Claudia and the terrible.., p.7
Claudia and the Terrible Truth, p.7Ann M. Martin
“That other float is boring,” pointed out Charlotte.
I had to agree. Several beauty shops from Stoneybrook and neighboring towns had grouped together to sponsor a float featuring Miss Teenage Stoneybrook, Little Miss Connecticut, and a bunch of other pageant winners. They weren’t doing anything, as Charlotte had noticed. They just sat on their platforms, dressed in their perfect, princess-y dresses, ready to wave at their adoring public. I had a feeling the clowns would be much more popular.
The siren sounded again, and Abby shooed us into place. It was time to march. The kids stepped out proudly, and we baby-sitters marched alongside, trying to look inconspicuous as we kept an eye on our charges.
I scanned the crowd as we marched through downtown Stoneybrook, hoping to catch sight of Joey or Nate if they happened to be at the parade. A few of the kids had asked where they were, and I’d explained that they had other plans and couldn’t march. I’d been hoping that those “other plans” I’d invented included watching the parade. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be the case. If they were there, I didn’t spot them. And, even though I ended up enjoying the parade, I never did stop wondering how Joey and Nate were doing.
“Claudia? This is Erica Blumberg. I wanted to ask you something. Didn’t you used to baby-sit for the Nicholls boys?”
I sat down on my bed, gripping the phone.
For just a second, I couldn’t speak. Somehow, I knew that this call meant that something had happened to Joey and Nate. Erica is a level-headed, responsible girl I know from school. She wouldn’t be calling unless something was really wrong.
It was the Tuesday after the parade. I still hadn’t had any contact with the Nicholls boys. And Mrs. Nicholls was still avoiding my mother at work. Especially after the caseworker from the Department of Children and Youth Services called her. The only marginally good thing I’d heard was from Stacey, who’d seen Joey and Nate at Stoneybrook Elementary when she picked up Charlotte from school on Monday afternoon. Stacey had said that the boys looked fine.
But now, Erica was calling me and a tone in her voice made me feel weak in the knees.
“Sure,” I said, finally answering her. “I sat for them several times.”
“That’s what they told me. Anyway, I guess — um — well, I’ve sat for them three times.” Erica’s voice was hushed. “And I’m sitting for them today. The boys are up in their room. So I wanted to ask you — did you notice anything weird about this family?”
“Weird?” I echoed. My heart was thudding around in my chest. “Erica, has something happened?”
“I’m not sure,” Erica said carefully. “I mean, the first time I baby-sat here I thought everything was fine. I thought they were just a normal family. But then I heard Mr. Nicholls yelling, and then today —” She broke off.
“What?” I asked. “What happened?” I knew my voice sounded panicky. I tried to calm down. I didn’t want to frighten Erica.
“It’s just that” — Erica lowered her voice so that I could barely hear her — “when I arrived, Mr. Nicholls told me that the boys were being punished, and that they were in their room. I was supposed to just stay downstairs and leave them alone. But after awhile, I heard crying from up there and I had to see what was wrong.”
“And?” I asked.
“Claudia, when I saw them, I —”
“Joey has a black eye. And Nate has some bruises on his arm.” She said it all in one quick rush.
“Oh, my lord.” I closed my eyes tight and drew in a breath.
“It may not be what we think,” said Erica hurriedly. “When I asked the boys about it, Joey had a story about slipping on a skateboard and hitting his eye on the doorknob, and Nate told me he was hit in the arm by a softball at school yesterday. But Claudia, I don’t believe them,” she added quietly.
“I don’t either,” I said. My brain felt numb. Erica was calling me for help, but I had no idea what to tell her. Then I thought of my mom. “Erica, when is Mr. Nicholls due back?”
“I don’t know.” She sounded scared. “I think he’s out on a job interview. He said he’d be back in a couple of hours.”
“Okay, stay there with the boys. I’m going to call my mom. She’ll know what to do.”
“Just do it, Erica,” I said. “Try to stay calm around Joey and Nate.” I hung up and punched in the number for the library. It seemed to take forever for someone to answer. Finally, a woman — not Mrs. Nicholls, fortunately — picked up the phone.
