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By Anne Warren Smith
Albert Whitman Copyright © 2012 Anne Warren Smith
All rights reserved.
The Last Day of Fourth Grade
The fourth grade room was unusually quiet as the line of sad kids shuffled forward. We were saying good-bye to Ms. Morgan.
I swallowed back my tears and tasted end-of-school fruit punch and end-of-school lemon cupcakes. My throat hurt and my stomach gurgled as I got into the good-bye line.
Claire Plummer stepped in next to me. "She's the most beautiful teacher I ever had," she said in a dreary, woeful voice as she tugged at her blond curls. Claire hoped that tugging would make her hair longer, but she would never have a long, beautiful ponytail like Ms. Morgan's. Besides, Ms. Morgan's hair was brown.
"Fifth grade will be fun," Ms. Morgan said to Tiffany who was four people ahead of us. "You'll see."
"I already hate fifth grade," I said to my best friend, Sierra, who stood on the other side of me. She and Claire nodded. We all sighed.
Ms. Morgan hugged Doug Backer and then Ethan Murphy and then Alex Ramirez.
"How can she stand hugging Alex in that old, ratty shirt?" Claire whispered.
"It doesn't smell," Sierra said. All at once, her face turned red. "He sat in front of me," she added. "I sniffed it once."
Maybe, I thought, Alex loved that flannel shirt the way I loved my orange hooded sweatshirt. Of course, my sweatshirt didn't hang down to my knees. And I didn't wear it to school every day.
"Hi, Claire," Ms. Morgan said as Claire stepped forward. "You and your dad made this a special year for me."
"It was our pleasure," Claire's dad called from the back of the room. He had been the room father all year. Now, he was doing his last chores: gathering up paper napkins and paper cups from the party. He had made the lemon cupcakes. I swallowed again as Ms. Morgan hugged Claire.
Claire had been the perfect student. I had not. Three times, I had over-watered the sunflower. Three times, muddy water had flooded the windowsills.
Sierra got the next hug. "I loved seeing your rock collection," Ms. Morgan said to her. "You might grow up to be a scientist."
"Thanks for being my teacher," Sierra said.
As I stepped forward, I wondered if Ms. Morgan was secretly glad I was going on to fifth grade. I had done so many terrible things. When I added extra lines to my part in the class play, everybody forgot what they were supposed to do next. When I bumped into the big shamrock poster on St. Patrick's Day, it knocked everything off Ms. Morgan's desk. Her purse, three jars of pencils, a box of filing cards, her big dictionary.
"Good-bye," I said and started to leave. But she took both my hands and pulled me close.
"Katie," she said. "You were my most ..." She stopped to think. "... my most enthusiastic student."
"Thanks," I mumbled.
"You get excited about things. That's a wonderful way to be." She smiled her beautiful smile, and her green eyes sparkled. "I bet you will have adventures this summer."
"I might," I answered, happy that she was acting like she really liked me. I breathed deep to keep her vanilla-pudding smell with me as long as possible.
Sierra tugged on my arm. "My mom is probably waiting," she said. I ran to gather up my artwork. We couldn't put it off any longer. Fourth grade was over, and my summer adventures were about to begin.CHAPTER 2
Good-bye, Best Friend
We burst out the school door into June sunshine and stood blinking. Sierra looked at the row of cars in front of school. "She's not even here." She plopped herself down on the top step. "She told me to be ready to go the minute school ended. So where is she?"
"I wish you weren't leaving today," I said. I squinched my eyes to hold back the tears. This sad day was getting worse and worse.
"Where are you going?" Claire asked Sierra.
"Seattle," Sierra answered. "To see my grandma."
"For two weeks," I added. Sierra and I exchanged a sad look.
Sierra patted the step beside her, and I sat down, too. We leaned against each other. We had been best friends forever. Since day care. I bent over to tie my shoe. "You'll probably have lots of fun in Seattle."
She nodded. "My dad says my grandma is sometimes too full of fun. We never know what she'll think up next."
"My grandma is old," Claire said, tugging on her hair again. "She's always going off to play bridge with her old friends. Her house smells like dust."
"My grandma's house smells like artist's paints," Sierra said. "I might help her get her paintings ready for the galleries." She grabbed my arm and tucked it under hers. "But I would rather be here."
Claire looked at her silver-and-blue wristwatch. "We should start walking, Katie."
"Not until Sierra's mom comes." I squinted up at Claire, who was standing between us and the blinding sun. "How come your dad can't drive us home today? He's right here."
"He has an appointment," she said. "He told me we should walk."
Since Claire's house was across the street from my house, our dads made us walk together. They said pairs were safer. They also expected us to be friends since we both didn't have mothers at home.
Sometimes, Claire and I were friends. Sometimes, we were not.
Sierra patted the step on the other side of her. "Sit down, Claire. My mom will be here in a minute."
Claire wrinkled her nose. "Those steps are filthy. How can you stand it?"
