Jennifee Wilson Goes to Bed
At a quarter-to-nine the king chimed in.
“It’s a quarter-to-nine,” he said. “If you want a book, now’s the time. If not, then it’s ten more minutes and straight to bed.”
The dragon waved him off with an angry shake of her head. She’d been carefully inching forward, her pajama'd belly brushing the tips of the tall grass, toward the easily irritated evil knight who – unaware of the dragon’s approach – was sprawled across the roof of Couchmore castle, watching a hockey game.
“I can hear you,” growled the evil knight, his white-socked feet dangling recklessly over the parapet. Maybe, thought the dragon, but with my invisibility shield you won’t be able to SEE me til it’s too late. Still, just to be sure, she slunk around toward the castle’s western flank.
“I can still hear y–” said the knight, but that was as far as he got.
“YAAARGH!!!” The dragon came shrieking across the top of the castle, landing her claws in the evil knight’s belly.
“Hnngh!” went the knight, who was strong as well as evil, and who dug his feet into the dragon’s side and, with a quick flick, ejected her from Couchmore. She landed with a soft thud on the carpet-fields beyond the moat. She was flat on her back, catching her breath, and plotting her next move, when a giant got in the way of the sun and cast a long shadow across the land.
“It’s five to nine,” said the giant a.k.a. the king.
"Finally," said the evil knight, evilly.
“Come on," said the king. " You know the drill.”
The dragon hated nine o’clock, even more than she loved attacking evil knights, which was a lot. Nine o'clock wasn't just any old hour. Its name was Bedtime, and was to be fought with every weapon in one's arsenal and with one's every waking breath. The dragon huffed two puffs of smoke from her nostrils. The king, unimpressed, folded his arms.
“Fine,” said the dragon, otherwise known as Jennifee Wilson, who jumped up and added, “I just have to say good-night to Mrs. Finnigen.” Then she ran down the hall to the den.
Mrs. Finnigen once lost a fin but had quickly learned to swim again. “In the war,” was all she’d say when asked how it happened. She never made clear which war, exactly, but one knew not to press the point. She kept mostly to the fishbowl on the bookshelf in the den, where, with her single fin, she managed to trace elegant ellipses around the green plastic forest that sprouted from the rocks below. She wasn’t like some fish she knew; she didn’t, for example, dart this way and that at random, immodest angles. She was a fish, that was true, but a lady above all.
When Jennifee entered, Mrs. Finnigen slowed her pace, and when Jennifee put her face close to the bowl, Mrs. Finnigen stopped and hovered expectantly by the glass. She never knew what Jennifee might say, and Jennifee had, over the years, said a number of startling things. Mrs. Finnigen had learned, for example, that Jeremy Gold had a nine-thirty bedtime. How many evil knights could Jennifee capture with an extra half hour; one could scarcely imagine!
“Good evening, Mrs. Finnigen. As you know, there are at least seventy languages, and that’s not counting secret codes and animal ones.”
“I didn’t know that,” thought Mrs. Finnigen. “But do go on.” Jennifee did.
“Tonight I shall bid you a ‘good night’ in all seventy of them. I’ve been practicing, but if I slip up feel free to raise a fin and correct me.” And she began, in reverse alphabetical order, starting with Zulu.
By the time she got down to “Oyasumi”, her father’s foot tapping had become intolerable.
"Must you?" she asked, with exquisite patience.
“But I’m saving English for last since she knows that already.”
“Fine: Gooo--” (sharp intake of breath) “--ooo--” (another quick gulp of air) “--ooo--”
“--d Night Mrs. Finnigen!”
Jennifee marched out of the den towards the stairs, which were conveniently located by the front door, through which she cut a quick, unauthorized detour out onto the front porch, where she gazed up at the clear black sky.
"Jennifee! Get back inside this instant."
“I just have to see how dark it is.”
“It’s the same dark as it was last night.”
"But Jeremy Gold said there are at least two hundred and fifty-two stars and I want to see if I can count two-hundred and fifty-three."
"I'll give you two hundred and fifty-three reasons to be sorry if you don't get back in here immediately."
Jennifee began to slouch back in with as much shoulder-lowering glumness as she could muster, but before she crossed the threshhold Wilberforce darted out, escaping right through her legs.
“Wilberforce!” Jennifee cried.
Wilberforce trotted to the edge of the lawn, turned around to face the house, and sat down. He licked his paws and cleaned his whiskers.
“Oh for the love of creamcheese!” cried her father.
Wilberforce was a plump, silvery, one-eyed tabby (who’d lost the other – or so he claimed – during action in Burma, in ’43). He now spent the better part of most days trailing the sun as it arced across his shag-rugged empire in the living-room. Every so often, he’d pay a visit to Mrs. Finnigen in the den, where he’d climb to the shelf directly above her bowl and dangle a (de-clawed) paw mere inches above the water, as if to say, “I could eat you, you know.” Mrs. Finnigen, to her credit, never showed the slightest concern. In fact she once took advantage of Wilberforce’s complacency, surprising him with a sudden leap from the water, slapping his paw with her single fin before splashing back down into her domain. Wilberforce had harrumphed, descended from the bookcase, and exited the den in high dudgeon, muttering as he went, “That’s not cricket, not cricket at all.”
