Authors: Cynthia Voigt
For all of us who have, and are, brothers and sisters
Phineas Hall rode full speed along the brick sidewalk and then stopped dead at his sister's feet. He let the momentum of braking lift the rear wheel up while he swung it behind him; at the same time, in a parallel motion, he swung his right leg up and over, to dismount.
Althea clapped her hands sarcastically,
clap, clap, clap.
Phineas wheeled the bike over to the rack in front of the three-story brick library. His was the only bike in the rack. The campus was pretty empty during the week before the college opened for summer classes. He didn't bother putting the lock on. He hadn't locked his bike once since they had arrived in Maine, five days ago. Althea had given up nagging him about it.
He went to sit beside her on the bottom step. She already had ner nose back in her book, but she lifted it out again. “You're on time.”
He didn't know why she bothered saying that. “I always am,” he said, and didn't know why he bothered.
“You don't even wear a watch.”
“Why should I? I don't need one. I just
âlike ESP,” he said. “Woo-oo-ooo,” he made Twilight Zone sounds, and waggled his fingers at her.
“Come off it, Phineas. You looked at one of the outdoor clocksâor asked somebody.”
“Come off it, Althea,” he mimicked her prissy tone. He was irritating her and he didn't mind, even though she was his only company until school started in the fall, and it was only the end of June. She sighed an irritated sigh and got back to her book.
His father said Phineas should wait until Althea finished growing up before he wrote the final page on her, but that was because like any grown-up, his father's idea of heaven was sitting around talking. Worse, his father wanted to sit around talking about what somebody meant who said it three thousand years ago, and wasn't around to be asked what he'd meant. After three thousand years, who cared?
Althea cared, that's who, and his father. “Where's Dad?” Phineas asked.
“Be along in a minute.” She didn't look up from the page. Phineas knew what Althea thought of him. She thought he was a dumb jock, immature, and a wiseass. She liked him all right, she just didn't think much of him.
And that just showed how much she knew. Phineas was no jock. He liked sports, but you had to be a lot better than Phineas was to be counted a jock. Phineas was enthusiastic and a good athlete: That was all he was. Like most people, he wasn't a star at anything. It didn't do any good to get bent out of shape about that, did it? So he didn't. Besides, what was so wrong with being ordinary, an ordinary twelve-year-old kid? Nothing, that was what.
“What's that you're reading?” he asked.
“History.” She turned a page. “Ancient Greece.” She read on. Phineas thought about needling her a littleâhe knew some waysâbut he heard the big wooden library doors swing open, and turned his head to see his father trying to shove through them with an armload of books. Althea ran up the steps to get the door.
Phineas watched the two of them come down the steps. Althea had an armful of books and his father had an armful. You could tell just by looking at them that they were related. Two square sturdy bodies, except Althea was shorter, two heads of frizzy red hair, except Dad's was thinning at the top and Althea's was in short pony tails, two people dressed basically alike in the sweatshirt-jeans-and-sneakers style, if you could call that style. Phineas grinned. The only real difference was the lines on his father's face, mostly laugh lines around the eyes and mouth. Lines made a difference, and so did Althea's heavy eyebrows, so dark and thick they looked like they'd been drawn on her face with india ink.
Phineas stood up to get going, but a voice called out. “Just one minute,
Hall.” It was a woman's voice
but deep for a woman, almost like a man's. All three of the Halls turned to look at the woman who stood at the top of the steps.
She made them wait while she took a big ring of keys out of her purse, and locked the door. She was a tall, thin woman, in a brown seersucker suit; a narrow woman with no hips to fill out her skirt, and no shoulders to speak of. Her hair was pale, maybe brown, maybe gray. Her face, when she turned around to look at where they were waiting, was long, thin, and pale.
She came down the steps, her purse clutched in front of her. “If you think,
Hall,” she said, looming over Phineas's father.
Or started to say, because Phineas's father interrupted. “I don't believe you've met my family, Lucille. My daughter Althea, and my son Phineas.”
She barely looked at them. She was busy being angry.
“Kids, this is Mrs. Batchelor, the college librarian.”
“Hello,” Althea said, and stuck out her hand.
Mrs. Batchelor didn't want to take it, but she had to.
Phineas held out his hand. “How do you do.”
She shook his hand too, but before she even let it out of her fingers she had turned back to their father.
“If you think I'm going to take this lying down,” she said, looming over him.
“Take what?” Mr. Hall asked.
“A library,” she announced, “is for books. The purpose of a library, and it is a great purpose, is to contain books, and the knowledge books hold. A library is not synonymous withâand must not be turned intoâa shop window.” The woman practically spat the last two
words out of her mouth, as if they were some seriously nasty bug that had flown into it. She waited about one second in case anyone wanted to say something, then went on, drawing herself up tall. “I wouldn't be much of a librarian if I allowed anything, or anybody, to degrade a library that was in my care. Now would I.” It was not a question.
