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#148

Sick Day



                Rain fell on and around Timothy as he walked from his house to the bus stop. The morning was not cold, but he wore a gray jacket with the hood up to keep the rain off of his head, a concession he had grudgingly made to his mother, but in truth, he really didn’t want his head to get all wet so it was an argument he hadn’t minded losing. Timothy’s stomach felt strange and he didn’t know why. His honey-slathered toast and two bowls of Golden Goodgrains cereal were not sitting well.

                Timothy arrived at the bus stop later than usual. Most of the other kids from the neighborhood were already there, all clustered together under a tree for shelter even though some of them had umbrellas. Savannah was one of the kids with an umbrella, of course. There was nothing in particular that stood out about Savannah’s umbrella, but Timothy couldn’t just not address it. He had to turn it against her somehow. Savannah was in third grade, a year behind Timothy, and she rubbed him the wrong way. He didn’t know why nor did he wonder why. The only thing that ever made Savannah’s presence bearable for Timothy was being mean to her.

                “There’s the bus,” said someone, and all the kids turned to look down the block to the corner, watching the slow approach of the Multioak Community School bus down the rain-slick residential street.

                “Hey, Savannah,” said Timothy. “Nice umbrella.” He said it nastily.

                Savannah didn’t look at Timothy as she walked out from under the tree to wait for the bus by the curb, the rain drumming on her umbrella while she stood dry beneath it.

                “How come you always have to be first in line?” asked Timothy. “You love the bus so much you can’t wait to get on? You love going to school?” This was more fertile territory for mockery than the umbrella, especially considering how effectively Savannah’s umbrella was serving its purpose.

                The bus stopped at the curb with a hiss and a squeal of its brakes and the other kids hurried out from under the tree to line up behind Savannah. As the driver opened the door to the bus, Timothy called out from his place in the middle of the line, “Oh, boy, Savannah, you must be so excited, you’re getting on the bus now, you’re gonna be at school soon, you can finally-” And then, out of nowhere, in mid-taunt, Timothy vomited his breakfast onto his own shoes and the wet grass in front of him. The kids closest to Timothy shouted and jumped away from him. Timothy heard shouting on the bus too and looked up to see faces pressed to the windows and more crowding in around them, trying to catch a glimpse of him, crying out in disgust when they succeeded. Timothy heard the bus driver calling to him too. “Are you OK? Timothy?” And Savannah, halfway up the bus steps, collapsing the handle of her umbrella in on itself with a series of tiny clicks, was looking at him with pity, taking no pleasure in his plight, no matter how earned it was. It was almost enough to make Timothy puke again, but instead he just retched. And then, refusing to answer anyone’s questions about his well-being, or even make eye contact, he turned and began to walk back toward his house, deliberately shuffling through puddles in hopes that the accumulated rainwater would cleanse his two-week-old shoes of the partially-digested honey-toast and Golden Goodgrains clinging to their laces.

 

                When Timothy got back to his house, there was no one else there. His father left for work before Timothy woke up in the morning, his older sister Lana usually left for school while he was eating breakfast, and his mom left for work at the same time that Timothy headed for the bus stop, always giving him a goodbye honk as she drove off in the opposite direction. Timothy got the house key out of its hiding place under the loose patio stone in the back yard, unlocked the back door, and returned the key. Then he went inside and kicked his wet, pukey shoes off without untying them, leaving them on the mat. He would deal with them later when he felt better, if he felt better. If not, his parents could deal with the shoes. Timothy figured cleaning up a child’s pukey shoes easily fell within the purview of a parent’s responsibilities. And at age 9, Timothy definitely still considered himself a child.

                The house was dim and silent. Still feeling queasy, Timothy got the little garbage can out of the bathroom and carried it down the hall to his bedroom, setting it by his bed in case he needed to vomit again. Then he took off his wet jacket and his school clothes, pulled on the pajamas he’d tossed into the corner of the room just over an hour ago, and crawled into bed, lying on his back and pulling his heavy comforter up under his chin. He could still hear the rain on the roof and tapping against his window. Timothy looked at the white, textured ceiling of his bedroom and the expression of pity on Savannah’s face when she saw him puking at the bus stop came back to him and made him feel tense. There was nothing he could do about it now, but tomorrow, or whenever he felt well enough to go back to school, he would have to be extra mean to her for a few days to reestablish the appropriate dynamic between them.

