Shelby’s house was perched on the side of a hill. He had to climb a slope even to get to the bottom of a long stair case with his legs already tired from the walk home, especially when the weather was warm.
On the way home, he’d mapped out a plan to take care of everything promptly, but his habits took control the moment he opened the front door. He needed to be quiet in case his mom or his brother was home before him.
“Mom? Chuck?” he called to check. With no one home, he found a hiding place for the damaged and dirty books and went to the kitchen for something to eat.
He wanted a sandwich or cookies or something, but there were no cookies and the only bread was a partly frozen loaf in the dish drainer. He slid a slightly soggy piece out, past the crust and out of the bag, retied it and left the crust for his brothers or mother to eat. The only thing worse than soggy white bread was the soggy end of the loaf.
He smeared what was left in the peanut butter jar on it and on his way into the living room gulped down some milk from a carton in the fridge. Fortunately the milk was completely thawed and was neither watery or filled with chunks of ice from the time it had spent in the freezer after one of his mom’s bargain shopping binges.
When his mom got home from her job in the city, Shelby was curled up on the sofa, his attention focused on the World Book Encyclopedia’s entry about engines, nothing left of his bread with peanut butter but a few crumbs and the TV blaring out a commercial break in a movie he wasn’t watching. He had begun to feel safe.
A keychain jangle, the “thunk” of the kitchen door lock and the sound of the door opening interrupted his attempt to understand how an internal combustion engine worked by studying the encyclopedia’s illustrations.
“Anyone home? Shelby? Come help me with the groceries.”
He pretended he hadn’t heard because of the noise from the TV.
“Are you watching that?” Barbara Walsh said.
“Well stop watching and help me. There are bags up in the car and I need you to bring them down for me. What are you doing?”
“My homework.” That’s what he always said, although he couldn’t remember the last time he did his homework after school. Afternoons and evenings were for watching TV and playing. Mornings, when there was nothing on TV but the news, was homework time. The more he thought about it, the more he was certain he would be in a better frame of mind to do it well in the morning.
When morning came, Shelby woke to his mother shouting “Chuck, Shelby, get up, I’m leaving.” He had successfully avoided doing anything about his wrecked books or his homework. The plan he expected to find fully formed in his mind when he awoke was noticeably absent. Plan B was to miss school on account of “not feeling well.” That would give him the whole day to come up with a tactic to prevent being hassled again or having to tell anyone what happened.
But being “too sick for school” demanded he pretend he had a sore throat or fake a cough before his mom woke him. He wasn’t certain she actually believed him or not, but she always just gave a shrug, said, “Hmmm. OK. Stay in bed then.” Then he’d have the whole day off to watch TV and read.
But this time, he was too slow. He leaped out of bed to catch his mom before she got out of the house, but by the time Shelby made it to the back door, she was already putting the Rambler station wagon in gear and pulling out of the drive.
Shelby ate breakfast, looked at his homework, figured out the easy answers and guessed a couple. The same with social studies, which was easy. His English homework was harder, because he only had two ripped, crumpled and wet pages. He calculated that the time it took to smooth out the pages so he could read them, and then go through the text and find the answers was not an efficient use of his time that could be spent reading or being wasted in some more entertaining fashion.