Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1 Rosie
It’s on the night I burn my stories that the danger begins. Or maybe that a life begins that’s different from the one I knew before.
It starts with me and Germ, the way most things do. I am in the backyard reading Germ a story I wrote.
The story is about a woman asleep in a pile of white feathers. No matter how her daughter tries to wake her, the woman is so deeply asleep, she won’t stir. She sleeps for years and years and years.
Then one day the daughter finds a beautiful black iridescent feather buried deep amongst all the white ones. She plucks the black feather, and there is a shudder as all the feathers begin to move. And the girl sees that the pile was never a pile at all but instead that her mother has been sleeping on the back of a giant feathered beast who has been holding her captive and enchanted.
The girl’s mother stirs as the beast does. She tumbles off the back of the beast, and together they escape to a remote village at the edge of the earth. Safely hidden, they live happily ever after.
Germ listens in silence and stares out at the ocean as it crashes against the rocks far below my yard. She wraps her coat tighter around herself to ward off the early fall chill. She’s got a new look today—thick black eyeliner. It looks weird, and Germ is clearly aware of this, because she keeps swiping at it with her thumb to wipe it away. She’s trying to look older but not doing a very good job. I don’t know why she tries, because her eyes are pretty as they are.
When I finish and look up at Germ, she frowns out at the water, her brows lowering uncertainly. I can predict something like 1,021 of Germ’s moods, and I can tell she’s reluctant to say what she’s thinking.
“What?” I ask. “You don’t like it?”
“I do,” she says slowly, stretching and then settling herself again, restless. (Germ never looks natural sitting still.) Her cheeks go a little pinker. “It’s just…” She looks at me. She scratches the scar on her hand where—at my request—we both cut ourselves when we decided to be blood sisters when we were eight. Her freckles stand out the way they do when she’s feeling awkward.
“Don’t you think we’re getting too old for those kinds of stories?”
I swallow. “What kinds of stories?”
“Well…,” Germ says thoughtfully, “the mom waking up.” Germ looks sheepish. “The happy ending. Fairy tales.”
I look down at the paper, my heart in my throat, because it’s so unexpected. Germ has always loved my stories. Stories are how we met. And what’s the point of writing a story if there isn’t a happy ending?
“It’s just…” Germ flushes, which again makes her freckles stand out. “We’re in sixth grade now. Maybe it’s time to think about real life more. Like, leave some of the kid stuff behind us.”
If anyone else said this to me, I would ignore them, but Germ is my best friend. And she has a point.
Suddenly I find myself studying the two of us—Germ in her eyeliner and the plaid coat she saved all of last year’s Christmas money for; me in my overly large overalls, my too-small T-shirt, my beloved Harry Potter Lumos flashlight hanging around my neck like a bad fashion accessory. I’ve been doing this more and more lately, noticing the ways Germ seems to be getting older while I seem to stay the same.
“Well, I’ll revise it,” I say lightly, closing my notebook. Germ lets her eyes trail off diplomatically, and shrugs, then smiles.
“It’s really clever, though,” she says. “I could never come up with that stuff.”
I knock her knee with mine companionably. This is the way Germ and I rescue each other—we remind each other what we’re good at. Germ, for instance, is the fastest runner in Seaport and can burp extremely loud. I’m very short and quiet, and I’m stubborn and good at making things up.
Now Germ leaps up like a tiger, all athletic energy. “Gotta get home. Mom’s making tacos.” I feel a twinge of envy for Germ’s loud, busy house and for the tacos. “See you at school.”
Reaching the driveway, she hops onto her bike and pedals away at top speed. I watch, sad to see her go, and thinking and thinking about what she said, and the possibility of a choice to make.
Inside, the house is dim, and dust scuttles through the light from the windows as I disturb the still air. I walk into the kitchen and tuck my story away into a crevice between the fridge and the counter, frowning. Then I make dinner for me and my mom: two peanut butter and banana sandwiches, some steamed peas because you have to eat vegetables, Twinkies for dessert. I use a chair to climb up to the top shelf over the counter and dig out some chocolate sauce to drizzle onto the Twinkies, scarf my meal down—dessert first—and then put everything else on a tray and carry it up two flights of stairs.
In the slanted attic room at the end of the third-floor hall, my mom sits at her computer, typing notes from a thick reference booklet, her long black hair tucked behind her ears. Her desk is littered with sticky note reminders: Work Eat. Take your vitamins. On her hand she has scribbled in pen simply the word “Rosie.”
