“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,” Gran muttered under her breath as she touched the side of Braidy’s face with soft, cotton hands. “How big was the boy?”
“He was pretty big,” Braidy replied. “He’s on the wrestling team, so he was strong. He held me down and he hit me.”
Gran smoothed out an unseemly wrinkle in her black, polka-dotted dress and straightened up. A few locks of her bristle-dry, gray hair fell from behind her head wrap she had tied around her chin and the top of her head, and she pushed it back into place with a huff. She exclaimed, “Well, I never—”
“Mom, it’s all being worked out,” Mrs. von Althuis interjected. “I’m going to call the dean and get it all sorted.”
“This kind of thing keeps happening again and again, Helen,” Gran replied as her Helper scuttled her to the kitchen. “Braidy gets hurt, you call the dean, the kids get detention or suspended, they come back to class and they do it again. In my day—”
“In your day they put kids on the rack for even the slightest of misdeeds. I know, Mom. You tell me that every time,” Mrs. von Althuis affirmed as she followed Gran into the kitchen. “But Braidy needs to go to school.”
Braidy followed and found the breakfast nook empty. The breakfast nook was inside the kitchen, just past the stairs to the basement, in front of the back door. An antique wooden table stood in the light of the sliding back door on the wood floor and four rickety wooden chairs with stiff seat cushions on them were tucked underneath. The seat cushions had on them a pattern consisting of small, pink flowers and smelled vaguely of cat hair and dust. A lot of things in the von Althuis home were old and out of date, but were never replaced because they belonged to Gran or to someone that she knew. He took a seat in one of the wooden chairs and folded his hands in his lap. He hated when his family fought over him. He knew it put a lot of stress on Gran and on his mother and he could not bear to see them hurting.
Gran’s Helper spun her around and she put her hands on her hips, just above where her light-blue, lacy apron tied. “Bull. I could teach him everything he needs.”
“Okay, so we homeschool him. What happens when he gets to High School? I don’t know advanced calculus. Do you?” Mrs. von Althuis snapped back.
“We can figure that out when we get there. Are you making dinner or not?”
Gran had gotten out everything necessary to make Matzo Ball soup and put it out onto the counter. The oven was preheating; Braidy could feel the kitchen heat. Next to the stove laid two large fennel bulbs, which looked like giant round hunks of white celery, frozen, home-made chicken stock, fresh herbs, eggs, shitake mushrooms, asparagus, and the most important part: matzo. Braidy’s favorite ingredients in the soup were the gooey, soft, fennel-filled balls that acted as dumplings. Fennel seeds were used to make licorice, Braidy’s father had said, and the licorice flavor permeated the broth and the vegetables as well.
Mrs. von Althuis huffed and pulled an apron on over her dress as she prepared to cook. Gran’s Helper knelt to put Gran at Braidy’s eye-level and Gran put her soft hand on Braidy’s face again. Her little felt face was wrought with worry and it made Braidy feel guilty. Her brown, glassy eyes peered over a bulbous nose that would make any storybook witch proud and they gazed blankly in the direction of Braidy’s forehead. Her rosy cheeks flushed from the kitchen heat and Braidy sighed out of shame. She analyzed his wound and eventually came to a conclusion.
“Go upstairs and get Elizaveta, would you, dear?” Gran insisted. “Have her make something for your face. We’ll have you looking right again in no time. Please wash up and change into something clean. Dinner will be ready soon.”
“Yes, Gran,” replied Braidy. He hopped up from his chair and moved to the stairs. Aunt Liz was only ever two places in the house: out in the backyard or in her room; and it was nearly night, so the former seemed unlikely. Braidy climbed the stairs to the upper level, where he reached a split. To his right were his room and his mother’s and father’s master suite, directly in front of him was the bathroom he shared with his cousin, and to his left were his cousin’s bedroom and Aunt Liz’s quarters. He took a left, heading toward her personal space. He was about to round the banister when he slammed into someone who came around at the same time. Braidy backed up a step as his cousin Blockhead’s hot coffee sloshed forward in his cup, and then backward over his bare hand.
