Our car, rusted red paint and all, squeaks into the driveway. It lurches to a stop, shoving Mom and me forward in our seats. The boxes in the back shift, slamming against the sides of the trunk. I shut my door with a bang and stand, staring at the ugly brown house directly in front of me. The paint is peeling, the shutters look like they are falling apart, and the lawn is overgrown with weeds. My mom comes up behind me.
“Do you want to go in?” she asks. I glare at her in response. She should know as well as I do that I do not want to go in. Nonetheless, Mom sticks her key into the hole and turns the doorknob. She pushes on the door, but it won’t budge. After considerable shoving, Mom manages to get the blue door open. “Welcome home, sweetie.” She gestures grandly.
Frowning, I look around. There is tile on the floor, but I can tell it is the fake sticker kind. It doesn’t look real and besides, some of the pieces are peeling off. One wall has splotches of different colored paints on it, like someone was using it to figure out what color to paint something. A moth-eaten rug sits in the middle of the entryway.
We move into the living room, which is just as bad. Two small windows let in a dirty, grimy light, doing nothing more than illuminating the dust that covers the floor. There is a fake-crystal chandelier hanging in the center of the room, covered in cobwebs.
After seeing the kitchen, my mother and I head upstairs. There are two bedrooms—one for me, one for her. Mom gets her own bathroom, but it’s tiny. As for me, I’ll have to use the one downstairs or borrow Mom’s.
My mom puts her hand on my shoulder. “It needs a little work,” she says, “but once I get the diner off the ground, we can fix it up together.” I want to believe that we will.
Mom heads back outside and walks over to the car, carefully pulling up the trunk door so as not to break it. “Come on, Lilly. Let’s start unloading.”
* * *
“So, Lilly, I hear that they’ll have a soccer team at your new school,” Mom offers. I don’t look up from my lo mein. I played on the soccer team at my old school, where Dad was the coach. I’m not going to join this one. That would be like betrayal. Besides, nothing at my new school is going to be like it was at my old school, anyway.
But Mom doesn’t give up. “They also have an art club after school. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
I shrug. “I’m full,” I mumble, even though I’ve barely touched my takeout. I leave the kitchen and head for my room, which is in dismal condition. The movers haven’t come yet and probably won’t for a while, just because we couldn’t really afford to pay for good ones. So right now, my room is empty except for a sleeping bag and a pile of boxes in the corner.
Sighing, I sit down on my sleeping bag. I think of my room at Dad’s house. He’s a radio DJ, so he plastered my walls with all sorts of album-cover posters and vintage records. There’s a phonograph in the corner on a really cool retro table. My bedspread is straight out of the 1970s, with records and boom boxes spinning across a red background. Above my bed is a light-up sign that flashes Lilly. I had been begging Dad for it since I could talk, and I finally got it last year when I turned eleven. And I have my own closet, unlike here. My room at Dad’s is my place, the place where I go when life gets too fast or too confusing. It’s a place where I can slow down and think.
I walk over to the boxes and pull out Dad’s photo from the top of one. He’s smiling up from a sound booth at a party. His hair is tousled and sticking out at odd angles from underneath his baseball cap, which is on backwards. His T-shirt has a picture of a guitar on it. His tattoo, the one of the record that Mom always hated, sticks out from underneath the sleeve.
I pick up the picture of Dad and put it next to my sleeping bag, because I don’t have a nightstand to put it on. Then I zipper myself in for the night.
“Goodnight, Dad,” I whisper.
* * *
“Lilly!” my mom calls. I crawl out of my sleeping bag, sore from having slept on the floor. I throw on a sweatshirt and head downstairs.
“Good morning, sunshine!” My mom smiles at me. “I made waffles for our first breakfast in the new house!” When I don’t say anything, Mom’s smile wavers the slightest bit. Nonetheless, she chirps, “My, my. Someone’s sleepy! Well, hon, you better wake up soon, because we’ve got a big day ahead of us!”
We spend the day cleaning. When we’ve finished dusting and washing the inside of the house, Mom and I head outside, where we start working on the weeds that are abundant in the backyard.
“So, Lilly. Are you looking forward to going to your new school tomorrow?” Mom asks, trying to make conversation. I pull harder at a weed, yanking it clean out of the ground. “It’s a very good school.” Mom smiles. “They’ve got a computer lab and a library, and they’re both really big. Can you believe that, honey?”
I throw my weeds into a paper bag.
“I’d love to go there if I were you. You’re really lucky.” Mom grins at me. I don’t look up at her. Instead, I focus all my attention on the spider crawling up the side of a weed, pretending to be utterly fascinated.
“Are you nervous, honey? I bet you are. You know, when I was your age, I had to start at a new school too. I was petrified. And on the first day, my locker wouldn’t open.” My mom laughs. “It seems like such a small thing now, but back then, that was pretty much my worst nightmare. Anyway, I was on the verge of tears when this girl came up to me and offered me some space in her locker. Then at lunch we went and got my locker fixed, and we’ve been best friends ever since. You know Suzie, right? You met her at that family picnic…” Mom trails off. That family picnic was for Dad’s work, when he was DJ-ing at it. “Anyway, I’m sure you’ll make plenty of great friends, honey.”
* * *
I trudge upstairs. This is the second night in a row that we’ve had Chinese takeout for dinner, because it’s the only cheap restaurant close to here. The rest are the kind you have a big celebration at—really expensive.
Mom’s light flicks on in her bedroom. I stand there, looking at the crack under her door, the strip of light illuminating the hallway’s floor. I walk up to the brown slab of wood and push it open.
My mom is sitting on the floor, the contents of a box pulled out all around her. It looks like she’d been unpacking. I start to back out of the room, thinking I better not interrupt her, and not wanting to, anyway. Then I see the teardrop fall, like a glistening pearl sliding down her face and landing onto the piece of paper she’s holding in her hands. Something inside of me changes. All the anger I’ve harbored against her, all the grudges, disappear. I peer in. The piece of paper is a picture of Dad, laughing on the beach, his hair wet and flattened down over his head. Watching my mother, I realize something—this isn’t her fault. She didn’t want it, either.
“Hey, Mom.” They’re the first real words I’ve spoken to her since the divorce.
Mom looks up. “Lilly,” she says. It sounds sad and happy at the same time, like one of Dad’s favorite songs that I can’t quite place.
“Can I come in?” I ask. Mom doesn’t respond. Instead, she moves some of the papers out of the way—pictures, I see, of her and Dad together. I sit down and lean against her.
“It hasn’t been easy on me, either, Lilly,” Mom says, holding my hand. She rubs her thumb up and down my palm.
“I know, Mom. I’m sorry.” I squeeze her hand. And then she wraps her arms around me, and we embrace. It’s the warmest hug I’ve ever had. We still have the ugly house. I still only see Dad on weekends. We still don’t have our furniture from the movers. And I still have to start at a new school tomorrow. But somehow, leaning against my mom, hugging her, everything seems OK.