Read an Excerpt
Silhouetted by the Blue
By Traci L. Jones
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2011 Traci L. Jones
All rights reserved.
It wasn't clear to Serena Shaw which woke her up — the burning smell or the persistent wail of the smoke alarm. What was clear was that neither was a good sign. Yanking back her covers, she rolled onto the floor and crawled to the door. She felt a little silly creeping on the floor like that, but her motto was "better safe than burnt to a crisp." Serena tentatively placed a hand on the door. It was stone cold. Getting to her feet, she pulled the door open. She saw no sign of smoke, but there was definitely a strong smell: burning bread. Serena clasped her hands over her ears to muffle the wail of the alarm and bounded into the hallway. In the dim light she saw that the door to her father's room was closed, while the door to her brother's room was wide open.
Oh, Henry, not again, she thought.
Serena stood outside her father's door for a moment, waiting for him to come bursting out.
Maybe he's in the shower, she reasoned, and has to dry off and pull on some pajama pants. It was a sensible excuse for the lack of response, but deep down Serena knew it wasn't the truth.
Serena ignored the lump in the pit of her stomach and leaped down the stairs two at a time to the kitchen. She would check on her father later. Right now there was stuff to be done and she was the one who was going to have to do it.
In the kitchen, Serena placed her hands on her hips and looked around. A step stool was pushed up to the kitchen counter. An empty bagel bag lay open by an abundance of crumbs and a large knife. Smoke was pouring from the toaster where the poorly cut bagel was jammed into one of the slots. The too-thick slice was preventing the toaster from popping up and the bagel was getting darker and darker. Henry, Henry, Henry, Serena thought. Shaking her head, she unplugged the toaster and extracted the blackened bagel with a butter knife. Then she opened the back door and began fanning the smoke out of the kitchen with her social studies folder which she had left lying on the kitchen table the night before. After a few minutes the wailing of the smoke alarm stopped.
"Come on out, Henry," Serena finally said. "It's okay. No harm, no foul, no permanent lung damage."
Henry's face appeared from under the table.
"Sorry, sissy," he said, crawling out slowly. He wrapped his skinny arms around Serena's waist and looked up at her.
"Don't call me sissy," Serena said irritably, completely unmoved by his big brown-eyed, puppy-dog look. "And what were you thinking? You know you aren't supposed to use a sharp knife. And you cut it all wrong."
"Sorry," Henry repeated again, tears in his eyes. "I was hungry and I wanted a bagel."
"Why didn't you just wait for me?" Serena asked. She pulled his arms off her and pointed to the kitchen table, where he obediently sat down. From the refrigerator Serena pulled out the milk jug. It was almost empty. She sighed. They needed to go to the supermarket.
"You were taking too long, and Daddy said to get it myself," Henry explained, two fat tears rolling down his cheeks.
"Okay, okay, don't cry, it's not a big deal," Serena said. She glanced at the kitchen clock — 7:35 a.m. "Oh, shoot, you don't have time for breakfast. Go get your shoes on."
"Daddy is supposed to walk me today," Henry whined. "He hasn't walked me for a whole week. I'm hungry. Can't I have a bagel?"
"You burned the last bagel, and Daddy's not going to walk you today. Come on! You'll be late."
Henry followed Serena out of the kitchen back upstairs. "You aren't even dressed. Why can't Daddy walk me? I'm gonna go ask him."
Serena pulled Henry away from their father's bedroom door. "I'll ask him. Just go get your shoes."
She waited until Henry reached his room before poking her head inside her father's door.
"Good morning, Dad," she said. "You getting up yet?"
"Good morning, sweetie," her father answered, without any energy in his voice. "Nah, I'm not feeling so great. I gotta rest. I gotta think." He rolled over to face the wall and pulled the covers up to his chin, curling into a ball.
Serena waited for a second, thinking that maybe, just maybe, he'd reconsider. When he didn't move she tried again.
"Daddy, Henry said you were supposed to take him to school today."
Nothing but silence came from the lump in the middle of his bed. Serena tried a different tack.
"Don't you have to finish those illustrations soon though?" she prodded, trying to use the same tone of voice her mother had used on her father. "For that elephant book? I thought you said it was due this week."
Her father shook his head slowly from side to side.
"Later, baby," he mumbled.
"But Henry —" Serena began again.
"Can you take him to school, please, Serena?"
"You feeling blue still, Daddy?" Serena whispered.
As an answer, her father rolled over again and pulled his pillow over his head.
"Okay, I'm guessing that's a yes then," Serena said softly.
Her father had always had cases of the blue from time to time. But her mother had always been around to deal with it — taking him to the doctor, making sure he got his medicine. And he always got better. It hadn't really had much of an impact on Serena's day-to-day life back then. But now that her mother was gone, Serena suddenly realized how serious the blue could really be.
"Hey, Dad, do you want me to get you a glass of water, so you can take your pill?" she said.
