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Randy Pollak
The Perfects

A beautiful work of fiction and a short nonfiction text explore what life is like for military families.    

By Sarah McCarry
From the February 2019 Issue
Lexile: 1050L (article)
Other Key Skills: figurative language, text structure, setting, inference, character, key ideas and details,

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He was in Mom’s painting studio, leaning against the Perfects’ Wall and looking at the news on his phone. Suicide bombing. IED. Insurgents.

That’s when Lindy started screaming.

“Max! Help! Max!”

Max didn’t think. He just ran. Out the doorway. Past the old wooden door that Mom had taken off its hinges because they squealed like something dying. Through the hallway, jumping over the place where the floorboards split and you could see all the way through to the kitchen below. Down the stairs, automatically skipping the broken ones (fifth from the top, seventh from the top, sixth from the bottom). To where his little sister was standing outside the bathroom, ankle-deep in water, screaming her head off.

“It wasn’t my fault! The sink just fell over! I was just brushing my teeth and—”

Max looked past Lindy into the bathroom.  The old-fashioned porcelain sink—the one Mom said had “character”—was lying on the floor, broken into pieces. In the wall where the sink had stood was a gaping hole. And water was everywhere. Water pooling on the floor. Water streaming into the hallway. A whole Niagara Falls of water spraying out of the wall. And a Pacific Ocean of tears pouring out of his sister.

That settles it, Max thought. Today is an extremely bad day.

The house hadn’t looked cursed online. It had looked—well, Max wouldn’t have said it looked perfect, but it looked exactly like what Mom wanted: a big old Victorian house on a hill overlooking the ocean. It had room for Mom’s painting studio and a garage where Dad could have a workshop when he finished his final deployment and came home for good. There was a room for Lindy with built-in bookshelves where she could keep her dinosaur models and dinosaur books and dinosaur fossils, and a room for Max with a view of the storm-colored sea.

“It’s a little bit of a fixer-upper,” Mom had said, scrolling through the pictures with shining eyes. “But that’s perfect. We can work on it as a family.”

Max hadn’t said what he was thinking—that they hadn’t done anything as a family for so long he didn’t know if they would remember how. Dad had been in the military since way before Max was born. He was used to living without Dad for months at a time when Dad was deployed overseas. He was used to moving to a new house in a new town in a new state without seeing it first, and moving again a year later. He was used to not making friends because it was easier to be alone than it was to say goodbye.

He just wasn’t used to staying.

“Cool,” he’d said instead. Mom had looked up at him and laughed.

“That’s it? ‘Cool’?” she’d mimicked, teasing him. “Help, my son is turning into a teenager.” But he had just smiled, because Mom looked genuinely excited about the fixer-upper and he hadn’t wanted to ruin the moment.

Late that same night, Max came into the kitchen for a glass of water. Mom was still in front of her laptop, but her cheerful expression was gone. She looked exhausted. Max was sure she had been crying. He cleared his throat and she sat up straight, like she’d heard a gunshot, and slammed her laptop shut.

“Baby, what are you doing up?” Her voice was full of forced cheer.

“Just thirsty,” he said. “Mom, you should go to bed.”

“I know, I know,” she said, that fake note Max hated still in her voice. “I was looking at pictures of our house again.”

Max walked past her, took a glass out of the cabinet, and filled it with water. He knew she was lying. He’d seen the screen. She couldn’t sleep for the same reason he couldn’t. She’d been looking at the same news story he had, the story from where Dad was stationed. He’d recognized the headline. Multiple Casualties in Roadside Terrorist Attack.

“’Night, Mom,” he said.

“Goodnight, Max,” she said.

When he turned back to look at her, the computer was already open again. The blue light of the screen turned her face into a ghost’s.    

By the time they realized “fixer-upper” meant “absolute disaster,” it was too late. They’d already packed their things, gotten in the car, and driven west and north.

Lindy spent all of Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Oregon reciting dinosaur facts.

Dinosaur comes from the Greek words deinos, meaning ‘terrible,’ and sauros, meaning ‘lizard.’

“Most dinosaurs were herbivores.

