Out of Order
By Betty Hicks
Holtzbrinck Publishers Copyright © 2005 Betty Hicks
All rights reserved.
"Your name is a flower for dead people."
What kind of mean person would say that?
Somebody in my family. That's who.
Mom – Frank
I'm the one second from the bottom.
Before Mom married Frank, I was on top, the oldest. Then, right after the church organist hit the last note of "Here Comes the Bride," I dropped.
Eric, my new stepbrother, is at the top but doesn't want to be. He reads too much, says strange things like, "Lily, you mixed a metaphor," and writes secret stuff in a worn-out brown leather book. Normal teenage boys do not keep diaries. Do they?
V, my stepsister, is brilliant, popular, and seriously beautiful. She's the one who says my name is a flower for dead people.
"No, it's not," I tell her.
"Yes, it is." V looks me straight in the eye. Even when she's being flat-out ugly, you notice her movie-star face. That, and her chocolate hair, cut super short — like a boy's.
"Morticians put them on the tops of caskets." She hisses all her s's at me. Exactly like a snake.
I've never been to a funeral, so I wouldn't know. "Put what on the tops of caskets?"
"Lilies," she says, slithering into her favorite pose — the one with her shoulders thrown back and her chin so far up in the air it looks like somebody snagged it with a fishhook.
"So?" I ask, even though I have always wanted a more rock-solid name — something with more grit, like Roxie or Jo. "What's so bad about that? Don't undertakers —"
"Morticians," she corrects me.
The last time I checked, morticians and undertakers were the same thing. Aren't they? Now that I'm not the oldest anymore, I don't feel as sure about everything.
"Okay," I say. "Morticians. Don't they use roses and lots of other flowers, too?"
"Yeah," she says, "but mostly it's lilies."
Her sneaky grin tells me that something mean is on its way, and I know I should shut up, but I can't.
"Because they're pretty?" I ask.
"No. Because they're massively odorific."
"Odorific?" I repeat, wondering if that's really a word. But V is the smart one, so she should know.
"It's the only flower that reeks enough to cover the stink," says V.
Even I know how stupid I sound — nothing but an echo. And, even though I suddenly get what's probably coming next, I can't stop myself. "What stink?"
Her green eyes light up. "The dead-person stink, dummy. Like I said, Lilll-eeeeee," she drawls my name practically into the next county, "your name is a flower for dead people."
I want to hit her.
Instead, I speed-scan my brain for the perfect words to stab her back — a hopeless plan. The search engine in my head is way too pitiful, and the best I can come up with is, "V stands for vomit!" which I shout, even though I know good and well that V stands for Vanessa.
She stares at me. A look of disappointment or pity — who knows which? Then she laughs. "That is so third grade."
I'm in sixth grade, so clearly, this is not a compliment.
Five minutes pass before, finally, I have a killer comeback, but she's long gone.
I wish I'd said, "Well, you should know all about funerals."
Journal Entry #167
My writing sucks.
"The scared kid ran and ran, until his lungs lost the battle, all the air squeezed out of them like an accordion."
I wrote that for an English assignment. Mr. Jackman said it sucked. Actually, he said it was a mixed metaphor, which is teacher code for sucks. He said it jumbled up music (the accordion) with war (the battle), and you can't do that.
Leo Tolstoy wrote books with hundreds of pages. I bet he mixed a metaphor somewhere.
War and Peace alone had 1,136 pages. That is one heavy-duty topic.
What could I write?
Acne and Zits? They aren't even opposites.
What is the opposite of zit?
Journal Entry #168
Tolstoy wrote this famous first line:
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Three years ago, I wouldn't have had a clue what that meant, but I know now, because I'm living it.
The Stone family — Me, Mom, Dad, Ben, and V, living in Chicago — we were happy enough, just like any other regular family. Lame jokes. Lake vacations. Dumb homemade Mother's Day cards.
Ben died, and all that stuff moved out of reach.
We were pitiful. Not like homeless families with no food. Not like those movie-star families, either — the ones who give Porsches and piles of money to their kids and everybody ends up on drugs.
