ally turned the page of The Boxcar Children: Mystery Ranch and continued reading, “‘Boy, look at that car!’ said Benny, looking out the wa…window,” Wally stuttered, sounding out the word. “It was long and low. It was pa…pa…painted yellow and black. A man got out of the car. A goo… a goo-ard?”
“What’s a goo-ard?” Sarah asked.
They were laying on a pink bean bag under a blanket fort constructed of purple-striped white sheets and clothespins. Wally’s right shoulder rested against Sarah’s left as he held the book up to their faces. Sarah shined a flashlight on the book, illuminating both the page of the book and their fort.
Wally heard voices coming from downstairs and the sound of the front door opening.
“Is that your dad?” Sarah asked.
He heard the mumbles of his dad’s voice, but couldn’t make out any words. He closed the book and nodded at Sarah.
Wally pulled back the door of their fort and crawled out. Sarah’s room was filled with furry pillows and pictures of dogs. Green glow-in-the-dark stars speckled her ceiling, lighting the room even after Sarah turned off the flashlight. Sarah followed Wally out of the fort, then clipped the door closed with a clothespin.
Wally dropped to his belly and crawled out of Sarah’s bedroom to the staircase landing with Sarah in tow. He could hear what his dad and Mr. Evans were saying now that they were closer. Wally poked his head around the corner and gazed into the foyer through the railings at the top of the staircase. His dad looked sad as he stood on the blue and red rug just inside the Evanses’ door. The chandelier hanging from the two-story ceiling shone light onto his balding head. The skin underneath his eyes sagged creating dark shadows on his face that contrasted his pale skin.
“What did the doctor say?” Mr. Evans asked. He was standing across from Wally’s dad with his arms folded on his stomach. He still had his wizard cape on, but the pointy hat was resting on the edge of a coffee table in the living room.
Wally’s dad bit his bottom lip and shook his head.
“Chemo?” Mr. Evans asked.
Wally’s dad nodded. He looked like he was going to cry and wiped the bags under his eyes with his thumb.
Mr. Evans wrapped Wally’s dad in a bear hug. His father buried his face into Mr. Evans’s shoulder, his chest convulsing up and down as he sobbed.
“Why is your dad crying?” Sarah whispered.
Wally wasn’t sure. Maybe his dad was sad that he couldn’t find the meaning of life? Or maybe somebody had found it before him? He wanted his dad to be happy like Mr. Evans and wondered if Sarah did something for her dad that he didn’t?
Mr. Evans pulled away, but kept his arm on Wally’s dad’s shoulder. “Let us know what you need,” Mr. Evans said.
Wally’s dad laid his head back and sighed, then wiped snot from below his nose with the back of his hand.
“Wally’s welcome anytime,” Mr. Evans said.
Wally’s dad used his sleeve to dry his cheeks. “I’ll need help next week. My first treatment’s on Monday.”
“You can drop him off on your way.”
“They said I’ll have side effects for forty-eight to seventy-two hours. Could he stay until Wednesday…” Wally’s dad raised his voice to clarify, “I know it’s Christmas Day. I just don’t know how I’ll feel.”
“Of course. How about we drop him off Christmas morning so the two of you can spend the day together?”
Wally’s dad pulled the zipper of his puffy jacket all the way up, then stuffed his hands into his pockets. It looked like he was shivering. “That’d be great, Sam… Thank you.”
“Have you told work?” Mr. Evans asked.
Wally’s dad shook his head. “I need to get this grant. I’m not tenured. If I don’t get this grant…” he paused, “I don’t know what… I already have bills showing up every day that I can hardly make sense of and the expensive stuff is just beginning.”
Wally didn’t want his dad to know they were spying, so he crawled back to Sarah’s room, stood up, then walked down the hallway to the staircase landing and waved.
“That makes sense,” Wally heard Mr. Evans say as he walked around the corner and into earshot, “What about you? Can we—”
Wally’s dad cut Mr. Evans off when he spotted Wally. “Hey, Bud,” he called up the stairs.
“Sarah, why don’t you help Wally put on his shoes and get his backpack,” Mr. Evans said.
“Wally doesn’t need help putting on his shoes,” Sarah replied.
“Sarah, don’t argue. Just do it.”
Wally jogged down the stairs and across the kitchen toward the mud room. His socks slid across the hardwood floor and it kinda felt like he was ice skating. As he crossed into the mud room from the kitchen, he heard Mr. Evans resume their conversation.
“Did Mrs. Brenda call?” Mr. Evans asked quietly.
Wally’s face flushed as his feet instantly came to a stop. Mr. Evans was breaking their deal. He didn’t want to turn around and let them know he was listening, but he did want to hear what they were saying. Rather than go back, he froze facing the opposite direction and listened.
