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Authors: Jeanne Birdsall

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BOOK: The Penderwicks in Spring
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Batty hid the bone in her pocket and kicked at the leaves and snow to cover up where she’d found it. Whether spring came that day or another hardly seemed to matter anymore. Much more important at this moment was to get upstairs to her room, where she could be alone.

“Ben,” she said. “I’m going inside.”

“But I’ve found another good rock.” He was digging with renewed determination.

“Show it to me later.” She slipped past him, turning away to hide her crumpled face, her fight to keep the tears from coming too soon.

The only other person at home that afternoon was seventeen-year-old Skye, whose turn it was to make
sure none of the younger siblings injured themselves or each other, especially Lydia. Skye, among all the Penderwicks, was the least likely to want to discuss grief or any other emotion, particularly, it seemed, if the emotions were Batty’s, though Batty didn’t know why—it had always been this way.

But still, she paused in the kitchen, listening, hoping to figure out where Skye was. It didn’t take long.

“No, no, the random variable
x
is discrete!”

Batty peered into the dining room, and yes, there was Skye at the big table, tapping on her computer with one hand and tugging at her blond hair with the other. Skye was the only blond Penderwick, gleaming alone among the redheads—Iantha, Ben, and Lydia—and the brunettes, that is, everyone else. Some of them thought that Skye should treat her golden locks with more respect, but Skye had other ideas, keeping her hair cropped short and, whenever she was thinking hard, pulling and yanking at it until it looked like she’d been through a tornado. This could be a useful barometer for those around her. The messier the hair, the more oblivious its owner, and right now Skye’s hair was going in thirteen different directions. Batty, still holding back her tears, was able to get through the dining room unnoticed and make a break for the stairs.

The baby gates at both the top and bottom, necessary to protect Lydia from too much adventure, slowed Batty down, but in moments she was upstairs, with
only one hurdle left, Lydia, who had the keen hearing of a panther. Cautiously, Batty tiptoed past Lydia’s room, without incident, and now was safe in her own bedroom and scrambling into her closet, her sanctuary. She dug her way toward the back, past stuffed animals, piles of board games and jigsaw puzzles, several plastic buckets full of shells, and an old favorite unicorn blanket, until she reached what she needed, a zippered canvas bag with
VALLEY VETERINARY HOSPITAL
printed on the front.

Batty kept a flashlight back there for emergencies, but didn’t need it to see what was inside that bag: a well-worn dog collar and tags, a half-chewed tennis ball, a tuft of rough black hair curled carefully into a tiny pillbox. Now to add the rubber bone Batty had found under the snow and leaves. She wiped it clean with a stray sock, then reverently slid it into the canvas bag. There, done. All that was left of big, black, clumsy, loving Hound Penderwick, the best dog the world had ever known.

Hugging the bag, Batty curled up and let the tears come. Her father had promised that the hurt, the terrible loneliness, would fade someday, but Hound had been dead for six months and Batty was still struggling to understand a world without him. Her earliest memories were of Hound. She’d heard all the stories about how he’d adopted her when she was a tiny infant newly home from the hospital. Her mother had just died of cancer, her father and older sisters were
ripped open with grief—and Hound, who until then had been a goofy young dog with no apparent skills or intelligence, decided to become Batty’s best friend and loyal protector, and he stayed that way as they grew up together, year after happy year. And then last autumn his heart had stopped working properly. The veterinarian said that they just had to care for him and love him, and Batty had loved him, and loved him, and loved him, but it hadn’t been enough. No one in her family had ever said that Hound’s dying was her fault, but she knew the truth. She hadn’t been able to keep him with her, to stop him from leaving her behind.

Her face now a wet mess, Batty groped around on the floor, hoping to find another sock to use as a handkerchief. Instead, she got hold of a twitching tail attached to a large orange cat.

“I’m sorry, Asimov,” said Batty. “I didn’t know you were in here.”

