The Thing About Jenna

Jenna woke up and threw off the covers. Some kind of rattling noise, she thought. Maybe the wind, she hoped. The rattling grew louder and scared the eight-year-old girl. Mom and Dad would still be gone. She was on her own.

Jenna flicked the light switch on and off several times. No luck. The power was off again. The rattling turned into a loud crashing noise. Jenna jumped up and scurried through the dark hallways, feeling her way, hands on the walls.

She reached the front room and peered out the window. Two strangers, both big, wild-eyed men, were trying to break in the house. One of them used a long, metal pole, trying to wedge the door open. Jenna was getting that “crippled inside” feeling, like she would freeze and do nothing.

Jenna clenched her hands and remembered what Mom told her. If anyone breaks in, hide under the sink in the kitchen. It worked the last time!

With a crash, the door burst open. Jenna ran to the dark kitchen, hitting her leg on a table. She opened the cabinet door under the sink and pushed some things aside. She squeezed her way in, but the door would not close all the way. The hinge on the top of the cabinet door worked, but the bottom hinge did not. She squirmed around, pushing the garbage can aside until she could shut the door. Her leg hurt so bad. You can cry later, she told herself. Her dad had told her that many times.

“Where is it!?” shouted one of the burglars. She shook at the sound of glass shattering. Jenna’s head bumped into something metal, one of the pipes that came down from the sink. Her teeth were chattering. She told herself, Be a good girl, and don’t be afraid.

“You said it was in here!” one of the men shouted.

For a moment she thought they were tearing up the house. There was so much banging and clanging. She imagined them opening doors and drawers, knocking tables and lamps over.

Jenna caught her breath and covered her ears. Make it stop. Leave! Go away! Her head went dizzy with confusion.

It’s never going to end, she thought. She was terrified she would cough or sneeze. She felt a terrible tickle in her throat and struggled hard to keep from coughing. Won’t they ever leave? This seemed to last for hours.

The cabinet door opened, not the side she was in but the other side where the trash was. Her whole body felt numb. She held her breath. After they closed the cabinet door, they stomped away and slammed the front door on their way out of the house.

Her teeth chattered. Tears ran down her cheeks. She didn’t realize she had been crying. She pushed the door open, crawled out, stumbled to her room, clambered up on her bed and tossed and turned. A sharp pain seared through her head.

She didn’t remember falling asleep.

Early the next morning, Jenna’s eyes opened wide, and she sat up straight. Her leg ached where she bumped it the night before. She dreaded getting up, thinking the burglars came back.

She tiptoed into the front room. They were back—her parents, that is. Mom snored on the couch. Dad had collapsed on the floor near the front door. That was just his way. Sometimes he did that at night. Jenna sighed with relief.

She sure was glad to have them back. She was excited, thinking she would do such a good job cleaning the house. She imagined Mom or Dad telling her she was a good girl.

As usual, she picked up the trash cluttered around her sleeping parents first. Then, she found a dustbin and swept up the glass that had been knocked over by burglars the night before. She pushed some chairs back where they were supposed to go and headed into the kitchen.

Except for the broken glass, this was what she did every day. She checked for ants, and saw a trail leading from the trashcan to the pantry. She put what little food they had in the fridge so the ants wouldn’t ruin it. Jenna grabbed the squirt bottle with the smelly blue liquid and sprayed it on the line of tiny bugs, driving them away. She cleaned the sinks and found the big pot and the oatmeal. She knew just the amount of water and lit the gas stove. The lights could be off, but the stove would still work. She smiled to herself, proud that she was taking good care of Mom and Dad.

She took a break and stared out the window. A family of squirrels sat on top of a metal garbage can. She loved animals, Jenna grinned as the rodents made faces at her and tried to imitate the Jabber-Jabber-Jabber sound they made.

Twenty minutes later, Mom sat at the kitchen table, leaning over on her elbows looking like she might throw up. Jenna placed the oatmeal in front of her. Dad coughed and hacked as he walked in the room and sat down across from Mom. He scratched his scraggly beard while Mom pushed her longish bangs away from her face. Mom cringed as she glanced down at her breakfast and started to whine, “Do we have to…”

“It’s all we have,” said Jenna. She said it in her best grown-up voice so Mom wouldn’t argue.

Dad’s hand shook as he reached for his spoon. His right hand always trembled. He stared at the spoonful of hot cereal, unsure what to do next.

Dad took a bite, chewing slowly as if his jaws ached. He was a big man with blond streaks throughout his thick, red hair. From his ear to his chin was a jagged, red scar that he wouldn’t talk about.

“You have to eat,” insisted Jenna, quietly but firmly. Dad started to eat again , and when Jenna stared at Mom, she obeyed as well.

Jenna took a deep breath. Giving simple orders was easy. Her next statement would not be. She felt like she needed to say something.

“Someone broke into the house last night while you were gone,” stated Jenna.

Mom started to say, “Did you--”

“I hid under the sink,” interrupted Jenna. “Like you told me… just like the last time.” She felt that eager trembling inside, hoping they would say, I’m proud of you. Thanks for being a good girl!

Dad slammed his fist down on the table, making the bowls shake. “It’s not my fault. We had to go. It was important.”

“Jenna,” Mom said. “We had to drive into another town and get some things. You’ll understand when you’re older. You’ll get to go along too.”

“It’s not our fault,” growled Dad.

Mom and Dad looked each other in the eye. Mom snapped, “Did they take anything?”

Her parents jumped up with a sudden energy and ran to the fake heater vent, a metal grating in the floor where they hid things. It was the one spot in the house Jenna was not allowed to go.

Mom and Dad lifted the grating and the metal plate below that. They stared down into the dark opening and sighed with relief. “Good. Everything’s there,” whispered Mom.

