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It would have been easier if Hildy, the babysitter, would remember, even once, to unlock the door at seven forty-five, which was when Annie got home every Friday night. But she couldn't really blame Hildy. Hildy had a lot to do, plus it was probably not a good idea to leave the front door unlocked, even for a few minutes, even in a neighborhood like theirs, which felt safe.
"Charlotte?" Annie called out as she stepped into the house. "I'm home."
She parked her small suitcase in the hall, collapsed the handle, and brought the take-out bags to the kitchen.
"Hildy? Charlotte? I'm home," Annie called again.
She put the bags of food on the counter for Hildy to put on platters and reclaimed her roly bag, which she lugged up to her bedroom.
Tim had been traveling this week too, and although he'd promised to be the first one home, when she quickly surveyed the room she saw no suitcase on the floor, no cell phone on the night table, no shoes at the bedside, and no body in the bed. His plane must have been delayed.
Annie stripped off her gray linen suit and slipped on a plain T-shirt and jeans that were beginning to feel snug. She unzipped her suitcase, took out her small bag of toiletries, put them in the bathroom cabinet, and dumped the rest of the wrinkled contents of her Monday-through-Friday life into the hamper. She was back downstairs in less than seven minutes. Her quick change from work clothes to home clothes was getting faster every week.
She peeked into the kitchen to say hello to Hildy, but Hildy still wasn't there. She called down to the basement for Charlotte, but Charlotte didn't answer either.
Maybe they were out in the back. It was, she noticed for the first time, a beautiful night.
She unpacked the food herself. Hildy deserved a break too. Like Annie, she'd had a jam-packed week. Day camp was starting soon, and Annie had delegated a long list of chores, including shopping for T-shirts, bathing suits, swim goggles, new towels, and bug spray. There probably wouldn't actually be any bugs at the camp, which was located not in the woods but inside a small, airconditioned school. Still, Annie liked Charlotte to be prepared, even for an unlikely swarm of mosquitoes, just in case.
Annie scooped all the books, mail, flyers, newspaper wrappers, rubber bands, pencils, magazine subscription inserts, a sock, three hair elastics, and a pile of what she hoped were unused tissues off the dining room table. She threw out the tissues, stuck the elastics in her pocket, tucked the sock in a nearby sneaker, and quickly alphabetized the paperwork for filing.
The distressed wood file cabinets she'd ordered online had turned out to be less attractive than she'd expected, but that was okay. She had lined them up against the dining room wall anyway, next to the box of hanging folders, which was under the box of labels she'd given Hildy along with detailed instructions for how to help Charlotte get organized by filing away her work every night.
The folders and labels were still in their shrink-wrapped casing. Hildy hadn't yet found time to explain the system to Charlotte, but Annie understood that. There weren't enough hours in the day for either of them to get everything done.
After the table was cleared, Annie gave it a quick blow to disperse the dust. Dusting was not one of Hildy's jobs.
She opened the drawer where the place mats were stored and was glad to see that today they were where they belonged. She pulled out four hard mats decorated with old photographs of cityscapes. But as she carried them to the table her right thumb hit a sticky spot on a San Francisco trolley car. A quick survey turned up another sticky patch at the base of the St. Louis Arch, as well as a thick splotch on the Liberty Bell.
Was it pancake syrup? Jam? Project glue? It didn't matter. She brought them to the kitchen, wiped them with a damp paper towel, and set them on the counter to dry.
The set of striped cloth place mats she picked next weren't completely clean either, but at least the stains weren't tacky.
She opened the back door and called out, "Hello?"
She put the place mats on the dining room table, covered the stains with the dinner plates and made a mental note to add stain removal to Hildy's next To Do list.
"Dinner's here," she called as she dealt out napkins, forks, knives (did they need spoons? Yes), and spoons. She filled the water glasses and then went to the foot of the stairs.
"Charlotte?" she called. "Anybody home?"
Charlotte pounded down the stairs. She was twelve, tall for her age, and string-bean lean, but she walked like a giant, heavy footed no matter the mood or time of day.
She gave her mother a perfunctory hug. "I must have fallen asleep while I was doing my homework."
"Did you get a chance to read that article I emailed you about how important it is to get a good night's sleep?" Annie asked.
"I only read the first ten reasons," Charlotte admitted. "But thanks for sending it. Did you see Dad? He's in here." She led her mother to the living room.
Annie didn't know how she had missed the suitcase on the floor, the shoes next to the suitcase, the newspaper next to the shoes, a trail leading to the prone body on the sofa. Tim lay with his phone in his hand, his eyes closed, his iPod plugged into his ears. His mouth was slightly open, and he was snoring. She touched him gently. He jumped.
"Was I sleeping?" Tim gave Annie, and then Charlotte, a hug. "I didn't mean to be sleeping."
"I have an article about why it's important to get a good night's sleep," Charlotte said. "Do you want me to get it?"
"Nope," Tim said. "I want you to stay right here and tell me, how was my favorite twelve-year-old's day?"
"Good," Charlotte said.
"Just good?" Tim asked.
Charlotte knew her father's routine. "Super good."
"If everybody's super good," Annie said, "why don't we sit down and have a nice dinner?"
Annie had come up with the idea of a Friday night family feast sometime during her third month of working all week in her client's Connecticut office. It was only one of several strategies for helping the family cope with a situation none of them liked.
It wasn't exactly going as she imagined it. Tim had missed the last three dinners because of out-of-town business trips with delayed return flights. Still, Annie persisted, stopping each week on her way home from work, searching for the perfect food to make everyone feel better.
"Where's Hildy?" Annie asked.
"Hildy?" the three of them called together, another routine. Hildy raced down from the third floor. "I didn't know you were all home. I was upstairs folding laundry. When did you get in?"
