“Uh, I’m not supposed to have people over when Mom isn’t home,” Callum said as Ashlyn pushed past him and climbed the steps to his back door. His stomach clenched at the thought of breaking one of Mom’s rules already, two weeks into living in the new place. It was probably double broken because Ashlyn was a girl.
“Your mom is overprotective, huh,” Ashlyn stepped into the postage stamp kitchen, the weird odor pushing out the door to greet them. “The last people who lived here were totally gross,” she said, as if reading his thoughts, standing in the spot where the linoleum was worn down to the boards. Callum noticed that one of her white socks crumpling into her shoe was significantly grubbier than the other one. She turned down the hall between the kitchen and the tired wood paneling of the living room.
“Which one is yours?”
Callum had not prepared to have a girl looking in his room after school. He overtook her in a panic, stepping between her and his chipped door with the caution tape he had wrapped around it. His bladder was full.
“Wait,” he said as she reached for the knob under his arm and pushed the door open.
“I have three brothers,” she said. “I’ve already seen a lot of dirty boy underwear.”
Traitorously, the door swung open behind him, revealing a tidy blue bedroom.
“You really keep your room like this?” Ashlyn asked. Callum suddenly remembered that his mom had said she would be home at 2:45 one of the days this week. Was that today or tomorrow?
The clock radio glowing on his nightstand said 2:35 pm.
“Hello, who is this?” She sat down on his made bed and held up Othello, his threadbare panda. “Are you sleeping with toys? In the seventh grade?”
Callum grew hot. “It must have fallen off the shelf. Of course I don’t sleep with him,” he lied.
She tossed the bear to the carpet and turned her attention to an orange plastic toy perched on one of his lower shelves. He went to reach around her but she pushed his arm away. “Is this one of those bubble makers? I think my kid sister has one.”
“My mom packed it before I could tell her to toss it,” he said.
To his horror, she clicked it on and it slowly began to spew soap bubbles over their heads.
“Do I need to tell you what to do with girls alone in your room after school?” she patted the space on the thankfully plain navy blue comforter next to her. 2:40 pm. His stomach growled with emptiness and he had to secretly relieve himself in the bathroom if she was not going to go. He ached to rescue Othello from where he lay face down on the floor. He eased onto the bed next to her, trying not to look at the body that was just a little too developed for the seventh grade straining under a thin pink t-shirt. She smelled like sweat and the chicken patties from today’s cafeteria lunch. His space felt full of her. His heart filled his throat.
“Did anyone tell you what to do with girls?”
“I-I guess,” he said.
“Come on, then,” she said, leaning the chicken patty mouth into his, “join the club.”
Before he could say anything, his mother was in the doorway of his room. He had never been so happy to see her in her worn work skirt and wrinkled flats, hair half out of its bun.
He jumped off the bed.
“Mom!” he said too loudly. “This is Ashlyn.”
She sized up the situation as they stood there, frozen in this terrible moment, probably deciding if he was in trouble or not.
“Hi Ashlyn,” she said. “Where do you live?”
“Three down,” she said getting up, backpack still on her shoulders.
“You guys want something to eat?” she asked.
“My mom will want to know where I am. No thanks,” she said, pressing past them and out the back door.
Mom picked Othello up.
“Do you like her?” She kept her eyes on the bear.
“No, I don’t,” he said. “I’m starving. Are any of those cookies left?”
Beth Stillman Blaha is a Clinical Psychologist who works with children and families. She lives in upstate NY, US, with her giant husband, her average sized son and their rescued black lab.