They entered the babysitter’s brownstone and climbed the two flights to her floor, Tommy and Gabriel dragging their feet. Lillian stopped suddenly when she saw the babysitter waiting in her doorway with her arms crossed, as if she was already angry at the boys.
“Good morning, Mrs. Peabody. Are we late?” asked Lillian. “Tommy, Gabriel, hurry up! Mrs. Peabody has been waiting for us.” They climbed the last flight and Lillian gathered the boys in front of her.
Mrs. Peabody’s stance remained unchanged. She towered over the boys in the doorway and cast a disapproving glance at them. A “hmph!” shot from her face and landed on the two upturned faces.
Tommy pushed Gabriel in front of him, landing him inches away from Mrs. Peabody’s apron that was always covered with cooking smears. Gabriel’s face wrinkled up and he stepped back. “I don’t want to stay here!”
“Shh! Gabriel!” Lillian widened her eyes at him. “Is everything all right, Mrs. Peabody?”
“No, everything is not all right, and never will be again!”
Lillian waited for an explanation but soon realized that she was meant to ask about the bad news.
“Is something wrong? Has something happened?” she asked, genuinely concerned, but at the same time hoping the explanation wouldn’t make her late for work.
“What has happened, as you say, is that cousin Jedediah took sick in the night. And has expired.” Her head, in a very peahen-like manner, Lillian couldn’t help but think, pecked from her, to Tommy, to Gabriel, and back to her, empty beaked. “Passed!”
Though Lillian’s brow was now creased, Mrs. Peabody jerked her head back at the paltry response to her tragic news.
“Oh! I’m so sorry,” said Lillian. In the five months she had been taking the boys to Mrs. Peabody’s, Lillian had heard her speak – on numerous occasions – of troublesome neighbors, dishonest storekeepers, and difficult relatives. But she had never heard of cousin Jedediah.
Tommy cocked his head up to the babysitter. “You mean he’s dead?”
Mrs. Peabody gave a quick gasp. “Indeed, he is!”
“Dead as a door-nail?” Gabriel asked. “Like Jacob Marley?”
Mrs. Peabody’s mouth and eyes opened wide and her chest puffed up. She grabbed the doorway for support.
Just as Lillian was about to explain, Tommy asked, “Or as dead as a coffin nail?” pleased that he, too, remembered the exact words from Dickens.
“Oh, you wicked, wicked boys! I will not have cousin Jedediah’s memory sullied.” She sniffled and raised her apron to her nose. “Yes, he drank too much and never could hold down a job. And he never paid me back the $21.00 I gave him from my hard-earned savings. That was five years ago! The low-down, good-for-nothing rascal,” she muttered to herself. “But he was my cousin, all the same. And he’s gone! Not to be made light of by urchins like you.”
“They don’t know what they’re saying.” Lillian mistakenly thought a small laugh would soften the situation. “You see, I was reading A Christmas Carol to them last night and – ”
“What do I care what you’re reading!” cried Mrs. Peabody. “Cousin Jedediah is dead, and this is going to be a terrible, terrible Christmas. Worse than usual.”
Tommy and Gabriel exchanged a glance. “Bah!” Tommy said in a low voice.
“Humbug!” Gabriel added.
“Well!” Mrs. Peabody folded her arms across her smudgy apron. “For my part, I have never come across such disrespectful creatures in all my life! Making a joke of cousin Jedediah’s departure.” She lifted her apron to her dry eyes, leaving a smear of butter on her glasses. She pecked her head back and then forward to determine why her vision had suddenly blurred, causing her to look cross-eyed at her lenses.
Tommy and Gabriel used both hands to cover their mouths, but their laughter still wriggled out.
“I will not put up with this. Off with you!” Mrs. Peabody dropped her apron and used it to shoo the boys away. She planted her hands on her hips. “And you, Miss Happy-All-the-Time Hapsey, can just find yourself another sitter!” She slammed the door in their faces.
“Good!” said Tommy. “She’s always crabby and I hate her.”
“Me too,” echoed Gabriel. “She smells like cabbage!”
“Shh!” Lillian said sharply, waiting to see if the door would reopen. When it didn’t she bit her lip, and headed down the stairs. “Let’s go.”
Tommy tossed an angry glare over his shoulder, and cried “Bah humbug!” as a parting good-riddance remark.
Gabriel scowled at the closed door, fists on his hips. “Yeah! Bah humbug bah humbug bah humbug!” He then hurried down the stairs in case the door should suddenly open. Tommy burst into laughter and tried to overtake him.
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