CHAPTER ONE PLOT TWIST
A hot August wind lifted my brown hair and cooled the back of my neck as I waited for the bus to take me to my new school. I hoped I was standing in the right spot. I hoped I was wearing the right thing. I wished I were anywhere else.
My toes curled in my new shoes as I reached into my messenger bag and ran my thumb along the worn spine of my favorite book. I’d packed Anne of Green Gables as a good-luck charm for my first day at my new school. The heroine, Anne Shirley, had always cracked me up and given me courage. To me, having a book around was like having an old friend for company. And, boy, did I need a friend right about now.
Ten days before, I’d returned from summer camp
to find my home life completely rearranged. It hadn’t been obvious at first, which was almost worse. The changes had come out in drips, and then all at once, leaving me standing in a puddle in the end.
My mom and dad picked me up after seven glorious weeks of camp up north, where the temperature is cool and the air is sweet and fresh. I was excited to get home, but as soon as I arrived, I missed camp. Camp was fun, and freedom, and not really worrying about anything. There was no homework, no parents, and no little brothers changing the ringtone on your phone so that it plays only fart noises. At camp this year I swam the mile for the first time, and all my camp besties were there. My parents wrote often: cheerful e-mails, mostly about my eight-year-old brother, Tanner, and the funny things he was doing. When they visited on Parents’ Weekend, I was never really alone with them, so the conversation was light and breezy, just like the weather.
The ride home was normal at first, but I noticed my parents exchanging glances a couple of times, almost like they were nervous. They looked different too. My dad seemed more muscular and was tan, and my mom had let her hair—dark brown and wavy, like
mine—grow longer, and it made her look younger. The minute I got home, I grabbed my sweet cat, Diana (named after Anne Shirley’s best friend, naturally), and scrambled into my room. Sharing a bunkhouse with eleven other girls for a summer was great, but I was really glad to be back in my own quiet room. I texted SHE’S BAAAACK! to my best friends, Tamiko Sato and Sierra Perez, and then took a really long, hot shower.
It wasn’t until dinnertime that things officially got weird.
“You must’ve really missed me,” I said as I sat down at the kitchen table. They’d made all of my favorites: meat lasagna, garlic bread, and green salad with Italian dressing and cracked pepper. It was the meal we always had the night before I left for camp and the night I got back. My mouth started watering.
I grinned as I put my napkin onto my lap.
“We did miss you, Allie!” said my mom brightly.
“They talked about you all the time,” said Tanner, rolling his eyes and talking with his mouth full of garlic bread, his dinner napkin still sitting prominently on the table.
“Napkin on lapkin!” I scolded him.
“Boys don’t use napkins. That’s what sleeves are
for,” said Tanner, smearing his buttery chin across the shoulder of his T-shirt.
“Gross!” Coming out of the all-girl bubble of camp, I had forgotten the rougher parts of the boy world. I looked to my parents to reprimand him, but they both seemed lost in thought. “Mom? Dad? Hello? Are you okay with this?” I asked, looking to both of them for backup.
“Hmm? Oh, Tanner, don’t be disgusting. Use a napkin,” said my mom, but without much feeling behind it.
He smirked at me, and when she looked away, he quickly wiped his chin on his sleeve again. It was like all the rules had flown out the window since I’d been gone!
My dad cleared his throat in the way he usually did when he was nervous, like when he had to practice for a big sales presentation. I looked up at him; he was looking at my mom with his eyebrows raised. His dark brown eyes—identical to mine—were definitely nervous.
“What’s up?” I asked, the hair on my neck prickling a little. When there’s tension around, or sadness, I can always feel it. It’s not like I’m psychic or anything.
I can just feel people’s feelings coming off them in waves. Maybe my parents’ fighting as I was growing up had made me sensitive to stuff, or maybe it was from reading so many books and feeling the characters’ feelings along with them. Whatever it was, my mom said I had a lot of empathy. And right now my empathy meter was registering high alert.
