“Tug at the heartstrings and tickle the funny bone…This warm tale is definitely one for the keeper shelves. Highly recommended.”—School Library Journal, starred review
Thirteen-year-old Robbie leads a double life. It's just Robbie and his dad, but no one knows that his dad isn't like most parents. Sometimes he wakes Robbie up in the middle of the night to talk about dying. Sometimes he just leaves without telling Robbie where he’s going. Once when Robbie was younger, he was gone for more than a week. Robbie was terrified of being left alone but even more scared of telling anyone in case he was put into foster care. No one can know. Until one day when Robbie has to show the tough new girl, Harmony, around school. Their first meeting ends horribly and she punches Robbie in the face. But eventually they come to realize that they have a lot more in common than they thought. Can Robbie's new friend be trusted to keep his secret?
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Copyright © Eric Walters 2020
Published in Canada and the United States in 2020 by Orca Book Publishers.orcabook.com
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication Title: The king of jam sandwiches / Eric Walters. Names: Walters, Eric, 1957– author. Identifiers: Canadiana (print) 20200184911 | Canadiana (ebook) 20200184920 | ISBN 9781459825567 (softcover) | ISBN 9781459825574 (PDF) | ISBN 9781459825581 (EPUB) Classification: LCC PS8595.A598 K56 2020 | DDC jC813/.54—dc23
Library of Congress Control Number: 2020931816
Summary: Thirteen-year-old Robbie never knows from one day to the next if there is going to be enough to eat or if his father will even come home.
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Cover design by Rachel Page Cover artwork by Chumphon Whangchom / EyeEm/Getty Images.
Printed and bound in Canada.
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This was a difficult story for me to write because it’s so personal. Many of the things I’ve written about are from my life. The question I’m already being asked is, How much of this is true? The answer is simple—too much and not enough.
NOTE FOR EDUCATORS
My eyes popped open. It was my father.
“What…what?” I mumbled.
“Get up!” he insisted.
The room was dark except for the light coming in from the hall. Outside the window there was nothing but night.
“What time is it?”
“It’s time for you to get up. Get up now!” He sounded scared. Did that mean I should be scared too?
My father grabbed me by the arm and practically dragged me out of bed. I scrambled to get my feet free of my sleeping bag and onto the floor.
“You have to come downstairs…right now… now.” It wasn’t as much an order as a plea.
“Can’t it wait until morning?”
“I’ll be dead by morning!”
He let go of my arm and left the room. I heard the sound of his feet pounding down the stairs. He might not come back upstairs. Or he might come back in a few minutes. There was no way of telling. There was never any way of telling. I could only predict the range of possibilities. He’d said he was going to be “dead by morning.” I’d heard that one before. It should have made it easier. It didn’t. At least I knew what to expect. Maybe. I hoped.
I sat on the edge of my bed and took a couple of deep breaths to try to stop myself from shaking and to slow down my head and my heart. I shook my arms and flexed my wrists. I reached out one hand and grabbed the clock off the dresser. Nine minutes after three. My alarm wasn’t going to go off for another three hours. I wondered if I should just go back to sleep. Maybe he’d leave me alone. But I knew that wasn’t likely. I could hear him banging around downstairs. He was fully revved up. There was no way he was going to settle, and that meant I couldn’t either.
Besides, what if he really did die tonight? What if this was the last time I would ever see him and I just rolled over and went back to sleep and then found him dead in the morning? How would I live with that? I couldn’t risk it.
I stood up and padded across the floor and down the stairs, trying to avoid the steps that creaked. It was a game I always played, trying to move without being seen or heard, trying to be invisible. I walked through the living room and peeked around the corner into the kitchen. My father was pacing back and forth like a caged animal. He suddenly saw me. There was a wildness in his eyes as he looked up at me.
“I’m going to die,” he said.
“Dad, you’re going to be okay.”
“I won’t live to see morning.”
