"Yeah, I'm here to pick up the Lalonde kids. I got a call about Rose a while ago."
Dirk had made it to the school in thirty eight minutes, including the time it took to rifle through multiple baskets of clean laundry still sitting around in the basement.
The administration office seemed far less concerned than he was about the phone call he'd had from the school nurse. The woman continued to click around on her computer for a few moments - a few moments too long for his patience - before informing him of what he already knew; Rose was in the nurses' office, and Dave was in his classroom. He thanked her, and rejected the offer to usher him through the halls. He knew where they both were.
He knocked on the door to the office before opening it to let himself in.
"Hi," he said. "I'm Rose's uncle, you said she had an accident. What happened? Is she okay?" Dirk asked.
"Did you bring her a change of clothes?" The nurse asked.
"Yeah," he held up the grocery bag in his left hand, frowning. "Is she okay?"
The second time he had to ask, he found himself asking a little more aggressively than he'd intended - no one seemed to be willing to tell him what had happened over recess.
"She's fine," the Nurse said dismissively, gesturing for him to hand over the bag. "I'll take this into her. Is her mother home?"
"She's in London for work. I'm listed as a secondary guardian, I live with them," he said, frowning.
"Well when she gets home, she might want to talk to her daughter about how to prevent accidents like this in the future."
"Right," Dirk said slowly, as the truth of the situation clicked in his brain; it was no wonder none of the administrative women wanted to tell him why he'd been called into the school. "Okay, sure, I'll make sure I bring it up. Tell her to wait here when she's changed, I'm just gonna go grab her brother so he doesn't have to get the bus home alone," he added as he finally handed over the plastic grocery bag.
Fucking schools nurses, he thought. They'd never not been useless.
He left the office and turned down the next hall to where the fourth grade classrooms were. He'd been to Dave's parent-teacher meetings earlier in the school year, pretending to have just tagged along with Roxy to help wrangle the kids. It still hurt - killed him, more like - to feign only mild interest in how his kid was doing at school. He'd loaded his sister up with questions to ask before they'd left the house before the last series of meetings, and when she'd forgotten one of them he'd gone back to ask the teacher himself.
He peered through the small window on the classroom door. Dave's back was to him as he worked furiously on a writing task, his sunglasses on the table beside him. His head was down, resting on his arm, as if he was deliberately trying to work in his own shadow. One ankle, in its oversized but warm snowboot, was wrapped around a chair leg while the other leg bounced silently under his table.
All the kids in the room snapped their heads around to see who was trying to come inside. The flurry of activity caught the attention of their teacher as well, who smiled when she saw him standing there.
"That's my uncle!" Dave exclaimed, roughly pushing his chair back from his table. "Hi! Why are you at school? This is my classroom, you never see my classroom!"
"We're going home early, Rosie's not feeling too hot. Go grab your bag," Dirk said, as he pried Dave's arms loose from around his waist. "His sister's been in with the nurse," he said as the teacher walked over to see what was going on. "Sorry for taking him out early, but I don't really want him on the bus alone. Anything you want me to get him to do at home this afternoon?"
"No, we'll catch him up tomorrow. Dave, remember to push your chair in before you go," she said.
"Uh-huh," Dave said, his head popping out from the collar of the sweater he was struggling to put on properly in his excitement.
"You might want to come in and help him," the teacher said, watching as Dave tried to put his coat on inside out and upside down.
"Okay, okay," Dirk said, stepping into the classroom in time to prevent the worst of the coat disaster. "Give it here," he said, reaching out for the coat. "Go do the chair thing and get your glasses, I'll fix this."
"Okay," Dave said. He ran back across the room, shoved the chair back under the table and snatched up his worksheet in one hand and his glasses in the other. "They broke!"
"What?" Dirk asked, indicating for Dave to turn around to he could put the coat on. Dave turned, and held out the worksheet; Dirk took it, then put it between his teeth so he could use both hands to finish getting Dave dressed again.
"This bit falls out all the time," Dave said, trying to push the lens out of the frame. "Look!"
Dirk took the glasses and put them into the pocket of the coat, just to get them out of the way.
"Show me in the car," he said, doing up Dave's buttons for him, after giving back the worksheet. "Hands," he said, after picking up a pair of gloves and working them onto Dave's outstretched fingers. Finally, he dragged a beanie down over Dave's eyes, then flipped the hem up just enough so he could see. "Okay, let's go."
He picked up Dave's school bag and threw it over one shoulder, so he could carry his snow jacket and still have a spare hand.
"Bye!" Dave said, waving mostly to his teacher but vaguely in the direction of the table he'd been sitting at earlier.
