g scene in the middle of the night.”
“Well, dropping out is not an option. I suggest you stop the whining and get tough. These tests are important, and you need to do well.”
Thanks for nothing, Dad. They talked for a few minutes until the phone rang. Mr. Boone reached for it and said, “Now shove off and go do your homework.”
Perhaps the only good thing about the week was that there would be no homework. Theo went downstairs, rummaged through the refrigerator, found nothing but some stale doughnuts, and eventually wandered back to his small office where he killed some time. Bored, he was soon sleepy, so he put his feet on his desk, kicked back in his chair, and was about to doze off when his mother tapped on his door and stepped in.
“Hello, Theo. Elsa said you needed to see me.”
“Sure, Mom. There’s a kid at school who needs your help.”
“What’s the problem?”
“It’s a long story, but the kid and his mother might be in danger.”
“Let’s go to my office and talk.”
It was almost five p.m. when Pete Holland arrived with his mother and two younger sisters. The little girls were wide-eyed and seemed too frightened to speak. Pete, at thirteen, was trying to be the man of the family, but he, too, was overwhelmed. His mother, Carrie, had a swollen eye and a cut on her upper lip. She looked like she had been crying for hours and began again as soon as Mrs. Boone introduced herself and said she could help. She led Carrie into her office and closed the door. Theo pointed to the conference room and said, “Let’s wait in there.” Pete and his sisters followed Theo while Elsa hurried to the kitchen. She returned with the same stale doughnuts and some soft drinks. Even Judge seemed concerned and allowed the girls to rub his head.
Pete said, “My dad got out of jail this afternoon and he’s looking for us. My mom’s really scared and doesn’t know what to do.”
Sharon, the ten-year-old, finally spoke and said, “Mom says we can’t go home.” Sally, the seven-year-old, chewed on a doughnut and looked at Theo as if he had two heads.
“What are we going to do?” Sharon asked, as if Theo had all the answers.
Elsa, who had been through similar dramas, said, “Mrs. Boone will know what to do. Right now, let’s just have a chat and talk about school. Did you bring your backpacks? Maybe we could do some homework.” They shook their heads. No backpacks.
Since it was Monday, Theo called his uncle Ike and said he couldn’t make their usual Monday meeting. He promised to stop by later in the week.
Mr. Boone stopped by to say good-bye and quickly realized that perhaps he should hang around for a while. He took off his coat, sat at the table, and began convincing Sally that she should chat with him. In spite of the law firm’s efforts to comfort the children, the mood was still awkward, even tense. Their mother was talking to a lawyer, and their lives were unsettled.
After an hour, the door to Mrs. Boone’s office opened. She and Mrs. Holland walked out and entered the conference room. Mr. Boone introduced himself properly; Mrs. Holland was too upset to say much. Her eyes were wet, and she dabbed them with a tissue. Mrs. Boone looked at Elsa and Mr. Boone and said, “Mr. Holland posted bond this afternoon and was released from jail around two. He’s charged with assault and has a court date next week. He’s been calling Mrs. Holland nonstop and leaving some messages that are threatening. It appears as though he’s driving around town, searching for his family.”
Mrs. Holland interrupted with, “And he’s drinking, I can tell.”
Mrs. Boone nodded and continued, “I’ve talked to the police, and they are looking for him. I have advised Mrs. Holland not to go home tonight and she agrees. There is a friend or two the family could possibly stay with, but her husband would probably find them. I’ve called the shelter and there’s no available space, at least not for tonight.”
“So we have to hide?” Pete asked.
“We’re hiding now,” his mother said.
“I just want to go home,” Sharon said, and began crying.
“We can’t go home,” Pete said sharply.
“What’s the plan?” Mr. Boone asked.
“I think we should go to our house and have a pizza party,” Mrs. Boone replied. “We’ll watch television and see what happens.”
“Great idea,” Mr. Boone said.
“I’ll get the pizza,” Elsa said, jumping to her feet.
Sally looked at Mr. Boone and managed to smile.
Two hours later, the Boones’ den was covered with quilts, pillows, and kids. The pizza was long gone. Sally huddled with her mother on the sofa while Pete, Sharon, Theo, Elsa, and Judge were sprawled about the floor, all watching reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond. Mr. Boone was in his study reading a book, and Mrs. Boone eased from room to room, occasionally talking quietly on the phone in the kitchen. Theo met her there and whispered, “What’s going on, Mom?”
She whispered back, “The police have not been able to find Mr. Holland. They can’t go home tonight; it’s just too dangerous. He’s probably drinking, probably drunk by now, and who knows what will happen. They’ll have to stay here tonight.”