                Timothy rolled onto his side. It felt strange to be in his house alone on a Thursday morning. He wondered if he’d ever been alone in his house on a Thursday morning before. In the summer, Timothy’s mom only worked weekends, plus Lana was usually around. On other days when Timothy was too sick to go to school or if school was delayed or canceled because of bad weather, his mom always stayed home from work too so she could take care of him. But now, here he was, alone in his house on a Thursday morning, experiencing the home in which he’d grown up in an entirely new way. This realization made the pale hairs on Timothy’s arms stand up. He shuddered, but not without pleasure. Timothy felt as if he’d accidentally beaten the system, as if he’d stumbled through some secret door hidden in the side of his daily reality and now he was running loose behind the scenes, although “running loose” was a weird way to frame what he was actually doing, which was lying still in his bed and trying not to think about food or Savannah.

                Timothy sat up and pushed his covers down, swinging his legs over the side of his bed. He didn’t feel well, but he also wasn’t tired and something about the circumstances he had found himself in was drawing him out of bed. He walked to his bedroom door, opened it, and walked on silent feet down the hall to the living room. Timothy felt like an intruder in his own home. No one knew he was here. It was exhilarating, even with his roiling stomach. He sat down in the recliner in the dark corner of the room and the gray light coming in through the front window touched only his feet. It wasn’t that the rain on the window was loud, but there was no other sound, so Timothy heard it as distinctly as if it were loud. And it was here, sitting upright in the recliner, that Timothy fell asleep.

 

                Timothy awoke sometime later to the sound of voices in the kitchen. There was light too, artificial and warm, shining through the doorway leading from the kitchen to the living room. Timothy did not recognize any of the voices, but the light, he knew, was emanating from the fixture attached to the kitchen ceiling and powered by a switch on the kitchen wall. It sounded as if there were at least three people in the kitchen, maybe more, all of them adults. Timothy sat completely still in the recliner and listened, his unsettled stomach contracting inside of him.

                “Wipe your feet on the mat.”

                “They’re not muddy.”

                “They’re wet though, just wipe them. Or take them off, you can leave them on the mat next to those shoes.”

                “Do you think those are his shoes?”

                “They must be, they’re male shoes and clearly too small for the father.”

                “Look at them, the mother probably didn’t let him wear them to school today because they’re messy.”

                Timothy definitely heard three distinct voices and they all belonged to women, as far as he could tell. But what were they doing here? They didn’t sound like criminals and the way they were talking about his shoes made it seem like they were at least somewhat familiar with his family. Maybe his parents had hired some people to come work on the house, maybe shampoo the carpets or paint the bathroom or something? It made sense that they wouldn’t have told him about it since they would have assumed that he would be at school while the work was being done. Timothy wondered if he should go into the kitchen and introduce himself. He tried to think of a way to do it without startling them.

                “OK,” said one of the voices in the kitchen. “You all take your seats at the table and I’ll go get the diary.” Timothy heard the sound of chairs scraping on the kitchen tile, creaking as they accepted the weight of sitting people, and then, from his recliner in the darkest corner of the living room, he saw a tall figure with long, white hair walk out of the kitchen and disappear down the hall. A short time later, the woman returned to the living room with a book in her hand, and as she walked into the kitchen, the light caught her face and Timothy saw that she was indeed an old woman, but an old woman who looked healthy and capable. Timothy did not recognize her, nor did he recognize the small, brown book in her hand, although he only caught a glimpse of it. He heard the sound of another chair scraping and creaking.

                “Now where were we?”

                “Timothy had just recounted a daydream he had in class about what it would be like to have a hollow molar in his mouth with a miniature woman living inside who would bake tiny loaves of bread and open a hatch in the bottom of the molar so she could throw the loaves down his throat.”

                “Oh yes! The tiny loaves! He thinks of the strangest, funniest things, I’m always surprised.”