Now he stood at the edge of the lawn, blinking back at the Wilsons. Two of them, anyway, as they yammered away on the porch. Wilberforce didn’t like to think of himself as a strictly “indoor” cat. He found such terms reductive and unhelpful. True, he spent at least 97 per cent of his time indoors. The climate was temperate and predictable. Rain was unheard of. And food was regularly provided by the lanky upright beasts he lived with. All they seemed to ask in return is that one not hiss at them without a jolly good reason. Still, they had be reminded that one was no one’s “pet”. And so – to make the point – occasionally one had to emerge into the night air and sit for a while at the edge of the lawn while they begged one to return.
“Jennifee,” said her father, “Get back inside. I’ll let Wilberforce in later.”
“But he’s old and one-eyed and doesn’t have his claws,” Jennifee pleaded, her voice signalling tears.
“Oh alright,” said her father, who hated tears almost as much as Jennifee hated bedtime. And the two of them spent eleven chilly minutes gently coaxing Wilberforce back inside. They cooed, enticed, and cordially invited; they told him what a good kitty he was and laid out three sardines on a saucer as a welcome back appetizer. At last, having made the point, and bored by their anxiety, he yawned and padded back in, pausing briefly for a quick and somewhat perfunctory mewl at the moon.
With the cat back and the door shut, Jennifee’s father sighed and said, “Up you go, young lady.”
"I could've been counting stars that whole time," Jennifer said.
"Up you go."
Climbing the stairs was walking the plank, each step one step closer to doom. But before Jennifee could climb the first, the evil knight yelled from the couch, "Dad, we lost the satellite again!"
Her father exhaled mightily. "For the love of mustard," he blustered, and then called to Jennifee's mother, "Honey, can you take over for me here? Seems we’ve lost the satellite again." Jennifee thought to herself well maybe if you'd have let me count the stars I would have found the satellite mixed up among them.
"Is she not in bed yet?" said the Missus, who was stricter than the Mister. She didn't have to say all three parts of "Je - nnif -ee" to get you moving. The look in her eye told you she meant all kinds of business. And so with her mother her at her heels, Jennifee plodded moodily but directly upstairs.
Sugarbugs were running wild in her mouth. Jennifee loaded the toothbrush and gave it a grim salute. Operation Deathbite was now underway. Her tongue – in a diversionary gambit – flapped to the left, distracting the bugs as the toothbrush snuck in from the right. The brush charged; the bugs scurried, hiding between molars, holding bicuspids hostage, and firing lethal sugarbeams back at the bristle battalion. A group of them mounted a rearguard attack that had brief success before being beaten back. It was frantic and fierce; foam flew and bubbles exploded. Jennifee's head bobbed back and forth and side-to-side as the conflict raged within her mouth. And then, after the chaos of the initial onslaught, the battle settled into grisly, close-quartered, tooth-to-tooth fighting. As the brush proceeded methodically along the bottom row, ferreting out lone enemy holdouts, it came under periodic fire from above, forcing it into evasive manoeuvres.
"Jennifee," said her mother. "That's enough brushing."
"Gu ger gill gor gugth!" Jennifee replied.
Jennifee spat into the sink.
"I said there's still more bugs!"
“Well you’ll have to zap ‘em in the morning.”
“But what if they sneak in reinforcements? I could be overrun by morning.”
“OkAY,” she said, and thought to herself, but if I wake up without any teeth don’t say I didn’t warn you.
“I just have to go.”
“Okay,” said her mother. “Hop on, then.”
Jennifee lifted up the lid and sat her bottom down. After a minute of eye-straining, tinkle-free silence, Jennifee asked her mother, “Do birds dream?”
“Don’t change the topic. If you don’t have to go you don’t have to go. Come on, hop off.”
She foot-dragged herself down the hall towards her bedroom with all the excitement of a prisoner returning to her cell. And then:
“Now I really have to go.”
Back to bathroom; seat resumed; and then, about a hundred and thirty-two seconds later, an impatient, “Well?”
“False alarm, I guess.”
“Straight to bed.”
Down the hall, into her room, but Jennifee wasn’t quite done.
“I just have to pray.”
“I’ll be quick.”
She sat on the edge of the bed and closed her eyes.
“Thank you God for making Wilberforce come back inside. And thank you for making the evil knight not super-evil. Also, God, please guard my teeth from the sugarbugs. There’s probably not a lot of them, but still. Also, why does Jeremy Gold get a nine-thirty bedtime? Is it because his parents love him more?”
“Okay, let’s wrap it up, young lady.”
“Okay God, you heard her. Well, thanks for everything, including the colour orange. That was a good one.”
Jennifee opened her eyes. “Okay.” She got into bed. “Can I have a story?”
“You had that option. You chose to play instead. It’s practically 9:30 now. No stories.”
Yes! she thought to herself. Nine-thirty. She couldn’t wait to tell Jeremy Gold. Still, she wasn’t done.
“What about just one chapter?” she asked.
“No stories, no chapters.”
“What about just one sentence.”
“Not even a word?”
“Not even a word. Not even a letter.”
“What about a title?”
“I’ll give you a title: “Jennifee Wilson Goes to Bed”.”
“That’s a terrible title.”
“But a terrific idea. I love you, shmufflefuffle.”
A kiss on the forehead, lights out, and soon Jennifee was dreaming she was a heavy-winged bird on the run from a one-legged cat.
On the bus, Jennifee plopped down into the empty seat next to Jeremy Gold.
