Hanging On

DIRK STARED AT the checkerboard. “Not fair,” he complained, as he attempted to figure out what he should do to fix this unpleasant turn of events.

His great uncle Marcus chuckled as he layered an extra checker piece on his token in front of Dirk. His close-cropped hair was generously peppered with gray, and his deep voice had an instant soothing effect – he always seemed like the perfect great uncle to Dirk.

“You always win, Marcus. You never let me win.”

“Ah, but then I would be cheating to allow you to do so. When you win fair and square in a few years, it will be much more gratifying.”

A knock at the door interrupted the game, providing the otherwise unallotted time Dirk needed to think his next move through. Marcus rose to open the door.

A woman’s voice floated to Dirk. “Hello, I’m Retra Serrano, from Social Services. Are you Marcus Doyle?”

Marcus’s disgruntled voice answered, “Yes. Why are you here?”

“Well, a matter concerning your wellbeing has come up, and we would like to help with any issues you may have. May I come in?”

Heels clicked on the bare floor as a brunette in her mid-forties came into the room, several inches taller than Marcus, who was sturdily built. Seeing Dirk, she asked, “Is there a private room we can speak in?”

“Dirk, could you go to the bedroom? This won’t be long.”

Dirk rose and silently walked to the bedroom, the only room with a door in the apartment, and closed himself in.

Muffled voices could be heard through the door, but his father had told him to never eavesdrop. Instead he sat on the bed and picked at a thread covering an otherwise exposed hole of his pants, pulling until it broke. He then sucked on the strand and lay back on the bed, kicking his legs.

After about ten minutes, the sound of the front door shutting announced the end of the break. Marcus opened the door muttering about “people always shoving their noses into others’ business” and “never going away.” “Let’s finish our game. It probably won’t take long.”

Marcus’s half-hearted grin and stab at humor was transparent, and Dirk knew the woman had upset him. However, mindful of Marcus’s caginess about personal matters, Dirk did not ask what the woman had said. He plopped back in his chair in the main room and moved his piece forward.

THE SOUND OF a door shutting was quiet, but the silent room allowed Marcus to hear it. He looked up from his book to see Dirk’s father slowly creeping into the apartment. Dirk was asleep and evening had come hours ago; it must have been almost midnight.

“Hey,” Keith said quietly as he dropped his bag on the floor and sat across from Marcus. “I got a call from Social Services today.”

Marcus stiffened and turned his body away, as if avoiding Keith’s next statement.

“I do agree with them, you know. You’ve been angry ever since Patricia died,” he said, noting how Marcus already looked like he would appreciate hitting something. “You shouldn’t live alone.”

“How I live doesn’t affect you.”

“But it does. You take care of Dirk most of the time, when I’m working. You matter to him, and that affects both of us.” He paused, then said suddenly, “It affects me that we never talk just to talk. You’ve separated yourself from most of the world, including me, whom you always called ‘your favorite nephew.’” But this wasn’t what he’d meant to discuss with Marcus, so he said, “Why do you refuse the Social Services’ suggestions?”

“Because I am not going to wither away in some nursing home, ‘sympathetic’ nurses telling me what I can and can’t do while I eat food served on a plastic tray!” Marcus almost shouted, quickly dropping his voice to avoid angering the neighbors. “I am not a baby, and I won’t be treated like one.”

“That’s not what I meant. I just think that­ –”

“Just forget the whole thing; it’s insulting and I’m not doing it.” Marcus dog-eared his book and rose to leave.

“Independence doesn’t have to stretch this far,” Keith pleaded.

Marcus strode to the door and said, “Goodnight, Keith.”

Keith sighed audibly as he called, “Goodnight.” The door’s soft click was an accusation that angered Marcus further as he left.

“DADDY?” DIRK’S HESITANT voice caused Keith to start. He appeared in the dark hallway to his bedroom.

“Hey, June bug. Why are you up? I thought you were asleep.”

“I woke up. What happened?”

“Well. Marcus and I had a fight. I told him he had to take better care of himself and he didn’t agree with me,” he phrased carefully.

“But Marcus is fine by himself. Why would he need to take better care?” Dirk frowned. He hadn’t noticed anything unusual about Marcus recently.

“Well,” his father repeated. “He was livelier when his wife was alive. I remember that Patricia would laugh so much, and she’d make him, me, and my siblings take walks in the forest. She played a lot with us when we were children; she took care of everyone, including him.” Keith saddened, remembering how adolescent life had been so peaceful. “Since she died, he’s been acting guilty. He hasn’t been kind to himself.”

“I thought what happened to great aunt Patricia was by chance,” Dirk said, a question in his chocolate eyes.

“It was. Nevertheless, he feels that it was his fault. He doesn’t spend much time with anyone besides you. I don’t think isolation is good for him.”

“Oh–” he yawned, “–kay,” Dirk said, turning back towards his room. “Goodnight, Daddy.”

“’Night, June bug.”

LATE SATURDAY MORNING, Dirk was playing with cardboard shapes and metal clips to form an army of frog-men fighting against rainbow pelicans, the geometric pieces having been in a box he’d found in the back of Marcus’s game closet. Marcus hadn’t talked much today, instead withdrawing into his bedroom, so Dirk had decided to face the challenge ahead of him – the daily chore of amusing himself.

Though now that he thought of it, he had a more important chore – the weekend’s homework. He read over what his English homework required and attempted to write a poem about silver oranges and selling them for money (he’d thought of it while making a jungle with the cardboard pieces), then realized he couldn’t get either word to rhyme with anything.

Deciding he needed help from a more all-knowing authority, he walked to Marcus’s door and knocked. “Come in,” the all-knowing authority answered, voice gravelly.

