Half a Bubble by Catsmeow
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Category: General
Genres: Angst, Holiday
Rated: All Ages
Warnings: None
Series: Small Boy, Big City
Summary: During his first Spring in America, Daniel was so sick, it passed unnoticed. But now, for the first time, he has to deal with Mother's Day.

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Author's Chapter Notes:
Fourth story in the series "Small Boy, Big City. Follows "Ragged Edges". This is the story of Young Daniel during his foster years in New York. MANY Thanks to Whisper for her invaluable services as Sounding Board and Muse Restorer. Thanks to my betas AnnO, Barb, and Mare.
Daniel didn’t want to hear it. The teachers and the kids at school were all talking about it. Commercials on television kept mentioning it. It seemed as though he couldn’t get away from it. Mother’s Day was a little over a week away. Last year had been his first spring in America and the first year he learned about pollen. He was out of school for weeks as his newly-found allergies turned first into sinusitis and then bronchitis. By the time he’d gotten better the holiday was over. This year, his allergies were under control thanks to the prescription medicine from the doctor. This was the first time he’d had to face the holiday.

He stared at the flyer being handed out in homeroom. The school was having a special Mother’s Day breakfast a week from today on the Friday before the holiday. Every mother who attended would be given a rose. His eyes kept returning to the big writing at the top of the page. “Let your mom know how special she is!” His chest felt tight and his eyes started to water. His mother WAS special but he could never tell her that again. He hated this holiday. Every mention of it was like a poke in the stomach, reminding him of what he had lost. His mother was dead, killed in front of him along with his father. He had nothing to celebrate and everything to mourn. Abruptly, he ripped the flyer in half and stuffed it into his pocket. He refused to acknowledge the holiday in any way.

~~~

Saturday morning dawned clear and bright. Daniel wanted to go to the park, but first he had to finish his chores. He tidied his room, but didn’t make the bed since his foster mother, Sally, would change the sheets later. Grabbing up the basket of his dirty clothes, he headed downstairs to put it by the washer. Sally was already there, sorting through the work uniforms of his foster father, Cliff. She looked up as Daniel came into the laundry room.

“Thank you, Daniel.” She smiled as she took the basket from him.

They chatted a bit as she picked up the jeans on the top of his laundry pile. Something crinkled in the pocket. As she reached in for whatever it was, Daniel remembered the flyer from school. He tried to grab it first, but Sally already had it.

“That’s just trash!” he blurted out.

Unfolding the two halves of the flyer, her cheeks flushed as she read it. “I guess it is.” She slowly crumpled the paper and dropped it into the trashcan next to the dryer. Turning her back to him, she began filling the washer. Her voice was husky as she said “It’s a lovely day. Why don’t you go play outside? I’ll have lunch ready at 1:00.”

Daniel was sorry she had seen the flyer and felt guilty for leaving it in his pocket. He stood there a minute not sure if he should apologize. After a minute he went back upstairs and left the house to go to the park. He had meant to throw the flyer away but forgot. If only Sally hadn’t looked in his pockets this wouldn’t have happened. Besides pockets are supposed to private, aren’t they? People shouldn’t go rummaging through other people’s pockets. By the time he got to the end of the block, not only had Daniel convinced himself that if Sally’s feelings were hurt it was her own fault, but that he had every right to be mad at her for going through his things.

Daniel’s route to the park took him past Al Rumson’s house. After the old man had come to his rescue a few weeks ago Daniel had been back to visit him a few times. He had been curious because Mr. Rumson didn’t speak like every one else around here. When he asked him about it, Mr. Rumson explained that was from North Carolina. Everyone talked like he did where he grew up. Daniel loved to listen to him tell stories about living on a tobacco farm and the small town nearby.

Mr. Rumson’s garage door was open, so Daniel peeked in to say hello. There were boards of different sizes stacked on the floor, and the big tool box was open. Mr. Rumson was over by one wall, doing something to a very long board that he had propped up on boxes like a counter. Tall and lanky, the grey haired man was dressed as usual in a checkered shirt. In deference to the warmer weather, he had switched from long sleeved flannel to short sleeved cotton. Brown suspenders held up his worn blue pants, the fraying hems sitting well above his old leather work boots. At Daniel’s greeting, he looked up with a smile.

“Hey, young feller! What are you up to today?”

“I’m on my way to the park.” Daniel looked around curiously. “What are you doing?”