“Guess what time I went to bed?”
“How should I know?"
“So? I go to bed every night at nine-thirty.”
“Exactly. Now we can officially start the Nine-Thirty Club.”
Jeremy Gold didn’t seem all that excited about the Nine-Thirty Club, even after Jennifee said he could be president and she would only be vice-president.
Mr. Popovich gave them a math quiz. Jennifee answered all the questions, including the bonus question. Then she wrote out a bonus question of her own, and supplied the answer for it too. “Question: Susie is raking leaves in the yard. She manages to fill three bags. If each bag holds three hundred and ten leaves, how many leaves has Susie raked? Answer: Susie has raked nine hundred and thirty leaves, which is a coincidence because my bedtime is nine-thirty too. It used to be nine but now it’s nine-thirty like Jeremy Gold’s.”
In art, Miss Noseworthy patrolled the classroom in a pair of high-heeled alligator-skin boots. One needn’t look up from one’s canvas to know where she was; the clippety-clop of her heels against the floor-tiles broadcast her position. The grip on one’s brush would inevitably stiffen as she came to a slow and generally unwelcome stop behind one’s desk for an over-the-shoulder glare at one’s work. If she ever saw anything that met with her approval, she never let on. Anything, that is, but the alligator-skin boots that she wore so faithfully rumours circulated about whether she ever removed them, for bathing, say, or sleep. Did her feet ever get a breath of air, see the light of day, or were they permanently imprisoned, encased in a dead lizard’s scales?
The children were tasked with replicating a photograph of a small cluster of snow-covered trees, a mountain and a sharp blue sky in the back.
“But they’re not so tall, darling,” she admonished Maximillian Chang. “And you haven’t quite got the angle, have you?” And: “Oh no, no, dear,” she told Ursula Pfeffer, “That’s not quite right, is it? There’s too much brown and barely any green and not a spot of glisten. Where’s the glisten?” She stood suddenly straight and clicked her heels and snapped her finger. “Listen, children, flecks of white make them glisten." And she clapped her hands as she repeated, "Flecks of white!” At which a waist-high blizzard briefly erupted in Room 7B and Miss Noseworthy shrieked and practically dove for cover under her desk. Her boots were mercifully unsplattered but, shaken, Miss Noseworthy designated the rest of the hour as ‘free time’. Jennifee painted a zero inside a three inside a nine: the official logo for the Nine-Thirty Club. When it was done she showed it to Jeremy Gold. He briefly examined it, sniffed inexpressively, and went back to sculpting his sharkion, which is a shark’s body with a lion’s head. It can’t breathe underwater or move very fast on land, but on the ocean it’s still a fearsome sight to behold, the giant head skimming the surface at tremendous speeds, as it is to stumble across one lying under an umbrella at the beach, which is where sharkions tend to gather at dusk.
But at recess that afternoon, a terrible thing happened. Jennifee was playing freeze-tag when Abigail Wax with her famous blue jump-rope skipped over to announce that she’d become the Nine-Thirty Club's newest member. Jennifee looked as though someone had just spat in her face.
“What are you talking about?”
“Jeremy Gold invited me.”
Jennifee promptly timed herself out of freeze-tag (“Personal T.O.!” she shouted, making a T with her hands).
“When’s your bedtime?” she queried.
“Officially,” said Abigail Wax. “Nine-thirty on the nose.”
Jennifee felt like nine-thirtying Abigail Wax’s nose at that moment.
“Well he can’t invite you without my permission.”
“Well he did.”
With Abigail skipping close behind, Jennifee marched across to where Jeremy Gold was playing hockey-card knock-downs with a group of other boys. He looked about as happy to see her as she was to see him. He T.O.-d himself out of knock-downs to see what the fuss was about. She told him he couldn't just invite new members without her permission, but he said, "I'm the president. You're only the vice."
He went back to knock-downs and Abigail smiled, and even though she smiled widely and warmly, Jennifee noticed that Abigail’s eyes were sticking out their tongues out at her.
Jennifee brooded mightily the rest of the day. When – during free study – Abigail told her that Minneapolis is nine hundred and thirty miles from Toronto, Jennifee couldn’t even smirk, let alone pretend at a smile. All she could think was I wish YOU were in Minneapolis. She took out her workbook and began to scribble out the Rules of the Nine-Thirty Club. “Rule Number One: The FOUNDER of the club gets to have final say on all new members.” After all, Jeremy Gold hadn’t even CARED about the Nine-Thirty Club before Abigail Wax came along. Now the power of the presidency had gone to his head. And what was so special about Abigail Wax, anyway? He wasn’t even supposed to be FRIENDS with her.
To make matters worse, Abigail Wax wasn’t the only thing bothering her. The dirty truth of it was that even though she was the founder AND vice-president of the Nine-Thirty Club, Jennifee’s bedtime wasn’t nine-thirty. Officially, it was still nine. Her parents weren’t budging on that. “If we make it nine-thirty you’ll push it to ten,” they’d said more than once. What if her mom talked to Jeremy’s mom or worse – Abigail’s mom – and it came out that she was living a lie?
Jennifee barely ate anything at dinner. She pointedly avoided the small bits of broccoli her mother had tried to disguise with cheese in the depths of the veggie lasagna.
