Jimmy rolled out of bed and looked through the window when he heard the grinding gears of a large vehicle pulling to a stop. He slapped the glass and smiled. The moving van finally made it. He had been waiting for it all day.
It was one of those big yellow behemoths that could fit an entire house inside but just needed space for parts of his bedroom, which he had already spent the last 36 hours packing into small cardboard boxes. And now it was here. Now it could usher him to the adulthood he always wanted, the one that granted him freedom from the dungeon he had lived in for eighteen years.
“Hey, gotta go,” he said into his phone. “The guy’s here, finally.”
“Okay,” Melanie said. “See you at school tomorrow. Safe drive. I’ll be busy unpacking during the day, but let’s hook up for dinner. Seven o’clock?”
Jimmy didn’t need time to think about it. He already anticipated meeting her the moment he arrived, even before he’d unpack the van.
“You’re on. Hope they have something fancy in the neighborhood. Lobster Thermidor and grape juice for you.”
He squeezed his eyes shut as he thought about the words coming out of his own mouth. He’d never be able to afford a dinner like that. He was a college student now! College students ate boxed noodles, not lobster.
“Looking forward to it,” she said. “You’ve got my dorm number, right?”
“I’ll call for it.” Lobster Thermidor? he thought. Maybe the worst college in the country wouldn’t be located so close to any restaurant so fancy. He decided not to panic over his impulse.
Jimmy disconnected and set the phone on his nightstand, one of the many large things he would leave behind. Then he looked through the window to see who was driving the truck. The guy still hadn’t gotten out. Jimmy rolled his eyes. Procrastinator to the very end.
Jimmy lay in bed for the next three minutes while he waited for the mover to move. He’d almost fell asleep when he heard the doorbell.
“Jimmy,” his mother yelled from downstairs. “The moving truck is here.”
He jumped off his bed and maneuvered around the labyrinth of cardboard boxes to reach the door. As he entered the narrow hallway and jogged down the stairs, he found his mom walking out of the kitchen with that dang sheet of paper in her hand again.
“Okay,” she said, as she tapped the items on the note, “I’ve updated the list of all the things you’ll need to double-check. Make sure you have your clothes, your toothbrush, your books—”
“Mom, I know. I went through everything last night and again this morning. I’m ready to go.”
“Okay, well I just want to make sure because college is a big step, and—”
“I’m prepared. You don’t have to be so worried every time a kid leaves the house. Beth didn’t die her first time out.”
“Yes, but Cornell is such a better—”
“Mom, Beth and I have the same genes. Whatever she can do, I can do just as well.”
His mom curled her lips in that sympathetic stare she often demonstrated whenever somebody was kidding himself. Jimmy frowned. He wished she had done a better job hiding her feelings on the matter.
“At least trust me not to starve to death, okay?”
His mom patted his cheek and gave him a warm smile, though her expression lingered on that same sympathetic stare, which she was never great at masking.
“I’ll send you a recipe book with all your favorite meals, just to be sure.”
His mom stroked the checklist she was holding. Then she reached around her waist and grabbed the black pen that was hanging halfway off the side table she used for messaging. She scribbled another item on the list.
“I’ll be fine out there, Mom,” Jimmy said. “Stop worrying.”
“I’m not worried. I just want to make sure you’re on a good foot. That’s all. I know you’ll do well.”
“Then stop acting like you’re worried, okay?”
She smiled and shook her head.
“I can’t. Acting takes so much energy.”
She tapped the checklist with the tip of her pen, nodded at it, then reached behind her to set the pen in its place. She knew exactly where to put it. It rolled to a stop right at the edge of the table. Then his mom retreated to the kitchen where Jimmy assumed she was searching for her recipe book.
Meanwhile, Jimmy looked ahead to see the moving assistant standing there in his gray overalls, leaning against the doorframe. A patch of armpit hair poked out of his sleeve as he put his hand to his forehead.
“Hey,” he said. “You ready for me to load up?”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said. “The boxes are upstairs.”