After a big sigh her father muttered, "I'm all out. Those pills make me sick to my stomach anyway. I'm not taking them anymore. Please. Just take Henry to school. Close the door on your way out."
Serena pulled the door shut and leaned up against it, willing the lump in her throat to dissolve. She missed her mother, too, a lot, but life just kept going on without her being alive. If Serena could force herself to keep moving, why couldn't her father? She was just a seventh grader. He was a grownup for God's sake. Clenching her fists, Serena pushed herself off the wall and shook those thoughts out of her head.
"I wish Mommy were here to walk me. Do you think her ghost had to stay in New Leans? Do they call it new 'cause they just built it?" Henry asked, coming out of his room.
"Mom is not a ghost in New Orleans. She's in heaven," Serena said, trying to stop the waves of annoyance that rushed over her. "And Daddy can't walk you because he's a little blue. Again." She tried to say all this in a kind voice, but she hated having this conversation with Henry every five minutes. When would he finally get it? Mom was gone. Dead. Had been for more than a year. Eighteen long, horrible months. It wasn't that hard a concept to get. Jeez.
"Oh, yeah, heaven. I forgot. Is it far? Can I go? She's been gone a long time, how come she left all of the sudden?" Henry asked, then burst out giggling. "You're silly, Daddy isn't blue, he's brown just like you. And I'm light brown just like Mommy is, except she's on a trip to heaven, right?"
Ignoring Henry's barrage of questions, Serena ducked into her room and grabbed a pair of jeans off the floor. She snatched a T-shirt out of her drawer and grabbed the nearest pair of tennis shoes. Henry was standing there watching her get dressed.
"Go get your stuff, Henry," Serena said, pushing him down the hallway to his room. She slipped into the bathroom and brushed her teeth, allowed herself a couple of tears, and then washed her face.
Henry reappeared in her room with his coat and his Spider-Man backpack, which he insisted on taking to school every day, even though Serena knew for a fact it contained nothing more than a bunch of his old drawings, some crayons, and maybe a broken pencil.
"Do you think that Spider-Man could fix the lean out for them?" asked Henry. "He's really strong. I bet he could just use a web to pull it straight and make it not lean."
It took Serena a minute to figure out what Henry was talking about, but she finally got it. "It's New Or leans, not New Leans," she said. She hoped that would satisfy Henry for a while. It was like he refused to accept the fact that their mom was never coming back from her business trip to New Orleans. He seemed to think that if he kept asking about her he might somehow get a different answer. Maybe it was just his way of dealing with things. Maybe they all had different ways of coping with her death. Serena had her singing. Henry had his questions, and the millions of pictures he drew. And her dad? Serena didn't know what he used to cope. Actually, she thought, he didn't seem to be coping at all.
"Okay, kiddo, let's break," Serena said. She grabbed a scrunchie and gathered up her braids into a ponytail and herded her little brother out of the door. On the days her father didn't walk him to school, Serena had to, which meant that she was always hurrying, especially if she was to get to school on time.
"Let me give Daddy a goodbye kiss first," Henry said. Serena rolled her eyes and followed him to their father's room.
Henry opened the door and bounded in. Her father had emerged from under his pillow, but hadn't moved much otherwise.
"Bye, Daddy!" Henry yelled.
Serena leaned against the doorjamb and watched as her little brother hopped onto the bed and gave her father a big kiss on his cheek.
Her father patted him absentmindedly on the arm, but said nothing. Serena turned away. The least he could do was pull himself out of his little funk long enough to give his son a freaking goodbye kiss. What would it take? Like, five seconds of effort?
Henry had too much energy bouncing around his body to pay attention to anyone else. He came skipping out of the bedroom, slamming the door shut behind him, and reached for Serena's hand. Together they walked out the front door.
"Serena, what time does my school start?" Henry asked, swinging her arm wildly.
"Stop that!" Serena snapped. She held her arm as still as she could. "It starts at eight. Just like it did yesterday, and last month, and the month before that."
"What time does your school start, Serena?"
Henry let go of her hand so he could grab a stick from the ground. "Is your school closer to our house or is mine?"
"Yours is a little closer, I guess," Serena answered.
Henry giggled as if that was the funniest joke ever.
"Ha!" he shouted, tossing the stick in the air in triumph. "I'm closer! I win!"
"It's not about winning, pinhead," Serena said. She ducked out of the way as the stick fell to the ground. "You are such a dimwit."
"No name-calling, or I'm telling," whined Henry. "I'm not a dimwit. You're a pumpkin face."
Serena swooped down and threw Henry over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes. He giggled, making his stomach bounce against her shoulder.
"You are a big ole bag of peanuts," she said, sliding Henry down lower. She turned her head and began blowing raspberries into her brother's warm neck. "A big old heavy sack of nuts."
Henry laughed, squirming around furiously. Serena hung on tightly until he plopped himself to the ground. The sudden weight off her shoulder was a relief, even though she missed the warmth of his body next to hers.
"You are a big ole bag of chocolate drops," he said, snatching her hand again.