And while she did later attack the evil knight, she did so without the usual gusto. With nine o’clock closing in, she began warming up for the inevitable half-hour brawl. She opened with a quick, “I just need to see how long I can stand on my head,” and was expecting a routine “you just see how quick you can get to bed” in response. But her parents didn’t counter, not even with a standard “Jennifee!” They threw in the towel at the opening bell. "Can’t do it anymore," they said. "We're worn out. You win. From now on, you go to bed when you’d like.”
Jennifee stammered in disbelief. She asked them to repeat it, and they did. It was official. She’d won. Vanquished bedtime. No more nine, no more nine-thirty even, no ten or ten-thirty, not even eleven. From now on she, Jennifee Wilson, would go to bed when she was good and ready. Had any child anywhere ever achieved such a thing?
But now, what to do? The night opened up before her like a vast playground. Flush with success, she harassed the evil knight until he went to bed, shortly after ten. After she’d read several stories to Mrs. Finnigen, her father poked his head in the den.
“Aren’t you tired?”
“You don’t have to stay up all night, you know.”
All night? The idea hadn’t even occurred to her. Now it sprung to life. Her parents went to bed and the house was quiet and dimly-lit. The kingdom is mine, she thought, as Wilberforce grazed her leg. “Come,” she told him, opening the front door. “Let’s count stars.” Staring up from the porch, she counted two hundred and fifty-three, one more than Jeremy Gold, before she got cold and decided to pack it in.
Back inside, she took out her sketchpad – the big one – and began drawing a picture of the earth, at night, with hundreds of little houses, only one of which had a light on in the window, through which one could see a tubby tabby, a tiny goldfish, and a girl with a crown on her head. She surrounded the planet with two-hundred and fifty-three stars.
She was putting the finishing touches on it as the sun began warming the sky. Her mother stumbled into the kitchen and said, “Don’t tell me you’ve been up all night,” so Jennifee didn’t.
On the bus, she plopped down as usual into the empty seat next to Jeremy Gold. Except that it wasn’t empty as usual, and she ended up plopping down into the lap of one Abigail Wax. Ordinarily this might have bothered her tremendously (it certainly bothered Abigail Wax who said “Hey!”). But on this particular morning, Jennifee was secretly delighted to see the both of them. From the perch of Abigail’s lap, she solemnly regretted to inform them that she would have to resign from the Nine-Thirty Club, effective immediately. She could no longer be a member of the Nine-Thirty Club, she advised, let alone vice-president, as her bedtime was no longer nine-thirty.
“Then when’s your bedtime?” asked Jeremy, squinting suspiciously.
“Never. Never on the nose.”
When she told them she hadn’t gone to bed at all, that in fact she hadn’t slept a wink, Jeremy Gold’s eyes scrunched forward, as if a sharkion had just bit him on the nose. And when Abigail Wax said, “But aren’t you tired?”, Jennifee shook her head. Having banished bedtime, she was in no mood to surrender to sleep, not with a full day ahead of her!
Word spread quickly about the girl with no bedtime.
In between math and music, as she was getting her flute from her locker, Jeremy Gold came up to her and said it was okay if she still wanted to be a member of the Nine-Thirty Club even if her bedtime is never. He said she could still be an honourary member. She said thanks but no thanks. He said you can even be co-president. She said still. Then he looked over his shoulder and said to her in a low voice, “I can kick out Abigail Wax.”
She said, “Really? You’d do that?”
“I can do anything. I’m the president.”
“That’s sweet, Mr. President,” she said with a smile, “but it’s okay.” And as she walked to class a couple of grade-fivers asked her for her autograph.
When they got back from recess, they were surprised by the appearance of a short, skinny kid with round glasses and shiny black hair, neatly parted on the side. He wore a dun-coloured uniform of sorts, with several intriguing patches sewn onto the shirt. He was sitting in the desk formerly occupied by Iris Poole, whose family had made a mid-semester move to Montreal.
“Class,” said Mr. Popovich. “This is Milton Montgomery. Now, Milt--”
“Monty, if it’s all the same with you.”
“Monty, why don’t you tell us where you’re from.”
“Yes,” said Monty, wearily. “I suppose I might.” He seemed to regard the class as the dullest bunch of coconuts he’d ever laid eyes on. Before coming to Canada, he explained, he’d attended a sort of floating military school, where he served in the junior cadet squadron of Her Majesty’s Northumberland Bounders, an expedition branch of the Royal Navy. The Bounders, it seems, are a crack squad of elite British commando saboteurs who, during World War Two, had skipped their way behind German lines, mesmerizing the enemy with their camouflage ropes and their unorthodox method of locomotion. Theirs was a very aggressive skipping style, which the Bounders’ founder, Major Harry Winston, had modeled on a charging kangaroo. In peacetime, their orders are to sail to the farthest reaches of the globe whilst discovering the undiscovered and keeping the seas safe from pirates.
He had the diction and the manner of someone in the advanced stages of grown-up. A very what-what sort of chap, who sat and stood exclusively at right angles. But if he was stuffy, he certainly wasn't soft. When, at lunch, the Gorilla (aka Mike Timshack, who looked like he belonged in Grade Fifteen) tried to bud in line at the cafeteria, Monty politely informed him that the queue formed at the end. When the Gorilla snickered without budging, Monty delivered the softest - to even call it a blow would be to overstate it - touch to the side of Master Michael’s knee and the giant primate went down in a howl. Monty didn’t make a show of it. Just stepped delicately over his victim like an artist not wanting to disturb a fresh canvas, and resumed his place as the queue moved slowly forward. When pressed afterwards by several starstruck witnesses, he said it was nothing, just a little trick he’d picked up when the squadron was on patrol in the South China Sea and they’d put into port at an island inhabited by a bare-chested tribe that hunted their prey - and they ate only crocodiles and leopards and boa constrictors - by means of ancient martial arts. They were so fearsome, it was claimed (though Monty never saw it) that any one of their children could put an elephant in a headlock.
