Home > Be the Girl(2)

Be the Girl(2)
K.A. Tucker

“What? Of course you do! You had that little purple lamp that we’d shine on the wall at night. Remember, shadow puppets?” She uses her hands to mime the shape for a dog.

“That was when I was, like, eight.” I’ve been doing my homework at the kitchen island or sitting cross-legged on my bed for years now. Mom’s never been around to notice though, too busy at the law firm or buried under a stack of legal paperwork in her home office.

“Right.” Her head bows, and the guilt radiates from her. “Things are going to change, Aria. You have a new school; you’ll have new friends. I can’t write the Ontario bar exam until March so I’ll be around all the time for the next seven months. So much, you’ll be sick of me.” She laughs. “And even when I go back to work, I’ll make sure I’m only working part-time, so I’m more”—her throat bobs with a hard swallow—“involved in your life. Things are going to change. For both of us. I promise.”

I could say things now—namely, that none of what happened was her fault, that it was all mine—my thoughts, my feelings, my choices. But, just like her, I am ready to put the past behind me.

“They kind of already have?” I hold my hands out to gesture at my new room in this sad little white hovel, a far cry from the sizable house we left outside Calgary. But here, three provinces away, I’m not that same girl. My name’s not even the same, now that I’ve legally changed it to take my mother’s maiden name. My dad didn’t bat an eye when we set the paperwork and a pen in front of him. That’s when I knew he’d already all but disowned me.

“You’re right, they have. And we have a lot to do around here to get this place back in shape.” She sighs, catching a cobweb that dangles from a corner with her finger. “I knew Uncle Merv was having a hard time adjusting to bachelor life but Aunt Connie must be rolling in her grave.” She rubs a hand over her weary eyes. “Get some sleep. We have a busy day tomorrow.” She drops her voice to a whisper. “God knows how long it will take to find the corpse of whatever died down there.”

2

It’s after ten by the time I venture downstairs, my hair damp from a shower. Mom is in the kitchen on hands and knees scrubbing furiously, dressed in her yoga outfit and yellow rubber gloves. “’Morning.”

“Oh, good morning, hon! Try Iris’s carrot cake. It’s delicious. And there’s some coffee left in the pot for you. Mugs are in the cupboard above it.” She sounds way too cheery.

I pause a moment to take in the kitchen for the first time. It’s as old and derelict as the rest of the house, with golden oak wooden cupboards huddled into a small space and mismatched white-and-ivory-colored appliances. A four-person rectangular table sits tucked in against the wall. Half of it is covered with flyers and unopened mail. Along the brown laminate countertop are miscellaneous pots and pans—contents of the cupboard she’s scrubbing, if I had to guess. The smell of bleach lingers in the air.

“Did you sleep well?” Mom asks as I fetch a coffee mug and pour coffee.

“Not really. The sun woke me up.”

“I figured. That room faces east. We’ll get you some blackout curtains when we go shopping today.”

“It was hot, too.”

“Doesn’t the ceiling fan work?”

“Yeah, but it was making this weird rattling sound, like it was going to fall and, like, chop my head off or something.” Worries that don’t inspire a deep sleep. I spy Uncle Merv in the garden through the back door, plucking red tomatoes off the vine and tucking them in a basket. The tomatoes match the color of his suspenders, the same ones he was wearing last night. It’s a decent-sized yard, I note, full of fruit trees, with neighboring farm fields stretching far beyond.

Uncle Merv shuffles slowly along, his mouth moving as if he’s talking to someone, but I don’t see anyone around. “He wasn’t lying about getting up early.” Four thirty, according to the clock on my nightstand. That’s when I woke up to his first of many phlegmy coughing fits.

Mom chuckles. “Yeah. We’ll have to buy earplugs.”

I flop into a kitchen chair at the table, my fingers busy combing through my freshly washed hair. I cringe with disgust at the slick strands. “Oh my God, I still have shampoo in my hair!”

Mom glances over her shoulder once before returning to her task. “I noticed the water pressure is bad.”

