The Nominal Hero, Chapter 1: Specially Marked Boxes

Here it is, friends: the beginning of the new project!

The Nominal Hero (A Nounish Tale)
by Tasha K. Rookswater

Chapter 1: Specially Marked Boxes

It was one of those days where everyone seemed to want to make things Caden’s fault.

First he was late getting out the door to school. That was maybe a little bit his fault, because he was reading during breakfast and stayed in his seat to finish the chapter instead of getting up and brushing his teeth. But it wasn’t fair of his mother to say he was dawdling, and anyway he would have had plenty of time if he’d been allowed to run to school by himself.

Instead he had to walk with Paz, his little sister, and she really did dawdle, stopping to stare at the construction equipment in the Wellco lot or to poke at the snowbanks with a stick. By the time he dropped her off at the gate of the little kids’ yard, the kinders were already filing into the school building, and the bell had rung.

That meant the gate to the main schoolyard would be locked, and so Caden had to go all the way around to the big doors by the office. They did it that way on purpose, so that you couldn’t sneak in late and pretend you’d been in the washroom. The vice-principal was watching the front doors from his glassed-in office, like a big bearded owl in its tree, and handed Caden his late slip with a stern expression. Caden tried to explain about Paz, but the vice-principal brushed him off and went to confront a pair of grade sixes who were being dropped off by a man in a tuxedo.

Caden got to the grade threes’ room just as announcements finished, and then almost right away he was in trouble again. Mrs. Appit handed back their writing assignments from Friday and gave them a page in the Language Arts book to read while she called them up to her desk one at a time to discuss their work. Caden was second.

“Caden, this is very good,” she said gently, tapping the paper in his hand, “but did you understand that you were supposed to do it by yourself?”

“Yes, Mrs. Appit,” Caden said, not sure where this was going.

Her lips thinned for a moment. “It’s all right to ask for help if you need it,” she said. “But the writing should be all your own words. You won’t learn anything if someone else does it for you.”

“I did too write it myself!” Caden protested, too loudly.

“Let’s use our indoor voices in the classroom, Caden,” Mrs. Appit said, serene again. “Read this aloud, please. From here.” She pointed.

Caden read, “The Sphinx was the epitome of Egyptian art--”

“Epitome,” Mrs. Appit corrected, pronouncing it ep-PIT-oh-mee, instead of rhyming it with “home” the way he had. “Caden, we both know you can’t have written this. You don’t even know what the words are.”

He wanted to explain that he did so know what an epitome was, it was the best of something, but he’d only ever seen it written down and so he didn’t know how to say it. But his skin had gone all hot and prickly like it did when he was embarrassed, and he couldn’t get his tongue to move, so he just stood there, staring at the floor.

Mrs. Appit seemed to take pity on him after a few endless moments. “I’m giving you a C, and I hope to see a better effort next time,” she said. “Go back to your seat. Danielle, come up, please.”

The rest of the morning was agony. They had Mrs. Appit again after recess for Geography, and every time Caden met her eyes he knew she thought he was a cheater. As a result he could barely take in the lesson, which was about the Great Lakes, and when they had a Comprehension Quiz at the end of class he had to leave his almost completely blank. It wasn’t really his fault, but Mrs. Appit made him stay in at lunch anyway.

Then after school he went to the gym for volleyball practice and found it empty. It was Monday, he was sure about that, and volleyball was always Monday. He stood forlornly in the echoing gym until a group of grade fives came in to play basketball. Desperate, he asked them if they knew where Mrs. Maddox the coach was. They did: she was home sick and practice was cancelled. It had been on the morning announcements, which he’d missed.

So Caden was late getting home, and of course the school had emailed his dad to say there was no practice, so his dad had expected him home ages ago and had been worrying, and everyone seemed to think that was Caden’s fault too. He glared at his older sister Ruth and banged his lunch containers in the sink, and was told to be quiet.

He was allowed screen time after school if he didn’t have homework, so he went to his room to watch videos. Quietly. He didn’t even kick Paz out when she clambered up on the bed beside him. At least she was quiet too. They watched two episodes of Tanker Man, and a video about sharpening chisels properly. Paz left partway through that one; Caden watched it to the end, and then turned off the iPad and went back to his book, which was nearly as good and didn’t interrupt itself to play ads at you.

