“Kenna, come push your sister out to the car.”
I swing my backpack onto my shoulder and jog down the stairs just as I hear the school bus pull up to our driveway and beep.
“Can’t you do it? I don’t want to have to walk again. The bus only waits five minutes, and Anna is really hard to push over the gravel.”
“Don’t argue. I’ve got my hands full with your brother, and I have to get this roast beef put in the crock pot. You’re perfectly capable of walking to school, and it’s a nice day,” Mom replies, pulling three-year-old Leo’s hands from her apron strings and retying them.
Sighing heavily, I rest my hands on Anna’s wheelchair handles and push. Her wheelchair inches slowly towards the door. By the time I have Anna just outside, I hear the bus brakes squeal as they let up, and the driver and the load of kids begin to roll away. Holding back angry tears, I shove the wheelchair the rest of the way to the van.
“They don’t pay me enough to do all this,” I grumble, even though I don’t get paid at all. I pull open the van door and help my sister into the seat. Folding her wheelchair together, I lift up the trunk door and heave it inside. Pushing the van door closed, I shove my hands deep in my pockets.
Without saying goodbye to my mom, I start off down the driveway. A little finch hops along at the same pace as me but keeps a cautious few feet between us. It turns its head and chirps at me, but even the cheerful singing of a pretty little bird can’t lift my spirits.
I sigh and turn away from the bird.
“It seems that every day of my life, I’m stuck taking care of Anna. ‘Kenna, come help Anna eat.’ ‘Kenna, come read to Anna.’ ‘Kenna, do this.’ ‘Kenna, do that.’ It’s not fair,” I say in a hushed, irritated voice. “I’m always doing stuff for Anna. But what is she doing for me? Nothing, is the answer. All she does is eat and drool and constantly smile at me.”
* * *
It’s only a few minutes past eight o’clock when I reach the school. I hear the warning bell ring as I hurry inside my classroom. Luckily, Mr. Regardo has his back turned and doesn’t even notice me.
I take my seat next to my best friend, Piper. A seat behind Piper sits one of our mortal enemies, Ruth. Two summers ago, we were all best friends. But she went to a sleep-away camp this past summer, and now all she’s interested in is the latest hairstyle and fashion magazines. Apparently, she roomed with the group of girls who bully everyone here at school. Now Ruth isn’t really nice to me or Piper. She just hangs out with those girls.
“All right, class,” says Mr. Regardo presently, turning around and grinning at us. “Seeing as it is almost time for fall vacation, and Thanksgiving is approaching quickly, I have a surprise for you.” The class gives a small cheer at this, all except for Ryan Hoss, who always has to get everyone’s attention. He jumps out of his seat and throws his baseball cap in the air, whooping and hollering.
“That’s enough, Ryan. I’m pretty sure you don’t want to have to go to the principal’s office—again,” Mr. Regardo says, with a warning look. Ryan, grinning with pride, gives one last attention-seeking toss of his baseball cap and plops down in his chair, his cap landing on top of his desk.
“What I was saying—before I was interrupted,” Mr. Regardo goes on, pointedly turning his eyes toward Ryan, “is that, instead of our usual English worksheets, we will be doing a Thanksgiving craft!” This gets the class going again, and Mr. Regardo walks to the rear of the classroom and puts a hand on Ryan’s shoulder before he can get all riled up a second time.
“All right now, let’s keep quiet. I’m going to hand out craft packets to you all. They have ten leaves and a tree trunk in them, as well as a picture of the ground and the sky on a piece of paper. Paste your tree and leaves onto the paper, and then write what you’re thankful for on the leaves.”
“This is too easy! Can’t we write the names of all the presidents on the leaves or something?” Ryan pipes up.
“This isn’t homework, Ryan,” Mr. Regardo replies. “This is a craft to put up on your fridge.”
“I’m not allowed to put things on my fridge,” a girl named Ria answers.
“Well, do what you want with it,” Mr. Regardo says, with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“So… I can throw it away?” Ryan calls, putting his hand in the air.
“No. Ryan, although this is not homework, it is an assignment, so treat it like one,” Mr. Regardo says sternly. Ryan drops his hand to his packet and begins tearing out the pieces.
I take all of the pieces out of my packet and lay them across my desk. There are red, yellow, and orange leaves, a brown tree trunk, a blue sky, and green grass. I always notice colors— they’re my favorite thing in the whole world. I love getting out my art stuff and making gradients. Red to orange, yellow to green, blue to purple.
