“Nobody’s Home” by Maureen Rogers

We’d like to present a new Feature Story here at Metro Fiction. Please check the Welcome page for more information about us. This week, a school secretary is caught in the turmoil of a family unraveling.

Please enjoy our Feature Story: “Nobody’s Home” by Maureen Rogers:

I look out the glass doorway of the elementary school office where I work and hear the familiar screech of brakes as the yellow bus pulls up to the front door. My phone rings.

“Your half-day kindergartener is back again,” says Pete the driver on the other end of the line. “I’ll send him in. Nobody’s answering at the house again.”

This is happening far too often. Toby’s mom will not roust herself out of bed to meet her five-year-old at the school bus stop at noon. She won’t answer the doorbell when the driver escorts him to the front porch of their small bungalow. The drapes are drawn. Later, she’ll call, confused, slurring her words.

Toby and I know the drill.

When the moon-faced young boy pushes through the office door, I smile big. “Hi there, Toby!” His wide set brown eyes don’t look at me. He’s slouched over and stares down at the carpet. Today he’s holding back his tears. I can’t bring his mother, but I can bring him lunch. “How about some noodles?”

He shakes his brush of thick black hair and plops himself down on the student bench in the office. He peels off his backpack. It thumps on the floor.

I pick up the phone. “I’ll keep calling.” What I really want to do is give him a giant bear hug and tell him everything will be okay. But I’m not Mom; I’m the school secretary and we don’t cross those boundaries here. So I dial the familiar phone numbers for the umpteenth time. There’s no answer. All the contact numbers I have begged from Mom are out of service. As a last resort, I call her former boyfriend, Nick, whose name is at the bottom of an old list. His machine is on today, so I leave a message – just in case.

I point to the table piled with the Where’s Waldo and Berenstain Bear books that he already knows by heart. “Wanna read something, Toby?” He shakes his head again and won’t look up.

I click away at the keyboard and take phone calls, but I can’t concentrate. I wonder what it’s like to be five years old and walk in Toby’s little shoes, feeling about as wanted as a mongrel dog at the pound.

By the second lunch bell, Toby has moved in behind my desk. “Can I have noodles now?”

We head into the conference room next to the office where he pulls out the first chair at the long table. He knows the routine. He climbs up and folds his legs underneath to sit higher.

“I’ll be right back, kiddo.” I head to the lounge to make his lunch. Toby’s older brother, Myles, is in the second grade. His teacher, Joan, approaches me as I wait by the microwave. “I see Toby’s in your office. Nobody home again?”

I shake my head. We share the same thought: if only the school counselor hadn’t been sliced out of the budget last year. As staff members we are all perpetual watchdogs of abuse. But calling Child Protection Services is up to the principal, and she’s out of the building today.

While I pour boiling water on Toby’s noodles, Joan goes to the playground to find his brother. He always helps. Myles is eight and seems more like the parent than his mother. From what he’s told Joan, he gets his brother up every morning, finds their clothes and pours their milk and cereal. Pete says he honks his late warning to call them out to the bus. He’s never seen their mother at the front door.

I sit across from Toby at the conference table, stirring his noodles. “Be careful – it’s hot!” I say as I hand him a fork. It’s easier for us to talk over the steaming, Styrofoam bowl. “So is your mom sick? Is she in bed?”

“Yeah,” he answers between slurps. Today he volunteers more information. “I leave her alone and keep her door closed.”

“What do you do till your brother comes home from school?”

Before he can answer, Joan and Myles walk through the doorway and Toby’s face sparks a smile for the first time that day. My office phone rings and I run back to my desk.

I feel my body tense and I have to stifle my upset when I call back to the conference room, “Toby, your mom’s on the phone. She wants to talk to you.”

Joan flashes me a worried look as the kindergartener slowly approaches my desk. He sits at the edge of my swivel chair, his feet dangling, as he takes the receiver. “Hi Mom.” He bends forward and lays the side of his head on my desk. “Okay.” He sniffles and makes a small puddle on my notepad. “I love you, too.”

I pass him a tissue and turn to Joan. “Her car broke down. Nick will pick up the boys early this afternoon.” Through the parent grapevine we learned months ago that his mother’s license was revoked and her car impounded.

Joan checks her watch and forces a cheery smile. “That settles it then. Myles, you can go outside again. Toby can finish his lunch and wait for Nick.”

At two thirty-five, Nick bounds into the office in sweat clothes. The lean, six-foot-three high school basketball coach has turned rescuer once again. He approaches my desk, smiling. “Sorry it took me so long to get here.”

Toby slides off the bench where he’s been quietly reading. He runs up to Nick and clings to his long skinny leg like a monkey.

Nick scoops him up, his big hands patting the little guy on the back. “Hey, it’s okay. Everything’s gonna be fine.” They stroll around the office pointing and chatting about the fifth grade science projects that fill our walls while I call his brother out of class.

When Myles shows up, Nick sends them both to wait in the lobby. “I’ll be just a minute, guys.” Nick pulls a scribbled note from his pocket and hands it to me. His clear blue eyes are direct and confident. “My new address and work number… the boys are going to stay with me for awhile. My sister will pick Toby up at noon from now on.” He hesitates and lowers his voice. “I’ve just checked their mom in for treatment. She’ll be gone eight weeks.”

“Thanks, Nick.” I take the information, hoping that elation doesn’t show too much on my face. “I’ll phone you if there’s any problem.”

As the three of them head out the front door, I call into the lobby, “Hey Toby, don’t forget your backpack.”

He runs toward me, a huge grin across his face. I hold his backpack while he turns and pokes his arms backwards through the looped straps. I can’t contain myself any longer. I cross the line. I squeeze a bear hug from behind before he bursts away and runs back out the door.

Maureen Rogers has been writing essays, poetry and fiction for over 10 years. Published online (Long Story Short, Common Ties, and the former Rhapsody website) and in print (Seattle PI and several anthologies including Pipes and Trimbles, Under Your Skin and six Chicken Soup for the Soul publications). She’s also the winner of several local and on-line competitions (Write on the Sound, Byline Magazine, Dave’s Travel Corner).

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  1. It’s so hard for young kids when their parents can’t take care of them. Lucky kid to have an older brother, a concerned ex-boyfriend, and a caring school secretary to look out for him.

  2. Wonderfully written and heartfelt story. The world needs more folks like Maureen!\ around!

  3. I am sure this happens more than we think!! Thanks Maureen for writting this from the heart.

  4. Beautifully written and a heart-tugging story.

  5. Ok, I’m in tears. What a sweet, sad, and too often true story. I can’t imagine what a school secretary sees in a day. Well done. Mindy

  6. Kids are so forgiving. In tears as well, Mindy. You showed us so much truth about life in such a short story. Kudos to all the good people in our education system that we entrust our children to, every day. Good on your school secretary for deciding to give that boy that hug – every kindness shown to a child helps makes that child a better person.

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