Claudia and the terrible.., p.6
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       Claudia and the Terrible Truth, p.6

           Ann M. Martin
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  “Mom,” I finally asked, once my tears subsided, “why does it happen? How could somebody hit a kid?”

  “Oh, Claudia,” she said, “it’s so complicated. Usually, though, if a person hurts someone else it’s because he’s hurting. Lots of people who hurt their kids were abused themselves when they were younger.”

  “What about Mrs. Nicholls?” I asked. “Why does she stay with him? How could she let him hurt the boys?”

  “That’s even more complicated. It’s hard to understand, but I’ll tell you one thing for sure. Even though I haven’t known her long, I know her well enough to say that she loves the boys. And seeing them hurt is probably torture for her. But for some reason she feels powerless and doesn’t know how to make Mr. Nicholls stop.”

  “So what happens next?” I asked, sniffling a little.

  “I don’t know. I’m going to have to give it a lot of thought.” She stood up and moved to my desk. “But first I want to make some notes about what you’ve told me, so I can be sure I have a clear idea of what you’ve seen and heard.”

  I gave her a notebook and a pen and stood beside her as she wrote down what I’d told her, adding dates and times in case the notes were ever needed by the authorities. Fortunately, she remembered everything, and I didn’t have to go through the story again.

  When she finished, Mom and I went downstairs to fix dinner. Afterward she and my dad talked for a long time in the study. I tried to concentrate on my homework, but it didn’t seem very important. (Figuring out what x equals never feels especially meaningful to me, but that night it seemed more pointless than ever.)

  Finally, at about nine-thirty, Mom tapped on my door and came in. “I’ve discussed things with your dad,” she told me, “and with the social worker I know through the library. We all agree that a good first step would be for me to talk with Mrs. Nicholls.”

  I nodded. “Okay,” I said. I felt relieved to know that my mother was taking charge. Whatever she decided was fine, as long as something was done. If it were up to me, I would have put Mr. Nicholls behind bars that very night. But I knew that wasn’t how things worked. And it wouldn’t be right, anyway, since I couldn’t prove anything.

  As I went to sleep that night, I thought once more about Nate and Joey. Only this time, I tried not to picture their tear-stained faces. I tried to imagine them happy and secure. I saw Nate holding a big, soft stuffed tiger as he slipped off to sleep, cozy in a warm, safe bed. And I pictured Joey at an easel, joyfully painting a beautiful picture with every color of paint in his paintbox, not caring for a second about messing up his clothes.

  Trying to concentrate on my homework that night was nothing compared to trying to concentrate in school the next day.

  I moved through the halls on automatic pilot, following the wave of students as they went from class to class. And, while I was supposed to be listening to a lecture on Johnny Tremain, or on the way a bill becomes a law, or on why we should care about how fast some train would travel if it went ten miles per hour faster than some other train — while I was supposed to be listening to all that, I wasn’t. I was thinking about Nate and Joey and Mr. Nicholls and — most of all — Mrs. Nicholls, and whether or not my mom had talked to her yet.

  I kept checking the clock and thinking, She must have told her by now. Or, Maybe they’re talking about it right this minute. The school day had never seemed longer.

  Finally, the last bell rang and I was free to run home. The first thing I did was check the answering machine. Maybe Mom had left a message for me.

  The machine was blinking, but when I pushed PLAY all I heard was a message about some meeting my dad was supposed to attend that night. Disappointed, I wandered into the kitchen to fix myself a snack.

  One microwaved burrito later, I was still a nervous wreck. How long was I going to have to wait to find out what had happened?

  My eye strayed toward the phone on the kitchen wall. Should I call and find out for myself instead of waiting? Why not? I picked up the phone, dialed, and listened to one ring before I slammed the receiver back into its cradle. What if Mrs. Nicholls answered the phone? What would I say? Would she recognize my voice?

  I played around with a few fake accents, wondering if I could fool her if I sounded French or British. Then I realized I was just being silly. Chances were she wouldn’t even answer the phone. I tried to remember exactly what her job was at the library. My mom had said something about filing — that’s all I knew. I pictured Mrs. Nicholls and my mom standing next to a big filing cabinet, talking.

