Fourth grade started, and Tor and I were in the same class. Rocco and Akita were in a different class, but we still got to see them a lot at recess and lunch and sometimes on weekends.
On the second day of school at recess, Tor and I were under the playground equipment playing Pokémon (Rocco and Akita had left us for the swings) when two girls, one pale and one tan, came up and asked if they could play too. Tor scrunched his face at me, but I thought it was nice of the girls to ask, so I said, “Of course.”
“I’m Holly,” the tan girl said. “I’m new here.”
“I’m Meghan,” the pale girl said.
“You were in my class last year,” Tor said. Meghan nodded.
I let Meghan take over my cards and battle Tor. She wasn’t very good, but I knew she could get better, just like I had.
“What’s your name?” Holly asked.
“That’s cool. I like it. Do you like my name?”
“I like it, too. It’s natural. You know, like the plant. Holly.”
I nodded. “Gray is natural, too. Like the color.”
Holly smiled. “Natural things are great.”
“Like the bees. And the sky. And not hearing cars.”
Holly told me about her mom, who only ever used a car when they moved or had to go so far that they couldn’t walk or bike. She said her mom was going to install solar panels, because nuclear energy emitted toxic waste and cars were bad because they emitted CO2 and people destroyed things and hurt animals getting the gas it took to power them.
I told Holly where I lived, and it turned out that she lived on the same road, but closer to the grocery store. I told her that she could come over to my house after school, or Tor and I could come to her house and help her and her mom plant things.
“Are you related?” Holly asked me, pointing at Tor.
“No,” I said, laughing. “His mom started working again so neither of his parents can be home to take care of him until 5:30.”
My parents, or my Uncle Jeremy, weren’t home until later either, but Tor’s parents decided they trusted my Grandma, even though she mostly just cooked dinner and read books. Lisa and Mary took care of my sisters until our parents got home, but they never bothered me.
That day after school, Holly got off the bus at my house with Tor and I. We took Kiara and Mady inside, dropped our backpacks in my room, and then went outside. Tor and I showed Holly the trails, which she loved, and told her about playing Lewis and Clark and marking our own trails. Holly said she would play Sacagawea because she was the most important character, and Tor and I gave her high fives.
After we were done looking at the trails it was almost time for dinner, and Holly said she should get home. Tor said that his mom could drive her home when she came to pick him up, but Holly said she didn’t need a car, and she just had to walk down the road to get home. Tor’s mom picked him up not long after she left.
The next day, Holly convinced us to get off the bus at her house, so we did.
“We have to get back to Gray’s house before my mom comes or she won’t know where to pick me up,” Tor said, wringing his hands.
“You’ll get back,” Holly promised.
“Yeah, we’ll get back,” I told Tor. “Don’t worry.”
I don’t know what I expected from Holly’s house, but it was different than I imagined in almost every way. It was in the process of being painted a nice yellow, which I really liked. There were trees all around it, and closer to the house, there were gardens where Holly and her mom had planted a bunch of flowers.
“We have more herbs and stuff inside,” Holly said. “My mom makes herbal remedies and soap and jewelry and sells them, mostly online, but she has a workshop in the garage. Plus she’s a masseuse.”
“A what?” Tor and I said.
“It means she gives professional massages.”
“Oh,” we said.
Holly showed us the inside of her house, which was even smaller than Tor’s. After we saw her room, we went down to the garage.
“Whoa,” I said when the door opened. There were tables on both sides of the garage that were covered in wrapped soaps and oils and other things. Under all of the tables there were boxes and envelopes. In the corner, there was a smaller table with a computer on it, where a woman was sitting.
“Hi Mom,” Holly said. The woman looked up at us with the brightest blue eyes I had ever seen. “Holly! And friends! Welcome,welcome. Sorry for the mess.” She got up and came over. She pulled Tor and I into a big hug. “You must be…” she pointed at me. “Gray?”
“And Tor,” she said, looking at Tor. “Beautiful! Holly described you two so well.”
Holly smiled at us, and Tor and I looked at each other nervously.
“I’m Iris,” Holly’s mom said. “You can come here for anything you need, any time.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Thanks,” Tor echoed. “It smells good out here.”
“Thank you,” Iris said. “I try to make it a nice environment for my work. What are you all up to?”
We all shrugged.
“Well, you’re welcome to stay for dinner,” she said.
“We’re vegan,” Holly said.
“Vegan?” I asked.
“We don’t eat animal products,” Iris said. “All of these animal butcherers are just exacerbating climate change.”
Tor and I looked at each other, and he shrugged.