Asimov didn’t immediately accept her apology. As the Penderwicks’ only cat, he considered himself far too fabulous to be overlooked, but at last he honored Batty by snuggling next to her, and while she knew he’d abandon her in a flash at the far-off sound of a can opener, she allowed herself a little comfort, a little lifting of the awful gray.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t keep Hound alive. I know you miss him, too.”

Here Batty was being generous. Asimov lived
like a Buddhist, in the moment, not bothering with the dead and gone. But it was true that while Hound lived, Asimov had loved him as much as a cat can love.

“And I know you’re not ready for another dog, either.”

Asimov narrowed his eyes at her, wishing she would talk less and scratch his head more. Batty sighed, and scratched his head, and missed anew how Hound had understood every word she said. Her dad and Iantha had promised there wouldn’t be a new dog in the family until Batty was ready. But how could she ever be ready? How could she ever trust herself with a dog again? She barely trusted herself anymore with Asimov, who had never even been her particular cat, letting others in the family feed him and make sure he was doing well.

Too soon her closet was invaded by distant cries from Lydia. “BEN, BEN, BEN!” Batty shut her ears against the noise for as long as she could, in the forlorn hope that Skye would be roused out of her concentration. But the wailing only got louder until Batty couldn’t stand it anymore.

She crawled out of the closet and set off toward Lydia’s room. By the time she got there, the noise was over, but instead of peaceful silence, Batty heard strange little grunts. Suspicious, she pushed open the door to find her little sister in the middle of an escape attempt. Like an ungainly ballerina at her barre, Lydia
was balanced with one foot propped up on the crib’s railing and the other on a teetering pile of toys.

“I can see you,” said Batty.

Lydia slowly lowered her foot from the railing, then carefully stepped down off the toys, all the while trying to look like doing so was her own idea. When she was once again standing solid, she tossed her head back and forth, making her red cloud of hair sway invitingly.

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel,” she said.

“No Rapunzels,” Batty replied sternly. They’d had this conversation dozens of times.

Lydia threw herself down in the crib and closed her eyes. “Snow White is dead. Kiss Snow White, Prince.”

“No royalty at all. If you want to get out of that crib, stand up and be an American.”

“Sad Snow White.”

“I’m ignoring you.”

While Lydia stuck with being Snow White, Batty looked around the room. It had been hers until the house had expanded. Batty loved her new room, but it still pained her to see the depths to which the old room had been lowered. Frills, ruffles, and princess paraphernalia were everywhere. Even when Batty was Lydia’s age, there had been none of that nonsense. Only stuffed animals and, of course, Hound. At least Batty’s Hound ceiling was still there. It had been one of Iantha’s first projects after marrying Mr.
Penderwick, pasting glow-in-the-dark stars up there for Batty in the shape of a real constellation—Canis Major, the Great Dog—and painting an outline of a Hound-shaped dog all around the stars. So that he could watch over her always, Iantha had said. Well, now he was watching over Lydia, thought Batty. He wouldn’t have approved of the frilly stuff, either.

“No Snow White?” asked Lydia.

“Nope. Now hang on so I can get you out of there. Legs, too, Lydia.”

When you’re not yet eleven years old and not very large yourself, a toddler being hauled from a crib feels like a ton of lead. But with Lydia’s arms and legs wrapped around her, Batty could just manage it. That was only the first struggle, though, because as soon as Lydia was set down, she dashed into the corner to grab a golden crown from her toy shelf. Batty dove after her and there was a brief and undignified tug-of-war, which Lydia won by refusing to let go.

“If you have to wear the crown, okay,” said Batty, defeated, “but just stop
talking
about princesses.”

On went the crown. It had been a gift from Aunt Claire, the family’s favorite relative, and someone who should have known better, and
had
known better throughout the childhoods of the original set of sisters. But since then, she and her husband, Turron, had produced twin boys, Marty and Enam, whose energy and enthusiasm for life seemed to have rattled Aunt Claire’s common sense. The crown wasn’t the
only thing. Tutus also arrived at irregular intervals. Mr. Penderwick had been heard threatening to retaliate with drum sets for Marty and Enam, but Iantha always calmed him down.