“I’m adding some shelves to this wall. This’ll be the first one to go up, but it needs adjusting first. It’s out of kilter.” Mr. Rumson pointed to the marks on the wall that the board was supposed to line up with. “See how it gets further away from the marks, the further down you go? I’ve gotta fix that or the whole thing will be off.”

Daniel nodded. “How do you know the marks are in the right place?”

“I’ve got a level. See?” Mr. Rumson put the tool on the board. “See that bubble? It should be right in the center there, between the lines.”

Daniel moved in to get a better view. “Part of the bubble is past that one line.”

“Yep. Means that this board is out of plumb. It’s tilted so I need to raise that far end up a bit.” Mr. Rumson added a thin piece of wood to the stack of stuff holding up that end of the board. “There. See? The bubble is in the center and the board is flush on all the marks.”

The next few minutes were very interesting as Mr. Rumson showed him how everything would fit together. “I sure could use an extra hand if you don’t mind helping me.”

“I’d like that,” Daniel said eagerly.

“Before you go helpin’ me, though, you got all your chores done at home?”

Daniel remembered he was mad at Sally. “They’re done and I’m not going back until I have to,” he said crossly, “and I’m not talking to Sally at all.”

Mr. Rumson looked at him in surprise. “Now what in tarnation has Miz Anderson done to get you all stirred up? You’re buzzing like a nest of hornets what been hit by a rock.”

“She went through my stuff,” Daniel said hotly, “then she got upset when she saw something she didn’t like.” Scowling, he crossed his arms and told Mr. Rumson about Sally finding the flyer in his pocket.

“I see,” frowned Mr. Rumson, “and why didn’t you want Miz. Anderson to come to that breakfast?”

“She’s not my mother,” Daniel grumped. “She’s just the lady I have to live with.”

“She cooks your dinner, youngster,” Mr. Rumson said sharply, “cleans your clothes, gives you a helping hand whenever you need it. And she ain’t ever asked for nothing in return. She may not be the momma you want, but she does everything a mother should for you, boy. She don’t have to be doing this. She volunteered to be a momma to you. At the very least, she deserves your thanks and respect not your sass and the rough side of your tongue.”

Daniel could feel hot tears running down his face as he defended his actions. “It’s not my fault my parents died.”

Mr. Rumson sighed. “No. No, it ain’t.” he said gently. Kneeling next to Daniel, he pulled a bandana from his back pocket and scrubbed it over Daniel’s cheeks. “You can’t always choose what happens to you in this life, son, but you CAN choose how you handle it.” Refolding the bandana, he held it to Daniel’s nose. “Blow.”

Daniel did as ordered, but he wouldn’t look at Mr. Rumson. He knew he was going to get lectured and it made him mad. What did Mr. Rumson know? He wasn’t an orphan. He didn’t get abandoned by his grandfather or left with strangers. Mr. Rumson had no idea what it was like to be Daniel. When the old man started talking again, Daniel kept his eyes on the floor of the garage and tried not to listen.

“It’s like that board, son. Just a little bit off the mark where we was standing, wasn’t it? So that little bit didn’t seem to make much difference. But the further you get from the starting point, the further off the mark it was. It’s the same with people. Somethin’ bad happens to ‘em, and they let it fester. It ain’t that noticeable at first, but as time passes it eats away at ‘em ‘til it rots ‘em from the inside out.

“Right now, you’re just a little off. Keep it up though, and pretty soon you’ll be half a bubble off plumb, boy, that’s for sure and for certain. And if you want a life of misery and cussedness, well then you just keep headed the way you’re going. If you want to be the kind of boy your momma would be proud of, then you got some changes to make. This is somethin’ you got do for yourself. Ain’t nobody can do it for you. I’ll be happy to help keep you pointed in the right direction, but this is a road only you can walk.”

Mr. Rumson stood, shoving the dirty bandana into a back pocket. “Now, you’re more than welcome to stay and give me a hand with this if you’d like or you can go on about your business. That’s up to you.”

Since he was pretending not to listen, Daniel didn’t answer. Mr. Rumson just stood there waiting, though, so Daniel had to say something. “Go,” he said gruffly, still refusing to look up.

“Thought you might say that. You can run along now, but you do some thinking on how you been treatin’ Miz Anderson. Remember, my door is always open anytime you wanna come back.” Mr. Rumson ruffled Daniel’s hair then picked up a big flat pencil and a tape measure and went back to his project.

Daniel had said he wanted to go, but now that he could his feet didn’t seem to want to move. He stood there for a moment listening to the small sounds Mr. Rumson made as he measured something on the wall. It wasn’t fair, sulked Daniel. First Sally went through his stuff and now Mr. Rumson was being mean to him. Using his bad temper as impetus, he got his feet going and walked out of the garage. Once he was out by the sidewalk where Mr. Rumson couldn’t see him, he kicked the old man’s fence. So there. Daniel wasn’t going to be his friend anymore. That would show him.