“And it suddenly turned scalding. I think I have third-degree burns on my back.” My body stiffens, as if mention of the injury is enough to make the pain flare.

“That was my fault. I shouldn’t have used the kitchen sink while you were showering. That’s the thing about these old houses.” She sighs. “Don’t worry. Calling a plumber is at the top of my very long to-do list, along with getting cable run into our bedrooms and the internet upgraded. He’s still on dial-up, can you believe that?”

“I don’t even know what that means.” I spy the pad of lined paper next to her coffee mug. She must have at least twenty things jotted down already. That’s my mom—the queen of organization and order. Sure enough, the word “plumber” is scrawled on the first line, followed by “new toilet” and “fix water pressure?” in brackets beside it. Below that reads “cleaning lady.”

I frown. “Why are you cleaning if you’re going to pay someone to come in and clean?”

“Because I couldn’t leave the moldy spoiled bag of onions that stunk up the house for that poor soul. But I think I’ve got it out. A few hours of fresh air and some candles, and maybe my stomach won’t turn.” She stands with a groan, peeling off the rubber gloves and brushing away a strand of her wavy, sable-brown hair from her sweaty forehead. Gray roots peek out from her ponytail, something my mom is normally on top of but let slip this past month. I scan her list again. Sure enough, “find a new hair salon” is on there—number four.

“How could he stand it?”

“Who, Uncle Merv?” She snorts. “He’s always had a terrible sense of smell.” She takes a large gulp of her coffee and checks her watch. “Come on, you’ll have to eat that in the car. We have a million things to do.”

“What about unpacking the U-Haul?”

She waves it off. “Later. Let’s try to be home for lunch at one, after Uncle’s had his nap. Preferably with something better to eat than what’s in there.” She points to the fridge in the corner, her nose crinkling with disgust.

“Which box next?” I ask through pants, sweat coating the back of my neck. When we left Calgary, temperatures were dwindling, the cool nights needing heavy blankets. But summer shows no sign of leaving Eastmonte, Ontario, anytime soon.

Mom’s hands sit perched on her hips as she stares into the U-Haul. “You know what? Let’s leave the rest until after the house is cleaned and your room is finished. No point moving things twice and I don’t have to return it until Monday.”

“Okay. I guess I’ll start painting?” I was fully expecting Mom to reconsider her agreement to my dark and moody indigo blue when we stood in the paint aisle of Home Depot, but she was the first to pull out the various paint chips for comparison.

“We have to prep first. Why don’t you start by taping around the built-ins …” Her voice trails as she watches a black sedan pull into the driveway next door.

“Are those the neighbors?” The ones she met at Aunt Connie’s funeral earlier this year. She hasn’t told me much about them, other than that they have two teenaged children and they’ve lived next door for years.

“The Hartfords, yes.” We watch as a blonde lady in her forties steps out from the driver’s side. She waves at us.

“That’s Heather.” Mom returns the greeting. “She’s a portrait photographer. She took one of Uncle Merv and Aunt Connie for their sixtieth anniversary, the one sitting on the piano.”

I watch another female climb out from the passenger side, this one much younger, with a short blonde bob and glasses.

“She’s very nice. They’re all very nice.”

The girl seeks us out immediately. “Hi, guys!” she hollers with familiarity, grinning, her hand waving wildly in the air. “You’re our new neighbors! We’re so happy you’re here!”

I note the girl’s slightly stilted and slower dialogue.

My mom grins and calls back, “Hi, Cassie! It’s good to see you again!”

Heather begins walking this way.

“Wait!” Cassie suddenly sounds frantic. “The you-know-whats!”

“They’re on the back seat. Get them and then come over. You can do it.” Heather continues walking toward us. Meanwhile, Cassie rushes into the back seat, reappearing with a brown bag a moment later. She gallops more than runs after her mother, gripping the bag in both hands in front of her, as if it contains something of great value.