My mom swallowed hard and put on a sunny smile that was a little too bright. Now I was really suspicious. I glanced at Tanner, but he was busy dragging a slab of garlic bread through the sauce from his second helping of lasagna.
“Allie, there’s something Dad and I would like to tell you. We’ve made some new plans, and we’re pretty excited about them.”
I looked back and forth between the two of them. What she was saying didn’t match up with the anxious expressions on their faces.
“They’re getting divorced,” said Tanner through a mouthful of lasagna and bread.
“What?” I said, shocked, but also . . . kind of not. I felt a huge sinking in my stomach, and tears pricked my eyes. I knew there had been more fighting than usual before I’d left for camp, but I hadn’t really seen
this coming. Or maybe I had; it was like divorce had been there for a while, just slightly to the side of everything, riding shotgun all along. Automatically my brain raced through the list of book characters whose parents were divorced: Mia in the Cupcake Diaries, Leigh Botts in Dear Mr. Henshaw, Karen Newman in It’s Not the End of the World . . . .
My mother sighed in exasperation at Tanner.
“Wait, Tanner knew this whole time and I didn’t?” I asked.
“Sweetheart,” said my dad, looking at me kindly. “This has been happening this summer, and since Tanner was home with us, he found out about it first.” Tanner smirked at me, but Dad gave him a look. “I know this is hard, but it’s actually really happy news for me and your mom. We love each other very much and will stay close as a family.”
“We’re just tired of all the arguing. And we’re sure you two are too. We feel that if we live apart, we’ll be happier. All of us.”
My mind raced with questions, but all that came out was, “What about me and Tanner? And Diana? Where are we going to live?”
“Well, I found a great apartment right next to the
playground,” said my dad, suddenly looking happy for real. “You know that new converted factory building over in Maple Grove, with the rooftop pool that we always talk about when we pass by?”
“And I’ve found a really great little vintage house in Bayville. And you won’t believe it, but it’s right near the beach!”
I stared at them.
Mom swallowed hard and kept talking. “It’s just been totally redone, and the room that will be yours has built-in bookcases all around it and a window seat,” she said.
“And it has a hot tub,” added my dad.
“Right,” laughed my mom. “And there are plantings in the flower beds around the house, so we can have fresh flowers all spring, summer, and fall!” My mom loved flowers, but my dad grew up doing so much yard work for his parents that he refused to ever let her plant anything here. The house did sound nice, but then something occurred to me.
“Wait, Bayville and Maple Grove? So what about school?” Bayville was ten minutes away!
“Well.” My parents shared a pleased look as my mom spoke. “Since my new house is in Bayville, you
qualify for seventh grade at the Vista Green School! It’s the top-rated school in the district, and it’s gorgeous! Everything was newly built just last year. Tan will go to MacBride Elementary.”
“Isn’t that great?” said my dad.
“Um, what? We’re changing schools?” The lasagna was growing cold on my plate, but how could I eat? I looked at Tanner to see how he was reacting to all this news, but he was nearly finished with his second helping of lasagna and showed no sign of stopping. The shoulder of his T-shirt now had red sauce stains smeared across it. I looked back at my mom.
“Yes, sweetheart. I know it will be a big transition at first. Everything is going to be new for us all! A fresh start!” said my mom enthusiastically.
Divorce. Moving. A new school.
“Is there any more news?” I asked, picking at a crispy corner of my garlic bread.
“Actually,” my mom began, looking to my dad, “I have some really great news. Dad and I decided it probably wasn’t a good idea for me to go on being the chief financial officer of his company. So I’ve rented a space in our new neighborhood, and . . . I’m opening an ice cream store, just like I’ve always dreamed!
Ta-da!” She threw her arms wide and grinned.