“The stegosaurus could be 30 feet long and weigh 6,000 pounds. It had a brain the size of a golden retriever’s.”

When they got to Washington, the rain started, and then even Lindy got quiet. Mom clutched the wheel as water came down in sheets around them. It was raining even harder when they drove past the city limits sign for their new town. By the time they pulled up to the new house, the storm was so bad that Max thought the car might float away. 

“It rains a lot in Washington,” Mom said. She didn’t sound excited anymore.

“That’s an understatement,” Max said under his breath.

They stared out the rain-blurred car windows at the place that was supposed to be home. It was only four in the afternoon, but the sky was almost black. The house didn’t look like something that would unite them as a family. It looked like something out of a horror movie.

“Is that a hole in the roof?” Max asked quietly.

“I’m sure it’s nothing.” But Mom didn’t look like it was nothing.

“Why does the front porch look like that?” Lindy asked.

“It just needs a few repairs, sweetie,” Mom said. “Nothing we can’t fix.”

A flash of lightning split the sky open. Thunder boomed. And in that second of illumination, Max realized that the garage that was supposed to become Dad’s workshop was missing a wall.

The movers brought their stuff a few days later. Most of it was still in boxes even now; Mom wanted to figure out how many rooms had leaks in the ceiling before they unpacked. Lindy said her room had ghosts in the walls, but Max was pretty sure the ghosts were squirrels. Or rats. Mom set up her painting easel in the room that was supposed to be her studio. The blank canvas sat there untouched.

They had been in the house for a couple of days when they started calling the wall in Mom’s studio the Perfects’ Wall. It was the one part of the house that looked normal. The plaster was smooth and finished. The ceiling overhead didn’t ooze rainwater. The window looked out over the ocean. Mom put up a framed picture of their whole family, from when Lindy was a toddler and Dad was between deployments, on the wall.

The Perfects’ Wall looked like it had been dropped into the house from a TV show about a happy family that never scanned the news for stories about war and lived in a house that wasn’t disintegrating around them. The Perfects weren’t scared. They didn’t move every year. They ate dinner together as a family. They didn’t get into fights at school. They weren’t so obsessed with dinosaurs that they had checked out of reality completely. They had birthday parties—and friends to invite to them.

The Perfects’ Wall was where they sat when they video-chatted with Dad each week. “We want your father to want to come home to this house,” Mom joked, but something in her eyes made Max wonder if she wasn’t joking at all.

So when they talked to Dad, they made sure smiles were stuck on their faces like masks. Mom washed and blow-dried her hair. Max put on a button-down shirt. Lindy even put down her dinosaur books. The important thing was that Dad believed he was coming home to the Perfects. What happened when Dad realized the truth was something Max tried not to think about.

Now Max stared at the tidal wave of water pouring out of the bathroom, his heart sinking in his chest like one of Lindy’s fossils. Mom was due home from work in half an hour—just in time for their weekly video chat with Dad. Who do you even call when your little sister broke the bathroom? 911? A plumber?

“I’m sorry,” Lindy sobbed next to him. “I didn’t mean to, I swear!”

“It’s OK,” Max said, his mind racing. “It’s not your fault. But we have to make this water stop.”

“Spinosaurus was well adapted to an aquatic environment,” his sister said in a tiny voice. “It was actually the only dinosaur that spent most of its time swimming.” 

“Lindy, I’m trying to think,” Max snapped. The look on his sister’s face only made him feel worse.

“Maybe the neighbors can help,” Max said, giving her a quick hug. His sneakers were already soaked. The water was rising. Who even knew so much water could come out of one little pipe?

He ran to the front porch, the one Mom had loved so much online. The street was empty. The clouds were low and ominous.

Great, Max thought. It’s going to rain. A few houses down, a small figure in a baseball hat pushed a lawn mower.

“Stay there!” he shouted to Lindy, who’d followed him outside, as he ran toward the figure.

The person turned out to be a girl about his age in a grass-stained T-shirt. She turned off the lawn mower as he sprinted up to her.

“Hi, new kid,” she said. “I didn’t realize you were my neighbor.”

