Devil's Lake National Park, my favorite place in the world. When I’m there, I feel free to do what I please, think what I like, and go where the wind takes me.
But it never seems to last long enough. Almost as soon as we get there, we’re packing up to go home. Back to the hum-drum life of washing dishes and cleaning the bathroom. And homework. But it was summer now, so I wouldn’t have to worry about homework for a while.
"Alex?” Dad absently flipped through the stack of today’s mail. “Are you daydreaming again?"
"Then you can empty the dishwasher."
That’s my dad, the cleanest and most efficient person in the world. Didn’t he ever make mud pies when he was a kid? Probably not.
I opened the dishwasher and began to put the clean dishes away.
Dad stacked the opened mail into a neat pile, then gathered up the empty envelopes. “Have you packed yet?”
“Alex, how could you forget? I’m leaving for Chicago this afternoon. You’re staying with Mrs. Nelson until I get back tomorrow.”
I groaned. No, I hadn’t forgotten. I just didn’t want to go. “Can’t I stay home by myself? It’s only one day. And I’m fourteen! Practically an adult.
Dad flicked a glance at me. “When you’re older.”
Does “older” ever really get here? Or is that just something parents say to silence their kids?
I trudged up the stairs to my room and threw some clothes and my toothbrush into a bag. I probably should have spent the rest of the day with Dad, but I didn’t. I shut my door and shoved earbuds into my ears until Dad let himself in. Apparently, I’m not old enough to have any privacy, either.
“Mrs. Nelson is at the hospital with a friend of hers, but she’ll pick you up in an hour or so. I have to leave now, though, or I’m going to miss my plane. Stay here and wait for Mrs. Nelson.”
“Sure.” Like I had a choice.
“I’ll call you when I get to the hotel.”
Dad loaded his suitcase into the trunk of the car and then backed out of the driveway. I watched until the taillights weren’t visible any more, and closed the drapes.
I flopped into the big armchair, turning on the television, and a rerun episode of That 70’s Show flickered across the screen. Were the 70’s really like that? Those kids seemed to have more freedom than I’d ever have. I wish I’d grown up with them.
A car pulled into the driveway across the street—Mrs. Nelson’s house. She patted her gray curls in the rear view mirror, then got out of her car and came to our front door.
“Hello, Alex!” Her face crinkled into a smile. “I’m so sorry I’m late. A friend of mine’s father had a stroke, and I was at the hospital. Where is your father?”
“He left for the airport. He said he’d call when he got to the hotel.”
“Very good, dear. I’ll just have a seat while you get your things.”
“Okay. Uh, do you want anything to drink?”
“Perhaps some water. It’s very important to stay hydrated, you know. My grandson got severely dehydrated once while they was abroad, and it worried my daughter to death. You just never know what medical care will be like in another country.” She sat down on the couch, still going on about her grandson and daughter and lots of other people I don’t know. I don’t understand why she tells me so much about people I’ve never met.
I handed her the glass of water, then edged toward the hallway. Maybe I could escape to my room under the guise of getting my stuff.
“Did you hear me? I said you really are lucky that you two have each other.”
“Oh.” I had no idea what she was talking about.
“You and your father, I mean. Have you heard anything I’ve said?”
Oops. “Um…I’m sorry, I guess I’m a little tired.”
“Well, I was telling you about my friend’s father in the hospital. The doctor’s don’t think he’ll make a full recovery, and he’ll need lots of help...” She went on to describe hospital smells and food and the incompetence of doctors, but my mind was stuck on one thing: lucky to have each other.
Yes, I suppose we are. My mother died just after I was born, and I never knew my grandparents. It was just Dad and me.
The phone rang. It was Dad.
“Hey, Dad,” I said. “Mrs. Nelson just got here.”
“Good. Listen to her, and I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said.
I took a deep breath for one final plea. “Can’t I stay home tonight? Please?”
“You know you can’t.”
“That’s not fair! Jesse gets to stay home by himself, and we’re the same age.”
