“Matthew, what are you doing on your brother’s bed. Were you asleep?”
You open your eyes to find your mother standing in the open door of your bedroom with your little brother on her hip. You stare back at her, uncomprehending. Are you late for school?
“You have your own,” she says, walking into the room. “You should think about making it.”
When you sit up, the earphones fall from your head onto your chest, and you remember.
“And put that back where you found it.”
“Here,” your mother says. “Hold your brother for me so I can get started on dinner.” She sets him on the bed next to you without waiting for a reply. He looks at you expectantly and his head wobbles a little and then tilts to one side. You take him in your arms.
“Mom,” you start to say, but she’s already leaving the room. You pick up your brother and follow her to the kitchen. “Mom.”
“What is it Matthew?” she asks, removing a log of ground beef from the refrigerator.
“Eric’s supposed to pick me up.”
She sets it on the counter and begins to hack through the middle of it with a steak knife. “Right now?”
“Ungh,” your brother says, leaning forward in your arms and reaching for your mother.
You move away from the knife and raw meat. “Well, soon,” you admit.
“Well he’s not here now.”
“Ungh,” the baby says with more urgency.
You shift him over to your left hip and then use your free arm to open the cabinet behind you and take down the box of Lucky Charms.
“I hope you don’t plan on giving him that,” your mother says. “He’ll choke on it.”
You reach into the box and pull out a small handful of cereal, letting most of it fall back inside until you are left with a few choice marshmallow pieces. “Don’t worry.” You cut a blue, diamond shaped one in two with your front teeth, keep half in your mouth and push the other half into your brother’s. “I make sure it’s small enough.”
“Matthew!” Your eight-year-old sister has spotted you from the dining room table. “Can you help me with my homework?”
“I can’t, Missy,” you say. “I’m watching the baby.”
“I’ll watch him,” offers Missy, coming into the kitchen.
Your mother turns to give you a warning look. “Matthew, help your sister.”
“Fine.” You follow her back to the dining room table. “What is it?”
“All these math problems. See?” She hands you her worksheet. “It’s two numbers times three numbers.”
“Wow, I see.”
A fat drop of saliva specked with blue marshmallow lands on the corner of the paper.
“Eww,” Missy says. “That’s gross, baby.”
“Well, you did the first three,” you say, putting half a heart marshmallow in your brother’s mouth. “What don’t you get?”
“There’s too many,” she says, with eight-year-old exasperation. “I don’t want to do them all.”
“I’m sorry, baby.”
“I’m not the baby. He is,” she says, looking up at you. “Hey, what are you eating? I want some.”
She disappears into the kitchen and a moment later you hear your mother say, “Look what you started, Matthew.”
You walk over to your ten-year-old sister sitting at the same table. “What are you reading, Susie?”
“Anne of Green Gables,” she says without lifting her head.
She looks up now, first at your mother in the kitchen, then at you. “Uh-huh.”
Your brother lunges for her and you need both hands to hold him back.
“Hello, baby,” coos Susie, egging him on. “You miss me already, don’t you baby. Yes, you do, don’t you baby.” She sets her book down and takes him from you.
On your way back to the kitchen you pass Missy who now has a plastic cup full of dry cereal. “I hate math,” she grumbles.
Your mother sees you. “Can’t you just stay home for once, Matthew?”
“For once? Mom, I stay home every night. It’s Friday.”
“Well where do you plan on going? No parties. You know how I feel about that.”
“No, actually we were thinking about going to the dance.”
“The dance?” She turns in your direction but is distracted by the ground beef browning in the skillet. “Here,” she says, handing you the spatula. “Stir that, would you?”
You take it and start to move the meat around in the pan, breaking down the larger pieces with the edge of the spatula.
“What dance?” she asks.
“At school, a school dance.”
“Really?” She steps over with the cutting board and slides the bell-peppers and onions she’s been chopping into the skillet with the beef. “You and Eric?”
“Well actually, someone asked me,” you say. “A girl asked me.”
“Wait a minute.” She takes the spatula from you. “You have a date? A girl date? I thought you were going with Eric.”
“Well, he’s supposed to be my ride, if his dad lets him use the car, but if he doesn’t, I was hoping you could take me, just drop me off. I’d get a ride home.”
“Matthew, sweetheart.” She stops stirring and turns to you with tired eyes. “Look around you, please. I’m not packing your sisters and the baby in the car to take you back to school for a few hours. It’s just not happening.”
“Well, where’s Angie?”
“She walked down to Carmen’s house.”
“Are you sure?”
“What do you mean, am I sure?” your mother asks with a flash of anger. “That’s where she said she was going. Are you telling me that’s not where she is?”
“Mom.” You gently pry the spatula from her hand and take over the stirring. “I just asked.”
“Matthew, I’m sorry. Wait till your father gets home. He’ll take you.”
“When is that?”
“Should be seven at the latest,” she says, pouring a can of tomato sauce into the skillet. Whatever this is going to be, it’s starting to smell good.
“But Mom, that’s when I’m supposed to be there.”
“Well, call her and tell her you’ll be a few minutes late. She’ll understand.”
“Yeah,” you say, knowing you can’t do that. “Okay.”
“What’s this girl’s name, anyway?”
“I’m not even sure I’m going, Mom.”
“Stop pouting Matthew.” She takes a large pot from the cabinet, fills it with water, and sets it on the stove to boil.
“What are you making, anyway?”
“Sloppy Joe casserole.”
“With cheese and macaroni?”
“Yes.” She takes the spatula from you. “Now go check on your little brother.”
A half an hour later, your sister Angie gets home. You and the girls are still finishing your dinner at the table.
“Where have you been?” you ask.
“Carmen’s. No thanks to you.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Your mother must have called her home.
Angie gives you a look of contempt so withering that were she any other girl your first impulse might be to turn away, or even apologize. But she’s not any other girl, she’s your thirteen-year-old sister, so you’re used to it. “Whatever,” you say.
“Angie, is that you?” your mother asks from the kitchen. “Come get something to eat.”
“Can I go to the bathroom first?” she snips.
Your mother doesn’t reply.
The phone rings.
“I’ll get it!” you and Angie say at the same time, but she is closer.
“Yeah … hold on.” She sets the phone on the counter. “It’s Eric,” she says, and then disappears down the hall.
“Hey, I got the Datsun.”
“Your mom’s car? Okay.”
“But not until after eight.”
You look at the clock on the dining room wall. It’s almost seven. “Aw, man. Really?”
“Yeah, I’ll get Gus and Rudy and then we’ll come find you at school. You’re still going to the dance, right? You said you could get a ride.”
“Yeah, okay.” It’s no use telling him you’re going to be late to the dance now, or any of it. “Just don’t forget me, man.”
At ten minutes to seven, you brush your teeth and apply more deodorant and cologne. At seven, you take the keys out of the bowl on your brother’s side of the dresser and slip them into your pocket.
You have to decide. Your dad will be home soon. Even though he’ll be tired and won’t really want to, he’ll take you. But your mother will insist he eat dinner first. Best case scenario, you’ll get to the dance an hour late.
Or, as soon as your dad gets home, you can lie and say Eric is coming for you after all. Then go out the front door and sneak away in the Volkswagen. No one will even notice it’s gone and you’ll have it back before they do. You’ll still be late to meet Claudia, but only half an hour at the worst.
Ten minutes after seven, your dad walks through the front door. What do you do?
(A) Lie to your parents and sneak off in your brother’s car.
(B) Wait for your dad. You don’t even have a driver’s license.
THE MISADVENTURES OF MATTHEW VAN DER BOOT is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental … no matter how many times you ask.