Phoebe looked at the knock-off Operation Game. She had to lift a couple of worn stuffed animals off of the box to see the whole thing, but she was careful to avoid putting the stuffies on the ground. No sense in making the people running the yard sale angry!
Yup, it looked almost exactly like the real thing, except that it wasn’t called “Operation” and it didn’t look like it had been store-bought. The cardboard looked like it belonged to a boot box, and when she rubbed her fingers on the lid, it felt like something laminated. She took the lid off all the way and her mouth dropped at the detailed mannequin inside.
“Wow,” she said.
The game board resembled the copyrighted one that she couldn’t afford unless she did a ton of chores, but it wasn’t made of plastic. It looked like it was made out of carved wood. And where the fun little pieces should be — the water bucket for the knee, the broken heart, all those things — there were miniature, realistic organs. She put out a finger to poke the worm-like intestines. They were so shiny, she almost expected them to feel squishy, like gummy candies, but piece was hard. So were the stomach, the lungs, and the brains.
“It’s all hand-made,” the kindly old lady told her over her shoulder. Phoebe jumped, nearly dropping the box. “Oh, be careful there, dear. That’s a one-of-a-kind, that is.”
“It’s really cool. Way better than the one in the toy department.” Phoebe reluctantly put the lid back on and set the box on the table. “Probably really expensive, too.”
“That depends. Why do you want it?” The old lady paused to accept a handful of change from another visitor to the yard sale, tucking it into her apron pocket. “I know the one you’re talking about, it’s very popular, and really not that much money.”
“My Uncle Joe has one of those, and he’s really good at it,” Phoebe said. “Like, an expert. I thought maybe if I got my own, I could get really good at it, too. Then he wouldn’t beat me all the time, and call me a bad loser afterward. Even though I’m not one.”
“Ah, I see.” The old woman smiled. “How much do you have on you?”
Phoebe took out her change purse and carefully counted the coins inside. “Four dollars and fifteen cents.”
“Oh, dear, I really couldn’t let it go for so little.” The old lady crossed her hands in front of her, shaking her head. “It was a gift from my late husband. He knew how much I liked games, but rest his soul, I can’t bear to play them without him.”
Just then, Phoebe was hit with a sudden inspiration. “Maybe, if you keep it, I could come to your house and play with it!”
“No, I’m trying to declutter so I can move into a smaller place, sweetie.” The old woman paused, biting her lip. “But I could use some help with the packing. I’ll tell you what: If you can come and help me with boxing up some of my things, after school this week, you can earn the game for yourself. Sound good?”
“Yes please!” Phoebe was practically jumping up and down with excitement.
“You go on and ask your mother. I’ll hold the game for you until you have an answer.”
* * *
The old lady, whose name turned out to be Mrs. Rekcstir (which Phoebe found hard to pronounce, so she just called her Mrs. R.), welcomed Phoebe every day after school with a glass of milk and a plate of cookies, to “fuel her up,” she said. It was almost fun to help her pack up her figurines and books. The old lady — Mrs. R. — would tell her little stories about them as they wrapped each piece in bubble paper and tucked it safely into a box. And after a while, Phoebe would tell her stories, too, about that rotten Uncle Joe who never let her borrow his game, but who always made her mother let him take her to her swim lessons that fall. She didn’t like that he wouldn’t let her change out of her bathing suit. Every time, she had to sit in his crummy old car all cold and wet until they got back to his place, because he said he had to be quick to let his dog out, but then he’d make up for it by playing the game. Except he never let her win. Mrs. R. was very understanding, and said she wished she could take Phoebe to swimming instead.
But the best moment came at the end of the week, when Phoebe was ceremoniously handed her game.
“You’ve definitely earned this, dear,” Mrs. R. smiled at her. “Just be careful when you play with it. Some of the bits and pieces tend to fall off, but you can glue them back on again if you have to.”
Phoebe wanted to race home, but it was hard to run with the large game box in her arms, so she settled for an awkward fast-walk instead. And it was working, until she got to the curb. She didn’t see the step-down and tumbled forward, dropping everything onto the pavement and scattered dead leaves.
“Oh, no!” she cried out. “No, I haven’t even gotten to play with you yet!”
“What’s that you’ve got there, Phoebe?”
She froze at the sound of her Uncle Joe’s voice, calling to her down the sidewalk.
“Do you need a hand?”
“No, I’m okay,” she told him. She quickly grabbed up whatever she could see, not caring if gravel and twigs ended up in the box with the game pieces. “I’m late for supper, I have to go.”
“I’ll come along with you,” he said, jogging a little to catch up. “Your mom’s doing me a favour tonight and giving me a trim.”
Phoebe looked sideways at his jiggling belly, heaving after his little run, and the drops of sweat on his thick forehead. “Can’t you go to a barber?”
“Oh, now, don’t be rude.” He wagged a finger at her, keeping pace with her now. “I’m trying to be frugal. Do you know what that means?”
Phoebe knew, but she didn’t want to say anything else to him. So she let him give her a lecture about what being frugal meant, all the way home.
* * *
Because Phoebe had been late, her mother had held dinner, so Uncle Joe sat with them and had supper, too. It was a long time to sit, and Phoebe didn’t feel very hungry with her fat uncle sitting across from her, watching her play with her food. Finally, though, everyone was done, and she was able to run up to her room away from him.
“Hey! You still have to help me with the dishes,” her mother called up the stairs to her.
“Oh, let her have some time to herself,” she heard her uncle say. “I’m tired of my hair on my neck. Ready to practice your barber skills?”
