Mom called it “No School November.” That wasn’t exactly true, but Harley Carmouche did think it was pretty awesome that they got six days of school off every November. There was something called Teacher Planning Day. And then there were two days for teacher conferences when parents took turns meeting with the teachers. Those were followed by Veterans Day, a holiday Harley finally understood now he was in third grade. To add to the joy, Thanksgiving Break was three days long. Yep, totally awesome.
But Mom was pretty much going a little crazy over it. Mostly because of his new baby sister. Harley was eight years old, much too old he thought to have a baby sister. In fact, if anyone asked him, he wouldn’t have wanted a sister at any age. A brother would have been cool. Gabe and his big brother Marty had lots of fun together. They built a fort with their dad behind their garage. It was really hard to spot and made a cool hideout. You had to climb a ladder to get to it, and it was as high as the fruit trees in the Svenson’s yard. It was another world up there. You could pick apples right off the tree, chomp into them, let the juice run down your chin and wipe your hands on your jeans – with no mom to yell at you. If the baby were a boy maybe they’d have their own fort someday, but a silly girl would be no help building a fort.
Not that Mom was paying that much attention to him these days. She was really tired all the time because even though Arden was already three months old, she still didn’t sleep through the night. His mother was nursing the baby, which Harley thought was pretty gross because Mom would pull her breast out of her blouse right there in the family room while they were all watching TV. Harley tried not to look. Mom said it shouldn’t embarrass him because it was a completely natural thing. But she was off base there because everybody knew that women weren’t supposed to show their breasts. If they had company, Mom had a special blanket that she put over her shoulder and Arden, but she was fooling herself if she thought people didn’t know what she was doing.
Even worse, Arden’s middle-of-the-night feedings were wrecking his mom’s temper. Grandmother Carmouche said Mom should let Arden cry herself to sleep so she’d get used to sleeping through the night. Even Harley, who usually liked Grandma’s ideas, thought that was a bad one. If Arden cried herself to sleep she would keep Harley awake.
The hardest thing about having a baby sister was that grownups expected you should be really happy about it. On the Wednesday of the parent-teacher conference day, Dylan’s grandmother took a bunch of Dylan’s friends to Chucky Cheese. Just as Harley was about to take a bite of his pepperoni pizza, Dylan’s grandmother said, “I hear you have a new baby sister. Don’t you just love her!”
What could he say to that? He just nodded his head. He guessed he did love Arden. She was his sister and all, but it wasn’t like how he loved his mom or his dad. It wasn’t even like he loved their dog, Redding. They had picked out Redding at the humane society on Harley’s third birthday. Harley had known right away when they walked past his cage that this low-slung shaggy black and white puppy was the one for him. Redding came right up to the front of the cage and tried to lick Harley’s hand through the wire mesh. So, Harley and his parents took him into the play area. Redding, all long floppy ears and plumy tail, had sat right on Harley’s lap and let him pet him.
Harley wanted to name the puppy himself, but the rescue coordinator said that he responded really well to Redding. So, Harley went along with that, but he decided to give the puppy the middle name, Ranger, to make it feel like he really was Harley’s very own dog. Redding Ranger had a heroic ring to it. Although Redding was pretty small, he was a hero to Harley.
Harley loved Redding so much that he didn’t know what he’d do if anything ever happened to his dog. But he didn’t feel like that about Arden. His parents remembered how he had given Redding his middle name and let him pick the middle name for Arden. Harley chose Lizzie after a girl in his kindergarten name Lizzie who was lots of fun. She had a great imagination and would play any game he suggested. But his parents had said that Lizzie wasn’t a real name, that it was just a nickname for Elizabeth. So how about Elizabeth for a middle name for Arden? He didn’t think that was quite fair, but he didn’t want to upset them so he said sure.
Now Arden Elizabeth Carmouche ruled their home. She ate whenever she was hungry, which was never at meals times and always when Mom needed to do something, like help him with his homework or get lunch ready. She slept whenever she wanted, which could be in the middle of the day just when Harley had hoped that mom could take him to PDX playdate as she had promised. Or Arden would fall asleep right after dinner and they would have to keep the TV quiet so they didn’t wake her up again. Harley thought that was an excuse for keeping the TV off because Arden woke up in the middle of the night when there was no noise at all!
In fact, she woke several times during the night. He didn’t have to get up with her, but he heard her. Although his mother tried to quickly pick Arden up, Harley would lie awake afterward, having trouble getting back to sleep because the middle of the night was a really scary time and you could never be sure there wouldn’t be ghosts around.
A weird thing about having a baby at home was that it made Harley actually like going to school. He had never liked school. Not even pre-school where all you did was play or do art projects. He liked being home. His room was special to him. It had his favorite toys arranged in just the way he liked them to be. His toy colonial soldiers were in one corner with their fort and their cannons and blockhouse. Across the room was the table where he put together his Lego sets with the bricks on a shelf above that. His mom told him that he’d loved Legos from the time all he did was put them in his mouth to see what they were made of. Best of all about being home was that Mom was there. He could check in with her whenever he wanted. She made him a mid-morning snack and lunch and mid-afternoon snack. After that he helped her get dinner ready for Dad.
When he turned four, his parents decided he needed to start pre-school. It would be fun they said. They were wrong. He missed his mom. He didn’t like having to do things at times that the teacher said and not when you really wanted to do them. He detested using bathrooms that the other kids messed up. And the food was awful. It was always cold – even in winter. The worst was the pizza with the gooey American cheese on top and crusty so mushy all the kids scraped away the cheese and rolled the crust into shapes or spitballs. He had begged his parents, “Please, please, let me stay home. I’ll stay in my room and play really quietly and I’ll eat all my vegetables.”
They had said no, the tuition was paid and that he would adjust.
Once Dylan became his friend in pre-school, it got a little better, but he still watched the clock all day and couldn’t wait for three o’clock. He sure was glad he wasn’t one of the kids who had to stay until their parents got off work. Some of the kids had gone to that school since they were babies. Harley would have hated to be a baby in school.
He didn’t even like grade school now that he was a big kid. But at least it got him away from Arden.
(Find Part Two: Harley Finds a Way in “Stories That Chose Me” on this website.)