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On the first day of third grade, Sarah discovered something had been living inside her dresser all summer, eating her clothes.
The cuff of her sweater showed a cluster of little holes, the size of lentils. While she ate her oatmeal, she pulled the cuff down over her fist and wound her fingers into it and picked at the loose part, picked and stretched and picked, and soon the holes had run together and she could put two fingers through.
"My sweater’s got a hole," Sarah said. "I can’t wear it to school."
"What’s that, Sarah? Hurry and finish your breakfast," Mom said. "And get Angie’s bag together. Put some fresh diapers in it, and a clean sippy from the cupboard."
"But my sweater..."
"What? What did you do to your new sweater?"
"It’s not new, it’s from the Sally Ann, like a month ago."
"Shut your mouth, Sarah Van Veen. Jeff paid good money for that and his feelings will be hurt if you don't wear it. Bag. Sippy. Go on."
Mom had Angie up on the change table, one hand lifting her little feet, the other wiping Angie’s bottom with a wet-nap, rolling up the messy diaper and slapping a clean one down in its place. She taped it up around Angie’s tummy and pulled up Angie’s pink elastic-waist pants, which were also not-new from the Sally Ann.
Sarah went under the table and around the Jolly Jumper and down the four stairs into the den, where Angie’s bag sat on the sofa, spilling gnawed soothers and stained terry bibs. She stuffed everything into it and saw there was already a sippy in there with only a few drops of yesterday’s apple juice in the bottom, and came back to where Mom was tapping her toe by the door.
"Forgetting something?" Mom said.
Sarah showed off the sweater hole, three fingers now.
"School bag," Mom said, flicking Sarah on the top of her head. "Honestly."
Mom buckled Angie into the car while Sarah made her lunch: dry brown bread, cheddar with the moldy edge sliced off, and a handful of sticky sultanas and raw almonds. Then she got Yellowcat from her bed, and Angie’s Bun-Bun too, because Mom never remembered.
When she found her school bag, she saw there was a hole in it, too. No--two holes, not big enough to lose anything out of, just tiny round tears in the bottom of the bag where it had been sitting on the closet floor all summer.
In the car Sarah leaned up between the seats to show it to Mom.
"Not now. I’m driving," Mom said, switching on the cassette player, which had Raffi stuck in it. Mom’s eyes, in the rearview, looked pale and lashless. She didn’t have her makeup on yet. She sang along with "Baby Beluga" in a flat, automatic voice.
In the car seat Angie started to cry.
"Did she drop her soother? See what she wants," Mom said.
Sarah clicked out of her seatbelt, got down in the footwell and found Angie’s soother under the passenger seat. She used her torn cuff to wipe it off, eeled up and stuck the soother back in Angie’s mouth. Angie moaned around it. Sarah gave her Bun-Bun, but the moaning went on.
"I think she wants to go home," Sarah said.
When they pulled up in front of the low brown rectangle of the school, Mom leaned around the seat to give Sarah a one-armed hug. "Remember. Jeff’s picking you up. No dawdling, okay? Now tell me which classroom."
"Room 104," Sarah repeated, remembering the number on the door in orange construction paper cutouts to match the orange drapes on the windows, when they’d come in for orientation last week.
The same Hallowe’en orange as her not-new sweater, and wasn’t that going to suck (she thought, relishing the hiss and click of the forbidden word in her mind).
"That’s right," Mom said. "Give your sister a kiss now."
Sarah gave Angie a kiss on one dappled red cheek, picking a spot mostly clean of Arrowroot crumbs, and she went inside to the orange-draped classroom.
"Fatty Fatty Pumpkin," someone immediately called her, and she wormed her fingertips back into the hole in her cuff and picked it loose as fast as she could.
Sarah made salad. She started early, right after school; Jeff had gone into the den to watch hockey so she couldn’t read in there. She set Yellowcat on the window sill where he could see, and she tore up a head of lettuce into small pieces. She sliced the bruises off a week-old tomato and cut the rest into uneven wedges, separated a wad of alfalfa sprouts from the window-pot and draped them over the vegetables.