Phoebe closed the door so she wouldn’t have to listen to boring grown-up talk and stupid grown-up jokes, and settled herself on her bed to take a good long look at her new game.
It was a mess. She almost cried when she saw that some of the the polished flat fingernails were missing, and when it had fallen, some of the doll’s hair had sheared off on the ground. It wasn’t perfect anymore. Still, after she wiped the pieces with a bit of tissue , it looked nearly as good as the first day she had seen it. So life-like. The last piece of the game, the heart, even fit into a tiny indentation behind the lungs. Phoebe had never seen anything so . . . perfect.
“Phoebe, your uncle is leaving now,” Her mother said through the closed door. “I want you to come down and say good-bye.”
“I don’t want to,” Phoebe told her loudly. “He’s sweaty and he always hugs for too long.”
“That’s just because he’s out of shape, and he hugs you for a long time because he loves you,” her mother said. “Come down right now. You’re lucky to have such a good uncle, you know.”
Phoebe sighed and got off her bed.
When she went down the stairs, she noticed that her mother had swept the cut hair into a pile, but it hadn’t been picked up yet. There were big gross nail shavings in there, too. She made a face at them.
“Your mom and I were playing hair salon,” Uncle Joe laughed. He swatted her mother on the rear, and she jumped, giggling. “She gives a pretty fancy pedicure, but I didn’t let her use any of your nail polish, don’t you worry.”
“I wasn’t.” Phoebe said, sullenly. She put her face up for a sweaty kiss and let him pick her up and swing her around, his fat belly and boobs squashed against her chest and belly. “‘Bye, Uncle Joe.”
“Don’t forget, I’m picking you up for swimming tomorrow,” he rumbled. “I hear you’ve got a brand new two-piece swimsuit, too! I can’t wait to see it!”
He put her back down, and Phoebe moved away, around the other side of the table, careful to avoid stepping in the pile of hair and toenails.
And then she got an idea.
She could use Uncle Joe’s gross hair and toenail clippings for her game! That way, she reasoned, she wouldn’t have to cut any of her doll’s hair, or use yarn, which would just look stupid. So when her mother’s back was turned, she quickly grabbed up a handful of the stuff and raced back up to her room, taking the stairs two steps at a time.
She wasn’t sure if the craft glue on her little desk would stick on the carved wood, but it did. She worried at first that the clumps and pieces of hair would look silly, but after she was done, the figure almost looked like a miniature copy of Uncle Joe. Well, a copy if you could see inside his body . . but it was funny, even the outline of the game board looked chubbier. It might have been a trick of the light after she’d cut some of his nail shavings to fit the little hands of the board; the real nails looked fresh and white, almost like they’d been painted.
She washed her hands while she waited for the glue to dry, and then picked up the tweezers that had come with the game. This was the part she had most looked forward to trying, because instead of there being a buzzer if the tweezers touched the sides, fishing line had been threaded throughout the game board and attached to a bell on the side. So it wouldn’t be scary if she missed.
It was getting close to bedtime, so Phoebe knew she wouldn’t have long before her mother would make her have a bath and brush her teeth. She might be able to pull one organ out, maybe, just for practice.
Phoebe decided to try the heart. The lungs were in place, but she could see how the heart was mainly underneath the left one, so if she plucked the other one away, it would be almost like picking a berry off a bush.
Carefully, slowly, she slid the tweezers in between the lungs, lifting the right one slowly and gradually until she could put the points around the valves of the little wooden heart. It was so funny how it didn’t even look like the proper shape, all round and lumpy and veiny, but Phoebe knew this was good training for the other game. The little white plastic heart would be easy-peasy if she could master this . . .
The bell rang. Phoebe sighed in giddy frustration; under the rules of the game, she had to try again.
Downstairs, the telephone rang. There was a flurry of footsteps, and the door banging open and shut a few times. But nobody came to bother Phoebe, so she paid it no mind.
The sun slowly went down outside her window as she patiently poked and prodded around the silly lungs, trying to get the best hold on the heart she could. Finally, just as the streetlights were coming on, she felt the end of the tweezer hook itself into one of the holes on the side of the heart.
“Yes!” she whispered to herself, triumphantly — and slowly — pulling the heart free. She did it so neatly, the lungs opened like a door and fell smoothly back into place.
She held it up to the light, marveling at its perfection. The phone rang again, and this time,, a set of soft footsteps came up the stairs.
“Phoebe? It’s Mrs. R., dear,” came a familiar voice. “Your mother had to rush out earlier, but she asked me to look after you until she could come home. She’s on the phone for youynow.”
Phoebe got off the bed at once, the tiny heart clutched in her hand. She opened the door wide. “What’s the matter? What happened?”
Mrs. R. handed her the phone. “Talk to your mother.”
Phoebe listened to her mother tell her through sniffles and sobs that her Uncle Joe had felt sick when he was on his way home. He’d fallen down on the sidewalk and someone passing by had had to call an ambulance. “He had a heart attack, sweetheart,” her mother cried. “Your Uncle Joe is . . . gone.”
Phoebe knew she should feel sad, but she couldn’t help smiling. When she pressed “end” on the phone, she saw that Mrs. R. had settled herself onto the bed next to her game.
“Oh, my,” Mrs. R. said, clucking. “The hair is coming off again. This won’t do at all.”
“That’s okay,” Phoebe told her. “I heard Mr. Wilson is shaving his head in front of the whole school next week ’cause he lost a bet. He’s a real meanie, too.”
“Tell me all about him, dear.”