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Be the Girl
K.A. Tucker


August 25, 2018

Dear Julia,

I’m writing this because I promised Mom I’d start keeping a journal. A diary, I guess I should call it. Dr. C. said it would be a good way to channel my deepest thoughts and feelings, so I don’t bottle things up again. Between you and me, I think Dr. C. smokes a lot of weed. I’d rather keep my deepest thoughts safely locked inside my head where they belong. But I’ve put Mom through hell these past months. I’ve seen her cry way too much. So … here we are. I have no idea where we are, actually. Somewhere near Brandon, Manitoba, I think the sign back there said. I knew a Brandon once. In second grade, someone dared him to drink a bottle of red paint during art class. It was nontoxic, but he had to be closely monitored in art class after that.

What do people write about in diaries, anyway? Dr. C. said to start with the basics—how I feel about our big move across the country and beginning at a new high school, where I don’t know a soul. You know, easy things. As long as I’m being honest, she said, because the only person I’ll be lying to in here is myself. I’d prefer to call it denial.

She also said that if “journaling” feels weird or pointless, pretend I’m writing a letter to someone. Even an imaginary someone. So … hey, Julia. I’ll try not to bore you. Mom promised that my diary would be off-limits to her snooping, but I don’t believe that for a hot second, so expect a lot of mind-numbing entries about grade eleven English and my mother, until I can find a good hiding place for this at Uncle Merv’s.

Until next time,

Aria Jones

P.S. I’ve written my new last name at least a thousand times on this drive so far. If I still screw it up, I’m a lost cause.

Mom casts a nervous smile at me as we wait for the front door to open.

“Do you think he fell asleep?” Light flashes through the gauzy curtains of the small, white house’s bay window, and a buzz of voices carries. A TV is on somewhere inside.

“I hope not. But it is late.” Her forehead wrinkles, checking her watch. “He’s usually in bed by seven.”

It’s after eleven now. And Uncle Merv is eighty years old.

“Maybe he can’t hear over the TV?” I roll my shoulders to loosen them. Three twelve-hour days in the CR-V and motel sleeping has left me stiff and aching for my bed.

Too bad Mom sold it.

It would’ve been too big for my new bedroom at Uncle Merv’s, she promised, as I watched two men march out the door with the plush queen-sized mattress in their hands and triumphant grins on their faces. They scored a great deal. Everyone who came through our house during the rushed “everything must go” contents sale Mom threw together scored big, leaving us with just enough to fill our car and a small U-Haul cargo trailer. It was a hasty departure—a decision she made only a month ago, solidified after a phone call to an uncle I’ve never met and an I-quit-my-lawyer-job-today-let’s-start-over-somewhere-new dinner conversation over cold Hawaiian pizza.

The hinges on the metal storm door screech as she pulls it open to knock on the wooden door again, this time harder.

Still no answer.

“What do we do now?” I take in our surroundings. The remnants of a plant sit by my feet, brown and shriveled within its forest-green ceramic pot. Next to it is a worn wooden bench on a porch that has lost half its white paint to peeling. To my left, a hedge of leggy bushes runs along the property line, hiding whatever’s beyond. The gardens are overgrown, the bushes threaded with long grass.

Even in the dark of night, it’s clear that Uncle Merv’s modest two-story home is the most neglected of the four houses in this cul-du-sac, surrounded by farmers’ fields, on the outskirts of Eastmonte, Ontario.

Mom tests the door handle and finds it unlocked. “I guess we go in. This is our home now, too.” She shrugs and pushes the door open. “Hello?”

My nose crinkles with disgust.

The air inside the house smells rotten, though I can’t be more specific. Mom smells it, too; I can tell by the way her nostrils flare. That’s the first thing I notice when I trail her through the cramped doorway. The second thing I notice is that we’ve stepped back in time. To which decade, I can’t be sure, but it involves tacky rose-patterned wallpaper, lace curtains, and wood everything.

“Hello? Uncle Merv?” Mom calls out again.

