A trip to Hyacinth Cove brings the cousins closer By Emily
This is the final installment of Emily Chang’s novella, which received honorable mention in our 2022 Book Contest. If you are a new subscriber, you can read the first two installments online in the May/ June and July/August issues.
Chapter 11: Why Laila Ran Away Just for Ice Cream
The car windows were open, and a breeze from the lake was blowing in as we parked by the beach. The drive to the Hyacinth Cove lake had taken over half an hour. By the time we got there, I was tired already, and not just of Julien’s endless ukulele strumming.
I stumbled out of the car and into the sunny parking lot, leaving the blue journal on the seat. My right leg had fallen asleep, and I shook it to get the feeling back in.
Uncle Pierre opened the trunk, and we each took some beach chairs to bring to the lakeside. We’d parked a little distance away from the little cousins, and I could see them waving at us through their car’s back window.
“We have to get the kayaks from their car since they have a roof rack and we don’t,” Julien explained as we walked across the crowded parking lot toward them. “I got the kayaks for my birthday.”
“You mean, I bought them for your birthday, good sir,” Adrian said, stopping to give an elaborate bow.
“Yeah, what you said.” Julien shifted the beach chairs he was holding and the ukulele he still had on his back.
“Do you seriously need to bring the uke? We’ve heard enough of it today,” Adrian said, and received a kick on the heel from Julien in return.
“Anyway, like I was saying,” Julien continued, “there are two seats in both boats. So Nicky, Aunt Illy, do you want to come and try them out with us?”
I shrugged. “Maybe.” Kayaking might be a nice distraction, but I didn’t feel like a nice distraction.
“I would like to,” she said. “The last time I went kayaking was a few years ago.
And—oh, but actually, I’m not sure you’d want to risk having me in the boat with you.” “Why? What happened?” Adrian and Julien were both interested.
“Well, I’m not the most graceful with a paddle,” Aunt Illy said. “I went with a friend, but let’s just say his right ear will never be quite the same again.”
“You hit him in the ear with a paddle?” Adrian was incredulous. “Wow, not even Julien’s that clumsy.”
“You’re one to talk, Mister Man Overboard,” Julien said.
“Did I say I hit him with a paddle? Did I?” Aunt Illy’s expression was so comical that I did feel the urge to smile, even through my worry. “Adrian, you jump to conclusions. Though unfortunately, yes,” she sighed, “that was the right conclusion. But what about Laila? Are you two forgetting her?”
“I don’t need to go,” Laila mumbled, and it seemed like the first time she’d spoken since the sapphire blue ordeal, since she’d been silent the whole car ride here. “I’ve been kayaking with you guys. Anyway, Adrian, you have . . . accidents.” Julien laughed loudly at that. “Exactly,” he said. “Your clumsiness rivals hitting anyone in the ear with a paddle, Mister Man Overboard. Maybe I shouldn’t trust you with my new kayaks.”
“You mean the ones I bought for you, good sir,” Adrian said back. “Of course you will.”
We got to where Tilly and Alex were waiting for us, next to their parents (who were maneuvering the folded tent out of the car) and my mom (who was holding the cooler with our lunches, and Rose’s removable car seat where she was sleeping). Julien and Adrian took the kayaks off the roof rack.
“How old are you, Julien? I forgot,” Alex said, swinging a bucket full of sand toys around.
“I’m seventeen,” Julien told him.
“Oh.” Alex nodded. “Are you in college?” “Not yet. I’m still in high school right now.” “Did you already go to college?”
“No, college is after high school. I haven’t been there yet,” Julien explained patiently.
“Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?”
“Tank.” “Tank who?”
“You’re welcome!” Alex sang, swinging the bucket in circles again and accidentally hitting Tilly in the stomach.
“Ow!” She stumbled backwards. “Alex, you are not under control,” Tilly said sternly, trying to grab the bucket from him. A small scuffle ensued, which Aunt Illy broke up yet again.
Rose had just woken up and started to wail. My mom put down the car seat and the cooler to hold her instead.
Then there was a thump and the sound of metal scratching pavement. I turned around to see the tent finally out of the minivan’s trunk, and Uncle Benjamin carrying it awkwardly. Aunt Carissa shut the trunk and picked up the car seat and cooler that were on the ground.
“All right, crew!” Aunt Illy said. “We’re ready now. Onward!”
All of us, carrying something, made our way to the lake beach. Lots of people had taken advantage of the weather today, and the beach was full of tents and towels and people. We walked a long distance to try and find a less crowded area to set up.
