Chapter Four – A Custodian’s Work Is Never Done
Pete’s eyes burned and itched. He’d hardly slept throughout the journey, having forced himself to stay awake and alert to signs of aberrant activity. To his relief, nothing out of the ordinary had occurred since the diner episode, and the ominous hawk was nowhere in sight.
The new town’s streets appeared idyllically uneventful and conventional—the perfect match for Pete’s milquetoast public persona. Maybe his mother was right. Maybe this latest move would present a grand adventure. In his book, that would amount to unlimited time alone to create spectacular inventions in a household free of turmoil or strife.
“Oh look, P.J., the city swimming pool,” Cassie remarked, pointing down the street. “Perhaps you can take lessons.”
The very mention of swimming caused Pete’s throat to constrict, not in a nervous sort of way—more in an I-can’t-breathe-because-I’m-drowning sort of way.
His experiences with water that could not be controlled by a faucet had been uniformly disastrous. From being pantsed at the pool to belly-flopping in front of cheerleader Stacey Larkspur, to ear infections, to his inability to master any stroke beyond the dog paddle, one thing was clear—Pete would never swim for Olympic gold.
His general lack of athletic prowess failed to give him pause. He had no interest in sports, and by all accounts, the feeling was mutual.
Maybe if I pretend I wanna join some club or start a paper route or something, Mom will forget about swimming.
A siren and flashing lights pursued the car. Pete instinctively held his backpack over his head for protection.
“What now?” the lieutenant groused, pulling over to let an ambulance pass.
The emergency vehicle came to an abrupt stop in front of the pool—siren off, lights still flashing. A pair of fit paramedics burst out of the back doors, snapping open a gurney before charging through the gates where a crowd wearing bathing suits hovered over a quiescent body.
No swimming. Case closed!
Aside from the aquatic crisis, the paramedic interlude proved beneficial to Pete. Ever since his mother’s last birthday, he’d unsuccessfully endeavored to fabricate a pop-up bed tray as a gift for her. Observing the functionality of the medical gurney inspired him with the streamlined design solution that had eluded him for months.
At least one good thing came out of this road trip.
The lieutenant clenched both his jaw and the steering wheel as they drove up to their empty new home twelve minutes ahead of schedule. “Where are they? They should have been finished unloading by now,” he said through gritted teeth.
With maternal diplomacy, Cassie suggested the family have dinner in the base’s mess hall while waiting for the wayward movers. The lieutenant initially balked at the idea of dining during the time scheduled for unpacking, but admitted he was too hungry to argue and that Cassie’s plan was an efficient use of time.
The moment the lieutenant’s hot entrée arrived, so did the moving truck.
Two of the movers schlepped into the mess hall, taking their time as though they hadn’t a care in the world. The man with the tri-colored arm was not with them. “We saw your note on the door saying you’d be here,” the head mover drawled, note in hand.
“Is the other man unloading?”
“Other man’s gone.”
“Gone! I hired three of you. Where did he go?”
“Couldn’t tell ya. Got attacked at a rest stop by a giant bird. Ran off and never came back.”
“Damn!” Lt. Drake threw his napkin down like a gauntlet with a mumbled vow to vent his hunger and vexation on the labor force. After pressing a noisy series of watch buttons, he goose-stepped toward the exit and out of sight.
The two men followed, albeit at a much more leisurely pace. The remaining Drakes dined in fretful silence.
“Could we please get that to go?” Cassie asked a busboy, pointing at the lieutenant’s congealing entrée.
While Billy constructed a moat out of his mashed potatoes, Cassie swallowed the last bite of her beef dip sandwich along with a trio of pills. Pete’s eyes boggled at the sight—his mother rarely took more than one pill at a time. Getting up from the table, she wrung her hands as she informed the boys she would be heading to the bungalow. They were to stay out of the line of fire. She’d fetch them when the coast was clear.
Billy, a bloodhound when it came to sniffing out trouble and troublemakers, rounded up some kids in the dining hall and recommended they throw rocks at glass bottles. His new compatriots considered the plan inspired.