What else had Mom said? Sunflower seeds. Sarah found the baggie in the bulk-foods drawer and began sprinkling the seeds over the salad.
Something white squirmed between the alfalfa sprouts.
Sarah yelped and went running to the den.
"There are worms in the salad!" she said to Jeff, sliding to a stop in front of the sofa.
Jeff sat up to see around her. "Hang on--we’re in overtime."
"They were in the bag with the sunflower seeds. Look." She held up the bag in front of Jeff’s face.
"Jesus," said Jeff, recoiling. "Throw them away! I mean. Sorry. But please throw them out."
"Some got in the salad already," Sarah said.
"Oh. I guess we can’t throw the whole salad out, can we? Your mom would go ape." Jeff looked at Sarah for a second, and then his water-blue eyes glanced past her to the TV, where two hockey players were grappling together, arms around each other’s heads. He looked back and swallowed and said, "Okay, sweetie. Why don’t you bring me the salad bowl?"
After dinner Jeff and Mom were in the bathroom with the door shut, but Sarah could hear Mom’s voice, razoring louder as she turned toward the door, then dull again. "...know you think I’m too frugal... want you to be an equal partner, Jeff, and that means we both have to set an example..."
"I picked out all of the goddamn things, didn’t I?"
"I don’t just want you to do what I say, I want you to believe it! I want to be on the same page, Jeff..."
Sarah climbed into the play pen with Angie and played peek-a-boo with her and Yellowcat and Bun-Bun. After a while Angie started to whine.
"Are you hungry for dessert?" Sarah said. "Want a cookie? Me too! Say please."
Angie was too little to say please.
Sarah climbed out of the play pen anyway, and went to find the Arrowroots. Inside the rewrapped cellophane, they were crumbled around the edges and webbed here and there with fine white threads.
"You don’t care," Sarah singsonged to Angie, handing her a biscuit. "You’re too little to care, right? Yummy, yummy, yum."
Angie wedged the biscuit between her hard pink gums, and gnawed.
Sarah set Yellowcat outside the play pen where the crumbs wouldn’t get on him, but he looked so lonely that she took him back in.
Sarah found holes in her socks: the plain white ones for sports, as well as the wool ones for inside her winter boots. She found holes in several of her old t-shirts, but that was okay, because those t-shirts were too tight around her anyway. She found a sprinkling of what looked like salt in the bottoms of her dresser drawers, and a few small brown winged things, dead. They left smudges of shiny brown dust on her fingertips when she pressed them.
She found white worms like tiny caterpillars, inching between the layers of towels on the shelf in the bathroom. Mom made up a dozen sachets with cedar chips and lavender oil and placed them around the towels and in the dresser drawers. They smelled nice, like summer. Sarah would take the one from her t-shirt drawer and press it to her nose each morning.
Mom darned up the cuff of the orange sweater, with yarn that was almost exactly the same colour. She fixed some of the socks, too. She didn’t bother with the t-shirts because Sarah was getting too big for them anyway, but she did put them in a bag to give back to the Sally Ann so that some other, slightly smaller kid could wear them.
Still, new holes appeared in things. Sarah found a tiny white caterpillar inching straight up the wall beside her bedstead, and a line of white cocoons in the folds of her bedroom drapes.
In Room 104, Mrs Walker had a record player and a milk crate full of records. Every day between math and phonics, someone got to choose a record and put it on. Sarah did not like the music. It was all the same songs she heard in the grocery store or the Sally Ann: Phil Collins and Huey Lewis and Lionel Richie.
She did not like the music, but she liked the record player, the delicate little lever that lifted the needle, and the crackling hush that came when the needle touched down on the spinning vinyl.
She told Jeff about it when he picked her up one day, and he said it was called a turntable, not a record player, and he had one at his house, along with a bunch of music.
"Wow!" Sarah said, which made Jeff's eyes crinkle up in his nicest kind of smile.