No. Our pain wasn't hunger. Or the lost feeling you get when the grown-ups in charge are stupid.
At first, it was disbelief. While leukemia was busy trying to kill Ben, we just never thought it would.
Ben could beat anything.
He was that super-fast antelope you see on the Discovery Channel — the one who always gets away from the lion.
But he didn't.
We felt numb, empty. If I were a writer, I could describe it better. Four people living together. Each of us alone.
So — Mom split. For L.A. — Land of Amnesia.
Dad moved to North Carolina. Land of the Evans family — Mary Beth, Lily, and Parker.
Midwest meets South
They're my new stepfamily now — part one of a group package that includes a bunch of aunts, cousins, and an old man named Papa Bud who is a greeter at the Spicewood Cafeteria. He's OK, but embarrasses V so bad she gets hives.
Adjusting to a new family is tough, says Dad. Help your sister. Be a leader.
Who's going to help me?
So — now my family is bigger, but bummed in a whole new way.
Thus, the Tolstoy:
"Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
I've named it off-track-trauma.
Like we all got derailed riding an iron monster across the frozen Siberian permafrost. One second warm inside the passenger car. Next second tossed in a snow bank, no clue which way is up.
Get a load of that, Mr. Jackman! A perfect metaphor from the superlative pen prowess of Eric.
"Off-track" is about trains.
"Derailed" is about trains
"Iron monster" is a train.
Yes! I can write.
The second I got home from babysitting at the DeVaughans', I went straight to Dad's workshop — the one he built to keep all his tools and projects in. Helping him while he makes things has been my favorite thing to do forever.
The backyards in our neighborhood are lush grass carpets of weedless fescue — carefully cut by lawn services. Some even have Japanese water gardens with funky statues, but our house has a workshop and a vegetable garden in back. Nothing tacky — the outside of Dad's workshop is wood, but it's painted to match the slate-colored stucco on our house. And Dad and I keep the garden weeded so well you can see perfectly straight strips of dark, clear dirt between the rows of okra, squash, and tomatoes.
"Dad!" I called out, throwing open the workshop door. The whirr of his electric sander buzzed the air around my ears with a familiar vibration. The raw smell of sawdust tickled my nose.
"Hi, Princess!" His face lit up. Dad has a little-kid look about him. Thick, messy brown hair that makes him cute, and round wire-rimmed glasses that make him look smart.
"What're you building?" I shouted over the buzz.
You wouldn't think a guy who owns a chain of successful fresh-food franchises would be a master craftsman, but he is. He can build anything.
Then I saw Lily. Lounging in the Adirondack chair that Dad made for me to flop into while he hammers and saws. When I'm not handing him nails or helping him sand, I love to chill out and just talk to him.
"A new dining table for the kitchen," he answered, switching off his sander and shoving his dark hair back with his wrist, leaving a sawdust smear across his forehead. "Eric claims ours is too crowded."
"That is a fact," I agreed, waiting for Lily to clear out of my chair.
"Homework?" Dad asked.
I shot Lily a that's-my-chair look. "Some algebra."
"Guess what?" Dad beamed as if he'd just won a new ten-inch, sliding, compound miter saw. "Lily wants to grow something in the garden."
"Yep," chirped Lily. "Sunflowers."
"In our garden?" I was stunned.
"Right," said Dad. "How about you show her how to plant them?"
Lily gazed up, expectant. From my chair. She had on a sloppy T-shirt, so big it practically swallowed her whole.
"But Dad, it's a vegetable garden."
His face tilted down, examining the sanded tabletop as he stroked his fingertips across it. Slowly he raised his eyes and said, "As far as I know, Princess, there are no laws prohibiting the growth of flowers in a vegetable garden."
Only this time when he said "Princess," it was not remotely the way he'd said it sixty seconds ago. That "Princess" had been Hi, I'm happy to see you! This "Princess" was Man, I'm ashamed to even know you.
Okay. Damage control. In my most helpful voice, I cooed, "Sure, Lily. That'll be cool. But sunflowers are so big." I pictured them towering over my Boston lettuce. Or blocking the sun for my tomato project. "How about pansies?" She seemed like the pansy type, but to my credit, I didn't say it.