Smiling, I take the glue stick out of the packet and pop off the cap. The smell of glue always appeals to me. I take a long whiff until I see Piper looking at me strangely and Ruth giving me the evil eye. My cheeks flush with embarrassment, and I hunch over my paper. I begin rolling the glue stick over the back of the tree trunk, careful not to let my hair get in the sticky mixture. After a moment, I press the trunk against the paper, and the leaves go down with it.
“Nice work, Kenna! Your leaves are arranged very nicely,” Mr. Regardo’s voice says from beside me. I jerk slightly, having not realized that he was standing there.
“Oh! Thanks, Mr. Regardo,” I reply, and he hands me an ink pen.
“Better get to work on those thankfuls.” He smiles.
I return the smile and open the pen. I begin writing down, in my best handwriting, everything I’m thankful for.
Mom. Dad. Dog. Cat. House. Bed. Leo. Dolls. Money.
I put my pen down on top of the tenth leaf and then pull it up again. I have no idea what my last thankful is. I think and think, but nothing comes to mind. And then, I realize there is something I have forgotten. Or rather, someone.
I haven’t written Anna’s name yet.
A feeling of spitefulness washes over me, and my anger rises as I remember that she made me walk to school this morning—again. But if I don’t write it, Mom will be mad at me.
So I scribble “Anna” almost illegibly on the leaf.
“All right, class, pens up,” Mr. Regardo calls out. “Gather up your projects. If you haven’t finished it, put everything back in your packet and bring it to me. You can finish it next time. If you have finished, take it with you, but leave the glue sticks and ink pens up here on my desk.”
I pick up my paper and take the glue stick and pen to the front desk.
“Thank you, Kenna. May I?” he asks, holding out his hand. Nodding, I give him the paper, and he skims over it.
“If you don’t mind my asking, what’s this last word?” he inquires, pointing to the very last leaf.
“Um…” I say, trying not to flush red, “…it’s my sister’s name—Anna.” He my paper back, he gestures that I can go. Breathing a sigh of relief, I hoist my backpack up higher and walk out of the classroom.
The rest of the school day drags slowly, and I become tired of trudging around with this heavy backpack on my shoulders. If it’s even possible, the Thankful Tree craft seems to weigh down my backpack even more.
Finally, the last bell rings and I fly out of the school, as fast as I can. I meet Piper by the bus door.
“Hi, Kenna!” Piper says cheerfully.
“Hey, Piper,” I reply.
“Why weren’t you on the bus this morning?” she asks, starting up the bus steps when the doors open.
“Because of Anna,” I say, scowling. “She always makes me late for the bus because Mom has to drive her to the special needs school, and I have to wheel her to the car every morning.”
“Oh. Well, at least Anna’s always in a good mood. You probably wouldn’t be able to handle her if she always scowled and frowned and hissed at you,” Piper says, partly joking. We take our seats in the back of the bus, and she says, “Come on, Kenna. It can’t be that bad.”
“How would you know?” I retort, my anger rising. “You don’t know what it’s like to have a sister with cerebral palsy. I can’t have friends over to dinner because she drools and can’t feed herself. I can’t watch my favorite show because she always hogs the TV and cries if I even touch the remote. Mom always puts on her favorite radio station, and never mine. And I always have to take her to the car in the mornings, and I never make the bus in time, and all she’ll do is smile at me and laugh that stupid laugh of hers! I hate it!”
“Whoa,” Piper says, holding out her hands. “That’s far enough. You practically just said you hate her.” I turn to the window.
“Sometimes… I think I do.”
We sit in silence the rest of the way. The bus pulls up to my house first, and I stand up, slowly turning my head to glance at Piper.
“Bye, Kenna. See you Monday,” she says, not unkindly.
“See you then,” I reply. I walk down the aisle and off the bus, making my way up the driveway. I turn and see Piper waving at me, and I return the gesture.
* * *
I roll over and hit my alarm clock. Groaning, I push back my covers and sit up. My cat, Willow, stretches out her teeny gray paws and bats at my feet as I pull them out from beneath my blankets.
I smile and pick up the little kitty, holding her close. She purrs and laps at my hand.
“Sweet kitty,” I croon. I scratch the soft fur beneath her chin.
“Mew,” she replies, turning her head and licking my cheek. I set her down on my bed and stretch out, yawning. Walking over to my closet, I pull out my usual Saturday outfit: an orange tie-dye T-shirt with the words “Deal With It” written on the front, and a khaki-colored skirt.
