Nicky discovers some items in Mrs. Fleming’s attic that unearth upsetting memories from the past
This is the second of three installments of Emily Chang’s novella, which received honorable mention in our 2022 Book Contest. You can read the beginning of Nicky’s story in our May/June issue.
Chapter 8: Why the Second Suitcase Had Such a Weird Shape
“I’ve got Saturday appointments booked now,” my mom told me as she gathered her things. “Sorry about that, Nicky, but I won’t be home when you get back.”
It was Saturday morning, and my mom was rushing around the kitchen and getting ready to go out. Since Ms. Fleming’s house was on the way, she would drop me off there before going to her appointments for today. I’d walk back home as usual.
“It’s fine,” I said. Remembering how I still had half of Ms. Fleming’s attic to go through, I added, “I might stay there a little longer too.”
“As long as it’s okay with Ms. Fleming,” she said. “And you still have your summer homework to finish, so don’t stay too long, okay?”
“Okay,” I sighed. Summer homework seemed to be always haunting me. And I still had that essay to figure out. Given the choice, I’d much rather help at Ms. Fleming’s house than write an entire essay. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the choice.
We got to Ms. Fleming’s house, and my mom drove off to her appointment.
Ms. Fleming opened the door. She was wearing a giant yellow raincoat and leaning on her cane.
“Is it going to rain?” I asked, looking up at the sky. There were only a few gray clouds in the distance.
“No, at least I don’t think so. I’m just a little cold, that’s all.” She slipped on the hood of her jacket.
Cold? Itwas ninety degrees outside. But maybe she’d turned her air conditioning on too high.
When we went inside, I checked on the air conditioning. It was off.
“Laila’s birthday party was beautiful, wasn’t it?” Ms. Fleming said, before I could ask any more about the raincoat. “It was so wonderful to see you there, too.”
“Uh . . . yeah,” I said, suppressing my sigh. I’d tried to shove the birthday party away into a corner of my mind after it was over, but I should’ve known Ms. Fleming would bring it up.
“I wanted to stay a bit longer, but I was getting tired. I’m sure the rest of the party was lovely, though.”
I nodded. “It was fine. There was cake.” I didn’t mention that I’d given Alex half my slice because there was just too much pink frosting to swallow.
“Cake is not great for my age, but I’m glad you could enjoy it,” Ms. Fleming said. “Oh, and I was going to ask you—do you think you’ll be able to bring the boxes down?” she asked, to my relief, changing the subject. “I didn’t want you to do it last week, in case . . . well, oh, there was a reason, but I can’t remember what it was.”
“That’s okay, I can do it. And maybe—” I paused, thinking of the cluttered mess that still hadn’t been sorted out up there. “What if you look through the stuff I put in the boxes last time while I finish getting the other half organized? And then I could bring the rest down.”
“That is a good idea,” she said, smiling.
I pulled down the attic steps, ran up, and switched on the light. There were about ten boxes from last time, and I started with the ones that held the fancy clothes.
I brought the first heavy cardboard box to the kitchen, which had the most space in Ms. Fleming’s house. I figured she might want to spread things out to look at them all. Ms. Fleming must have thought so too, since she was waiting there to take the box from me and set it on the floor.
It took me ten trips up and down to get everything from the last time downstairs. The barricade of boxes lined one entire wall of the kitchen. My ankle was starting to ache after that marathon—flights of stairs probably weren’t too good for it—but I headed back up to the attic anyway to finish my part of the job. I thought this time around would be easier, since I had already finished organizing half of the stuff and probably knew more about where things were.
But it turned out that last week had been the easier half.
The things that were left seemed too large to fit in boxes, like a long, wire rabbit cage I hadn’t seen before. The rolled-up rug was taller than I was, and so was the mannequin. The old radio must have weighed forty pounds or more. And I didn’t even try to bother with the giant bed frame.
I put the picture frames away, though, and the other things that fit into boxes— an old chess set, a small typewriter (which was heavy, but I managed), a pair of purple fashion boots.