"Thanks!" Lily exclaimed enthusiastically — from my chair. Then she added, "I'd still like to try sunflowers, though."
Lily Evans — little Miss Sure-of-Herself. Where had she come from all of a sudden? It reminded me of how bossy she'd been back when Eric and I first moved into her territory almost a year ago — when she was the oldest and had the answer to everything.
Dad smiled encouragingly at her, as though she'd just said she'd like to become president.
"Whatever," I muttered, closing the door quietly on my way out.
I thought about checking my tomatoes. I've planted fifty tomatoes in tiny plastic pots. When they're big enough, I'm going to sell them in the neighborhood and buy soccer balls with the money I make.
The family I babysit for, the DeVaughans, have a son who's stationed in Iraq because of the war. He says the kids there love soccer, but need balls. They call them footballs.
I didn't want to look at my plants now, though. One — I was too annoyed at Lily. And two — noisy, nasty bugs called cicadas were buzzing everywhere. I hated stepping on the dead ones. They crunch. So every day I rake them off the gravel path, and every day new ones show up.
I trudged up the back steps, hoping to find Eric so I could tell him the good news about a new table for the kitchen.
Which Eric would I find?
Three years ago, he was Mr. Goof-off. Always joking. Then Ben died — of leukemia — and it was like Eric disappeared into a cave. We all did.
We moved from Chicago all the way to Charlotte for distance therapy. Except Mom. She moved all the way to L.A.
She needed glitz. Dad needed topsoil.
It's been three whole years now, and I miss our brother, Ben, as much as anybody, but I got back to normal. Why can't Eric?
He's totally turned into Mr. Quiet Guy. No friends. Always reading. Not 'zines or Sports Illustrated. No. He reads Tolstoy and Dostoevsky — two dead Russian guys who wrote books longer than anyone with a life will ever have time to read. What I wonder is — when did they find time to write fifty million pages?
And why does Eric like them? It's as if he got an overnight flash: Be old. And boring.
I swung the back door open. Would Mary Beth, the invisible stepmother, be in the kitchen?
It seemed to me she was always either cooking or gone.
I can cook.
I've told her that. Eric and Dad love the spaghetti sauce I used to make with turkey instead of ground beef. But apparently, she thinks I'm Parker's age — nine. And useless.
I'd like to fix her hair. She wears it in two styles: in-a-hurry uncombed, and in-a-hurry twisted up and clamped in the back.
I glanced around. No Mary Beth. Instead, Bubbles — Parker and Lily's cat — stretched sleek and powerful in her usual spot on the kitchen window seat. She nailed me with a steely-eyed stare. How did she ever get tagged with a name like Bubbles? I wondered. Gray with black stripes, she looks like a small tiger that's been dyed the wrong color.
I reached for a can of Fancy Feast tuna and pulled up the tab that opens the lid. A hiss of air cabled fishy smells across the room to Bubbles, who raised her royal head and sniffed. As I spooned kitty chow into her blue ceramic bowl, I heard hoots of laughter bursting from the den.
Eric Stone. My brother. Laughing.
It sounded so great I got goose bumps.
"Eric!" I flew through the kitchen and into the den so fast I almost booted Snowman into a chair leg. Eric's little white mutt is round and chubby, but he had spread himself so flat on the floor, he could've passed for roadkill.
Eric sprawled on the floor beside Parker, whom he's renamed Mud Boy.
Now, that's a name that fits.
Parker is a total mess — leaf pieces and a portion of a stick stuck in his matted hair, scabs everywhere, and bare feet that, I swear, have never been washed.
Eric and Parker were punching each other and giggling like a couple of five-year-olds. A dozen Star Wars action figures covered the floor, and SpongeBob SquarePants blared too loud on our new, flat-screen TV.
My fifteen-year-old Tolstoy-reading brother was watching a kiddy show with my nine-year-old stepbrother ... and laughing.
"What're you guys watching?" I asked expectantly.
