The Misadventures of a Teenage Wizard
“Hey JJ.” Jessie tossed her backpack on the couch and headed for the kitchen.
JJ is what all my friends and family call me—well, everyone but Mom. My parents had the awful idea that since their names were Jonathan and Joanna Johansen that we should all be ‘J’s’ as well. That is how I gained the torturous name of Jeremy James Johansen, and my little sister became Jessica Janae Johansen. It’s awful.
“Hey Jess,” I answered. I ran my hands through my hair and peered out the window again. “Was Lana on the bus?”
“Yeah, she’s coming. I heard you got suspended.” She opened the fridge and pulled out a Gogurt, tore off the top, and stripped it into her mouth with her teeth.
“Yeah.” I turned the page of my book, though I hadn’t read a thing.
“What did you do?” She hopped onto the countertop and swung her legs.
.” Nolan Underhill
She nearly dropped the Gogurt. “No way!”
“Yep, I busted his nose.” I leaned back in my chair to look out the window again.
“Why?” Jessie seemed to be choking for some reason.
I craned my neck a little further and finally spied a dark head bobbing up the driveway. There she was! I smoothed my hair down again.
“He was being his usual self and said some awful things about Dad.” I tried to catch my reflection in the window, but I tipped a little too far. My chair banged against the windowsill, and I lunged for the table. Thankfully I hadn’t hit the glass. Mom would have thrashed me if I’d busted her big window again.
“Oh.” Jessica hopped down from the counter and found something more interesting in the very back of the bottom shelf of the fridge. Talking about Dad always did that to her. It was worse than speaking of the dead. At least the dead were dead. With Dad, we didn’t know.
Lana chose that Moment to ring the doorbell. I tripped over the chair trying to get out from behind the table.
Jessica snickered. “JJ’s got a girlfriend,” she sang on her way to the family room. I ground my teeth in frustration, but waited for the door to shut behind her and the TV to turn on before I finally opened the front door.
Lana stood there like an angel in her jeans and T-Shirt. My palms started to sweat and I couldn’t say a word. I tried, really I did, but nothing came out. I couldn’t even make my jaw move, though I knew I looked like a total idiot standing there with my mouth half open and my face turning blue from lack of oxygen. I hated it, but I couldn’t help myself. My brain turns to slime and dribbles out my ears when she’s around. We stood there like that for probably ten seconds before Lana did the Spock thing with her eyebrow, and I felt myself turn red.
“Hello? Anybody home?” She jibed, waving a hand in front of my face. I shook myself and tried to smile, though I’m pretty sure it looked more like I’d swallowed a hamster.
“Hey, Lana. Wanna come in?”
“Only if Mrs. Nye is here. She needs me to help with the chores, but forgot to leave me a list when she left this morning. She said she was going to be here.”
“She’s supposed to be, but she called Mom and said she’d be late.”
Lana rolled her eyes. “It figures. I don’t think she even knows how to tell time.” She slid her backpack off her shoulder and bounced it against her knees. “Sorry you got suspended.”
“You and me both. Nolan is such a jerk.”
“I know. I heard he got suspended too. It’s about time.” She hitched her backpack over her shoulder again like she was about to leave. I felt a moment of panic, searching for something, anything I could say to keep her there.
“So, what’s up?” I asked and leaned against the partially open door. I tried to act at ease, but I knew I was blowing it―especially when the door slipped from beneath my shoulder and I about fell on my face. I groaned inside. Somehow I always managed to look like a fool when Lana was around.
She tried to hide her smile, but I could see it in her eyes. I couldn’t help the heat that crept up from under my collar.
“Look,” she said, “I’ve really got to go, but I can go for a ride after dinner, if you want?”
“Sure. That would be great! Say six?” I tried to act casual, but the butterflies in my stomach were racing around at mach speed.
“Meet me at the mailbox?” I knew I sounded too excited, but I couldn’t help it. It was Lana.
She smiled. “Sounds good, see you then.” She waved as she walked off and I suddenly felt lighter. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad day after all. Maybe my luck was changing. Maybe . . . .
