where she and the children each grabbed a rope handle and walked in a clockwise circle as Tallie sat in the center, her eyes brimming with the joy of innocent play.

And when she saw that the rest of the class had similar looks on their faces as they pulled the parachute with her, Annie remembered (not for the first time that day) how happy she was to have accepted Gandy’s offer to teach the class. No she didn’t need the money, and with her classes and other activities there would be weeks where teaching on Thursday afternoons would not be convenient.

But this class was important to her, as was Riverview Gymnastics, where she had spent so many hours of training from the time she was seven. “We need you,” Gandy had told her in December when offering Annie the Thursday class, but Annie knew the truth was that she needed them as much, if not more.

Parachute, Part 4

The two boys were jumping under the parachute as if their stockinged feet were on fire, as the girls continued looking up to Annie with their eager inquisitive faces.

“Can we practice fencing with you on Tuesday?” Tallie was more animated than Annie could remember.

The athletic teen closed her eyes and shook her head, her brown pony-tail wagging behind her. “Oh I wish I could, but that’s the day you have Tumbling Tots with Gandy.”

“We don’t like Gandy.” Charise did not flinch when Annie turned to her, wide-eyed, but continued as if in response to her instructor’s surprise. “She’s really old and slow, and doesn’t see too well.”

Annie blinked. “Well that’s — ” She closed her mouth tight, exhaled through her nose. “I don’t — ” She could feel her face reddening and excused herself, turned from the children and pretended to sneeze, then allowed herself a silent laugh which provided her enough relief to turn back to her class.

Parachute, Part 3

Annie put her hands on her hips, and gave a mock stern look at Benji, the multi-colored parachute resting on her head dispelling any suggestion of severity in her tone. “Because I have to! My friends will be so upset if I didn’t come to practice!”

“Are your friends nice?” Tallie was a quiet girl with straight black hair, who reminded Annie of The Bird.

“Oh, they’re super nice!” Now wasn’t the time to tell them about the argument that had erupted at this week’s practice, of having to separate Double-J and Juan before they came to blows. “I have so much fun fencing with them!”

“What’s fencing?”

Annie had to force herself not to roll her eyes at Benji’s question. “It’s like sword fighting.”

Benji and Justin, the two boys in the Tumbling Tots class, nearly jumped through the canopy of the parachute. The girls in the class looked up at her in wonder. But it wasn’t until Tallie asked if she ever got hurt doing sword fighting that Annie realized how poorly she had read the course of this conversation.

But there was no turning back now. “No, we wear these metal masks, and these thick white jackets on our bodies. And the swords we use, they have rubber tips and dull edges, so you can’t get cut by them.”

Parachute, Part 2

The children giggled spasmodically under the parachute, as Annie motioned for them to gather around her in a circle. Her eyes widened as she asked who had a story for them today. Three small hands sprouted into the air, punching the parachute up, and Annie called on Cherise, a bright-eyed girl with hair neatly arranged in beaded rows, to speak first.

“Can you come Tuesday?” In only her third week of leading the Tumbling Tots class, Annie had learned to expect almost anything to come out of the children’s mouths, but this was another first.

Oooooo, I wish I could!” Annie’s ability to speak hyperbolically without embarrassment had surprised her. “But I have practice that night!” The Tumbling Tots met twice a week, and the offer from Gandy, the owner of Riverview Gymnastics and Dance, to teach had come out of the blue in December, just before Christmas. Annie didn’t need the money — she was a Hutchinson, after all — but she had been thrilled by the opportunity to become more involved with the operation of Gandy’s gym, where she had been a student for almost a decade.

Benji, a tow-headed kid who spent most of the class running around the gym, raised his hand. Surprised to see him so still, Annie called on him.

“Why?”

Annie blinked, shook her head. “Why, what?”

Benji lowered his hand, his face focused on her. “Why do you have to practice?”

Parachute, Part 1

January. The third Thursday.

Amidst the collective high-pitched squeal of delight from six kindergarten-aged children, Annie Hutchinson, her face brightened with a tired smile of satisfaction, carried a multi-colored nylon bundle into the middle of the large open space at Riverview Gymnastics.

Her smile broadened as she dropped the bundle onto the floor. “Everyone remember what to do?” Before she completed her question, the children had descended on the bundle like kittens converging on a bowl of milk. They pulled at the bundle, each child searching for a rope handle, and when Annie saw that her Tumbling Tots class had properly spaced themselves, she stepped back from the circle, her brown pony-tail whipping behind her head, as she commanded the class to pull!