My jaw dropped as I lifted my head in surprise. “Really?” My mom made the best—I mean the absolute best—homemade ice cream in the world. She made a really thick, creamy ice cream base, and then she was willing to throw in anything for flavor: lemon and blueberries, crumbled coffee cake, crushed candy canes, you name it. She was known for her ice cream. I mean, people came to our house and actually asked if she had any in the freezer.
My mom was nodding vigorously, the smile huge on her face. She looked happier and younger than I’d seen her in years. And my dad looked happier than he had in a long time.
“And you two can be the taste testers!” said my mom.
“Yessss!” said Tanner, pumping his fist out and back against his chest. “And our friends, too?” he asked.
“Yes. All of your friends can test flavors too,” said my mom.
“Okay, wait.” I couldn’t take this all in at once. It felt like someone had removed my life and replaced it with a completely new version.
Who were these people? What was my family? Who was I?
“Eat your dinner, honey,” urged my dad. “It’s your favorite. There’s plenty of time to talk through all of this.”
My eyes suddenly brimmed with tears; I just couldn’t help it. Even if—and this was a big “if” for me—this would be a good move for our family, there was still a new house and a new school. What about my friends? What about Book Fest, the reading celebration at my school that I helped organize and was set to run this year?
I wiped my eyes with my sleeve. “What about Book Fest?” I said meekly.
My mom stood and came around to hug me. “Oh, Allie, I’m sure they’ll still let you come.”
I pulled away. “Come? I run it! Who’s going to run it now? And what will I do instead?”
I scraped my chair away from the table, pulled away from my mom, and raced to my room. Diana was curled up on my bed, and she jumped when I closed the door hard behind me. (It wasn’t a slam, but almost.) I grabbed Diana, flopped onto the bed, and had a good cry. Certainly Anne Shirley would
have thrown herself onto her bed and cried, at least at first. But what would Hermione Granger have done? Violet Baudelaire? Katniss Everdeen? My favorite characters encountered a lot of troubles, but they usually got through them okay, and it wasn’t by lying around crying about them. I sniffed and reached for a tissue, and slid up against my headboard into a sitting position so that I could have a good think, like a plot analysis.
My parents had been unhappy for a long time. I kind of knew that. I mean, I guess we were all unhappy because Mom and Dad fought a lot.
They both worked hard at their jobs, and I knew they were tired, so I always thought a lot of it was just crankiness. Plus Mom was the business manager and my dad ran the marketing group at their company, so I figured since they worked together all day, they just got on each other’s nerves after work. But if I really thought about it, I realized that they were like that on the weekends, and even on holidays and vacations. They snapped at each other. They rolled their eyes. And sometimes one of them stomped out of the room. ?And the more I thought about it, I realized they hadn’t spent a lot of time together over the past
year. Either Mom would be taking me to soccer and Dad would be staying home with Tanner, or Dad would be doing carpool and errands while Mom went with Tanner to his music lessons. We always ate dinner together, but starting last winter and right up to when I’d left for camp, there had been a lot of pretty quiet meals, with each of us lost in our own thoughts. Mom would talk to me or to Tanner, and Dad would always ask about our days, but they never actually spoke to each other.
I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to think of the last time we’d all been happy together. The night before I left for camp, maybe? We had my favorite dinner, and Dad was teasing that it would be the last great meal before I ate camp food for the summer. Mom joked that we should sneak some lasagna into my shoes, which Tanner thought was a really good idea. Dad ran and picked up one of my sneakers, and Mom pretended to spoon some in. We were being silly and laughing, and I felt warm and snug and cozy. I loved camp and couldn’t wait to go every year, but I remembered thinking right then that I’d miss being at the table with my family around me.
Later that night, though, I heard Mom and Dad
fighting about something in their room, like they seemed to do almost every night. Then for seven weeks I went to sleep hearing crickets and giggles instead of angry whispers, along with a few warnings of ?“Girls, it’s time to go to bed!” from my counselors.