~~~

The next Saturday was a beautiful day so Daniel spent most of it wandering through the woods of the nearby park looking for possible excavation sites as usual. Eventually he made his way over to the playground area. The swings were his favorite, but there were quite a few other kids there, as well as a few parents, so he climbed on the monkey bars until a swing became free. Instead of swinging, he sat in it, idly twisting one way until the chains were tightly wrapped around each other, then lifted his feet to let it spin as the chains slowly unwound. The repetitive movement was soothing, especially since he needed to think.

He had spent the week reluctantly mulling over Mr. Rumson’s words. At first he was mad. He wanted to go back and tell the old man he was wrong. But the more Daniel picked at the words, the more he understood what Mr. Rumson meant. After a few more days of ruminating, Daniel realized he was right. Daniel was out of kilter, half a bubble off of plumb. He wasn’t the boy his mom would want him to be. Worst of all, he’d been mean to Sally when all she’d ever been was good to him. He needed to get back in kilter and the upcoming holiday would be the perfect way to begin.

Once the decision was made, he wanted to act on it right away, but how? It was 3:00 Saturday afternoon. How could he get her anything in time for Mother’s Day tomorrow morning? There was no time to get to a store. He had seen a lot of ads for flowers and cards. He could do that. He’d pick some flowers from the park on his way home, then make a card using the school supplies he already had. Everything would be ready first thing in the morning. Spying a burst of color on the other side of the playground where it abutted the woods, he left the swing to start gathering flowers.

~~~

Daniel ran up the steps then came to a halt on the front porch. Cliff’s truck wasn’t in the driveway, so Daniel would only have to watch out for Sally. Opening the door cautiously, he peeked inside the house. Good, the coast was clear. He tiptoed through the silent living room, clutching the impromptu bouquet behind his back. Whew. She wasn’t in the kitchen either. He could hear the sound of the washing machine drifting up through the open door to the basement. Sally must be doing laundry.

Ripping some paper towels from the roll on the counter, he wet them then squeezed the excess water into the sink. He heard the front door open as Cliff returned from whatever errand he had been on. Wrapping the towels around the bottom of the flowers, Daniel hurried off to his room before Cliff could see him. Some of the stems had snapped easily, but others were tougher so he’d had to tug to get them out. He had knocked the roots against the ground to get as much dirt off as he could, but they still looked a little…fuzzy. He hoped that was okay. He hid the damp bundle down inside his snow boots at the back of his closet.

Going to his desk, he pulled out his colored pencils, construction paper, glue and scissors. He was sorry he hadn’t paid more attention to Mother’s Day earlier because he couldn’t remember which god or goddess represented it. The holiday back in February was based on the feast of the Roman God Lupercus, though it was now represented by the god Cupid, and a Christian saint named Valentine, but he didn’t think any of them were attached to Mother’s Day. Biting his lip in indecision, he considered who would be the most likely to represent the holiday in America, then decided to select from the pantheon he was most familiar with instead and got started. Humphrey watched from his perch on the desk top next to the lamp, occasionally making suggestions.

He was almost finished when Sally called him to dinner. After dinner, the three of them played a few rounds of a word game called Boggle that Daniel enjoyed. Sometimes he won, which was great, but even if he didn’t it was still a lot of fun. After that, he returned to his room to finish the card. Picking it up, he critiqued the work in progress, showing it to the toy camel for his opinion.

“What’s that, Humphrey? Glitter?” Daniel considered it. “You’re right. But I don’t have any glitter.” The two of them thought a moment. “Tin foil? That’s a great idea!”

Tucking Humphrey under one arm, Daniel peeked out of the door to his room. All was quiet except for the sound of the television from the living room. Stealthily, he made it to the kitchen. Humphrey kept watch from the counter while Daniel found the box of foil, very carefully ripped a piece off and put the box back. They made it back to his room unobserved. He snipped the foil into the tiniest pieces he could and glued it onto the front of the card. It was hard to get all the little bits to stay shiny side up, so it wasn’t as glittery as it could have been. Some of it got onto him, the desk, and Humphrey as well. It took longer to clean up than it did to make it. He added a few more special touches and the card was done except for the words inside.

He sat for a long time trying to think of what to say. He knew it was supposed to be about love, but he didn’t feel right saying something that wasn’t true. It would be too much like lying. He had to say something though, but what? Finally he settled on something that was both truthful and nice. Using the prettiest colors he had, he wrote “Thank you for taking care of me and being good to me.” He and Humphrey looked the card over one last time and agreed they were satisfied with how it turned out. Slipping the card into the top drawer of his desk, he started getting ready for bed.