“You’re in my homeroom,” Max said. He wasn’t used to paying attention to the kids around him at school. There usually wasn’t any point. “I’m Max.”

“I know,” she said. “We don’t get new kids midyear very often.”

Max struggled for a moment, trying to remember her name. “Jenny, right? Um, do you know anything about plumbing?”

Jenny shrugged. “Sure,” she said. “My dad’s a handyman. What do you need?”

“I need you to come with me,” Max said. “Right now.”

“OK,” she said calmly, wiping her hands on her jeans.

She followed him down the street to where Lindy sat crying on the porch. When Jenny saw the water gushing out the front door and down the porch stairs, her eyes widened.

“Oh, wow,” she said.

“I don’t know how to make it stop,” Max said desperately.

“You need to find the water main and shut it off,” she said.

“The water what?” Max asked. But Jenny was already scuffing around in the mangy front lawn, which was more weeds than grass.

“It’ll be underground,” she called. “Beneath a cover of some kind. Like, this big.” She held out her hands and made a rectangle. “Help me find it before you flood the whole neighborhood.”

Lindy ran down the stairs and poked through the tall, clumpy weeds on the other side of the house. Max looked around in front of the porch.

“I found it! I found it!” Lindy shrieked in excitement. Max and Jenny ran over to where Lindy was scrabbling through the weeds.

“That’s it,” Jenny said. “Take off the cover. There should be a big lever in there. You pull that, and it shuts off the water to the whole house.”

The lever was right where Jenny said it would be, covered in rust. Max pulled and pulled, but it didn’t budge. Jenny reached in and pulled with him. With an angry squeal, it finally lifted. The flood of water pouring down the steps slowed.

“Come on. I’ll help you clean up,” Jenny said. 

The three of them squelched up the stairs, down the hall, and into the bathroom. Water was everywhere, but at least it had stopped spraying out of the wall.

“Wow, this place is a dump,” Jenny said, looking around. She sounded almost impressed. Anger flashed through Max. Then it faded.

“Yeah,” he said. “It kind of is.”

“Well, it’s nothing you can’t fix,” Jenny said, “except maybe that sink. My dad can help out. I’m pretty good at that kind of thing too. Where do you keep the mop?”

Just then, Max heard his mom’s footsteps coming up the porch stairs. The front door opened.

“Mom’s going to kill me,” Lindy wailed.

“Why would she do that?” his mom yelled from the front hall. “What is all this water? Why are you—” And then she was behind them, standing in the doorway, a look of horror on her face.

“Oh, no,” she said.

Max watched the emotions move across his mom’s face like storm clouds, but he couldn’t read her expression. Was she furious? Upset? Heartbroken?

And then, to his surprise, she started to laugh. Bright, clear laughter. The kind he hadn’t heard since before Dad left. Before he knew it, he was laughing too. And then Jenny. And then, finally, Lindy.

Mom laughed so hard she had to lean against the wall. “I can’t believe this house!” she yelled. “It’s a nightmare! Who’s your friend, Max?”

Friend, he thought. For the first time in a long time, he thought the word might turn out to be true.

“This is Jenny,” Max said. “She helped me shut off the water.”

“Thanks for that, Jenny,” Mom said. “Want to stay for dinner?”

“Sure,” Jenny said. “Let me just call my dad.”

“Which reminds me,” Mom said. “Kids, it’s time to call your father.”

Max turned toward the door, ready to head upstairs to the Perfects’ Wall. He wasn’t sure how they were going to explain why Lindy was sopping wet. But they’d think of something.

“You know what? Don’t bother going up there,” Mom said. “I want to show your poor father this sink. Let’s call him from here.”

“Are you sure?” Max asked.

“I’m sure,” she said.  And this time, the smile on her face was the realest one he’d ever seen. 

My Life As a Military Kid

courtesy of Azusa Nash

When Marie Nash started seventh grade last August, she was starting at her seventh school. Marie was born in Virginia but spent her early school years in Japan and Hawaii. In fourth grade, she moved back to Virginia. Then last spring, she and her mom and younger brother and sister moved yet again—this time to Florida.