"Oh. Hi, V." Eric threw a quick glance in my direction. "You wouldn't like it."
A weird, pink, amoeba-looking blob was accusing SpongeBob of giving all the other ocean bottom-dwellers a bad name. Some slinky spineless creature belched a bunch of bubbles and SpongeBob cursed, "Oh, tartar sauce!"
Parker laughed and shoved Eric on the arm. Eric laughed so hard he actually snorted.
"That's funny?" I asked.
"Yeah," they chuckled in unison.
"No way!" I declared with total confidence, throwing my shoulders back and lifting my chin.
Eric waved his hand idly, dismissing me like a gnat.
* * *
When I came out of my room an hour later, my algebra was finished, but my feelings still hurt. Lily was prancing down the hall toward me, beaming like the sunflower she couldn't wait to plant.
I told her that her name was a flower for dead people.
"My name," Parker said to his mom, "is Mud Boy."
"Fine," said Mom, pushing her hair back from her face. "Pick up all your action figures and take them to your room — Mud Boy."
"Aw, Mud Boy."
"You're no fun."
"You, on the other hand, are a blast," said Mom, kissing him on the top of the head. "Now, get your stuff out of the den."
"It's not hurting anything," said Parker.
"Wanna bet?" Parker's stepfather sauntered into the room wearing a Wake Forest sweatshirt sprinkled in sawdust. Parker thought he looked exactly like Harry Potter — but older. He even wore round glasses.
"Yesterday I sat down to watch the news and got stabbed in the butt by a two-inch light saber," said his stepfather, absentmindedly brushing dust off his sleeve.
"You said butt!" shouted Parker. "You're going to get it! Isn't he, Mom?"
"Frank, honey. Please try to use grown-up vocabulary in front of the children."
"Oh, right. Sorry. Parker —"
"Mud Boy," Parker corrected.
"Mud Boy," said his stepfather, "your needle-nosed light saber almost punctured the sensitive flesh on my derriere yesterday."
"What's a derriere?" asked Parker.
"A butt," Frank answered.
"I give up," groaned Mom.
"Does that mean I don't have to pick up my toys?" asked Parker.
Mom rolled her eyes, which was her way of saying, Duh — of course you do.
"Eric has to help," Parker argued. "He played with them, too."
"I doubt that," said Mom and Frank both at the same time.
Eric slouched by on his way down the hall.
"Tell them!" shouted Parker.
"Tell them what?" mumbled Eric from beyond the doorway.
"That you played with my stuff."
Eric sauntered back into the room. He leaned his tall, thin body against the door frame, closed the fat paperback he'd been reading, and examined the clutter on the floor. Tugging nervously on the bottom of his black T-shirt, he stretched it over his long, baggy gym shorts.
"Yeah. Okay," he said matter-of-factly.
Frank and Mom traded looks. Mom's showed surprise. Frank's hid something else. Irritation?
"What?" Parker blurted, eyeing them both angrily. "You thought I was a liar?"
Frank turned to Parker with concern all over his dust-streaked face. Even his glasses were sprinkled with tiny particles. "No, Parker. Of course n —"
"Mud Boy," sighed Parker, wondering how clearly Frank could actually see him through the grit.
"Of course we don't think you're a liar," Frank continued. "We're just surprised that —"
"That I was playing Star Wars?" said Eric, tossing his book on a chair and bending over to scoop up a tiny Luke Skywalker and three hooded jawas.
"Well ... yeah," said Frank, removing his glasses and cleaning them with a wad of his sweatshirt.
"Come on, Mud Boy," muttered Eric. "Let's get this mess out of here."
"See!" Parker exclaimed with satisfaction. "Eric knows my name."
Parker thought Eric was about as cool as it gets. Only, for some reason, he was a lot more fun when nobody else was around. In fact, this whole new stepfamily thing wasn't bad, except for some of the new rules. Like not recording over a TV show without having to ask a million people if it's theirs. Or taking turns talking at the dinner table. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Out of Order by Betty Hicks. Copyright © 2005 Betty Hicks. Excerpted by permission of Holtzbrinck Publishers.
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