Caden figured the ad algorithm thought he was a lot older than he was, since he got a lot of ads for cars. Though there were quite a few (probably because of Tanker Man) that wanted him to buy transforming toys and model railroad parts, and some that just made no sense, like the one where you could find “Nouns” in specially marked boxes of breakfast products. He couldn’t work that one out. He knew what nouns were--they were people, places, things, or ideas--and he was pretty sure the nouns you found in breakfast products were things like “cereal” or “marshmallows”--no need for specially marked boxes for that. For some reason this niggled at him. Little puzzles like that often did, until he figured out what they meant.

There was an outraged yell from the kitchen: Ruth. “Paz! What are you doing?” Muffled explanation, arguing, Paz starting to cry. Then, ominously: “Caden!”

He thought about pretending not to hear, but that would just mean Ruth stomping into his room. She was thirteen, and seemed to think this made her the boss of everything. Caden reluctantly turned his book over and slouched into the kitchen. Ruth fixed him with an accusing glare. “Did you let Paz watch YouTube?”

“Yeah, but nothing bad,” Caden said defensively. He looked at Paz, who was sniffling on the kitchen floor. She had black smears all over her face and hands, and there was a chemical smell of permanent marker in the air.

“Well, she saw an ad about specially marked boxes,” Ruth said, “and decided to make some. With Mom’s grocery marker.” This was kept in the knife drawer for labelling food, and was strictly off-limits. Caden looked over at the counter and the open cupboard above it. The cereal boxes had been pulled out and scribbled on, and the baking soda, and the instant pad thai, and the hot chocolate. There was marker on the cupboard door, and the countertop, and the wall. And on Paz, of course.

“You’re in trouble,” Caden said, trying not to grin.

You let her watch YouTube!” Ruth protested.

You’re supposed to be watching us when Dad’s doing errands,” Caden countered quickly. Ruth was not going to make this his fault too, not after everything else that had happened today.

They both looked at Paz, who was chewing thoughtfully on the corner of a dishtowel. “I want Nooms,” she said. “I want a special marked boxes.”

They were probably both in trouble.

“Put the cereal into jars and hide everything else in the back of the cupboard,” Ruth decided. “I’m going to google how to get marker off wood and skin. We’ve probably got about twenty minutes.”

She might be bossy, Caden thought, as he hauled the big plastic storage jars out of the pantry, but Ruth was a pretty good person to have on your side when you needed to solve a problem quickly without grownups finding out.

He tipped the first box of cereal (Flax Krisp) into the jar and dumped the empty bag into the trash and the black-swirled box into the recycling. The second box was mostly empty and he poured it into a bowl for snacking on. Ruth reported that hand sanitizer was supposed to dissolve permanent marker, and was soon scrubbing Paz firmly with a wad of toilet paper, ignoring her howls.

Caden opened the third box (Strawberry Zer-Os), which wasn’t as badly scribbled on as the others. Paz had drawn a couple of lopsided squares with lines around them, like a pair of glasses with square lenses. Glasses was a noun, Caden thought. So was marker, and cereal. And peace, which was what “Paz” meant in Spanish. And trouble.

He poured out the Strawberry Zer-Os, and something flopped out and stuck in the neck of the jar. It was a pair of red-framed glasses in a clear plastic wrapper. They were blocky, a lot like Paz’s drawing, or like the kind they handed out at 3D movies. Caden turned them over in his hands. They felt heavier than they ought to be.

“Are you done yet?” Ruth had stuck a cookie in Paz’s mouth to quiet her and was back on her phone. “Hurry up and hide the rest of that stuff. It says rubbing alcohol for wood. I don’t think we’ve got any. What are those?”

Caden shrugged. “Some kind of toy. Would the hand sanitizer work on the cupboard?”

“Maybe. It’s mostly alcohol.” Ruth hurried to grab another handful of toilet paper. Caden shoved the Strawberry Zer-Os box into the recycling, and then took the wrapper off the glasses and stuck that in too.

The front door opened.

Caden jammed the glasses onto his face, for lack of somewhere better, and started quickly shoving things around in the cupboard to make space at the back for the rest of the marked-up food.

“It’s not working, it’s just smearing around,” Ruth said frantically.

“What else do they say you can use?”

“Uh--” Ruth wiped her hand on her jeans and scrolled. Their dad was rattling coat hangers in the front hall closet. “Isopropyl alcohol, acetone, hairspray--”

“Hairspray!” Caden snorted, finding this hilarious, the way the oddest things sometimes seem funny in moments of panic.

There was a tiny *pop* sound.

There was a tiny flicker.

There was something very strange in the kitchen.

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