Another week, another Say Uncle chapter.
Last time we saw our beloved teenage babysitter, he’d just managed to make some peace with a couple of his small charges. Let’s see how things turn out this time.
Catch up here.
And enjoy the new chapter!
I felt like I’d found some sort of game cheat here, after finally making buddies with Tiny and Penrod.
They seriously wanted to help me. Clementine loved decorating. Penrod was so naturally helpful he was at my heels nearly every second he could, trying to see if he could help me make the food.
The next few days went . . . pretty well. To my shock. I got them all out the door on time and there were no major disasters, barring the noodle incident.
And the decorations were all done the day before the picnic. Which I . . . okay, I wouldn’t normally admit that I needed help from kids not even in their double digits on age. But seriously, I couldn’t have done any of that without the two of them.
So yeah. Here I am saying I couldn’t imagine succeeding without a couple of little twits hanging onto my ankles.
What is the world coming to.
I pulled my car up into the parking lot next to the picnic area and shifted the stick to put the car in park. “And here we are. Picnic grounds.”
Rudy was out the door before I’d even finished my sentence. He’d already told me he thought my car smelled weird, so there was the double motivation for him to get out of that, plus there being a playground nearby.
Tiny bounced in her seat and unbuckled, squeaking out a few words to Penrod. I couldn’t make them out since that tone was more like a dog whistle than an actual little girl voice.
Penrod grinned at his sister and unbuckled. Charley just sat in the passenger seat, her elbow propped up against the window while she looked out over the park. I heard the quiet beat of music from her earbuds.
I popped the latch on my own buckle and reached over to smack one hand against Charley’s arm. “Hey. We’re getting out.”
She shot me a look, then went back to looking out the window.
I raised my eyebrows. “If you’re staying here, you better not run off on me.”
Charley didn’t respond and I could already hear Clementine and Penrod outside yammering and hurling themselves against the trunk of my car to try and get the decorations out.
“Fine.” I rolled down the windows before pulling my keys out and leaving Charley to her own devices.
I came out and walked around to the back of the car, where Tiny was throwing all her weight against pushing the latch the wrong way.
“Here,” I moved her to one side and unlocked the trunk, opening it up and hefting the decorations box up onto one shoulder.
Tiny clapped her hands together and darted over to the picnic area. “We put the banners up over here!” she called over one shoulder. “Come on!”
Penrod hung back just a little bit longer, staying by my side as I trudged after Tiny, but after a few seconds, he ran after his sister.
There was a small section of tables under a shelter, then a few scattered around the rest of the grass under the trees. Tiny was busy surveying the area with her brow scrunched up.
I gave the place a quick look over myself as I walked up and set the box down on one of the tables. If you asked me, this place honestly didn’t need any decorating. Beauty of nature, people. Sometimes it doesn’t need the extra glitter added.
But in the mind of a small girl, everything needs the extra glitter added, as I was fast learning.
Penrod hopped up on the bench next to the decorations box and grabbed one end of one of the banners, lifting it up. “Where do they go, Tiny?”
Tiny turned around slowly to face us, tapping her chin with one finger thoughtfully. “I think . . . one should go there, first. Taped on the sides.” She pointed up to the arched roof of the picnic shelter. “So it hangs down over the entrance. That can be one of the short ones. And then for the looong ones . . .” she spun around, hopping back towards the main area where the tables were near the trees. “They can string from tree to tree! And we can put some streamers around there too.”
I looked around, envisioning what she’d said.
“And then the tablecloths and flowers go on the tables,” Penrod added.
Tiny nodded. “You can do that. Uncle Micah, can you hang the banners for me? You’re tall enough to reach and I can’t.”
I wasn’t the size to be considered particularly tall, but I was a giant to someone like Tiny at least. I nodded and pulled a couple of the bunched up banners out of the box. “On the picnic shelter, right?”
And the next half hour, I was really glad that no one else had showed up yet. Because I mostly spent that time climbing up into life-threatening perches at the say-so of a little girl. But she was happy with the results at least, and I couldn’t really say it looked too bad myself.
All the banners were strung between the trees and on the picnic shelter. Penrod had put the tablecloths around and teeny vases of flowers around all the tables. And really . . . the whole area looked like something worthy of Cecily herself.