Without missing a beat, the assistant entered the house and power-walked for the stairs, as if all the time it took him to get here today—he was scheduled to arrive five hours ago—was suddenly a problem for him. But as Jimmy led the mover up to his room, the phone rang, and momentum would once again come to a stop. This was perhaps the tenth time someone had called today, all but one of which was either a friend or a relative wishing him luck on his journey. He stopped to see if this call was also for him.
“Jimmy,” his mom yelled from the kitchen, “Grandma Edith is on the phone. Can you say hi to her?”
Jimmy looked at the mover, who continued to march up the stairs to claim conquest over those cardboard boxes.
“I can get this, kid,” the mover said. “Talk to your grandma. Never know when an old person will die.”
Jimmy acknowledged the mover’s instruction (and morbid assurance) and jogged down the stairs and into the kitchen. His mom was holding out the phone. He took the candy red receiver from her and spoke into it.
“Hi, Grandma. How are you?”
“Jimmy,” his grandmother said. “You made it to college.”
“Yep, almost. Heading out tonight.”
“I knew you had it in you. I’m so proud of you.”
Jimmy shrugged as he smiled at nothing in particular. Calls from his grandmother almost always went this way. Whether she heard about his new macaroni art, or the finger painting he’d done of his house, or the time he narrowly escaped getting into a wreck learning how to drive, his grandmother was always “proud of him.” Sometimes he wondered if his mom was paying her to say that.
“Are you going to also study writing, like your sister?”
Jimmy twanged the phone cord. He knew his grandmother was getting old, but he thought she would at least remember having this conversation with him before.
“No, Grandma. I’m going into microbiology, remember?”
“Oh, that’s right,” she said. “You want to be a scientist, right?”
“Something like that. I want to study the effects germs have on the body. But if that doesn’t work out, then I’m going to take dentistry as a backup.”
There was a brief pause on her end.
“Now, your mother tells me you are not going to Cornell?”
Jimmy rolled his eyes.
“Yes, I’m going to a different school.”
“She says it’s one with a less than stellar reputation?”
“People do make lives for themselves after graduation. It’s not a complete dud. They say their dental program is top-notch compared to other schools in its class.”
“I see. And how’s its science program? Microbiology, was it?”
“Dentistry is my backup, and they’re decent at that, so I’ll be okay if the other doesn’t work.”
“Well, good luck, honey. I believe in you. I’ll try to believe in that school, too.”
“What’s it called again? Pee pee something?”
Jimmy wrinkled his lips. It was bad enough he would study there. Mentioning it as his soon-to-be alma mater was also embarrassing. The less of it he had to name-drop, the better.
“Do I have to say?”
“I think . . . Peanut Patch, was it? Pucker Pats? Your mom told me, but I don’t remember.”
“Probably for the best.”
“Maybe. Put your mother back on the phone for me, okay? Take care. Remember to stay away from suspicious bags of brownies. I love you.”
“You too, Grandma.”
Jimmy handed the phone back to his mom. Even though he loved his grandmother, talking to her became a chore. She would often ask questions she had asked before, never remembering that she already knew the answer. It wasn’t always that way, of course, but the last five years had bolstered her forgetful side, and it was becoming a challenge to accommodate her. Out of respect for her, he answered her questions multiple times, but the conversations drained him, and he was happy when they were over.
Now, he wasn’t against keeping her informed. He just hated repeating himself, which was a factor that made him unlike his successful storyteller of a sister. Beth could repeat herself night and day, telling her stories pitch-perfect each time and never grow tired of it.
Jimmy, on the other hand, often grew tired of her talking about her stories, so he was looking forward to carving out his own destiny, separate from the accomplishments of his older sister, and far away from hearing any more about her stupid tales. Even if he were going to the worst college in the country, he still had pride knowing he could do so without having the same dull conversations he’d entertained a thousand times before.
When he raced upstairs to assist the mover, he found the man standing at his desk flipping through a small hardcover book. The book was called Sun Underwater: A Memoir, and it displayed on its dustcover an ocean with the sun’s reflection off its surface. Jimmy’s instinct was to snatch the book right out of the mover’s hands, but he restrained himself. He didn’t want to offend the man who would drive all of his belongings to college. The man closed the book when he acknowledged Jimmy’s presence.