When he saw that Marcus was hunched over a pale binder with preserved flowers inside the cover, he knew not to crack a joke. That binder was a photo album full of all the pictures of great aunt Patricia Marcus owned, and he realized his father was right; Marcus’s expression was one of melancholy and his voice gravelly not because he’d eaten asphalt, but with emotion.

As Dirk marched forward, Marcus pushed aside the binder, albeit with care, so Dirk could place his loose leaf on the desk. “I need to write a poem,” he said, as Marcus scanned the few lines he’d already written. “I’m writing about silver oranges and how, if they could be grown, cooks and… What are the people who make electronics called?” “Electrical engineers.” “–Electrical engineers and jewelers would be much happier. I’m having trouble rhyming words with ‘silver’ and ‘oranges,’ though.”

Marcus cleared his voice as he chuckled. “You’ve managed to choose two of the only words in the English language that don’t rhyme as your topic.”

“Do you miss her?” he blurted.

“What?” Marcus asked, followed by a low, “Spontaneity must run in the family.”

“Do you miss Patricia?” Dirk clarified, wincing inwardly at causing the momentary wounded look on his great uncle’s face, as if he were a mourning wolf.

“Yes” was the drawn-out response. “I do, very much.”

“How did she–” Dirk flailed for words, regretting his sudden question and his incapacity to be subtle.

“She… passed away,” Marcus said miserably, “from lung cancer. I told her nothing would happen to her. It was supposed to be in remission, but it wasn’t.”

Dirk paused, then decided to say, “Daddy said that you aren’t as happy as you used to be. I don’t like the idea of you being treated like you’re disabled or something either, but if being alone isn’t good for you, you should do something about it.”

“The only other thing I can ‘do’ about it is move in with you and your father, and Keith is already stressed about paying the bills. Burdening my nephew is the last thing on my list of things to achieve in life.”

Dirk hummed in acknowledgment.

Dirk waited patiently while Marcus collected himself, pressing against his side. “Well, you could write something along the lines of ‘All the King’s horses and all the King’s men/Would jump for one and jump for ten/Oranges of a certain kind/Silver, the most precious and rarest to find.’ You want to avoid placing words that don’t rhyme at the end of the verse,” Marcus said, reverting to the topic at hand.

Dirk grinned. “Hopping knights and horses, huh?” he said as he scribbled new lines onto his page.

“MARCUS SAYS THAT he doesn’t want to be extra baggage to your work- and worry-load,” Dirk said as he popped a string bean into his mouth. It was evening, and for the past hour at home, Dirk had been finishing his homework as his father made dinner. Today there was sautéed chicken with string bean and tomato salad.

Keith glanced up from his food to look at Dirk. “Does he now? And since when has he trusted you with his heart and soul?” he teased.

Dirk ignored the comment and said, “He feels like he’d be a burden if he lived here.” Dirk had wanted to say that Marcus would always be welcome but he knew he’d been too pushy with Marcus earlier and didn’t have the heart to nag. Let the adults battle out their steel weapons of opinion, he thought. My sword is still at the forge being made.

“I’ll talk to him about it,” Keith promised, waving his fork in the air like an orchestra conductor as he chewed.

“Thank you,” Dirk said.

“You shouldn’t thank me, June bug. You’re the one who told me what the problem was.” Keith reached across the table and ruffled Dirk’s hair. “And besides, I want to do it.”

“MORNING,” Marcus said as he walked through the door into Keith’s apartment.

“Hi Marcus.” Dirk sat on the couch reading. Keith glanced at him from the center of the room and made a noise, hopping on one foot with his work bag on, a slice of bread stuffed in his mouth, as he attempted to get his shoe on without overbalancing.

“Usually one would put his shoes on before his bag,” Marcus remarked drily as Keith finally stopped acting like a duck and finished his bread. “And even then, he’d sit down to do so.”

Keith paused just as he was about to head towards the front door. “Can I have a moment with you, alone, Marcus?” he said, backtracking to the hallway, out of Dirk’s hearing range.

“What is it today?” Marcus asked defensively as he followed, prepared for another round of berating from his nephew.

“Dirk told me that you aren’t open to the option of moving in with us because you think you’ll be dead weight?” Keith said quietly.

“Of course I would be. Lounging around while my nephew labors to feed me and his son?” Marcus snorted.

“You wouldn’t be lounging around, as long as you earn your keep. Take care of Dirk, do the housekeeping, things that I can’t do because I have to work. You help out and we’ll be fine,” Keith said. “As if I’d let you be a slug; that would rub off badly on Dirk.”

Marcus hesitated. He didn’t deserve Keith’s kindness. If he hadn’t persuaded Patricia that the cancer would be harmless, Keith might still have his beloved aunt. As if Keith could read his mind, he said, “You have no reason to feel guilty about Patricia. It wasn’t your fault, and you don’t have to do penance.” He looked at his watch and said, “I have to get to work. Think about my offer, okay?”

“I will.”

Keith walked to the entrance and called to Dirk, “See you later, June bug.” “Bye, Daddy.” “Marcus,” he said, and Marcus nodded.

“MARCUS, LOOK,” DIRK said as he crouched to pick up a stray elm leaf on the forest trail they were following. “The leaf’s got insect pupa on it!” he exclaimed, as if this were wonderfully intriguing. He stood and held the leaf out to Marcus.

Marcus joined him and looked. “Why, yes, it does.”

Dirk crouched again and waddled as he continued to search for more strange forest phenomena. Marcus heard “Ooh!” as he reached for a crimson maple leaf, then quiet admiration at the arches of wineberries standing tall and strong. He kept a slow but steady pace and Marcus followed, laughing.

Kalliope Klein, Age 12, Grade 7, Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy, Silver Key

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