“What took you so long?” Robby asked as I stomped out the back door and into the backyard, where he and Ryan were waiting for me.
“I’ve been hauling out the garbage,” I grumbled, dropping down under the cherry tree, “and I’m sick of it. All I do at home is work! I have to make my bed when I get up, clean my room, hang my clothes up, take a bath at night, work in the garden, empty the garbage. Brother! All I do is work, work, work. And if I even look cross-eyed at Annie or Sarah, they start complaining and Mom and Dad yell at me for teasing them.”
“You have it pretty tough all right,” Robby muttered, sitting next to me, “but no worse than I do. I have a hundred chores to do too. That’s the trouble with being a kid. Everybody is always bossing you around and making you do things.”
“I can hardly wait until I’m a dad,” Ryan said with a smile. “I’m not going to do anything that I don’t want to do. I’ll make my kids do everything.”
“You’ll still have to go to work,” Robby pointed out. “Dads do have to go to work, you know.”
“Yes, but they do fun work,” Ryan said. “All my dad does is sit at a desk and sign papers and talk on the phone.”
“That’s why he gets to boss you around,” Robby pointed out. “He makes all the money.”
“Then if we were making our own money, we could do anything we wanted.”
Ryan shook his head. “I don’t think my dad would care how much money I made. He’d still boss me around.”
“Our parents couldn’t boss us around if we weren’t around to boss,” I said, excited. “Let’s leave home and be our own bosses. I already have a little over six dollars.”
“I have four dollars and twenty-three cents,” Robby volunteered.
“And I have five dollars and two quarters,” Ryan added. “That means that we have”—he closed his eyes and started counting on his fingers—“almost sixteen dollars!”
“And we could get more, lots more,” I said. “We could collect cans and sell them to the store.”
“Sister Wheeler pays me to run errands for her,” Ryan put in.
“And sometimes Brother Randall pays me to rake the grass after he’s mowed,” Robby added.
“Wow!” I declared. “We’ll have tons of money. Just think—no more chores!”
“But where would we stay?” Robby asked.
We sat down, put our chins in our hands, and did some hard thinking. “The fort!” I suddenly burst out.
We all laughed out loud because we were so excited. There was a vacant lot behind the Petersons’ place a couple of blocks away. It was filled with old boards, abandoned cars, big metal drums, and lots of other good junk. We had used some of the boards to make ourselves a fort between two old cars.
“That’s it!” Ricky agreed. “We’ll live in the fort.”
“And if we live there,” Ryan added, “we won’t have to worry about making our beds or doing chores or anything.”
“Do you suppose our moms will care if we run off and live in the fort?” Robby wondered aloud.
I gulped. “Well,” I mumbled, “I don’t think that we should ask them. But,” I added quickly, “we can leave them a note.”
We stood up. I was a little scared, but I just knew that I’d have to leave home or always get bossed around and have a million chores to do.
It didn’t take long to pack my things. I grabbed two pairs of jeans, three T-shirts, a pair of socks, my basketball shoes, my football, and the little can that held my money. I rolled everything up in two blankets and tucked them under my arm. Just before I slipped out again, I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote, “I’ve gone to live in the fort with Robby and Ryan. Somebody else will have to do my chores. Don’t worry, we’re getting jobs. I’ll come back to visit.”
A half hour later we were pulling Ryan’s loaded red wagon toward the fort and laughing and talking. We could hardly believe how lucky we were. We’d all been able to pack our things and slip back outside without being seen.
When we reached the fort, we spread our blankets on the ground inside to sleep on, then stuffed everything else into the corners. The place didn’t look nearly as big as we remembered it. Everything fit, but just barely.
For a few minutes we just sat cross-legged on the floor of the fort and looked around and grinned. Boy, were we proud of our new place!
“The first thing that we’d better do is get some food,” I finally suggested. “We can take the wagon so that if we find any cans along the way, we can pick them up. And we can haul all our food back in the wagon.”
By the time we reached the store, the wagon was full of cans. A checker took us to a scale at the back of the store. “That comes to fifty-two cents,” she said.
“Fifty-two cents!” We all gasped. “Is that all?”
We added the money to what we already had, grabbed a shopping cart, and started down the aisles. “What do we need?” I asked.
“I want some soda pop,” Robby spoke out.
“And we just have to get some candy and some doughnuts,” Ryan added.
“And I want some cookies and potato chips,” I said. “They’re my favorites.”
It was great to be able to buy anything that we wanted without anybody telling us no.
“Is that about enough?” I asked.
“We probably ought to get some good food, too,” Robby muttered.
“You’re right,” I agreed. “Let’s get some cereal.”
We grabbed a box of sugar-coated cereal and a jug of milk and pushed the cart to the checkout counter. “That will be twenty-one dollars and eighty-seven cents,” the lady announced with a smile.
“Twenty-one dollars!” I yelped. I looked over at Ryan and Robby. All of us studied our groceries. “Let’s put these back,” I said, grabbing the cereal and milk and one bag of candy. “We don’t need them for a few days. We’ve had enough good stuff at home.”