Leaving most of the larger items where they were felt sort of incomplete, but I would have to ask Ms. Fleming what to do with them. I went to the smaller cardboard boxes next, just to check and see what was inside.
The next box was filled with papers, probably from Ms. Fleming’s school days. The one on the top was titled Quarter 4 Honor Roll, and there were many more certificates like it underneath. Annual Science Fair Winner. Excellence in Musicianship. Clearly, Ms. Fleming had been a much better student than I was.
In the middle of the row of boxes were the two suitcases. The first one, metallic purple with wheels, was empty. And the second one was black with a sticker that said Phyllis Fleming on the side. But it had such a strange shape—larger and rounder at one end than the other. What could it possibly be made for?
I unclasped the buckles on the suitcase and found the answer. It wasn’t a suitcase at all. It was a case for a French horn.
The horn, sitting in the velvet lining of the case, was a beautiful shining gold that caught the faint light and tossed it around the room. The metal was smooth and clean, and only when I looked closely could I see the tiny dents and scratches that told of use. I’d seen horns in my school’s band but had never heard or looked at one up close. I was almost afraid to touch the instrument, especially since I had no clue how to handle it.
I tugged open a strap on the inside of the case, and when it opened, sheet music came spilling out before I could catch it. I saw American Overture, Selections from the Wizard of Oz, The Firecracker (Xylophone Feature). Carefully, I put the music back together and tucked it into the pouch inside the case.
I closed the case slowly, making sure that the instrument was secure before I fastened the buckles. Then I glanced to my side. There were a few more small boxes left that I hadn’t gone through, but I decided to just bring them downstairs and check later.
Because I needed to ask Ms. Fleming about this.
* * *
When I carried down the few boxes from my efforts at organization, Ms. Fleming was standing by the ones already in the kitchen and seemed to be almost finished looking through them all. The hood of her raincoat was off now.
“It looks like you did a wonderful job, Nicole,” she said, smiling. “I might keep some of these books down here. I’m not quite sure what to do with the other things, though. I’d hate for you to have to carry them all back up again . . .”
“It’s fine,” I told her quickly. “I don’t mind. It’s . . . exercise, I guess.”
Ms. Fleming laughed. “Yes, I suppose so. Butwouldyou mind helping medecide?” “Just after I get a few more things downstairs,” I said. I definitely hadn’t forgotten about the French horn.
It took me a while to carry it into the kitchen, especially with my aching ankle. But when I brought it, I heard Ms. Fleming gasp. “That’s my—you found—it’s been in the back of my mind, bu—” She stared at me in amazement.
I set the case down on the floor. I couldn’t keep the grin from my face now. “I didn’t know you played the horn. That’s so cool!”
“It’s been so long since—I mean, I don’t know why I put it away . . .” Ms. Fleming walked over and unbuckled the case, slowly shaking her head.
“Can I hear you play?” I asked eagerly, sitting down on one of the kitchen chairs. “I haven’t practiced in forever,” she said, a little embarrassed that I had now become her audience.
But she took out the horn anyway, drawing in a quiet breath as she picked it up and fingered the keys. She took out a silver mouthpiece from a pocket inside the case, too, and put it on the horn.
Whatever song she was playing—it had a sort of melancholy feeling, which sometimes became forceful and energetic. Like someone crying.
She brought it to her lips and played.
The rich sounds of the notes resonated through the room. Ms. Fleming might have thought she was out of practice, but that didn’t make any difference to me right now.
Now it seemed that she had started a song. A little flurry of notes ran down a scale, and then went back to long, sweet tones. The only other sound in the room was the crinkling of Ms. Fleming’s raincoat as she moved.
I’d never really heard a horn before, and I closed my eyes to listen to the warm sound of it. Whatever song she was playing—it had a sort of melancholy feeling, which sometimes became forceful and energetic. Like someone crying.
She got to the end of a phrase and paused. “That’s all I remember. Just the first little part.”