But Monty insisted he wasn’t particularly keen on martial arts. It wasn’t even a second favourite (that, he said, was bowls, or, as it’s regrettably referred to in the new world, to the extent that it’s referred to at all, “lawn bowling”). His favourite sport, he said, wasn’t cricket or rugby or golf. It wasn’t skeet shooting or spearfishing or tennis. More than sport, it was life itself. Skipping. Jumping rope. Bounding, he called it. He was a Northumberland Bounder through-and-through, by blood and breeding. His father was one, before the accident. And his mother’s father had led the disastrous Burma campaign. Monty didn’t view himself as de-commissioned or retired from active duty. Nothing of the sort. As he saw it, he was on an extended shore-leave, and could be called back at a moment’s notice. He had no intention of letting his skills slack.
At second recess, they saw what he meant. He began with a few simple drills, triples, triple-crosses. Mildly impressive stuff. A small crowd began to form and then just like that recess was over. He’d barely gotten started. But word had gotten out. And reached the ear of Abigail Wax, Captain of the Junior School Skippers.
Tuesday Late Afternoon
Jennifee got off the bus and rounded the corner, with her backpack – black and stickered and stacked with books and snacks and assorted knick-knacks –and slung so low over one shoulder that it was less a back than a back-of-her-bum pack. Approaching home, she saw that the evil knight – having transformed his sword into a hockey stick – was already on the driveway firing a passel of plastic orange pucks into an empty net set up in front of the garage. As Jennifee walked up the porch steps, a puck sPONKed off the aluminum siding on the wall beside her.
“Hey!” she said.
“Sorry,” said the knight, who then had the nerve to ask if she’d toss the puck back his way. She briefly considered tossing it onto the roof; instead she just left it on the porch, but not before secretly (and instantaneously) constructing an invisible electrified force-field around it.
Inside, she sloughed off her backpack, ate half a banana, and then – as a warm-up, she told herself, to doing her homework – she grabbed her markers and a thick pad of over-sized paper and sprawled out on the living-room floor. Wilberforce entered, a bit tipsy from his late-afternoon saucer (“My constitutional,” he called it), and clambered up to his sun-dappled perch on the back of the sofa. He opened his mouth and ejected something that was equal parts belch and yawn. Jennifee sketched and scribbled, and soon a picture began to emerge of the moon attempting to devour the sun. Whether it was the nocturnal theme of her composition or Wilberforce’s indiscreet, almost canine snoring from atop the sofa, Jennifee stifled one yawn, gave in to the next, and then, by degrees, her head began to droop, her eyes to narrow, and her grip on the pencil to loosen. Her lines, once clear and purposeful, became random and wobbly, as if a drunken chipmunk had hijacked the pencil.
But before her head reached the carpet she was rudely bestirred. The evil knight flung the front door violently open and bellowed, “Come be goalie!” For Jennifee, being goalie meant standing in front of the net, armoured-up in over-sized shin-pads, shoulder-pads, gloves, and face-mask, propping up a wide-bottomed goaltending stick, and so weighted down that movement of any kind was largely restricted to blinking and breathing. Still, and however immobile, in this capacity she served to block a good portion of the net, and so forced the evil knight to shoot for the corners. It wasn’t the most glamorous of athletic pursuits, but even so, and despite the absolute absence of effort required for the role, she felt a bit of the thrill of the game whenever a puck thudded painlessly off her heavily padded frame and a goal denied. On top of which, standing in net was one of the only times the evil knight showed the slightest interest in her.
So it was that Jennifee wound up in the driveway, stopping shots by remaining upright behind her gargantuan wall of gear. The action perked her up a bit, but she was feeling a bit cloudy, droopy even, and the occasional puck to the head served as a welcome wake-upper. Still, a yawn was creeping up on her. She fought it back, stuffed it down, sat on it, so to speak. And then, just as the evil knight wound up for a slap-shot, the yawn came roaring up. Jennifee’s eyes closed as her jaw widened. The puck sailed – screamed – toward her face. Except that, instead of smacking her mask and bouncing off, the puck just plain disappeared. Disintegrated. Evaporated. Ceased to be.
“Did you see that?” asked the evil knight, after a lengthy, awestruck pause. “Jennifee! Did you SEE that?”
Over dinner – spaghetti Bolognese hiding a clump of dreaded broccoli (breaded, but still) – it was all he could talk about.
“No joke: it just disappeared,” he spluttered. “I hit it so hard it broke the sound barrier or something!”
“Speaking of breaking things,” said his father, “how about that shiny new dent in the wall? Is that also the result of your supersonic slapshot?”
“You think I’m exaggerating?” said the evil knight. “I’m not. Ask Jennifee. She saw it with her own eyes. Didn’t you? Tell ‘em, Jenn. Go on.”