The hot coffee instantly started to burn his skin and Blockhead began to fan himself in a panic, his head clunking as it spun to shift his expression to sad. He looked around hysterically for a place to put the coffee down and eventually just rushed to the open bathroom that was nearby. The coffee cup clinked on the tile counter and Blockhead reemerged, gesturing violently at his burning hand. The coffee stained the edge of his dark blue dress shirt and a little bit even splashed onto his grey cardigan, and he pointed angrily at the dark brown coffee spot. His face did not begin to express the way that he felt, which was the way it was with Blockhead.
Attached to Blockhead’s neck was a huge, perfectly square hunk of wood that resembled a small child’s alphabet block toy. However, instead of letters, four different wooden, painted faces were etched into the sides: Happy, Sad, Surprised and Neutral. Braidy was certain that Blockhead felt somewhere in between sad, surprised and angry, but he did not have an angry face to display the appropriate emotion.
“Sorry! Go run it under some cold water!” Braidy apologized.
Blockhead skidded back into the bathroom on his polka-dotted socks and turned on the faucet all the way, and Braidy continued around the corner to Aunt Liz’s room. The door was closed and the warm smell of herbs, spices and fruit wafted out from behind it. It was a pleasant but strong scent that Braidy could never forget; it smelled like a river, like the earth, like Aunt Liz.
Knock, knock. Braidy rapped his knuckle on the door.
“Come in,” Aunt Liz called from inside.
Braidy opened the door to her personal space and eyed around the clutter to try and find Aunt Liz’s form. A four-poster bed was draped in dried willow leaves that were replaced every year and the floor was a maze of sticks, flowers and leaves that had been laid into mathematically perfect patterns on the shag carpet. Her walls were plastered with diagrams explaining plant anatomy and prints of different species of birds, and books were stuffed onto shelves in all sorts of arrangements with little to no care for the safety of the book.
Aunt Liz was seated on the windowsill in her reading nook, gazing at a leather tome. The curtains were open and the afternoon sun streamed in, hot and bright, illuminating the page she was on. Her long, stringy, yellow hair fell into her lap and onto the book, and her skirt dipped over the side of the seat; the sheer material that covered the opaque body of the skirt was ratty, stained and old. A huge knitted shawl fell around her shoulders and moths fluttered around her head. Braidy knew she would not look up unless he asked so he cleared his throat.
“Gran was wondering if you might be able to help me with my face.”
“Your face? What’s wrong with your—” Aunt Liz glanced up from her book and sighed heavily, “Again?”
“Come here,” she beckoned as she stood up from her seat, her bare feet stepping delicately between the things on the floor, and she moved over to a tea kettle on an electric burner on her dresser. She switched it on and the small kettle began to hiss as the water warmed up. Aunt Liz had everything she needed in her room to make all sorts of brews and tonics and was a master of the herbal arts. Her expertise was in plants and the way they lived and grew, as well as the magickal properties of herbs and seeds. Incense burned and plants hung from the ceiling to dry in order to create spices for cooking and remedies. She delicately cared for plants as much as she cared for him, so his aunt was the first person he would always go to whenever he sustained an injury.
Braidy stepped through the clutter to his aunt and he smiled at her, saying, “How was your day?”
“It was rather nice. I’ve talked with the Maple Hills City Museum and they want me to do a ghost history tour again this fall, so I’m preparing for that. I’ve been reading loads and loads of gho-o-ost books,” she replied, making a spooky noise and reaching to tickle him.
“I can’t wait to go again this year. Your last one was rather good.”
“I don’t have much new material, but I did find some interesting, spooky things that I didn’t know about before in an old newspaper I found.”
“Cool. How does Uncle Rolo feel about it?”
“He keeps insisting that I put him into the tour and I keep having to tell him no.”
Braidy chuckled, “He’s so weird.”
“Are you going back to school tomorrow?”
“I don’t want to, but I think I’m going to have to.”
“Shame. I’d much rather have you stay home. This happens every week.”