We put down the beach chairs. Alex and Tilly immediately sat down in the sand and started digging together. Apparently, they’d been planning a grand sandcastle for a few days, though they were still discussing and debating heatedly. Laila came over, and Tilly made room for her on the ground while Alex started giving her orders.
“Attention, large people in this family!” I heard Aunt Illy call. “Please assist the valiant in a wrestling match against the tent!”
I was the fourth-shortest person in this family, but I figured they might need my help anyway. Adrian and Julien, who were about to launch their kayaks, turned and came back too.
Uncle Benjamin was shouting instructions, and I took one corner of the tent beside Aunt Illy. With the other “large people,” we pulled out the tent’s base in four directions. The top expanded and rose until it stood six feet high. The base was even wider. We put pegs in to anchor the tent to the sand, and Aunt Illy declared victory.
Now the tent was up, almost everyone was settled. But I had no idea what to do. I sat down on the sand beside the architects at work and watched them build. I didn’t feel like joining in, though.
I looked toward the lake, where Adrian and Julien had just set out on their kayaks. They paddled farther and farther out until their boats became smudges of orange on the water.
“Did you want to go with them?” I hadn’t heard Aunt Illy come up behind me until then.
“Not really,” I said, slowly turning around to face her.
“You’ve been sort of quiet today,” she said gently. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I was about to say, but I didn’t want to lie. Suddenly I wished for nothing more but to confide in Aunt Illy, to tell her about my worries and everything about Ms. Fleming, but I knew it would all take too long to explain, and I couldn’t bring myself to go back and relive those awful moments. And I realized that I had never mentioned Ms. Fleming to Aunt Illy before. Not even in my letters. Why hadn’t I? Wasn’t she important to me?
“I’m . . . worried about someone. And I don’t know how to control . . . what’s going on,” I ended up mumbling as an answer to Aunt Illy.
She sat down on the sand beside me and sighed softly, staring out towards the lake. “I’m sorry you have to go through that,” she finally said. “Do you want to talk about it?”
I shook my head no. Aunt Illy was the kind of person who didn’t push, and I was grateful for that.
Just then, Tilly came over to where we were sitting. “Aunt Illy, can you help us build?” she asked.
Aunt Illy glanced at me and I nodded, telling her I’d be okay for now. “Yes ma’am,” she told Tilly, and scooted over to where the sandcastle was shaping up under the hands of Alex and Laila.
I thought I saw Laila shoot a look at me, but when I turned back to her, she was facing the other way again, helping Alex dig sand out of the castle’s moat.
* * *
I managed to make it through the rest of our time and past lunch (which we ate in the tent, though not even mochi donuts from Aunt Illy could make me feel better). I went kayaking for a few minutes with the boys when they got back from their first run, though it was hard to talk or laugh with anyone, even when Adrian was capsized (it seemed half on purpose). The tent had tried to escape from its pegs twice during the bigger winds, and the grown-ups routinely checked to make sure it was secure. And since the morning, the little cousins’ sandcastle had grown to Tilly’s height and featured a moat filled with lake water, a bridge, and several stories with windows.
But I just wanted to leave.
Knowing Aunt Illy was willing to listen only stopped up the worry a little. I knew she had good intentions, but I still couldn’t explain anything to her.
I wished I could go hide in a dark corner and not come out until this was all over. Or, better yet, I wished I could run out of here, run away, run home, run to the hospital so I could know if Ms. Fleming was okay. Every minute took an agonizing effort to act normally.
Unable to do any of that, I went toward the tent, hoping to be left alone there. But a gust of wind had just yanked a corner of the tent from the ground again, and Uncle Benjamin was putting it back in. In the distance, I heard the tinkling music of an ice cream truck.
Alex came over to me. “Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” I mumbled.
I was cut off by a piercing shriek from behind me. I spun around to see Tilly no longer working on the sandcastle but screaming her head off.
Aunt Illy took Tilly in her arms, trying to find out what was wrong. I came over, just as confused as she was.
It was Alex who had the answer.
“It’s the ice cream truck,” he said. “She’s scared of the ice cream truck. At home, she always starts crying when she hears it.”
Glue sticks and now the ice cream truck! But Aunt Illy didn’t laugh; she only hugged Tilly and tried to calm her down.
I wished I could go hide in a dark corner and not come out until this was all over.