  I tried to imagine how the conversation would go.

  I knew my mom would be gentle and considerate, and that she would start off slowly, maybe by asking Mrs. Nicholls how the kids were adjusting to their new home.

  “Oh, fine,” Mrs. Nicholls would say.

  “And do they like having Claudia as a sitter?”

  “They adore her.”

  “She’s very fond of them as well.” Mom would pause. “That’s why she’s a little concerned about their well-being,” she would add. “She’s noticed that Mr. Nicholls has a bit of a temper….”

  Mrs. Nicholls would blush and look at the floor. “He’s testy because he’s out of work,” she’d say. “Sometimes he yells.”

  Mom would nod. “But I have the feeling he may be doing more than just yelling at the boys,” she’d say carefully.

  At that point, Mrs. Nicholls would break down and cry. Then she’d beg my mother to help her figure out what to do. And together they’d make a plan.

  Which would be — what? I didn’t have the slightest idea. How did people deal with a situation like this? Maybe they’d make Mr. Nicholls promise never to do it again. Maybe he’d have to go to counseling. In any case, I knew things would start to change for the better as soon as Mom and Mrs. Nicholls talked.

  But had they talked yet or not? I glanced at the clock. It was only four. I had at least two hours to go if I waited until Mom came home.

  I grabbed the phone and dialed again. This time I let it ring twice before I hung up. What a chicken, I told myself. I decided just to wait until my mother came home.

  Upstairs in my room, I spent some time reorganizing my junk food stash. I moved a bag of Chips Ahoy from my sock drawer into one of the shoe compartments in my closet. I transferred a package of Oreos from my right-hand desk drawer to the one on the left. And I reburied a bag of Sour Patch Kids in a place I refuse to tell anyone about. A girl has to have some secrets.

  That job done, I turned to my homework. Algebra, naturally, was far less attention-grabbing than junk food, and I found my mind drifting again, making up another conversation between Mom and Mrs. Nicholls. In this one, Mrs. Nicholls confessed everything before Mom even had a chance to air her suspicions. And she told Mom that she was already working things out with a social worker who was going to help Mr. Nicholls overcome his problem. Meanwhile, the boys would be sent to stay with their aunt, whom they adored.

  That was a good one. See? I told myself. There are a lot of ways this could work out fine.

  I’d only made it through one set of math problems when I heard the door open and close downstairs. Was that her? Maybe she was home early. I ran to the top of the stairs. “Mom?” I called.

  “No, it is I, Janine,” answered my grammatically correct sister. “But I’m only dashing in for a second. I have an evening class tonight.” I heard her rummaging around in the kitchen and decided not to bother her. She sounded busy and rushed.

  I went back to my math homework and struggled through another set of problems. I had a feeling I was putting down a lot of wrong answers, but at least I was trying. If I was lucky, my math teacher would appreciate the effort.

  I had floated into a fantasy in which Mrs. Nicholls asks my mom if we would be willing to take care of Joey and Nate for a while when, once again, I heard the door open and shut downstairs. This time it was my mom, and she came straight to my room. She didn’t even pause to make herself a cup of tea.

>   She did not look happy. In fact, I hadn’t seen her look so upset in a long time. Before she even said anything, I knew that her talk with Mrs. Nicholls had not been a success. It certainly hadn’t followed any of the story lines I’d come up with.

  She sat down on the bed and patted the place next to her. I settled in. “So?” I asked.

  She sighed. “It didn’t go well, Claudia,” she said.

  “What happened?”

  “Well, I approached Mrs. Nicholls first thing in the morning, when nobody else was in the office. I was careful about what I said, because I didn’t want to make her feel defensive. But she did anyway.”

  “What did she do?”

  “She denied everything,” my mother said, sounding tired.

  “You mean she acted as if Mr. Nicholls never yelled at the kids, or made those ridiculous rules, or hit them, or anything?” I couldn’t believe my ears.