“You will. I know—”
“You don’t know anything!” he yelled.
The force of his words startled me, and it took me a few seconds to recover. “Dad, you didn’t die the last time or the time before—”
“You sound disappointed about that,” he snapped.
I knew that anything I said now would only make it worse.
His gaze fell to the floor, and his voice softened. “This time is different. I know it.”
Of course, he didn’t know it, but that didn’t stop him from believing it. He hadn’t died the first time he’d woken me up and dragged me out of bed, telling me he was certain his time was up. Or the second or the third or the times after that. And he wasn’t going to die this time either.
“My heart is coming through my chest!” he exclaimed. “I’m having a heart attack! It’s going to explode!”
“You’re just feeling anxious, Dad,” I replied. “You have to try to relax. It’ll be okay.” I tried to sound calm despite my own rising anxiety. Even with all the times he had done this, it was hard not to believe him.
“What do you think you are, a doctor?” he demanded.
“Of course I’m not a—”
“You’re just some snot-nosed thirteen-year-old who thinks he’s smarter than his father.”
I took another deep breath and said nothing. I used to argue with him. I used to get angry and even yell at him. Not now. There really wasn’t any point.
“So when did you get your medical degree?” he continued.
I didn’t answer. I didn’t say what I wanted to say.
“Where was I when that happened? I think I would have noticed you going to medical school,” he said with a sneer.
I swallowed my anger. He was hardly here to notice anything. A month back I’d gone away for a few days. I’d told him I was going to be staying with a friend, and he’d never even asked what friend or how long I was going to be gone or where my friend lived or anything. I couldn’t help but think that if I hadn’t let him know my plans, he wouldn’t have even noticed I was gone. When I came home three days later, he didn’t say a word.
“Dad, I need to get to sleep. I have an important test tomorrow.”
“Fine. Go back to bed then. You can just step over my body in the morning on your way to take your precious test.”
His words were coming faster now. It wasn’t a good sign.
“Is that test more important than your father?”
“No, it’s not more important than you, Dad. I just need to get to sleep. I have school.”
“And I have work.”
I nearly blurted out, Not if you’re dead but managed to keep my words in my head and my expression neutral.
“It’s always about you, isn’t it?” he said.
“I’m dying, and you’re worried about your little test.”
I almost laughed. But laughing wouldn’t get me anything except more grief.
“Are you going to be this smug and amused at my funeral?”
Obviously I hadn’t hidden my thoughts or expression as well as I’d thought. My father was always good at reading people—well, everybody but himself. I had to go in another direction.
“Do you want me to call an ambulance?” I asked. I said that partly to try to calm him down and partly because I was really starting to get worried. No matter how many times he’d said this before, maybe this time it was true. Why not? People did die. I’d seen it.
“I’d rather die here in my own house. Here, where everybody else…”
He let the sentence hang. There was no need to say anything more. It wasn’t like I’d forgotten who had lived here before and was no longer alive.
My father sat down at the kitchen table. I hadn’t expected that. I’d thought he’d run out of the house or at least keep pacing the room.
“You need to sit down,” he said.
I still didn’t want to sit down, but there was no point in arguing. No point in trying to reason. No point in anything. I sat down in my regular spot at the far end of the table, facing him at the other. Ghosts occupied the three other seats.
“Why are you sitting way down there?” he asked.
“This is where I always sit.”
“You can’t see these from there.” He tapped his finger on the table.
It was then that I saw the papers laid out in front of him. Okay, this was new. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. New was never good. I stood up and dragged my chair closer to him.
He gave me a questioning look. “Why didn’t you just take the chair beside me?”
“I like this chair.”
“They’re all the same.”
No. They weren’t. This was my chair. The other people were gone, but those chairs were still their chairs. I didn’t want to sit in the places of dead people.
I sat down. I focused on the papers. It was easier than looking at him. One stack was bills. I knew all about bills. Sometimes I was the one who went online to pay them.