“I know. Mom says she’s not concerned because she’s so close, being in the middle school and all that, but it’s not like she’s able to swoop in and stop them from hitting me. One of the kids from last time, Michael Moore, got expelled for treating me so horribly. It only took them a month to figure out he was no good.”
“Maple Hills Elementary is supposed to be one of the best elementary schools in the state.”
“Well, it’s the only elementary school in Maple Hills, so it’s not like I could go anywhere else. I’m excited to be done with it. I can’t wait until middle school. I get to pick my classes next year, you know.”
“That sounds exciting! Then you’ll get your mother as a teacher!”
“It should be pretty neat, but I hope she doesn’t make too big of a deal about it and try and save me all the time. I don’t want to be a distraction for her.”
Aunt Liz nodded and folded her arms as she leaned against the dresser. She agreed, “Your mother thinks she’s Supergirl.”
“I know. Say, do you have anything for burns?”
“You’re burnt, too?”
“No, Blockhead spilled some coffee onto his hand.”
“That dummy. I don’t know why he carries that coffee around with him. He can’t drink it without a mouth.”
“I asked him and he said it was for aesthetic.”
The copper teakettle started to screech and Aunt Liz removed it from the burner. She poured scalding hot, boiling water into a ceramic coffee mug that took the shape of a giraffe and then set the kettle onto a crocheted hot pad. Moving away from the antique, wooden dresser, she floated her way through the things on the floor like a petal on a summer breeze as she looked for a specific plant. Eventually she settled on something that looked like a bright yellow pompom and picked it up, bringing it back to the cup. The flower went into the water and she let it soak.
“What’s that?” Braidy asked.
“It’s a marigold. I planted loads of them in the garden this summer. They’re typically the last things alive this time of year. They help your skin heal if you put it on the surface or drink it.”
“What does it taste like?”
“Flowery,” Aunt Liz replied.
“Oh. I’ve never had a flowery tea before.”
“Does Helen have pineapple juice in the fridge?”
“I don’t know, but I can ask.”
“Take this cup,” she instructed as she passed Braidy the hot ceramic glass, “and take it downstairs. Pour some pineapple juice in the cup, though pineapple pulp would be best, apply some of this juice to a wet rag and dab it on your eye. If it cools down, wet it again until the mixture is all gone.”
Braidy gazed down at the yellow flower floating listlessly in the cup. The giraffe’s head curled around the edge of the mug and it looked up at Braidy with doleful eyes. He wondered, if the giraffe could talk, if it would tell him what it was so sad about.
“Are you okay?” Aunt Liz asked. “You’re zoning out a little bit, bud.”
“Nah, it’s nothing. Just checking out this cool mug.”
“If you need anything else, come and get me, okay? Send Blockhead my way if you see him, would you?”
“Thanks, Aunt Liz,” Braidy answered and left the room, closing the door behind him.
The mug was rather full and he moved slowly, his socks dragging on the soft carpet, to the bathroom that Blockhead had washed his hand in. The water slished back and forth threateningly, almost daring to jump over the edge of the mug and onto the floor. The liquid in the cup slowly stained a bright yellow, the flower seeping its dye out as it boiled in the heat. If the liquid tipped over the edge, the fluid would stain the white, rose-spattered carpet and his mother would have a fit. Luckily enough, the coffee that had dripped out of Blockhead’s cup had hit the hardwood and it seemed that Blockhead had already laid down some vinegar on the drops that did hit the carpet. Braidy could hear him in his room, clicking away on his computer, probably writing a film review or an essay on a new music album. He set the mug down onto the glossy, cream sink in the bathroom and rushed down the stairs again.
“Hey, Mom?” he called into the kitchen, as he spun around the door frame.
“Yes, love?” she replied from the stove.
“Do we have any crushed pineapple?”
Mrs. von Althuis furrowed her eyebrows as she glanced up from the stove, a spoon in hand. A delicious, fennel aroma filled the kitchen as the bulb baked in the oven and the beginnings of the broth bubbled in the pot. Braidy’s stomach growled in anticipation as he watched his mother tap broth off of her wooden spoon. “We may have one,” she pondered, “but I’m not sure. Check in the cabinet by the corn.”
