Little Ships


The Beckers—Nick, Karin, and their adolescent daughters, Tilde and Juni—had been living in their two-bedroom apartment half an hour south of Portland, Oregon, for four months, since Nick got a job installing new computer software in the pharmacies of a chain of drugstores all over Oregon. He enjoyed the challenge and the break from being cooped up in a pharmacy kiosk counting pills and advising customers. The new job meant he did a lot of driving and once or twice a week stayed over out of town. He had rented their apartment in a two-story complex right off the I-5 freeway, promising they would get a house as soon as the job settled down, but he hadn’t mentioned moving again. He and Karin talked about putting the girls in public school so they could join some sports teams, but he drove away in their only car every day, and the middle school was across the freeway and another two miles after that, so the girls didn’t go. At their age, they should have been in seventh and eighth grades, but their mother said they were good readers and what else mattered? They had both taken the required state tests for fifth graders two years earlier (to keep the state off their backs), and though Juni was behind in math, the state did no more than send a form letter urging attention to the deficient skills. The girls had a big carton of homeschooling books and workbooks and a laptop computer that had been sent to them from the state education offices in September, when they were living in Salem, and there were certified teachers who could have helped the girls online, but the internet had been cut off because Karin didn’t pay the bill. She had lost interest in school stuff, so the girls dipped into the box when they wanted to. Juni read the language arts books—anthologies, novels—and any parts of the science texts that were about animals. Tilde read a lot too and worked through the mathematics books—hers and Juni’s; her mother said she was like a caterpillar chewing through parsley. Sometimes the girls drilled one another on spelling science vocabulary, easy words like muscle and environment and savanna and terrestrial. The state materials included fabric-bound journals for both girls. Juni wrote poems in hers, and lists of places she wanted to go in the world, and designs of clothes she would buy if she could, and sometimes cats with large paws. Tilde copied her favorite (hardest) mathematics exercises into her journal, and drew sketches of trees, plants, and fish. Neither girl ever wrote about what was going on or not going on in their lives, any more than they spoke about such things. Each had memories they didn’t talk about. And dreams. They had no friends, but they had each other and the open promise of the future.
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