“We need to get back to my house so his parents know where to pick him up,” I said.
“Why don’t you use our phone and tell them where you are?” Iris asked. “Holly, show them the phone.”
“I don’t know,” Tor said. “My parents don’t like me going to strangers’ houses before they meet them.”
“We’re not strangers,” Holly said.
“Your parents can meet me anytime,” Iris said, heading back to her computer.
“We can go to Gray’s house,” Holly said. “But maybe tell your Mom to stop here when she picks you up.”
Tor nodded, and we walked to my house.
“I like your mom,” I told Holly.
“Me too,” she said. “She makes really good food, so you guys will have to come eat some time.”
“Food without meat?” Tor asked. “No thanks.”
“It’s better than meat,” Holly promised.
I didn’t like meat that much anyway, except ham and bacon, so I smiled at Holly, and she smiled back.
Tor’s mom eventually met Holly’s mom, so we started going to her house after school. Sometimes we helped Iris address her packages, and sometimes we helped her water her herbs. She always made good food for us, and even Tor decided he liked it.
When Holly figured out that I struggled with school work, she helped me with my homework. She was really smart, and when she explained things they made a lot more sense than when the teacher said it.
One weekend, my parents called me up to the living room and told me that we needed to talk. I sat down on the couch, my stomach churning. I worried that somehow they found out that I knew about my cousin, but then they called Lisa and Mary down.
“I joined yearbook club, and I decided to try out for tennis,” Lisa told me.
“Cool,” I said, but I didn’t really care.
“Mary, Gray,” Mom said. “I think you’re both old enough to realize that Grandma isn’t quite here anymore.”
“She’s in her room, isn’t she?” I asked.
“She means mentally,” Mary said. “Grandma doesn’t really talk to us anymore, and she never helps me and Lisa with the kids.”
“Even her cooking is getting worse,” Lisa said.
I shrugged. I hadn’t noticed the cooking.
“The point is,” Dad said, “Gray, you’re going to have to start taking on new responsibilities.”
“Like what?” I asked, my heart sinking.
“You’re going to have to help Mary watch the girls after school. She can’t do it alone, and Lisa won’t be home until just before your mother and I get home.”
“Later on game days.” Lisa said.
“But,” I said, trying to express all of my emotions. “I’m only nine. And I have friends--”
“You’re almost ten,” Dad said. “We think it’s time for you to start taking more responsibility in the family.”
I wanted to cry. I wouldn’t even be ten until February, and I wanted to be with Holly and Tor, because they made me happy. “Can’t you ask Weston to come home?” I asked, knowing it wasn’t possible. “Or Uncle Jeremy?”
Dad shook his head. “You know we can’t do that. Jeremy finally has a real job that he likes. We’re not going to ask him to quit.”
Then why do I have to quit what I like? Gray wanted to scream.
“It’ll be fine, Gray,” Mary said, seeing the tears in my eyes.
I stood up, punched the pillow off the couch, and ran to the front door. I opened it and sprinted out to the trail before anyone could catch me. When I was in the trees, where no one could really navigate except me and Tor, and maybe Holly, I sat down and cried. I picked up twigs and snapped them, wondering why Grandpa had to die and Weston had to be away for college and Lisa had to join her stupid clubs.
I couldn’t help with my sisters. They didn’t even like me. Amy screamed when I tried to help her, and Mady and Kiara only played with dolls and other stupid things. Plus, Holly and Tor wouldn’t want to play with them either, and then they wouldn’t come over because they didn’t want to play with my sisters.
By the time I stopped crying, I heard Mom and Dad calling my name out on the mowed trail. I felt bad for worrying them, but I was also really mad at them. I made a plan to tell Tor and Holly that they didn’t have to be my friends anymore, and then I went back to the house.
I ran into Mom on the way back, and she hugged me and told me never to run off again, but I couldn’t promise her that I wouldn’t. She talked to me about growing up and responsibility all the way back to the house, which made me want to cry again.
The next day at lunch, I told Holly, Tor, Akita, Rocco, and Meghan about what my parents said. Meghan said she was always having to be an “example” for her sister Anna, so she knew how annoying parents could be about responsibility.
“We don’t have to stop coming over just because you have to help with your sisters,” Tor said.
“Unless your parents said so,” Holly said.
“They didn’t say that,” I said. “But my sisters are boring.”
“That’s okay,” Holly said. “We can do other stuff as long as we’re in the same room as them and we can help them if they’re crying, right?”
“Yeah, that should work,” I said. “Mary is used to taking care of them, so she’ll be more help when they cry anyway.”
“They’re not babies, are they?” Rocco asked.