Braidy stepped to the left of the kitchen door and into the breakfast nook. Next to the basement door was the pantry. Inside were dozens of cans of corn, as well as a couple of cans of ravioli in red sauce, and Braidy parted them to get at the older cans in the back, which were dusty and dented. He spun a few around to get a better look at their labels: green beans, no, creamed spinach, definitely not. There was the crushed pineapple, stuffed way in the back corner. Braidy mashed his face against the cabinet frame to reach back into the corner and eventually was able to pull the can forward with his fingertips. It slid toward him and when he moved back to his mother, Mrs. von Althuis handed him a can opener.
“What’s the pineapple for?” she asked.
“My eye,” he explained. “It’s supposed to help.”
Braidy pried open the can and transferred half of the contents into a large plastic bowl and the rest into a Tupperware container, which promptly was placed into the fridge. “I’m going to shower real quick,” he said, “and I’ll be right back down.”
“Hurry, love. Your father will be on break soon and the fennel is almost done baking.”
Braidy took the pineapple bowl with him upstairs into the bathroom and dumped the hot tea into it. The water had cooled a little and Braidy was able to use his hand to slosh the mixture around. While it was soaking, he moved into his own bedroom where he intended to get clean clothes. He tossed his dirty, dusty clothes into his hamper and folded his ascot carefully, placing it onto the top of his dresser. He opened the dresser and pulled out a comfortable pair of pajamas to wear after he washed and, after he had decided that all was right in his bedroom, returned to the bathroom.
During the hot shower the gauze on his legs protected the wounds from water and he had soaked up pineapple bits and tea into a washcloth to apply to his face. The small bathroom filled with steam and fogged the mirror, and Blockhead’s music that came from his computer vibrated through the thin bathroom wall. Braidy spent fifteen minutes just standing, rinsing the dirt from his arms and legs, until the hot water started to run out and he knew it was time to be done.
The pajamas were comfortable and soft and he felt fresh and clean after the nice shower. He breathed in the comforting scent of fabric softener and wiped a big streak of steam off of the mirror to get a good look at his puffy face. The brew and the heat had helped reduce the swelling and he was starting to look normal again, but a huge purple bruise began to form a mottled stain on his skin, yellowing in places where his bone met his flesh. He thought he looked rather like an English boxer but was sure the dull aching pain would return in the morning, despite his brave appearance. When he heard the low mumble of jovial conversation through the floor he decided it would be time to go down and eat a nice von Althuis Family Dinner. His stomach rumbled in agreement, and he thumped down the wooden stairs and entered the dining room.
Everyone worked hastily at the table to prepare the meal when he entered. Gran helped to set the table, and Mrs. von Althuis put out a steaming, huge pot of soup. Braidy could see the dumplings floating in it and could not wait to put them in his mouth. Wonder what’s for dessert, he thought to himself. He jogged over to his seat next to Blockhead, who scrolled through his social media feed on his new, waterproof cellphone, and slid the chair in toward the table as close as he could. A dark, leathery spot coated his cousin’s hand and he had smeared aloe vera all over it, probably at the request of Aunt Liz. To Blockhead’s right was Mrs. von Althuis, and across from him were Gran and Aunt Liz. An empty chair sat to Gran’s right, and another at the head of the table.
“Where is Rolo? We need to say grace,” Aunt Liz complained.
“Calm your buns. I’m right here,” Uncle Rolo said as he phased up through the floor. Uncle Rolo shook his arm to adjust his grey suit jacket and removed his straw fedora, placing it on the post of the chair. “I wouldn’t miss Matzo ball soup, even if I were six feet under. Where’s Boris?”
“Honey!” Mrs. von Althuis called. “Dinner’s on the table!”
In a puff of black smoke, Mr. von Althuis materialized at the head of the table, a cell phone in his hand. “Hey, babe.”
