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I woke up.
"See?" I said as I opened my eyes. "Wasn't that stupid?"
I blinked a few times, so my eyes could readjust to the dim light in the Robertsons' family room.
"So what great buried memory did I come up with?" I asked. "The trauma of second-grade math? I told you it wasn't worth hypnotizing me. My life has been too -- " I stopped without saying "dull," because I suddenly realized that all three of my closest friends were staring at me. Their faces, starting with Lynne's thin, dramatic one and ending with Courtney's heavyset, normally placid one, all held identical expressions: eyes wide, eyebrows raised, mouths agape.
"What?" I said. "What'd I say?"
Some thread of memory tickled my brain, then it was gone. Everything around me was too ordinary and familiar: our sleeping bags spread out on the Berber carpet, the brightly colored bags of Fritos and M&M's we'd been eating before we decided to experiment with hypnosis. It was Friday night, and we were having a sleepover at Lynne's house. That's what we did every Friday night. It didn't fit with the wisp of fear I still felt, without knowing why.
"You never told us," Lynne said slowly, "that you and your mother came here to escape danger."
She sounded pleased and intrigued, as if I had presented her with a fascinating physics question. Lynne was the only person in Willistown history who'd ever taken physics as a freshman -- or, as Andrea liked to remind her, who'd ever wanted to.
"Or that you had a nursery when you were a baby," Courtney said. She emphasized the word "nursery" as though it were something only movie stars and royalty had for their children. Certainly no one in Willistown did.
"Or that you called your mother 'Mama,'" Andrea added.
"Don't all little kids call their mothers 'Mama'? Before they can say 'Mommy'?" I said defensively, though I didn't really know. I was an only child. My friends were the ones with younger brothers and sisters and cousins and -- in Andrea's case -- even nieces and nephews. They all had family coming out their ears.
All I had was Mom.
"But you said it with an accent," Lynne said. "And those other words -- Sazahlya? Molya ste eha dostahna?" She pronounced the words carefully, but her flat Ohio vowels sounded all wrong. "What do they mean?"
"Sazahlya's like 'Hush, hush, it's all right, everything's okay.' People say it to babies," I answered without thinking.
My friends gave me their bug-eyed, drop-jawed stares again.
"Not around here, they don't," Lynne said cautiously. "What language is that?"
"I don't know," I admitted.
"Then how do you know what it means?"
"I don't know," I said again. I squirmed a little. The Robertsons' family room, where I'd probably spent half my life, suddenly seemed strange and uncomfortable.
"Then what's that other phrase mean? Molya ste eha dostahna?" Lynne asked. She narrowed her eyes, the way she did when a teacher actually managed to find a homework question that was hard enough for her. Courtney and Andrea watched in silence, willing, as usual, to let Lynne speak for them.
Usually I would have been letting her speak for me, too. But now I was trying to shut out the sound of her voice, to hear Molya ste eha dostahna the way someone -- Mom? -- had said it in my memory. I shivered, remembering the cold wind on my face. Remembering hiding my face in my mother's coat.
But that was all I could remember.
I was trying too hard.
"Why does it matter?" I asked. "I probably just read it somewhere. Or heard it on TV. Maybe what you say under hypnosis is like dreaming. Just nonsense."
"But you made it sound so real," Andrea said. It had been her idea to try hypnosis, just because she hadn't liked the video we'd all picked out. I didn't know why I had to be the featured entertainment instead.
I got another flash of memory -- the feel of my chubby toddler arms around my mother's neck.
Mom and I did not hug each other.
I sighed. "Tell me everything I said," I asked reluctantly. I resisted the urge to pull my legs toward my body and clutch them with my arms, to huddle like a terrified child.
Why was I scared if it was all just a crazy story I'd made up?
Defiantly, I stretched my legs out and leaned back on my arms -- the typical teenager sprawl. A triumph of body language. My fear ebbed. I refused to treat this seriously.
Lynne was already telling my story, word for word, she claimed. Then, of course, she had to analyze it.
"Well, it's pretty clear to me," she said. "You're obviously a refugee from some war-torn country. Your mother must have smuggled you across some border....You moved here when you were two, right?"
"Yeah, from California," I said, rolling my eyes. "No wars there."
"That's what your mother says," Lynne countered. "Hey, maybe you're illegal immigrants." Her face brightened, as if she liked that possibility. "Your mother's one clever woman. Who'd look for illegal immigrants in Willistown, Ohio?"
"Every single employer in town," Andrea said, sounding pleased at outsmarting Lynne for once. "You have to show proof of citizenship when you get a job." She was the only one of us so far who had attempted that feat. She was going to be lifeguarding at the town swimming pool as soon as it opened in the summer.
My mother had worked at the town library for the past thirteen years. Maybe thirteen years ago people didn't have to prove their citizenship.
I didn't share this obvious gap in logic with my friends.
Lynne had already moved on to the next puzzle.
"But where are you really from?" She squinted at me, as if trying to read some hidden map on my face. "Let's see, thirteen years ago there were battles in Eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union. The Irish-English squabbles were relatively calm" -- trust Lynne to carry around a social studies time line in her head -- "and there's almost always some conflict in the Middle East and Central America and parts of Africa."