I stared, and for a moment I didn’t realize that my mouth was hanging open. I caught myself and clapped a little instead. “That was . . . amazing,” I managed to say. Ms. Fleming laid the horn on her lap and glanced down, smiling shyly. “Thank you,” she said in a quiet voice. “I don’t know why I put it away for so long. There must have been a reason, but I don’t recall.” She looked up at me. “I used to play in bands, though. And that was so much fun—”
She set the instrument back in its case and began rummaging through the velvet pocket. She pulled out the pile of music that I had accidentally dropped earlier. “Yes! This was some of what we played. Did you see any other boxes with music?”
I shook my head no, but stopped when I remembered the small boxes I hadn’t bothered to look through before. Quickly, I located those boxes and brought them to the table.
The first box Ms. Fleming opened was indeed the sheet music. She leafed through the papers, her smile growing wider with each page she passed, and she was practically glowing when she reached what she’d been looking for.
Ms. Fleming pulled out some music stapled together. Horn Concerto, Op. 8 (Franz Strauss) titled the first page. “This is one of my favorites. What I played earlier.” She began humming the music to herself, while I reached for another of the small boxes to see if there was more music inside it.
But when I opened that box, I found photos, not music. Looking closely, I could tell that most of them were from concerts. I picked up the one at the top, which was of a younger version of Ms. Fleming. In the photo, she was standing on a stage, dressed in a black sparkly sweater and holding her horn.
“Oh!” Ms. Fleming saw the new box in my hands. I tried to give it to her, but it turned out that she wasn’t ready.
The box toppled over between us, and I had to quickly stuff the photo I was holding into my shirt pocket to catch the other ones spilling out. A bunch of the pictures scattered all over the table. “Sorry,” I said, trying to get everything together.
But then Ms. Fleming snatched up a photograph at the edge of the table. “This one is when we were at the gardens,” she exclaimed, showing it to me. In the picture, she and three other horn players were standing together in front of a stone wall. “Our quartet was wonderful.”
She picked up another photo. “And this is the one when my shoe fell off. It was two sizes too big. We were walking up the . . . I didn’t want to drop my horn . . . and I almost fell into the water . . .”
She began laughing hard and let go of the photograph, which drifted onto the table. Though I didn’t know exactly why, I started laughing too.
When we both calmed down, she continued through the photos that lay all over the table, offering parts of anecdotes with each. I nodded along, since although she didn’t finish every story, I could get a taste of what had happened behind each photograph. Her many friends in the music world. Her frequent mishaps during concerts—which she seemed to find funny now, though they clearly hadn’t been so to her in the past.
I had never seen this side of Ms. Fleming before—this love of music and people and reminiscence. And though she sometimes would pause at some photographs, not sure of the exact events pictured, overall she seemed happier than I had ever seen her before.
So right now, I was smiling as much as she was, though for a different reason. “Well, I really have to thank you, Nicole,” Ms. Fleming said, putting down the photos she was holding. Her face was shining with happiness. “I never would have been able to go through all of these without you. And my horn too!” She sighed. “It’s no problem,” I said. “And, I mean, I don’t know anything about music . . . but . . . you’re really good at the horn.”
“Oh, I . . .” She looked away, laughing softly again. “Well, I’m happy you think so. But it was so long ago. I don’t know why I haven’t practiced . . . but I’m not as good as I used to be.” The laughs turned into coughs.
Ms. Fleming cleared her throat, pulling her raincoat close around her. She stared wistfully at the photograph she’d been holding, which showed her and a flute player sitting on a wooden platform and laughing together. “It was so long ago.”
Chapter 9: Why a Raincoat Came in Handy
We had spent so much time looking through the photographs from her concerts that we’d nearly forgotten about the other things there. Only when Ms. Fleming picked up a photograph of herself in a purple sparkly dress (which I saw was the same one I’d seen in a box earlier) did she realize, “I haven’t finished going through all the other things yet.”
Slowly, she pushed the photos to one side of the table. “Ah, well. I can look through all those later. If you could help me decide what to keep—besides my music things, of course?”
“Sure. Which ones did you go through already?” I asked, getting off my chair.
