Jack had thought he was excited to leave home for boarding school until he’d been on the road for three days because they just had to drop his older brother Tim off at college as a family, how often did one of Maria’s babies go to MIT? Crammed between his two youngest sisters, who’d been singing “The Worms Crawl In” for the past three hundred miles, Jack had realized that “leaving home” was not quite the same thing as home leaving you.
Tim just kept chuckling indulgently at Nikki and Dulcinea, and getting along unnaturally well with their parents in an apparent attempt to ease the blow of the loss of their first-born, and telling Jack horror stories about the Roseview faculty. Jack thought that he might mostly miss Tim, but the rest of this was why he’d decided to go to Roseview Academy in the first place. He sunk down lower into his seat and tried to ignore the powdered sugar donut Dulcinea was grinding into his hair. He wasn’t going to telephone any of these people ever.
“When I was in ninth grade,” said Tim, hanging over Jack’s shoulder from the back seat, “I swear we had a teacher who thought she was a penguin.”
Dulcinea gasped. “Did she eat fishes?”
“Ooh,” added Nikki. “Did she fight seals?” Nikki leaned over Jack, digging her elbow into his thigh, and loudly whispered to Dulcinea, “Seals like to eat penguins. Especially the BABIES.”
“They also like to eat seven-year-olds who bug their older brothers,” said Jack pointedly.
Jack’s mother glared at him in the rear view mirror. “Stop causing trouble. Don’t you want your sisters to remember you with love when you go to school?”
“He’s already alienated me, mama!” chirped Charlie, Jack’s ten-year-old sister, who had paused her Spice Girls CD to watch Jack suffer. She leaned her head onto Tim’s shoulder as if to emphasize that ONE of her brothers would be missed this year. Tim looked a little misty eyed at this display of sisterly affection. Jack shot him a wounded look.
“I’ll miss you, Jack!” cried Nikki loyally, grabbing Jack’s wrist with a sticky, honey-covered hand. “I named a mouse after you but my snake got hungry and eated it.”
Jack’s father grabbed Jack’s knee with a warm hand and gave it a little squeeze without turning around from the front seat. Sometimes Jack felt like he and his father had an affinity, a silent understanding. Sometimes he thought maybe his dad was just quietly wondering why his children were psychopaths and how he could escape. Either way, Jack could sympathize.
Then Nikki kissed Jack on the cheek and smeared sandwich on his X-Men shirt and he had to shrug her off and stop at a gas station to purify himself and trade seats with Charlie. Sisters sucked.
They got to Boston on Saturday night, four hours later than they expected after a flat tire on the Turnpike. They’d been honked at sixty-four times while they waited for AAA – Nikki had helped Dulcie count each time aloud. Tim waxed rhapsodic about how much politer Bostonians were than New Jerseyans for the rest of the drive, all the while taking terrible pictures over Nikki’s shoulder and occasionally interjecting, “Look, Dulcie! Geese!” or “Oh man! They totally paint THEIR chemical processing plants pastel colors! Isn’t my new town quality?”
Jack helped Tim cart his TV and fridge and bicycle and comic books – Jack’s mom and dad weren’t letting Jack take any with HIM to school – up four flights of stairs while his parents looked for a pizza place and the girls slept in the car.
“—And Ms. Gaines liked to make us carve fractals into our arms,” Tim concluded as Jack dropped the last box – a big one full of more canisters of protein powder than even Jack thought reasonable – onto Tim’s roommate’s as yet unoccupied bed.
“Why do you keep lying?”
“If you’d met Ms. Gaines you wouldn’t dream of making such scurrilous accusations, Jackie O,” Tim said seriously. “She is the devil with the blue pocket protector on.”
“But you liked Roseview, right?” asked Jack, unscrewing one of the containers and tracing concentric circles in the powder. He scooped some up with one finger and tasted it. Mm, chalky.
“Of course I liked it!” Tim snatched the container from Jack before he could steal another fingerful. “Got me away from mom for four years, right?” Tim frowned suddenly, looking a little guilty; something about going to college had softened him towards their mother. Jack didn’t get it and hoped that it would pass soon. Also, that it wasn’t contagious.