                “He really does have a fascinating perspective.”

                In the living room, Timothy was puzzled. What were they talking about? Were they talking about him? They must be. But he’d never daydreamed about any miniature women living inside of his tooth and he would certainly never write down something so incriminating even if he did daydream about it.

                “All right,” came the voice of the woman who’d retrieved the book. “As always, the next entry is not dated, but it begins, ‘Dear Diary, I am not supposed to wade in the creek. No one has told me I am not supposed to wade in the creek, but I feel that I am not supposed to. I think that if I wade in the creek, something bad will happen to me, a person I don’t know and have never met will be disappointed in me or a person I do know will never be able to look me in the eye again.’”

                “So interesting,” Timothy heard someone say.

                The woman continued reading. “Next entry. ‘Dear Diary, I hope I don’t get very much homework tonight because I want to redo the exact homework I did on this date three years ago to see how much easier it is for me now that I’m older. If it is easier, I will know that I am learning. If it is not easier, then I will begin to consider a plan to drop out of school when I am 16 to dedicate myself to nobler pursuits.”

                The women all chuckled.

                Timothy frowned as thunder rumbled outside and the rain fell a little harder for a few seconds before returning to the consistent rate it had been maintaining all morning. Did these ladies really think he’d written all that? It sounded nothing like something he’d write, nor any other kid his age. If they really knew him, they’d know he wasn’t the type to keep a diary at all, much less one as dorky as the one they were reading from. What were they doing in his house anyway? Even if it were his diary, that wouldn’t give them the right to come into his house and read it while he was at school. He got up from the recliner and paused for a moment as his stomach did a quick flip-and-flop.

                “Next entry. ‘I saw something in the distance that I could not describe to any of the people who asked me where I was going in such a hurry. And when I got to the place where I had seen it, it was no longer there, so when I returned from that place empty-handed, many assumed that they were right to doubt me. But although my hands were empty, the minutes and seconds and fractions of seconds that I had spent running toward the thing that I saw had not been empty, they had been full, and nothing can empty them now, they will always have been full, and in that way, will always be full.”

                Timothy stopped just short of the kitchen doorway and listened as the women sighed and murmured their appreciation. “He’s so wise for his age,” one of them said.

                “Not just for his age, for any age. I wish my grandsons saw the world like Timothy does.”

                “I wish my husband saw the world like Timothy does.”

                All the women burst out laughing.

                Even though Timothy knew he had not written the diary, he couldn’t help but feel some pride at the admiration with which the women spoke about him. They respected him, they valued his outlook on life, and he was only nine. Adults had only ever disagreed with his viewpoint or agreed with it in a condescending way. They had never acted like he had anything new or interesting to share with them, they had never hung on his words like these women hung on the words of the Timothy they thought had written this diary. And now, standing in the shadows just outside the kitchen, listening to this woman read from the diary they assumed to be his, Timothy felt not only like an intruder in his own home, he felt like an intruder in his own life. Was it possible that he had written this diary and simply had no recollection of it? Maybe in his sleep or in some other kind of trance-like state? Or maybe something had happened to him during the previous night to erase only the portions of his memory that had to do with writing in the diary? Or maybe something had happened to erase lots of different pieces of his memory and he just didn’t know it yet since he couldn’t remember them? Timothy, a feeling of rising unwellness radiating out from his stomach, turned to walk back to the recliner.

                “Next entry,” said the woman in the kitchen. “‘Dear Diary, her name is Savannah and that is almost all I know about her beyond the fact that the mere sight of her fills me with a joy that I have not felt since the first time I heard my mother sing to me while I was in her womb. Savannah. Savannah. It is not a name I would have ever guessed or chosen for her, and that is what makes it perfect, for a girl like her should not have a name that a boy like me could guess nor a name that a boy like me would choose for her. I will now list her most distinctive physical characteristics and will explain why I find them irresistible. Number one: the part in her hair. Yes, I am starting at the very top of her head, but I must, for-”

                “I did not write this!” shouted Timothy as he sprang into the kitchen, his face contorted with horror. The three women screamed and the one who had been reading with her back to the living room doorway jumped to her feet, dropping the diary on the floor. Timothy was surprised to see that there was also an old man in the kitchen, seated in one of the chairs at the table, wearing a cap advertising for a brand of farm equipment with a logo featuring illegible lettering. He was the only one who didn’t scream when Timothy made his surprise entrance, but he did look as startled as the others.

