The wind caught the front door and between it and Dick, it accidentally got slammed, then his school shoes echoed over the marble of the foyer as he tore into the house. The kitchen was warm and bright, scented with the smell of gingerbread, grass and sunshine, because the windows were open to let in the June breeze.
"Good afternoon, Master Dick." Alfred dusted his hands on his apron. "Just in time. And please remember to try not to run in the house.
"Sorry, Alfred." Dick slung his schoolbooks on the counter and climbed up onto a barstool.
Alfred poured him a glass of milk and put both it and a small plate loaded with a slab of gingerbread in front of him, next to a fork and napkin, already laid out and waiting for his after-school snack.
"How was the day, sir?"
"Good, Alfred." Dick ignored the fork and picked up the cake with his fingers.
Alfred gave him 'the look' but it was his not quite serious one. "I trust you're feeling ready for the fifth-grade these days?"
"More ready for the summer," Dick said around a mouthful of gingerbread.
Footsteps in the hall made them both look up. "You're home early today, sir."
Bruce was framed in the kitchen doorway, surveying the day's mail, retrieved from the basket at the front door. "Not really home home Alfred. Board meeting this evening—no, he looked up, smiling—wasn't on my calendar. Last minute thing. There's a little problem Lucius and I have to attend to." He loosened his tie, tugging at the knot. "Came home to change clothes and review some stat sheets. Got nine reports to read in..." he checked his watch. "One and a half hours."
"I'll start the coffee, sir."
"How was school, Dick? What, one week left?"
Bruce nodded, sorting through the mail in his hand.
The phone jangled and Alfred picked it up on the first ring. "Wayne residence. I see. One moment please." He covered the receiver. "It's for you, sir. Master Dick's school."
Bruce shot a look to Dick, then back to Alfred. "Alright, I'll take it in my office."
Dick felt his face turn hot. "Alfred, I—"
Alfred shook his head and made the "shh" motion while he waited for Bruce to pick up. Putting the receiver back on the hook, he started the coffee. "Is there something wrong, Master Dick? No, finish chewing, please."
The gingerbread in Dick's mouth suddenly felt thick and tasteless. He couldn't get it down.
Dick nodded and took a gulp, wiping his mouth, and for once Alfred didn't correct him for using his sleeve. But he felt guilty for it and followed up with his napkin. And then… he didn't know exactly what to say.
"Stop playing with your napkin and look at the person addressing you, please."
Dick forced himself to look Alfred in the eye. "I just…" He took a deep breath. "I just—I did something that—" he reached for his milk and drank the rest. "I mean, I did something—well, I didn't do something I should have—" He twisted his fingers in his napkin. "I didn't do it right."
"I see." Alfred opened the refrigerator. "A wise man once said there are sins—mistakes of omission," he poured Dick another glass, "and those of commission. Men older and wiser than your ten years commit each every day."
"Yeah, I just—"
"I've always found that in this as in many things: honesty is the best policy."
The hallway was cold and dark after the warmth of the kitchen. Dick watched his feet slowly walk the suddenly vast expanse of old carpet—came from 'the orient' before his parents were even born, Alfred had said once when he hadn't been careful about a glass of juice. Through the open doorway ahead he could see old books and old furniture—Bruce was behind his big desk, just hanging up the phone.
He was frowning. "Dick, I'm glad you've—I need to talk to you."
Dick slowly crossed the distance between the door and the desk, crossed the acre of oriental carpet (It's been here since before you were born, Master Dick—or your parents, or your parents' parents. Even Bruce's parents? Alfred had nodded, working on the grape juice stain. Even Bruce's parents. Even my parents.) "Yes, sir."
"That was—the school called—I mean, you know that, and—"
Bruce looked down at the spread of papers in front of him, then got up and rounded the desk.
"There was a project we did—"
"So your teacher was saying." He leaned back on the desk, arms crossed. "Dick, sometimes people mean well but they aren't… they don't—"
"I know you think it's a silly class."
"What? No, it's not silly."
Dick crammed his hands in his pockets. "Well, it's easy. Not like geometry or English."
"That report you did on North American birds was very good, Dick."
"Yeah, well… my woodshop project is not—"
"Is that the problem? If that's the problem—then… that's not a problem at all, Dick. But I thought it might be—"
"Well, I tried to follow the directions, but it—they—wouldn't fit, and then—" Dick's hands were suddenly out of his pockets, thumb and forefinger showing a space between them. "See, I couldn't fit and then—" he held his two index fingers about six inches apart, trying to make Bruce understand. "The space for all the letters was only big enough for three letters but I didn't—"
Bruce looked bewildered.
Dick rolled his shoulders and tried again. "See, Coach Mitchell—"
"Your shop teacher…"
"Yeah. He always says, 'measure twice, cut once.'"
Bruce nodded like he got it. But Dick could tell he didn't. "And he says he's been saying that since the beginning of the year."
"So we ought to know by now, Bruce. No do-overs."
"I see." Bruce obviously didn't. "So you didn't—you didn't turn it in because… you didn't finish it?"
"Oh, I finished it."