“I have an idea,” she said. “How about we get some ice cream for her? Then she’ll know the ice cream truck is nothing to worry about. It’s nothing to worry about, okay, Tilly? Come on, we’ll go together.” She stood up, but Tilly’s hysterics only got louder.
“I can get the ice cream if she doesn’t want to go,” Laila said from behind me. “Did someone say ice cream?” Adrian had paddled over when he heard Tilly, though I was surprised he could hear the words “ice cream” over her cries. “Count me in. Can you get me a double cherry dip, Laila?”
“Okay, fine,” Laila said. “But you—come back here!” Adrian had paddled away again.
Tilly’s heaving sobs had calmed down a little by now, butshe didn’t say anything when Aunt Illy asked her what flavor she wanted. “She likes strawberry,” Alex said. “I like strawberry too, with rainbow sprinkles. Let’s get that.”
“How about you, Nicky?” Aunt Illy asked, turning to me. “Since we’re all getting ice cream, it seems.”
If she thought ice cream would make me feel better, she was wrong. But I shrugged and said “Chocolate’s fine” because I understood her efforts.
Laila reviewed the orders while Aunt Illy counted out money for the ice cream and handed it to her. Strawberry with rainbow sprinkles for Alex and Tilly, double cherry dip for Adrian, chocolate for me, a chocolate caramel swirl waffle cone with peanut butter morsels for Laila, and a vanilla cup for Aunt Illy “if it wasn’t too much trouble.” Six ice cream cones in total.
“You sure?” Aunt Illy raised her eyebrows at Laila when she heard all of this. “I can come with you. It’s a lot to hold all at—”
But she was cut off when Alex sounded a cry of alarm, just as Tilly’s was fading. Aunt Illy dove to catch the crumbling turrets of the sandcastle before they were washed into the tiny surrounding moat. Tilly stopped sniffling long enough to toddle over and try to pat some sand back on, but she ended up brushing off more than she replaced.
“You’ve got your hands full too,” Laila said to Aunt Illy. “I can manage. It’s just across the lake. See you later!”
And she tucked the money into a little pink purse that she had in her pocket, then began running off in the direction of the ice cream truck.
“Laila, it’s six ice cream cones,” Aunt Illy yelled, but Laila was starting to disappear from sight.
Aunt Illy sighed, trying to dig out the moat again as Alex ordered. “I’m sorry.
Nicky, can you go with her?”
“Me?” I glanced around to try and find someone else who would help hold six ice cream cones. But Julien and Adrian were far away in the water, my mom was holding Rose who was asleep in her arms, Uncle Pierre was putting away the remains of lunch, and I saw Aunt Carissa and Uncle Benjamin wrestling the tent yet again. I looked back again and saw Laila far off now.
So I had no choice but to follow her.
Chapter 12: Why I Traded My Sandals for a Friend
Sighing, I turned to run after Laila. Why was she running, anyway? There was no point in moving so fast. Unless she really was anxious for ice cream, which was stupid.
I caught up with Laila just as she was going through a tall gate. “What’s the rush?” I asked, annoyed.
“Oh, it’s you.” She threw a glance at me but didn’t answer my question. I worked to keep the pace she was going at, but she seemed to be trying to go faster than me. I was exasperated, but I kept running. I knew I wasn’t any slower than she was.
I ran along the lakeshore, across a field, through two more gateways, and over a gravel pathway, following Laila and the music from the ice cream truck. Through another gate, past a brick building, and then to the street. I passed Laila. The ice cream truck was coming into view.
But right when I got close, the truck’s engine suddenly started up. “Wait!” I yelled, running even faster.
To my dismay, the ice cream truck started rolling away. “Hold on!” I waved my arms in the air as I ran to get the driver’s attention.
When I finally caught up to it, the truck stopped and the driver came over to the window.
I slowed down, my sandals slapping the ground as I tried to catch my breath. But Laila had the money, so I had to wait for her. I heard her jogging up from behind.
Laila brushed past me to the truck window and rattled off our orders to the ice cream man so fast that he had to ask her to repeat them. She did, slower.
The ice cream man started preparing the orders, but then paused. “Sorry, we’re out of chocolate caramel swirl.”
“Oh, okay,” Laila said. “I think I’ll just have vanilla, then.”
One by one the man handed ice cream cones to Laila, who passed them on to me. “I don’t have that many hands,” I hissed as Laila tried to shove the fourth ice cream cone at me. “Simple math. You hold three, I hold three.” I was already trying to hold two cones between the fingers of one hand. Not so easy. But she still held out the ice cream like she expected me to take it.