“Dinner,” I say, laying the tray down on the side of her desk. She types for a few more minutes before noticing I’m there. For her job, she does something mind-crushingly boring called data entry. It’s mostly typing things from books onto a computer and sending them to her boss, who lives in New York. There is a sticky note on the corner of her computer where she’s written down the hours she’s supposed to be typing and the contact information of her boss; she never stops early or late.
Against one wall, a small TV stays on while she works, always on the news. Right now there’s a story about endangered polar bears that I know will break my heart, so I turn the TV off; Mom doesn’t seem to notice. She does that strange thing where she looks at me as if adjusting to the idea of me.
Then she turns her eyes to the window in dreamy silence. “He’s out there swimming, waiting for me,” she says.
I follow her eyes to the ocean. It’s the same old thing.
“Who, Mom?” But I don’t wait for an answer because there never is one. I used to think, when I was little, she was talking about my dad, a fisherman, drowned at sea before I was born. That was before I realized that people who were gone did not swim back.
I fluff up the bed where she sleeps to make it look cozy. She sleeps in the attic because this is the best room for looking at the ocean, but her real room is downstairs. So I’ve decorated this one for her, lining the shelf with photos of my dad that I found under her bed, one of my mom and dad together, one of me at school, a certificate of archery (from her closet) from a summer camp I guess she used to go to.
I don’t have my mom’s artistic skills, but I’ve also painted lots of things on the walls for her. There’s something I’ve labeled Big Things about Rosie, which I’ve illustrated with colored markers. It stretches across years, and it’s where I write the things I think are big and important: the date when I lost my first tooth, the date of a trip we took to Adventure Land with my class, the time I won the story contest at the local library, the day I won the spelling bee. I’ve decorated it with flowers and exclamation points so that it will get her attention. I’ve also painted a growth chart keeping track of my height (which goes up only very slowly—I’m the shortest person in my class). I’ve also drawn a family tree on the wall, though it’s all just blanks except for me and my mom and dad. I don’t know about the rest of my family. I guess we don’t really have one.
Still, as strange as it may sound, none of it means anything to her—not Big Things about Rosie, not the family tree. It’s as if none of it’s there. Then again, most of the time it’s as if I’m not here either.
“Tell me about the day I was born,” I used to say to her, before I knew better.
I knew the when and where of my birth, but I wanted to know what it had felt like to see me for the first time. I wanted to hear my mom say that my arrival was like being handed a pot of gold and a deed to the most beautiful island in Hawaii (which is what Germ’s mom says about her).
But eventually I gave up. Because she would only ever look at me for a long time and then say something like, “Honestly, how could I remember something like that?” Flat, exasperated, as if I’d asked her who had won the 1976 World Series.
My mom doesn’t give hugs. She’s never excited to see me after school or sad to see me leave for the bus. She doesn’t ask me where I’ve been, help me shop, tell me when to go to bed. I’ve never in my life heard her laugh. She has a degree in art history, but she doesn’t ever talk about her professors or what she learned. She never says how she fell in love with my dad or if she loved him at all.
Sometimes when she’s talking to me, it’s as if my name is on the tip of her tongue for a while before she can retrieve it. Before meetings with my teachers or my pediatrician, she asks me how I’m doing in school and how I’m feeling, as if to catch up before a test. It’s all she can do to keep track of the facts of me.
I’ve known for a long time that my mom doesn’t look at me the way most moms look at their kids—like a piece of light they don’t want to look away from. She barely looks at me at all.
Still, I love her more than anyone else on earth, and I guess it’s because she’s the only mom I have. My paintings on her wall are one of my many ways of trying to love her into loving me back. And I guess my stories are my way of pretending I can change things: a pretend spell and a pretend beast and a pretend escape to somewhere safe together. And I guess Germ is right that they’re never going to work.
And the thing that bothers me is, I’ve been thinking that too.
I head out into the hall. I flick my Lumos flashlight on because one of the chandelier bulbs has burned out, and go down the creaky old stairs to the basement. I throw a load of laundry in, then run up the stairs two at a time because the basement gives me the willies.
On my way through the kitchen, I pick up my story from where it’s wedged by the counter.
I have a plan.
And, though I don’t mean it to, it’s my plan that makes it all begin.