“Come on, Willow,” I coo softly. “Time for breakfast.” She mews again and hops off of my bed, prancing after me with her tail high in the air.
I jog down the stairs and seat myself at the breakfast table. Willow wanders over to her bowl of kibble and sits down to eat.
“Morning, sweetheart!” Dad says, gulping down some coffee. He slips his glasses onto his nose and opens the paper.
“Morning, Dad,” I answer.
“Good morning, Kenna! Sleep well?” Mom says, cheerfully bustling into the kitchen with a pan of pancakes. She drops two on my plate and passes me the butter.
“Yeah, I guess,” I reply. Anna makes a loud noise in her throat that I suppose is her good morning to me as well. “Good morning to you too, Anna,” I reply, not really angry at her anymore. I butter up my pancakes and pour syrup across them.
“By the way, Piper’s mother called a bit earlier. She said she would pick you up before church tonight, so you and Piper could ride together,” Mom tells me, spreading peanut butter on her pancakes and drizzling honey on top.
“I think Anna is going to ride with you, too.”
“Huh!? Can’t she ride with you? Her wheelchair probably won’t fit in the trunk,” I say. I know Anna can understand me—she’s not mentally handicapped. She frowns and makes a noise at me.
“I’m sure it will fit, because Piper’s mother invited her.”
I refrain from rolling my eyes and continue picking at my pancakes.
* * *
Piper’s minivan pulls up to our house.
“Piper and her family are here, Mom!” I call.
“OK, Anna’s almost ready! Please go tell Mr. and Mrs. Noel that we’ll be out shortly,” Mom replies.
I head out the door, and Piper pulls open the van door.
“Hi!” she says brightly, grinning and patting the seat next to her. Her parents echo a hello.
“Hey! My mom is getting Anna ready. She’ll be out in a minute,” I tell her parents.
“That’s fine. Hop in, Kenna. I think Anna will ride in the back with Maya.” Maya is Piper’s little sister. She grins and waves at me. I wave back and say hello to her. She holds out a yellow duck and pinches it. It squeaks, and she cracks up.
After a few moments, Mom wheels Anna out of the house.
“Hi there, Anna!” Mrs. Noel says kindly, and Anna grins. She loves Mrs. Noel because she always gives Anna packs of peppermint gummies.
“Hayo!” Anna tries to say. Mrs. Noel laughs cheerfully.
“She’s learning well,” Mrs. Noel tells Mom.
“She is,” Mom beams proudly.
“Well, we’d better be off.” The van load waves goodbye to my mom.
* * *
I sit still in the long church service. Seeing as it is Thanksgiving, the preacher talks about being thankful.
“One of the most important things that we need to be thankful for is our family, whether you are a husband, wife, or a child. Be thankful for your parents, for your siblings if you have them.” At this, I sit up a little straighter and lean forward to look at Anna.
We have the same idea, because she leans forward and grins at me.
I sit back in my seat, feeling relieved. The one thing that Anna always does is forgive.
* * *
After church, I talk to Piper for a moment and then tell her I have something I need to do. I run outside and spot Anna by herself in the shade. She has a thin book in her hands. I walk to her side, and she looks up.
“Hi, Anna. What’re you reading?” I ask. She shows me the book. It’s the story of Job, with big print and colorful pictures. I think that Anna is a lot like Job. She hasn’t lost all of her family, but she has gone through a lot, like him, but she loves going to church and listening to the service.
She goes back to reading, and I wait a moment. Finally, I take a deep breath.
“Anna, can I talk to you?” I ask. Anna closes her book and turns her wheelchair to look at me.
I breathe in again, and I start talking.
“Anna… I am so sorry. I’ve been treating you really badly lately, and I just haven’t taken time to think about what I was doing. I’ve been so angry with you, and I’ve been rude and selfish. I haven’t put myself in your shoes and tried to think about how hard it is for you.” I take another deep breath, and I see Anna slowly nod for me to keep going.
“I’ve always thought about how hard it is for me to have friends over because of you. But I realize now that you’ve never had a friend over. You don’t get to see your friends often, either, and I know that must be really hard. So… I’m asking, Anna, if you will forgive me. I am so, so sorry for everything.”
Anna pauses. She stares down at her lap, then up at me again. Slowly, her mouth begins to open.
“K-Ken-na,” she says, uncertainly. My eyes brim with tears, and I clap my hand over my mouth.
She struggles again, and then her eyes brighten as she comes to the part that she knows well, the one she’s been practicing, solely so that she could speak the special words to me.
“I love you!”