                “This is my house and you all need to get out,” said Timothy. “Or I’ll call the police.”

                “But we thought you wanted us here,” said one of the old women who was still seated. She had a narrow face and looked like a cigarette smoker without sounding like one. “We’re the ones who solved all your riddles and followed your clues and found the correct house and then the key and then the clever hiding place in your bedroom.”

                “None of that was me,” said Timothy. “I’m not like him. I ride the bus with Savannah and I hate her.”

                The women and the man looked at Timothy. Then the woman who had been reading aloud from the diary said, “He’s not Timothy.” She sounded equal parts sad and relieved.

                “Yes I am,” said Timothy.

                “But you’re not our Timothy,” said the third woman. She had purplish lipstick on her lips and an unopened bottle of water in her hand.

                “Your Timothy isn’t real,” said Timothy. “I’m the real Timothy and I hate Savannah and I don’t like school. I’m just a normal kid so you all would probably hate me.” He could tell by their reactions that he was right but that they didn’t want to admit it.

                Then the old man spoke in a painful-sounding whisper. “There’s no name in the diary. But we thought Timothy wrote it because we followed the clues to this house and found the key under the stone and followed the clues to the boy’s bedroom and it said ‘Timothy’ right on the door and we went inside-”

                The narrow-faced woman put her hand on the old man’s shoulder and he stopped talking.

                “I want you all to leave now,” said Timothy. He had the moral high ground and he intended to make the most of it. “And if you don’t, I really will call the police. And I’ll press charges.” He didn’t know what that meant beyond it being bad for law-breakers. “And you can’t ever come back.”

               

After the three old women and the old man had gone, Timothy turned the kitchen light off and restored the house to its dormant state. Then he went outside on the wet patio in his socks and looked for the key in its hiding place. It was there. The elderly people must have put it back right after they used it to unlock the back door. Timothy picked up the key, put it in his pocket, and let the loose patio stone fall back into place. Then he went inside, closed and locked the door behind him, picked the diary up off of the floor, and dragged one of the chairs over next to the kitchen window. From this vantage point, Timothy could look out into the back yard through a narrow gap between the curtains, which were also thin enough to allow through an adequate amount of light by which he could peruse the diary.

                Timothy started at the beginning of the diary and made his way through the pages, pausing every couple of minutes to look out at the back yard. The first thing Timothy noticed about the diary was that the handwriting was straight and uniform and far more precise than his was. When he would choose an entry to read at random, it never made sense to him. He understood most of the words, but they never added up to anything to which he could relate. What would it be like to think and feel and express himself like this? Timothy couldn’t imagine, which made him angry. He didn’t care that the old people liked the fake Timothy so much better than him. Unless they were right. What if their preference for the fake Timothy wasn’t only because they were old and liked things that were uncool?

                Timothy sighed and looked out at the back yard through the gap in the curtains. There he saw a boy in a yellow raincoat, black jeans, and black rubber boots kneeling on the patio with his back to the house and his hood up so Timothy couldn’t see his face. As Timothy watched, the boy pried up the loose patio stone and then stopped for a moment, looking down at the place where the hidden key would normally be. Then the boy looked around, lowered the stone back into place, and stood up, turning to face the house for the first time. Now Timothy could see the boy’s face. Although the boy appeared to be a little shorter than Timothy, his face looked older. Much older. Oh, who was Timothy kidding? The boy’s face didn’t look older than his. If anything, it looked younger. The boy walked toward the back door and out of Timothy’s line of sight. A moment later, Timothy heard the doorknob moving. He watched it as it turned first one way, then the other. Then it began to jiggle. Timothy stood up and walked over to the kitchen garbage can, opening it up by pressing the foot-pedal with his socked foot, the bottom of which was still damp, and he dropped the diary inside the garbage can among the wadded up paper towels, empty juice cartons, and the two carrots Timothy had pretended to eat at dinner the night before.