“Stoneybrook Public Library,” she said.
“Mrs. Kishi, please,” I said.
“I’m sorry, she’s in a meeting. Can I have her call you back?”
“This is her daughter,” I said. “It’s an emergency. Could you please ask her to come to the phone?”
The woman said she’d try, and put me on hold. I sat waiting for what seemed like hours but was probably only seconds.
“Claudia?” My mother’s voice was full of concern.
“Mom, you have to help. I think Joey and Nate are in trouble. Erica Blumberg is sitting for them, and she just called to say that Joey has a black eye and Nate has —”
My mom interrupted me. “I’ll take care of it,” she said. “I’m glad you called.” She was all business now.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“I’m going to go get those boys out of that house,” she said firmly. “I’ll call you back as soon as I know anything.”
“Can I — ?” I began, but my mom had already hung up.
I hung up too, and sat there for a few seconds, staring at the phone. Then I jumped up and started to pace around the room. I thought of Joey and Nate, trying too hard to hide the truth of what had happened. I thought of Erica, waiting with the boys. And I thought of my mom, racing toward them, determined to move them out of harm’s way. And what about Mrs. Nicholls? Where was she? And — Mr. Nicholls? He could show up any minute. What would Erica do if he came home before my mom arrived?
I wondered if I should call Kristy, or any of my other BSC friends. But why? What could they possibly do to help?
I looked at the phone. How long would it be before I heard from my mom? How could I possibly stand to wait?
Finally, I realized I couldn’t just wait. I ran down the stairs, grabbed my jacket, and flew out the door. My bike was leaning against the garage. I jumped onto it and started pedaling hard. At least, I thought, I can be there to help Erica.
It’s not far to the Nichollses’ house. I was there within ten minutes. And as I rode into sight of it, I saw my mom’s car pull into the driveway. Then I saw her and Mrs. Nicholls climb out and rush into the house without a second glance at me. I realized that my mom must have told Mrs. Nicholls what had happened and brought her along. They must have left Mrs. Nicholls’s car at the library.
Then I realized something else.
My mom’s car was not the only one in the driveway.
Mr. Nicholls’s car was there too, pulled up close to the garage. He’d come home!
Suddenly, I heard yelling inside, and then a horrible, crashing sound — the sound of something breaking. I was still holding my bike, but now I laid it on its side. I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I run away? Maybe I should call the police. What was happening inside?
Without warning, the front door opened. My heart skipped a beat. Then I saw Joey and Nate standing there, with Erica close behind them. All three looked petrified. Joey and Nate looked young and scared and very, very vulnerable. “Go on,” said Erica, giving the boys a gentle nudge.
“Joey!” I cried. I’d just caught sight of his injured eye, and my stomach flipped over. Joey looked up and saw me. He tried to smile. Nate gave me a tiny wave. “Come on, boys,” I said, opening my arms.
They looked wary, but they walked toward me. “Are you okay?” I asked, smoothing Joey’s hair back from his forehead. “Don’t be scared,” I added, hugging Nat
I glanced up at Erica, who had followed the boys. “What happened?” I mouthed.
“He came home,” she answered quietly.
Just then the door opened again. This time, my mom and Mrs. Nicholls came out, walking backward as if they knew it wouldn’t be safe to turn their backs on the open door. My mom looked over her shoulder and saw us on the lawn. “Get in the car,” she said. “Everyone. Get in the car right now.” Her voice was level, but I could tell she was working hard to control it.
I grabbed Joey’s hand and Erica took Nate’s. We ran toward my mom’s car, pulling the boys along with us. Mom and Mrs. Nicholls had reached the car by then, and Mom had already hopped in and started the engine. I opened the door to the backseat and helped Joey and Nate in, then followed them. Erica went to the other side of the car to help fasten seat belts. I threw my bike in the trunk.
“Never mind the seat belts for now,” said my mom. (I never, in a million years, thought I’d hear her say those words.) “Everybody in?”