Not that I’d brag on that, usually. But still.
I smiled to myself.
Tiny clapped her hands, bouncing a little.
Penrod fistpumped. “Yeess.”
“Can you take a picture of us here and send it to Momma?” Tiny asked, poking at my leg. She hurried out and posed in front of one of the picnic tables. “Penrod, come on!”
I laughed and pulled out my phone. “Yeah, sure.” For once, I had something worth sending to brag about, so why not?
Penrod put one arm around his sister’s shoulders and stuck his other hand in his pants pocket, grinning at the camera. Tiny tilted her head back slightly and turned at an angle while pursing her lips like she was modeling for a magazine.
I turned my phone camera both ways, snapping a few pictures. “Alright, there we go.”
“Now you! Do a selfie or something with us!”
I just looked at them for a second, glancing behind them back to Rudy on the playground swings. He wasn’t paying any attention. I don’t know why I thought that was important to my selfie-safety.
“Come on,” Penrod waved a hand for me to come over. “You should be in the picture too.”
I hesitated another second, then flipped my camera around and walked over next to them. I turned around and went down on my heels so I was down to their height. “Okay guys, smile.”
They both leaned in over my shoulders and grinned at the camera, showing their teeth.
I raised my eyebrows and gave a half smile to the camera myself. It actually was a wider smile than I thought just by my looking at the grins of the kids over my shoulders. I hit the button. The screen blinked and there was a click, saving the picture.
I brought the phone back down and stuck it in my pocket just as I heard the sound of a few other cars rumbling up into the parking lot.
I quickly stood all the way back up and turned around to look over. “Right. People are showing up now so I’m gonna . . . go get Charley out of the car.” I pulled my keys out of my pocket, taking a step back in that direction.
“Okay!” Tiny and Penrod went running off to join Rudy on the swings.
I looked between them and the decorations hanging up all around the area and felt a bit of a smile pull at one side of my mouth. Actually, I was pretty sure that was the first . . . picture I’d really taken with little kids. Memorable occasion in more ways than one.
I turned around and headed to the car to boot Charley out.
This picnic had more kids running around than I had ever seen in one place. It was a bit more than I would have liked to handle, since I’d literally just gotten used to having four kids around. Five billion was a leap I wasn’t ready for.
I stood off to the side, drinking a plastic cup of soda and wondering why I even bothered putting up those streamers. All the kids were doing was making a contest of who could jump up and tear the most down.
I mean . . . honestly, if I was that age I’d probably be doing the same thing. It was just refuting Tiny’s point that everyone would only admire how pretty the streamers were.
There weren’t really a lot of people in my age group around to socialize with. I was the odd one out from all the grade schoolers and the PTA moms, so pretty much my only friend here was food. And they had plenty of that, so I wasn’t complaining.
I got myself a hot dog and finished that off, then went up on the slight rise next to the picnic area to busy myself with the Where’s Waldo hunt of spotting all my nieces and nephews in the crowd.
There was Penrod, playing on the playground slide. Rudy hanging out on one of the swings. Tiny playing some game with a group of other little girls. And Charley . . . being by herself with her earbuds in. Everything seemed to be normal.
I took another drink of my soda and scanned the rest of the crowd. A few moms I recognized from the PTA meeting. Lots of people I didn’t recognize. And one head of poofy curly black hair.
I just about choked on my soda for a second. Then I brought my cup down and squinted, making sure I’d seen right.
The dark tan face. The perpetually annoyed expression and the torn jeans she was wearing.
Yeah. That’s definitely Alice.
But why would she be . . .?
I took one look at the lady she was standing next to her and my question was answered. Her mom. And . . . I recognized from a picture I’d seen inside the school . . . the principal.
Alice must have sensed my gaze on her after a few seconds because she turned her head slightly, glancing away from the conversation her mom was having and towards me off to the side.
Our eyes met. One of her eyebrows went up, getting across the clear question of what on earth I was doing there.
I scrunched my nose slightly and gave a sideways shrug, trying to get across the message back that it wasn’t really my top choice either.
