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The teddy bear was floating faceup in the toilet. Harris Harper shoved back his curtain of bangs, trying to control his breathing. Just wait until he got his hands on that rotten Jamey Benya.
The voice of Bert Lester, Harris's best friend, floated upstairs. "What you doing up there?"
"I'm eating bonbons," Harris shouted, pinching a spongy foot between thumb and forefinger, "and doing my NAILS!" He flung the sopping bear into the tub. It landed with a pflunk.
"Well, hurry up," came Bert's voice.
Harris mopped up the trail of water that snaked across the marble floor. He rolled the teddy in a towel that was as plush and big as a blanket, then treaded on it like a peasant crushing grapes for wine, aware of his soft belly slightly jiggling. Neatly, he hung both bear and towel on the rack by the tub. He finished by spraying the bathroom into a Lysol fog. The toilet, thank goodness, had been clean.
Harris jogged downstairs to the den, still coughing from the Lysol fumes. "Jamey, what'd you do that for?"
Jamey Benya, on the floor, stopped playing with his G.I. Joe and tucked his head against a thin shoulder. Though he was four years old, an empty baby bottle hung from his mouth. "I don't know," he said around the nipple.
Over in Mr. Benya's leather recliner, Bert took off his taped-together black glasses and wiped them on his T-shirt. "What'd he do now?" he asked, holding his glasses up to the light. Without them, Bert appeared to be half of his regular, already scrawny size.
"He threw his bear in the john."
"Uh-oh. Dangerous waters."
Harris pushed his hair out of his eyes. "You could have watched him while I hunted for Peaches, you know."
"CanI help it if the kid's hamster is a professional escape artist?" Bert put on his glasses, two portholes cleared in the smeared lenses "And it's not my fault that the kid has a thing for the pot. Watching the kid is your job, man."
Harris groaned. "Don't remind me."
When Mrs. Benya had asked him to sit for the Summer; Harris had thought it was a lucky break. He'd actually been glad that his fourteen year-old sister, Jennifer, couldn't take the job and had recommended him. He'd baby-sat his little sister, Ruthie, enough to know that sitting was no big deal. It was easier and steadier than moving lawns, and, better yet, it was cleaner. Harris liked things clean.
Now, after two weeks of watching Jamey, Harris realized that baby-sitting was a bomb in the easy and clean departments. Jamey did crazy stuff like carving stick figures on the wall with a pen, pouring Kool-Aid down the air conditioning vents, and picking every last pansy from the pots outside on the deck. He made tornadoes seem tidy, and this wasn't even taking into account all the stuffed animals he pitched into the toilet.
The job was steady. From eight in the morning, when he was dropped off by his dad, until Mrs. Benya drove him home at noon, Harris stayed in a constant sweat whipping the house into shape for Mrs. Benya.
The recliner extended with a loud thwang. Bert kicked his Converseshuge slabs of can vas and rubber extending from wiry legsonto the footrest. "Know what we need right now, big guy?"
Harris eyed the dirt sifting down from Bert's shoes. "What?"
"To get some babes over here."
"Babes!" Harris exclaimed, horrified.
Jamey pulled the empty baby bottle out of his mouth with a pop. "Babies?
Bert chuckled. "I don't think I'd call Ellie Johnson and Caitlin Armstrong 'babies,' would you, big guy?"
Harris couldn't speak.
Bert waggled his eyebrows over his taped-up black glasses. "Let's call 'em."
"Call them!" Harris cried.
Bert scratched under his chin. "You know, use that funny little machine that goes ring, ring, ring?"
"We can't call them!" Harris protested. "Mrs. Benya said no unnecessary phone calls."
"You going to let Mrs. Benya run your life?"
Harris breathed in as if smelling sweet per fume. "Yes."
"You're sick. But okay, we won't call them this second. When are we going to call them?"
"When later?" Later later."
Bert shook his head. "You're going to poop out on me again, I can tell. Just like on that time on the bus."
Harris groaned. When was Bert going to for get the seventh grade field trip to Jekyll Island this past spring? Bert had gotten Harris and a couple of the other guys to agree to aim spit balls at the back of their science teacher's head. When Bert gave the signal, Bert, Peter, and Niko shot their spitballs, but somehow Harris's hands drifted to his lap. The burden of shame weighed heavily on Harris still.
"I'm not going to poop out on you," Harris mumbled.
"Good. Then the second we blow this dive, we call the babes. Deal?"
Harris reluctantly offered his hand. "Deal."
As they shook, Harris glimpsed something small and dark under Mr. Benya's recliner. "It's a Cockroach!" He grabbed a Working Mother magazine and started smacking.
Bert fell off the recliner laughing. "Kill it, big guy!"
Harris stopped pounding. The roach had flipped over on its back but otherwise looked no worse for wear. "It's fake."
"Man, I didn't think you'd fall for it," said Bert, chortling as he climbed back in the recliner. "You were really into it!"
Jamey crept forward, bottle dangling from his mouth. Gingerly, he picked up the rubber insect by a leg.
"Like it?" Bert lifted his glasses to wipe away tears.
Jamey nodded, bottle bouncing.
"Then keep it."
Jamey glanced at Harris.
Harris crossed his arms over his chest. I'd better never see that thing again, you hear me?
Jamey smiled slowly, revealing one baby tooth at a time. "Okay."
Copyright ) 1996 by Lynn Cullen