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|Product dimensions:||8.40(w) x 5.70(h) x 1.40(d)|
|Age Range:||10 - 12 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I can always fake a smile, always. Except tonight, my face just won’t cooperate. For sure, tonight wasn’t great. Gram’s mean boyfriend, Phil, let his usual simmering stew of anger boil over. He and Gram were yelling loud enough to keep me awake. Loud enough to wake the neighbors, too, because one of them made a big deal of everything and called the police just as Phil started throwing plates as punctuation. Now, the social worker is lost trying to drive me to some stranger’s house, her car smells like feet, I have mud on my pajamas, and I cannot make my mouth bend into a smile. The car swerves hard onto a side road, and the wheels bump as the road turns from pavement to dirt. I lean forward, pressing my chest to the seat belt, to get into the social worker’s peripheral vision. “Should we maybe go back to my gram’s house?” I say in my nicest kid-trying-to-help voice. It’s the one that works best on adults in these kinds of situations. The social worker yawns, gulps a swig of coffee from her thermos, and smiles sleepily. “We’ll find it.” She looks back at the road. I think her name is Randi. Yes, Randi with an i. I pull my backpack onto my lap, reach inside, and wrap the matted fluff of the marabou string Mom gave me tight around my fingers. “Ah!” Randi stops the car in front of the driveway of a ramshackle farmhouse built too close to the curb. “Here we are,” she says with forced cheer. The headlights pick out shadows along the house’s patchy and peeling white paint. The curtains are drawn across the bay window and no light shines by the green front door. “Who lives here, again?” I ask. I’ve never been here before. Randi-with-an-i has to look at her folder. “Your great-aunt. Your grandmother’s sister?” “I didn’t think Gram had a sister.” She flips pages. “Your father’s mother. Her sister.” That explains why I don’t know her. I unwrap my fingers, tuck the marabou away. “Okay.” Randi squeezes my knee. “This isn’t the end of things, Reenie.” “Maureen.” “Right. Maureen. Sorry.” She glances at the folder. “It’s another step in the path, that’s all.” I pull the handle and pop open the door. “Sure.” There isn’t much ceremony in my transfer of custody. The social worker gives the alleged aunt the thick folder and some paperwork. I can guess what the folder has in it: the whole story of me and Mom. How I’ve been living with my gram all summer, ever since Mom’s sadness got so big, it pushed everything else out of her. It’s not the first time this has happened, so we all knew what to do: Gram got Mom admitted to the psychiatric ward at the hospital, and I camped on the futon in Gram’s junk room. Why’d Phil have to mess everything up? Why’d the neighbor have to be such a light sleeper? The alleged aunt signs some papers, hands them to Randi-with-an-i, keeps others. In less than ten minutes, Randi’s back on the road, and I’m standing on the warped wood floor of the wide foyer of a potentially falling-down house with a total stranger who’s supposed to be my replacement parent. “I’m Beatrice,” the alleged aunt says. “Beatrice Prince.” She’s tall and old. “You can call me Beatrice.” She’s got long gray hair strapped back in a braid with scraggles poking out. She’s wearing men’s flannel pants and a T-shirt so faded I can’t make out the words, only the letters R and T in a few places. “You’re Will’s kid?” she says after a minute of me saying nothing. “I guess.” My dad has never been around. She gives me the up and down with her eyes. “You look like him.” “I’ve seen pictures.” She considers me for a moment more, then says, “Huh.” She turns and walks toward the back of the house. “Come on,” she says, beckoning from halfway down the hall. Clearly, Randi woke her from a deep sleep. I follow her. The floorboards groan and shift beneath my sneakers. The foyer narrows to a hall alongside the stairs, then opens into a kitchen. There are jars and bowls everywhere. A breeze slithers in through the open window, carrying a stink that’s wild and musky and rank. “What’s that smell?” I ask, pulling my T-shirt over my nose for emphasis. “I keep birds,” she says, stopping beside the counter and taking a sip of water from a mason jar. “This is the kitchen. You can eat whatever you want. That over there is the living room.” She points to the room next to the kitchen. “I don’t have a TV.” She says this as if daring me to complain about the fact. “There’s a dining room, but I don’t use it for dining.” “What do you use it for?” “My birds.” She walks toward me, back to the front of the house. We stand there, facing each other in the narrow hall. I don’t feel like moving. She raises her hand, pointing behind me. “I’ll show you your room.” When I still don’t move, she squeezes around me, then turns and heads upstairs. I follow her up the steps to a landing. Right leads to her room at the back of the house. Left leads to my room at the front. Between them is the one bathroom in the house. “The blue towels are yours,” she says. “I also found an extra toothbrush and hairbrush. I wasn’t sure—” She stops midsentence, scratches her scalp near the base of the braid. “I’m sorry about your mom going to the hospital. I didn’t know—” My fingers claw the canvas of my backpack. “It’s been two months,” I say. “I’m over it.” The alleged aunt takes a moment, then