“I'm sorry, Lucille,” Mr. Hall said. “I don't have any idea what you're talking about. Is there a problem I can help with?”
She puffed and snorted. “Don't expect me to be pacified by your boyish charm. The final word has not been spoken. I am not as helpless as I might seem to you. No, don't even try to protestâthat's all I'm prepared to say right now,” she said; and, as good as her word, she turned her back on all three of them and marched off.
“What was that about?” Althea asked.
“I have no idea,” Mr. Hall said. “Not the faintest glimmer.”
“She's scary,” Althea said.
“Not scary,” Phineas said, “weird. Seriously weird.”
Mr. Hall changed the subject. “Anybody else want a bite?”
“Me,” Phineas said.
“Do we walk or take our bikes?” Mr. Hall asked.
“Bikes,” Phineas said.
“Walk,” Althea decided.
“Ice cream?” Phineas asked.
“Pastries,” Althea said.
“We'll walk into town and get ice cream,” their father told them.
*Â Â *Â Â *
They sat in a booth, with Phineas getting a side to himself. Since they'd arrived in Maine, and started settling in, they'd gone downtown at about the same time each day for what his father called a bite. The bite kept them going until they went into town for pizza, at about eight. Phineas guessed that when they finished unpacking, his father would get around to filling the icebox with more than milk and juice and boxes of cereal.
“Hot fudge, two scoops of vanilla, and nothing else, please,” Phineas ordered, as usual.
“You want a glass of water with that?” the girl asked, sort of twinkling her eyes at him.
“Yeah, thanks.” He wouldn't look at her, although he could feel her twinkling away above him. He studied his menu, as if he cared about what was on it. The trouble with looking older than you were was that girls decided you were cute enough to flirt with, girls who if they knew you were twelve wouldn't look twice at you. But he couldn't just blurt out, “I'm only twelve, leave me alone.” That would be seriously dumb. He kept his eyes on the menu and waited for her to go away.
Althea asked for a piece of blueberry pie with chocolate ice cream. “And a glass of water, please.”
Mr. Hall smiled up at the waitress. “Water for me too, and two scoops of pistachio, with marshmallow sauce on it, I think, and whipped cream, and some wet nuts, and a maraschino cherry.” Phineas lowered the menu.
“How wasâ?” Mr. Hall tried to ask.
“You shouldn't, Dad,” Althea interrupted.
“I like maraschinos,” he said, not needing her to explain shouldn't what.
“Think about what they put in to get them that color.”
“No,” Mr. Hall said, “I don't think I will, and I don't want to hear any more about it, Althea. I've got enough to worry about. My classes start Monday, I have only half my books unpacked, too many nations are developing nuclear weapons, waste disposal is reaching a crisis.Â .Â .Â . I think I'll go ahead and have a maraschino cherry on my sundae.”
“That's no way to get problems solved,” Althea insisted.
Mr. Hall turned to Phineas. “How was your afternoon?”
“Fine. It was okay. I rode around,” he told his father, before his father had to ask him.
“I think we're going to like it here,” Mr. Hall said. “It's the air that gets me, because it tastes good. It justâknocks me out, the air does. Gives me energy.”
“That's a contradiction in terms,” Althea said.
“Who says only women get to be contradictory? What do you think, equality is a one-way street?” Mr. Hall asked. “How are the Greeks?”
“The Greeks are fine, it's their verbs I'm having trouble with,” she said. “Where'd you ride, Fin?”
“Just around. There are tennis courts, in the park downtown. Clay courts,” he said. They knew he wasn't asking them to give him a game. They were the unathletic members of the family.
“Are you sure you don't want to find a day camp to enroll in?” his father asked.
“I'm too old.”
“It's going to be a long summer.”
“I'll be okay.”
“Maybe,” Althea suggested, “you should go hang around those courts, with your racket in your hand, looking pitiful. Or looking eager and aggressive, maybe that would be better.”
“Maybe you should go fly a kite,” Phineas answered.
“Speaking of kites,” Mr. Hall said, before either of them could get started on a quarrel, “there's a park in South Portland where people do fly kites on weekends. Home design kites, and trick kites”âhe leaned back, so the waitress could put his sundae down in front of himâ“it's supposed to be fun on Sunday afternoons, Howie was telling me.”
For a few bites, nobody said anything. Things were pretty desperate if watching people fly kites was something interesting to do. Then, “Who's Howie?” Phineas asked, not that he cared. He cared about enjoying his sundae in peace, if anyone was interested, which they weren't. The trick with hot fudge was to space out the sauce, so you didn't run out of sauce before you ran out of ice cream.
“Howie Unnold. Math. His wife is computers.” Mr. Hall spoke between spoonfuls of green ice cream topped with thick white syrup topped with mounded white whipped cream topped with brown nuts. “Sandy. Howie and Sandy Unnold. They've been here three or four years, they've got an older house in the city. They're fixing it up. And three kids. All young, the oldest is eight,
I think. Can I give them your name for baby-sitting, Althea?”