Eleanor & Park(10)By: Rainbow Rowell
When the little kids stormed in after school, her mom lost her temper over something stupid – Ben and Mouse fighting over a toy – and she pushed them all out the back door, Eleanor included.
Eleanor was so startled to be outside that she stood on the back stoop for a second, staring down at Richie’s Rottweiler. He’d named the dog Tonya after his ex-wife. She was supposed to be a real man-eater, Tonya – Tonya the dog – but Eleanor had never seen her more than half awake.
Eleanor tried knocking on the door. ‘Mom! Let me back in. I haven’t even taken a bath yet.’
She usually took her bath right after school, before Richie got home. It took a lot of the stress out of not having a bathroom door, especially since somebody’d torn down the sheet.
Her mom ignored her.
The little kids were already out on the playground. The new house was right next door to an elementary school – the school where Ben and Mouse and Maisie went – and the playground was just beyond their backyard.
Eleanor didn’t know what else to do, so she walked out to where she could see Ben, by the swing set, and sat on one of the swings. It was finally jacket weather. Eleanor wished she had a jacket.
‘What are you supposed to do when it gets too cold to play outside?’ she asked Ben. He was taking Matchbox cars out of his pockets and lining them up in the dirt. ‘Last year,’ he said, ‘Dad made us go to bed at 7:30.’
‘God. You too? Why do you guys call him that?’ She tried not to sound angry.
Ben shrugged. ‘I guess because he’s married to Mom.’
‘Yeah, but’ – Eleanor ran her hands up and down the swing chains, then smelled them – ‘we never used to call him that. Do you feel like he’s your dad?’
‘I don’t know,’ Ben said flatly. ‘What’s that supposed to feel like?’
She didn’t answer him, so he went back to setting up his cars. He needed a haircut, his strawberry-blond hair was curling almost to his collar. He was wearing an old T-shirt of Eleanor’s and a pair of corduroy pants that their mom had cut off into shorts. He was almost too old for all this, for cars and parks – eleven. The other boys his age played basketball all night or hung out in groups at the edge of the playground. Eleanor hoped that Ben was a late bloomer. There was no room in that house to be a teenager.
‘He likes it when we call him Dad,’ Ben said, still lining up the cars.
Eleanor looked out at the playground. Mouse was playing with a bunch of kids who had a soccer ball. Maisie must have taken the baby somewhere with her friends …
It used to be Eleanor who was stuck with the baby all the time. She wouldn’t even mind watching him now, it would give her something to do – but Maisie didn’t want Eleanor’s help.
‘What was it like?’ Ben asked.
‘What was what like?’
‘Living with those people.’
The sun was a few inches above the horizon, and Eleanor looked hard at it.
‘Okay,’ she said. Terrible. Lonely. Better than here.
‘Were there other kids?’
‘Yeah. Really little kids. Three of them.’
‘Did you have your own room?’
‘Sort of.’ Technically, she hadn’t had to share the Hickmans’ living room with anyone else.
‘Were they nice?’ he asked.
‘Yeah … yeah. They were nice. Not as nice as you.’
The Hickmans had started out nice. But then they got tired.
Eleanor was only supposed to stay with them for a few days, maybe a week. Just until Richie cooled down and let her come home.
‘It’ll be like a slumber party,’ Mrs Hickman said to Eleanor the first night she made up the couch. Mrs Hickman – Tammy – knew Eleanor’s mom from high school. There was a photo over the TV of the Hickmans’ wedding. Eleanor’s mom was the maid of honor – in a dark green dress, with a white flower in her hair.
At first, her mom would call Eleanor at the Hickmans’ almost every day after school. After a few months, the calls stopped. It turned out that Richie hadn’t paid the phone bill, and it got disconnected. But Eleanor didn’t know that for a while.
‘We should call the state,’ Mr Hickman kept telling his wife. They thought Eleanor couldn’t hear them, but their bedroom was right over the living room. ‘This can’t go on, Tammy.’
‘Andy, it’s not her fault.’
‘I’m not saying it’s her fault, I’m just saying we didn’t sign on for this.’
‘She’s no trouble.’
‘She’s not ours.’
Eleanor tried to be even less trouble. She practiced being in a room without leaving any clues that she’d been there. She never turned on the TV or asked to use the phone. She never asked for seconds at dinner. She never asked Tammy and Mr Hickman for anything – and they’d never had a teenager, so it didn’t occur to them that there might be anything she might need. She was glad that they didn’t know her birthday.