"Thanks for that," Dirk said to the teacher, closing the classroom door as they both stepped back out into the hall.
"We just had recess!" Dave exclaimed, once it was just the two of them. "Are we really going home?"
"Yeah, I told you, Rosie isn't feeling so great. The school called and asked me to take her home early."
"Did she throw up?"
"I don't think so," Dirk said. "But don't ask her, I think she's sad about feeling sick."
"Okay," Dave said. "Can we have Burger King?"
"Maybe. We have to go to Walgreens first. Look, I'll think about it, and we'll ask Rose what she wants. We're gonna be nice to her today, okay?"
"Okay," Dave huffed, as his boots made a loud squeaking noise on the linoleum floor. "Did you talk to Mom yet?"
"Not yet, buddy. I think she's still asleep though, so she might call us tonight," Dirk said. "Hey, looks like we gotta get you some new shades too, huh? Lucky we're making a stop anyway," he added, changing the subject. Roxy had already been on her work trip for a week, and wasn't scheduled to be home again for another two. He'd already had Dave sleep in with him twice.
They were back at the nurse's office by then. Dirk knocked again and opened the door, to find Rose slouched in a chair by the desk with all of her things at her feet.
"Ah, there you are," the nurse said. "I've given her some Tylenol, and the clothes she was wearing this morning are in her bag."
"Did she throw up?" Dave asked curiously.
"Shh," Dirk said, gently directing him back out of the office. "Thanks, we have to make a few stops, she should be alright until we get home, right?"
"She should. Off you go, then," the nurse said to Rose, who silently picked up her bag and brushed past Dirk out into the hall.
"Thanks," he said, and pulled the door closed again as they left. "Here, gimme that," he said to Rose, taking her school bag and slinging it over his other shoulder. "You okay?"
Rose shrugged. She didn't look at him as she pulled her gloves on; the task seemed to take longer than it should have, as she avoided looking up at him.
"Bro says we can get Burger King!" Dave explained as soon as they stepped outside into the brisk March air.
"I said maybe," Dirk frowned. "I'm still deciding."
He unlocked the driver's door of the camry first, and reached around to lift the lock on the door behind. With the keys in the ignition to start running the heater, he popped the trunk for the kids' bags. Dave had already scrambled into the car and crawled across the back seat to unlock Rose's door for her; he was talking about something that had happened at recess, mostly to himself, as his sister tried to ignore him.
Dirk threw the school bags and Dave's snow jacket into the trunk, slammed it, and sat down in the driver's seat.
Fuck he thought, as he pulled his cell phone from his pocket. Nothing. He didn't know why there would be, he hadn't sent messages to anyone all morning.
Maybe he should.
He started writing a text - When you get a minute, I've got a question you might be able to help with. It's about women. - but deleted it instead of sending it. Jake English might have been taken countless anatomy classes - and even had relationships with women - but that didn't mean he'd retained any useful information about periods.
"Are we going to Burger King or not?" Dave asked, pouting at him from the back seat.
"Dude, I never even said anything about Burger King, you're the one who brought it up," Dirk said, tossing his phone down into a cup holder. "And when you did, I said we'd ask Rose. So Rosie, what do you think? Burger King or no Burger King?"
Rose just shrugged again.
"No fair, you suck!" Dave said, obviously annoyed at not getting his own way.
"How about we make a sick deal and call it a yes to the Burger King, but drive-through only and you can eat on the way home?" Dirk suggested, looking at the kids' faces as he turned around to back the Camry out of its parking space. "No sodas, and if you spill your sauce I'm teaching you how to use a steam cleaner."
Dave, content with the deal Dirk had offered, talked non-stop between the school and the Walgreens parking lot. It was hard for Dirk to keep track of everything he was saying in between avoiding potholes and glancing at Rose in the mirror every chance he got, so the conversation was much more one-sided than Dave would have liked and petered out halfway to the drugstore; his obvious displeasure morphed into a sulking clinginess, clutching his uncle's hand as soon as they were all out of the car.
"Okay," Dirk said, pausing briefly in the doorway to shake the slush off his boots. "Dave, go pick out a new pair of glasses and you've got ten bucks to spend on candy. Add it up as you go, because it all goes back on the shelf if you're so much as a nickel over. Got it?"
"For so real."
The candy deal was enough to both turn Dave's mood back around, and keep him occupied for at least five minutes.
"What about Rose?"
"You're picking for her too, so get some shit she likes," Dirk said, finally able to work his hand free from Dave's surprisingly tight grip. "Glasses and candy, that's it. Rosie, you're with me."