~~~

Daniel burrowed under the blanket. It was light in the bedroom, but he didn’t want to get up. The bed felt comfy and Humphrey was snuggled just right in the crook of his arm. He wanted to go back to sleep, but something was nagging at him. He knew it wasn’t a school day which meant he could sleep in. So why was he feeling like he needed to get up? Was there something he was supposed to do?

OH! Daniel’s eyes snapped open as he remembered. Today was Mother’s Day. He wanted to have the flowers and the card on the table before Sally got up. Throwing back the covers, he tucked Humphrey under his arm and went straight to the closet. Reaching into the boot, he could feel that the paper towels had dried completely. Uh-oh. The cheerful bunch of flowers from yesterday was sad today. The flowers drooped sadly, their colors faded to dull shades. This was awful. They were the only present he had. Maybe he could pick some more? The park was too far away, but the bushes in the back yard were still blooming.

Setting Humphrey on the desk, Daniel grabbed up the scissors and snuck out the back door. The damp grass felt good on his bare feet after the rough concrete of the steps. Treading carefully, he gathered 2 sprays of bright yellow forsythia, bypassed the hydrangeas as too big, and headed for the lilacs. He’d snipped off a couple when he heard the screen door open. He froze.

“Daniel?”

Slowly, he turned toward the house where Cliff stood in the doorway. One hand held the screen door open while the other curled around a coffee mug. Dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, he was barefoot like Daniel. His hair stuck out in spots as though he hadn’t combed it yet.

“Daniel? What are you doing out here?”

Cliff didn’t sound mad, so maybe he wasn’t in trouble. Maybe if Daniel acted like everything was perfectly normal, Cliff wouldn’t notice he’d been hacking at the bushes.

“What are you doing to the bushes?”

Then again, maybe he would. For a split second, Daniel thought about fibbing, saying it was for some school project and just forget about Mother’s Day. Then he remembered being grounded for not telling the truth about the bookstore.

He didn’t want to speak too loudly in case Sally overheard and it spoiled her surprise. “I, um…” He went to fiddle with his glasses as he usually did when he was nervous and smacked himself in the face with the blooms. “Ack!” He walked over to Cliff, spitting out a couple of petals on the way.
Stopping at the bottom of the steps, he shuffled his feet, trying to shake off the wet blades of grass clinging to his instep. Staring down at the flowers, he stammered, “They’re, um, they’re for Sally, for, um, M-mother’s Day.”

He heard the screen door shut. Cliff’s feet moved into the periphery of his vision. A big hand cupped his chin, pulling his face up. Cliff was sitting down, the mug on the step next to him steaming gently.

“That’s good, Daniel. That’s real good.” Cliff’s voice was quiet but intense. He seemed pleased. “You know I would have helped you get her something if you had asked.”

Daniel nodded. “I know, but…” With his chin held immobile, Daniel couldn’t turn away. Instead, his gaze slid to the side, embarrassed at how long it took him to make his decision. “I didn’t get started until late yesterday. I made her a card and I got some flowers from the park, but they don’t look so good now and I don’t have time to go back there.”

“Yeah, flowers can be tricky,” agreed Cliff as he touched the blossoms. “Do you think you have enough?”

Daniel looked at the bright yellow and purple flowers, not certain how much was enough. “I guess so. I was going to add them to the ones I already have.”

“Okay. Do you have something to put them in?”

Daniel’s heart sank as he realized he’d messed up again. “No.” What good were flowers without a vase? Now he didn’t have anything for Sally, just the stupid card.

“It’s okay, Sport.” Cliff clasped the back of Daniel’s neck and gave it a comforting squeeze. “Go get the rest of the stuff and meet me in the kitchen.”

Cliff rose to his feet, grabbing his mug along the way. Opening the door, he gestured for Daniel to precede him. Moving quickly, Daniel snatched up the card and listless wildflowers from his room and put the card on the dining room table. Then, holding fresh flowers in one hand and limp ones in the other, he joined his foster father in the kitchen.

Frowning, Cliff opened and closed cabinet doors one after another. “Well, shoot.” He stood unmoving for a moment, before zeroing in on the fridge. Tugging open the door, he leaned in for a better look. “Ah ha!” He reached for something on the bottom shelf, then turned and waved a pickle jar in triumph. “We can use this!”

Daniel felt compelled to point out that the jar still had pickles in it.

Cliff shrugged. “Only a couple. You eat one and I’ll eat the others.”