Ms. Fleming turned around, her raincoat crinkling. “Well, the books, I think, and I do want to keep the napkin holder . . . actually, I’ve seen almost everything, except that box”—she pointed to a small one, which I was pretty sure held the four journals—“and the other ones you brought down just today.” She reached down for the box of journals. “I’m not sure what this could be,” she said as she was about to open it.
But then her eyes widened when she saw the box’s contents. She didn’t say anything, but lifted out the journals one at a time. She flipped open the notebook at the top, the orange one, and silently began reading from somewhere in the middle.
As she turned a page, her face crinkled in a frown. Then, without warning, she let go of the notebook and it fell onto the table with a loud thud.
“Are you okay?” I asked, a little confused.
Her sigh was strangely heavy. “Yes . . . yes. You found these in the attic?” She glanced at me and then back to the journals. “Oh, yes. I remember you told me . . .”
She picked up the pale green journal, riffled through it, and got to a page close to the end. There was only a small section of the page in my line of sight, but it was all blacked out with marker.
Ms. Fleming shut that one too and looked up. There was a disquieted look in her eyes that scared me. I suddenly felt how uncomfortably warm it was in the house without the air conditioning on.
“Well, you haven’t looked through everything, right? Did you see . . . um, this?” I rushed to fill in the space left by her strange silence and picked up a large box that sat against the wall. Realizing that it was the box full of fancy dresses, I pushed it over.
“Oh, these.” Turning away from the journals on the table, she stood up to investigate the box. She tugged open the flaps of the box slowly, and her face brightened a little when she saw the item on top—the shimmery purple gown. “Yes, I have seen these. And you know I said that you could keep anything you liked, right? What about this one?” She held up the dress.
“Well . . . I mean . . . I’m not a huge fan of fancy clothes,” I said apologetically.
She smiled slightly then. “That’s all right. I should have known. I just wanted to make sure. But if we find something, really, I don’t mind if you keep it. I have too much anyway.”
“Okay, thanks. I’ll keep my eyes peeled.”
“You know—” She put the dress back into its box and looked at me. “I was just thinking of your cousin. Do you think Laila would . . . I could ask her when she comes over on Wednesday . . . Oh, I should have given the clothes to her as a birthday present!”
If Ms. Fleming thought she had too much, Laila had a rocket-ship load of fancy clothes. Why would she even be thinking of Laila right now?
Forgetting my concern over Ms. Fleming’s uneasy look before, I said, “Laila doesn’t need any more stuff.” This came out a little more bitter than I’d meant it to.
Ms. Fleming frowned a little. “What makes you think so?” she asked.
“She has . . . everything,” I said, and this time I didn’t even try to keep the scorn out of my voice, since I knew I’d fail. “And she’s not afraid to show that to people too. I don’t know how to explain it. She’s just . . .”
I sat up in my chair, realizing that something had gone really wrong.
I stopped, seeing Ms. Fleming’s expression growing more and more troubled. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“You don’t have as much as she does? Is that all that bothers you?”
I shook my head, frustrated with myself. I didn’t know how to say this right. I didn’t know how to explain Laila’s eagerness to pick a fight with me ever since we’d known each other, how she was always bragging about something or other, how the rest of her family was so nice but she somehow wasn’t, because she was Laila, self-absorbed, obnoxious Laila Alicie Kenton von Luzenborg.
“I think you have just as much,” Ms. Fleming said quietly, bringing me out of my angry thoughts. “Aren’t you cousins? Both of you have a wonderful . . . family . . . And the birthday party . . .”
She broke off, coughing, and leaned on the table. Her coughing fit lasted for a whole minute.
I sat up in my chair, realizing that something had gone really wrong. “Sorry . . .” I said. “I didn’t mean to get steamed. I just don’t think Laila needs your nice things, is all.”
“Nicole,” Ms. Fleming said, looking down at me again. “I just want to say—well, you know—things aren’t forever. That—” she gestured vaguely over toward the photographs strewn all over the table—“Well, if you have nobody—you don’t—” She started coughing again.