"Chocolate drops?" Serena asked as they arrived at the elementary school. "I'm okay with being a chocolate drop. Okay, kid, go away, go learn something." She shooed him off into the schoolyard. "Hey, see if they're still serving breakfast, 'kay?"
Henry gave her a big hug and a soft kiss on the cheek.
"Bye, sissy, chocolate drop, pumpkin head girl," he said.
Henry gave her one last squeeze. "Love you." Then he ran off into the playground.
Serena watched him for a moment.
Yeah, I love you, too, pinhead, she thought to herself. Then she turned and headed toward her school.CHAPTER 2
Serena hurried to school more out of habit than out of any real desire to get there on time. Truth be told, she wouldn't much mind missing first-period math.
Just as Serena reached the crosswalk across from the school, the warning bell rang. She had five minutes to get her behind in her second-row, second-seat math chair. Her stomach growled. It would be just as easy to turn around and head a few blocks in the opposite direction to St. Mark's Bakery and Café and grab a bagel. Serena would bet the allowance that her father kept forgetting to give her that her best friends Nikka and Kat were there, ogling the local high school kids who were also skipping out on their first classes. Serena turned away from the light and looked longingly down the street in the direction of the coffeehouse.
Why bother going to class? she thought to herself. She had taken one step toward the coffeehouse when another thought leaped into her mind. Role assignments for the play came out today.
A shiver of excitement coursed through Serena's spine. There was nothing she wanted more than to get one of the lead roles in the school play. At last Friday's audition she'd changed the song she was going to sing at the last minute. She'd been planning to sing her mother's favorite song from Ragtime, "Our Children," but as she stood up there on the stage, just thinking about the lyrics made her eyes tear up. So instead she started singing a song from the play the school was putting on, The Wiz. It probably hadn't been a smart thing to do, but it had been the only song that popped into her head.
Serena punched the walk button until her finger hurt. If she did get a role in the play, she didn't want to blow her chances of keeping it by getting a bad grade in math. She was barely hanging on to a B- as it was. The light finally changed and Serena raced across the street, her backpack bumping against her leg as she ran. She reached her math class just as the final bell rang.
"Glad to see you could make it to class today, Miss Shaw," Mrs. Grayson said, shutting the door after Serena entered.
"What?" Serena protested, her voice all innocence and sweetness. "I've been in class every day this week!"
"It's Wednesday, Serena," Mrs. Grayson said. "Not that impressive a feat, I'd say."
Serena grinned. "Yeah, but it's a darn good start, right?"
Mrs. Grayson chuckled briefly before catching herself. "Sit down and get out your homework."
Serena sat down at her desk and made a flourish of pulling out her mostly completed homework. There were a few problems she hadn't finished, due to an important emergency phone call from Kat about her failing relationship with Charles. Besides, it wasn't like she would have been able to finish the homework anyway. Serena was terrible at math. Her mother had been the math whiz — the one who had always been around to help Serena with her homework. Her father was useless with math ... and with just about everything else, too, Serena thought bitterly. At least lately.
Besides, school didn't float Serena's boat. She didn't care about geometry or geography. Serena wanted to sing. She wanted to act. Knowing when the Civil War ended or how to solve a quadratic equation wouldn't get her into Juilliard. And ever since her mother had died she had even less of a reason to keep her grades up. Last report card, her father hadn't said a thing when a couple of her C's slipped to D's. If it weren't for the tryouts for the spring musical, she'd probably have a few F's. But if you were flunking out you couldn't be in the play, and then what would they show when they did a retrospective of your life during the Tony Awards?
When choir rolled around, Serena hurried to her locker. She could feel the excitement course up and down her spine like an electric eel. She knew that the cast list would be posted on the choir room door. She desperately wanted to be Dorothy, the lead, but the most coveted roles usually went to eighth graders — even though everyone knew that all the strongest singers were in her class.
Serena opened her locker and stowed her coat and backpack. One of the best things about choir was that all you needed was conveniently located right there in your body. No annoying books to drag around.
"Hey, Serena," said a voice behind her.
Serena sighed. "Hey, Candy," she said, turning with a smile. It was Candice Rudolph, otherwise known as Candy, and one of the best singers in the seventh grade, along with Serena.
It was entirely possible that Candy had gotten the lead. She could perform it as well as Serena could. That was the truth and Serena knew it, which proved that sometimes the truth not only hurts, but also bites the big one. Serena wished she could dislike Candy, just a little. It would make life a lot easier. Unfortunately, Candy was just like her name, sweet and likable. Plus, she was so freaking cute with those light brown eyes and that good hair.
"You ready to look?" Candy asked, hooking her arm around Serena's and pulling her down the hall. "I just know you got the lead! Your audition was off the chain!"
"Yeah, I guess," Serena answered back. Her electric eel turned into a stomach full of nervous butterflies. "I don't know though, I mean, we're only in seventh. And you were real good, too."
Excerpted from Silhouetted by the Blue by Traci L. Jones. Copyright © 2011 Traci L. Jones. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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