Alice’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. She looked back at her mom for a few seconds, twisting one strand of curly hair around her finger. Then she turned away and disappeared into the rest of the crowd.
I tried and failed to spot her again. I gave up after a couple seconds and refocused on my drink. Huh. Small world.
That must be a bit of stress on Cecily and Henry, having the school principal living next door . . .
I looked over the crowd, pegging down the positions of my nieces and nephews again. Nobody getting in too much trouble. How much longer was this picnic anyway.
I tipped my soda cup back, taking another swallow.
A voice came from behind me to my right. “Yo.”
I choked, soda snorting up through my nose. The burn of the fizz scorched the inside of my head and I dropped my cup, slapping a hand over my face and muffling a cry of pain.
Stupid, stupid of course that had to be right in front of Alice . . . ow that hurts . . .
Alice just gave me a sideways look. “You’re clearly having a lot of fun over here.”
I rubbed my jean jacket sleeve against my nose and coughed a couple of times, wincing and blinking against the watering of my nose. “Yeah, man, this is where the party’s at.”
Alice plucked at the sleeve of her black t-shirt, looking back out to the rest of the picnic. “Well wherever it is, it isn’t with Mom. Good grief, if I had to listen to one more talk about the school board . . .” she rolled her eyes.
“I bet.” I rubbed at my nose again and let out my breath, straightening up my back. “I mean . . . one PTA meeting and I was about ready to die.”
“PTA meetings are Hell on earth,” Alice agreed blandly. She shot me another look. “Yeah by the way, what were you doing at one? Here you’re watching your little humans. I got that, but PTA meetings aren’t included in babysitting.”
“Well this time it was. I had to help organize this thing.” I gestured out over the picnic. “Just taking over for my sister in law and her part.”
We both went silent. Alice messed with her hair – a constant hobby of hers apparently – and I just stood there trying to scramble for some other topic of conversation I could come up with. And trying to blame the redness in my face on my just choking.
Come on, I had one chance here to talk to this girl without the kids on my neck. And she’d actually come over to me.I had to figure out something here, right?
I looked over at her and blew out a breath. “So. How long have you lived around here?”
“Eh, a couple years.” She crossed her legs and sat down on the grass. “There are worse places. Not many though.”
“Nice.” I looked out over the crowd again, absently scanning faces while I tried to work out my next move. Transitioning straight into asking for her phone number would be weird here. I could ask about siblings or family maybe . . . but I hadn’t seen anything on that front and didn’t want to hit some no-no button. Plus that could be a little creepy.
The weather? The bugs around here? Tips for avoiding snakes?
Music she liked? Well that could . . .
My gaze went over to the playground and I blinked once. Out of scanning mode now.
Rudy wasn’t near any of his siblings and had his head down, looking away from a group of slightly bigger kids. One of the kids jeered something and shoved his shoulder and a few others laughed.
Rudy scowled at them, but there wasn’t a lot of heart in it. He went to go back to the swings. The first kid caught him by the arm and pulled him back, grabbing his glasses off his face and dangling them up just out of his reach. Rudy yelped and jumped for them, trying to get them back.
I stared, frowning. Bullies going after Rudy . . . at a picnic with this many people around no less?
Something about the body language of all the kids involved clued me in that this wasn’t the only time this had happened . . .
Alice spoke up again, surprisingly being the one to actually start another conversation. “So by the way you were whacking the crud out of those drums, I guess you like music a lot, huh?”
“Uh . . . yeah . . .” I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the playground scene.
Rudy made another jump and one of the kids laughed, shoving him down to the ground. He hunched up on himself as they laughed again.
I took an involuntary step forward, opening my mouth. I hesitated for a few seconds.
Micah MacQuoid may be a bit of a tinman on a lot of fronts. But I knew what that felt like. And it wasn’t happening to Rudy on my watch, even if he was sort of a brat.
And didn’t this line up with my lot in life at this point anyway?
I turned and walked backwards for a few steps. “Listen, Alice, I’ll be right back. I gotta go take care of something really quick.” I turned back around and jogged towards Rudy before I could see her response.
His little blond head was still down as he was hunched on the woodchip ground of the playground and I could see his glasses dropped to the ground a few feet away. The small group of kids who’d been going after him had already moved on and gotten into the line for snacks again.