This time I got to my feet. “Do you need water?” I asked. “Why don’t you sit down?” “No,” she said, and there was a haunted urgency tugging at her voice. “No. I don’t, I need you to—We lose people so fast. Because we don’t bother to—” Despite her denial, I went to the sink, filled a glass of water for Ms. Fleming, and brought it over for her to drink. She clearly wasn’t well. I tried to silence the worry in the back of my head, because that wouldn’t help. Listening to what she was saying might help.
“—and you’re a wonderful neighbor,” she was saying, but her voice shook as she put on the hood of her raincoat. “And I’m so lucky to have you—and Laila— but what if I didn’t—what if you didn’t—” She started shaking all over.
“Are you okay?” I asked, desperate, because she clearly wasn’t okay. “Can you tell me what’s wrong? I can . . .” I stopped. I had no idea what I could do. I could barely understand her fragments of speech.
The water glass slipped out of her hands and wobbled on the table. She said something too soft for me to catch. “What was that?”
“I think we all have enough,” she breathed in a whisper so quiet I could barely hear it.
And then she leaned forward, her hands on the table, and didn’t say anything more but stared straight ahead.
“Ms. Fleming?” No answer.
“Ms. Fleming, can you—can you hear me?” I felt panic rising in my throat.
What had happened to her? What should I do?
“Are you okay? Do you need me to call my mom?” I waited, my heart pounding.
Still there was no response—Ms. Fleming only continued to stare into space.
Frantic, I flew to the telephone. My fingers were trembling as I dialed my mom’s number.
“Mom? It’s me, Nicky. I’m at—”
Muffled sounds came from the other end. “Nicky? Is that you? This signal is horrible. Hold on, let me—” More crackly sound.
Then, “Are you still there?” Her voice was clearer now.
“Yes!” I gasped. “I’m at Ms. Fleming’s house—something happened to her.” I glanced at Ms. Fleming’s frozen figure at the table and held the phone tighter. “I don’t know what to do—can you come over? Please?” I gripped the phone with both hands, pressing it hard to my ear.
“Oh. Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m half an hour away right now at Sandalwood County. I can get to you, but—” She was interrupted by more crackling sounds.
“I can get back, but it’ll take a while. Nicky, don’t worry, okay? I think Aunt Kay might be around. Try calling her, she might be able to get to you first. I’ll be on my way, though. Just stay calm, okay?”
“Okay.” I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay calm, but I could follow her other orders. I hung up and called Aunt Kay’s number as fast as I could.
It seemed an eternity before she picked up. “Hello?” Finally my aunt’s voice came on.
“Aunt Kay, it’s Nicky and I’m at Ms. Fleming’s house and there’s something wrong with her and I need help, and my mom’s too far away and she said I should call you, so can you come over?” It came out all in a rush, but I didn’t care. How had things escalated so fast?
“I’ll be right there.” Aunt Kay didn’t ask any questions.
I looked out the window, where raindrops were just starting to fall. When would she get here?
Ms. Fleming stirred then, surprising me. I spun around to see her moving. She looked like she was about to walk to the other side of the kitchen, but didn’t. “Ms. Fleming?” I said cautiously, but she didn’t answer. The look in her eyes
was frighteningly blank. I felt the panic rising again. But then, to my relief, I heard Aunt Kay at the door.
I let her into the house quickly. “What’s the problem?” she asked, hurrying in, but then stopped in her tracks when she saw the situation.
It was hard to force the words out. “Ms. Fleming and I were just talking, and then she sort of got—I don’t know, she sort of—well, I don’t know if she’s conscious right now, and I—”
“Ms. Fleming?” Aunt Kay came close to her. Ms. Fleming turned her head, but didn’t seem to see me or Aunt Kay standing there.
I stood to the side, twisting and twisting my hands together. “Do you know what’s wrong?”
“I don’t,” Aunt Kay sighed, taking Ms. Fleming’s hands in hers. “But I think we should get her to the hospital. Nicky, you did the right thing, calling me.”
Somehow, Ms. Fleming could walk when Aunt Kay guided her forward slowly.
I rushed to open the front door for them.
Over my shoulder, I glimpsed the piles of boxes and photographs and our unfinished day. It felt so wrong to leave it all behind, all messy and scattered. But I had to shut the door behind us.