Theo understood and didn’t mind protecting the family. “But what about tomorrow?”
“Mrs. Holland’s parents live about four hours from here. That might be an option, maybe for a few days. The police will eventually find Mr. Holland and arrest him again for making threats. I’ll probably go to court and ask the judge for a protective order. As of now, she says she wants to file for a divorce and get him out of the house, but that might not be so easy. I don’t know, Theo, we’ll just have to wait and see. Things could change by the hour. The important thing is to keep them safe.”
“She’s crazy if she doesn’t get a divorce.”
“It’s never that easy, Theo, believe me. A lot of women put up with abuse because they think they have to. They can’t afford to live without their husband and his job. I see this all the time.”
“I’m not going to be a divorce lawyer.”
“Let’s talk about that later, okay?”
“Sure, Mom, and thanks for doing this. I feel like I’m responsible.”
“You did the right thing, Theo. Lawyers have to get involved in unpleasant cases to help people. Who else could help at this point?”
“And they’re trying. You guys can sleep in the den and watch TV until late. Let’s try and make it fun.”
“Does this mean I can skip school tomorrow?”
“It does not.”
When Judge began growling at 2:14 a.m., he was standing near Theo’s head and staring at the front door less than twenty feet away. Theo woke up and knew something was wrong. He crawled to a window and saw a pickup truck parked at the curb by the mailbox. Then he saw a shadow move near the front steps.
“What is it, Theo?” Mrs. Holland whispered. She was on the sofa, wrapped up in a quilt with Sally. It was no surprise she had not been sleeping.
“Someone’s out there,” Theo said. He scampered to the foyer and turned on the outside lights. A split second later, a loud boom rattled the front door, again and again. A very angry man was yelling and banging with his fists. Judge began barking loudly as everybody in the house panicked and bolted upright. Mr. Boone yelled, “Call the police!” and Mrs. Boone went for the phone.
“Open up!” the man yelled as he banged away. “I know you’re in there, Carrie!”
“It’s Randy,” Mrs. Holland said. “Good old Randy. Drunk as a skunk.”
“Take the kids to the kitchen,” Mr. Boone said. He walked to the door and said, “We’re calling the police, Mr. Holland.”
“Open the door! I have the right to see my wife and kids.”
“They don’t want to see you right now. Please stop banging or you’ll wake up the neighbors.”
“Don’t really care. I want my family!”
“Why don’t you leave, and we’ll sit down tomorrow and discuss everything? There’s nothing to be gained by causing a bi
Judge was barking like an idiot but not advancing on the door. Mr. Boone growled, “Shut up, Judge. Theo, get the dog!”
“The police are right around the corner,” Mrs. Boone said softly as she stepped in from the kitchen. “Keep talking to him.”
Mr. Boone cracked the door but left the chain hooked. He looked at Randy through the glass of a metal storm door. When Randy saw the crack, he began banging away again. “Open the door! I want my wife and kids!”
“Please settle down, Mr. Holland,” Mr. Boone said. From across the street, the lights of the Ferguson home came on. Suddenly, Randy picked up a large rock from the flower bed and crashed it through the glass of the storm door. Mr. Boone managed to slam the wooden door just as everything shattered. Judge bravely retreated to a safe spot behind the sofa, whimpering. In the kitchen, Sally and Sharon were crying as Pete tried to console them.
“He’s crazy,” Mr. Boone said in shock.
“I told you so,” Carrie said from the kitchen doorway. “Crazy and drunk.”
“What a cheap door!” Randy yelled, and he began laughing. Theo was hiding behind a chair and peeking through the blinds. The man was indeed frightening. He was thick and burly, with a beard, and long hair sticking out from under a cap. He was weaving and staggering, obviously intoxicated. He took a step back and bellowed, “You think you’re so smart, don’t you, Carrie? Well, you’re pretty stupid. I found you by tracking your cell phone. Pretty stupid.” He almost fell off the stoop but caught himself on an iron railing.
Mr. Boone cracked the door about an inch and calmly said, “Mr. Holland, I’ve called the police and they are on the way. Now would you please settle down?”
“I don’t care who you call,” he yelled. “Call the cops, call the sheriff, call the FBI, hell, call the Marines for all I care. I just want to see my family.”
Calmly, Mr. Boone said, “Well, they don’t want to see you, and you’re headed back to jail if you don’t leave.”
“I ain’t leaving, okay, mister? Not without my wife and kids. You have no right to keep them in there.”