"Do I look like I'm from the Middle East? Or Central America? Or Africa?" I asked.
"There are all sorts of people living in all of those places," Lynne retorted. "In fact, that might have been why you had to leave, because the indigenous people threw out the imperialist invaders."
Great. Now I was an imperialist invader.
"You do look kind of different," Courtney offered. "No offense."
I'd been afraid someone would say that. I blushed, knowing that, even with the extra color, my skin was still paler than my friends'. My hair was dark and cut the same way as theirs -- longish and pulled back in ponytails or tucked behind my ears most of the time. But in the right light my hair had an almost bluish cast to it. And my eyes were just as dark and ever-so-slightly slanted. Not enough to look Asian. Just enough to look...different.
"Then there's your name," Lynne said thoughtfully. "Kira. Kira, Kira, Kira -- Slavic, maybe? Russian?"
"That doesn't prove anything," I protested. "Look at, uh, Natasha Jones. Natasha's a Russian name too. Do you think she's an illegal immigrant? A refugee?"
Natasha Jones was a year ahead of us at school and served as the county Beef Queen. She had blond hair and blue eyes, and Lynne had joked once that she looked corn-fed, just like the cattle she promoted. Natasha was Willistown, through and through.
Wasn't I, too?
Andrea reached for a handful of Fritos, as casually as if we were discussing some ridiculous soap opera, not my life.
"You guys are being way too hard on Kira," she said. "You don't have to make her into a foreigner or something." I almost forgave her for the Fritos. Then she went on. "I know what must have happened. Kira's dad must have been an alcoholic or a drug addict or something, and he was always beating up Kira's mom, so she ran out on him. Disappeared without a trace. Then she hid in Willistown, because he would never look here. I saw a TV movie about that once. This woman changed her whole identity and her kid's -- your name probably isn't even Kira at all."
Andrea was looking straight at me. I stared straight back. I hoped she thought I was struck speechless by the craziness of her explanation. I hoped she and Lynne and Courtney couldn't tell that if I so much as breathed, I was going to cry.
"Kira's dad is dead," Courtney said. "Isn't he?"
Now she was looking at me too, appealingly.
"Of course that's what Kira's mom would say, to cover up," Andrea said.
I wanted so badly to scream, Stop it! This isn't a joke! But I couldn't find my voice.
And didn't I want this to be a joke? If it was a joke, it wasn't real.
Lynne's calm, rational voice came as a relief.
"There are lots of things wrong with your explanation," Lynne challenged Andrea. "First, Kira mentioned cobblestone streets and alleys. That doesn't sound like California, where she's supposedly from."
"It's a big state. I'm sure there's a cobblestone somewhere out there. Anyhow, if you were running away, wouldn't you lie about the place you were running away from?"
Lynne ignored the question. "Two, there's the foreign language Kira was speaking...."
"It's probably just Spanish, and we didn't recognize it. Lots of people speak Spanish in California."
Lynne could have pointed out that all four of us were taking Spanish in school. But we knew Mr. Sutherland, our teacher, had been hired more for his basketball coaching skills than his perfect Spanish accent. He probably wouldn't even recognize real Spanish himself.
Lynne moved on to her next point.
"Three, what about the 'thunder and lightning' that was probably gunfire and bombs?" she asked.
"That doesn't have to be war," Andrea said sarcastically. "Maybe Kira's dad was chasing Kira and her mom and shooting at them."
Lynne was clearly losing the argument, but she didn't act like it.
"And third, and most important," she said, "can you honestly picture Kira's mom as an abused woman?"
I could see Andrea struggling with that one.
"Maybe she's changed?" she offered halfheartedly.
Lynne grinned triumphantly.
"Gotcha!" she declared. She turned to me. "So what are you going to do about this, Kira?"
"Do?" I whispered, the best I could do. I tried to remember how to make my voice sound normal, how to make my face look normal. "Why do I have to do anything?"
"Aren't you going to talk to your mom and find out the truth?"
My friends had met my mother, plenty of times. They knew she didn't drive her car, wouldn't touch a computer, wouldn't allow a TV in our apartment. But they'd never really talked to her beyond, "Hello, Mrs. Landon. Is Kira there?" They still seemed to believe that she was like Lynne's mom, who'd given Lynne the menstruation talk a full month before the school nurse brought it up. Or Andrea's mom, who kept better track of who was dating whom at Willistown High School than Andrea did. Or Courtney's mom, who shared dieting tips and hot fudge sundae splurges with her daughter on a regular basis. My friends actually thought my mother was someone you could talk to. Someone you could ask a question.
I forced my hand to reach into the bag of M&M's. I placed three pieces of chocolate on my tongue. I chewed. I swallowed.
"Okay, sure," I said, proud of how steady I managed to keep my voice. "I'll ask."
That wasn't good enough for Lynne.
"But if she tells you none of it's true, will you believe her?"
"Yeah," I said. "My mom doesn't have enough imagination to lie."
None of my friends disagreed.
Copyright © Margaret Peterson Haddix