Pete left them to their hooliganism and ventured into the adjoining lounge. There he found a large unoccupied armchair and settled in for some serious gadget brainstorming. As he’d come to expect, the space was similar to the rec room at the last base. The people looked the same. The furnishings looked the same. The place even smelled the same. Everything was the same, except everything was new—that is, new to him—and all too soon he’d be forced to brave a new school, new teachers, and most egregious of all, new kids.
He loathed getting to know new people. The practice always involved some sort of awkwardness on his part and usually at least one misstep. He disliked change as a rule and disliked conflict even more. Change brought the potential for conflict. With new people, that potentiality turned to probability.
Thankfully, he wouldn’t have to put up with any such socializing twaddle this time around. He’d already made up his mind to avoid all fraternizing at the impending school, viewing his new-kid-in-town status as a fresh opportunity to pump up his powers of social invisibility and dodge bullies. Not only would his deliberate lack of friends appease his overprotective father; it would afford more time for inventing and tinkering. Yes, something good could come out of this move yet.
By bedtime, the Drakes had unpacked and put away their essentials per the lieutenant’s detailed instructions. Pete needed no direction to be in compliance with his father’s organizational regulations. Each of the six housing units Pete remembered inhabiting was laid out the exact same way. With eyes closed, he could easily locate his toothbrush or find the refrigerator to sneak a forbidden midnight snack. That night, he couldn’t wait to close his eyes—simply to catch up on sleep.
* * *
Pete’s wake-up alarm went off the first morning in the new house just as it always did, and he started the day just as he always did—he put on his slippers, slid into his robe, and traipsed out to the breakfast bar. During his trek, he questioned the relevance of the robe. Weren’t pajamas sufficient apparel for breakfast at home with the family? And what about slippers? Were they really necessary given he wore socks to bed? These were the questions with which he greeted each day—questions he kept to himself so as not to have to endure his father’s homiletic answers.
As usual, his parents were already seated, or rather, his father was seated, reading the newspaper and nursing a mug of black coffee. His mother was standing in the kitchen, humming as she prepared the meal outlined on the monthly menu posted on the refrigerator door. Mom’s famous orange-vanilla French toast made the morning’s list, garnished with a powdered sugar snowflake and served with blackberry syrup, a sausage patty, and orange sections.
“Billyyyy,” the lieutenant called in the direction of the boys’ rooms.
As the walls shook with the thunder of a runaway bison charging through the hallway, Pete took the precaution of shielding his plate with one arm and scooting his chair away from Billy’s. Billy had a way with food—a way that resulted in more of it ending up on and around him than in him. Before the Tasmanian devil had taken his first bite, Cassie was at the broom closet, selecting a hand-held whisker and dustpan as her weapons in the battle of the Billy.
Pete kept his eyes on his own plate, attempting to disregard the fact his father had been peering at him over the top of the half-read newspaper for several discomfiting seconds.
“You all done with breakfast?” the lieutenant asked.
Pete nodded, chewing the last of his sausage patty quickly to get back to his room to work on the pop-up bed tray idea for his mother.
“Good! Then wash your breakfast things and put them in the drying rack. And don’t forget the pots and pans. Lord knows your mother does enough cleaning up after you two.”
Says the man who’s never cleaned a dish in his life.
“When you’re through, I want you to do some recon and get the lay of the land. School starts in just three days, and I expect you sharp and ready come Tuesday, Junior. Last thing we need is a repeat of the last town’s first day at school. Take Billy and scout out the new school … That’s an order.”
“Yes, sir,” the siblings said in unison, each with differing levels of enthusiasm.
Pete collected all the dirty dishes and filled the kitchen sink with soapy water. He was just lowering the stack of dishes into the sink when Billy bumped him out of the way and turned the tap on full blast. Billy waved his plate under the torrent, splashing Pete before leaving his still-dirty and now dripping dishware on the kitchen counter.
Pete took a zen breath, dunked a sponge in the sudsy water, and scrubbed.