The reason Marie has moved so many times is that her dad, Chief Petty Officer Joshua Nash, is in the United States Navy.

There are about 1.1 million kids like Marie who have at least one parent on active duty in the U.S. military, meaning that parent works for the military full-time.

What is it like to grow up as a so-called military kid? As Marie will tell you, it can be exciting—but also tough. 

Saying Goodbye

Most service members are rotated to a new location every two or three years. With each new assignment, their families usually pick up and move along with them. For kids, this can provide a wonderful opportunity to experience many different cultures at a young age. Marie, for example, has lived in big cities and small towns as well as on a military base. She learned to speak Japanese before she learned English. (Her parents met while her dad was stationed in Japan.) 

But moving so often can also be painful—and isolating. With every move, kids have to say goodbye to friends and teachers and neighbors, to their favorite pizza spot and their bedroom and their local park. Then they have to start all over again in a new place, making new friends, learning how to get by in a new school, finding their new favorite pizza spot. And unless they live on or near a military base, it’s unlikely they’ll meet other kids who understand what they’re going through. 

Over the decades, the number of Americans serving in the military has fallen. Today fewer than 0.5 percent of Americans serve in the military. Compare this with the 12 percent of Americans who served during World War II. Back then, entire towns were affected by war: Men went off to fight, women took on new jobs, whole schools of children shared the experience of missing and worrying about their loved ones. 

Now, with so few American families directly impacted by military efforts, the children of service members can have a hard time finding other kids who relate to their experiences. 

“Friends whose parents aren’t in the military don’t always understand why I have to move so much, which can be frustrating,” says Marie. “Or they think how cool it is to get to travel—but they don’t realize how hard that can be too.”

 

Coming Home    

If you’re a military kid, moving often isn’t the only challenge. When a parent is deployed, there may be long periods of time when you don’t hear from them. (Deployment means being sent on an assignment—maybe to another country or out at sea.) You may not know exactly where your parent is—often this information is kept secret—and you may worry about their safety.

Then there is the simple fact that your military parent can’t always be there for important occasions, like birthdays and graduations. Indeed, Marie says the hardest part of being a military kid is saying goodbye to her dad when she knows he’s going to be gone for a while. (Chief Nash’s deployments are typically six to nine months; some deployments can be longer.)

Fortunately, technology allows Marie and her dad to keep in touch. Marie emails, calls, and video chats with her dad to fill him in on school and her other activities. And when he does come home, she always makes the most of their time together. Marie and her dad share a love of roller coasters and practical jokes—but mostly, they just love being together.

“I am so proud of my dad,” says Marie. “I am proud of his service and proud to be patriotic—flying a flag at our house, driving around with my dad’s ‘chief’ stickers on our car. And as hard as it is to say goodbye when he’s heading overseas, it’s amazing when he comes home.” 

This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue.

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Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

1. PREPARING TO READ (3 minutes)

2. READING AND DISCUSSING: “Into the Storm” (35 minutes)

3. READING THE NONFICTION TEXT

4. SKILL BUILDING

Differentiated Writing Prompts
For Struggling Readers

Explain one way that Max’s and Marie’s lives are similar and one way they are different. Support your answer with details from “The Perfects” and “My Life As a Military Kid.”

For Advanced Readers

Compare how the life of a military kid is described in the fiction with how it is described in the nonfiction. Then explain how reading both real and fictional accounts can help you gain a better understanding of what it’s like to grow up with a parent in the military.

CUSTOMIZED PERFORMANCE TASKS
For Researchers

Choose a war or time period from the past and research what it was like to have a parent in the military at that time. Create a presentation comparing what it was like for military kids during the time or war you chose and now.

For Fiction Writers

Create the next scene of “The Perfects”: the video chat that Mom, Max, and Lindy have with Dad in the flooded bathroom. Your scene may be in the form of a video, play script, or short story.

Literature Connection: Novels featuring military-connected characters    

100 Days and 99 Nights 
by Alan Madison    

Heart of a Shepherd 
by Rosanne Parry

Shooting the Moon
by Frances O’Roarke Dowell