It had finally stopped raining. All day Rosalyn had watched the raindrops streaming down the windows of Room 301 while Mr. Kresnyk explained the order of operations on the board again, had listened to the ebb and flow of the storm as it thundered intensely then petered out to a soft drizzle, had endured staying indoors all day, the smell of Anthony’s egg salad sandwich lingering in the classroom long past lunchtime. And now the final bell had rung and she was standing on the steps looking up at the clouds which were already thinning, exposing the brilliant blue sky.
With a deep inhalation of the humid air she descended the steps and walked around to the other side of the building where her brother would be dismissed in ten minutes. Most days her mother picked up Jason, allowing Rosalyn to leave righta way and walk home with her friends. There was a staggered dismissal time because Grades 7 and 8 didn’t get afternoon recess and got out a quarter of an hour earlier. It had reduced the after-school traffic jam on the one-way streets around the school. But today her mother had clients all afternoon and her father would be at his own school until late for a parent council meeting so it fell to her to wait with the moms, dads and nannies by the rain-beaded fence for the second bell to release the little kids.
Rosalyn hated picking up Jason. He was bad enough with their parents, either trying to be really cute—couldn’t they detect the fakiness?—or insisting on his own way, fussing and whining to drive her crazy. One time she had had to take him home, the ten-minute walk had taken twenty because he had stopped to look for slugs under every hosta plant. No wonder her mother usually drove, even though it was only a few minutes away.
“It’s not slug season yet,” she had explained. “You’re not going to find anything. Come on.”
“I’m just going to look,” he had insisted, ignoring or not detecting the impatience in her voice.
Finally she had tried to grab his wrist and pull him after her, but he had screamed in protest and she didn’t want the neighbours to poke their heads out. Not that they would. Except for the fifteen or twenty minutes small groups of schoolchildren walked home through the wide streets past squat bungalows, the neighbourhood was quiet. The last four blocks from school to their house there was hardly anyone either, as they were the farthest walk from school. Everyone else either got picked up by car or stayed for the after-school program. Now that she was too old for the kindergarten to Grade 6 care, Rosalyn loved the quiet afternoon walk home, arriving a few minutes before her mother and Jason with enough time to put away her lunch containers, grab a snack and be up in her room before the side door creaked open and their voices broke the stillness of the house.
She liked to take out her homework and open a novel and slowly, savouringly eat her snack at her desk while she read, delaying as long as possible the time when her apple and gingersnaps would be finished and she would have to start her homework. She knew her mother would tap lightly on the door after a few minutes.
“It’s me. Can I come in?”
“You’ve started your homework,” she would observe, giving Rosalyn a hug around the shoulders from behind and kissing her above the ear. “I’ll leave you alone, then.”
Her mother would pause with her hand on the doorknob. “How was your day?”
“Good,” she’d say cheerfully, maybe more cheerfully than she felt at her daughter’s cordial but uncommunicative answers.
It wasn’t that she didn’t love her parents or feel grateful to them and all that, but lately Rosalyn just felt like being alone, away from the questions that hadn’t seemed as instrusive as last year (How was your day? What did you do in Phys. Ed? Do you have any homework?), away from the noise of Jason’s video games in the basement, away from the droning traffic and weather reports on the kitchen radio.
The bell rang and brought Rosalyn out of her inner grumble. She moved with the groups of chatting parents toward the fence. Jason was one of the first out of the door and he ran to the fence, colourful and coordinated in his matching red and yellow sweater and rubber boots. He grabbed the chainlink fence and shook it back and forth, spattering himself and the parents on the other side with raindrops.
“Jason! Stop!” Rosalyn said, shocked. “Say sorry for getting these people wet!”
“Oh, that’s all right,” chuckled one dad, wiping the backs of his hands on his jeans.
Jason just looked up at the man, speechless.
Rosalyn tisked and sighed. “Come on.” She waved to Jason’s teacher who lifted a hand in greeting and made a mark on her clipboard.
“I don’t want to stop every two seconds, okay?” Rosalyn said. She held her hand out for his, but he stepped a few inches sideways to avoid her. Jason did stay beside her while they crossed at the crosswalk with the stream of parents and children, giving the crossing guard a friendly high-five, but he fell behind over the next block, making Rosalyn turn around and wait for him before crossing the next street. “Come on,” she bellowed. He looked at her but did not hurry after her. When they had crossed, Rosalyn picked up her pace, leaving Jason half a block behind. Up ahead the sky reflected brilliantly on a huge puddle. It looked deep, almost on a level with the curb, stretching out over a third of the street in front the house where the leaves were never raked, matted leaves probably blocking the storm sewer grate.
When she reached it, she paused and looked down into it. It was like a huge pit of sky and her stomach lurching with a sudden sense of vertigo. She took a step back and glanced back up at the sky, pale and flat compared to the deep blue, cloud-dotted reflection. Which is the real one? she thought, walking on. Wouldn’t it be weird if we could see into an upside down world whenever we saw a puddle? And what was upside down anyway? She pictured the people of Australia and Argentina sticking out at impossible angles from the curved surface of the planet, which anyway was spinning on its axis and hurtling around the sun at dizzying speeds. Mr. Kresnyk had showed them a video on this last month and for a few days afterward she had felt a little less solidly attached to sidewalks, chairs, floors and bed.
At the corner, she turned around and waited for Jason to catch up. “Can you hurry?”she called. But he, too, had seen the enormous puddle and was peering down into it on all fours.
“I can see myself!” he called back. He held one arm out over the mirror of the surface and wiggled his fingers.
“No, I want to look at this.”
“I’m crossing,” she threatened, taking a short step backward toward the curb.
“Wait, I see something.”
“Yeah, it’s called the sky.” She looked up, and sure enough, the sky was empty except for masses of white cloud. Not even a plane or helicpoter.
“No, I see a ship. Come look.” Confident Rosalyn would come, Jason stood up and squinted up at the sky, shading his eyes with his hands, looking for what he had seen.
“No, you come,” she insisted.
He squatted back down on the sidewalk to get a closer look. “It’s got sails and I can see a man at the steering wheel, but he’s small.”
Rosalyn rolled her eyes and shifted her feet on the sidwalk. Her backpack seemed to have doubled in weight in the time she had been standing there and she adjusted the strap on her right shoulder. Another one of his ridiculous fantasy moments. Her mother would indulge him and ask, “Oh yeah? How many sails? Who else can you see?” as if these exercises in creative fibbing were somehow good for his intellectual development. Her fuschia mohair sweater began to feel uncomfortably hot and itchy in the still, humid air. She just wanted to get home and change, to park Jason in front of a screen and be alone for a few minutes before she had to make their supper, which probably he would complain about anyway, but then her parents would get home and it would be their problem.
Jason was standing up now and announcing with a grin, “I’m going to make a big splash!”
Ignoring, instead of indulging his flight of fancy had clearly distracted him from the stupid story about a ship, but here was another delay. The last thing she wanted to do was peel soaking clothes off the little menace and have to hang them on the line to dry.
“No,” she said, throwing her head back in frustration, “You’ll get soaked.”
“I’m wearing my boots,” he countered, swinging his hands back and forth to build up momentum for his jump. He slid his backpack off his shoulders and sprang forward with a happy shout.