The stack beside the bills was what looked like bank statements. My father had always been cagey about how much money we had. All I really knew was that we didn’t have enough to buy much of anything.
Beside those two piles was a handwritten sheet. It was the one I was most curious about, but it was partially covered by one of the bills.
I felt something brush against my legs. It was my dog, Candy, her big eyes searching mine. I reached down and gave her a scratch behind the ear. She pressed against me. She seemed to know I needed some comfort. She was always around when I needed her.
“I have to explain all these to you so you can deal with them,” said my father.
I startled back to this reality. “I know about the bills. You get me to pay them sometimes.”
My father slammed his hand down hard on the papers. I jumped in my seat.
“I’m going to be dead by morning, so you’re going to have to pay them all the time. Do you think a dead person can pay bills?”
I shook my head.
“Then stop talking and just listen while I explain it.”
He picked up the first bill and went through the details. I wasn’t really listening, but I tried to nod my head at the right times. Then he grabbed the next one. And the next one. He explained how much each should be and what to do if there was a problem. Then he turned to the pile of bank statements. He started with the account password.
“Say it back to me,” he said.
“Say it out loud. If you don’t memorize it, you won’t be able to get the money you need to pay the bills.”
“Okay. It’s Chambers170.”
It wasn’t hard to memorize. It was our street address. Might as well have been password or 123456. If I were in charge, I’d change it to something less easy to hack. Maybe a few days from now, when he had calmed down again, I’d talk to him about changing it.
But for now all I could think about was how strange it was that we were even having this conversation. He’d never talked about our bank account before, never told me how to get into it. Was he really going to die?
As far as the account went, I was more than surprised—I was shocked. Turned out we had much more money than I thought we had. Not a fortune but enough that we could have afforded more things. Things like food. We didn’t have to be eating only potatoes and apples and bread and jam. I hated jam sandwiches.
There were six envelopes on the table. I knew each one probably contained money. There was always cash stashed away in envelopes around the house. My father didn’t completely trust the banks, and he liked to have money handy “just in case.” He pulled the money out of each envelope, counted it out for me and then put the money back. The amount in each varied but as he counted, I did the math in my head. A total of $585. Good. And now I could access the money in the bank too if I needed it. And if he died, I was sure I’d need it.
“Now there’s one final thing,” my father said. He picked up the handwritten sheet and put it right in front of me.
“These are the arrangements for my funeral.”
My father had always been convinced he was dying of cancer or suffering from some mysterious disease that hadn’t been diagnosed because doctors were all “a bunch of bloodsucking idiots.” But this was the first time he’d talked about his funeral with me. The thought popped into my head again that maybe this time it was different—maybe he was dying.
He tapped his finger on the paper. “This is important. Don’t waste money on flowers, and don’t let them convince you to buy some fancy casket.”
I felt numb. My best defense had always been to be prepared, to anticipate what he’d say or do next, but I hadn’t seen this one coming.
“Of course, because you’re only thirteen it’ll be your uncle Jack making the arrangements, but I need you to make sure he doesn’t waste my money.”
Uncle Jack was my father’s brother. He was a nice man who liked to tell silly jokes. He seemed to get along with everybody. Everybody except my father.
“You have to be there to speak for me because I won’t be able to speak for myself. I worked hard for every dollar I ever got, and Jack just throws money around.”
He went on and on, telling me about the people he wanted invited to the funeral and the people he wanted barred at the door. What did he want me to do? Stand there and tell them they couldn’t come in? He listed a couple of hymns he wanted sung, though we never went to church. He’d told me he stopped believing in God the day my mother died. I didn’t remember her dying—or living. I was too young then.
My grandfather and grandmother had lived with us. My grandfather died a year after my mother, and my grandmother six months after him. I had fuzzy memories of my grandfather, but I remembered my grandmother and her funeral clearly.
I looked at the other chairs around the table. In a very short time we had gone from a full house to just my father and me. He was the only one who had lived, and he was the one who kept threatening to die.