                Then Timothy walked to the back door and yanked it open, enjoying the look of surprise that flashed across the fake Timothy’s face. “Never come back here,” said Timothy. “It’s all over. We aren’t gonna hide a key anymore.”

                The boy took a step back but said nothing.

                “If I see you sneaking around again, trying to break into our house, I’m going to beat you up,” said Timothy. “I’ll punch you in the face and I won’t get in trouble because you’re trespassing.”

                The boy said nothing but the expression on his face changed. It was almost identical to the expression Timothy had seen on Savannah’s face after he threw up at the bus stop, which enraged him.

                “I found your diary and I destroyed it,” said Timothy. “I burned it, there’s nothing left. I found it where you hid it in my room and I read it and it sucked so much that I had to burn it.”

                “You didn’t find it,” said the boy. “You couldn’t have. You must have taken it from the old people.”

                “No!” shouted Timothy. “I found it, I figured it out, it wasn’t even hard!” The boy didn’t respond but Timothy could tell he knew Timothy was lying. And the boy was still looking at him like Savannah had. It wasn’t pity, Timothy realized. It was understanding, which was even worse. “Get out of here,” said Timothy, his anger withering. “I really will punch you.”

 

                Timothy couldn’t think of a good way to actually burn the diary after he fished it out of the garbage, so he settled for just tearing out the pages one by one. At first, he tore the pages into shreds three at a time with his hands, but then he remembered the shredder in his dad’s study, so he used that. Then he gathered up the shreds and flushed them down the toilet a handful at a time. When he had finished, the diary still had about a third of its pages left, blank and white. Timothy went to his room, set the diary on his desk, and began to search for the secret place where the boy had kept the diary hidden for all this time. Timothy searched everywhere. His room was not large and had no furniture other than his bed, desk, dresser, and bookshelf. He found nothing. The old woman had only been in his room for a brief period when she retrieved the diary and Timothy hadn’t heard anything that sounded like someone moving furniture, the solution had to be simple. He ran his hands over every inch of his walls, hoping to press a secret panel that would pop open a secret compartment, but nothing happened. He crawled under his bed, felt the underside of his box spring, felt for mysterious indentations in the carpet, and found nothing.

                Later, discouraged, Timothy sat down at his desk with a mechanical pencil in his right hand and opened the diary. At the top of what was now the first page, he wrote, “Dear Diary” in his very best handwriting, which was sloppy, messy, awful. He paused and considered tearing out the page and starting over, but he forged ahead.

 

                I admit that I like Savannah. I will list things I like about her.

1.       I like how long her hair is and its nice brown color.

2.       I think her face is pretty.

 

Timothy tried to re-read what he had written so far, but he was so overwhelmed with shame after the first sentence that he had to stop. He took the diary back into his dad’s study and fed the page  on which he had just written into the shredder. Then he fed the blank pages into the shredder too. And then all that remained of the diary was the hard, brown cover, which got stuck when Timothy tried to feed it through the shredder too. Then, when Timothy tried to force the cover through, he broke the shredder.

Timothy’s dad would be angry. Timothy would lie. And all would be right with the world.




Discussion Questions

  • What are the elements of a quintessential Sick Day? Does your family have any festive Sick Day traditions? Do people who celebrate a Sick Day without actually being sick tarnish the event or is that all just part of the fun?



  • Where do you hide your diary? Be specific, as if giving directions to someone unfamiliar with your home, neighborhood, town, and possibly even your state.



  • Would you rather vomit in public or just leave the answer to this question blank?



  • Do you resist the idea of being a better person because you don’t like any of the people who are objectively better than you? If so, do you think that’s healthy? If not, do you think THAT’S healthy? Do you think that spending every waking moment evaluating what each of your decisions indicates about your overall health is healthy?



  • How precocious is too precocious?



  • Read through the story again. Can you spot the one place where I wrote the word “dairy” instead of the word “diary?” If so, I’ll buy you one (1) ice cream.