The next day Sarah told her class that the record player was called a turntable and her mom’s boyfriend had two hundred records for it. This did not stop anyone from calling her by her nickname, which by now had been shortened to F.F.P., but it did get Sarah a turn to choose the music again, and she chose Tapestry by Carole King, because on the cover Carole King was sitting in a window seat with a cat, and together they looked like Sarah and Yellowcat might look, if Sarah was thin and a grownup and Yellowcat was a real cat.
No one else in the classroom liked Carole King. A couple of the boys made pig-snorting sounds to the rhythm of the chorus of the first song. Mrs Walker told them to stop, but she was biting her lip on a laugh, and they kept right on going, only a little quieter.
In the house where Carole King was, thin and grown up with her cat, did tiny white caterpillars nestle in the rugs and between the layers of the towels? What was the tapestry in the title, and was it riddled with little holes?
Sarah sang one of the songs to herself in Jeff’s car on the way home, very softly, because her voice was thin and quiet and nothing at all like Carole King’s warm rusty holler. She had an hour before it was time to make salad. Jeff asked if she wanted to watch hockey with him, but Sarah didn't want to admit she still didn't understand the rules. She went to her bedroom instead, and sat on the end of her bed, as close to the window as she could get, singing the song to Yellowcat, who sat on the low chest where Sarah kept her toys and books.
At the end of the song she thought it might go better if she moved the chest over beside the window and sat on top of it kind of like Carole King in the picture. She dragged the chest a few feet across the floorboards. Yellowcat fell off into the scurf and dust where the chest had been.
When Sarah picked him up, she saw that one of his pink felt ears was salted with white eggs, and one of the tiny caterpillars writhed there, in the hole it had made.
She snatched her hand back in revulsion. Yellowcat dropped to the floor again and lay in the dust, face-down.
Sarah picked him up by the other ear, pinched between her finger and thumb. Wisps of dusty hair clung to his fur, or what was left of it. She blew on him gently, and saw beneath the dust more gnawed spots in his coat, where the plush had been chewed down to the coarse weave at its base.
Sarah ran downstairs. Mom was just coming in, with Angie in her car seat.
"It’s Yellowcat! You have to fix him!" Sarah said. "Look at him, they got him! You have to do something!"
Mom took Yellowcat and held him up to the fluorescent light over the sink. "Jeez. Those things get everywhere. I’ve just about had it."
"Can you give him a new ear?" Sarah said, nearly crying.
"We’ll see," Mom said. "Wash your hands, now, and get started on the salad."
When Jeff picked up Sarah the next day, instead of going home, they drove to Jeff’s place. It was an apartment in a tall building. Sarah had been there before, just for a few minutes, and she remembered that there was black tile in the hallway and a black seat on the toilet, but she did not remember the crib set up in the corner of the main room, or the fuzzy brown pullout sofa with the quilt laid over the back.
"It’s just for a few days," Jeff said, "while your house is fumigated. Your mom doesn’t want you exposed to all those chemicals. And I agree."
"What chemicals?" Sarah said. "Where’s Mom?"
"Sorting your things," Jeff said. "The exterminators said it was the worst case they'd ever seen, and the really infested stuff would have to be thrown out."
"Like my orange sweater you gave me?" Sarah said.
Jeff looked blank. "I gave you a sweater? If you’re cold, you can wrap up in that afghan there. Your mom will be here in a couple of hours. You like records, right?"
Sarah sat, wrapped in the afghan, beside the shelf where Jeff kept his records. So many of them, way more than there were in Room 104, and they had scary and enticing covers with pictures of screaming faces and long-haired men in top hats. While Jeff folded laundry in the bedroom, Sarah pulled out albums one by one by one, and made a stack of the ones that looked best.
Jeff came out after a while and goggled at the stack on the floor. He didn’t say anything, though, just took the top one and put it on. Jeff’s turntable stood on top of a high black shelf, and it had a shiny chrome lever. Sarah wondered if the kids at school would try to find some way to make fun of this turntable just because it was Sarah who told them about it, or if it might strike them silent, for once.