“Thank you, sir,” Laila said to the ice cream man, ignoring me. She had turned away, and now I was forced to take the double cherry dip cone in front of my face. Two ice cream cones in each hand.
“Laila,” I growled.
Still I was ignored. Laila only took the money from her little pink purse and handed it to the ice cream man. “Have a nice day, ladies,” he said, handing Laila the change and then retreating from the window to the driver’s seat. In a moment, the truck revved up and began driving away.
I turned on Laila. “Take the ice cream cone already,” I snapped.
But still she didn’t. “I have to—” she glanced around. “Is there a bathroom around here?”
Who was she to totally ignore me, refuse to hold the ice cream, and then just leave?
“Seriously?!” I groaned. “You have to go right now?”
“Uh, yeah. I think we passed one just now.” She held out the one other ice cream cone and Aunt Illy’s vanilla cup. “Take these.”
“Can’t you hold it or something?” I asked.
“Um, can you hold it?” It took me a second to realize she was talking about the ice cream.
Before I knew what was happening, Laila had shoved the ice cream at me and disappeared into the brick building by the side of the street, leaving me to balance six ice cream cones in my hands now.
I stared after her. I wanted to yell. I wanted to scream. I wanted to throw all the ice cream at the wall. Or better yet, at Laila’s head.
Who was she to totally ignore me, refuse to hold the ice cream, and then just leave? I put the ice cream cones on the ground, all the while seething at Laila’s rudeness and selfishness and insensitivity. My chocolate ice cream cone was there, but I was absolutely not in the mood for ice cream anymore.
I sat down on the ground, staring bitterly towards the lake. Behind me, an old speaker from the side of the building played crackly announcements and music at intervals. “South gate on . . . closes at . . . Five o’clock promptly . . . North . . . closes . . . dusk . . .”
Finally, finally, the bathroom door swung open and Laila walked out.
“Why did you just—” I started furiously, but didn’t know how to finish. Anger clogged up my words. Anger at mostly Laila, but somehow also the ice cream man, Tilly, everyone who had ordered stupid ice cream, even Aunt Illy. Though it wasn’t really the ice cream I was mad about. It was just that I’d never asked to be here. I’d never asked to help Laila with ice cream. I’d never asked to come on this lake trip today. I’d never asked for Ms. Fleming to end up where she was right now—
Feigning calmness, I picked up three ice cream cones, she picked up three ice cream cones, and we started walking back the way we came. My words were still stopped up inside my throat. The silence was tense.
Then, when we came back to the gravel pathway, a huge closed iron gate loomed above us.
“Wasn’t this open before?” Laila said, frowning.
Well, yeah, it was. How did she think we got through the first time?
She started walking beside the fence that the gate was connected to. “I wonder if we can get around it.”
Obviously not. What would be the point of a gate if you could get around it? “Now how are we supposed to get back? Aren’t there always announcements for when they close things up? You should have been listening.”
I should have been listening? I wasn’t the one who insisted on going to the stupid bathroom when we had ice cream cones to take care of. And Laila was blaming me?
“What? Why are you looking at me like that?” Laila said crossly, taking a lick of her ice cream and glaring at me.
At that moment, I just exploded.
“You,” I shouted at Laila. “You can’t just try to run faster than me, ignore me, shove the ice cream at me like that, say it’s my fault we’re stuck here and expect to get your own way. Why are you so selfish? What’s wrong with you today? Scrap that—not just today. You’ve always been like this and I just. Can’t. Stand it. What is wrong with you?”
For a moment, Laila’s face pinched up as if she were about to cry. But she didn’t.
Instead she shot back just as fast. “Me? You’re pointing at me. You’re calling me selfish. And you’re ignoring the fact that you’ve been a grouch all day,” she said fiercely. “Seriously? You think I don’t care about other people? You’re the one who never seems to care.”
“Never seems to care?” I screamed. “Well, maybe I don’t care about you, but—”
Laila interrupted loudly. “And I bet you’d never be smart enough to realize it, but—”
“I’m just worried about Ms. Fleming,” we said at the same time. I blinked, not sure if I had imagined it.
Laila stared at me.
I stared back.
She was the one who broke the silence.
“Well, I am,” she said quietly, dropping her gaze to the ground. “My mom told me what happened. And . . . you were there, weren’t you?”