Sierra and I rolled our eyes at each other as Claire paced up and down the sidewalk, shading her eyes and looking for Sierra's mom.
"I'm going to be stuck with Claire," I told Sierra, "for two weeks."
"Let's plan something fun for when I get back," Sierra said. "Like, let's go to the pool."
"Starting tomorrow, I'll be very busy," Claire said as she stood in front of us again. "There's ballet and piano. And—." She stopped and looked sideways at Sierra and me. "—an important project."
"What important project?" I asked.
"I can't tell you," she said. She set her blue book bag down and looked inside it. "I hope my sunglasses are in here."
Suddenly a wonderful idea flew into my mind. I grabbed Sierra's arm. "I know a great thing to do. This summer, once you're back, let's ride our bikes to each other's houses." I jiggled up and down on the step, imagining the joy of it. Whooshing down Benson Street. Zooming into Sierra's driveway.
Sierra's eyes shone at me. "That will be so cool. We'll see each other every day."
"Your parents will never let you bike so far," Claire said. She pulled out a pair of large sunglasses, blue of course, and looked through them at the sky. "Dusty," she said, and began fishing into her bag again
"It's only eight blocks from my house to yours," Sierra said. "Only one busy street to cross." She turned to me. "You work on your dad, and I'll work on my mom. We'll get them to say yes."
A horn honked just then, and Sierra's mom leaned out of their car. "Sorry I'm late," she called. "We have to get on the road."
Sierra gathered her papers together and stood up. "See you, Katie," she said. "You, too, Claire."
I hugged her good-bye. Once again, I swallowed my tears.
She climbed into her car and waved at us again before Mrs. Dymond drove away.
"At last we can go." Claire put on her blue sunglasses and checked how they looked in a little mirror.
As we started across the playground, I turned to look back at the school. No more Ms. Morgan. No best friend for two weeks. The sour taste of lemon cupcakes came back into my mouth. This summer vacation was starting out awful.CHAPTER 3
Claire's Summer Project
Claire and I crossed the playground and turned toward home.
"I can't believe Ms. Morgan won't be my teacher anymore," Claire said. "I already miss her so much."
I kicked a stone off the sidewalk and watched it clatter into the street. "I wonder what she does all summer when there's no school."
"She's lonely," Claire said, stopping to pull up her blue socks. Claire had more blue clothes than anyone else in school. "Her mom and dad and aunts and uncles live in Minnesota."
"She might not know what to do when it's vacation." I kicked at another stone and stubbed my toe.
"She's going to miss writing on the board," Claire said.
"She told the class she might see us at the library," I said. "She wants to read a lot this summer."
"I forgot! I was going to find out where she lives!" Claire's face suddenly got a secret look.
"So I can start my summer project." Claire looked away from me. "I thought I could visit her. I'll take her one of my beautiful beaded bracelets."
A sweaty jogger huffed past us as we crossed onto our street. If I took Ms. Morgan a present, what would I take? She liked the pictures I drew. Lately, I was drawing birds. "Your summer project is making a bracelet?"
Claire shook her head and walked faster. "It's lots bigger than that."
"I've got projects, too," I said, even though I couldn't think of any. We walked along in silence. We were almost home.
"All right," she said, slowing down. "My project is about Ms. Morgan."
I walked backward so I could see Claire's face. "What about her?"
"I told my dad that he should marry her," she said. "He says she's pretty, but they're not in love. I have to make them fall in love."
I screeched to a halt, and Claire almost bumped into me. Mr. Plummer marry Ms. Morgan? If anybody married Ms. Morgan, it should be my dad.
"She loves me already." Claire flung her arms out and began to walk like a model. "She smiles at me all the time."
"She smiles at everybody," I answered. "She even smiles at Alex Ramirez." She even smiles at me, I thought.
"Alex Ramirez doesn't count," Claire said. "In that old shirt."
"He loves that shirt," I said. "He's okay."
"I bet his mother never lets him into her store looking like that," Claire said.
"The wonderful bride store! On Ninth Street!" Claire clasped her hands together and whirled around. "I can just see Ms. Morgan getting married to my father and me. I will wear something long and shiny from that store."
"She would like my dad better," I said. I wondered if she would.
"She can't like your dad," Claire said. "Your mother wouldn't let her."
"My mother wouldn't care." Or would she? I didn't know that, either.
"My father is very handsome," Claire continued. "And look at my house. It's the nicest one on the block."
Claire's house sparkled white in the sunshine. Her big porch was lined with pots of yellow pansies. Across the street, at my house, my five-year-old brother's toys spilled off the porch and down the walk.
"Now that fourth grade is over," Claire said, "Ms. Morgan is totally free to fall in love with my father. I think there's a rule about room fathers, but after today, he's not the room father any more."
"That's ridiculous," I said.
"You still have a mother," Claire said. She pushed up her blue sunglasses and stared at me. "Mine is gone forever."