More lights from across the street. Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson were standing on the front porch in their pajamas. Randy tried to pick up another rock from the flower bed but lost his balance and fell into some shrubs. As he scrambled to get up, mumbling and cursing and wiping off dirt, he noticed the Fergusons watching him. This upset him, so he yelled, “Why don’t you folks just mind your own business?”
The Fergusons said nothing.
Randy pointed at them and yelled, “Bunch of nosy people in this neighborhood, that’s what I think. I might just come over there and throw a rock through your door. How would you like that?” But as he walked across the Boones’ front lawn, he lost his balance again, then tripped over his own feet. Down he went, tumbling and clawing to get up.
Thankfully, blue lights appeared at the end of the street.
Randy Holland surrendered without a fight, and when the policemen slapped on the handcuffs and led him to the patrol car, his family was watching from the front window, and all four were in tears.
With her husband back in jail, Mrs. Holland decided to return home and put the kids to bed. She thanked the Boones repeatedly, as did Pete and Sharon, and they left around 3:30. As Theo was helping his parents straighten up the den, he said, “Gosh, there’s no way I can go to school tomorrow. I’m already exhausted.”
To which his mother said sternly, “Then I suggest you get upstairs right now and go to sleep.”
“And take your dog with you,” Mr. Boone said. “What a great guard dog.”
“But what about school?”
“You can sleep until seven thirty,” Mrs. Boone said.
“Wow. Thanks. You guys are really sympathetic.”
“Knock it off,” Mr. Boone said. “I’m tired of the whining.”
The mood in the auditorium was somber early Tuesday morning as the entire eighth grade filed in. Ten perfect rows of seventeen desks each covered the floor, with four odd ones along the back wall. Each homeroom adviser showed his or her students to their places. Mr. Mount’s gang was in row two, and they sat in alphabetical order. Theo was third from the front, with Ricardo Alvarez and Edward Benton in front of him. To his right was a girl named Tess Carver; to his left was a girl whose first name was Lellie. He didn’t know her last name. There were 174 in all, and Theo knew most of them, but it was impossible to know everyone, especially the girls. The school was in its third year of an experiment that separated the eighth-grade boys and girls.
Theo nodded at Pete, who was four rows over and half the way back. He wondered if Pete was as tired as he was. Probably so. What a night. He himself was still rattled by what had happened. He couldn’t imagine the confused state of mind Pete was in.
The principal, Mrs. Gladwell, made a few opening remarks, boring standard stuff about trying to relax and trying to work efficiently. They would be on the clock, and it was important to finish each section, and so on. This had already been covered more than once. The tests would last for three hours, with only two short breaks, then lunch. They would then spend three hours each afternoon prepping for the next day’s tests. Friday afternoon seemed like a year away.
The teachers passed out the exams as quickly as possible. Theo had a knot in his stomach as he took his. When every student had an exam, Mr. Mount, the head proctor for the day, told them to begin. As the students began, their teachers fanned out through the auditorium in a display of force. The message was clear: Keep your eyes on your own exam.
The room was silent. The agony had begun.
During the lunch break, Theo ate hurriedly and went to find Pete. They walked the same path as the day before, along the edge of the playground and away from anyone else. Pete said he couldn’t go back to sleep after he got home, and he was too tired to think. He was blowing the exam and didn’t care. His mother had talked to the police, and they had assured her Mr. Holland would remain in jail for a few days, so at least they would be safe. “What’s a felony?” Pete asked.
“It’s a more serious crime. Misdemeanors are small crimes. Felonies are not. Why?”
“The police said he’s charged with a third-class felony called malicious destruction of property. I guess that means a lot of jail time, right?”
“Probably, but I doubt if he’ll get a long prison sentence. Just a few weeks in the county jail. Who knows?”
A divorce, a jail sentence, the loss of a job; it was a lot for a kid to comprehend. “Thanks for last night, Theo.”
“It was nothing.”
“My mom is supposed to see your mom this afternoon, I guess to talk about the divorce. I can’t believe this.”
“My mom is very good at finding ways to avoid divorce, Pete. She almost always gets the couple to agree to meet with a marriage counselor. Don’t give up yet.”
“And don’t give up on these tests either.”
“I’d like to run away right now.”
Me too, Theo wanted to say, but instead he played tough and said, “Can’t do that, Pete. You gotta buckle down and concentrate.”
The final bell rang at 3:30, and Theo was on his bike within seconds and flying away from the school. At the office, he said a quick hello to Elsa, his mother, and Judge, and raced five blocks to the VFW building where Troop 1440 met on the first and third Tuesdays of each month. This was the second Tuesday and not an official meeting, but when the Major, their scoutmaster, called, you didn’t ask questions.