“Yeah, I was there.”
I fiddled with the wrapper on my ice cream cone, trying not to think too much about how scary yesterday had been.
“Sorry.” Laila looked back up at me again. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen either, and, well . . .”
For some reason, I had to make a hard effort to keep the tears from spilling out. Everything felt so mixed up. And the only person who understood was probably . . . Laila.
And in some strange way, that made me feel just a little better. A long pause. Then Laila spoke again.
“So how do you think we can get back?” She looked past the gate, then behind us at the path that wound far away into a grove of trees.
“We could see if that path goes anywhere,” I offered.
So we started following the trail. But before it really took us anywhere, we hit another closed gate and had to go back.
“I can see them right there,” Laila sighed, looking out across the lake. “Adrian and Julien in their silly kayaks.”
I had a sudden inspiration. “What if we yell at them to come over? And they could take us back to the other side of the lake.”
“Sure.” Laila accepted this idea surprisingly quickly.
We started screaming for her brothers. “Julien! Adrian!”
“Get over here, you clowns!” (That was Laila.)
But their kayaks stayed tiny specks in the distance against the sinking sun, not coming any closer. “That must have been a whole minute,” I gasped, trying to catch my breath. “I don’t think it’s going to work.”
Laila scowled. “This is so annoying. I can see the big tent right—there.” She pointed, and I saw it too. Amid the thinning crowds of people on the other side of the lake, there was a small blue smudge. Half of it was tamped down and the other half was blowing in the wind.
“If only we could . . .”
Both of us were silent for a while, contemplating the problem. Then Laila said suddenly, “Swim it.”
“What?” I wasn’t sure if I’d heard her correctly. “We can swim it.”
“We can swim across the lake, Nicky! Are you deaf or something? I mean”— she let out a breath—“Yeah. Do you think we can make it?”
“I think . . . we might be able to,” I said, feeling hope growing in my chest. Swim it! Of course. The other side of the lake looked just under a thousand meters away, so Laila and I, both on the swim team, could probably make it across. I glanced at Laila, who was wearing shorts and a T-shirt like I was. Not optimal swimwear, but if Laila didn’t care about her clothes, of course I wouldn’t either. We could make it!
But my hope stopped abruptly when I realized what was in my hands.
“What about these?” I held up an ice cream cone—to be exact, Adrian’s double cherry dip ice cream cone, which was starting to drip all over my hand.
“We can . . . eat them, I guess,” Laila said, shrugging. “Sorry, Tilly.”
So we did. Laila had already started on her vanilla cone. She agreed to eat Alex’s and Tilly’s ice cream, while I had my own cone, Adrian’s, and Aunt Illy’s.
“I’m not usually supposed to have this much ice cream at a time,” Laila commented. And at first, it was indeed nice to have it all to ourselves. But by the time I neared the end of Adrian’s huge double cone, I was starting to feel sick of ice cream. When I was done with that one, I eyed the vanilla cup with distaste. It wasn’t really ice cream now, more like warm melted vanilla sludge. But I slurped it up anyway, and gladly tossed the empty cup into a nearby trash can when it was all gone.
Laila, too, had finished her ice cream by then. “Ready?” she asked me. I nodded.
We walked to the edge of the lake and slipped off our sandals. The cool water lapped at our bare feet.
Laila checked her pink purse. There were a few coins still in it. They’d get wet, but that didn’t matter.
“Freestyle?” I asked Laila. The stroke was fast enough and not too tiring.
“You know, I—” Laila started, then stopped.
“Never mind. Let’s go.” I took a deep breath.
And together, we plunged into the water.
* * *
Pull, pull, pull, breathe. I settled into the rhythms of the freestyle stroke, feeling the water wrap around me like a cool blanket and the droplets slicking down my nose whenever I turned for a breath. I watched Laila as we moved through the water. She seemed to know which direction to go in, so I followed her.
This was the first time I’d been in the water since my ankle accident—which, I realized with a pang, had been at Ms. Fleming’s house. But it felt wonderful to be back and swimming again, even if it was in slightly murky lake water, even if it was just so we could get back after our mistake.
Well, it felt wonderful at first.
But by the time we had reached the middle of the lake, a cramp started in my stomach.
Oh, no. It must have been from the pile of ice cream we’d just eaten. But that didn’t matter, I told myself. We were halfway through. We could make it. Maybe.