So Jennifee told ‘em, while thinking of course I saw it with my own eyes. Whose eyes would I see it with if not my own? Unless I had an eye transplant. Then, just maybe, you could say I saw it with someone else’s eyes. But even then, once they were transplanted into my head, wouldn’t they be mine? On the other hand, did I actually see anything? My eyes were shut – mid-yawn. One second a puck was flying at my head; one quick mouthful of air later, nothing. And it’s not as though I ate the thing. She gave her tummy an uncertain rub.
Her eyes began to sting. And then her jaw muscles twinged, another yawn arising. She tried to squash it, or at least hide it. An unabashed out-and-out mouth-gaper was likely to invite unwanted, heavily italicized commentary from the gallery: “Someone’s tired.” “An early night wouldn’t kill you.” “Just because you don’t have a curfew doesn’t mean you don’t need to sleep, you know.”
She tried to keep her yap shut, but the thing had a spring she couldn’t control. Luckily, when the yawn finally dawned the parentals were focused on the slap-happy clap-trapper at the other end of the table. And then her mother turned to her with an expression of surprised, slightly puzzled, delight.
“I don’t believe it,” she said. “You ate your broccoli.”
Jennifee – who had done no such thing – looked down in wonder at her plate.
After everyone else had gone to bed, and without quite knowing where the hours had gone, she found herself sitting cross-legged and hunched, elbows on knees, face scrunched, empalmed, waiting for Mrs. Finnegan to fall asleep. She wanted to see if Mrs. Finnegan slept on her side, the way she imagined, or on her back, and if she just floated, mid-water, as she slept, or lay down upon one of the small flat rocks that populated her bowl, with a smaller rock for a pillow. Did she pull down one of the plastic ferns for a blanket? It was of course possible that Mrs. Finnegan didn’t sleep at all, but this question – did she, and if so, how – would be answered in due course. On the floor beside Jennifee was a pad of paper and a pencil with a furry-haired, troll-headed top. The pad was open to a page on which was written:
Do Fish Sleep? An Experiment by Jennifee Wilson.
For Mrs. Templeton, Grade 3 Science
Subject: 1 goldfish, a.k.a. Mrs. Finnegan
Location: bowl in livingroom at 93 Diefenbaker, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, North America
Time observation began: 11:12pm, May 26, 2011.
Time sleeping began:
Sleeping position (illustrate):
Time sleeping ended:
A box was filled in with a decent sketch of Mrs. Finneganswimming. It was labeled “11:23pm”
Whether she disapproved of her likeness in the drawing or was merely disdainful of the entire exercise, Mrs. Finnegan didn’t show the slightest sign of fatigue. She bobbed about in her usual manner, not in the least concerned with providing sleep-related data of any sort. Jennifee’s initial irritation gave way to dizziness and she caught herself becoming entranced by Mrs. Finnegan’s irregular revolutions. Jennifee decided now might be a good time to stretch her legs.
And in order to keep her mind sharp and alert, she reasoned that gathering data on human sleep patterns could serve as a sort of scientific limbering-up for her brain. Notebook and pencil in hand, she climbed upstairs and went straight for her parents’ room. She opened the door to the sound of a buzz and then a roar, which alarmed her til she realized she’d entered the zone of a pitched snoring war. She touched a finger to her father’s nose, momentarily shutting his right nostril, which unleashed a brief torrent of sniggering, twitching, and tortured torso-twisting.
She hurriedly sketched the scene and then just as hurriedly backed out, shut the door, and, pausing only to sigh at the relative silence, walked slowly down the hall toward the evil knight’s room. She wondered if she might see a ghost. Isabella Bloom said she’d once seen the ghost of the girl who once lived in her room. They played Go Fish for about an hour around midnight. Sat on the bed and played by the light of the guest’s spectral glow. Jennifee liked the idea of a real phantom pal, a vaguely visible friend. She kept her eyes peeled as she prowled but didn’t glimpse a thing.
She opened the door to the evil knight’s room. He lay sprawled on his bed, left arm draped over the side, face mostly buried in a pillow, with the exposed toes and upturned sole of his left foot all but begging to be tickled. Jennifee sketched the layout and was about to depart when she stopped to gravely consider her pencil-top’s very furry, perfectly ticklish mop. She knew it was dangerous, but in the name of science she should at least try to determine his tickle threshold. So she tip-toed to the edge of the evil knight’s bed and reached out with her pencil top ever so lightly against the hollow of the bottom of his foot. The reaction was a violent kick in the air that almost brushed Jennifee’s hair as she recoiled. At the same time, the evil knight’s arm swept across his night-table, knocking the clock-radio to the ground. The all-night sports report burst out, loud and ticker-tapery as the nightly ballgame box scores were recited.
And the kick resulted in the rapid, airborn ejection of a heretofore sleeping Wilberforce, whom Jennifee had neglected to notice at the foot of the bed, and who, prior to that moment, had been dreamily ensconced in the warm folds of a duvet. He let out a terrible shriek as he was flung to the floor, where he landed paws down, but not exactly elegantly, especially for a cat. But he was far more outraged than he was concerned with points for style. Fumbling frantically, Jennifee managed to shut off the radio. And she would later record that while the evil knight’s tickle threshold was low, his wake-up threshold was remarkably high: he slept through the whole shebang. Relieved and very much revived, Jennifee turned around to see Wilberforce shuffling out of the room with an indignant snort.