Theo was a few months away from the big prize: Eagle Scout. He had twenty merit badges, including all but one of those required, and the Major was pushing him hard. He expected all of his Scouts to become Eagles. Theo suspected the Major wanted to review his progress, something he liked to do privately when the troop wasn’t meeting. He parked his bike next to Woody’s and went inside. The Major was chatt
ing with Cal, Woody, Hardie, and Mason, an eighth grader from East Middle School.
The boys gathered around their scoutmaster in folding chairs, and he said, “I understand this is a rough week for eighth graders, all that testing they put you through.”
“It’s awful,” Woody blurted.
Hardie said, “Four straight days of testing.”
The Major smiled and said, “Well, I have an idea. This troop has thirty-nine Scouts as of today and sixteen of those are in the eighth grade. I know you’re having a tough week so I have an idea for a little camping trip this weekend. It’s completely voluntary.”
The boys perked up. Nothing excited them like a weekend in the woods.
The Major continued: “There’s a new hike that’s been opened in the Sassaqua National Park, a forty-mile trail that requires two nights in the wild. You have to hike in with everything on your back—tent, sleeping bag, food, clothes, toilet paper. It has some tough spots, some cliffs and steep inclines, there’s a gorge and some caves. It runs along the Sassaqua River, in the most secluded part of the park, and the scenery is said to be spectacular. The plan is to take off Friday afternoon as soon as the tests are over. It’s about a two-hour drive, so we should get there well before dark. I think we can get five miles into the woods before we set up camp. Who’s in?”
The boys were almost too stunned to speak. The troop spent one weekend each month in the woods, and those adventures were not to be missed. This, though, was something even better. A small group of the best Scouts hiking with the Major and living out of their backpacks. They were all in!
Theo was beyond thrilled. Whatever was planned for his weekend would simply get shoved aside. Then Cal dropped his head and said, “Shoot. My grandmother is coming this weekend, and there’s no way I can leave town.”
“Sorry,” the Major said. “Woody, Hardie, and Theo—you guys call the other eighth graders and see who can go. We need to get this organized as quickly as possible.”
“What about the rest of the troop?” Theo asked.
“Well, I’ll promise the younger guys that this will become an annual hike, sort of a reward after the tests. For the older guys, I’ll find some way to make it up. I don’t foresee a problem.”
“Who cares about the older guys?” Woody said. “Let’s go.”
“Get it planned,” the Major ordered. “Use your checklists and don’t forget anything. You’ll be in the woods with no way out except on foot. Planning is crucial.”
Theo was required by family tradition to stop by his uncle Ike’s office every Monday afternoon for a visit. If Ike was in a good mood, the time was enjoyable. If Ike was in a bad mood, Theo didn’t stay very long. There was about a fifty-fifty split in Ike’s moods. He had once been a respected lawyer who specialized in tax matters. Now he kept the books for a few clients and didn’t make much money. He had once worked from a nice office over at Boone & Boone. Now he worked in a dump above a Greek deli and had no secretary. He once was married and had two children. Now he was divorced and the kids, now adults and Theo’s first cousins, never made it back to Strattenburg and had nothing to do with their father. According to Theo’s mother, Ike had once been quite stylish, with dark suits and fine silk ties. Now he wore faded jeans, sandals, and T-shirts, and he kept his long gray hair pulled tightly in a ponytail. As Theo was learning, the old version of Ike was far different from the one he knew.
And that was fine. Theo adored his uncle Ike, and the feeling was mutual.
Since Theo had spent Monday afternoon with the Holland family, he decided to stop by Ike’s on Tuesday after the quick and pleasant meeting with the Major. As always, Ike was at his desk, surrounded by piles of paperwork, with Bob Dylan playing softly on the stereo and a can of beer beside his phone. “Well, how’s my favorite nephew?” he asked, the same question every time.
Theo often wondered how and why adults got in the habit of asking the same questions over and over, but he knew there was no clear explanation. “I’m doing lousy, and I’m your only nephew.”
“Oh, that’s right. A full week of testing for robots. What a stupid idea. Back when I was a kid, teachers were allowed to teach, but now . . .” He held up his hands and said, “Sorry, I think we had this discussion last week.”
“We did. A drunk guy tried to break in our house last night,” Theo said with a smile. Before each visit he always tried to think of something interesting to tell Ike.
“Well, do tell,” Ike said as he sipped his beer.
With great enthusiasm, Theo told the story of the Holland family and Mr.