Dad nodded in agreement.

Jenna did not get angry with her parents very often. It was her job to take care of them, but her face turned red. Her fists clenched, and her fingernails dug deep into the skin of her palms. Before she realized it, she screamed, “You didn’t ask about me! You didn’t ask if I got hurt or scared or anything!”

Her parents looked confused. Mom shook her head. “You said they didn’t find you.”

“Yeah, what’s the problem?” Dad muttered, not looking her in the eye.

Mom and Dad closed the grating for the hiding place, shuffled over to the table and sat back down.

“I was scared,” whispered Jenna.

“You have to learn to deal with it,” said Dad, shaking his head like there was something wrong with her. “I had scarier things happen to me when I was your age.”

Mom’s eye twitched. It was what she did when she started to get mad. “She’s just a kid,” snapped Mom. “She can get scared. You don’t care!”

“You didn’t care last night when we had to leave in a hurry!” shouted Dad.

Jenna’s stomach twisted and turned. She never should have said she was scared. This fight was her fault.

Mom leaned forward, her lip quivering as she hissed, “What kind of a father are you!?”

“What kind of a mother are you?” snapped Dad.

It was Jenna’s turn to raise her voice. “It’s all right!” she yelled, so loud that her parents turned toward her and stared, open-mouthed.

“It’s all my fault, okay. Finish your breakfast,” insisted Jenna.

Mom and Dad went back to nibbling at their breakfast. “I won’t go to school today,” she said. I better stay home and make sure they’re okay.

Jenna walked over to the window, staring past the garbage cans and out to the street. A girl her age rode an adult-sized bike, oh so slowly down the road. The girl worked hard, standing up as she struggled with the pedals. She rode out of sight. Jenna watched other kids ride their scooters and play jump rope.

Mom and Dad slept most of the day. They were like that after one of their “fits.” That was what Jenna called it when they would be up for two or three days at a time without sleep, always moving and talking and acting ridiculous. After the fits ran their course, they would “crash,” Mom’s word for a sleeping binge that might last a day or two.

Mom and Dad slept on Jenna’s bed for a change. Mom’s snoring rumbled into the living room. Jenna thought about school. She was in third grade and was good at math, but she could not read. Now, her math scores were going down because her teacher was giving more and more word problems. Not fair, thought Jenna. Math was math, not reading.

Jenna was done cleaning the house. “Good job, Jenna,” she whispered to herself. She sat on the stool near the window and stared outside. She saw Mrs. Quemada taking out her trash. She liked Mrs. Quemada’s kids and ate dinner with them a few times. Jenna quit being friends with them when Mom ordered her to stay away, because Mrs. Quemada asked too many questions: Why do your Mom and Dad leave you alone so much? Don’t you get scared? Why do you miss so much school?

“Uh oh!” said Mom when Jenna told her. Mom put her hands on her hips and said, “That is none of her business. She doesn’t get to tell me how to run my family. I bet she’s the one who called the cops on us.”

Mrs. Quemada was not the only person who asked what Mom called “noser questions.” Her teacher was always asking her, “Why do you miss so much school? Is your Mom sick? Or is she always so hyper?”

Nosers!

When Dad said they wanted to take her away to a different family and never let her see her real parents again, Jenna promised herself she’d work harder at being a good girl.

More than anything she longed for a friend or a sister. Mom threw a fit the only time she brought a classmate home from school. “What is she doing here?” Mom shouted. “Is she spying on us? Why does she need to know what we’re doing? Is she some kind of a noser?” The girl ran out the front door to her house across the street. Jenna cheeks burned with the force of her embarrassment.

Once she found a doll in an alley on the way home from the store It was dirty. I’ll clean it off real good! And she did. She pretended she was holding a baby brother or sister. “I’ll take good care of you,” she whispered.

She tried to hide the doll from Mom and Dad, but Dad caught her and bellowed, “Throw that dirty thing away!” She wrapped the doll in an old towel and carefully placed it in a battered cardboard box. She left the box in the same alley where she found it. She hoped somebody would find the baby doll and take good care of her.

A police car drove down the street, very slowly. The officer inside was glancing around at the houses. Jenna leaned back away from the window, hoping he would not see her. Dad had told her to never look a police officer or deputy sheriff in the eye. It only attracts attention, and you never want to attract attention. She ducked down when the squad car stopped in front of their house. He was looking for someone. Jenna smiled when he drove away.

She walked carefully through the kitchen, carefully stepping over the holes in the floor. “The kitchen floor has potholes,” Mom would say, like it was funny. The floor was a rubbery plastic patchwork of tiles with lots of blue and brown patterns. Jenna remembered waking up at two in the morning once. Her Father, yelling and pounding on the floor with a hammer, woke her. There were eight layers of gunky tile, too much for Dad to pry up. She lay down on the couch and pretended to sleep but really so she could spy on Dad and make sure he didn’t hurt himself. As the sun rose, Dad yelled some more and threw the hammer on the floor, then gave up and went to bed. Jenna would pick at the tiles every once in a while, wishing she knew how to fix it.

The house was cold, she realized. The power was not working. Mom was really mad at Dad a few days ago about that. “You didn’t pay the bill.” She grabbed one of her Mother’s sweaters. Mom was short, and Jenna was tall so it sort of fit. The gas still worked so she opened the door to the stove, placed a chair in front of it and turned on the oven. A few minutes in front of the open door of the hot oven would be enough. A few heavy raindrops clattered on the roof. Suddenly, the rain began hammering down hard on the house. Jenna was warm now. She turned off the oven, strode into the front room, and lay down on the couch, wishing she could sleep through the day the way Mom and Dad did.