“Do you have any questions?” he asked.
I shook my head. I didn’t. None that I was stupid enough to ask, that is. Oh. I’d thought of one.
“What happens to me?”
“The money that’s left, assuming you don’t let your uncle Jack waste it all on a funeral, will be left to you in trust. You’ll get it when you’re eighteen.”
“I meant now, after you’re…you’re gone.”
“The system will take care of you.”
“The system? What does that mean?” I asked.
“Foster care. You’ll go into a foster home. Those people will take care of you. They get paid to—it’s a job. I’m sure most of them might be okay people, but I’ve heard some pretty terrible stories… you know, in the newspapers and on TV.”
“But what about Uncle Jack and Aunt Cora? Couldn’t I live with them?”
He laughed. “What makes you think they’d want to take you in?”
I felt my heart sink.
“Their children are all grown. Do you think they’re crazy enough to want to go back to taking care of a kid again, to taking care of you?”
I didn’t answer. There was no answer.
“If they cared for you that much, they’d come around more often,” he said.
He was right. They didn’t come around a lot. They had when I was little, but every time they came a fight would break out between my father and my uncle. I used to spend a few weeks every summer at their cottage. That had stopped a couple of years ago.
“When was the last time they dropped in to see us?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. I did. It was over three months ago, and they’d left when my father got into the usual big fight with my uncle.
“Any more questions?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Good. Now you can go to bed…if you want.”
I got to my feet. My legs were shaking as I walked out of the room. I didn’t look back. He had told me everything he wanted to tell me. I was set. I could handle whatever happened.
But he wasn’t really going to die tonight. Probably not. And even if he did, I had at least talked to him. I’d never gotten that chance with my mother, as far as I knew. Sometimes I wondered what I would have said to her if I had known she was going to die. Sometimes I still talked to her in my head. Actually, not sometimes. A lot. Maybe that was strange, talking to a person I couldn’t even remember talking to when she was alive. But it made me feel better.
I climbed the stairs and got into bed. I crawled back into my sleeping bag, pulled the zipper up and pushed my head down, so I was almost completely covered. I held my breath and listened. I was hoping he’d played himself out, that by going downstairs I had calmed him enough that he’d let me sleep for what was left of the night.
I heard Candy’s toenails clicking up the stairs. She padded into my bedroom and jumped onto my bed. I opened the zipper of my sleeping bag, and she climbed in beside me. She was warm and soft, and even with her stinky dog breath, it felt good when she started to lick my face.
“Don’t worry, girl. It’ll be okay.” I said that to her a lot. “No matter what happens, I’ll take care of you. I promise.”
I knew my father would likely be alive in the morning. Sometimes I thought that maybe, just maybe, it would be better if he did die. Then I could stop anticipating the worst and get on with it. Waiting was hard, but it was all part of the plan. One more day down. One more day closer.
The next morning when my eyes popped open, I didn’t know what was happening for a split second. I had kicked off my sleeping bag, and Candy was gone. I’d managed to go back to sleep, but what time was it now? It was light, and I could read the clock. Six twenty-five. The alarm was set for six thirty, but I always seemed to wake up just before the alarm.
As I climbed out of bed, the memories of the previous night all flooded back. It was like a dream. Actually, more like a nightmare. Or one of those movies where they keep killing the monster and it keeps coming back to life. Except this monster hadn’t died—it had only threatened to die.
I stopped moving and listened. There were no sounds. Nothing. My father had probably left for work. His job was on the far side of the city, and he had to be out early to beat the traffic. He was already gone. Or dead. Or dead. Or dead. Or dead. It was like an echo in my head. What if I walked downstairs and found him slumped over the table or lying on the floor? I couldn’t let myself think like that. He had gone to work. Simple as that. But I wouldn’t know for sure until I went downstairs. I didn’t want to do it alone.