"Can't I go with Dave?" Rose asked, begrudgingly following her uncle in the opposite direction to her brother.
"I kind of want your input," Dirk said. "This is new territory for the both of us," he added, wrapping an arm around her shoulders in another attempt at comforting her. She made a noise, as if she was about to say something else, and even though he left space in the conversation for her to go on, she fell silent as they turned into the next aisle.
Dirk had always felt like he was a pretty smart guy. He knew a lot about making music, and could build or fix almost anything mechanical. He had a pretty good read on people and could talk politics and philosophy in the same conversation, but the older he got the more obvious gaps in his knowledge became.
There were some things even living with his sister couldn't prepare him for.
"Excuse me," he said, waving to get the attention of a middle-aged woman stacking shelves at the other end of the aisle. "Can I get a hand?"
"Can I please go with Dave?" Rose begged, already walking backwards faster than the woman could approach them. "Please, Uncle Bro, Dave needs my help."
"Okay," Dirk sighed. "Make sure he picks out a decent pair of glasses, the last ones had those fucking penguins on them, the dancing ones."
"Happy Feet!" Rose said quickly as she bolted out of the aisle.
"Her first time?"
"Huh? Yeah," Dirk said, when the Walgreens woman reached him. "Look, I'll be the first to admit this is way out of my league, so lay it on me."
"No wives or girlfriends ever given you a set of instructions?"
"Honestly? Never. Look, she's only eleven, what are we gonna need?"
The kids had eaten in the car on the drive home, with him glancing in the rearview mirror to try and catch any honey mustard spills before they happened. As soon as they had come to a stop in the garage, Rose had snatched the Walgreens bag - candy and all - and run upstairs before anyone could stop her; Dave had been lying on the living room floor playing Tony Hawk's Project 8 on the Playstation 3 since they walked in, and was still there, as far as he knew.
There was no answer from inside the bathroom, so he cracked the door just enough to make sure she could hear him.
"Can I come in?"
"Yeah," Rose answered quietly.
She was sitting on the closed toilet, wrapped in her towel, hair still dripping water onto her shoulders. The bag was lying untouched on the counter. Dirk sighed, kicked the wet bathmat aside, and sat down on the floor.
"I'm sorry, Rosie," he said, reaching up for the bag. He rummaged through the plastic until he found what he was looking for; he broke off a large chunk of the cookies and cream bar and held it out for her, then took some for himself.
"Because you're stuck with me right now, and what's the one thing we all know about me?"
"You like going to work in Texas," she said; she took a small bite of her chocolate at first, then shoved the rest of it into her mouth.
"You know I do," he laughed. "I meant closer to home."
"You take forever in the shower?" Rose suggested, talking through her chocolate.
"Okay, now you're just being mean," he said. "I know we've talked about it before, but I don't exactly know a lot about girls."
"Because you like boys," she said factually.
"That means you kiss boys, right?"
"Yeah, I've kissed a few boys in my day," he laughed again.
"Because I liked them. That's just what you do when you like someone, you kiss them."
"I know that," Rose said, as if it was obvious. "But why?"
"What do you mean, why?"
"Why do you kiss boys? Boys smell, especially after Gym. And your face is itchy."
"I like the way boys smell and I like itchy faces," Dirk said with a shrug; Rose pulled an obviously disgusted face. He laughed again, and reached into the bag to fish out a pack of Always. "Here's the thing, I don't know any of this stuff because I don't really talk to any girls about it. And when we were kids, me and your mom weren't even allowed to talk about it in our house. I know she didn't really like not being allowed to talk about it, so if you and me are learning about it at the same time, we might as well talk about it, right?"
"Maybe," Rose said cautiously.
Dirk looked up, after skimming the writing on the pack, and held it out for her.
"There's instructions on the back. There's even a picture, look," he said.
"Why weren't you allowed to talk about it?" Rose asked, as she accepted the pack from him.
"We just weren't," he shrugged. "Do you want me to leave so you can start getting dressed?"
Rose looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook her head.
"You can just close your eyes in case I need help."
"Okay," Dirk laughed. He pulled his knees up and put his head down so he couldn't see anything, except Rose's hand when she reached down to the floor to pick up her clean clothes.
He was still sitting with his eyes closed when he heard a series of small but hurried footsteps out in the hallway.
"Why is everyone in the bathroom?" Dave asked, the door creaking as he tried to open it.
"Go away!" Rose shrieked. "I'm not even dressed!"
"Is Uncle Bro in there?"
"He's not looking, go away!"
"Because my vagina is bleeding! Go away Dave!"
