You’ve been by her side for six months, but she hasn’t noticed you. Still, you slip into her mother’s sixth-floor apartment and keep her company while she eats her kid sister’s sugary cereal in the dark kitchen. And you’re there with her as she gets books from her locker in Hallway C. Sometimes her gaze wanders to the picture of you taped below the vents. You’re on her mind in the seconds before she slams the door shut.
You pacify yourself with the thought that all this is for a reason. That one day she’ll sense your presence. Feel you watching over her. That she’ll see you. Finally.
At this very moment, Holly sits on a bench beneath a sea of windows in the Downtown Seattle library—so close you could almost reach out and touch her, smell the sweet scent of her hair. You’ve been spending moments of this otherwise meandering afternoon watching her turn pages of the Toni Morrison book she’s reading for school. It’s almost like really being there. Almost like being together.
Underneath the chatter of two girls near the copy machine and the whirring hum of the escalator, you can hear the beating of her heart. It’s as loud as if you were sitting on Holly’s bed, holding her in your arms like you used to. Absently, she tucks a stray strand of her light brown bangs behind an ear and turns another page.
You wish your sense of touch was still active, so that you could run your fingers through her soft hair. If only. The closeness is maddening. You’re so full of the desire to be seen, you must be freaking glowing. I’m here. You try to reach her with mental tricks, with all your powers of concentration, with all your love distilled into a single thought. See me.
Holly raises her head, and for an instant, just a nanosecond, your heart swells with hope. She glances around as if someone had called her name, but then the moment passes and she slips back into her page turning. You’re alone, again.
It’s bluish late afternoon outside as the spring rain begins to pound against the wall of windows. I’m here, you whisper into her ear again—even if she’s not listening. I’m still here.
“Holly, I brought home pizza,” Mom called from the living room.
I closed the door behind me, grateful to be home out of the downpour. The bus ride had seemed longer that night, the damp passengers smelling like wet hair and wool, the warmth of a Northwest spring not helping matters at all.
I abandoned my backpack full of books beneath the hallway table. As I hung my jacket on the rack, a pink raincoat printed with dancing kitties fell to the floor. Typical of this place—there were too many coats and not enough pegs. I jammed the slicker back on the rack and followed the smell of dinner.
My family was sitting on the worn brown couch, eating from paper plates. Some tired sitcom was on, the laugh track blaring as the stupid dad character tripped over a bucket of paint.
“I was going to make spaghetti tonight,” I said.
“Honey, take a night off. Enjoy the pizza.” Mom gave me a tired smile as she abandoned a piece of doughy crust on her plate. She was wearing her uniform for the evening shift at the grocery store: a green polo shirt and khaki slacks. Her hair hung in a perfect ponytail, the kind my wavy hair never made.
“It’s my favorite—pepperoni,” chimed in my sister, Lena. She had red sauce smeared around her lips and a string of cheese draped on the front of her tee, which for her was pretty neat eating.
“’Kay. Pizza’s great, thanks,” I said, plopping down onto the couch.
Mom sank back into the cushions as I took a slice from the greasy box and put it on a napkin. “So, how are you?” she asked. “Everything go all right this afternoon?”
“Fine,” I mumbled, biting into the pizza. The cheese was slightly cold and chewy, but it still tasted pretty good.
“Hmm.” Her lips pressed together, and I could tell she was thinking hard.
I set down my pizza and reached for a cola from the six-pack on the coffee table. “I think I’m probably done with them. It’s not—”
“What does the counselor say?”
Right, the counselor—Dr. Martinson, or something like that. I could hardly remember the woman’s name, since for over a month now I’d been going to the library on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school, instead of the community center. “She doesn’t really say anything, Mom.” I cracked the cola open and took a big swig.
“Well, counselors in those kinds of groups are more about listening. They’re there to encourage you to talk about your grief, to let you get it all out.”
Mom’s eyes were fixed on mine. “What are you doing, quitting the group?”
I didn’t want to tell her the truth, so I just ignored her and chewed my slice.
“That’s a conversation for another day, I guess.” Mom set her plate of crusts on the coffee table, and clicked mute on the TV remote.
Lena emitted a nine-year-old’s growl. “Hey! I was watching that.”
“I know, honey. I want to discuss something with you two.”
Discuss was one of my mom’s favorite words, but it really didn’t mean “discuss.” We didn’t discuss much of anything in this family. When Mom decided something, it happened.
“I really want to watch my show. It’s getting to the good part,” Lena whined.