Still, a crown and tutus do not a princess mania make, so Aunt Claire couldn’t be assigned all the blame. While Batty was certain that princesses couldn’t ruin a life, as the senior member of the younger Penderwick siblings, she felt responsible for the honor and dignity of all three. Ben had many talents and not just with rocks, and Batty planned to become a professional pianist, but who could tell with Lydia? So far she was dragging down the team.

“La-la-la-la-la-la kiss, kiss,” sang Lydia.

“Also no kissing,” said Batty. “Where are your shoes?”

Lydia found her shoes in the corner, buried under one of the tutus, and brought them to Batty.

“Outside?” she asked, lifting one foot at a time to receive its shoe.

“Yes, outside. Let’s go look for signs of spring.”

H
OLDING HANDS
, Batty and Lydia went out into the spring sunshine. Across their street—Gardam Street—Mrs. Geiger’s first daffodil glowed proudly among a smattering of purple hyacinths and white crocuses. But what Lydia noticed first was the family car parked in the driveway and, in the driver’s seat, the third-oldest Penderwick sister. This was sixteen-year-old Jane, and she was reading a book propped up on the steering wheel.

Lydia broke into a run, clutching at her crown to keep it from tumbling off.

“Snow White is dead!” she shouted to Jane.

“The prince will kiss her awake!” Jane threw open the car door and swung Lydia up onto her lap, covering her with kisses.

“You know we agreed not to encourage her,” said Batty when she caught up.

“Sorry,” answered Jane, but she snuck in a few more princely kisses anyway.

On the passenger’s seat of the car was a stack of books—the one that Jane had been reading, plus a dozen others. This was typical for Jane, who wanted to be a published author someday and believed that the only way to learn how to write was to read, read, read. So she was always in the middle of at least one book and felt safe only if she had several more on standby. Tucked into her stack was also a blue notebook, the kind Jane used for writing down ideas that came to her, bits and pieces of conversations she’d heard, anything she thought she might write about one day. Batty figured that by now Jane had filled dozens of these blue notebooks—most of them kept in boxes under her bed.

Lydia pointed at the book on top of the pile. “Lydia wants story.”

“That one’s in French,” said Jane. “You wouldn’t understand. Even I can’t understand it without looking up most of the words.”

“Oui.”
Lydia had picked up a few words from Jane, and was proud of herself for it.

“All right, but just a little bit. This is by a man named Dumas, who wrote about hopeless passion and bitter revenge—” Jane paused. “You’re probably too young for the details. Just listen.
‘Une belle jeune
fille aux cheveux noirs comme le jais, aux yeux veloutés comme ceux de la gazelle—’
 ”

Batty let the words wash over her, understanding nothing. Life would have been easier, she thought, if Skye and Jane had followed Rosalind and their dad into Latin. Skye had started on that path, taking Latin in seventh grade, but she soon tired of being compared unfavorably to Rosalind—Mr. Smith’s favorite Latin student ever—and switched to Spanish. After that, Jane didn’t even attempt Latin, instead studying French, because it was “romantic.” Lydia was able to pick up words from all three languages, but the polyglot confusion had the opposite effect on Batty. She hoped to avoid studying any languages, except maybe Italian, because so many of the notations on her piano scores were in that language.

But now Lydia, bored with Dumas, kicked over Jane’s stack of books, and when Jane stopped reading so that she could stack them up again, Batty asked her why she was sitting in the car. It wasn’t, after all, the most comfortable place to read a book.

“I’m letting it rest. I thought I heard a strange noise, and then I thought that the noise might stop after the car rested a little. Here, you take Lydia and I’ll drive—you tell me if you hear anything. It could be my imagination.” Jane said this part about her imagination with eager optimism. The car was old and already beset by many minor injuries. Another could send it to its grave.

BOOK: The Penderwicks in Spring
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