Teddy didn’t blame Aunt Jenny and Uncle Sal for dumping him; they already had three kids and they really didn’t have the money or the space to keep him around. Granny Emma wasn’t rich by any means but she did have a big house. Too big for the woman to take care of on her own now that she had hurt her leg and could use a consistent source of help. Teddy didn’t mind; he was happy to have a place to stay. His parents had died when he was a baby and he had been pushed through his relatives’ houses since then, no one wanting to deal with an extra mouth to feed for too long. No, he really couldn’t blame anyone for not wanting him around.
He was nervous about what sort of person Granny Emma was. Aunt Jenny had said she was nice but Teddy had already been through enough houses to know that nice usually meant he wouldn’t be hit too hard if he got out of line. Standing in front of the large doorway on the quiet street, he held onto the hope that as old as she was, Granny Emma wouldn’t have much of a hitting arm on her.
“Now remember, Teddy, you must help Granny with her walking; she can’t take stairs since her last fall. That means you’re going to have to keep the upstairs in order for her. Now she does have a boy come over to take care of the yard twice a month, and a few of the neighbors are kind enough to check up on her once in a while, but your main duties will be to take care of her. Don’t pester her for candy or things—I don’t want you being disrespectful.” Aunt Jenny gave Teddy a stern look which he responded to by nodding agreeably. If he knew anything, it was how to do as he was told.
“I’m sure you’ll be more trouble than good, but it can’t be helped. No one else has the time to take care of Granny. You’ll have to take care of her cats; I think she has four of them now. And down there…” she pointed down the street to a small rundown house once painted a pleasant yellow that was now faded pale. “Is where you’ll be going to school.”
Blinking, Teddy turned to look all the way down the street. “School?”
“Yes, well, it’s a little homeschool for the neighborhood kids until they’re old enough for college—Don’t be getting lofty ideas of that, though, boy. You haven’t had a day of learning and you’ll be the oldest one there. It’s only a handful of kids and they aren’t strict on papers. Thank goodness because I have no idea what happened to yours and I’m in no hurry to go searching for them. It’s about time you started getting some knowledge in your head. You be respectful there, too, because Granny can’t afford a real school for you and they won’t put up with mischief.”
“Yes, Aunt Jenny,” Teddy said automatically, eyes searching the little yellow house hungrily. A real school… He was going to go to a real school! He’d seen them on television before, big stone buildings filled with happy children learning about history, math, science, and all sorts of useful things, but Teddy never thought he’d ever get to go to one. He was small for his age, short and slender; the other kids wouldn’t know he was older than them. Even if Granny Emma was as bad as cousin Roland and beat him all the time, he’d still be happy as long as he got to go to a real school.
“Don’t dither, boy. Come on,” Aunt Jenny snapped, pushing the front door open and ushering the small boy in. Wide-eyed, Teddy stared in wonder at the inside of the house he would soon be living in.
It wasn’t rich or fancy and certainly not modern by any sense, but Teddy loved it instantly. For one, the house was big. Not too big where you felt like you could get lost, but big enough to run around in and maybe chase a dog if Granny allowed one. The soft green wallpaper was faded, a pretty design of flowers and abstract motifs still glittering on the walls in places where the sun didn’t reach or one of the many colorful paintings covered. The floors were hardwood and scuffed, large carpets spotting the ground with frayed images.
Teddy already knew his favorite rug, for right when stepping in the door a tiger was looking up at him nobly, small patches of where the fabric had pulled from the glue leaving it looking fluffy and worn. The warm golden gaze was welcoming and strong and it gave him a sense of strength.
“She’s likely in the kitchen.” Aunt Jenny stepped in, wiping her flats carelessly on the edge of the rug. Teddy had the impression she hadn’t even seen the picture on it. He followed quietly, looking around the passing rooms. The main staple seemed to be piles; piles of books, piles of newspaper, piles of dirty dishes. His fingers itched just looking at them all. The place was at least three stories tall—he imagined that Granny’s basement and attic were just filled with piles of things that need to be arranged, organized, and found a place for.
He paused at a desk where old photographs rested, some framed, newer Polaroid’s scattered on any free space. Green eyes jumped out at him, hidden behind the messy blond hair of a pouting boy that looked close to his own age. He was slender but taller than Teddy, limbs toned and tanned golden skin revealed beneath shorts and a t-shirt to combat the yearly summer weather common in the South. What made it interesting was the fact that the picture had been taken in the living room he had just passed and somewhat recently because the plants in the background were about the same height. Maybe he’d have a friend here. A very handsome one…
“Teddy!” Aunt Jenny called from down the hall. Jumping, he ran after, stuffing the photo into the back pocket of his jean cutoff shorts.
Aunt Jenny gave him a piercing look when he made it around the corner but didn’t say anything. He imagined she wasn’t in a hurry to blow her chance of dumping him off on someone else for a while. “Say hello to Granny Emma.” She stepped aside so he could see into the kitchen.
Granny Emma was not young at all. Wrinkles lined her face as well as every inch of skin visible beneath her plain, puritan style dress. Stern and thin, she stooped over like a stick had grown in a curve that had no chance of ever straightening out. One of her long spindly legs was wrapped in a cast, the type to support when walking that could be removed during the night to prevent sores. She watched unfocused through thick, oversized glasses, and as Teddy approached he could smell the sweet scent of brandy saturating her.
“Hello, Granny,” Teddy said quietly. He held his hand out to her cautiously, unsure what to make of the woman. He was five feet tall and done growing, yet she managed to be shorter than him. He wasn’t used to an adult he had to look down at.
“Look at those curls! In my day a girl would have sold her right arm for hair like yours,” Granny Emma exclaimed, dismissing Teddy’s hand to wrap frail, dry hands into his dark locks. The smell of age was new to Teddy too, and he scrunched his nose while he stood still to allow the woman to get a good look at him.
“Wasted on him, if you ask me,” Aunt Jenny sniffed, eying Teddy’s hair with resentment as her own mouse brown locks failed to hold a curl no matter how long she ironed it. She hated Teddy’s eyelashes too, so dark and thick, making the boy’s blue eyes shine.
“You’re a waif, though. Can you lift things, boy? I always need a good set of shoulders to get my water in.”
Teddy nodded resolutely. “I can lift ‘em.” He might be small but he was strong in a scrappy way, his slender arms used to manual labor.
Granny Emma gave him a measuring look that momentarily broke through what Teddy was to find was her normal myopic stare. “Alright, then. You seem respectful enough. Certainly hungry enough to get you listening to your elders,” she added with a glance at his long pale arms and matching frame hidden beneath ill-fitting clothes. “You know how to listen to your elders, right, boy? I don’t want to hear about any trouble from you in the neighborhood. You do as your told, and that’s that.”
“I’ll have no problem sending you off to another relative, you know. Be respectful and do as you’re told no matter what.”
Teddy nodded his head a couple of times to emphasize that he had gotten the point. He would do as his elders told him. He had no intention of blowing his chance of living in the warm, eccentric house with the schoolhouse just down the street.