  “That’s right. She said he was a good father. The only thing she would admit is that he’s ‘a little strict.’ Other than that, she clammed up.”

  I groaned.

  “But there was something about her,” my mother continued, “that made me positive she wasn’t telling the truth. She wouldn’t meet my eyes. Her answers sounded rehearsed. And, I don’t think she knew it, but she was wringing her hands the whole time.”

  “So what did you do?” I asked.

  “What could I do? I didn’t want to make her even more upset. So I eased off. After our talk, she avoided me for the rest of the day — or tried to, anyway. Every time I saw her, I attempted to say a few words about how she really should talk to someone, and that if she didn’t want to talk to me there were other people who would listen. I even slipped her the name and number of the social worker.”

  I shook my head. “I just hope she talks to someone soon,” I said. “What can we do while we’re waiting?”

  “I don’t know. I think we’ve done the right thing, but it doesn’t seem like enough. I’m going to have to call the Department of Children and Youth Services. Mona — my friend who’s a social worker — knows someone there. They will be able to look into this case in a thorough, professional way. Really, it’s beyond us now.” She looked confused, which was exactly how I felt.

  Just then, my phone rang. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone, but since mine is the official BSC number I had to answer. “Hello?” I said.

  “Claudia, it’s me.” I recognized Kristy’s voice.

  “What’s up?”

  “The weirdest thing just happened. Mrs. Nicholls called me. I had to tell you about it right now, instead of waiting for our meeting.”

  “What?” I cried. “Why did she call you?”

  “I guess she knew my name because I’m listed as president on our fliers. And she must have seen my number on the fliers.”

  “But what did she say?”

  “She canceled all of her BSC appointments. Every one.”

  Oh, no. I couldn’t think of a thing to say to Kristy, so we just said good-bye and hung up. I told Mom what had happened.

  She shook her head. “I hope I’m doing the right thing,” she said, as if she were talking to herself.

  I hoped so too.

  I liked reading Abby’s notes about helping with the St. Patrick’s Day parade. I ended up having a decent time too, and so did the other BSC members. In a way, it made me feel better to see that things hadn’t ground to a halt because of what was happening with the Nicholls family. On the other hand, it was sad. I felt guilty about enjoying myself when Nate and Joey were still living with their scary dad.

  I hadn’t seen either of the boys since Tuesday. Mom said that Mrs. Nicholls was still avoiding her at work. Mom and I talked every day about what to do next, and my friends and I had chewed over the subject in our BSC meetings too. But so far, the only thing we could do was wait. I still had some hope that Mrs. Nicholls would come to her senses and talk to someone.

  Meanwhile, the BSC was also caught up in final preparations for the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Kristy had asked Abby to coordinate our group, so the rest of us took orders from her. She’d told us to show up at Brenner Field at eight on Saturday morning. “That’s the staging area,” she’d explained, “where all the groups in the parade will meet and get organized.”

  From there, the parade was going to wind its way to Main Street, through downtown Stoneybrook, and return by way of Rosedale Road and Burnt Hill Road. Our group was to be smack in the middle of the parade, according to Abby, who was in touch with the parade organizers. In front of us would be the marching band, and in back of us would be a float from Bloomer’s nursery.

  Abby had assigned each of us a job. Mine was to oversee the kids’ costumes. That meant arriving early to 1) make sure each kid had remembered to bring a costume and 2) help with adjustments or problems.

  I struggled out of bed at seven (not an easy job for me since I like to sleep in on weekends) and made it to Brenner Field by five after eight. I was working on excuses for being late, but when I arrived I discovered they were unnecessary. The only other people on hand were BSC members. Nobody else in the whole parade had arrived yet!

  “Abby, what time is the parade supposed to start?” I asked.

  She blushed. “Not until ten,” she answered. “I just wanted to make sure we were ready.”

  As it turned out, the extra time came in handy when the kids began to arrive minutes later. Charlotte was so excited about the parade that she had forgotten her costume. Marilyn Arnold had ripped hers. And Nicky Pike had spilled maple syrup (“We had pancakes for breakfast,” he explained) down the front of his.