I whistled, and almost instantly I heard Candy’s toenails tapping along the floor and racing up the stairs. She jumped against me, practically knocking me backward and off my feet.
I walked over to my dresser, pulled out the bottom drawer and rearranged the clothing so I could pull out the notebook. A pen clipped in the middle opened it to the right place. Taking the pen, I crossed out 1,627 and wrote 1,626 instead. I closed the notebook and hid it away again.
I walked down the hall, Candy at my heels, and hesitated before looking into my father’s room. He wasn’t in there. No body. The bed hadn’t been slept in. That meant he had slept on the couch. He did that a lot. Or maybe it meant he was downstairs. Dead.
“Don’t be stupid,” I muttered under my breath.
I went down the stairs but stopped before entering the kitchen. What would I do if he was dead? Would I just go to school and take my test and act like nothing was wrong? I was pretty good at pretending nothing was wrong.
There was something I could do before I looked into the kitchen. I spun around, went to the front window and looked outside. The car wasn’t in the driveway. My father had gone to work. He wasn’t dead. Not today, at least.
Life was going to go on, and there was so much I had to do before I could leave for school. I ran back upstairs with Candy barking and nipping at my heels. For her this was a game. I peeled off my pajama top, threw some water on my face and then, using a little sliver of soap and a facecloth that wasn’t much more than a rag, I washed my pits.
Back in my room I looked through the pile of clothes on the floor waiting to be washed. It wasn’t like I had many clothes, but it had been a while since I’d done any laundry because we were out of detergent.
My pants were clean enough, so there was no problem there. I picked up a shirt and did the smell test. It didn’t pass inspection. I tossed it into the corner and grabbed another one. Before I even smelled it, I noticed a red stain. Spaghetti sauce. I tossed that shirt over with the first one and picked up a third. This one passed both tests.
There wasn’t time to walk Candy, eat breakfast, study a bit more, pack my lunch and get to school without being late. I put her out in the backyard. She deserved better, but I’d make it up to her later.
The aroma of the pizza wafting through the air signaled it was almost lunchtime. On pizza days everyone seemed a little more excited than usual. Of course, I just had my usual crappy jam sandwich. I didn’t have any extra money to buy pizza.
The bell finally rang, and people jumped up and rushed for the door. I grabbed my stuff too.
“Robbie, can you wait a second?” asked Mr. Yeoman. He was my homeroom and language arts teacher.
“Um, sure.” I felt anxious. I had the stupidest thought, that he was going to tell me I’d done badly on the test we’d taken, but he wouldn’t have marked it yet, and besides, I knew I’d done well. I always did well.
Sal, my best friend since second grade, stopped beside my desk and leaned in close. “Don’t worry,” he said.
“I’m not worried.”
“Sure you’re not. He probably wants to tell you why you’re his favorite student. See you in the caf.”
Sal and I ate lunch together every day. It was Sal, me, Taylor, Raj and Jay. That was my pack, and we’d eaten together almost every day from seventh grade on. We always sat in the same place in the cafeteria, and we talked about movies and superheroes and school and sports.
“And, Harmony, can you stay as well?” Mr. Yeoman called out.
Harmony was new—this was her first day. I looked at her, and she scowled at me. As the last couple of stragglers left the room, I waited beside Mr. Yeoman’s desk. He and I both waited as Harmony slowly gathered her stuff and then, even more slowly, made her way up to the front.
“Harmony,” Mr. Yeoman began, “this is a big school, and it can take some getting used to. So, Robbie, I want you to show her around, help her settle in.”
“Him?” The look on Harmony’s face had changed from complete disdain to complete disgust.
“Me?” What was Mr. Yeoman thinking? This was not a good idea at all.
“Yes, you, Robbie. You can be Harmony’s guide for the next day or so.” He turned to Harmony. “He’s very responsible. Very mature.”
“It’s time for lunch, so Robbie will show you where the cafeteria is. I’m sure he’ll even let you sit at his table, won’t you, Robbie?”