The sky was clouding over, a darkening gray, though it was still the early afternoon. Aunt Kay’s car was waiting outside in the rain. “I can drop you off at home later,” she said to me as she tried to bring Ms. Fleming down the front step.
I shook my head no. I couldn’t slow them down.
“I can get home by myself,” I choked out. And before Aunt Kay could have a chance to argue, I turned and ran down the street.
My sandals slapped loudly on the ground, a harsh beat to accompany the distant thunder. My ankle was throbbing, but I didn’t stop until I reached home. By then, the rain was beating down harder and the sidewalks were slick and wet, and so was I.
Shivering, I unlocked the door and then went through the house, closing all the windows. When that was done, I sat down in front of my desk.
What was I doing here? I stared at the papers scattered on the desk. My unfinished letter to Aunt Illy. The summer homework packet, also unfinished. I didn’t bother to touch either of them. I didn’t bother to push the sopping hair out of my face.
What had happened to Ms. Fleming?
My mind flipped through everything that had taken place this afternoon. It had all happened so fast.
And then I became conscious of something that was sticking to my shirt. I looked down, and realized that one of Ms. Fleming’s photographs was still in my shirt pocket. The one of her standing on the stage with her horn, smiling.
I took out the photo and laid it on my desk. It was wet and wrinkled.
I sat there, numb. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything. I just stayed in my room, waiting for my mom to come home. Water dripped from my wet hair and clothes. I didn’t feel like getting a towel.
Outside, thunder and lightning crashed. Rain pounded against my window. And the fact that Ms. Fleming had been wearing a raincoat was cold comfort.
Chapter 10: Why There Was an Argument about the Tesla’s Shade of Blue
When I woke up the next morning, all traces of last night’s thunderstorm had vanished. Sunlight streamed in, and a light breeze blew through my open window.
The weather was perfect for spending a day at the lake, and I knew we’d be doing just that today. It was almost enough to let me believe that yesterday’s events had just been part of a bad dream.
But I knew they weren’t. My mind rushed back to the previous afternoon. When my mom had finally come home yesterday, she had phoned Aunt Kay, who was at the hospital. They had had a long talk, discussing all the responsibilities and legal decisions and problems there would be, since they didn’t know how to contact any of Ms. Fleming’s relatives, or if she had any. The conversation had continued into the evening, and eventually Aunt Kay had decided to skip our outing today, since she still had to figure out things.
Now, as I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, my worries continued to swirl. I wished that I wouldn’t have to go to the lake with everyone and feign happiness, either. I wished I could stay with Aunt Kay, who was trying to sort things out for Ms. Fleming at the hospital.
But I would have to get this day over with. I dragged myself out of bed and took as long as possible to get dressed.
When I got downstairs, my mom was already packing lunches for us and all our relatives. Sometimes she could seem like a machine—always able to get things done, no matter how hard they were, no matter what other distractions were going on. I didn’t understand it.
* * *
We had planned to meet up at Aunt Kay and Uncle Pierre’s house. When my mom and I arrived there, their family (minus Aunt Kay) and the little cousins were already waiting and packing things into their cars. And, after looking around, I realized that Laila wasn’t there either.
I slunk around to the other side of the car—the Kenton von Luzenborg Tesla, which my mom had driven back here yesterday so we could use it for the family trip—where I thought no one else would be.
But I turned out to be wrong.
Laila was already there, crouched beside the car door. She glared at me. I backed off, miffed that she would give me a dirty look like that for absolutely no reason.
And then I heard a car door slam, and a familiar voice sing out, “Hey, it’s my favorite family!”
It was Aunt Illy.
I came out from behind the car. There she was, greeting everyone and holding little Rose, who was clutching a white blanket with a rabbit face on one of the corners.
“Hi, Nicky! You’re here!” Aunt Illy caught sight of me and came over.
“Hi, Aunt Illy,” I said, trying to be cheerful. After all, I’d been looking forward to seeing her for weeks. But I couldn’t shake the anxiety from my mind, and I couldn’t bring myself to do anything more except plaster a smile to my face.
