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Thinking it was still early enough for her to grab something to eat and make it back upstairs without getting caught, Sophie opened their door and stuck her head into the hall to listen for sounds of life.
The door to her parents’ bedroom was closed. So was Maura’s. Sophie tiptoed down the stairs—determinedly shielding her eyes from the sight of John in front of the television in the family room—and into the kitchen.
It was empty.
The path to the back door was clear.
Sophie was seized by a whiff of freedom so strong, she abandoned all thoughts of food and went straight to the mudroom. She didn’t stop to think what Jenna’s mother would say when she showed up on their doorstep at eight o’clock in the morning in her pajamas. All she knew was that she’d be free.
She carried her sneakers back to the kitchen and sat down to put them on. She was picturing herself on her bike, coasting down the hill to Jenna’s house with her hair flying out behind her and the whole beautiful day in front of her, when she heard footsteps coming rapidly down the hall.
“There you are!” her mother said cheerfully as she sailed into the kitchen with Maura’s diaper bag over one shoulder. “I was wondering how long you’d hold out!”
If Mrs. Hartley had seen the look on Sophie’s face, she might have been offended. But she didn’t. She didn’t even look at Sophie. She was too busy bustling around the kitchen: opening drawers and pulling out plastic bags, pouring little crackers into one and cutting up grapes for another. The whole time she worked, she smiled to herself and hummed.
It was an annoying, tuneless hum. Sophie covered her ears and hummed louder to drown it out. From time to time, she took her hands away to see whether her mother had stopped. But Mrs. Hartley kept humming.
It was horrible to be in a bad mood and have the person responsible for it acting so happy. Sophie was sure her mother was doing it on purpose. She narrowed her eyes and directed sharp glances like little darts at her mother’s back, hoping she would turn around. Her mother didn’t seem to feel it. When Mrs. Hartley had finished packing everything into the diaper bag and added a bottle from the refrigerator, she stood in front of Sophie and flapped her hands for Sophie to take her hands away from her ears and listen.
“I’ll get out of your way, so you can get going,” she said when she had Sophie’s full attention. “Thad’s coming straight home from soccer practice, and I told Nora she needs to be up by ten. When everyone’s here, you can tell John to turn off the TV, and the four of you can clean, clean, clean!”
She made it sound exciting, as though they were going to have a party, complete with music and food. Sophie frowned.
“If you have plans with Alice and Jenna, you might want to get started on your jobs now,” her mother suggested helpfully.
Sophie crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m not starting until everyone else does.”
“Have it your own way.”
Her mother left the kitchen as quickly as she had arrived, humming again as she hurried down the hall. Sophie kicked the leg of her chair and thought dark thoughts until Mrs. Hartley reappeared in the kitchen door, holding Maura.
“Wave bye-bye, Maura,” she said, pumping Maura’s little arm up and down.
“Sope! Sope!” Maura cried. She squirmed to get out of her mother’s arms, leaning out for Sophie to take her, but Sophie was too cross to respond even to Maura.
The minute her mother’s car crunched slowly past the kitchen window and disappeared, Sophie jumped up to call Jenna.
“Okay,” Jenna said when Sophie said they shouldn’t go anywhere without her, “but my mother said we’re leaving exactly at twelve o’clock.”
“Where’re we going?”
“Remember the rule? It’s a surprise.”
“Who says it’s a rule?” muttered Sophie, not liking the bossy tone of Jenna’s voice.
“Nothing. You’d better not leave without me.” Sophie hung up the phone and sat back down to sulk.
Sulking isn’t any fun when there’s no one around to see it, so after a while she relaxed her face so she could get her cereal spoon in her mouth, and again a few minutes later to eat a doughnut.
It was very hard to sit glowering in an empty room with the television blaring, so Sophie stomped down the hall to tell John to turn it down. She didn’t feel her face muscles sagging back to normal as she sat there watching, but the minute she heard Thad coming in the back door, Sophie hardened them up again and went to meet him.
“Two-zero!” he shouted when he saw her coming. “Two saves for Thaddeus Hartley! The man’s a MONSTER!” He hurled his sweaty jersey at Sophie’s head and headed into the kitchen. “Let’s get this cleaning over!” he yelled. “I’ve got plans!”
“Pee-euw,” said Sophie. She held his jersey away from her body fastidiously as she trailed behind him. “You have B.O.”
Thad had finished scanning the job list and whirled around to face her. “Come on, Soph!” he shouted. “It’s you and me!”
“We have to wake up Nora.”
“There’s no time!” Thad leapt into the air and planted an imaginary dunk shot in the sink. “Living room first! Sophie, it’s your day to vacuum! I dust! Let’s get going!”