“Sure…if she wants.”
Harmony’s expression made it clear she most certainly did not want to do that. I wasn’t so thrilled with it either, and I didn’t know how the guys would feel about it.
“I started a new school when I was about your age, and I remember how tough it was, so I thought you could use a little help,” Mr. Yeoman explained.
“I don’t need any help,” Harmony said.
“Everybody needs help. Now off you go. Robbie, you’re in charge. Understand?”
“Good. Now go get some lunch.”
I left the room first. Harmony was a few steps behind me. When she stepped out into the hall, she made a hard turn to the right.
“Wait, the cafeteria is this way!”
She kept walking. I looked back through the open classroom door, hoping Mr. Yeoman hadn’t heard.
“Go get her!” he called.
Great. She had already turned a corner and gone out of sight. I ran after her.
She stopped, turned and scowled. Was that her only expression?
“The cafeteria is the other way.”
“I don’t care.”
“But I’m supposed to take you to the cafeteria.”
“You’re not taking me anywhere,” she snapped.
“But Mr. Yeoman told me to—”
“Screw him and screw you.”
I felt a rush of anger and almost yelled, Screw you too. But I knew that wouldn’t help. I took a deep breath.
“Look, I know a school this big, with this many people, can be scary.”
“Do I look scared?”
She didn’t look scared. She looked scary. But it occurred to me that maybe she was so nervous she was trying extra hard not to look scared. Like when people laugh when they really want to cry.
“You can come to my table and sit with me and my friends.”
“You have friends?” she asked.
“What?” Did she really just say what I think she said?
“I was just surprised that you have friends. I thought he wanted me to sit with you so you wouldn’t have to sit by yourself anymore.”
“I’ve got lots of friends,” I replied, puffing up a bit. Okay, maybe not lots, but really, who had more than a few?
“I just thought your mummy was your best friend.”
“What?” What a jerk! Why was I wasting my time with this girl? If she didn’t want to come with me, well, who cared?
“It’s just that it looks like your mummy dresses you…and probably in the dark.”
I felt the pit of my stomach tighten and anger starting to form. I couldn’t let that happen. I took another deep breath to calm myself.
But when she turned and started to walk away, I reached out and grabbed her arm. Quick as lightning, she brushed off my arm, spun around and glared at me. “Don’t you ever touch me again,” she said, eyes blazing.
I was shocked. I hadn’t meant to grab her. I had just reacted.
“If you ever touch me again, I’ll pop you in the nose.”
“You’re going to pop me in the nose?” I said with a nervous laugh. “What is this, a cartoon?”
“Go away and leave me alone or I’m going to smack you.”
“Look, I don’t like this any more than you do. I’m just trying to—”
Her fist smashed into my nose, and pain shot up into my skull. I staggered backward and screamed.
“What did you do?” I yelled through my hands, which were clutching my nose—my bleeding nose. I felt my eyes tearing up.
“I did what I told you I was going to do.”
“Are you crazy?” I blinked back the tears. Bleeding was bad enough. I didn’t need to add tears.
“Do you want another?” she asked.
I took a slight step back and held out one bloody hand to try to protect myself. If she tried to hit me again, I’d show her exactly what—
“What is going on here?” a deep voice asked.
I spun around. It was Mr. Arseneau, the school principal.
“Your nose! What happened?” he demanded. He sounded angry, but he looked concerned.
“Were you two fighting?” he asked.
“No, sir. I don’t do that…not anymore.”
“Did she hit you?”
I looked back at Harmony. Now she did look scared.
I wanted to swear at her. I wanted to hit her—at least, I wanted to tell the principal what had happened. I wasn’t going to do any of those things.
“No, sir, of course not, sir…I just fell…tripped on my feet and smashed into the locker.” I pointed at the row of lockers like somehow they would verify my story.
His expression changed to disbelief. “Really? Is that what happened?”
“Yes, sir. Ask Harmony.”
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