I slowed up as I came next to Rudy and came to a stop. I crouched down, tilting my head to get a look at his face. “Hey. You okay, buddy?”
Rudy swiped his wrist across his nose and didn’t look at me. “Go ‘way.” He turned away and squinted around the area, looking for his glasses. He wasn’t crying. But he was pretty clearly upset. There were scrapes on his elbows and I could see the familiar stony, grumpy face he seemed to always have on when he came home from school.
I narrowed my eyes at him as I reached over and snagged his glasses up. I handed them over to him. “How long’ve these guys been bugging you?”
Rudy took his glasses back and scowled down at them while he wiped them on his shirt. “A while.”
Uh huh, that would be it.
“They beat you up?”
He shrugged at first, then shook his head. “Just . . . make fun of me.” He lowered his voice to just a mumble. “A lot.”
I took a breath and let it out. Great. An untapped mine of things his parents should be dealing with, not me.
But again. I was the one here. What was I gonna do besides deal with it? This wasn’t something I could just hang up and wait for.
I awkwardly put a hand on his shoulder and hesitated a few seconds. I had more idea what I was doing on the other end of things, but I needed to say something to him here.
I pushed my tongue to one side of my mouth for a second, then nodded, trying to catch his eye again while he put on his glasses. “Okay, Rudy, listen. You don’t have to . . . listen to those guys. Literally the only reason they’re doing this is that picking on littler kids like you makes them feel like they’re better somehow. Just . . . you’ve come up with some pretty good insults right? Heck, you’ve been annoying the bejesus out of me.” I patted his shoulder. “Channel that. Dish it back to ‘em next time, okay? Doesn’t matter what they say. They’re just big lunks anyway.”
Rudy gave me a sideways look.
I shrugged a little. “Just pretend you don’t care. Usually it ends up being true if you act like it long enough. Trust me on that one.”
He looked slightly less grumpy and looked back down at the knees of his jeans. He adjusted his glasses. “Okay.”
I nodded. “Right. And you come and tell me if they come after you anymore, ‘kay?’
“Great.” I patted him on his back once, then pushed to my feet again. Now for the fun part. I turned around and strode back towards the picnic shelter.
The group of young buttholes were just getting to the end of the line and filling up their drink cups, chattering way too loudly while they did it.
I walked up behind them, zeroing in on the tallest guy in the red shirt. The oldest he could be was around eleven, but he was definitely big for his age. And definitely was the one who shoved Rudy to the ground.
A strategic approach was best here.
I waited until he’d stopped talking and started taking a drink of his soda before I came up and gave him a friendly slap on the back. “Hey, buddy. I’ve got something to talk to you about here . . .”
The sound of that choke was the most beautiful sound I’d heard all day.
The chatter around the drink table stopped and the group of kids turned to look at me while their red-shirted friend hacked and coughed, wiping at his face to try and get the sputtered soda off.
I gave a smile and looked around at all of them. “Just a quick announcement from the management at the MacQuoid house, okay? This won’t take a minute.” I took my hand off of Red-shirt’s shoulder and clasped my hands together. I lowered my voice. “Bullying of any of my nieces and nephews? Not happening anymore. There’s a new sheriff in town and he’s gonna give all of you swirlies if Rudy comes home with a scratch on his glasses or a frown on his face. And swirlies are a warning step. Things get more serious after that.”
They all stared at me.
I smiled. “Right. That’s it. You got it?”
Red-shirt muffled another squeaky cough.
Honestly, the looks on all of their faces said it all.
“Great. I hope we won’t need to talk again.” I gave a short boy-scout-salute and walked back away. I shot a glance towards the playground.
Rudy was standing there and I could see his wide eyes behind his glasses even from that distance. I gave him a quick thumbs up and nodded. He visibly relaxed and a smile pulled his mouth crooked.
Honestly, that moment felt even better than finishing up all those decorations.
Alice was still sitting on the grass when I came back to where I’d been before. She looked over at me after I sat down a few feet away from her.
“What was that about?”
I shrugged, running a hand over my hair. “Babysitting stuff. It’s good now. We were talking about music, right?”
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