Now I heard whispers from Mom and Dad on the other side of the door. They weren’t angry, but they didn’t sound happy, either. Then I heard the whispers fade as they went downstairs.
I guess I fell asleep, because when I woke up, Dad was sitting on my bed and Mom was standing next to him, looking worried. The lights were out, but my room was bright from the moon.
“Allie,” Dad said gently. “You need to brush your teeth and get ready for bed.”
“Do you want to talk about anything?” Mom asked as I sat up.
Suddenly I was really annoyed. “Oh, you mean like how you decided to get a divorce and not tell me? Or sell our house and not tell me? Or that I would need to move schools and totally start over again? Nope, nothing to discuss at all.” I crossed my arms over my chest.
“Allie,” Mom said, and her voice broke. I could
tell she was upset, but I didn’t care. “We are divorcing because we think it will make us happier. All of us.”
“Speak for yourself,” I said. I knew I was being mean, and on any usual day one of them would tell me to watch my tone.
“It is going to be hard,” said Dad slowly. “It’s going to be an adjustment, and it’s going to take a lot of patience from all of us. We are not sugarcoating that part. But it’s going to be better. You and Tanner mean everything to us, and Mom and I are going to do what will make you happiest. This separation will make us stronger as a family. Things will be better, and we need you to believe that.”
“And what if I don’t?” I said. I knew I was on thin ice. Even I could tell that I sounded a little bratty. “What will make me happiest is to stay in this house and go to the same school with my friends and . . .” I thought about it for a second. “Wait, if I’m moving to Bayville, when will I ever see Dad?”
“A lot still needs to be worked out,” said Mom. “For now you and Tanner and Diana will live with me at the house in Bayville during the week. Dad will come over every Wednesday, and
every other weekend you’ll be at Dad’s apartment in Maple Grove.”
I looked at Dad. “So every other week I’ll only see you on Wednesdays?” I felt my eyes filling with tears again.
“We can work things out, Allie,” said Dad quickly. “I am still here and I am still your dad and I will always be around.”
“I promise you, Allie, we’re going to do everything we can to make this better for all of us,” Mom said. I couldn’t see her face clearly, but I could see that she was trying hard not to cry.
Dad reached over and gave Mom’s arm a little squeeze. I sat there looking at them, not being able to remember the last time I’d seen Mom give Dad a kiss hello, or Dad hug Mom. Now here they were, but even that didn’t seem right.
“I’m not brushing my teeth,” I said. I don’t really know why I said that. I guess I just wanted to feel like I was still in control of something, anything. Then I turned away from them and pulled up the covers. All I wanted to do was go to sleep, because I was really hoping I would wake up and this would all be a bad dream.
I woke up and blinked a few times, remembering that I was back in my room at home and not still at camp. Well, home for now.
I slowly got up and listened at the door. I could hear Mom talking and the clink of a spoon in a bowl, which meant Tanner was slurping his cereal. I didn’t want to stay in my room, but I didn’t want to go downstairs either. I grabbed my phone. With all of the drama the night before, I had completely forgotten to check it. I looked at the screen, and there were eighteen messages, ranging from did a big scary monster eat you???? to OMG she came back and now she’s gone again! from my best friends, Tamiko and Sierra. I sent a couple of quick texts to them, and within seconds my phone was buzzing, as I’d known it would be.
Just then Mom knocked at my door and opened it. “Good morning, sweetie!” she said with her new Sally Sunshine voice that I was already not liking. “I’m so glad to have my girl home!”
I looked at her. Was she just going to pretend nothing had happened?
Mom came in and sat down on my bed. “Dad
left for work, but I took this week off. The movers are coming in a couple of days, and we’ll need time to settle into our new house.” She looked at me. I stared at the wall. The wall of my room, where I had lived since I was a baby. I looked at the spot behind the door, and Mom followed my eyes. She sighed. Since I had been tiny, Dad had measured me on the wall on my birthday and had made a little mark at the top of my head. He’d even done it last year, even though I’d told him I was way too old. “I’m going to miss this house,” she said softly. “It has a lot of memories.”