Maybe she didn’t know that I was faking it, but Aunt Illy seemed to notice something. “You okay?” she asked.
I shrugged. Rose reached forward, trying to grab my hair. I ducked out of the way and made a silly face at her to avoid Aunt Illy’s question. Rose crossed her eyes. “All right. Well, I’ve got something in my car to show you, okay?” Aunt Illy bounced Rose in her arms, who giggled.
“Oh, sure,” I said, and now my curiosity distracted me just a little. I wondered what she had this time. Aunt Illy always brought the best presents. Like the time she’d gotten Rollerblades for me when they were just what I had wanted, even though I hadn’t told her that at all. And before that, when she had sent a mesh bag with Nicole Kenton (species: fish) embroidered on it, which I’d used as my swim bag from then on.
But I doubted that even the best presents could erase any of my anxiety. “Kenton kiddos!” Aunt Illy called. “Come on over here!”
Alex and Tilly came running. “Tilly rhymes with Illy,” Tilly announced.
“That’s true,” Aunt Illy agreed. “You know what else rhymes? Silly and Tilly and Illy.” She tickled Tilly, who giggled.
Adrian and Julien came over from where they were helping to pack beach chairs into their car. Julien was carrying something on his back in a patterned case—his ukulele. And Laila arrived beside us last, a stormy expression still on her face.
“I want to show y’all a few things—,” Aunt Illy began, but Tilly interrupted. “Is it glue sticks?” she asked dubiously.
Aunt Illy did a double take. “What? Glue sticks?”
“Last time someone gave me glue sticks,” Tilly said, her face pinching up. “She doesn’t like glue sticks,” Alex explained. “Once, she got an art set from somebody and there were glue sticks in it. She doesn’t like how they’re like sticky worms, and she doesn’t like the hole in the middle.”
“Oh, I see,” Aunt Illy said, nodding, as if she totally understood this irrational fear of Tilly’s. But I could see my older cousins’ faces twitching, as if they were trying to suppress their smiles.
“She’s also scared of worms and the mailman and humidifiers,” Alex continued. “And people’s nostrils going like—this.” He turned up his nose and put his face next to Tilly’s.
“Stop it!” Tilly tried to kick her brother in the shin. Alex avoided the kick, and then moved as if to shove her away. But Aunt Illy intercepted them both.
“Okay, okay. Alex, we don’t need you to show off your nose. And what I’ve got is better than glue sticks or nostrils or any of those things,” she said, pulling the two of them apart. “Adrian, would you get the crate from my trunk? It says ‘White Copy Paper’ on the outside.”
Adrian returned with the wooden crate and set it down on the driveway. “Tilly first. Not a glue stick,” Aunt Illy said, lifting out a stuffed giraffe from the top.
Tilly’s eyes widened. “But I love—how did you know, Aunt Illy?” She hugged the giraffe close to her chest immediately when Aunt Illy handed it to her.
Alex picked up the next item himself. It was a book titled Knock Knock Jokes for Kids. “As if you need any more,” Adrian teased, but Alex sat down right there on the driveway and started leafing through the pages.
The notebook was nice, but—I’d never kept a journal before. And seeing it made me think back to Ms. Fleming and her piles of journals.
I wouldn’t have expected the next gift to be for me—maybe for Laila, since it was pretty much what I’d gotten for her birthday. But Aunt Illy was definitely taking out a blue leather notebook that had Nicole stamped in gold letters on the front cover.
“You know how I was saying your writing skills are better than you think?” Aunt Illy said to me.
I recalled her letter. “Um . . . I still don’t know about that, though.” “Really? Well, you still might find this helpful.”
I took the notebook from her hands and opened it. It was a good size. The inside pages were dotted instead of lined, and there were two ribbon markers.
“Ooh! It’s pretty,” Tilly said, standing on tiptoe to get a good look at it.
I managed to muster a “Thanks” to Aunt Illy. The notebook was nice, but—I’d never kept a journal before. And seeing it made me think back to Ms. Fleming and her piles of journals. The blacked-out page. Her awful episode after that, and where she was now . . .