Dad sighed. “Alex, life isn’t fair, and I’m responsible for keeping you safe.”
“But I am safe.”
“Yes, because I work very hard at keeping it that way.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Look,” said Dad. “People’s lives are different, and some need to make more sacrifices than others.”
Was he serious? “My whole life is a sacrifice!” I slammed the phone down.
“Alex, dear,” said Mrs. Nelson. “That was not nice.”
“I don’t care! He never lets me do anything.”
The phone rang again, but it was Dad so I didn’t pick it up. Mrs. Nelson did, though, and she began apologizing for my behavior. I don’t know why she would apologize since I’m the one who hung up on him, but whatever.
When she finished talking to Dad, she placed her delicate, wrinkled fingers on my arm. “Come on. Let’s go and have some supper.”
“Fine. I’ll get my stuff.”
I went up to my room and grabbed my duffle. Once Dad got home, I was surely going to be in for it for hanging up on him, so a little bit more couldn’t hurt. I tossed in a jacket and the spare house keys, then went with Mrs. Nelson to her house.
That night, as soon as I was sure Mrs. Nelson was asleep, I crept down the stairs. I left her a note on the kitchen table, put my jacket on over my pajamas, took a deep breath, and locked the door behind me.
My house was completely dark, almost forbidding. It seemed to know I wasn’t supposed to be there yet. But I had locked myself out of Mrs. Nelson’s house, so there was no other place to go. I hurried across the street and let myself in.
The silence was so complete it pressed against my ears. The only sound was the living room clock ticking. I didn’t even know that clock ticked! It was so loud—how could I have not noticed? I locked the front door and crept up to my room, the stairs creaking under my weight. It was like an amplifier had been placed under the treads. This was too weird. I ran the rest of the way up the stairs, threw down my bag, and dove into my bed. I shivered—only because the bed was cold, not because I was scared. Because I wasn’t.
I pulled the covers to my chin and buried my head in the pillow.
The phone woke me up the next morning. Mrs. Nelson said she found my note and wanted to make sure I was okay. She sounded a little hurt that I would leave in the middle of the night, which made me feel bad. She’s probably the closest thing I have to a grandmother, and I didn’t mean to upset her. I told her everything was fine, and said I was sorry for making her worry.
I got up to get some breakfast, and the house seemed different. Not like last night, though. Cheerier. Bigger. At peace. Well, until Dad got home. He would stop at Mrs. Nelson’s house first, expecting me to be there, and then he would come home knowing full well what I had done. I was toast.
I spent the day straightening up our neat little house, and even started supper. That might soften the blow a little.
Dad glowered at me. “You’re grounded for a month.”
“What’s the difference? You never let me do anything anyway.
“Now, that’s not true. And you are going to call Mrs. Nelson and apologize to her for leaving.”
“I already did. And I’m not staying at her house anymore.”
“So you think you’re making the rules now?”
“No, I just don’t want to stay there anymore. And if you make me, I’ll keep coming home in the middle of the night.”
Dad flinched, like I’d just slapped him in the face. He opened his mouth, closed it, then folded his arms across his chest. “You’re grounded for a month.” He strode out of the room.
A month had come and gone when Dad’s next business trip arrived. I expected to fight over Mrs. Nelson’s house again, but something very different happened.
“Alex, I have a question for you.” Dad he sat down next to me on the couch, turning off the TV. “It might not be all that fun because you’d have to go follow along to some pretty boring places, but would you like to come to Chicago with me?”
My mouth dropped open. “Really? You mean it? I can come with you?”
“Yes. I thought we could stay an extra day and go to the top of the Sears Tower or something.”
“That sounds really great, Dad. Really great.”
“Well then.” Dad nodded toward the stairs. “Go get packed.”
It turns out Chicago felt an awful lot like Devil’s Lake, even though they are nothing alike. Except, when we left, I didn’t feel like I was leaving it behind. I was bringing it home.