"But you didn't turn it in." Bruce pinched the bridge of his nose for a minute. "Was there any other part of the—of the activity that was in any way made you feel… uncomfortable, Dick? Because—"
"Well, it's different from the other boys' projects—"
"I'm sorry, Dick. I'm so sorry." Bruce's arms uncrossed and his hands clutched empty air before clamping on the edge of the desk behind him. "They shouldn't have—it's not—" He looked about as sad as he'd ever seen him. "It's not easy, Dick." Bruce blinked, looking past Dick, where there were only the dark empty corners of the big, old room. "It's not easy, but it does get better." He scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Losing—as you—as we have lost…"
"Yeah, Bruce. It's just—"
"And ignorant, but well-meaning people—they do mean well, Dick, they just…"
"But you don't even shine your own shoes, right?"
"I'm still giving it to you, but Coach said wait until June fifteenth. For everybody! I just didn't plan right and I had to finish mine at home."
Bruce's mouth opened like he was going to say something, but he closed it again.
"I finished it, though. It's just not as nice as the other guys'. Because, you know..." His hands were out of his pockets, illustrating with his fingers. "Five letters, not three." He was talking really fast now, trying to explain. "So I did the first three but then I saw it wasn't going to work. And Coach Mitchell said we couldn't have more wood—no do-overs—and Bruce, I know I shouldn't have, but—" Dick stopped, hands in mid-air. He dug them into his pockets again "I know it was wrong, Bruce." He toed the carpet, traced a symbol woven in from long ago. "I let my pride get in the w—Randy Lewis told me it looked dumb and so I had to try to—see, Bruce?"
Bruce shook his head.
Dick held up his hand in the 'stop' motion he used on safety patrol, when they helped the little kids cross the street in front of the school. "Wait, okay?"
Dick tore out of the room and for once nobody even told him not to run in the house. He took the stairs two at a time, got to his room, and grabbed the thing out of its hiding place in his closet. Then he was back in the study. "See?"
Bruce hadn't moved, and he still stood frozen.
"See what I mean?"
"Oh, Dick." Very, very slowly, Bruce reached for the wooden box. "That's… that's outstanding, Dick." His voice was just a little hoarse and he held the thing like it was—like Alfred held one of those fancy vases in the foyer when he dusted it—like it could break. But it couldn't. Dick had to grin. It might be messed up on top, where the name went, but he'd made a good shoeshine box. It was sturdy.
"Not going to break, Bruce." He took it from Bruce and hefted it. "See? But this is the part where I messed up." Handing it back, he motioned to the little shape of a shoe on the lid—where the letters went. He lifted the lid and pulled out the plans, four folded pages—the only thing in there. "It was only for three letters." He smoothed the blueprint and showed Bruce where it showed the stencils you needed for the project. The only ones it came with were 'D' and 'A'—you were supposed to use the same 'D' at the beginning and at the end.
"I cut these out first," he said, pointing to top again, to the 'B' and the 'R'. "And that's—" Bruce was really looking—well, the gift was early, but at least Bruce was really surprised!
"You made your own stencils…"
"Yeah. So did Ben Hatton. He wanted to say 'POP' though. And at least that was still three letters." Dick put the plans back inside the box.
"Dick, I'm sorry. You do know I can't—I won't ever… I can't replace your parents."
"I know, Bruce. Just like nobody can replace yours." He shrugged. "But the plans were for three letters—3 x 2. We cut the letters out before we made the box—that was the first step we did. So then when I tried to fit them on, it looked dumb, 'cause it was going to say: 'B-R-U'. And Coach said—"
"Right. So I almost did it, but it just looked dumb, Bruce. So—" Dick pointed to the last three letters, a much smaller 'U-C-E'. "So I had to bring it home to make the letters out of something else."
"I see," Bruce said softly, taking back the box as Dick handed it to him. "That's very inventive of you, Dick.
"But I didn't follow the rules, Bruce. That's why I couldn't turn it in."
"Yeah. So it's right for you but not right for Coach Mitchell."
"Dick, it's the nicest gift anyone's ever—"
"Aw, Bruce. It's just a box—a box you don't even need. And the last three letters are too small—"
"What did you carve them from?"
Bruce didn't know it but he was carefully tracing the letters again.
"Oh, I used my cigar box Br—"
"Not your treasure box, you can't—"
"That's kid stuff, Bruce. I'm too old for a treasure box."
"You weren't too old when you brought it with you. All your treasures from—"
Dick knew what he meant, but Bruce just trailed of, like saying it out loud would make Dick sad, or maybe Bruce was feeling sad—his eyes sure looked sad. "Didn't get rid of my treas—not the stuff in there—I wouldn't, Bruce. Just used the wood for this." He shrugged. "I needed it."
"Dick, you mustn't ever forget your parents."
"I'm not, Bruce. How could I? It's not like you have, either."
Bruce nodded, staring down at the box in his hands. "It's the best gift I've ever—"
Bruce was crazy. He had all this stuff, this house full of stuff. He sure didn't need a wooden box with crooked letters. "You don't even shine your own shoes, Bruce."
"Maybe it's time I started, Dick." His eyes crinkled at the corners. "That sounds like a challenge."
"Nah. You've got enough to do. Maybe you could just use it for other stuff. I didn't put the shoe polish in there yet anyway."
"Dick, it's the best gift I've ever been given."