It was way past noon when we made it back to the fort. And we had been so hungry that we munched on doughnuts, granola bars, cookies, and licorice as we walked.
When we got there, I asked, “Should we have lunch now?”
Ryan made a face. “I don’t want to eat anything,” he moaned. “My stomach is making funny noises, and it feels as though it’s going to pop. I think I’ll lie down for a minute.”
“You’re not going to take a nap, are you?” I gasped. “We don’t have to take naps.”
“That’s right,” Ryan said, sitting up.
So we just sat in the fort and munched on chips and talked about how great it was to be on our own. Pretty soon it got warm inside the fort, and I began to yawn and stretch. Finally I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. I lay on my blanket and went to sleep.
It was starting to get dark when we finally woke up. We sat up and looked around. I grabbed a bag of chips, and Ryan and Robby started on a bag of candy. We tried to wash everything down with soda pop, but it was warm and just gagged us.
“My hands are sure sticky,” Robby muttered. “I sure wish I could wash my hands. I wouldn’t mind a bath.”
The sun had gone down, and the only light in the fort came from the sunset’s last glow. Once a cat scratched across our roof and we all jumped. A while later a dog barked.
“Maybe we ought to have some supper and go to bed,” I suggested in a whisper. “We’ll have to get up early and find work.”
“What’s for supper?” Ryan asked.
“We could have some more cookies or marshmallows or—”
“Yuck!” Robby gagged. “I don’t want any supper if that’s all there is.”
“Me either,” Ryan muttered.
We were quiet again, just sitting and listening.
“You know,” Robby whispered after a while, “I didn’t really have a lot of chores at home.”
“Me either,” Ryan agreed. “Mom did lots more than I did. She had to wash the dishes and the clothes. She made dinner. Why, she was working all the time. And she didn’t ever get to play.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled. “Moms never have it too good when it comes to doing chores. Everybody did chores around my place too. I wasn’t the only one that had to take out the garbage. My sisters helped, too, and had other things to do.”
“I’m tired of being sticky,” Robby whined. “And I’m tired of being scrunched up in this dirty old fort.”
“Do you know what I could be doing if I was home?” Ryan asked. “I could be playing catch or working in the garden with Dad. Shoot! I didn’t mind working in the garden when Dad was there. He made it fun and would tell me stories.”
We were quiet for a while. Then Robby started to sniffle. “Do you think our moms and dads would let us come home?”
“We could ask them tomorrow,” I muttered. “We could—”
“I don’t want to go home tomorrow,” Robby whimpered. “I want to go home right now. I’m sick of doughnuts and cookies and junk and this old fort. It’s all your fault,” he accused me, jabbing a finger in my direction. “It was your big idea to run away!”
I ducked my head. “Maybe they haven’t found our notes yet,” I offered.
“I don’t care if they’ve found my note or not!” Robby burst out. “I’m going home right now.” He didn’t even wait to pick up his things. He just started out the door and headed for home.
“Well, if he’s going,” Ryan said, “I’m going too. You can have all the rest of the junk we bought.”
I didn’t stay there alone very long. I grabbed my blankets and clothes and started for home.
It seemed awfully late, but the porch light was still on and so were some of the lights in the house. I was about to walk inside, when I remembered that I didn’t live there anymore. So I reached up and rang the doorbell. The door flew open, and there was Dad. “Well, hello, stranger.”
“Did you find my note?” I blurted, looking down at the floor.
“Your mom said something about a note.”
I swallowed hard. “Well, then I guess that I’m just coming for a visit,” I said, disappointed.
“Well, stranger,” Dad said, “you can visit us anytime. Come in. I’ll tell your mom that you’re here.”
He didn’t have to, though. She’d heard me talking and came running from the kitchen. She hugged me and kissed me. I didn’t even pull away as I usually did. It felt good to have her squeeze me.
“Did you get a good job?” Dad asked.
“Well, we sold some cans.”
“How long can you stay?” Dad asked.
“How long will you let me stay?” I whispered.
“Oh, you could stay an hour or so,” Dad answered. “You’re probably anxious to get back to your fort and Robby and Ryan.”
“Not really,” I muttered, shaking my head.
“Well, if you’re not in a hurry to get back to your fort,” Dad said, “why don’t you spend the night? Or you can stay here forever, if you want.”
I looked up at Mom and Dad. They were both grinning, and I could feel my heart thumping madly in my chest. I wanted to jump and shout and squeeze them both around their necks. “You mean it?” I gasped. “Even though I ran away, you’ll still let me stay?”
“Sure we mean it,” Mom answered, hugging me again.
“And I’ll take a bath,” I promised. “And I’ll do my chores.”
I never thought a bath could feel so good. And before I climbed into bed, I cleaned and straightened my room. Sarah and Annie came to see me, and I didn’t even tease them.
Mom and Dad came in and tucked me in between the clean-smelling sheets and kissed me. When they were gone, I slipped out of bed and knelt down and said a little prayer. I didn’t ask for anything. Not one thing. But I did a lot of thanking because I had a mom and dad who loved me enough to let me come home, the best place in the world!