“Debra? Is that you?” A gruff voice calls from our left. A hefty, white-haired man struggles to haul himself out of the salmon-pink wingback chair that faces a TV, no more than four feet from the screen. “I’m sorry, my hearing isn’t the greatest anymore.”

Mom’s tired face splits with a wide smile as she traipses across the living room of mismatched furniture and floral wallpaper to embrace him. “You had us worried for a minute.”

“Worried about what? That I finally kicked the bucket?” He chuckles, returning her hug, his rotund belly making her slight frame seem all the more slender. “Likely soon, but not yet. How was the drive?”

“Oh, fine.” She waves it off, as if a thirty-six-hour road trip through flat lands and remote forest with everything you own is nothing. “I’m so sorry we’re late. There was a terrible accident near Elliot Lake this morning and the road was closed for hours. A car … a moose …” She grimaces. “Anyway, we’re glad to finally be here. Uncle Merv, this is my daughter, Aria.” She gestures toward me and I step forward, feeling my uncle’s clouded eyes settle on me.

He clears his throat and offers me a curt nod, his sagging jowls jiggling with the gesture. “You’re the spitting image of your mother when she was your age.”

I smile politely as I tuck strands of my long, sable-brown hair behind my ear. “Yeah, that’s what everyone says.”

He opens his mouth, but then hesitates as if reconsidering his words. “You know, Debra used to spend two weeks here every summer with us. Until you were how old—thirteen, was it?” He peers at my mom.

Her face pinches with thought. “Fourteen. I stopped coming the summer before high school.”

“That’s right. You were busy with summer jobs after that.” He shakes his head. “Connie always looked forward to those visits. She’d spend the whole month before cleaning this place top to bottom until it sparkled.”

It’s far from that now, I note, eying the layer of dust that coats the nearby lamp and the stacks of hastily folded newspapers on the floor. A sizable cobweb dangles from the ceiling in the corner.

“And what about you? You didn’t look forward to my visits?” Mom teases, reaching out to squeeze Uncle Merv’s forearm—her signature move for offering comfort. I imagine the wound from losing Aunt Connie to a massive stroke five months ago, after sixty-one years of marriage, is still fresh.

“I looked forward to the free garden labor.” He runs his thumbs along the underside of his red suspenders as he chuckles. No doubt they’re all that’s holding up his pants.

Mom laughs. “Well, now you have free labor times two. How is the garden this year?”

He grunts. “Wild. The apple trees are ready to split in half and there’re too many damn tomato plants. I told Iris not to plant so many but she didn’t listen. Now I don’t know what to do with them all. I’ve got tomatoes coming out my a—”

“Aria and I will be happy to pick and can them for you. If I can remember how, it’s been so long. Right, Aria?”

“Uh … sure.” Can them? What does that mean?

“Well, that’d be much appreciated.” Uncle Merv has the kind of gruff voice that makes me think he’ll need to cough to clear the phlegm from it any moment now. “There’s a tuna casserole in the fridge if you’re hungry. Iris’s not as good a cook as Connie but it’s not half bad.”

Who is Iris?

“That sounds great.” Mom gives him her best fake smile and I purse my lips to stifle my grin. She likes tuna anything as much as I do—not at all.

Uncle Merv more waddles than walks toward the narrow staircase ahead of us. I can’t tell if it’s on account of age or his excessive weight. Probably both. “Also, Iris tidied upstairs. Haven’t been up there in years but I’m assuming it’s in order. She always was the fussiest of Connie’s friends.”

Ah, mystery solved.

“She didn’t have to do that, and I’m sure it’s fine.”

“Well, then …” He smooths his hands over his belly. “It’s past my bedtime. You know me, I like to get up with the birds. ’Course, you guys are still probably adjusting to the time zone. I’ll try not to make too much noise in the morning.” He stops near the open door and scowls at the driveway. “I thought you weren’t bringing anything with you!” It sounds accusatory.