My clothes began to feel heavy with water. I dragged myself forward for each stroke and kicked as hard as I could manage with my sore legs. It felt like even the gentle lake current was pushing against us, pushing us back. All of this—and all of our walking around from before—was taking a toll on my ankle too, which was starting to feel as if it would fall off.
The ache in my side grew to a burning pain. Whenever I looked to the side to breathe, it didn’t seem like the opposite shore was any closer. When I faltered for a second to try and feel the bottom of the lake, there was nothing but more water below my feet.
I struggled on, trying to keep Laila in my line of sight. It felt like she was getting slower too.
My breaths became ragged gasps. My sloppy form would have enraged Coach Hattie.
And then, just when I felt like I couldn’t swim another stroke, I felt the sand of the shore beneath my feet.
We made it. We made it!
I pulled myself out of the water and stumbled onto the shore after Laila, both of us gasping for air. We collapsed on the sand.
When I finally caught my breath, I got to my feet slowly, and so did Laila. Though we hadn’t landed right where our own family was, I could see them a short distance away. I turned to look back across the lake.
We had swum all that way. Full of ice cream. And with clothes on.
But when I looked back at Laila, her expression wasn’t one of triumph. She seemed . . . distracted.
“What’s up?” I asked her.
“I just—” She paused. “Are you afraid of anything?”
The question caught me off guard. The first thing that came to mind was Tilly’s myriad fears. “Um, not of glue sticks,” I blurted out. Laila cracked a grin.
“But yeah. I guess I am. Isn’t everyone?” I said cautiously. Laila had never asked me anything like this.
“I was scared of losing the two-hundred free,” she said softly, looking back at the lake we had just crossed. “I knew you would have won if you swam it. I was scared that if I didn’t, I’d be . . . letting everyone down.”
“I wouldn’t have beaten Caihong Cui,” I said. I was recovering from my mild shock of Laila discussing fear openly with me, and the fact that I actually wanted, for some reason, to make her feel better about it. “And besides, you didn’t let everyone down. Seriously—” and I fought back the twinge of jealousy before I said this—“you’re going to the H2O World Heights!”
“Yeah. I guess so. Though I know you could have made it too.”
“Maybe,” I said, though I was more reassured than I wanted to show. I’d felt a little better about the swim meet after reading Aunt Illy’s letter, but Laila’s firm conviction gave me a strange sort of comfort.
“Oh, and thanks for the card, by the way,” she said, turning back to me. “What card?”
“The birthday card you gave me. You really are clueless, Nicky.” Laila rolled her eyes, and I couldn’t help grinning a little. But I stopped when I realized I hadn’t smiled otherwise all day, because of—
“Well, about your question . . . I’m kind of scared—right now, I mean—about, you know. Ms. Fleming,” I heard myself saying then. “I need her to be okay.”
“Me too,” Laila said. There was a hitch in her voice. When I looked up, I saw her face was wet, and I knew it wasn’t just from the lake water.
Slowly, we started back to the family. It looked like they were just about to pack up. The boys were holding their kayaks, and the tent was coming down. Alex and Tilly were running around, celebrating their finished sandcastle.
Aunt Illy saw us then, and rushed over. “Where have you two been?” she asked frantically. “You were gone for so long. I was just about to go and look for you. What happened—where are your shoes?”
“And where’s my ice cream?” Adrian butted in.
I only realized then that we had forgotten our shoes on the other side of the lake. And Adrian’s ice cream?
I looked to Laila, who was barefoot, dripping wet, her hair a mess and her clothes covered with sand. I knew I was just as much of a wreck.
Adrian’s ice cream? Laila looked back at me. Her face twitched with the hint of a suppressed smile.
And then, wonder of wonders, we burst out laughing together.
After the exhausting day, it was a relief to come home and get ready for bed.
“I’m so sorry,” my mom repeated, and now there were tears spilling out of her eyes. “I didn’t want to be the one to tell you, but—”
When I went downstairs to say goodnight to my mom, I was reviewing all of today’s events in my head again—especially the swim across the lake with Laila. I had never really figured her out until then. But as I went through everything she had said before and after the lake, I was surprised to find that it all made sense somehow.
My mom was sitting at the kitchen table, holding her phone in front of her. When she heard me coming over, she jerked her head up quickly and flipped her phone over, face down, on the table.
“Oh, Nicky—” she started, but then slumped back against the chair. Her eyes were red.
“What is it?” I asked, confused. A tiny voice of trepidation was tugging at me too, but I tried to ignore it.