Tim recovered and cuffed Jack’s head lightly. “And, besides, you got my good looks. You’re gonna be a real lady killer.”
Jack squirmed, suddenly irrationally uncomfortable, but Tim was already digging through his duffel bag.
“I’ve got this intense craving for ramen, all of a sudden,” Tim muttered. “Why do I only have granola?”
“I AM STUCK ON MY BANDAID AND BANDAID’S STUCK ON ME,” shouted Nikki as Jack’s family sped through rural New York, drowning out Dulcinea’s sobs and Mr. Sullivan’s discontented sighs. “I’VE GOT THE BATHROOM BOWL BLUES, I’VE BEEN MEANIN’ TO START CLEANIN’ THE –”
Even barricading himself in the back seat and stealing Charlie’s CD player could only protect Jack so much from the relentless onslaught of family.
“IT’S NOT A COLA –”
“Nikki,” said Mrs. Sullivan warningly, “What have I told you about Barry Manilow jingles before nine a.m.? Your papa hasn’t even had his coffee yet!”
“I want a Doctor Pepper!” Nikki chirruped brightly. Charlie kicked at her reflexively and burrowed further into the sweater she was using as a pillow.
“I wan’ Tim!” Dulcinea contributed, as she had every fifteen minutes since they’d left Boston. And every year when they’d left Tim at Roseview. Jack’s parents insisted it had been cute when she was two, but he wasn’t even so sure about that.
“Hey, look, I think that’s Roseview,” murmured Charlie groggily. “Let’s let Jack walk.”
“That’s a barn,” said Jack, affronted. Charlie’s new middle school attitude was quickly edging her into the position of Jack’s least favorite sibling. (Nikki was currently in the lead, because not only was she very loud, but she was always touching him and going into his room and leaving bits of snakeskin and weird drawings of vampires and things on his desk. Sometimes he found her waiting right by the front door when he came home from school, just sitting there expectantly. He was 84% sure she was plotting against him.)
The Sullivan’s silver mini-van bumped and jostled down the twisty, backwoods highway that led to Roseview Academy, and with each mile traveled, Jack’s heart swelled. He could taste the freedom in the air, could feel that a grand adventure was trul—
Nikki twisted around in her seat and stared at Jack. Jack hissed.
“Nikki! Sit right in your seat!” Mrs. Sullivan cried. Jack’s dad rustled his newspaper.
Jack could so not freakin’ believe he had forty-six miles to go.
Jack dumped his last t-shirt into his new closet in his new shiny dorm room. He glanced around to make sure his sisters were actually gone and then leaned in close to the beautiful cinderblock walls and inhaled deeply. The walls smelled of liberty.
Jack had finally arrived, after five days in the car with his family, twenty-one pit stops, three skipped meals at Burger King, and one appendicitis scare (Charlie’s). His family had hugged him for a long time, but they had also helped him unpack, so he guessed he’d owed it to them. Charlie had been surprisingly civil and Dulcie had obliged him with a few “I WAN’ JACKS” and his dad had given him twenty dollars. Nikki had pressed her Pokémon Yellow cartridge into his hand – like he even remembered to bring his Gameboy, geez – and she and his mom had been the last to leave, the latter shouting directions and admonitions as she left.
Jack was pretty sure that some peace and quiet was his due. He collapsed onto his bed (a dorm bed!) and was contemplating singing “Philadelphia Freedom,” when a skinny blonde girl in a princess dress and combat boots tumbled into his room.
“—AND BANDAID’S STUCK ON ME!” she concluded with a flourish.
“This is a BOY’S dorm,” Jack squeaked, instinctively pulling his comforter up to his chest even though he was fully clothed. “I’m pretty sure this is unorthodox,” he added, a little more hesitantly.
“I am MAKING my IMPRESSION on the STUDENT BODY.” The girl twirled once, slapped a heart-shaped sticker on Jack’s wrist, and flounced out in a flash of purple.
Well. Tim had warned him Roseview would be an interesting place.