She turned to count heads. And at that moment, I heard the front door slam. My heart thudded crazily in my chest until I saw the empty porch and realized that Mr. Nicholls had closed the door from inside.
“I guess he’s not coming out,” Mrs. Nicholls said in a flat voice. “He’s going to let us go.” I couldn’t tell what she was feeling. Relief? Fear? Sadness?
My mom didn’t answer. Instead, she patted Mrs. Nicholls on the shoulder. Then she put the car into reverse and backed down the driveway.
And as we drove away down Elm Street, I let out a huge sigh, almost a sob. I felt as if I’d been holding my breath for a million years.
“Is everybody okay?” my mother asked. Her eyes met mine in the rearview mirror. “We’re safe now. Let’s all just take a big, deep breath and try to relax a little. And Claudia, you can check those seat belts now.”
She sounded so steady and controlled. I don’t know how she did it. I tried to do as she said and take a deep breath. Then I fixed the boys’ belts. In the front seat, Mrs. Nicholls sat with her head in her hands, sobbing quietly. Erica and I exchanged a glance over Joey’s and Nate’s heads. Her eyes were still wide. Whatever she’d seen had really scared her. Nate sat next to me, tears running down his face. I had the feeling he didn’t even know how hard he was clutching my hand. Joey sat on the other side of Nate, arms folded close to his chest. He wore a blank expression. I winced every time I glanced at him and saw that black eye.
“Erica, I’m going to drop you off at home, if that’s all right,” my mom said. “Don’t you live on Forest Drive?”
Erica nodded, then realized my mother couldn’t hear a nod. “Yes,” she said, barely squeaking out the word.
“Will somebody be home? Somebody you can talk to?” asked my mom. She sounded concerned.
Erica nodded again. “My mom’s usually home by now.”
“Good. We’ll call you later to check in and see how you’re doing.”
“Okay.” I could tell Erica was about to burst into tears, and I couldn’t blame her.
When my mom pulled up in front of her house, Erica gave each of the boys a quick hug good-bye and thanked my mother. She whispered a good-bye to Mrs. Nicholls, who was still crying. Then she jumped out and ran to her house without looking back.
“Mom?” I asked as we drove away. “Where are we going?” I could tell she had some kind of plan in mind.
“To Stamford,” my mother answered. “To your father’s office. Nobody will think to look for us there, at least, not right away.”
By “nobody,” I knew she meant Mr. Nicholls.
Mrs. Nicholls raised her tear-stained face for a second to look at my mom. “Thank you,” she choked out. “Thank you.”
Nobody talked much on the way to Stamford. My mom concentrated on her driving. Nate finally stopped crying, but his mother couldn’t seem to. Joey’s face was still blank. And me? I was in a state of shock. Everything had happened so fast.
In Stamford, rush hour was beginning and the traffic was heavy. Slowly, we made our way to the building where my dad works, and my mom parked in an underground garage nearby. We climbed out of the car and stretched. Mom took me aside. “Let me go up first,” she said. “I’ll explain things to Dad.”
We gave her a head start, waiting in the garage until Nate whispered to me that he had to “go.” I checked my watch and figured that Mom had had a few minutes with my dad by then, so I led the way to his office, making a stop at the men’s room. The office was emptying out by then, so we received only a few looks from employees as we trooped through the halls.
“Welcome,” Dad said, opening the door to let us in. His face was serious, but his expression was warm. He showed Mrs. Nicholls to the small couch along one wall of his office (he’s been known to nap on it, but don’t tell his boss). Then he and Mom sat down facing her.
I took the boys to my dad’s desk and tried to distract them quietly. I showed them how his chair spins around and let them try out all his pens. Then I remembered he has a tic-tac-toe game on his computer, and I set that up for them to play. By then Joey had begun to look less frozen, and Nate’s tears had dried. They were still scared but I had the feeling they were beginning to feel a little relieved too. I was glad they knew me well enough to feel safe and comfortable with me.
Meanwhile, I kept one ear out for the conversation between my parents and Mrs. Nicholls. She couldn’t stop thanking them, and she kept apologizing to my mom for avoiding her in the past week. “It’s so hard to explain,” she kept saying. “I know you can’t understand it, but I do still love him. And I kept hoping that things would improve.”