Wally’s dad replied through a sigh, “She did.”
That was it. His search for the meaning of life was going to end before it really began. Surely he’d be grounded for all of holiday break, and his dad wouldn’t be happy on Christmas. What he did was bad.
Wally scurried into the mud room, rammed his feet into his sneakers, then slipped his coat on. He knew his dad would ask about it on the car ride home. Even Mr. Evans said they should have been nice to Olivia when she was mean first, and Mr. Evans was the nicest dad Wally knew.
Wally tiptoed out of the mud room with his head down. “It was a misunderstanding,” Mr. Evans told his dad. “The girl that told on him is challenging and I think they were all ready for a break.”
Wally breathed a sigh of relief. Mr. Evans wasn’t telling on him, he was making up a story to explain Mrs. Brenda’s call. He knew Mr. Evans wouldn’t break his promise.
Wally’s dad opened his mouth to reply, but saw Wally had emerged and said to him, “You ready to go? I was thinking we could pick up pizza on the way home?”
Wally had already had bagel bites, but he still wanted pizza. He nodded, then hugged Sarah and Mr. Evans goodbye. Bee Bee followed him and pressed her nose up to his butt as he wrapped his arms around Mr. Evans. Wally squirmed to get away.
“No fart sniffing!” Eileen shouted at Bee Bee. Her sippy cup was now full of apple juice and she ran at Bee Bee pointing her finger.
“Gotcha,” Mr. Evans said, picking Eileen up as she zoomed by.
When Wally left the Evanses’ house, his father became quiet. They stepped carefully across the icy sidewalk to his green Subaru and hopped in. The window didn’t roll up all the way and a frigid draft blew from the crack. Wally sat petrified in the back seat as his dad turned on the car and adjusted climate control to max heat. His dad hunched into a ball. His body shook as he slid mittens onto both hands. “Buckled up?” he asked through clattering teeth.
Wally nodded, anticipating his scolding that would surely follow. His dad yelled at him sometimes if he left the milk out on the counter after a bowl of Captain Crunch or if he lost one of his gloves at recess. He was prepared to be scolded ten times worse than that.
The car’s starter whined as Wally’s dad repeatedly turned the key in the ignition. When the engine finally started, it startled meekly to life. The smell of gasoline tickled Wally’s nose.
Their car limped down the snow-packed streets in silence. When they made turns, the clicking of the blinker filled the void. Wally waited for his dad to bring up his call with Mrs. Brenda, the back of his throat periodically lurching up like it wanted to jump from his mouth.
What felt like an entire school day passed before Wally’s dad parked the car in front of Cosmos Pizza and turned off the ignition. He looked at Wally in the rearview mirror and smiled. “The usual?” he asked.
“With chipotle ranch,” Wally muttered.
Wally watched students in short dresses and sweaters stumble into Cosmos, unable to walk straight without holding each other up. His dad looked like a statue inside the restaurant compared to the constant motion of the college kids leaning back in their chairs laughing and throwing their hands about as they talked.
Wally’s stomach growled when his dad started marching toward the car, each of his hands holding a white paper plate with a giant slice of pizza on it.
His dad slid back into the car. “We got the last two cheese slices,” he said. “Why don’t you come into the front seat while we eat?”
Wally unbuckled himself and climbed over the car console into the passenger seat. His dad handed him a paper plate with both a slice of pizza and a portion cup full of chipotle ranch, then pulled two Mountain Dews from his jacket pocket and cracked them open.
They ate mostly in silence. When Wally looked up at his dad a few times and smiled, he smiled back. The tension in Wally’s stomach relaxed as he sunk his teeth into the warm cheesy pizza. Mr. Evans had kept his promise and made sure he didn’t get in trouble.
After Wally’s dad finished his last bite of crust, he tipped his soda can into the air and chugged the remainder of it, then wiped his mouth with a napkin covered in orange grease stains. “I’ve got something to tell you, Bud,” he said. His voice was quiet and solemn.
Wally’s eyes started to water. He was scared, though he didn’t know why.
“I’m not going to be around as much for a while. I’ll be back… But you’re going to hang out with Sarah and Mr. Evans more. Is that OK?”
Wally felt tears fall from his eyes. He didn’t want to cry, but he was. He nodded his head at his dad.
“There’s no reason to be scared,” his dad said, wiping tears from his cheeks. “I’ve just got to work and then I’ll be back.”
“Can I help?” Wally asked.
“I wish you could. I really do. But this is adult stuff.”
“Are you looking for the meaning of life?”
“I—” His dad chuckled, “Yep. That’s right, Bud. I’ve just gotta figure a few things out.” Wally’s dad leaned over the center console and wrapped him in a hug. He smelled like pizza and dust bunnies. “I love you so much, Buddy.” Wally cried as he hugged his dad back.