Dave's footsteps disappeared even faster than when he'd arrived; Dirk was glad his head was already down so he didn't have to look away to try and hide the fact he was laughing as hard as he was.
"I said you and me can talk about it, Rosie, I don't think Dave was exactly ready to hear that," he said, hoping she hadn't noticed him laughing at what she'd done.
"I don't care," Rose said, bluntly. "I'm ready so he has to listen to me. Can you fix my hair?"
"Sure thing, sweetheart."
"Bye!" Dave called, head popping back up from where he'd been half hanging off his chair to watch the cat leave.
"Options," Dirk said again. "I can give you all the relevant information here, out of my mouth, or you can read it in this book."
"The book," Dave said quickly. "Not your mouth. It's girl stuff, isn't it?"
"Okay, start at the start and end at the end. You can ask questions if you want but my actual mouth won't hesitate to give you the one-hundred percent real-life true answers," Dirk said, as he slid the book across the table; Roxy had bought the book about puberty a year earlier knowing they'd need it sooner rather than later.
"Yeah, what's the point in lying when you're trying to learn shit?"
Dave pushed his glasses up onto his head and narrowed his eyes suspiciously.
"Did you ever have sex?"
"A lot," Dirk answered, grinning at the vaguely disgusted look he got in response.
"Because I wanted to."
"Yeah, but why?" Dave pressed.
"Because I liked the person I was doing it with."
"Did you even do kissing?"
"Yeah, the kissing comes first. Usually, anyway."
"Like movie kissing?"
"You did movie kissing?" Dave asked, eyes wide.
"Yeah," Dirk said. "That's enough questions for someone who hasn't even started reading their book yet. You do that, I'm gonna start making some hellaciously cheesy mac and cheese for dinner. Sound good?"
"Do I have to read out loud or can I read in my head?"
"In your head."
Dave opened the book as Dirk stood up from the table; Dirk noticed the final, slightly grossed-out look Dave gave him as he ruffled his hair on his way to the fridge.
The kitchen was quiet for a while after that, the TV on in the background running just for noise. Rose was up in her room; Dirk had left her alone with the option to come downstairs at any point but she had seemingly opted for lying on her bed with a book. Every so often, in between him grating three different kinds of cheese, he heard Dave flip a page. The reading was accompanied by the occasional giggle, as well as shuffling pages.
Dirk was working on slowly melting the cheese into the sauce when Dave's chair pushed back and the kid appeared right beside him at the stove, book still in hand.
"I have a question," Dave said, the book propped open on one hand as he turned the pages with the other.
"Is this book porn?"
That caught him off guard.
"Say it again?" Dirk said, just in case he'd heard the question wrong.
"Is this porn?"
He had not heard the question wrong.
"Okay, I'll bite. What's porn?"
"Mom said naked pictures are porn and it's for grown ups, but this book has naked pictures and you told me to read it," Dave said. "Look," he added, pointing to one of the photos he'd found. "Look!"
"When did your mom tell you that?" Dirk asked, glancing away from the stove to see what Dave was pointing at.
"I couldn't find my DS and I was playing with it in your room so I looked in your room, and mom was helping me, and I know I was playing with my DS there because you were showing me how to play Diddy Kong Racing properly because I kept losing," Dave explained, flipping the page again. "And I was looking for it and I found a magazine with naked people in it and Mom said it was porn and put it back. Look, there's a lot of naked pictures in this book. Look!"
"Okay, okay, hang on a sec," Dirk said, tossing the last handful of cheese into the sauce. "What was the question in all that?"
"Mom said porn was just for grown ups but you gave me this book and it's got lots of naked pictures in it."
"Okay, so," he said, wiping his hands on the kitchen towel beside the stove. "This book is totally cool for kids because how else are you gonna learn what the inside of an actual human body looks like?"
"But this is the naked outside of a person, see?" Dave said, brandishing the book towards Dirk, who finally took it; he turned off the burner and walked back over to the table, Dave following closely. "And there's lots more!"
"Yeah, but there's inside pictures, too," Dirk said. He flipped a few pages as Dave jumped back up into his chair and turned the book back around. "See?"
Dave laughed loudly when Dirk pointed at the side-by-side anatomical images, and knelt up on his chair to reach over and shuffled over a few pages.
"But look at the naked ones!"
"I think we've established that I've seen naked pictures before, dude," Dirk said. "I wanna go check in on Rosie, any last questions for now?"
Dave furrowed his brows thoughtfully as he turned the page again.
"Yeah, if it's okay to look at naked pictures in the kitchen, why did you hide naked pictures in your bedroom?"