by Emily Cogan
Simon Dewclaw hated his life.
Ever since his mom had left, nothing made sense anymore. It had been a few months now, and he still didn’t even really understand what the hell had happened. One day she was there, making his lunch and helping him with his homework, and the next she was gone. And the worst part was, Dad didn’t want to talk about it at all. Whenever Simon or his big sister Faye tried to bring it up, he changed the subject, or pretended like he had something else to do.
Simon wondered all the time if it was something he did, something he said. Didn’t she love him anymore? Didn’t she love their family? He knew they didn’t have much, and there had been a lot of fights about money, but he never thought it was bad enough that she would just disappear without a word like that. He didn’t understand it at all. Even Faye couldn’t explain it, and Faye had an explanation for pretty much everything.
And then there was his baby brother Eric to consider. Not that he didn’t love Eric, but he had to admit he was sick of all of the screaming in the middle of the night making him lose sleep, on account of them sharing a room. And changing Eric’s dirty diapers all the time was a real pain in the ass.
But what could he do about it? He was just a dumb ten year old kid from The Alley. And he had figured out a while back that life in The Alley sucked for everybody, not just him. Because living in The Alley was just about the worst thing in Pantheraville, outside of maybe being homeless. It was all in his dad’s slouched shoulders whenever they went into Tattered Tiger’s Thrift Shop for another bag of clothes, and in the stress lines creasing Faye’s teenaged face. And how the other kids in school looked down their noses at him, and talked about him behind his back, and called him a loser freak.
And maybe he was just a loser freak. But sometimes, he wished like hell that he wasn’t. Sometimes he looked at the nice boys, strutting around in their polo shirts, and wondered what he’d done to piss off Judah so much. It must have been something really bad, to land him in The Alley. Not to mention make his mom walk off without a backwards glance.
Simon stared down at his dad, passed out on the couch. Lately all he did was work and drink. And even though his dad had always liked to kick back and have a beer or two after dinner, it had never been as bad as this. It was like after his mom left, he lost both of his parents. And that freaked him out more than anything.
“Dad?” he asked, readying himself to run if his dad woke up cursing a blue streak.
But Dad didn’t wake up, and disappointment settled across Simon’s thin shoulders. Part of him wanted to yell at his dad, to shake him until he opened his eyes. Part of him wished that his mom was there, that she’d smooth the fur back from his dad’s forehead, and give him the kiss that would heal everything, like in the fairy tales he had never quite believed in.
Sometimes he wished that he did believe in fairy tales. He had seen that rainbow striped girl from the other fourth grade class reading a whole book full of them a few days ago at the school library with a wonder in her eyes that he had envied. He had been tempted to go over there and ask her if he could read them too, because he’d never seen a tiger with rainbow fur before. But what was the point? Even he wasn’t stupid enough to think that a nice girl like her would ever want to hang out with him.
Talk about believing in fairy tales, he scoffed to himself. Rainbows weren’t for him, and they never would be.
“Simon, I need you!” Faye hollered from the kitchen, and Simon ran like a bat out of hell to help.
A pot of soup was boiling over on the stove, Faye was arm-deep in dishwater, the phone was ringing off the hook, and on top of that Eric was howling his fool head off in his high chair. Simon picked up the phone, balancing it on his shoulder while he turned down the stove. He’d mop up the mess after he finished cussing out the dumbass telemarketer. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Faye drying her hands and scooping up Eric, feeling him to see if he needed changing. From the way her nose wrinkled as she rushed him out of the kitchen, Simon guessed that he did.
Sucks to be Faye, he thought to himself as he told the telemarketer exactly what he wanted her to do with herself and slammed the phone back down in its cradle.
The crystal suncatchers that his mom had hung in the kitchen windows were shining in the sun like nothing had changed. They reminded him of how his mom had spent most of her time in the kitchen. She was always cooking, or cleaning, or cutting coupons in here. He missed the dorky pink apron with the hearts all over it that she used to wear, and the little chore lists she would make for him and Faye. A red list for him, and a purple list for Faye. He even missed her hugs, although he’d never admit that to anyone because he always pretended like he hated them.
He hoped that she knew that he didn’t really hate them. He’d even tell her that, if only she’d call or write or something…
But he didn’t think that even Dad knew where she was, and that scared him. What if something had happened to her? What if she was dead somewhere? Why didn’t Dad care that she was gone? Why wasn’t he doing something about it, besides drinking himself to death?
The phone rang again, and Simon snatched it up, ready to tell off that telemarketer lady again if need be. “Hello?” he said, but no one answered.
“Hello?” he repeated, and he could hear shaky breathing on the other end.
Part of him wanted to tell whoever it was to drop dead. But for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “Mom?” he whispered, and for a moment the breathing caught.
“Mom, is that you?” Simon’s mouth felt dry, and his heart was thumping in his chest like he’d just outrun Buster the junkyard dog.
But still no one answered, and tears began to stand out in Simon’s eyes. “If that’s you, why don’t you say something?!”
A few second later the line went dead. Whoever it was had hung up. Simon slumped against the wall, wiping his eyes with the back of one paw in frustration.
“Whatcha yellin’ about in there, boy?”
Simon groaned as his dad came lumbering into the kitchen, still wearing his blue garbageman work shirt. It figured that his dad woke up now that Simon was in here trying desperately not to cry. “Nothin’,” he said, turning away so his dad wouldn’t see the tears. Simon knew from experience that there would be hell to pay if his dad caught him crying.
Roger Dewclaw shrugged and opened the fridge, taking out another bottle of beer. “Suit yourself,” he said, popping the top off the bottle and downing half of it in one gulp. “You and Faye good? Eric all right?”
“Sure,” Simon said, even though he wasn’t so sure at all.
But that seemed to satisfy his dad, because he left the kitchen, the half empty beer bottle dangling from one paw. In another few minutes, Simon heard soft snoring coming from the living room.
He finally felt safe enough to touch the phone, running his paws over the white plastic like he was trying to reach her. “Call back, Mom,” he said. “Please.”
A sliver of rainbow light danced across the wall behind the phone, causing Simon’s face to light up with rusty wonder. He turned his head, searching for what could have caused a rainbow to appear like that. And then he realized it was coming from one of Mom’s suncatchers, reflecting the afternoon light into their dingy little kitchen. Maybe that was why his mom liked those suncatchers so much.
And for the first time in a long time, Simon hoped. He hoped that she would call back, someday. He hoped that he’d get a chance to tell her how much he missed her hugs.
And even though he knew it was a bad idea, he hoped that one day he’d get to read that book of fairy tales with that Rainbow Girl.