Tor laughed. “You’ve been to his house.”
“I didn’t pay attention.”
“They’re not babies,” I said. “Amy is the littlest, and she’s three.”
“What about the other ones?” Holly asked.
“Kiara and Mady.”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know how old your own sisters are?” Akita asked.
“I just remembered Amy because her birthday was in the summer,” I said, blushing.
“He has a lot of sisters,” Tor said.
“And a brother,” I added, “but he’s in college.”
After school, Holly, Tor, and I got off the bus at my house. We took Kiara and Mady inside, put down our backpacks, and went upstairs to find Mary. She and Amy were sitting on the floor reading a story.
“Hi,” I said.
Mary looked up. “Hi. We’re busy. Can you make sure Kiara and Mady get a snack and do their homework?”
“Sure,” I said. I turned around to go downstairs, and Holly and Tor followed me. “No one ever made sure I did my homework,” I told them.
“That’s probably why you forgot it so much,” Tor said.
We found Kiara and Mady in the kitchen pulling cereal out of the cabinet.
“Is that your snack?” I asked.
“Duh,” Mady said.
“We can help you pour it,” I said.
“I can do it,” Kiara said. “And then we’ll do our homework.”
“So you don’t need me?” I asked.
“I have math,” Mady said. “Lisa always helped me.”
I was too scared to help with math, so I looked at Holly and Tor. Holly shrugged. “I’m good at math.”
After the girls got their cereal and settled down, Holly helped them with their homework. Since Tor and I weren’t needed, we went down to my room to play Pokémon. We were in the middle of a game when Holly came down. “Your sisters are so nice, Gray.”
I looked up. “Not really.”
“Yes really,” Holly said. “They’re so well-mannered. They thanked me for helping them and cleaned up their own messes.”
“Good for them,” Tor said, and we went back to the game. Holly crossed her arms and sat down next to me. “If you guys are just going to play Pokémon, I might take Kiara’s offer to come to their tea party.”
Tor and I laughed. “Tea party?”
“Yeah,” Holly said. “I never had sisters to play with, and I don’t want to play Pokémon right now.”
I shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
Holly left my room, and Tor and I finished our game. When we were done, we went upstairs and grabbed granola bars out of the pantry.
“If Holly wants to play with them, you don’t really have to watch them,” Tor said.
“But don’t you want to hang out with Holly?” I asked.
“She doesn’t like video games, so we never get to play them anymore.”
“Maybe we can play them while she plays with the girls,” I said. “I just don’t want her to not be our friend.”
“It’ll be fine,” Tor said. I believed him, so we went to the living room and turned on the Wii. We played Mario Kart until Holly, Mady, Kiara, and Amy came downstairs with stuffed animals.
“Gray, do you want to play animals?” Kiara asked.
“Not now,” I said, trying not to fall off of Rainbow Road.
“Please guys?” Holly asked.
I fell off, and Tor crossed the finish line. I rolled my eyes at him, but he shrugged. “I don’t have mine.”
“You can use one of Gray’s,” Holly suggested.
“Fine,” I said. Tor and I went downstairs. I grabbed my stuffed dog, who I had called Barky since I was little, and I gave Tor my stuffed bear, who my parents had named Rocky.
“I like Rocky,” Tor said, giving him a quick squeeze. I smiled, and we went upstairs to find the girls.
Tor and I convinced them to change the game from veterinarian to animal secret agents, and we actually had fun, even though Amy didn’t understand the game. By the time Tor’s mom got there, Amy was tired of playing and went upstairs crying so Mary could read her more stories.
“Time to go, Tor,” his mom said, waiting at the front door.
“But we’re just about to save the day,” Tor said, putting Rocky on the dining room table.
“Now, Tor,” his mom said. “Dinner is getting cold.”
“Pizza?” Tor asked, grinning.
His mom nodded, and Tor grabbed his backpack and ran out to the car.
“Bye Mrs. Muolo,” Holly said, waving.
Tor’s mom waved back and then got into the car.
“I should probably get home,” Holly told Kiara, Mady, and I.
“Don’t leave,” Kiara begged. “We have to finish the game!”
“We can’t finish without Tor,” I said.
Kiara and Mady whined, but Holly walked home, and I went out to the backyard. Grandma sat by herself in front of Grandpa’s grave, reading the newspaper. It was getting kind of chilly, and she only had a thin sweater on, so I walked over to her.
“Grandma,” I said.
She turned to me and squinted, even though she had her glasses on. “Weston? Is that you?” she asked.
“It’s me, Grandma,” I said. “It’s me, Gray.”