It was quiet for a second. Mom looked like she was far away.
“You took your first steps in the kitchen,” she said, really smiling this time. “And remember your seventh birthday party that we had in the backyard?” I did. It was a fairy tea party, and each kid got fairy wings and a magic wand. There had been so many birthdays and holidays in this house.
I had never lived in another house. All I knew was this one. I knew that there were thirty-eight steps between the front porch and the bus stop. I could run up the stairs to the second floor in eight seconds
(Tanner and I had timed each other), and I knew that the cabinet door in the kitchen where we kept the cookies creaked when you opened it.
“I think you’ll like the new house,” said Mom. “Houses. You’ll have two homes.”
I looked straight ahead.
“Your new room has bookcases all around it. I thought of you when I saw it and knew you would love it.” Mom looked at me. “And there’s a really great backyard to hang out in. I’m thinking about getting a hammock maybe, and definitely some comfy rocking chairs.”
“What about my new other house?” I asked.
“Well,” Mom said, “Dad’s house is an apartment, actually, and it has really cool views. It’s modern, and my house is more old-fashioned. It’s the best of both worlds!”
Mom sighed. “Honey, I know this is tough.”
I still didn’t answer. Mom stood up.
“Well, kiddo, we have a lot to do. I’m guessing Tamiko and Sierra are coming over soon?”
I looked at my phone lighting up. “Maybe,” I said.
Mom nodded. “Okay. Well, let me know what
you want to do today. It’s your first day back. Tomorrow, though, we do need to pack up your room. Dad and I have been packing things up for the past few weeks, but there’s still a lot to do.”
I looked into the hall. I must have missed the fact that there were some boxes stacked there. One was marked “Mom” and one was marked “Dad.”
Mom followed my gaze. “We’re trying to make sure there are familiar things in each house. You can split up your room or . . . I was thinking maybe you’d like to get a new bedroom set?” There was that fake bright happy voice again.
I looked around the room. I liked my room. If the house couldn’t stay the same, at least my room could. “No,” I said. “I want this stuff.”
“We should also talk about your new school,” Mom said.
I looked down at my feet. My toenails were painted in my camp colors, blue and yellow. I wiggled them.
“You’re already enrolled, but I talked to the principal about having you come over to take a tour and maybe meet some of your new teachers.”
“I think it might be good to take a ride over, just
so you are familiar with it before your first day,” she said. “It’s a bigger school, so you could get the lay of the land. And I’ve been asking around the new neighborhood, and there are a few girls who will be in your grade.”
“Okay,” she said brightly. “Well, we have this week to do that, so we’ll just find a good time to go.”
I swallowed hard.
Mom stood in the doorway and waited a minute, then stepped back into the room quickly, gathered me up in her arms, and hugged me tightly. “It’s going to be better, baby girl,” she said, kissing the top of my head like she used to when I was little. She was using her normal voice again. “I promise you, it might be hard, but it’s definitely going to be better.”
I tried really, really hard not to cry. A few tears spilled out, and Mom wiped them away. She took my face in her hands and looked at me. “Now,” she said, “first things first, because I think there’s a griddle that’s calling our names.”
I knew the tradition, so I had to smile.
“Welcome-back pancakes!” we said at the same time. Mom’s blueberry pancakes were my welcome-
home-from-camp tradition. She always put ice cream on them to make them into smiley faces and wrote “XO” in syrup on my plate. I could already taste them. I stood up and followed Mom downstairs. Maybe she was right about things. This day was already getting a little bit better.
The next couple of days were a blur. On our last night in the house, we sat on the grass in the backyard. We had been packing and hauling boxes, and we were all sweaty and dirty and tired. Mom and Dad had emptied out the refrigerator and cabinets, so we had kind of a mishmash to eat. Tanner was eating cereal, peanut butter, crackers, and a hot dog that Dad had made on the grill. For dessert Mom pulled out the last carton of ice cream from the freezer, and since we had packed the bowls up, we all stuck spoons in and shared. “Hey!” I yelped as Tanner’s spoon jabbed mine.
