With each step Jean took along the snowy sidewalk, her dread grew. Finally she stopped walking. One more block and she would pass the house with the dogs. Two more blocks and she would reach school. Soon she would be sitting in Mrs. Galle’s seventh grade homeroom. Then language arts, then math, then gym, then lunch. In seven and a half hours she would be walking again, this time going home.
She had begun walking again, and like the school days she dreaded, the walk was over before she knew it. She pulled the school door open and a rush of heat blew a wisp of hair from under her purple hat. She quickly stuffed the hat into her backpack. It embarrassed her to be seen with the hat on, but being seen taking it off embarrassed her too. It was a cashmere hat and it was warm. And, as her mother would say, it was winter.
That morning, instead of going right to Mrs. Galle’s room, Jean went to the bathroom. Her voice was too high to be mistaken for an adult’s, but her handwriting was professional and tidy. On a three-by-five card she forged an excuse for her early dismissal, her heart thumping wildly in her chest. She brazenly handed the note to the secretary, whose look, Jean assured herself, was disquieting only because Jean knew herself to be guilty. The seed planted, she went to class.
Mrs. Galle seemed to like Jean, but she definitely liked Emily, Jean’s classmate and friend. Jean also liked Emily, but she couldn't decide whether the relationship was one of admiration occasionally jolted by jealousy or one of jealousy occasionally jolted by admiration. Emily was popular with the class and Mrs. Galle because she made herself so. Jean’s popularity paled in comparison. She was much quieter than Emily. Emily had the power to dominate Jean and the rest of their classmates, and she enjoyed that power. On days when Jean was lucky enough to be included in Emily’s inner-circle, which at most could hold only three, Jean was elated. As a member of the inner circle, Jean had the confidence to giggle and whisper with the others, and once, in a fit of joie de vivre, unplug Mrs. Galle’s computer.
But just as quickly as Emily’s acceptance came, it disappeared. Jean remembered Emily’s condemnation of her lunchbox with a tinge of embarrassment. After that incident, Jean brought her lunch in a paper bag. From then on, though, she cringed when she put the bag on the cafeteria table, but her mother insisted she pack a lunch. Jean ached with the unfairness of it, but to voice the problem to her mom would be foolish, for even rehearsing it in her head, she understood that her mother was right.
It was 9:10. If all went as planned, her pass would be coming soon. Very slowly she reached into her desk and withdrew a tin of raspberry candy. It was the type that she normally found in her Christmas stocking, but this particular tin her mother had bought for her last week as an unexpected treat. She clicked a candy against her teeth and slipped the tin back into her desk as Mrs. Galle stared intently at her computer screen. At 9:17 the pass came. Mrs. Galle glanced at it then called Jean to retrieve it. Mrs. Galle wasn't curious. Her mind was preoccupied with the Lifesaver she had recently unwrapped, the hole of which she had pushed the tip of her tongue through. Looking up from her desk at the silence her summoning of Jean had brought, Mrs. Galle asked the class to define the word “accommodate.” Whispered answers circulated around the room before a definitive one reached the whiteboard. Jean had been forgotten.
At her locker, Jean sighed with relief. She knew that tomorrow her classmates would ask where she had gone, but that was a long time from now. She wouldn't even have to think about it until her walk to school tomorrow morning.
With the house key in her pocket, Jean strode bravely down the hall. She only needed to look confident, as though she knew what she was doing. Whether or not she actually did know didn’t matter.
It was still snowing when Jean began her walk home. She could feel the school looming behind her, and she felt safe only when she turned the corner. Her tracks from the morning were imperceptible and the sidewalk stretched out white in front of her. Soon she was home. She shut the front door quietly and stood for a moment in the foyer. She heard the dog’s toenails clicking on the floor and Knight appeared from the kitchen, his face hopeful.
“Hey boy,” Jean whispered. Then she said it again loudly, “Hey boy!” She put her backpack in front of the door and followed Knight into the kitchen. The smell of coffee lingered. The same sun that had made her blink in the stairwell earlier that morning made her blink again at home. The crumbs left over from breakfast cast long shadows on the counter. On the kitchen table Jean found a note from her mom: “Hope you had a good day at school, Jeannie. Have a snack!” Next to the note was a wrapped Lindt truffle, Jean’s favorite. Jean swallowed uneasily. She wouldn’t have read the note until 3:15 if today were normal, so she would pretend that she hadn’t see it until around that time. She pushed the truffle to the side of the table and the thought out of her mind.
A rush of excitement coursed through her. It was 9:45. Not a half an hour earlier Jean had been at school. Her classmates were still at their desks, but Jean was not. She was at home, alone, and no one knew.
The day spread out before Jean and the possibilities seemed endless. School got out at 3:00. On any other day, she would have arrived home at 3:15. Usually, her mother got home before her, but today she wouldn’t be home until 4:00. Her father would be home at 5:00.
Knight followed her upstairs. She undid her jeans on the landing and took the rest of the stairs two at a time in her underwear and socks. She pulled on sweatpants and a sweatshirt and went back downstairs.