Jennifee returned to her post downstairs, in front of Mrs. Finnegan’s bowl. She wondered whether fish ever resent the fact that while humans go for the occasional swim, fish don’t ever pop out for a quick stroll along a beach or riverbank. If I were a fish, she thought, I’d be a tickle-fish, grazing the backs of peoples’ knees whenever they came in for a dip. Which led to her next question, which, she sensed, was beyond the limits of scientific inquiry: were fish ticklish? And if so, where: behind their fins? Below their gills? And if tickled, could they laugh? Smile, even? Mrs. Finnegan, to judge by her fixed expression, hadn’t much of a sense of humour. But then neither would I, thought Jennifee, were I confined day and night to a tiny glass bowl. And then her eyes began to swim as they trailed their subject round and round, round and round, and round and round again. And a yawn began to form in the pit of her throat. Her eyes squeezed shut and her eardrums stretched and then her jaw thrust open as she guzzled and then expelled about a gallon of air. Opening her eyes, she focused on Mrs. Finnegan’s bowl, which was now somehow devoid of Mrs. Finnegan. Wilberforce had entered at that moment and – having witnessed the strange, devouring power of Jennifee’s yawn –froze, arched his back, and, claws nervously extended, slowly backed out of the room before bolting with a hiss and a mewl down the hall and out of sight.
Jennifee looked again at the empty bowl. And blinked and looked again. But no matter how many times she blinked, Mrs. Finnegan was gone.
Wednesday morning was not a good morning to be Wilberforce. Lots of dirty looks and “bad kitties”. Even Jennifee - to her eternal shame - joined in the blame game. If anyone was a bad kitty it was she, and yet here she was, throwing her lot in with the rest of the finger-waggers and eyebrow-archers. And though Wilberforce had long dreamed of getting his paws on Mrs. Finnegan (perhaps even his jaws), now that the old gal was gone he found he missed her. Not terribly, but enough, enough to wish he had an accusing finger to wag back at Jennifee.
He lumbered into the laundry room, a room through which Jennifee almost never trespassed, deciding it might be a good idea to keep clear of her, to bide his time there until she left for school. After all, he reasoned, he needn’t suffer the fate of his mate, the late Mrs. Finnegan. So he cooled his heels and smoothed his whiskers and waited til he heard the door shut behind the last of those blasted bipeds. The house resounded with the shudder of sudden silence. Somewhat reassured, he ventured back into the living room, ascended to the top of the couch and settled in for an uneasy nap.
But while Jennifee might’ve been a finger-pointer at home, at school she was beginning to wonder. The odd, and oddly timed, disappearances - the puck, the broccoli, and now poor Mrs. Finnegin. Jennifee wanted to tell someone. Actually she wanted most of all to tell a specific one, and the only one who could be trusted with a mystery of this magnitude. But for the moment, at morning recess, Jeremy Gold was watching Abigail Wax in the middle of the playground, gazing at her, transfixed, along with about two hundred other kids. Abigail Wax was in a fight-to-the-death skip-off with Milton Montgomery.
It had begun minutes earlier, at the start of morning recess, when, backed up by a couple of her lieutenants, she politely introduced herself as the captain of the junior school skippers.
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Monty mumbled.
“I hear you know how to throw a rope,” she said. “Care to try out for the team?”
“Thanks for the invitation, but not quite my cup of tea.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well it wouldn’t be fair now, would it?”
“Fair? What’s fair got to do with it?”
“A professional doesn’t play in an amateur league,” he tut-tutted. “It’s not cricket.”
It took Abigail a moment to absorb what he’d just said, and to contain and channel her fury into a silky invitation to battle.
“Professional, eh? Well why don’t you show us how a professional does it then?”
Monty begged off, saying he meant no offense. But she prodded and cajoled him, and when a small crowd began to form he said oh alright, if you insist, and he removed the coiled tartan rope from the holster slung low off the side of his belt.
He gripped the heavy wooden handles and unfurled the rope, and then warmed up with some basic stuff, nothing that those on this side of the pond hadn’t seen a hundred times before. But then, just as Abigail began to grin, Monty began to improvise. The routines continued, but he began throwing in the odd counterrevolutionary, a back-flip, an aerial here and there. Then unorthodox combinations. And then things that didn’t even make sense. Setting the rope in a vertical spin, for instance, climbing it - mid-spin - and balancing by a finger on the flat top of the top-most handle. He flung the rope like a boomerang and - still skipping - he climbed a tree!
When he stopped, there were no cheers. No applause. An astounded silence had fallen over the playground as, slowly, all eyes shifted to Abigail Wax. One of her lieutenants, in a misplaced show of loyalty, felt compelled to sniff, “Well, you should see what she can do.”
But what could she do? She had her tricks, her steps, her pirouettes - but nothing like that. Her mind went blank. She started skipping, a basic spin, nothing flashy. And then she started skipping faster. And faster. And faster still. It was as if she were trying to escape this humiliation through sheer speed. To outrun it on the spot. The rope began to whir, and to generate a bit of a breeze, and as her speed increased, like a motor revving up, the spectacle turned mechanical, electrical, and loud and getting louder. People at the front of the crowd began to edge back, as if afraid the thing might blow a gasket and explode.
But if everyone else was on high alert, Jennifee Wilson was nodding off. The spinning ropes had bit a of sleep-inducing effect on someone already kind of pooped, their steady revolutions like a hypnotist’s pocket watch. And just as Abigail’s rope began to sing like a jet engine, Jennifee succumbed to a giant yawn.
