One Saturday morning in August, Robert Ott's whole life changed. It had been chugging along very smoothly. True, he hadn't even opened the advanced reading text his third-grade teacher had given him to improve his skills. But Robert was sure he'd get to it soon at least before school started again.
But just past 11:30 the telephone rang, and two pages in the journal his parents had given him for Christmas wouldn't have been enough to list all the problems he had then.
That Saturday Robert's parents were out shopping for new living room furniture. The baby-sitter, Sally Anne, was busy watching cartoons. Robert thought most of the Saturday cartoons were boring, but Sally Anne, who was sixteen and wore gold hoop earrings and purple nail polish, had been sitting in front of the television all morning. Robert had stuck it out until the sight of Sally Anne's fingernails flipping onto the carpet as she clipped them had made him forget his resolve not to let her drive him crazy. He had picked up the nail clippings and thrown them in the trash. It was not a hard job because the purple showed up plainly against the beige carpet.
"They'll come up the next time your mother vacuums," Sally Anne said.
"But they're dirty," Robert exclaimed.
"House dust is mostly human skin cells and hair," Sally Anne said cheerfully. "So I don't think a few fingernails are going to hurt."
Robert cleaned them up anyway. Afterward he sat at the kitchen table to work on the story he was writing. He was debatingwhether to change the hero to a heroine named Sally Anne, and have her eaten by a dragon who loved the taste of purple nail polish, when the phone rang. It was 11:31. The receiver crackled when Robert picked it up and he knew the call was long distance. He grabbed a paper and pencil from the table by the phone. Robert was very careful about messages.
"Robert, is that you?" his Aunt Frieda asked when he said hello. It took him a few seconds to recognize her voice. Robert explained about the shopping trip.
"Have your mother call me the minute she gets home, will you, sweetie? I might have a nice surprise for you," Aunt Frieda said.
Robert cringed at the "sweetie" but promised he would. He said good-bye politely, wondering what the surprise could be. Aunt Frieda was a climatologist and so was his Uncle John. They taught at a big university in Texas when they weren't traveling around the world studying the effects of weather. Robert knew his mother worried about Aunt Frieda. She was his mother's only sister and Mrs. Ott was afraid that Aunt Frieda might come to harm in some faraway place.
There was a commercial on the television, and Sally Anne wandered into the kitchen. "Was that for me?"
Robert concentrated on writing the message down carefully. Aunt Frieda called at 11:31. She has a surprise. Then he answered, "It was for Mom."
Sally Anne twisted the paper to read what he had written.
"You don't have to be that exact." She looked disappointed that the message wasn't for her. A phone call from her boyfriend Jeffrey was the only thing that could drag her away from cartoons on Saturday morning.
"If you are going to do a job, you might as well do it right" Robert said crossly.
"You sure are a grouch this morning." Sally Anne snapped her gum.
Robert couldn't concentrate on his story so he went back to the living room and stared at the television. After a while he smiled at Sally Anne. She wasn't really so bad. She lived three houses up the street from him and he had known her all his life. It wasn't her fault his mom and dad still thought he needed a baby-sitter when he was nine years old and almost ready to start the fourth grade.
Parents were hard to figure out sometimes. On a bright Saturday morning when there was plenty for him to do, they insisted on hiring Sally Anne. But it was different every day after school. Then they had given in to his pleas to let him stay by himself for the thirty minutes until his mother got home from work. Robert's father was a welder at Do-Right Welding Company, and his mother worked as a teacher's aide, but not at Robert's school. At first, they had arranged for Robert to stay with their neighbor, Mrs. Sylvester, until Mrs. Ott came to pick him up. But Robert knew that would be worse than staying alone. Sometimes Mrs. Sylvester annoyed him by peeking out from behind her curtains as if she were spying. And even if she werent, Robert hated being in her house. Every corner was filled with hundreds of glass miniatures, Sometimes Mrs. Ott took Robert along when Mrs. Sylvester invited her in for coffee. Mrs. Sylvester smiled at Robert and gave him cookies, but she watched him every minute. Robert knew she was worried he would break one of the miniatures. It made him feel like he should sit on the couch with his hands folded tightly in his lap. So Robert had convinced his parents that for such a short time he was old enough to look after himself. He would never admit how much he hated coming home to the cold, empty house.
Robert glanced around the familiar room. The chairs were big and soft and the couch had a comfortable sag. He liked them just the way they were, but Mrs. Ott had announced that she wanted new furniture, without the grape juice and throw-up stains from when Robert was a baby.
"Do you want to play a game of cards or something?" Sally Anne asked.