The six children stepped back quickly, everyone holding onto a rope handle. One child stumbled over her feet, but with a grace and speed that surprised Annie regained her footing and a second later had caught up with the rest of the group.

The nylon parachute was now stretched out completely into a circle, triangles of rainbow colors pointing into the mesh center. Annie walked over to a vacant rope handle, then grabbed it as she fell to her knees.

“Ready!” Her face beamed with an enthusiasm that spread like the scent of cinnamon escaping from an oven in which an apple pie was baking The children were bouncing on the balls of their tiny feet. “One — two — THREE!”

Annie’s arms lifted the parachute above her head, as her pony-tail dangled down her back. She walked on her knees into the circle as the children lifted and all but jumped in, the parachute lifting high in the air.

Directions, Part 5

“I prefer to walk.” Rune discovered that he was coming out of his slouch, was beginning to stand taller as he continued replying to the head of the man sticking out of the car window. “I know it’s a long way, but I like it. It’s about 45 minutes I get alone, time to think. It’s — relaxing.”

“You even walk in the rain?” The puppeteer in control squinched the man’s eyes. “Snow?”

Rune shrugged. “If it gets real bad, I’ll catch a ride with someone, sure.” He extended his arms to his sides, palm upwards. “But it ain’t raining now. Just a little cold — and that’s actually better, for walking.”

The face extended out the car window blinked, like a star gazer checking his vision after seeing what he thought was a comet through his telescope. Then he inhaled spit and mucus into his mouth, turned his head away from Rune (but along the path he would be walking), and spat.

“Suit yourself.” The head tucked into the car again, but was then forced back out by the puppeteer. “Oh, and thanks for the directions to the Sunoco!”

The car sped away from the side of the road, gravel spraying from the tires and landing a few inches in front of Rune. The teen waved, dug his hands back into his jacket. It was cold that evening, and Rune realized that if the offer for a ride had come from a relative, or one of his buddies on the fencing club (except for Double-J, of course), he would have accepted, welcomed and appreciated the offer in fact. Rune shrugged at the realization and resumed walking (making sure to avoid the wad of spit lying on the gravel), and came to another realization, that the man had pronounced the word Sunoco like snow cone.

Directions, Part 4

Just go, Rune thought. Give a polite wave, head out and take a left at the second light, find that Sunoco. Let me get on with my life.

The puppet-master thrust the head of the hunting-capped man out the car window again. “Sure you don’t want a ride?”

Definitely. “I’m fine.”

“Rusty says you’re at least three miles from your home.”

Rune winced. It was time to tell them the truth.

Directions, Part 3

Rune felt the tightness in his shoulders loosen, his body relaxing now that he could speak without having to edit his thoughts. “Nah, no detention.” He jerked a thumb back in the general direction of the Bark Bay High School building. “I got fencing practice, every Tuesday, after school, until 4.”

“Is that so?” The man in the hunting cap looked confused, Rune noticing that the word fencing seemed particularly difficult for this man to comprehend, as if Rune had said he had just come from a seven-course Parisian dinner which he had prepared.

The driver tapped the man in the hunting cap on the shoulder, and the two faced each other for a quick conversation. To Rune, they were like many of the adult males in town — friendly but a little rough around the edges, their language curt and pointed, their bodies covered in a layer of unkempt hair, flannel, and dirty grease. The type of men Rune didn’t feel comfortable around, unless he knew them well.

The man in the hunting cap tilted his head outside the window again. Seeing only his head made Rune think he looked like a puppet, perhaps being controlled by the driver. “Rusty says they closed that Sunoco last year, said they moved.”

Rune nodded. “The owner sold it, yes, and bought a Shell last year, downtown, the new one they built on Main and Hancock. But he don’t run it, his son does.” Rune pointed in the same direction he had when giving directions earlier. “That Sunoco, yes the new owner closed it for a while to fix up the place — ” he remembered his father, who had managed the financial transactions for both buildings last year, commenting at home that the old Sunoco had been in such bad shape that it was hardly worth even its sharply discounted price — “but it opened up again, over the summer.”

The man in the hunting cap nodded, suspicion on his face, and his head retracted into the car.