“I wish I didn’t—you didn’t—she didn’t—oh, I’m so sorry.” My mom stood up and tried to wrap me in a hug, but I drew back, wanting to know what was going on. The anxious voice inside grew to a ringing alarm.
“What happened?” I insisted.
“I’m so sorry,” my mom repeated, and now there were tears spilling out of her eyes. “I didn’t want to be the one to tell you, but—”
A bunch of possibilities flew through my head as I tried to decipher what she was saying.
But none of them prepared me for the truth.
Chapter 13: Why?
When Ms. Fleming was in the hospital, they figured out that she had had dementia. For a long time. And that it had reached a really bad stage.
And now I was seeing all the signs that I never picked up between odd jobs and conversations and cookies from over the years. How had I not picked them up? How had I just dismissed it all as her occasional forgetfulness? How could I have been so oblivious?
Hadn’t I cared enough to notice?
That night, and every night afterwards for a week, I cried myself to sleep. I don’t remember what I did with the days.
Why had this happened?
Why hadn’t I been paying attention?
Ms. Fleming didn’t have any family to take care of her. But I could have noticed. I could have listened. I could have left her with fewer worries, and maybe she wouldn’t have—
But it was too late now.
* * *
It took a while for reality to sink in. I didn’t want reality to sink in.
She was really gone.
Some parts of me thought this was a bad dream. And why should I have to believe in a bad dream?
* * *
In my mind, I can see her. I can still see her right there, maybe in the kitchen, taking a fresh batch of gingersnaps out of the oven, or showing me how to take care of her potted plants.
I can still hear her voice. I can still see her.
* * *
In my dreams I look everywhere for her.
In the bathtub where we found her alarm clock. In the microwave where we found her slippers.
In the attic, where unsorted items still stand like ghostly sentinels.
I check WIG SHAMPOO and WIG SHAMPOO, USE FIRST. Laila helps me reach the top shelf.
The kitchen table is still littered with photographs, but she’s not in any of them. Knock, knock.
Are you there, Ms. Fleming? Where are you?
Why can’t I find you?
Chapter 14: Why All Dresses Should Be Made with Pockets
On the morning Ms. Fleming’s funeral would be held, I was sitting on the floor of my room and leaning against my bed, staring numbly out the window instead of putting on my dress. The sun was shining outside, the trees rustling gently, the sky a soft blue. It seemed all wrong.
My thoughts were churning, just as they had been for days.
Memories kept on spinning and spinning. Gingersnaps. Wig shampoo. French horn. Journals.
I kept staring out the window. Cloudless and blue, blue, blue. Almost like it had been that day.
But the storm had snuck up so quickly. I heard my mom coming upstairs. “Nicky? Are you ready to go?”
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t ready.
“Nicky?” She stopped beside the door of my room. “No,” I whispered. “No, I don’t want to go.”
Somehow my mom had heard me, even from the doorway. She came over and sat down next to me on the floor, putting an arm around my shoulders.
“Why don’t you?” she asked gently.
“I don’t want to see the other people,” I said, my voice trembling. But no, it wasn’t just that. I didn’t know how to explain it. “I don’t want to hear them—if they—when they talk about—” Ms. Fleming, as if she were only a memory. Ms. Fleming, as if she weren’t a real person, a real person whose loss had left an empty space that could never be filled again.
“I know what you mean.” There was something strangely heavy in my mom’s voice.
“I know. Sometimes you’d rather be alone. I . . . feel that way myself.” She sighed. “But all these other people are just there to show you they care too,” she continued. “So, we’ll go together, okay? And if you need to, we’ll excuse ourselves and go to a back room or something.”
“Okay,” I said quietly. I looked up into my mom’s glassy eyes, suddenly realizing that she did understand. My dad had died before I was born. Was this how she’d gotten through it?
“I’ll be downstairs while you get ready,” she said, wrapping me in a hug. “Thanks,” I whispered into her shoulder. Somehow, talking to her had given me the bit of strength I needed.
So once she left, I put on a dress and a brave face and got ready to go.
When I was leaving my room, I saw the wrinkled photo of Ms. Fleming with her horn, which was still lying in the corner of my desk. I tucked it into my dress pocket.
* * *
The carpeted room of the funeral home was about half full with people, most of whom were from our neighborhood, all of whom were talking quietly.
When we walked in, I saw Laila and her family in one corner. Aunt Kay looked as if she hadn’t slept for a week.