He was painfully aware that the compulsory recon mission would put the kibosh on his plans for a morning design session. Add to that, he was stuck on KP duty and was about to be saddled with Billy. To assuage his frustration, he pictured his father reading the paper wearing nothing but skivvies. The mental picture backfired and made Pete feel worse.
Pete slung his tan canvas backpack over one shoulder and exited the bungalow’s front door, dressed in his usual tan corduroy jeans, tan suede Wallabees shoes, and a plain tan tee—a shirt without a logo or design so as not to draw attention. This was his signature ensemble, one he’d crafted to help him go unnoticed. Even his hair was tan in color.
He shambled to the end of the walkway, pausing to look for a directional signpost that would point them toward the school. As expected, there was one on each corner of the lane—just as there was at all the bases they’d lived on. Billy paid no heed to his big brother or the signs and ran pell-mell down the road, presumably to find or cause mischief.
Pete watched in satisfaction as Billy rounded a corner and disappeared.
This morning’s looking up already.
Ambling toward the small community’s sixth- through twelfth-grade school, Pete was struck by the intense colors of the scenery. The blue of the sky, the white of the clouds, the green of the trees, and the lush hues of the flowers had never looked so vibrant. Had the natural world always been so colorful, or was he experiencing something extraordinary? He concluded it was the former and vowed to be more appreciative of nature going forward.
When he arrived at the campus, he found it blessedly deserted. The buildings were nondescript and the grounds bereft of foliage—a stark contrast to the splendor of the neighboring area’s vivid palette. A pair of side doors labeled ADMINISTRATION OFFICE stood open, revealing nothing but a hallway even drabber than the building’s exterior.
Pete ventured inside, planning to stay just long enough to get a basic idea of the school’s layout before zipping home to enjoy his last homework-free weekend at the drafting table.
“Hello … Hello,” he called, hoping no one would reply.
Please let there be no people. Please let there be no people.
One of the entry doors banged closed, causing him to jump, nearly swallowing his tongue. Continuing down the main corridor, he perused the myriad hand-painted banners announcing this, requesting that.
So many smiling faces I hope never to meet.
Lost in contemplation of display cases crowded with school medals and memorabilia, he rounded a corner and walked right into the backside of a woman bending over a mop bucket.
The chubby worker’s bum let out a toot. She straightened up like a spring.
Pete’s face twisted in mortification as he struggled to find words to offer in apology. “Are you … okay?” was all he managed.
“Right as rain,” she said, facing him and flashing a cheerful smile accented by cherubic dimples. “And all the better for seeing you.”
Still smiling, she rolled up the sleeves of her khaki work shirt, then pulled hard on a lever extending from the bucket to squeeze the water from her mop. Working vigorously, she swabbed her way toward him. “Couldn’t wait for school to start, eh?”
He backed up to evade the mop’s advances, unsure how to respond. “Oh, well, I don’t know yet. I just—”
“That was a joke, Peyton. What teenage boy wants to start school any earlier than he has to?”
“Oh, heh heh. Yeah, I’ve never much looked forward to the first day of school.” After backing into a glass case, he turned around to walk beside the chipper janitor as she mopped in the direction of the entrance doors—the sunlight that filled the single open door serving as a beacon of hope, offering the promise of escape back home.
“No one ever looks forward to summer ending … except for high school girls eager to show off their new wardrobes, of course.”
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been a high school student … or a girl.”
“True,” she said with a flourish of her mop. “Besides, your school has a uniform dress code. A rather stylish one, if you ask me.”
Pete froze. “My dad didn’t tell me anything about this school having uniforms. I don’t have one. He’s gonna kill me!” He tore into his thumbnail cuticles, his throat contracting as he spoke. “Somehow he’ll find a way to make it like it’s all my fault.”
“Calm yourself, Peyton. Who said anything about this school?”
“Well … I mean …”
“I’m here with him now, syr.”
Pete looked around in search of whomever she was addressing, but saw no one.
“I will, syr, the moment we’re done. I understand, syr.” The woman placed her mop in the bucket and turned to face Pete squarely. “I think you better take a seat, Peyton. Life as you know it is about to turn upside down.”
© JSD Johnston