“This will only take a moment,” Mom said, patting my sister’s dark hair. “And this affects Holiday more than you.”
Holiday. It was never good news when Mom used my whole name. I’d gone by Holly since I was in second grade and realized that holiday wasn’t a normal name, it was a day off.
“Mom, I told you I don’t want to talk about the group.”
“This is not about that.” She turned toward me, her eyes serious. “Your Uncle Frank called me today. He’s really worried about Grandpa Aldo. It’s kind of sudden, but Frank and I think that, well, maybe Grandpa could come live with us for a while.”
Lena smiled widely. “He always gives me butterscotch candies.”
“What do you think?” Mom was focused on me, waiting for my reaction.
But I was running through the scenario in my head. Lena and I were going to have to cram into one room if Grandpa Aldo moved in. Though it had three bedrooms, our apartment was on the small side: tiny living room, kitchen, one bath. It was going to feel smaller.
“Holiday, he’s alone in that apartment he moved to after Grandma died, and he’s starting to need more help. He can’t move down to Tacoma with Uncle Frank, because there’s not enough room. And Grandpa’s insurance isn’t enough to pay for in-home care, and I can’t . . .” Mom’s voice got really quiet. “I can’t put my father in a nursing home. We couldn’t afford it, anyway.”
I knew it was true that we didn’t have the money, because I helped Mom write out the bills and balance her checkbook each month. We were barely making it as it was.
“I don’t get it,” Lena said, chewing thoughtfully on a stray piece of pepperoni. “Is he sick?”
“Yes, honey. He’s starting to forget things. He can’t live alone anymore. It’s too dangerous.”
“Is he gonna get better?” asked Lena.
“No, baby. They don’t think so.”
“I’m sorry.” I put my arm around my mom. She seemed small, hunched there on the couch. Her lips were quivering like she was on the verge of losing it.
“Don’t cry, Mom.” Lena patted Mom on the knee and then turned back toward the silent sitcom.
Mom sniffed loudly, trying to pull it all together. “Geez, that was a downer. Sorry, girls.” She sat up straighter on the couch and dabbed her eyes with a napkin. “I’d be counting on you,” she said, turning to me. “With the hours I’m working, you’d be home with Lena and Grandpa a lot.”
I shrugged. It wasn’t like I could say no.
“I know it’s been hard for you lately, after Rob,” Mom said. “I wouldn’t ask you to help with this if I had another choice.”
“Well, I’m sure we’ll make it work.” I put on a smile, for my mom’s sake.
“I hoped that’s what you’d say.” She stood up from the couch, brushing crumbs from her lap onto the rug, which needed to be vacuumed anyway. “I’ve got to get going, kiddos. Lena, you be good.”
My sister barely looked away from the muted TV, but she grunted in the affirmative. Mom brushed kisses across both our foreheads and then took off for work.
The so-called discussion was over, but I finished it in my head. Sure, Mom—I’ll take it on. I’ll take care of Aldo. I’ll take care of Lena and you. Everything will be just fine.
Jason Markham couldn’t help noticing her. Holly, with shiny, light brown hair and the brightest blue eyes he’d ever seen. Rob’s Holly. He saw her across the chem lab from him every morning during second period. Noticed her eating lunch with her friend Marisa every day. Sometimes saw her catching the city bus after school was out, a faraway expression on her face. Several times, he’d meant to say something, had actually walked up to talk to her and then chickened out or had sensed her turning away as he approached. This was different from just talking to some random girl. What he wanted to say, what he had to say, was something hard. Something that had been tumbling around in his mind for months.
Now here she was, sitting on a metal bench at the park with an old guy in a gray cap and a little girl, who was moving the handles of her beat-up scooter, making the tassels swirl in the light breeze. Holly had her nose in a book, and the sun was making her squint. He wondered why she hadn’t brought shades with her on such a sunny Saturday.
His buddy Mark Gentry elbowed him in the side. “Don’t blame you for staring, bro. She’s still hot even if she—”
“Give the girl a break,” Jason said, half under his breath. As they passed the bench, Holly raised her head. He saw a glimmer of recognition in her eyes, but it wasn’t the right time to stop and talk. Not with Mark there and her with what seemed to be her family. He couldn’t deny what Mark had pointed out, though. In the spring sunlight, Holly was as pretty as ever. Those blue eyes were piercing, like they could see right through him. And they probably did.
“Dude, you okay?” Mark gave a little laugh and elbowed him again.
Holly looked away, and suddenly Jason wanted to make sure she knew Mark wasn’t laughing at her. But the damage was already done. She was frowning now, staring down at the book in her hands.