“Hey, you don’t look like a Beth Grogan fan,” he said. “Am I in the right room?”
The moving assistant laughed at what he thought was a joke. Jimmy no longer cared about offending him. He approached him and stole Sun Underwater from his paws.
“Yes you’re in the right room,” Jimmy said. “Beth is my sister, so I’m obligated to own all of her books. That cool?”
He dropped the book on the desk. It jumped slightly when it hit the surface. “I don’t read any of them. I just own them. So now that you know my secret, can we get back to work please? I wanted to set out four hours ago.”
“No kidding?” the mover said. “Beth Grogan is your sister?”
Jimmy nodded, having a deep uncertainty about why this greasy guy in overalls even knew of his sister, much less had an interest in her writing. All he wanted now was to get his boxes loaded onto the truck and to get on with his life. The career of his older sibling was not something of his immediate concern. He really wished people would stop trying to make it one.
Jimmy picked up the first box by his feet and started for the door. He hoped the mover would follow.
“So then you must be Jimmy the ‘Gutter Child,’ aren’t ya?”
Jimmy set the box down and looked the mover in the eye. The expression on the guy’s face was expectant, like he had uncovered a grand mystery and needed the opportunity to prove it. His eyebrows were raised in anticipation. His hands were suspended a few inches in front of his belly. Jimmy raised his own eyebrows and shook his head.
“Jimmy the ‘what’?” he asked.
“Jimmy the ‘Gutter Child.’ That’s you, ain’t it?”
The term gutter child was foreign to him.
“What are you talking about?”
The mover swiped Sun Underwater off the table and flipped through its pages.
“It’s one of her stories. Called ‘Gutter Child.’ It’s about you, right?”
“I told you I don’t read her books. I’m just obligated to have them.”
“Really? What kind of brother doesn’t read his sister’s books?”
Jimmy sighed. It appeared he wasn’t getting out of here at all today.
“I tried to once, okay? Her stories don’t interest me, so I don’t read them anymore. Being her brother doesn’t make me automatically like her work.”
The mover chuckled as he continued to flip through the pages.
“Ooh, doozy here. Well, not to burst your bubble, kid, but this book isn’t like her Kingdom Fantasy novels. This one is a book of short stories about her life and the lives of some of her friends and family . . . like you. There are no knights or dragons in this one. As far as I know, it’s all autobiographical stuff. Of course, you would know better than I if any of it’s real. Either way, you might find it interesting, especially since, you know.” The mover winked and cocked his head to one side, as if Jimmy was supposed to know, even though he didn’t have a clue. “You know.” The mover eyed him. “You gotta know. You do know, right?”
“Whatever you’re talking about, you’ve lost me.”
He shook his head. “Poor kid. You really have no idea, do you?”
The mover’s eyes widened with delight as he stopped flipping through the pages and handed the open book to Jimmy.
“Here,” he said. “Read this and catch a clue. It might just edge-a-ma-cate you. I’ll move your boxes to the truck while you read.”
Jimmy wanted to protest the mover’s interference with his plan to get out of here before sundown, but he looked at the open book instead. Sure enough, he saw GUTTER CHILD plastered in bold letters across the top of the left page, proving that the story did exist. He glanced at the mover to see if he had anything else to add. The mover lifted the first box off the floor and carried it out of the bedroom. Within a moment his head vanished down the stairway. Jimmy supposed he would leave him alone now.
Realizing that everything was coming under control with the moving process, Jimmy figured it couldn’t hurt just to take a quick peek at the story. After all, it could have been educational, like the mover had said. He was sure his sister would appreciate it at least.
Of course, it bothered him a little that the mover was so eager for him to check it out, and that he kept questioning him about this thing he didn’t know. What was it he didn’t know?
Jimmy wondered if his sister was still playing practical jokes on him. He glanced at the title and felt a shiver down his spine. Why was she calling him a “gutter child” in her book? For once, she had gotten his attention with her stories and he didn’t like that one bit.