“I want those chocolate chips!” he said, digging in. Mom laughed. “In about a week we’re going to have so much ice cream, we won’t even know what to do with it!” Mom’s store was opening soon, and since she was so busy with all the details, the packing at home hadn’t exactly gone smoothly. Since Mom
kept having to go to the store for things like the freezer delivery or to meet with people about things like what kind of spoons to order, we actually got Dad’s apartment set up first. It was nice, but it was . . . well, weird. Tanner and I each had our own rooms, but they were kind of small. And Dad’s house felt like Dad’s, not really like our house. Dad had always loved modern things, so everything was glass and leather. It looked like it should be in a catalog. I was kind of afraid to mess anything up. ?There were a lot of pictures of me and of ?Tanner, but the first thing I noticed was that there were no pictures of the four of us.
“Where’s the one from New Year’s?” I asked, standing in front of a bookcase. We always took a family picture on New Year’s Day.
Dad looked around. “Oh,” he said, a little flustered. “I guess Mom took those shots. She has more room in the house.”
I looked at him. So this is how it’s going to be, I thought. The three of us here and the three of us there.
“We can take some new shots!” Dad said.
“Better,” I kept whispering to myself. They’d both promised it was going to be better. But it wasn’t really better. It was just downright weird.
The night before moving day, Tanner and I went to bed late. We had been packing all day, and we were beat, but I still couldn’t sleep. I heard the back door open. I looked out my window and saw a shadow on the lawn. I almost freaked out, but then I realized that it was Mom, sitting on one of the rocking chairs that we’d bought for the new house but that had accidentally gotten delivered here. She was facing the house, and she looked like she was trying to memorize exactly the way it looked right then. I wondered if she could see me looking out at her. Then I saw Dad walk toward her. It was kind of weird that he was still here, since he had his apartment already, but they had decided that we would all move at the same time. Dad sat down on the grass next to Mom, and I could see them talking but couldn’t hear what they were saying. I heard Mom laugh, and then I heard Dad laughing too. It was a nice sound. It was the last night we’d all be sleeping in this house together. I knew we were still a family—they kept telling us that—but it was the last time we’d all live together, and tomorrow morning everything was going to really change. I looked at
Mom and Dad laughing, but all it did was make my throat thick. Some things were too sad to see, so I flung myself into bed, hoping I’d fall asleep fast.
When the movers rolled up to the house early the next morning, Mom and Dad had already been up for hours, cleaning and sweeping and taking care of a lot of last-minute stuff. The house already didn’t look like ours anymore.
When everything was loaded up, Mom locked the front door and handed Dad the key. We all stood there on the porch for a minute, looking up at the house. Home. I started to cry, and so did Mom. I buried my head in Dad’s chest, and I could tell he was crying too. Only Tanner, who was sitting on the step playing a game on Dad’s phone, seemed unmoved. “Tanner!” I yelled. “Say good-bye to your house!”
Tanner looked up, confused. “Uh, bye, house,” he said, and we all laughed.
“Okay, troops,” Mom said. “Onward.” Tanner and I got into Mom’s car, and we pulled out of the driveway. I looked back down our street as long as I could, saying good-bye to everything as it was.
We turned onto the main road, and Mom took a
deep breath. “Okay, gang,” she said. “On to our next adventure! Here we go.”
“To where?” Tanner asked.
“To our new house,” Mom said, turning around to look at Tanner. “And to better things ahead.”
“Oh,” said Tanner. “I thought maybe we were going someplace fun.” Mom looked at Tanner like he had ten heads. Then she looked at me, and we both cracked up. Some things, it seemed, weren’t going to change at all.