nods. “I’ll leave you to get yourself to bed.” I must look unusually awful for the aunt to feel the need to start in with the “I’m sorry about your mom” stuff, so I poke my head into the bathroom. It’s clean enough, with a pedestal sink, a rickety-looking shelf over the john, and a claw-footed tub with a white curtain hanging from a circular bar above it. The window looks down the road, back south where I came from. There’s a mirror over the sink. My brown hair is a snarl on top of my head. There are circles under my brown eyes and the whites are bloodshot, some of those “signs” adults like to point to when identifying the “troubled kids.” I splash a handful of water on my face, dry off on one of the blue towels, crack open that new toothbrush, and brush my teeth. The toothpaste tastes too minty, but too minty is maybe a good thing. At Gram’s house, there was only one bathroom and four adults—Gram, Phil, Mom’s brother Tony, and his girlfriend, Lisa—plus me, so I didn’t have a lot of chances to brush my teeth. Not that that was a big deal—I mean, I didn’t even have school. But your mouth begins to feel fuzzy after a while. Here, there’s a little metal stand for the toothbrushes. I drop mine in and it jingles. It doesn’t have to act so happy. Back in the hall, I approach the closed door identified as “my room.” “My room” is huge. The walls are yellow—not my color, but whatever—and there’s a round rag rug made of all different-colored strips in the center of the floor. On one side is a desk with a chair; on the other, a big old bed with a quilt and two pillows. The closet is a cavern of empty hangers. I open my backpack and take out my two T-shirts. I hang them. They spin listlessly in the vast space. I hang my jean shorts, my four clean socks, and three pairs of underwear on the remaining hangers. I unzip the hoodie I’m wearing and hang it, too. The closet still looks empty. The clothes drift around like they’re looking for someone. My backpack lies on the floor, split open like a skin. The marabou hangs out over the zipper. Mom splurged on it one night as we checked out of the Dollar General. We went home and had a karaoke party, taking turns wearing the marabou string as a boa, dancing and belting out Taylor Swift until the neighbors banged on the wall for us to stop. That familiar buzz crackles up from my belly button and prickles the inside of my ears. Words fizz out of it: afraid, stranger, alone. The buzz careens around inside of my skull and the words flash like lightning and my fingers start to tingle and I can barely keep the tears from trickling out, but I do. I take a deep breath. Suck it all back in. Squeeze the buzz down to a tummy rumble. Lock all those words up tight. “Good night,” I hear from the hall. The strip of light beneath my door goes dark. I could say something back, but I don’t. The floorboards squeak under my feet as I cross the room. There’s a night table next to the bed. The shallow drawer has a nub of pencil in it, some old hair bands, and a wrinkled paperback book, My Side of the Mountain. I’m in someone else’s room. Or what was someone else’s room. So many questions, but I have to wait until the alleged aunt is asleep to begin a proper investigation. I mean, she got a whole file on me. It’s only fair. I dig out the paperback. It’s about a kid who runs away to the middle of nowhere because his house is too crowded. I hate it when books make it seem like kids have a choice about this stuff. It’s like, Where’s this guy’s Randi-with-an-i? But whatever—the story keeps me awake. Finally, the grumble of a snore rattles across the hall and it’s go time. Creeping downstairs, careful not to squeak any floorboards, I first head for the “bird room.” I’m hoping for a menagerie, but no; it’s just a mostly empty room with shutters over the windows. What do these birds do in here? Boring. I sneak into the living room. There are bookshelves and then more books stacked like end tables next to the couch and the overstuffed chair which huddle around the wood stove. I flip through a few—mostly mysteries with gray-haired ladies surrounded by doilies on the covers. Headlights from a passing car scan over the room, catching me like a thief in the act. I freeze; they pass; I search on. In a second bookcase near the front window, I hit the jackpot: a photo album. There’s a wedding photo—the alleged aunt was married. The guy looks nice enough. Here’s them hiking, here they are in a canoe. Here’s them with a baby. A little girl. A postcard from the girl: Dear Mom, Dad’s new house is nice. Mindy is nice, too. I miss you. Love, Ava. It was mailed from St. Louis. Ten years ago. So I’m in Ava’s—the kid’s—room. The aunt’s divorced. The kid lives with her dad. Did she have a choice? Is this a clue or just what happened? A stair creaks. I shove the postcard into the album and the album back into the bookcase and scramble toward the kitchen. “Maureen?” Beatrice asks, flipping on the hall light. “I just wanted a glass of water,” I say, grabbing a glass out of the cabinet. She steps into the kitchen, turns on the overhead light. “It’s your house now too.” I fill the glass. Take a sip. “Maureen,” she begins, “I’m not your mom, but I—” “No,” I say, interrupting, “you’re not.” And I’m not her replacement kid. I put the empty glass in the sink and walk past her. “Good night,” she says as I tromp upstairs. I shut myself in my room. She stays in the kitchen washing that glass for a good ten minutes after.