“Jeremy, I’d like to speak with you.”
Mom stood in the dining room waiting for me, and I couldn’t help but hang my head.
I followed her through the dining room and kitchen, past the washroom and massage room, and into her office. She settled into the chair behind the big desk and pointed at the club chair facing her. I squirmed a little. I was never comfortable in there for long. It had been Dad’s den, Dad’s desk, and Dad’s chair before he’d disappeared.
It didn’t seem right to see Mom’s teeny body sitting in that massive chair.
She took off her glasses, rubbed her eyes, and pulled her long, blond ponytail over her shoulder. There wasn’t much I could say, so I leaned back and waited.
“Jeremy . . . .” She stopped, then rubbed her eyes again. Her fingers came away wet.
“J.J . . . I . . . .”
That really made me scared. She never called me JJ.
The knot of anxiety that had chomped on me all morning came back and started to eat a hole in my gut. I couldn’t stand to see Mom cry, but I didn’t know what to do. I was about to get up and go around the desk, when she finally spoke.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she whispered. She finally let me see the tears. “I didn’t choose this, you know. I never expected your father to bail out on us. I never planned on raising you alone.”
“He didn’t bail. He couldn’t have―”
“Well, the fact that he’s not here sure speaks for itself, doesn’t it.”
What could I say to that?
She took a shaky breath and spoke real soft. “I know you think your father has been kidnapped or is hiding out somewhere trying to protect us, and I hate to ruin your illusions, Son, but you father did not work for the
CIA, the FBI or any other alphabet agency. He was a simple scientist for the University.”
I leaned forward and put my elbows on my knees. “Then why couldn’t the detective find him? How could he disappear so completely if he wasn’t kidnapped or working for the feds? It’s the only thing that makes sense, Mom.”
Mom sighed, like she always did, but this time there was more to it. It didn’t seem like a frustrated sigh, but like the kind of sound you make when you’re about to lose it. My stomach started doing flip-flops.
“I don’t know why he left. The only thing I know right now is that things can not continue like they have been, and I can’t change that without you. Please, Son, I need you to do your part.”
“I thought I was,” I responded, sitting forward. “I help out around the house, I feed the dogs and take care of the horses. I even till the garden. What else can I do?”
She learned forward, her hands flat on the desktop. Her eyes about burned a hole through mine.
“Stop fighting!” She spoke with such intensity it might as well have been a shout, though her voice hardly got louder than a whisper. “Stop fighting with kids, with me, your teachers, and especially stop fighting the truth. Your father’s not coming home, and the sooner you face the fact, the sooner you can heal.”
“But―” I started, but stopped myself. She was right about the fighting, and I knew it, but she was wrong about Dad. I couldn’t give up on him, I just couldn’t―but I could stop the brawls with Nolan’s gang that kept getting me sent to the principal’s office.
But how? It’s not like I want to fight. They seemed to come to me as easily as mold on cheese—something you try to avoid at all costs, but it sneaks up on you overnight and before you know it, you’ve got a block of nasty fuzz. Okay so maybe it’s not like cheese, but I can’t think of what it might be like right now. It’s just super lame. “I’ll try, Mom. It’s not like I go looking for it, you know.”
She came around the desk, squatted down beside me and took my hands in hers. “I know, Son. Truly I do. I remember how hard it was being a kid, and I know living in a small town doesn’t make it any easier, but I think you’ll find you’ve got more people behind you if you’ll let them in. Quit pushing people away and let them see the great kid I know you are.”
“I’m not a kid anymore, you know.”
She got up, sat on the arm of the chair, and put her arm around me.
“I’m starting to see that. Just work with me here, okay? This is as hard for me as it is on you. We need to be a team. Got it?”
“Got it,” I answered, though I couldn’t quite bring myself to hug her back. It was one thing to promise to stop fighting, and another thing entirely to do it. If Nolan and his gang suddenly ended up on Mars, I might be able to manage it, but with both of us roaming the halls of Noble Junior High, life was going to be tough.
I wish I’d known then how tough it was about to become.