He made it sound so exciting that Sophie’s dark mood vanished. Their family fun time was finally going to start! She wheeled the vacuum cleaner down the hall and into the living room at top speed. Thad was bending over the coffee table. He looked up at her and winked.
“Watch this,” he said. He drew in a huge breath and directed a sharp blast of air at the surface of the table. A shower of dust and crumbs flew into the air.
“Hey!” cried Sophie. “It went all over the rug!”
“Then you’d better get vacuuming,” said Thad. He did the same thing to the two end tables on either side of the couch and all of the lampshades. Each time he blew on them, the cloud of dust that swirled up into the air started settling back down almost immediately.
“They’re going to be dusty again in about two minutes,” said Sophie.
“Then whoever has ‘dust living room’ next week will have a job to do, won’t they?” Thad gave her a friendly punch on the shoulder. “Dust happens, right, Soph?”
“Come on, partner!” Thad spun around and bolted from the room. “Job number two, coming up!”
Thad was like a magician. Sophie was dazzled. He hardly ever paid attention to her anymore, and now she was his partner! She was suddenly glad Nora was asleep.
By the time she caught up with him, Thad was standing in the mudroom surveying the tangle of shoes, boots, sports equipment, and clothing that littered the floor.
“They ought to call it the ‘mess room’,” he said. He jabbed her lightly in the side as he raised his voice. “Hey, John!” he shouted.
John came running.
Ever since Thad had showed him how to lift weights in the garage, John had been willing to do anything Thad asked. Mr. Hartley had started calling them “Little Pec” and “Big Pec” because of the way they kept showing off their muscles after every workout.
“I’ll give you a dime to line up all these shoes and a nickel to do something about the clothes,” Thad told John.
John squatted down and started arranging shoes.
“What about me?” Sophie protested. “I thought I was your partner.”
“The one and only, Soph.” Thad made a few quick passes with over the floor with a broom and nodded toward the back door. “Get that for me?”
Sophie ran to open it.
“Whose job is ‘sweep back porch’ this week?” he said, with the broom poised to shoot a small pile of dirt out the door.
The next stop was Thad’s bedroom. As she stood next to him in the doorway, Sophie could hardly wait to see how Thad was going to get out of cleaning this. It was a mess. Books were piled in precarious-looking towers on every surface, the wadded-up socks under the bed were covered with dust, and the pieces of the old computer Thad was taking apart were scattered all over the floor. It looked like a junkyard.
Even Thad was stumped, Sophie could tell. He stood looking at it for a few moments with his hand on the doorknob, plotting. Finally, he turned to her, and in a somber voice, said, “Like most things in life, little sister, cleaning is simply a question of mind over matter. THINK CLEAN!” he bellowed at his room, and shut the door.
Sophie stood stunned with admiration as Thad headed for the stairs. By the time she caught up with him in the kitchen, he had checked off every job under his name except for one.
“. . . and last, but not least,” he intoned, “Ye Olde Downstairs Bathroom. No problem.”
“You said you don’t do toilets,” said Sophie.
“That depends on what you mean by the word ‘do.’” Thad halted in the bathroom door and gave the room a quick glance. “Okay,” he said with a curt nod. He took a deep breath, ducked inside, and turned on the tap in the sink. He immediately turned it off again, stepped back out into the hall, and let out his breath in a burst. “That was a close one,” he panted.
“That’s it?” asked Sophie.
“Looks good to me.”
“What about the toilet? You’re supposed to use the toilet brush with soap.”
“Okay . . . okay . . .” Thad took another breath and leaned into the room again, peering cautiously into the toilet as though expecting to find a live crocodile swimming in the bowl. Then he ducked back out into the hall, breathed hard for a few seconds, and said, “You thought you had me stumped, didn’t you?”
Another sharp intake of his breath, a dive into the cabinet for the bottle, a few squirts of liquid soap, and Thad was back, breathing heavily, but alive.
“That about does it,” he said.
“What about the brush?”
“This toilet doesn’t need a brush—it’s bald. Get it?” Thad ruffled her hair, said, “Tell Mom I’ll be home at five,” and was gone.
It was the most wonderful performance Sophie had ever seen. She stood there, reliving every amazing thing Thad had done. It was only after she heard the back door slam that she realized she hadn’t done any of her own jobs yet.
It didn’t faze her for a minute.
She ran to get her tiara and went back to the living room. The vacuum cleaner was exactly where she’d left it. Sophie settled the tiara firmly on her head and stood up tall.
“I hereby declare you CLEAN!” she commanded the room in her most regal voice.
Behind her, her mother said, “Good try, Sophie, but not quite.”
Copyright © 2006 by Stephanie Greene.
Reprinted by permission of Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Company.