“Barely anything. A TV and coffee maker, stuff like that,” my mom placates in a soothing tone, catching my eye as she pats Uncle Merv’s shoulder. She warned that he might have a hard time adjusting to this new arrangement, despite his willingness. He is eighty, after all, and he tends to fret when his routine is interrupted. I’d say taking in his forty-five-year-old niece and her almost sixteen-year-old daughter for the foreseeable future hasn’t just interrupted his routine; it’s about to wreak havoc on it.

He makes a sound that might be acceptance. “I suppose you’ll be needing help unloading. The kids from next door should be able to help. Emmett’s a big, strong boy.”

“There’s nothing in there that Aria and I can’t manage. Don’t you worry about it, Uncle Merv.” In an airy tone, she says, “Aria, why don’t you head upstairs to check out your room. It’s on the left.”

I can tell that’s code for “I need a moment alone with Uncle Merv to talk about you.”

The narrow, steep steps offer a noisy creak as I climb them and venture into my new bedroom—a narrow space with steeply slanted ceilings painted Easter yellow. A window sits centered on the far side, draped with thin, gauzy curtains that do little to block out the street lights. It’s framed by bookshelves and a small bench. My mom was right—there’s no way my furniture would have fit in here. It’s already cramped with a twin bed as it is. I don’t even have a closet. It smells freshly cleaned, at least; the scent of lemon Pledge and fabric softener battling to mask the rotten odor wafting from downstairs.

“You haven’t told Iris anything, right?” I hear my mom whisper. I pause to listen from inside the doorway.

“That old gossip? Hell, I’m no fool. All she knows is that you and Howie divorced and he’s got a new family. I had to give her something and I figured you wouldn’t care if they knew that much.”

“No, that’s fine. I don’t care if the town knows my ex-husband is a cheating bastard who knocked up his paralegal.” There’s no shortage of bitterness in her voice. “But I want to make sure Aria gets a fresh start and she can’t do that if anyone finds out about what happened.”

I feel my cheeks burn with a mixture of embarrassment and shame.

“They won’t hear it from me.” There’s a pause. “How’s she doing?”

“I think she’s okay. Seems to be, anyway.” The way my mother says that, it doesn’t sound convincing. “Listen, thanks again for taking us in. I know we’re turning your life upside down—”

“No, no, I’m happy to have you. Truth is, it’ll be nice to talk to someone besides myself. And I can use the help around here. I’ve been relying on Iris too much and I’m afraid she’s getting the wrong idea. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not quite as fit as I once was.”

“Yeah, Cheez Whiz sandwiches and whiskey will do that.” Mom’s musical laughter carries up the stairs. “Good night, Uncle Merv. We’ll catch up more in the morning.”

The stairs creak and I venture farther into my bedroom so I don’t look guilty of eavesdropping. I’m at the window when Mom leans against the door frame, a wistful smile on her lips. “This used to be my room when I stayed here.” Her eyes dart from corner to corner before settling on the bed, adorned with a green leaf comforter. “I slept in that.”

“It’s small.” Almost too small to be called twin-sized.

“Let me know how the mattress is. We might have to invest in a new one. Nothing’s been updated here in decades.” She wanders over to gingerly sit on the window bench, as if testing it. “Uncle Merv built this for me when I was eight. I’d sit here and read for hours.” She smooths a hand over a bookcase. “They could use a new coat of paint.”

“Everything in here could,” I mumble.

“That’s a good idea! Let’s go to the paint store tomorrow morning and pick out a color. You know, freshen this place up a bit. What do you think?”

“Indigo blue?” I raise a questioning eyebrow.

Mom’s nose crinkles. “What about something more bright and cheery?”

I shrug. “I like dark and moody.” My gaze drifts over the slanted ceiling. “I think it’d look good. Kind of like a nighttime sky.”

Mom’s eyes trail mine, as if reconsidering her objection. “Yeah, okay. We could get those glow-in-the-dark stickers you like.”

I bite my tongue against the urge to remind her that I’m not five anymore.

Mom rises and wanders back slowly, opening the desk drawers on her way past. “This will work for your homework, right?”

“I don’t do homework at a desk.”

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