It was true that Claire's mother was gone forever. Her mother had died in an accident when we were in second grade. "My parents are seriously divorced," I told her. "Mom travels all the time, doing her concerts."
"She'll come back," Claire said, dropping her glasses back onto her nose, "when she's tired of singing."
"She loves singing. She'll never get tired of it."
"Ms. Morgan is my project, and you can't have her, Katie." Claire looked both ways, even though there was hardly ever traffic on our street, and crossed to the other side.
I climbed over Tyler's pedal car to get to the porch. I hadn't dreamed about Mom being back home in months and months. Even with no mother at home, things were fine the way they were—with Dad and my little brother Tyler and me.
I was pretty sure about that.CHAPTER 4
"I'm home," I called as I stepped into my house.
Tyler came running down the hall to meet me. His red hair bounced up and down. "Katie," he hollered, "it's summer vacation. No more day care."
I dropped my stack of artwork into a chair and pulled off my shoes.
"We have to start playing." He tugged me into the living room.
I stopped at the door. The living room didn't look like our living room. "What's going on in here?"
"Mother-mouse caves." Tyler ran around the room waving his arms. "Here. And here. And here!"
He was pointing at shoes and boots and slippers. He had tucked them into every place a shoe or a boot or a slipper might tuck.
"Mouse caves?" My old blue tennis shoe lay on its side on the coffee table. Something white was stuffed into it.
"MOTHER-mouse caves," he whispered. He reached into my tennis shoe and pulled out a tissue ball. "This is Applepie," he said. "She's waiting to have her babies." He shook the mouseball next to his ear and listened. "Any time now," he said.
I peered at the tissue ball, half expecting to see it turn into a real mouse and jump out of Tyler's hand. He tucked the mouse back and pulled another white mouse from a red boot that stood in the bookcase.
"There are seventy-thirteen mother mouses here," he said. "Almost ready to have little mouse babies. We will be very busy."
"Does Dad know you took all our shoes? And that you're using up all the toilet paper?"
"Not yet." Tyler tugged up his shorts and grinned at me. "He's on the phone."
I picked up my artwork. "I have pictures," I said. "I hope these mice like bird drawings." I ran around the room, tucking my drawings next to shoes and into the chairs.
"That's good, Katie." Tyler put his hand on my arm and looked up at me with his round blue eyes. "When it's time for the babies, I'm going to need lots more toilet paper."
"Don't look at me," I said. "I hope you left one roll for the people."
"Hi, Katie," Dad's voice said, making me jump.
"It's good you're home. I'm going to have to run to the store. We're almost out of toilet paper."
He stopped then, staring into the living room. "Tyler made mouse caves," I said. "They're pretty cute, Dad."
"MOTHER-mouse caves," Tyler said.
"I can't believe it," Dad said. "One hour ago, I had this room looking great."
Tyler nodded and stood up straighter.
"Whoa," Dad said. "We've got to get on the same track here. This house has to be spruced up."
"Spruced up? What's that?" Tyler asked.
"Cleaned up. I'm going to need you kids to help me make the house look good."
I squinted at him. That didn't sound like Dad. Usually, he didn't care one bit how the house looked. Usually, he liked things like mouse caves.
But Dad's face looked different today. Worried, maybe. All at once, that sour taste came back into my mouth. I sat down on the floor next to a mouse cave and looked up at him. "What's going on?"CHAPTER 5
Bad News from Dad
"I'm going to make a cup of coffee," Dad said, "and then I'll come back and tell you what's going on." He started toward the kitchen and then turned. "When I come back in here, I want this room looking good."
"But," I said, "Tyler made all the ..."
A frown crossed Dad's face. "I see your pictures all around. I think both of you can work on this."
Dad hardly ever yelled at us. Even when he had too much work from Mr. Flagstaff. Even when I accidently invited people to a Thanksgiving dinner that was supposed to be just for us.
He was waiting. That frown was still there.
I got to my feet.
Dad went toward the kitchen.
"My beautiful mother-mouse caves," Tyler wailed.
"I have a great idea," I said. "Let's make a hotel cave. We'll make it behind the couch."
It took a while, but when we finished the room looked almost normal. All our shoes were piled on their sides behind the couch, little ones on top of big ones. "That's a lot of mother mice," I whispered.
Tyler tucked the last mouse into place and looked around the room. "We are spruced up."
"Our living room looks like Claire's house."
"At Claire's house," Tyler said, "nobody can build anything!"
"Maybe somebody important is coming to see us." I sat cross-legged on the floor and stacked my pictures together.
"Maybe Mr. Friend is coming," Tyler said. "When he came for Thanksgiving dinner, he played trucks with me. We builded bridges all over this room."
"Mr. Flagstaff is in Germany," I told him. "He's not coming." Mr. Flagstaff was an engineer, and Dad worked for him, writing thick reports. He said it was a great job because he could work here at home.
Excerpted from Bittersweet Summer by Anne Warren Smith. Copyright © 2012 Anne Warren Smith. Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman.
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