“Debra! It’s so good to see you again.” Heather takes my mom’s hand in both of hers, a friendly gesture between two people who aren’t acquainted enough to hug yet, her eyes crinkling with a smile. “Merv’s been talking nonstop about you two moving here for the past month.”

My mom chuckles. “Good things, I hope?”

“I haven’t seen him this happy in a while.”

“Hi. I’m Cassie,” the girl next to her blurts out, thrusting the bag toward me. “We bought you cookies. The double chocolate are the best.”

Heather gestures to her. “This is my daughter, Cassie. And you must be Aria?” She regards me with soft gray eyes. She is a pretty lady, and around my mother’s age, though I note more fine lines marking her forehead.

“I am.” I smile politely, sizing up the large cat graphic on Cassie’s T-shirt. “Hi.”

“You’re going to my school!” Cassie announces, adjusting her red-rimmed glasses as she peers first at me, then at my mom, then at her mom. Her gaze doesn’t seem to hold on anyone for too long. “Yeah, you’re in grade eleven and I’m in grade ten. Emmett’s in grade twelve. Do you know Emmett?”

“Uh … no.”

“Aria has never been to Eastmonte before. Remember we talked about that?” Heather reminds her daughter in a slow, articulate voice.

“Oh, yeah.” Cassie grins sheepishly. “Emmett is my brother. You’ll like him. He has a lot of friends.”

“Cassie has been waiting anxiously for you. I think she’s asked me every day for the past three weeks what day you’d be here,” Heather says with a smile and a look of forced patience.

“Shh! Mom!” Cassie giggles, then turns to my mom. “I met you at Aunt Connie’s funeral.”

“You’re right, you did.”

“She’s not really my aunt. We’re not related. She’s a friend-aunt,” Cassie says, as if Connie is still alive and well.

My mom smiles. “A friend-aunt. I like that.”

“Yeah. I miss her. I wish she didn’t die.” Cassie’s grin is at odds with her words.

Mom frowns deeply. “I miss her, too.”

“Yeah, do you want to come see my room, Aria?” Cassie asks me in her next breath.

“Uh …” I look to my mom, feeling overwhelmed by the swirl of conversation.

“Maybe another day, Cassie. Aria is busy unpacking,” Heather says evenly, as if she can read my hesitation.

“Okay.” Cassie nods. “Maybe tomorrow?”

“Maybe tomorrow,” Heather answers for me, then turns to my mom. “Do you still have a lot to unload? Because we can help.”

“Actually, I think we’re done unloading for now. I have to make room in the house first. But we have a few heavier boxes—books, mainly—that we might need strong arms for.”

“If you can wait until Sunday, Emmett and Mark will be back. They left this morning to visit a college campus in Minnesota.”

“Wow! College in the US!” my mom exclaims, and I can practically hear what she’s thinking because I’ve heard her say it before. Poor parents who have to pay that tuition!

Heather’s eyes widen with understanding. “I know.”

“My brother plays hockey. He’s so good,” Cassie blurts out. “He has a scholarship.”

“If he keeps his grades up,” Heather says. “Okay. Well, we’ll let you get back to it. And we want to have the three of you over for dinner, once you’ve settled.”

“We would love that.” My mom beams, sounding genuinely interested in the prospect of dinner with our new neighbors. I can’t remember the last time she made a friend.

“It’s nice to meet you, Aria.” Heather hooks an arm through Cassie’s. “Let’s go.”

“See you tomorrow.” Cassie’s eyes veer to the paper bag in my hand. “Those are really good cookies. They’re fresh.”

“Yeah?” I hold them up to my nose to inhale the chocolate scent. “Good, because I love cookies.”

“Me too.” She giggles. “Maybe I can have one?”

“You’ve already had two.” Heather smiles apologetically to us and begins leading her daughter away, whispering, “Those are a gift for them.”

“Okay.”

“You can’t give a gift and then ask to eat it!”

“Okay. I know!” Cassie’s voice turns petulant.

I catch Heather’s heavy sigh as they walk away.

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