“Can you put it away for just a moment?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he replied, slipping it into his pocket. “Sorry. I had to let Dr. Kumar know I was stepping out for a moment.”
Braidy’s father was not like most fathers, and he knew that. He wore a business suit like most fathers, he had a respectable job like most fathers, and he supported a family like most fathers, but Mr. von Althuis was very special. At least, special was the word that Mrs. von Althuis used. Gran used the word unique. Uncle Rolo used the word spooky. Braidy used the word awesome. In place of Mr. von Althuis’ head was a huge ball of fire, calm and curved like the flame on a candle, and it hovered above the stump that stood in place of a normal neck. Mr. von Althuis had always been this way and Braidy had never thought anything of it until he realized that no one else had fathers as “unique,” or “special,” or “spooky,” or even as “awesome” as his father.
Mr. von Althuis took his black suit jacket off and hung it on the back of the chair, revealing a red dress shirt, pulled his chair back, and sat. Blockhead put his phone down between his legs and set his hands out for Mrs. von Althuis to take, as well as Braidy. Braidy took it and the rest of the family joined hands together as they sat. Mr. von Althuis squeezed Braidy’s hand and took a deep breath in.
“Praise the heavens and the earth for the gifts we have reaped. Let’s join together now, enjoy the company, and eat!”
Another good, hearty squeeze was delivered to Braidy’s hand, and everyone pulled away. Mrs. von Althuis stood and went for the ladle in the soup but Uncle Rolo rose to his feet and put a hand up.
“Don’t worry about it, sis; I got it.”
Uncle Rolo took his suit jacket off as well, mirroring his brother, and began to roll up the sleeves of his dress shirt to avoid splashing them with the broth.
“Well, thank you, Rolo,” Mrs. von Althuis hesitated as she sat. “How kind of you.”
“Oh,” Uncle Rolo cooed as he ladled some soup into Aunt Liz’s bowl, “you know how I am, loving and considerate and—”
“You shut your lying mouth,” Gran retorted as her Helper hit Rolo’s wrist with her silver spoon. “This doesn’t change anything.”
“You think so low of me that I would try and manipulate you into ending our little agreement?” Uncle Rolo gasped, placed his free hand over his heart as he served his sister another helping of soup, and he snuck a wink at Braidy. “Well, I never…”
“So what happened at school today, squirt?” Mr. von Althuis asked as he passed a serving plate with rolls on it. “Your mother said you got into trouble again.”
“A kid hit me in the face. See?” Braidy explained as he turned his face square to his father so he could compare sides. “It’s all puffy and red.”
“Again?” Mr. von Althuis’ flame that was his head flickered violently in disgust. He took a deep breath and the flames changed from a warm, comfortable orange to a cool blue. He asked, “Did the kids get in trouble? What about the kid that tried to stick a lizard in your hair?”
Braidy shrugged and replied, “Oh, he got expelled, I’m pretty sure. And I’m not sure about the other kids. I think so, but they always come back and do the same thing again anyway. Look, they pushed me down into the gravel and I scraped my shins.”
“My heavens,” Mr. von Althuis exclaimed as Braidy rolled up a pajama pant leg to show his father the gauze. “That’s it. The boy is never going back to that wretched place.”
“Hooray!” Braidy exclaimed out of joy. Now, he was the luckiest boy in the whole world.
“Boris,” Helen retorted. “He has to go to school.”
“He doesn’t have to do anything and I won’t stand for my boy coming home with bruises and scrapes every week! Someone has to knock some sense into those kids. When you went to school, there was never any kind of activity like this. It’s the Internet that’s making them violent, I think.”
Blockhead, who had been looking at his phone again, slowly and nervously lowered it back down beneath the tablecloth.
“I have a meeting scheduled with the dean and the principal again,” Mrs. von Althuis replied. “We are going to talk about maybe putting Braidy into a special program or something to—”
“Ho-o-omesch-o-o-ol,” Gran sung over Mrs. von Althuis. “That’s what I’ve been saying this whole time.”
“Let me at those kids,” Uncle Rolo offered as he grinned a huge, perfect, cat-like smile. “I’ll sock ‘em silly.”