  The rest of the kids needed help tying on their costumes. Each of the kids wore two big pieces of cardboard, front and back, with straps over their shoulders holding the costume up, and ties holding it together at the sides. And several of the paint jobs needed touching up.

  I was working on Claire’s giant eye costume when I noticed Abby nearby, talking to a woman in a long green dress. “That’s Maggie O’Meara,” Kristy whispered to me. “She used to live in Stoneybrook. She’s a famous Irish singer.”

  “Cool,” I said. “What’s she doing in an evening gown?”

  “She’s the grand marshal of the parade,” Kristy told me, just as Maggie O’Meara walked toward us.

  “The grandmother?” asked Claire, who’d overheard. “Why does a parade need a grandmother?”

  “I said grand marshal. It means she’s the one who leads the parade,” explained Kristy.

  Maggie O’Meara had heard the exchange, and she was smiling. “Good morning, lassies,” she said. “And how are you on this lovely day?” She had a soft, lilting accent.

  “It’s not lovely, it’s yucky,” said Claire.

  She was right. None of us had wanted to dwell on it, but the weather wasn’t terrific for a parade. It wasn’t cold, but the skies were gray and I’d felt an occasional drizzle as I went about my work.

  “Yucky?” asked Maggie O’Meara with a smile. “In the old country, we’d call this a soft day. After all, it’s not pouring, is it? And the winds aren’t howling.”

  “And the weather report says it’ll be nicer later on,” added Abby, who’d joined us.

  Maggie O’Meara nodded. “With a bit of luck, the sun will shine on us. In any case, I just wanted to welcome you to our parade. Let’s see your costume, lassie,” she said to Claire. Claire stood up proudly and turned slowly, showing off her eye. I cringed a little, expecting Maggie O’Meara to laugh, or ask what an eye had to do with St. Patrick’s Day. Instead, she said, “Clever girl,” then sang, “ ‘When Irish eyes are smiling’!”

  As Maggie O’Meara left, Claire let out a whoop. “She liked my costume best!”

  “Only because she didn’t see mine,” said Byron, showing off his leprechaun-hat costume.

  Just then, Archie Rodowsky wandered by, crying quietly. “Archie?” asked Abby. “What’s the matter?”

  “N-N-Nobody knows what I’m supposed t
o be,” he said, sniffling.

  Abby stood back to take a look at his lumpy gray costume.

  I joined her. “What is he supposed to be?” I whispered into her ear. Since I’d missed the costume-making day, I had no idea.

  “The Blarney Stone,” she whispered back.

  “That’s great!”

  “I know. But if nobody understands, he’ll be upset all day.” She turned to Archie. “Tell you what,” she said. “I’m going to make you a little sign, okay? Then everybody will know what you are.”

  Once the other kids saw Archie’s sign, everybody wanted one. Most of the shapes were strange enough to need explanations, anyway.

  “This wouldn’t have happened if you’d been around the day we made the costumes, Claud,” Abby said to me as she pinned an I AM A SHAMROCK sign onto Margo’s costume.

  Suddenly, a siren sounded. “That’s the ten-minute warning,” Abby called. “Are we almost ready? Gather around so we can see.”

  Soon our entire contingent was assembled. Weird shapes or not, the kids looked pretty cute. And when Stacey turned on the tape player she’d brought and they tried out some dance moves to the Irish music, I thought they looked terrific. Especially when the sun broke through the clouds and the day turned into the lovely one Maggie O’Meara had predicted.

  By then, the field was full of paraders. There were three marching bands, two groups of bagpipers, and a drum corps, all of whom were warming up by playing at top volume. Police officers on horses roamed the field.

  Several businesses had sponsored floats. Bloomer’s nursery had covered theirs with green plants and had put little leprechaun statues behind them, so that they peeped out at the audience. A “rainbow” made of crepe paper fluttered over the scene.

  “Look at the Polly’s Fine Candy Float!” called Nicky. “I wish we were marching behind them.”

  The candy store had sponsored a float with clowns in green costumes. Each clown carried a huge basket of candy, which he or she would toss to the crowd by the handful.

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