Casey tossed the Frisbee across the smooth, green lawn. Casey’s dad made a face, squinting into the sun. The Frisbee hit the ground and skipped a few times before
landing under the hedge at the back of the house.
“Not today. I’m busy,” Dr. Brewer said, and abruptly turned and loped into the house. The screen door slammed behind him.
Casey brushed his straight blond hair back off his forehead. “What’s his problem?” he called to Margaret, his sister, who had watched the whole scene from the side of the redwood garage.
“You know,” Margaret said quietly. She wiped her hands on the legs of her jeans and held them both up, inviting a toss. “I’ll play Frisbee with you for a little while,” she said.
“Okay,” Casey said without enthusiasm. He walked slowly over to retrieve the Frisbee from under the hedge.
Margaret moved closer. She felt sorry for Casey. He and their dad were really close, always playing ball or Frisbee or Nintendo together. But Dr. Brewer didn’t seem to have time for that anymore.
Jumping up to catch the Frisbee, Margaret realized she felt sorry for herself, too. Dad hadn’t been the same to her, either. In fact, he spent so much time down in the basement, he barely said a word to her.
He doesn’t even call me Princess anymore, Margaret thought. It was a nickname she hated. But at least it was a nickname, a sign of closeness.
She tossed the red Frisbee back. A bad toss. Casey chased after it, but it sailed away from him. Margaret looked up to the golden hills beyond their backyard. California, she thought.
It’s so weird out here. Here it is, the middle of winter, and there isn’t a cloud in the sky, and Casey and I are out in jeans and T-shirts as if it were the middle of summer.
She made a diving catch for a wild toss, rolling over on the manicured lawn and raising the Frisbee above her head triumphantly.
“Show off,” Casey muttered, unimpressed.
“You’re the hot dog in the family,” Margaret called.
“Well, you’re a dork.”
“Hey, Casey—you want me to play with you or not?” He shrugged.
Everyone was so edgy these days, Margaret realized.
It was easy to figure out why.
She made a high toss. The Frisbee sailed over Casey’s head. “You chase it!” he cried angrily, putting his hands on his hips.
“No, you!” she cried.
“Casey—you’re eleven years old. Don’t act like a two-year-old,” she snapped.
“Well, you act like a one-year-old,” was his reply as he grudgingly went after the Frisbee.
It was all Dad’s fault, Margaret realized. Things had been so tense ever since he started working at home. Down in the basement with his plants and weird machines.
He hardly ever came up for air.
And when he did, he wouldn’t even catch a Frisbee.
Or spend two minutes with either of them.
Mom had noticed it, too, Margaret thought, running full-out and making another grandstand catch just before colliding with the side of the garage.
Having Dad home has made Mom really tense, too. She pretends everything is fine. But I can tell she’s worried about him.
“Lucky catch, Fatso!” Casey called.
Margaret hated the name Fatso even more than she hated Princess. People in her family jokingly called her Fatso because she was so thin, like her father. She also was tall like him, but she had her mother’s straight brown hair, brown eyes, and dark coloring.
“Don’t call me that.” She heaved the red disc at him. He caught it at his knees and flipped it back to her.
They tossed it back and forth without saying much for another ten or fifteen minutes. “I’m getting hot,” Margaret said, shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun with her hand. “Let’s go in.”
Casey tossed the Frisbee against the garage wall. It dropped onto the grass. He came trotting over to her. “Dad always plays longer,” he said peevishly. “And he throws better. You throw like a girl.”
“Give me a break,” Margaret groaned, giving him a playful shove as she jogged to the back door. “You throw like a chimpanzee.”
“How come Dad got fired?” he asked.
She blinked. And stopped running. The question had caught her by surprise.
His pale, freckled face turned serious. “You know. I mean, why?” he asked,obviously uncomfortable.
She and Casey had never discussed this in the four weeks since Dad had been home. Which was unusual since they were pretty close, being only a year apart.
“I mean, we came all the way out here so he could work at PolyTech, right?” Casey asked.
“Yeah. Well… he got fired,” Margaret said, half-whispering in case her dad might be able to hear.
“But why? Did he blow up the lab or something?” Casey grinned. The idea of his dad blowing up a huge campus science lab appealed to him.
“No, he didn’t blow anything up,” Margaret said, tugging at a strand of dark hair.
“Botanists work with plants, you know. They don’t get much of a chance to blow things up.”
They both laughed.
Casey followed her into the narrow strip of shade cast by the low ranch-style house.
“I’m not sure exactly what happened,” Margaret continued, still half-whispering.
“But I overheard Dad on the phone. I think he was talking to Mr. Martinez. His department head. Remember? The quiet little man who came to dinner that night the barbecue grill caught fire?”
Casey nodded. “Martinez fired Dad?”
“Probably,” Margaret whispered. “From what I overheard, it had something to do with the plants Dad was growing, some experiments that had gone wrong or something.”
“But Dad’s real smart,” Casey insisted, as if Margaret were arguing with him. “If his experiments went wrong, he’d know how to fix them.”
Margaret shrugged. “That’s all I know,” she said. “Come on, Casey. Let’s go inside. I’m dying of thirst!” She stuck her tongue out and moaned, demonstrating her dire need of liquid.
“You’re gross,” Casey said. He pulled open the screen door, then dodged in front of her so he could get inside first.
“Who’s gross?” Mrs. Brewer asked from the sink. She turned to greet the two of them. “Don’t answer that.”
Mom looks very tired today, Margaret thought, noticing the crisscross of fine lines at the corners of her mother’s eyes and the first strands of gray in her mother’s shoulder-length brown hair. “I hate this job,” Mrs. Brewer said, turning back to the sink.
“What are you doing?” Casey asked, pulling open the refrigerator and removing a box of juice.
“I’m deveining shrimp.”
“Yuck!” Margaret exclaimed.
“Thanks for the support,” Mrs. Brewer said dryly. The phone rang. Wiping her shrimpy hands with a dish towel, she hurried across the room to pick up the phone.
Margaret got a box of juice from the fridge, popped the straw into the top, and followed Casey into the front hallway. The basement door, usually shut tight when Dr. Brewer was working down there, was slightly ajar.
Casey started to close it, then stopped. “Let’s go down and see what Dad is doing,” he suggested.
Margaret sucked the last drops of juice through the straw and squeezed the empty
box flat in her hand. “Okay.”
She knew they probably shouldn’t disturb their father, but her curiosity got the better of her. He had been working down there for four weeks now. All kinds of interesting equipment, lights, and plants had been delivered. Most days he spent at least eight or nine hours down there, doing whatever it was he was doing. And he hadn’t shown it to them once.
“Yeah. Let’s go,” Margaret said. It was their house, too, after all.
Besides, maybe their dad was just waiting for them to show some interest. Maybe he was hurt that they hadn’t bothered to come downstairs in all this time.
She pulled the door open the rest of the way, and they stepped onto the narrow stairway. “Hey, Dad—” Casey called excitedly. “Dad—can we see?”
They were halfway down when their father appeared at the foot of the stairs. He glared up at them angrily, his skin strangely green under the fluorescent light fixture.
He was holding his right hand, drops of red blood falling onto his white lab coat.
“Stay out of the basement!” he bellowed, in a voice they’d never heard before.
Both kids shrank back, surprised to hear their father scream like that. He was usually so mild and soft-spoken.
“Stay out of the basement,” he repeated, holding his bleeding hand. “Don’t ever come down here—I’m warning you.”