“Yeah, I’m cool,” Jason mumbled.
A few steps later, when he glanced back over his shoulder, Holly was still reading. The old guy stared off at the water in the distance, and the little girl rocked the scooter back and forth on the pavement, making a scritch-scratch sound of rocks imbedded in the cheap plastic wheels. They were all doing their own thing.
Mark shoved Jason in the shoulder, knocking him off the path. “C’mon, man.”
Later, shooting hoops on the basketball court at the end of the park, he couldn’t get the image of Holly to leave his mind. He knew he owed her something more. They all did.
We made it home from the park slowly—with Lena insisting on riding her scooter and Grandpa Aldo inching along and murmuring about the birds singing. The park had been the best I could do for the biggest part of the day—even though it hadn’t been the greatest outing. At this point, I was just glad we were home. Before she’d left for work at the dealership, Mom had promised she would try to find someone to cover her shift at the supermarket that night, but I wasn’t holding my breath.
As we entered the lobby of the Hillwood Apartments, Grandpa Aldo put his hand on my arm. “This is the wrong place,” he said, his voice full of panic.
“What?” I said, a little startled, since it was the longest sentence my grandpa had said to me since he’d arrived. When Uncle Frank had helped move him in last night, Grandpa had been pretty quiet. He’d sat in the easy chair watching us carry in the boxes of his things and place his clothes and shoes in my former closet. It must have been weird for him, suddenly finding himself in a whole new environment.
“The wrong place,” he repeated. Uncle Frank had told me Grandpa would say random stuff sometimes, but this was the first weirdness I’d experienced.
“No, Grandpa. You live here now with us. Remember?”
A confused smile crinkled the corners of his mouth. “This place? It’s a dump.”
“Yeah,” I said, smiling back. “Thanks.”
He hesitated at the open doors of the elevator, seeming unsure if he should go in.
“This is the way up, Grandpa.” I patted him on the arm.
“Oh. All right.”
We all climbed aboard. Standing atop her scooter, Lena stabbed at the button marked six. It took a moment to light up since, like everything in the building, the elevator was about ready to fall apart.
Finally the doors closed, but they opened back up quickly and Mrs. Anderson stepped onto the elevator, carrying two grocery bags. “Sorry, girls, this contraption takes forever to come back down,” she said with an exasperated sigh.
“Can I push your button?” asked Lena.
Lena punched the number two and the door closed.
As we lurched upward, my grandpa reached out for the grocery bags. “Please, let me help,” he said in a soft voice.
Mrs. Anderson smiled politely. “Oh, no, thank you, I’m fine.”
“It’s okay, Grandpa,” said Lena. “She’s got it.”
He lowered his outstretched hands.
“So, girls—this is your grandfather?” asked Mrs. Anderson.
“Yep. He’s living with us,” said Lena.
“Hello, I’m Bitsy Anderson from 219.” Smiling, she held out her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Aldo stared at her for a moment and then reached out to shake. “Aldo Santucci,” he said, his voice a low rumble.
The elevator stopped at the second floor. Mrs. Anderson stepped off, but when she turned just before the doors closed, I caught a glimpse of worry in her eyes. I glanced over at Grandpa Aldo, who was staring at the lighted buttons of the panel. Everything’s going to be fine, I told myself.
Upstairs, Mom was bustling around the kitchen, still dressed in her car dealership work clothes—office casual, she called it—a straight brown skirt and a white blouse with shell buttons. As much as she hated her job at the grocery store, the dealership was twice as bad. Answering the phone for the parts and service department all day made her cranky with us when she got home. Maybe it was being forced to be nice to people she couldn’t see. Maybe it was the endless ringing of the incoming lines. Whatever it was, it made for a crappy transition between that and the night job.
“Good, you’re back,” she said, lining up a bunch of medications on the counter. “I realized we need to go over this again. There are a lot of pills.”
“I wrote it all down,” I said. “I know what to do when. I’m going to load those daily pill dispensers after dinner.”
Grandpa stood in the doorway of the kitchen, a hand on the jamb to steady himself.
“Come on in, Grandpa,” I said. “I’ll get you some water.”
Mom gave him a smile and turned back to me. “On my lunch break I called over and set up the senior center for Monday. They have a special group for people like Grandpa,” she said. “They’ll send a van to pick him up just before you get Lena on the bus. They can only keep him until three, so you’ll have to come right home from school to meet him on weekdays.”
“Why are you telling just me, Mom?” I gestured toward Grandpa Aldo, who was still standing in the doorway. Everything I’d read online at the library said that we had to keep talking to him, even if it seemed like he wasn’t hearing or understanding. And so far, he was doing pretty okay. Well, except for being quiet and forgetting our building a few minutes ago.
“I’m sorry, you’re right.” She walked over to Grandpa and took his hand. “Papa, I have it all set up. Weekdays you’ll go to the center and do some activities and get a hot lunch.”
“Sounds good,” he said. “I’ll go lie down now.” He turned and shuffled down the hallway, past Lena, who was balancing on her scooter on the hallway carpet, pretending to ride.
“Thanks, honey.” Mom reached out and hugged me tightly. She smelled like her floral perfume and the slightest hint of something industrial from the dealership. “This is a big change for all of us.”
“Hey, babe,” she said, releasing me and going over to hug Lena. “So, was it a good day at the park?”
“There were boys there staring at Holly,” said Lena. “They looked at her like she was an alien.”
I rolled my eyes. “Whatever.”
Mom frowned. “Well, I was mostly asking about Grandpa. Holly?”
“He seems fine.”
That seemed to satisfy her, and for a moment, the concern fell away from her face. “Okay,” she said, peering inside the fridge. “Do we have any leftover pizza?”
“I was gonna make that spaghetti. Are you staying for dinner?”
“Yes, I found someone to take my shift at the store tonight.”
Mom gave me a hard look. “I told you I was going to try.”
Yeah, but trying and doing are two different things, I wanted to say. Instead I went to the sink and loaded the stack of plates and cups into the dishwasher and then rinsed my hands.
“Lena, put away your scooter, please,” Mom said.
Whistling, my sister dutifully rolled her toy to our room down the hall. Mom took a seat at the kitchen table and sifted through a stack of mail that was likely all bills.
I could feel tension in the air, so I just started on the spaghetti. Cooking always relaxed me, gave me something to do that didn’t involve talking or thinking about anything more than the task in front of me. I got out some frozen ground beef and pork sausage, which I stuck in the microwave to defrost.
“Sorry, honey. You want me to do something?” Mom asked, looking up from the mail.
“Chop?” I handed her a cutting board, a knife, and a big yellow onion.
While Mom started on that, I minced garlic and diced bell peppers over by the stove. When the oil in my pot was hot, I tossed in mom’s onions and my veggies and let them start to cook. A few minutes later, when the microwave dinged, I took the meat out, put it in a big bowl, and mixed it with bread crumbs, eggs, and herbs and garlic for meatballs. I formed the little balls in my hands and laid them on a sheet pan one by one.
Mom brought the cutting boards to the sink. “When did you get to be such a good cook?”
“Years of practice.” I washed the boards and then my hands. The vegetables were all breaking down, so I crushed dried oregano and rosemary in my hand to release the flavors and added them to the pot. Instantly the aroma perfumed the air. “Can you get the tomatoes, Mom?”
“Sure.” She handed me two opened cans and I dumped them in, crushing the tomatoes with the back of my spoon.
“Something smells like tomato gravy.” Grandpa Aldo appeared in the doorway of the kitchen, delight on his face.
“Holly’s cooking dinner.” My mom walked over to him and put a hand on his arm.
He reached out and touched her on the cheek. “Julia, it smells like heaven.”
Mom’s eyes lit up at the sound of her name. “Holly makes it like Mama showed her, with the baby meatballs simmering in the sauce.”
Grandpa moved over to a chair, sitting so that he could see me at the stove. He stayed there until everything was ready, and Lena set the places at the table around him—a glass, a plate, a knife, a fork, a folded paper towel for the napkin.
There was something sweet about the smile on my grandfather’s face as I set the bowl of pasta and meatballs on the table. It was the smile of recognition, or happiness or something. And it didn’t leave him until after dinner was finished.
“That was delicious,” he said, wiping his mouth.
“Yes, it was, huh?” said Mom. “I’m glad you’re here, Papa.”
The rest of the evening went pretty well. I mean, it actually seemed like everything was all right. Like Grandpa Aldo was going to be fine at our place. We could do this.
But then, when the apartment was dark and I was tucked into the lower bunk in the room I now shared with Lena, I heard crying. Next came Mom’s footsteps and then her words of reassurance. “Papa, it’s okay. You’re at my house. It’s me, Julia.”
And then there was more weeping and, at last, peace and the shutting of a door. Then a new sound—my mother pacing in the kitchen. And I knew nothing was right.