“Gray…” she said. “Right.”
“Do you want to come inside? It’s kind of cold.”
“I have to finish reading the newspaper to Dan.”
I sighed and sat down in the grass next to her. I hugged my knees to my chest, and she started reading again. I felt bad for not taking walks with Grandma anymore, and it scared me that she thought I was Weston. We didn’t even look similar.
When she finished the article she was on, I convinced her to come inside. “You can make dinner, right?” I asked. My stomach growled.
“Dinner?” Grandma asked.
“You always make dinner,” I said.
We stepped inside, and Mary and Lisa were in the kitchen cooking. Lisa looked up and smiled. “Hi, Grandma.”
“Hi Mary,” Grandma said.
“I’m Mary,” Mary reminded Grandma. “Gray, take her to the couch and turn on the news, will you?”
I took Grandma’s arm and did what Mary said, then came back into the kitchen. “Grandma always makes dinner.”
Lisa looked at me. “Mary and I took over, like, two weeks ago.”
“He’s been spending too much time at his girlfriend’s house,” Mary said.
“Holly?” I said. Mary and Lisa giggled. “She’s not my girlfriend.”
“Is too,” Lisa said. “Holly and Gray, sitting in a tree.”
Mary joined in. “K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”
They continued, but I ran down to the basement and hid in my room. Holly was NOT my girlfriend.
Holly always helped my sisters with their homework when they needed it, but otherwise, we didn’t play with them much. We had tried to pick up the animals game where we left off, but it wasn’t the same, and Mady kept goofing around, which really annoyed me and Tor.
It didn’t really seem like Mary needed me to help, so Tor, Holly, and I mostly went to Holly’s house after school until Thanksgiving break, when Mary told on me.
“Gray never helps,” Mary whined to my parents. “He just runs off with his friends.”
“But the girls said they had been getting help with their homework,” Dad said, looking at me.
“From him?” Mary laughed and slapped her knee. “His little girlfriend helps them, but Gray couldn’t if he wanted to.”
“Mary,” Mom said in a warning tone. Then she and Dad looked at me. “Is this true, Gray?”
“They don’t need me.” I said. “And she is NOT my girlfriend!” Mary stuck her tongue out at me.
“It’s not fair to make him try to be an adult,” Weston said. “He’s just a kid.”
“When you were his age you were all perfectly responsible,” Dad said.
“That’s unreasonable,” Weston said. “We all made mistakes.”
“This isn’t a mistake,” Mary said, looking at me. “He runs off on purpose.”
“He doesn’t know any better,” Weston said. “You guys are putting too much pressure on him.”
“Weston, Mary, out.” Mom said. Weston patted me on the shoulder on the way out of the living room, and my parents stared at me.
“Gray,” Dad said, “Do you understand why we’re upset?” I shrugged.
“Use your words,” Mom said.
“Not really,” I mumbled. “Kiara and Mady play on their own, and Mary takes care of Amy. They don’t even like me, so I’m useless.”
“Mary is really stressed out,” Dad said. “She has a lot more homework than you, and she spends so much time taking care of the girls that she has to stay up later to get it all done.”
“Why can’t you guys take care of them?” I asked. “Mary’s still a kid, just like me. She’s not even in high school, is she?”
“Mary’s not in high school,” Mom said. “She agreed to earn her allowance by taking care of the girls, but she’s used to having Lisa as a partner.”
“Why don’t I get an allowance?” I asked.
“Because you’re not doing your job,” Dad said.
“But--” I protested. I was so mad that I couldn’t get the words out. “But you never said I could have an allowance! You just said I had to be responsible and take care of my sisters even though I’m only nine and I still want to be a kid.”
Mom sighed. “We should have given you an allowance, Gray. We’re sorry.”
Dad looked at Mom, his eyebrows up, then back at me. “If,” he started, rubbing his hands together. “If you can do what we ask you, then you can have an allowance.”
“But I don’t want to take care of them,” I said. It wasn’t fair.
“Gray, Grandma can’t help anymore, and your Dad and Uncle Jeremy need to work so that we have money to live here and pay for everything else.”
“So you need to help watch your sisters.” Dad said.
After some arguing, I agreed to help watch my sisters for ten dollars a week. Dad said he didn’t think I understood responsibility, so he called Mary back downstairs and told her that she had to report to our parents on how helpful I was. I only got the money if Mary said I did a good job.
“It’s not fair,” I protested. Mary didn’t like me, so no matter what I did, I was never going to get money.
“You’ll be fair, right Mary?” Mom asked. Mary nodded and smiled at me.
I got up and went downstairs.