Even empty, the kitchen was the warmest part of the house, and Jean gravitated to it. She stood and drummed her fingers on the counter, looking out into the snowy backyard. The experience was not physically different from when she was sanctioned to be home alone, but the feel was.
She opened the fridge and closed it. She wasn’t hungry, but she’d eat. She feared that if she heated anything up the smell would linger into the afternoon, as the smell of the coffee had. But the risk excited her and she was cold. She put a pan on the stove and dropped in four pieces of good milk chocolate. This was not the way her parents usually made hot chocolate. She pressed on one piece with her finger to speed things up, and it slid like melting butter across the bottom of the pan, leaving a creamy brown trail.
Careful that the chocolate not burn, she sloshed in whole milk before it got too hot. Then she toasted a piece of bread, a relatively safe move, she thought, since the kitchen already smelled from the toast of her parents’ breakfast. She buttered the toast heavily and sat down at the table to eat.
Morning slipped into afternoon unnoticed. The timer she set in the kitchen beeped at 3:30. She removed herself from the couch she had melted into and turned off the TV. She went upstairs and checked to see what evidence of her day off she might have left lying around. There seemed to be none. She checked the kitchen.
The Lindt truffle was still on the kitchen table. Jean unwrapped it and stuffed it into her mouth. The center was cool and greasy and eased the guilt that Jean felt. If no one knew then no one would care and the knowledge of the crime could be hers alone. The truffle had jeopardized that aloneness. It brought her mother’s soothing, rational manner into a room from which she was physically absent.
“I’m home!” Her mother cried just moments later.
Jean ran to greet her, exhilarated by the lie she had lived that day.
“Did you have a good day? Did you let Knight out? Here, take this.” Her mother’s cheeks were pink from the cold. In her hand was a grocery bag.
Ignoring all her mother’s questions, Jean asked a question normally voiced by her mom: “How was your day?”
“Good” she replied. Jean followed her mother into the kitchen.
“Did you enjoy the chocolate?” Jean’s mom was sorting through the mail.
“Yeah, thanks mom.” Jean thought her own voice sounded artificial.
“Did anything exciting happen today at school?” Her mother asked.
“Does anything exciting ever happen at school, mom?” Jean replied.
Jean’s mother laughed. She suspected nothing and it made Jean feel bad. Jean wandered out of the kitchen and up the stairs. She reappeared only at dinner, prompting her mother’s concern.
“Are you feeling ok, Jeannie?”
Jean, who did not usually do homework at all, let alone in her room, replied, “Yeah, I had a lot of homework.” She stood next to her mother at the sink.
Jean’s mom put her arm around her and smiled. “Don’t let it become a habit” she joked.
Jean gulped. She felt lightheaded. She was tired of carrying on the façade. She leaned into her mom’s chest. Her own chest felt heavy and full. Her mother trusted her and was devoted to her and Jean had lied to her. The foreign, heady feel that came when Jean concealed the truth sunk into her stomach and temporarily immobilized her.
Three weeks later Jean skipped again. She had a difficult time following rules made by others when it was in her power to make her own. Spring was coming on strong and so was her desire to experience it. She did not feel as though she skipped school enough for it to be a habit. Each day she missed was exciting and seemed just as new as the first. But each time she did skip, she followed a routine. She would deliver her note to the office, wait nervously for a pass to come, and then walk home. At home she would eat, sleep, and loll around the house as its melancholy air pervaded her.
It was a particularly sunny Wednesday in late March that made Jean skip for the first time that month. Turning in her note to the secretary and waiting for it to arrive in class Jean felt buoyant, as if nothing could go wrong. The fact that her hand had faltered in forging her mom’s signature did not worry her. Her lack of worry was justified when the pass came. At home she found a note explaining that her mother would be late that afternoon. Jean made her customary cup of hot chocolate and went outside with Knight to the backyard. She sat on the only lawn chair that had weathered the winter. The sun was wonderfully warm.
Jean closed her eyes and smiled slightly as the sun made splotchy patterns on the inside of her eyelids. The world was a deep and lovely orange. Knight sighed on the cement beneath her. Icicles could be heard dripping from the roof. A shelf of melting snow slid off the garden shed but did not cause Jean to jump. She imagined that by the time the sun set the icicles would be melted and she would be the only witness to their disappearance. Right now, though, she and Knight floated on the sunny vessel that was their home, utterly disconnected from any care.
When the sun went behind the clouds and a breeze came up, late March became early January. The hot chocolate was gone and Knight sat alert, waiting for instructions from his mistress. Dog and girl went inside and collapsed together on the couch. The sun had filled both with a giddy sort of joy. Today everything was all right. Knight’s muzzle melded into Jean’s thigh and his tail beat a rhythm on the leather cushion. Jean ran her hand over his smooth forehead. The phone rang, and Jean instinctively picked it up.
Her voice was brimming with the sun she had absorbed during her morning on the patio. “Hello,” she answered brightly.
There was a pause, and then her mother’s voice filled her ear. “Jean? What are you doing at home?”