"Do you... like this album?" Jeff said.
Sarah tilted her head to hear the music: a man and a guitar, pleasant but unfamiliar. "It has an orange cat on it," she said, shrugging.
Jeff laughed at that, his nice laugh, and handed her a storybook off his shelf, which had the same cover as the album. Sarah read it to herself while Jeff started some more laundry and sang along with all the songs.
Mom came in with a duffel bag over her shoulder and Angie’s car seat in her arms. "Thanks again," she said, kissing Jeff. "I hope we’ll be out of your hair in no time."
"No worries. You know I'm happy to help. Maybe it's time to think about making it a more permanent thing?"
Mom turned pink, and gave Jeff a private smile. She set Angie on the floor beside Sarah. "Watch your sister while we get the food, sweetie. Back in a sec."
The apartment door closed behind Mom and Jeff. Angie said, "Bun?"
"Let me look," said Sarah. "I don’t know where he is."
She opened the duffel bag and started unpacking, laying everything in stacks across the floor beside her pile of albums. Jeans for Mom, jeans for Sarah, small elastic-waist jeans for Angie. Underwear for all of them, even Jeff, all clean but greyish white. Socks and t-shirts. No orange sweater. No Bun-Bun. No Yellowcat.
Mom came back in with a big paper bag stained with grease. "We’re having takeout tonight," Mom said guiltily. "The exterminators said we had to toss the food from home."
"Like, throw it away?" Sarah said, incredulous.
"Such a waste," Mom agreed. "Only they can’t get our house clean otherwise."
"Where’s Bun-Bun and Yellowcat?" Sarah said.
Mom’s face went firm. "They had to be tossed too," she said. "It’s the only way we can be sure to get rid of those pests."
"Yellowcat?" Sarah said, her voice coming out tiny. "You put Yellowcat in the garbage?"
He’d been with her for years, ever since she found him at a garage sale that was nearly over, all alone in a broken laundry basket, and the lady told Sarah she could have him for free, since no one wanted him.
Mom went into Jeff’s kitchenette, and started unpacking food containers from the paper bag. "He was all chewed up," she said. "You didn’t want an old thing like that. Anyway, you’re getting too big for toys."
"Yellowcat is not a toy," Sarah said. "He’s mine! You can’t throw things away, you’re always telling me that, you won’t let me throw away anything!"
"It’s already done," Mom said. "Stop being a baby, you’re upsetting your sister."
Sarah turned to look at Angie, sniffling in her car seat, her face getting that red patchy look that meant she was about to scream.
"She’s sad because you threw away Yellowcat and Bun-Bun," Sarah said. "They were part of our family."
"Don’t be ridiculous--"
"We were responsible for them!" Sarah wailed. Mom came out of the kitchenette, hands full with a stack of plates, and Sarah backed out of her way but kept on shouting. "No one else wanted them! What's going to happen to them?"
And her heel caught on the stack of blue jeans, and she fell backwards onto the pile of records.
A hundred simultaneous cracks, like crunching a stack of Pringles. Sarah screamed. Mom swore. Angie began to bawl.
Jeff opened the door and froze, arms full of diapers and grocery bags, staring from Sarah to Mom and back again.
"I’ve only been downstairs five minutes," he said, and for a moment his face looked just as it had when he saw the worms in the bag of sunflower seeds. Like he wished he could dump the whole mess and start fresh.
"I'm sorry," Mom said. "I'm so sorry. She just tripped."
"Don't make us leave," Sarah said.
"Of course Jeff won't make us leave, sweetie," Mom said. "We're a family now. Don't you get that?"
"I get it," Sarah said, uncertainly. She took the top record out of its sleeve. It had broken in five pieces. She laid them close together with the edges matching.
"Where's the glue?" she asked Jeff.
He shook his head. "There isn't any glue. It doesn't work that way."
And he went to get a heavy duty garbage bag, and began tossing the records in.
This story originally appeared in Grain Magazine.