“You know very well you can’t leave the house,” Gran argued.
“And you can’t punch children, Rolo,” Mrs. von Althuis objected. “They’re nine, ten years old. They don’t know any—”
“They know well enough,” Mr. von Althuis interrupted. “Kids learn everything from television and video games. They think because it’s okay to punch and shoot people in the virtual world that it’s perfectly fine to do it in the real world.”
“I, for one,” Uncle Rolo interrupted, “am a huge fan of video games. Have you all played the newest Command of Hon—”
“We can’t just pull him. The school year just started. Can we give him until the end of the year and then decide?” Braidy’s mother proposed. “That will give us some time to plan and the transition will be less harsh.”
“I would like to be homeschooled,” Braidy interjected. “Then I can wake up whenever I want and go play in the yard whenever I want.”
“Also, the gardenias can’t punch you in the face,” Uncle Rolo quipped.
Mr. von Althuis sat silent for a moment and gazed deeply into his empty bowl. He had never been served any soup and never needed to be. He, Uncle Rolo, Blockhead and Gran could not eat any food, so family dinnertime was mostly about the experience and spending time together. “Fine,” he finally stated. “We’ll wait until the end of the year and see what happens, but if he comes home hurt again, I’m going down to the principal’s office myself.”
Everyone in the family silenced and gazed at Mr. von Althuis, who folded his hands across his lap. Uncle Rolo, after moments of silence, stood quickly, grabbed his hat and coat, and blurted, “Well, it’s been fun, but this is too awkward for me. I’m out.”
He floated up through the ceiling and out of sight and Blockhead pulled out his phone again to look at it. His shoulders shrugged silently as he chuckled at something (another cat picture, Braidy suspected), and Braidy finished off the broth in his bowl. He was a little disappointed that a good meal had to be dampened by arguments that should not even have to happen in the first place. Mr. von Althuis could not come to school, and Braidy knew that. If he came to school people would not like it and Mr. von Althuis never left the house for that reason.
“Please don’t fight over me,” Braidy requested. “I’ll be okay. I’ll just stay away from the other kids. I can stay inside during recess and read. I don’t mind.”
“We’ll get it all sorted out, lovey. Don’t stress,” Mrs. von Althuis sighed. “It’s not fair that you are treated this way and I want to make sure that is apparent to the school board. I don’t want to have to move.”
“We cannot possibly move,” Mr. von Althuis retorted. “The von Althuis family has lived in this house since the eighteenth century.”
“I’ve worked so hard on this house,” Gran agreed.
“I don’t want to be the cause of everyone’s worry. I just want to be a normal kid and go to school without getting picked on. That’s all,” Braidy concluded.
Mr. von Althuis sighed and inhaled as though he was going to say something when his phone vibrated. He held up a finger and went to answer it, muttering as he left, “I’ll be right back.”
Aunt Liz ate a dumpling off of her spoon as he left and the dining room was nearly silent except for Mr. von Althuis’ distant chatter: “Hello, you’ve reached Boris with MediLife. How can I help your health today?”
“May I be excused?” Braidy muttered. “I’m pretty tired and my face hurts. I think I’m going to go take an ibuprofen.”
“You don’t want more? You normally have two bowls,” Mrs. von Althuis remarked.
“I’m not that hungry tonight, Mom. I’ll take some leftovers to school tomorrow.”
Braidy stood and pushed his wooden, antique chair in, the floral area rug catching on the worn legs. As he stood, Blockhead, whose neutral face gazed down at his phone, clasped him on the shoulder before he left. Braidy made his way up the stairs and into his bathroom, where he brushed his teeth and washed his face. He turned the light off in the bathroom and moved to the bedroom where he performed the classic “turn off the light and run” maneuver as he dove into his bed. His down sheets enveloped him like marshmallows and a small sliver of light leaked into the room from underneath the wooden door. The glow-in-the-dark stars that littered his ceiling illuminated a dull green after he shut his light off and he went to bed wondering if stars were ever bullied for shining too bright.