Cliff twisted the lid off, tilting the jar toward Daniel. Reaching carefully with the tips of his fingers, he took the longest pickle spear so that as little of the chill, pungent liquid touched his skin as possible. Cliff took the two remaining spears, and started eating both at once. Crunching on the tangy spears, he dumped the juice down the sink and washed out the jar.

“You put the flowers together in one big bunch, while I get this label off.”

Working together, they were done within minutes. The flowers were tucked in a jar full of fresh water and set in the center of the dining table. Daniel and Cliff stood back to judge the effect. There was a long pause.

“It looks kind of…” Daniel trailed off, not certain what was lacking.

“Plain,” suggested Cliff. “It needs a little something to make it look less like a pickle jar and more like a vase. Hmmmm…..Be right back.”

Cliff went to the linen closet in the hall, rummaged for a minute, then came back with a red bandana and a blue gingham placemat. He put the placemat under the jar, folded the bandana into a triangle and tied it around the mouth of the jar, letting the fabric cover the glass. Again, he and Daniel stepped back to check the effect.

Oh yeah, thought Daniel. That was much better. “Thank you, Cliff.” He felt a pat on his shoulder.

“Any time, Sport.”

“What are you two looking at?” Sally’s voice floated down the hallway. Shoeless like the others, her bare feet had been soundless against the carpet. She flipped the ends of her hair out from under the neck of her navy t-shirt. She slowly walked into the room, her eyes locked on the flowers.

Daniel’s stomach fluttered. What if Sally didn’t like it? What if it was too late - he had waited too long and Sally didn’t want to be nice to him any more? He didn’t know what to do, so he did nothing. He felt Cliff stand behind him, the weight of a hand on his shoulder.

“Happy Mother’s Day,” Cliff said softly.

Surprised, Sally’s eyes snapped to Daniel who repeated hesitantly, “Happy Mother’s Day.”

Sally’s face lit up with a big smile. She stooped to hug Daniel tightly for a long time. Sniffing slightly, she let go. “Thank you, sweetie.” She looked at the flowers again. The head of one weary daisy fell off its stalk and plopped onto the table. “They’re beautiful.”

“Cliff helped a bit with the flowers,” Daniel admitted.

Sally grinned at her husband, who grinned back. “I can tell,” she teased.

Feeling more confident, Daniel picked up the card. “I made this for you, too.”

Taking it from him, she said, “Thank you, Daniel, it’s…” pausing she raised her eyebrows and blinked a few times, “…lovely. That’s a pretty necklace the lady has on. Um, may I ask why she isn’t wearing a shirt?”

“What?” exclaimed Cliff.

Sally tipped the card for him to see. His eyebrows went up, too. Raising his hands, he said “I did NOT help with that part.”

Uh-oh. The fluttery feeling started to come back. He’d done something wrong, but what? “That’s Anat,” explained Daniel, “the Mother of Gods. She’s also a goddess of war in her own right and is often depicted carrying a spear, ready for battle.” Maybe Americans weren’t used to gods that held more than one position in the pantheon?

“I see. Egyptian, is she?” Sally ran a finger over something pasted to the card. “That’s not a spear she’s holding, though. What is it?”

“I think it’s a button. I found it in the street last year and thought it was pretty so I saved it.”

“It is very pretty,” affirmed Sally. “It goes very well with the rest of her outfit. I love it, Daniel. This is very special to me because you made it yourself. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Sally.” The flutters faded away. There was a different feeling in his stomach now – something warmer and half remembered. As faint as it was, it felt familiar, but Daniel couldn’t place it.

“Since this is your day, honey, how do you want to spend it?” Cliff leaned forward to give her a peck on the cheek.

“I think...” Sally thought for a moment. “I would like to have waffles and bacon for breakfast.”

Cliff nodded. “Daniel and I can do that. We’ll do all the clean up, too. Anything else?”

“Yes. I would like to get out our bikes and go for ride and a picnic lunch in the park.”

“You sure you don’t want to go out for lunch or maybe go to the movies or something, hon?”

“Nope.” She stretched out her arms and drew her husband and Daniel into one big hug. “I can’t think of any better present than to spend the day with my best boys.”

Nestled between them, the warm glow returned and Daniel finally cataloged it. Oh, yes, he thought, this is ‘belonging’. Letting the barely remembered feeling trickle through him, Daniel hugged Cliff and Sally as hard as he could. He knew that this one gesture wouldn’t make everything all right. There would still be times that he would have feelings of resentment toward the people that weren’t supposed to be his parents. He would still have nights where his dreams were full of stone and blood and screams cut short. Hopefully though, if he worked hard at this, then someday all of that would change and Daniel’s bubble would be back on plumb.

FINIS
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