For a second, Annie thought of reminding Hildy that she came home at the exact same time every Friday night. If traffic was light, she'd stop and take care of some errands on the way to get a head start on Saturday. Either way, she was always on time.
And shouldn't Hildy have known Tim was home? Wasn't she supposed to be paying attention to who was going in and out of the house?
She let it go. Hildy was busy folding laundry. How could Annie complain?
"I just got in," Annie said. "Did the flowers come?"
That was another detail Annie organized to make the weekend feel festive. She ordered flowers-even had them delivered so Hildy wouldn't have one more thing to do.
Hildy looked around, blank faced. "I don't know."
Annie went to the kitchen and opened the side door. "There they are." She brought in a large bouquet of yellow tulips and purple irises wrapped in clear plastic. "The greens are just a little wilted," she said. "Nothing some cool water and a crumbled aspirin can't cure."
Tim, Charlotte, and Hildy sat down at the table. Annie took care of the flowers. Everyone was chatting happily, so she let them be as she hurried back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room, bringing in the food. Finally, she sat down.
"There. Done." She glanced at her watch. Not bad. "Dig in," she said. "Fried chicken," she added proudly. That was Charlotte's favorite.
But Charlotte didn't look very happy. Could someone's favorite food change in a week?
"Today was Family Food Day at school," Hildy explained.
"Layla's mother brought in fried chicken for everyone at lunch."
"What's Family Food Day?" Annie asked.
"It's where you bring in food from your culture to share," Charlotte explained. "We did it for the unit on Ellis Island."
"Was there a flyer?" Annie didn't remember seeing one. "I would have made something."
"Don't worry," Hildy said. "I took care of it."
"She made pork butt," Charlotte told her parents, and then covered her mouth to contain her giggling.
"I thought that might go over big with sixth graders," Hildy said.
"It did," Charlotte said.
"The teacher didn't look pleased," Hildy admitted.
"She wasn't," Charlotte confirmed.
"I wish I'd known about Family Food Day," Annie said.
Everyone quieted. Tim got up and went into the kitchen. He returned with a glass of amber liquid, which he immediately downed.
"I'm really not that hungry," Charlotte said.
"You did eat a big lunch," Hildy reminded her.
"That's fine." Annie tried not to look disappointed. "You don't have to eat if you're not hungry."
Charlotte turned to Hildy. "When you're finished, do you want to kick around a ball with me?"
"I'm done," Hildy said. "Sorry," she said to Annie. "I guess I ate too much pork butt at Family Food Day too."
Charlotte laughed and then stopped herself. "May we be excused to go outside and kick around a ball?"
This was supposed to be their special dinner. Annie had planned it that way.
"Sure," Tim said. "Go ahead."
"I can only play for a few minutes," Hildy told Charlotte as she followed her.
The back door opened, and slammed shut.
"I don't know if I can do this anymore," Annie said, once they were alone.
"How long until Proxo's period of transition is over?" Tim asked.
"Three more months," Annie said.
"We can make it," Tim said. "Three months is only ninety days away."
"There it goes," Annie said. She pointed to her eye. "See?"
Tim peered at her.
"Look at my left eye," Annie said. "Can't you see? It's twitching right now. I can feel it."
Tim shifted his body closer and studied Annie's eye, not for the first time.
"I can't see anything," he said. "I'm sorry."
Annie's eye had been twitching for months, and almost as annoying as the twitch itself was that no one else could ever see it. She blinked hard. Sometimes that made it stop. It worked.
She took a deep breath. "Okay. I can do it. Three months isn't forever."
"We just have to take one day at a time," Tim said. "Come on. Why don't we go outside and watch Charlotte kick around a ball?"
"Since when does Charlotte kick balls anyway?" Annie asked as she got up and started scraping, stacking, and clearing the dishes.
"Leave it," Tim said. "I'll take care of it later."
Annie didn't like to leave things for later, but Tim took her by the hand and pulled her along with him.
Outside, the light was dim. They couldn't see much-just the vague outline of Hildy crouched at the far end of the yard and a moving shadow they knew was Charlotte.
Charlotte's foot connected with the ball with a loud boom.
"Great one," Hildy called. "Try it with your other foot."
Another boom. The ball thundered across the yard.
Hildy caught the ball and walked over to Tim and Annie.
"I told my brothers she has a perfect kick with both feet but they don't believe me," she said. "You want to take over?" She tossed Annie the ball. "I have to go to class."
Annie fumbled the catch. The ball dropped to the ground and rolled away, into the dark. Annie crouched down, trying to feel where it had landed.
"That's okay," Charlotte said. "I don't feel like playing anymore."
Hildy gave Charlotte a quick hug and went in to collect her things.
The Fleming family stood, awkward in their own backyard.
"I have an idea," Annie said. "What about a board game?"
"I have homework," Charlotte said. She disappeared into the house.
"Homework on a Friday night?" Annie asked Tim.
He shrugged. "Come on. I'll play with you."
Fifteen minutes later the Scrabble board was set up on the kitchen table. Annie had organized her letters according to points. Tim took a more haphazard approach, putting each one on the wooden bench in the order in which it had been picked.
When Charlotte came down to the kitchen to get dessert she found her parents sitting perfectly still before a blank Scrabble board.
She ran back upstairs and got the article-"Thirty-Seven Reasons Why a Good Night's Sleep Is Important"-and put it on top of the blank board so her parents could read it when they woke up.
Excerpted from Carpool Diem by Nancy Star Copyright © 2008 by Nancy Star. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 13, 2012
Cute book, nothing fabulous, but fun and enjoyable. I could see this made into a Disney tv movie, lots of drama with a happy ending.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 28, 2010
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