Uncle Potluck said when he talked to the moon, the moon talked back.
Mama laughed. “Same old Potluck,” she said, but he’d already grabbed his hat. Already looked at Mattie, eyebrows up, saying, “It’s hound dog true.” Already opened the door to the night.
Out they went, out past the bean tepees and tomato cages and the stone rabbit standing guard, Mattie matching Uncle Potluck’s steps in the garden dirt. Out they went beyond the tangle of pumpkin vines and the backyard house Miss Sweet was renting.
“Few more days, you’ll know this place by heart,” Uncle Potluck said. “Won’t need me showing you the way.”
Mattie was not so sure. It was dark out here, without streetlights and golden arches and headlights graying up the sky. Uncle Potluck had grown up in this yard. Mama, too. Likely it would take till Mattie grew up before she could path her way through the night.
Up they went, up the rise to the edge of the woods, to the flat rock ledge by the apple tree. Uncle Potluck looked up and Mattie looked up, up to where the moon ought to be. Uncle Potluck whispered, “She’s hiding behind the skirts of Mama Night, you know?”
Uncle Potluck leaped up on that rock. Put his hat to his heart. “Miss Moon,” he called. “Miss Moon, come on out, sweetheart.”
Uncle Potluck waited and Mattie waited till a breeze came by, thinning the clouds.
“You’ve got to trust the moon, if you want the moon to trust you,” he said, handing Mattie his hat.
He wanted her to talk, Mattie knew. Wanted her to introduce herself, say something fine, but Mattie could not find a word in that dark.
She put on Uncle Potluck’s hat, let it fall down over her eyes.
The stick man has bolts of cartoon electricity shooting out of him. Attention! Avertissement! it says over his head. Atención! Achtung! Do not use ladder in electrical storms. May cause severe injury or death.
Mattie is glad she is not in an electrical storm. She does not want little bolts of lightning to shoot out of her. Of course, she’s just standing at the bottom of the ladder, holding it two-hand steady, eyes level with the warning labels pasted to its metal sides.
It’s Uncle Potluck up top, like the stick man, so probably Uncle Potluck would get the death. Mattie’d only get severe injury, she figures, and for a minute she thinks about what kind of injury that might be. Lightning could split a tree, she knew. Maybe it would split her. Take a leg off or something. Or maybe she’d singe all over, like a shirt ironed too hot. Either way, it is good they are inside, she tells herself.
It is good that they are here, inside Mitchell P. Anderson Elementary School, inside Ms. Morgan’s fifth grade classroom, inside the room that Uncle Potluck says will be hers once school starts.
It is good, she tells herself again.
And she keeps it good by focusing on the stick man, not wandering her eyes to the rows of desks or the coat closet doors or the blackboard up front. She reminds herself there is a whole week before this new school starts and she doesn’t have to think about any of that yet.
She can just help Uncle Potluck fulfill his Janitorial Oath.
She can steady the ladder.
She can think about severe injury and death.
“Mattie Mae,” says Uncle Potluck. “I am entrusting you with this distinguished veteran.” Mattie loosens one hand from the ladder and reaches for the light bulb Uncle Potluck hands down. It is not a regular bulb—not the round kind that might ping on above a stick man if he got an idea. It is the long, skinny, lightsaber kind. The kind that sat in the ceilings of every school Mattie ever went to. Which is three. Four, counting this one. Four schools.
The bulb is ash gray. Uncle Potluck puts his hat to his heart and bows his head. “Gave its life in service of the illumination of youth,” he says.
Mattie smiles. Bows her head like Uncle Potluck. “Thank you, bulb,” she says. It’s only Uncle Potluck around, so she doesn’t mind saying it out loud.
“Put that in the box, Mattie. We’ll take it back to Authorized Personnel and give it a proper burial.” Mattie nods and lets go of the ladder. It doesn’t wobble. Uncle Potluck doesn’t need steadying, really. He’s been performing the Custodial Arts since before Mattie was even born.
Up at the front of the room, a skinny box rests against Ms. Morgan’s desk. Mattie sets the veteran down and slow-careful pulls a fresh bulb from that box, a bulb so white it matches the chalk on the blackboard ledge.
This is probably where she’ll have to stand.
It’s always up front that teachers make you stand.
Every time Mattie has been new at a school, the teacher made her stand in front of the blackboard and say her name. Except last time, fourth grade. That was Mrs. D’Angelo’s class. Mrs. D’Angelo had a whiteboard instead. Told Mattie to stand in front of that while she wrote Mattie’s name fat and loopy in blue marker on that whiteboard.
“I’m Mattie Breen,” Mattie had said.
“I’m Mattie Breen.” Came out quieter, though.
Tell us something about yourself.
And just like every other transfer day, Mattie got tangled in her own head, trying to figure out what would be good to say. What she could say that would be smart or funny or interesting enough to make people forget they already had friends and places to sit at lunch and people to be with at recess.
Mattie’d had her notebook with her—the first one, the yellow one—and she’d held it to her chest like armor. Tucked her chin behind it. Felt her breath bouncing hot back.
Shoes shuffled under chairs.
Shy, someone whispered.
Stuck up got whispered back.
Just the day before, Mattie had seen a TV show about Buddhist monks, how they could breathe so deep and slow they seemed to stop time, to stop their own hearts from beating. Mattie tried that then. Breathed slow and deep, trying to stop her face from redding up.
It did not work.
Probably because I’m not a Buddhist, she thought. And that’s what she said.
“I’m not a Buddhist.”
That was enough for Mrs. D’Angelo to tell her she could sit down.
Mattie did sit down.
Sat holding her yellow notebook at a table Mrs. D’Angelo had pushed an extra chair up to.
Sat in the place Mrs. D’Angelo said was for now.
Sat with four other kids—one of them that girl Star, though Mattie didn’t know that yet. All Mattie knew was that she had said, Not a Buddhist.
Not exactly the kind of introduction that would have people rushing to make friends.
Not that she knew how to make friends, really.
She could be friendly, of course. After the newness of a place wore off, she’d been friendly. By then it was usually too late for true, tell-your-secrets-to friends, even the nicest people calling her that shy girl instead of Mattie.
Not a Buddhist.
Not a Buddhist. Not a Buddhist. Not a Buddhist.
Took a whole half of that morning before she could concentrate on anything else.
When finally she did settle, Mattie caught a glimpse of the whiteboard. There was her name sitting bold and friendly among the times tables and the spelling words. Like she was a lesson. Like Mattie Breen being bold-friendly was just...