“We’ll do our best to understand,” said my mother. “We certainly don’t judge you for wanting to keep your family together. But for now —”
“I know, I know,” said Mrs. Nicholls. “For now, we just have to make sure the boys are safe. And that means I’m not going home. Not for a while, and maybe not ever. I also need to call Ms. Barber from the Department of Children and Youth Services — I might even have to call … the police.” She started crying all over again when she said that. My father handed her a box of tissues, and my mom made comforting sounds.
Then they moved on to the next question. “Have you thought about where to go?” asked my mother.
“Have I thought about it?” echoed Mrs. Nicholls. “I’ve thought about it all the time. I just kept hoping it wouldn’t come to this.” She sighed. “But now it has. So I think what I’ll do is call my sister. She lives in upstate New York, about four hours from here. She’s always begging me to bring the boys for a long visit.”
“That sounds perfect,” said my dad. “Would you like to use my phone to call her?”
Mrs. Nicholls nodded and blew her nose on a tissue.
While she made the call, my parents had a quick conversation. Then my mom said to me, “If you feel comfortable staying here with Mrs. Nicholls and the boys, your father and I will drive back to Stoneybrook to fetch her car. Then she can leave from here to go to New York.”
I told her that was fine with me. I felt safe in my dad’s office, and I could see that the boys did too. And spending a little time here would give everyone a chance to calm down and relax a bit. “Is that Chinese restaurant still across the street?” I asked. “Maybe I could call and order some food while we’re waiting.”
“Terrific idea,” said Mom. She opened her purse and gave me some money. Then she squeezed my shoulder. “Thank you, Claudia,” she whispered.
By then, Mrs. Nicholls had finished her call. “She says she can’t wait to see us,” she reported. “And guess what, boys? Aunt Sissy has a brand-new puppy. Won’t that be fun?” She was still sniffing, but her tears had stopped for the moment.
My parents left, and the four of us pored over a menu from the Chinese restaurant. Then, over egg rolls and vegetable lo mein, we talked about puppies and car trips and games Mrs. Nicholls and her sister used to play whe
“You have a full tank of gas,” my father told Mrs. Nicholls, “and we’ve stocked the car with juice and snacks. I think you’re all set.”
“How can I thank you?” asked Mrs. Nicholls. “You’ve done so much, and I —”
“Shhh,” said my mother. “Thanks aren’t necessary. Just, please, take care of yourself. And let us know how you are. Call collect, anytime. Call soon.”
Mrs. Nicholls hugged me and my parents. Then I knelt and opened my arms for a big hug from Joey and Nate. “I’ll miss you,” I told them.
We walked them down to the parking garage, watched as they settled into their car, and waved as they drove away. Then we climbed into our own car, and my father started the engine. The second my mother closed the door behind her, she began to cry. I joined her, and it was a big relief to cry. After awhile, we began to talk about what had happened.
“I know it’s hard,” said my dad, reaching out to pat my mom’s hand, “but I think they’ll be better off.”
“I sure hope so.” My mom sighed.
“It can’t be any worse,” I added, thinking of the way Mr. Nicholls treated his sons. “At least they won’t be in danger.”
“But this isn’t the end of the story,” my father reminded me. “The Nichollses have to face this issue and deal with it. That may mean a divorce, or it might mean that Mr. Nicholls realizes he needs help and begins to deal with his problem. Mrs. Nicholls is going to call the woman from the Department of Children and Youth Services, and hopefully they’ll find a way to work things out.”
I nodded. I knew there was still a long way to go for the Nichollses. But I couldn’t help being glad about the fact that Joey and Nate would be sleeping soundly and safely that night, far away from their father.
I didn’t sleep too soundly myself that night. I tossed and turned, thinking I’d never fall asleep. And then, just when I felt myself drifting off, the phone rang. I checked the clock as I answered. It was midnight. Who could be calling?
Claudia and the Terrible Truth by Ann M. Martin / Young Adult have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes