Sometimes, home isn’t where you expect to find it.
After losing his mom in a fatal car crash, Kaede Hiranonow living with a grandfather who is more stranger than familydeveloped anger issues and spent his last year of middle school acting out.
Best-friendless and critically in danger repeating the seventh grade, Kaede is given a summer assignment: write an essay about what home means to him, which will be even tougher now that he's on his way to Japan to reconnect with his estranged father and older half-brother. Still, if there's a chance Kaede can finally build a new family from an old one, he's willing to try. But building new relationships isn’t as easy as destroying his old ones, and one last desperate act will change the way Kaede sees everyoneincluding himself.
This is a book about what home means to usand that there are many different correct answers.
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The car is too hot and smells of leather, and my stomach dips up and down with it.
I think about unrolling the window some more but don't. My grandpa is talking to me as he drives, and it's an Important Talk. The sound of traffic coming from the freeway outside is already too loud, making him raise his voice. It makes him seem nearly angry, and I almost kind of wish he were, instead of disappointed. That's what he can't hide from creeping up into his eyes.
Mom inherited his eyes, and I know hers would have the same disappointment in them if she were here driving me instead. Except maybe ten times worse, since Grandpa is still a stranger, here for me now that there's no one else.
The airport is in Richmond, the suburb south of Vancouver, and still twenty minutes away. I slide down a bit farther in the passenger seat. My backpack is in my lap — inside is everything I'm going to need for the next three weeks, the last part of this strange and terrible summer. I'm about to fly over the ocean to a home I don't remember, and suddenly I'm sure I didn't pack enough. That I packed all the wrong things.
My grandpa clears his throat and adjusts a sleeve cuff, still driving.
He used to be a fancy accountant before retiring five years ago, but he continues to wear a suit every day, as though he's still going to work, complete with a tie and shiny loafers and everything. Mom said the habit's from when he first came to Canada from Japan with nothing but a wife, young daughter, and job skills that were no longer as good as they'd been on the other side of the ocean. Which means, I guess, that he's still scared of ever feeling that way again.
When I'm that old, I hope I'll be able to let go of stuff more easily.
Mom dying would be an example.
This mess I've gotten myself into might be another.CHAPTER 2
"Well, Kaede, don't forget to call once you land." My grandpa clears his throat again, like he's nervous around me, or unsure. Which I get because it's how I still feel around him. "Just so I know."
"It'll be like one in the morning Vancouver time." Tokyo is sixteen hours ahead, about as far away in the world as you can run. "I don't want to wake you up."
"Oh, right, the time difference. Leave a message, then, and you can call again once you're settled."
We've been living in the same house for months now, but he's just as stiff as he was back in the spring, when he first moved from his home in Ontario to come out west to be my legal guardian. We circle each other like animals in a too-small cage in the zoo, doing our best to not get in each other's way, but in each other's way anyway.
I guess it makes sense, him not enjoying the change. He'd never asked to become a parent again at his age, after already having his own life for years once he was done raising my mom. I think he does a lot of mental hand-wringing over it all, given how often I catch him watching me, a tired look in his eyes and his shoulders slumped.
I wish twelve wasn't considered too young to live by yourself. Seems it'd be easier all around. The only thing I can't do is drive, but I have my bike, and Grandpa could just make sure I always had enough in the bank for food. I'd email him my report cards so he'd know I was still going to school. Then he'd be able to move back to Ontario and be happy again doing all the things retired people like to do.
"Kaede? You haven't forgotten anything? You've packed all you need?"
"Nope, and yeah." I look out the window. We're going over the bridge that connects Vancouver to Richmond, the river below unable to decide between being blue or gray. The airport's close now.
"Did you go over the checklist one last time like I told you?"
"Yeah." It's not a long list. Just enough clothing to keep me going between loads of laundry at my dad's place in Tokyo. An emergency cash card from my grandpa I can use at an ATM. The lined spiral notebook I bought from the local Walmart for a journal.
It's buried now between the shirts and shorts and other clothes in my backpack, but still its corners dig into my legs through my shorts.
They're calling it the Summer Celebration Project, but I have different names for it, ones that feel real and remind me how important it actually is. Like the Journal of the Unknown, or the Book of Questions, or the Diary of Still Figuring It Out — each of them are more truthful, more honest.
The project's supposed to save me.
It'd been the last day of school, five weeks ago back at the end of June, and we were each taking turns drawing from the hat Ms. Nanda held in her hand. It was a party one, one of those paper cones with the elastic around the bottom to go around your chin so it stays on your head. I remember thinking she must have chosen it to make the idea of homework over the summer fun, but from the sounds of students complaining, I don't think it worked.
Someone in the back of the classroom began to moan like he was in pain.
Beside me, Gemma had dramatically thrown her head down onto her arms on the top of her desk.
And Jory, he would have turned from his seat near the front to make one of his awesomely ugly faces, holding it long enough that Ms. Nanda would finally have to tell him to quit it.
But Perry was sitting there instead, since Jory still wasn't back in school.
"Now listen, no switching topics with anyone else," Ms. Nanda had reminded us as we all went up and pulled out a piece of paper with a word written on it. "You can include journal entries, photos, drawings — anything you want that you think applies to your selected topic, as long as you can make it fit into a notebook. When school starts again in the fall, there will be a drop-off box set up outside of my office. After all your projects have been collected, they'll be put on display in the lobby in the glass case for the school to enjoy. Marks will count toward your next year's grades."
Some of the topics seemed way more fun than others. And safe.
And some seemed anything but fun. Still safe, though.
When it was my turn to pick, my chest went a bit tight as I read the word printed on the piece of paper.
Which might have been okay if it had been any other summer but this one. Because lately I have a lot more questions about home than I do answers, and I'm pretty sure Ms. Nanda won't want a notebook like that on display when it's supposed to be encouraging.CHAPTER 3
After all the topics had been sorted out and we'd double-checked our desks and the cloakroom to make sure nothing was left behind for the summer, Mr. Zaher called for me to see him in his office.
I didn't know what the school counselor wanted to talk about, only that it couldn't be good. The school year was nearly over, after all. My heart beat a little too loudly in my ears, and my feet moved like glacial blocks along the hall as I walked over. As a bonus, my stomach was hurting, too, as it'd started to lately whenever I worried a lot over something.
I already knew I probably wasn't going to pass Grade 7 — I'd been letting everything slide since the spring. So I was already dreading the fall and watching all my friends walk into the junior high next door while I stayed behind in elementary, still a little kid who didn't know what he was doing. Now I was also dreading seeing that project display go up in the lobby.
Since I couldn't decide what would be more embarrassing — having my project included even though I'd failed or purposely left out because I'd failed — I decided I wasn't going to bother doing it at all.
There'd been a jar of Jelly Bellies on the table in the office, and as Mr. Zaher talked, I slowly ate from it, slipping jelly beans into my mouth one by one.
Red Apple as he told me that the school knew about Mr. Ames and what I did to his house after my mom died in the spring.
Toasted Marshmallow as he said they'd been told about what I just did to Jory at hockey camp.
Piña Colada. He'd just been in touch with my grandpa, who told him how he'd arranged for me to visit my father and half brother in Japan in August, even though I hadn't seen either since moving to Vancouver with my mom when I was three and they'd stayed behind. My grandpa had confessed he was at a loss of what to do with me — it'd been a long time since he'd been a kid. He no longer knew what made us work, what made us do what we did. As though we were another species.
Berry Blue. He said I was on the verge of having to repeat Grade 7, just as I'd thought. Principal Li wished he could simply give me a pass because of my mom. And Mrs. Nanda said she wanted to take into account my doing pretty well in subjects like gym and art to make up for completely bailing out in ones like reading and math and science. But she just couldn't.
French Vanilla as Mr. Zaher recounted the dozens of notes in my school file, all from March onward. For helping Vincent TP the cars in the teachers' parking lot, for fooling around in way too many classes, for handing in essays I copied off ones I found online. Fistfights in the halls, too.
Chili Mango. I had too much potential to become the kind of kid I was becoming. So Mr. Zaher, Principal Li, and Mrs. Nanda got together and agreed that if I could do a good job on my Summer Celebration Project ("Not just average, not just all right, but a truly excellent effort, Kaede," Mr. Zaher had said as he poured more jelly beans into the bowl from a bag he kept in his desk), I would get to graduate. The mark would go toward this year's grade instead of next. With my grandpa's okay, the school was making me an exception, they said, waiting as long as they were. Making it be up to me.
So it was my final chance.
Do or die, all or nothing.
I ate them all, one after another after another, as I digested this news. The sugar sat in my stomach like a lump and made it hurt even more. I knew I didn't have a choice now about figuring out what home meant to me, and it made me panicky inside, and desperate.
But despite everything, I wondered, What if it wasn't as hopeless as it seemed? What if it wasn't too late?
Sure, a lot of things depended on what I didn't know, on what I was still clueless about how to feel.
Things like finally seeing my long-absent father and brother (his name is Shoma) again and doing my best to pretend I was okay with being unwelcome.
Getting over my mom being gone and used to the idea of living with a relative who seemed perfectly set on staying distant.
Figuring out a way to convince my best friend to forgive me for taking away what he loves most.
And on top of all that, not failing Grade 7.
That was a lot of unknowns, yeah, and it had to fill an entire notebook.
But I had to start somewhere.
It might as well be halfway around the world.
"So what do you think?" Mr. Zaher's smile was a bit sad, as it was each time he saw me now, ever since the accident. I was pretty sure he didn't know it showed.
"I want to say yes, but is there any way I can choose another topic?" I didn't want any more jelly beans. I chewed my lip instead, nervous.
"What do you have?"
"Home. But I'll be in two different places this summer. I won't know what to write about."
Mr. Zaher smiled again, his eyes smiling along this time. "I'm sure you'll figure it out as you go, Kaede."CHAPTER 4
I'm on the plane right now, kilometers and hours and clouds zooming by. The sun coming in through the window bounces off the page of my open journal the same way it flashes off water, so everything's too bright and hard to look at.
Well, I'd like to blame the sun for making it hard to work, but I know it's really just me that's the problem.
I'm supposed to be writing about the topic of home for my project, but I haven't figured out how to start yet. I think I'm stuck because it can mean both big and small things, from a bedroom to a house to a city to a country, from a person to parents to a family. What if someone has all of that but still feels lost?
My teacher at school said one idea was to ask you about our family tree, that you and Mom getting divorced more than nine years ago wouldn't change you knowing. So even though it's been that long since we've seen each other — and three since we last spoke — I guess I have some homework for you.
We're only a couple of hours from landing, and if I close my eyes I can pretend I'm still back in Vancouver, hanging out with Jory and Gemma, my best friends. We'd be heading to the Mac's two blocks away for slushies before biking over to the neighborhood park. There's a small basketball court there, and we usually just shoot pucks around the concrete until the high school kids come and chase us away.
I don't usually let myself pretend it's any time before the spring — before Mom died — because that's hard. So I pretend it's either April or May, somewhere in the months between Mom's accident and before I finally went too far at hockey camp, that period of time when sometimes I was angry before I even knew it, when that anger came out before I could stop it.
What I did to Mr. Ames was one of those times (even if a small part of me still wants to believe he deserved it).
Shoma would have filled in that part for you by now, just as he would have about my messing up in school and what happened with Jory. How it seemed I needed some time away, a change of scenery. Turns out you were away on a photo shoot when Grandpa tried to reach you to talk about my coming to visit and instead had to hunt down Shoma on his cell.
And Shoma would have been the one to tell you about Mom dying, too, because you hadn't been around to answer that call, either. I can't even remember where Shoma said you were, what you were away taking photos of. I just kept picturing our phone calls, these transparent sound waves making the leap from Canada all the way across the Pacific, only to keep falling into this black hole of a void over in Japan, seven and a half thousand kilometers away. Those calls were like the blank end pieces of strips of negatives, or photos that dared to be out of focus — so you discarded them from the start.
It took us a while to find your number to make those calls. It was like following a broken trail of clues. You and Shoma moved around Tokyo a lot after me and Mom left for Vancouver, the city where she spent most of her childhood, where she wanted me to grow up, too. You guys moved from our place in Ikebukuro to Ueno to Kichijoji, and now you live in an apartment in Nakano while Shoma's old enough to be on his own in Shinjuku.
It wasn't long before the two of you were only as real as the characters I saw on TV, something someone imagined. And you never got older or bigger, just more faint, both of your outlines blurred. These days I remember almost nothing about you or Shoma or our old apartment in Ikebukuro.
Mom had let your latest number get buried beneath other contacts she somehow needed more often. The dry cleaner. Our dentist. A coworker from her old office I don't remember her ever talking about.
It was what I did to Mr. Ames and then to Jory (who actually didn't deserve it at all) that made Grandpa decide he already needed a break from parenting. I watched him call your cell again, over and over, like it was just a matter of will. Neither of us were really surprised when you never ended up answering. But Grandpa still looked at me as if it were my fault you weren't there, and I had to go get something from the fridge even though I wasn't hungry, just to hide how my face was hot and my eyes sore.
Because, see, for a second, it was Mom I saw, looking at me that way. It didn't happen a lot, but it accidentally slipped through sometimes — how she still wondered if I might have been the difference between you guys staying together or not. Or maybe she caught a glimpse of you in me and wasn't sure if she liked or hated that.
I think she had a lot of questions for you that she never ended up asking. You were never around to ask, and now she can't.
But I still can. Not ask her questions, but ones of my own that I guess I've been collecting over the years, wanting to know how you can be a ghost while still alive. Mine are sharp little rocks I keep in a small box, sort of like how my friend Donovan's mom keeps his little sister's baby teeth in a jar — each time there's a new one, she just places it on top. A mountain of teeth.
I feel weird about it now, thinking about how I kept trying to connect with you, sure the next time would be when you'd finally answer. Begging Mom to send you my drawings from school, then my report cards. The way I'd email you and how you started taking longer and longer between replies. Then no more birthday presents came in the mail after I turned seven, and no more phone calls or replies to those emails after I was nine.
It's not like you disappearing didn't get easier, though. It did. You being Dad faded until you became more like the idea of Dad. I got older and new memories got made, and Mom always did her best to be more than enough. Most of the time she was. She kept life busy so I wouldn't have time to peek into that small box of tough questions.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "All the Ways Home"
Copyright © 2019 Elsie Chapman.
Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
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