And the yard fell quiet again. From a hundred decibels to none in a second. A roaring wind to nothing. Abigail’s arms and legs were still moving, but gradually they too came to a stop. And the rope? Where was the rope? The rope had disappeared. Spun right out of existence. Or into another dimension. Either way, the thing was gone.
A moment of silence. And then cheers. No one had seen that before. Even Monty threw his hands together in hearty applause. Even Timshack the Gorilla. Abigail herself couldn’t quite believe it. And though she was relieved to have been equal to Monty’s challenge, she was also a bit distressed. After all, it had been Granny Polly’s rope.
Abigail wasn't the only one to worry. Jeremy Gold, who'd secretly always thought the world of Abigail and who wished she'd thought at least an ocean or two of him, had seen her face when she’d watched Monty do his thing. And he knew that if ever he’d stood a chance at winning her affections, the way she looked at Monty meant that chance was never more.
And Jennifee - Jennifee was increasingly concerned that the crazy connections she was drawing in her head might not be so crazy after all. The puck. The broccoli. Mrs Finnegan! And now Abigail’s famous blue jump-rope. All seemed to vanish when she’d yawned. But that just couldn’t be. Could it? It simply wasn’t possible Was it?
Free time during Miss Noseworthy’s art class was the first occasion Jennifee had to tell Jeremy of her weird suspicions. But Jeremy Gold, absently coating his sharkion with another, completely superfluous layer of paint, was morosely preoccupied with Abigail, for the moment gazing admiringly at Monty’s sketch of his squadron’s insignia - a winged kangaroo with blazing eyes and a sabre in its mouth.
“Jeremy,” said Jennifee, in an urgent whisper.
“Mmm...” said Jeremy, listlessly.
“Something strange is happening.”
“No, you don’t. Listen to me.”
She started to tell him about the puck and the broccoli and got as far as Mrs. Finnegan before she saw he wasn’t really listening. “Huh,” was all he said in response, as if she’d just told him that she’d found a nickel on the ground. “Huh.” And he dipped his brush in paint and swished it back and forth along the sharkion’s body. Back and forth and forth and back. Another dip and back and forth again, and dip and swish and swirl and soon Jennifee’s eyes began to twirl and and her mouth began to open and her eyes began to shut...
“Where’d you put it?” he demanded.
“Put what?” she asked, emerging from her yawn, but she almost didn’t have to peer down at his desk to know exactly what: Jeremy Gold’s sharkion had vanished.
“Okay!” she said, seizing the moment. “This is exactly what I’m trying to tell you-”
“Tell him what?” Miss Noseworthy boomed from above.
Startled, Jennifee turned, and in the process knocked a jar of paint from Jeremy’s desk. The jar plummeted to the floor, where it exploded, scattering tiny bits of shattered glass and spattering paint across Miss Noseworthy’s precious boots, the gleaming skins splattered with gooey silver streaks.
Miss Noseworthy was, at first, too shocked to speak, though she emitted a few short, sharp squeaks of dismay. Tears - or were they flames - began to lap at the edges of her eyes as she turned her focus, slowly but inescapably on Jennifee Wilson. And just as Miss Noseworthy raised her right arm, uncurling a long bony finger in the girl’s direction, just as Miss Noseworthy began to shriek in earnest, Jennifee was overtaken by an extremely ill-timed yawn... Coming out the other side of it, she saw that Miss Noseworthy had shut her mouth, gone completely silent. And dropped a few inches in height. Miss Noseworthy was staring down at her stockinged feet, where her boots used to be.
Some thought the shock of it is what dropped Jennifee, who collapsed in a sudden heap. If Milton Montgomery hadn’t come from nowhere to catch her before her head hit the ground, who knows how this might’ve ended? But whether it was shock or sheer fatigue, she was instantly and all at once very, very fast asleep.
In her dream she re-encountered them, though in oddly altered form. Jeremy’s sharkion, Abigail’s rope, the puck, the broccoli, a friendly pair of foot-shaped crocodiles. There was enchantment and peril and at one point she clung to a giant Mrs. Finnegan’s fin. Only someone who has ever had a dream that can’t quite be put into words knows something of the swiftly changing currents and moods of her adventure. The only creature in it who looked and acted as he did in the waking world was dear old Monty, who guided her out of a tricky spot or two. When she awoke the first thing she saw was Monty’s face, hovering above. And she saw that when he saw her open her eyes, his own eyes flickered with a smile.
No one knows how it happened. No one who wasn’t there believes anyone who claimed to see it happen. But Miss Noseworthy’s boots were back, clamped tight as ever round Noseworthy’s toes. And the sharkion was back on Jeremy’s desk. Abigail’s rope was draped around her shoulder. And when she burst into the den that afternoon, Mrs. Finnegan was doing lazy laps in her bowl.
Jennifee put herself to bed early that night.
When she got up the next morning she didn’t remember a single thing she might’ve dreamt. She felt like she’d emerged from a dense black oasis. When she got to school she looked for Monty. He was late to his desk. And then Mr. Popovich announced that the Montgomerys had been recalled to London. But just as Jennifee’s heart began to break, Mr. Popovich said he had their address, in case anyone wanted to write, and Jennifee started a very long letter that very same night.