Already I was starting to feel uncomfortable. I definitely wasn’t in the mood to talk right now, and I was afraid that if someone came over to me, I’d lose it.
I stayed around, though, not wanting to be rude by leaving right away. There were purple flowers in vases against the walls, and I wondered if whoever arranged them knew that Ms. Fleming’s favorite color was purple. Maybe Aunt Kay had had a hand in it.
There was also a photo display against one wall, and it suddenly occurred to me that maybe the photos we’d been looking through had been used. I didn’t go over to look at it closely, afraid that I’d see something familiar. Odd thoughts started popping into my head, like if Ms. Fleming had no living relatives, who took care of all this stuff, and how much could Aunt Kay possibly have done, and would Ms. Fleming mind any of this if she were here?
Then, I don’t know why, my dress started to get itchy and the smell of the purple flowers was too sweet and the room was too stuffy and it was just too strange that I was here, wandering around at Ms. Fleming’s funeral, and I just had to get out because I couldn’t take it anymore.
I left the room as discreetly as I could. When I got to the long hallway, I could finally breathe again.
I wandered down the hall slowly, looking into any open doorways for an empty room. The first one I saw was small and had a few soft chairs in it, and I ducked in. I sat down in one of the chairs, taking a deep breath and leaning against the headboard.
I took the photo of Ms. Fleming out of my pocket and stared at it for a while. She looked so happy in the picture. Thinking back, I realized that she had been happy most of the time I saw her. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing, I thought, to be remembered happy.
Then I heard someone else come in.
“Hey, Nicky,” a quiet voice said. It was Laila Alicie. “Hi,” I said, looking up.
Laila came over and sat down in the chair beside me. Her eyes were red and puffy, but she gave me a small smile.
Her face changed when she saw the photo I was holding. “That’s . . . Ms.
Fleming, right?” I nodded.
“How did you get the picture?” And so I told her.
I told her all about cleaning out Ms. Fleming’s attic and finding the French horn and the music and pictures, and even before that. I told her about the jobs I had helped Ms. Fleming with, including finding the wig in the garbage can the day Laila came over, the day I sprained my ankle.
And Laila listened. She listened to everything I described, which I wouldn’t have thought possible a week ago or before. But by now, I was realizing how wrong I had been for more than eleven years. How wrong we both had been.
By the time I finished, I was blinking back tears. Laila said, “She really does make the best cookies.”
I felt myself smile. “Yeah.”
“Well, I—” Laila began, and then turned away to dig out something from her pink purse, which was now dry and free of lake water.
And she took out the hot pink journal that I had bought for her birthday. “Maybe my mom told you that I like journaling,” she said shyly. “I write things down sometimes, to . . . deal with them, you know. It’s pretty helpful. And I’m trying to write about everything that’s happened recently, so I can make sense of it.”
Maybe that was why Ms. Fleming had kept journals too. The thought came with a tinge of bittersweetness.
Laila opened the cover and showed me the first few sentences, highlighted pink, that she had written on the front page.
“If you asked me what my biggest problem was during the first eleven years of my life, I would have told you it was Nicole Kenton. Also known as my cousin. Also known as the most annoying person on the planet.
“But the summer right before seventh grade changed all that completely.”
Chapter 15: Why I Finally Finished My Summer Homework
It’s funny how time can seem to stop for you but the rest of the world will keep on going. I had blinked for a second and suddenly the start of seventh grade was in my face.
And my summer homework still wasn’t done. An entire essay loomed before me, and I had no clue where to start.
It was evening now, and I was sitting at my desk and staring at the last question in the giant packet. “Write an essay or story about your past summer. You may choose to use the pages attached in this packet, or to use your own paper. Minimum length 5 pages.”
My eyes wandered over my desk. There was the blue leather journal that Aunt Illy had given me, which reminded me of Laila’s journal.
“I write things down sometimes, to deal with them, you know.”
There was my unfinished letter to Aunt Illy, which I would much rather be writing, since she didn’t require five pages from me.
“Your letters to me often seem like stories.”
And there was the photograph of Ms. Fleming, which had taken up permanent residence in the neatest corner of my desk.
I knew the urge to cry wouldn’t ever go away when I thought back to her. But I could remember other things besides the sad day. Like her gingersnaps. Her French horn. Her laugh. And how she accomplished the impossible . . . bringing Laila and me together.
The beginnings of an idea started coming together in my head. So I opened my blue journal to the first page, put my pencil to the paper, and began to write.