I suddenly felt nauseous, and though I knew Aunt Illy had good intentions, I wanted to hide the notebook in a dark closet somewhere and never look at it again.
“Knock, knock,” Alex said, interrupting my thoughts.
The rest of us did what was expected of us. “Who’s there?” “Summer.”
“Summer my jokes are funny, and some aren’t.” Alex cracked up. “Like summer homework,” Adrian quipped.
That confused Alex. “What do you mean, summer homework?” “Summer doing it, and some aren’t,” Julien chimed in.
“But what do you mean? You don’t have homework during the summer, do you?” Adrian sighed. “Welcome to teenage life, buddy.”
“What did you get for Laila?” Tilly, who didn’t care about summer homework, was peering into the crate.
Laila’s gift was a pink T-shirt that had I’M A SWIMMER. WHAT’S YOUR SUPERPOWER? on it in big black letters. Julien’s was almost identical, except his read MUSICIAN instead.
“I couldn’t find any that said troublemaker,” Aunt Illy joked as she took out Adrian’s present, which was a fancy brass military whistle on a silver chain.
“Knock, knock.” Alex again. “Who’s there?”
“Water.” “Water who?”
“Water we waiting for? The cars are ready, I think!”
I looked up and saw that Alex was right. Aunt Carissa had just slammed the trunk of their silver minivan after her hard efforts with my mom to pack a folded tent inside. There were two kayaks on the roof rack of the minivan, and everything else seemed in place too. Julien put away Aunt Illy’s crate, and the rest of us, holding our presents from her, went to get into the right cars.
I wasn’t sure where my mom and I would go—we hadn’t planned anything before this, except that we’d be riding with our relatives instead of driving ourselves. And, of course, that the little kids would be put in one car and the teenage boys in the other, which was what we always did for big family trips. (Aunt Kay had always said that it was how we split the noise equally, so neither driver would go too crazy.)
“I’m going with Alex and Tilly,” my mom said to me. “And I think Illy’s going with them”—she motioned toward the Kenton von Luzenborg Tesla—“which leaves extra seats in both cars. Where do you want to sit?”
“Maybe I’ll go with Aunt Illy,” I said, preferring her company over that of Alex and Tilly, who I knew from past experience often squabbled in the car. I didn’t want to deal with bickering cousins right now.
But of course, Laila would be in the car with me too, and I’d be subjected to Adrian’s teasing and possibly Julien’s ukulele songs. But Laila seemed intent on ignoring me today, which I was totally fine with. And I could bear with her older brothers.
“Will you stop calling it ‘sapphire blue,’ Laila?” I heard Adrian groan as he climbed into the car after Laila and Aunt Illy got in. “It’s just the plain old Tesla blue. Their only shade of blue. It’s not even called ‘sapphire.’”
So much for no bickering cousins. I took the middle seat in the second row, next to Adrian. Julien came in last and pulled down the door. Uncle Pierre was in the front.
“Um, even if they didn’t mean to, it is sapphire,” Laila snapped from the seat behind me. “I have an eye for color, okay? So just shush.”
“Seriously, what’s with you today?” Adrian muttered. To me, he said, “She’s been like this all morning. Fun, am I right?”
I mumbled a slightly coherent reply. Something had just occurred to me. And the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.
Had Laila heard about what happened to Ms. Fleming? It was Aunt Kay who was absent right now, after all, and surely Laila must have received some explanation from her. And was it possible that Laila was feeling as tense as I was right now?
I glanced toward the two back seats. Laila was sitting to the left of Aunt Illy. She was staring out the tiny window in the back, muttering to herself, “I know sapphire blue when I see it.”
“Ready to go?” Uncle Pierre called from the front, starting up the car. We turned out of the driveway, following the minivan.
I wasn’t ready to go. I wanted to stay back, away from the sapphire blue Tesla and the lake and the sunny day and the happy people.
I looked down at the journal in my lap with my name on it. I wasn’t ready to go, but they were moving on anyway.
. . . to be continued in the Sept/Oct 2023 issue of Stone Soup.