Henry feints left to throw his mother off balance and then steps right so he can throw a nasty look in his father's direction. He ascends the stairs before his father has time to counter.
He mentally tallies a win for this round.
“Hiya, bro,” Henry calls rather than knocking before opening the door to Jeb's room.
The younger sibling runs to his brother and grabs him around the waist. Tears choke back his attempt at a greeting.
Henry ruffles the boy's hair with one hand while gripping him with the other. Finally, he pushes the boy away and peers closely at the reddened eyes. “What's the matter?” Did Dad...”
Jeb turns to his bed and grabs a handful of papers. “It's this math.”
“Dad can't help?”
The question is rhetorical. Of course his father can't help. Henry only asks to remind his brother that their father is a helpless fool.
Jeb fails to answer with anything more than down-turned eyes.
“Here,” Henry leads his brother to the bed and they sit at opposite ends. “One dollar and fifty cents take away forty-eight cents is fifty-six cents,” begins reading from the paper titled Common Core Math.
“No, it isn't,” Jeb interrupts.
“That isn't the problem,” Henry explains. “The teacher wants you to break down fifty-six cents.”
“That's the problem,” Henry repeats.
“But one dollar and fifty cents take away forty-eight cents isn't fifty-six cents, it's one dollar and two cents.”
“That isn't the answer the teacher wants,” Henry explains with exaggerated patience.
“No but. You're supposed to break down fifty-six cents.”
“That's what the teacher wants you to do.”
“What does that have to do with one dollar and fifty cents take away...”
“Nothing. Don't let that distract you. Just do what the teacher wants. Break down fifty-six cents.”
Henry shrugs. “It teaches you to do what you're told,” he replies, “and ignore distractions.”
Jeb echoes his brother's shrug and answers, “Okay. Fifty and six.”
“Why not forty-eight and eight?”
“That would be good, too.”
Jeb screws up his face. “I don't get it.”
“Sure, you get it. You gave two correct answers.”
“But what about the one dollar and fifty cents take away forty-eight cents.”
“What about it?”
“It's just a distraction.”
Henry reads the next question, but quickly stops when he sees that Jeb isn't paying attention.
“What's the matter, Squirt?”
“Is that why mom and dad can't help me with my homework?”
“They're too distracted.”
Henry shrugs again. “You didn't ask them to help again, did you?”
“You know it only upsets them.”
“Yeah, they can't get past the part about the dollar and fifty cents...”
“...Take away forty-eight cents...” Henry interjects.
“Yeah, it isn't fifty-six cents.”
Jeb looks to his brother for an answer, but is disappointed. “Why do they say it like it's true? It isn't.”
Henry remains silent.
Jeb jumps off the bed and wanders to the bookshelf and fingers a Cub Scout trophy. “What if I get a job at McDonald's. I can't give someone forty-eight cents change when they're supposed to get a dollar and two cents. Don't I have to be able to figure out the correct change?”
“That's what the cash register is for. It'll tell you how much change to give them.”
“But shouldn't I be able to figure it out myself?”
“You already can, can't you?”
Jeb wanders around the room a little more while Henry watches him.
“Has dad been giving you trouble about your homework.”
“Yeah,” Jeb begins, then corrects himself. “Well, not me. He's upset with the teacher. He doesn't understand why they word the problems the way they do.”
“Dad doesn't understand much.”
Jeb turns his back on his brother as though he already knows what's about to be said. He's heard it before, many times before, but Henry ignores the signs and presses on, “Why do you think I left and got emancipated?”
“I told you,” Henry responds. “It means I don't need to listen to the old man's crap anymore. I'm on my own now.”
“Isn't it scary?”
“Hell no,” Henry replies like a salesman going in for a close. “I've got a great place to live. It's for kids like me. Emancipated.”
Jeb has heard about it before, but resists the temptation to follow his brother.
“Come here,” Henry prompts his brother and heads for the desk where Jeb's laptop is already logged into the Internet. “Just go to 'eKids.gov' and you can read all about it. There's even a form to apply for emancipation.”
Henry clicks on the link and begins filling in the form for his brother.
Jeb sits down after Henry completes the basic information and the cursor flashes inside a text box where the applicant is prompted to describe conditions at home.
“But dad and I don't fight,” Jeb demurs, “not like you and him.”
“You don't have to fill that out,” Henry explains and clicks on the option specifying that he has an older sibling who is emancipated. He types in his name and address at the eKids Center. “I've done all the work for you. The law assumes that you should be emancipated for the same reasons that I've already given them in my own case.”
Jeb's lips form an “O” but the word goes unspoken.
“What's all this?” he asks pointing to a list of items. “Check all that apply.”
“That's all you have to do.”
“Republican. Tea Party. Oath Keepers. I don't know what these are.”
“It's just for record keeping,” Henry explains. “Mom and Dad are Republicans and members of the Tea Party. Dad is a veteran, make sure you check that one.”
Jeb uses the mouse to scroll up and down the page but stays clear of the submit button. “I don't know. I'll think about it,” he promises.
“Sure, squirt. You think about it, but don't wait too long.”
“You'll be twelve soon and that's when Dad really started in on me.”
“Yeah, he'll want you to believe all the crap he believes.”
“Sure, that and patriotism. You'll get an earful about patriotism and the Constitution. Trust me. You trust me, don't you?”
Jeb hugs his brother. “Yeah, I trust you.”
He'll get a lot of points when his brother finally signs up.
He'll be treated like a hero.