He chuckled. “So go get him down.”
“No way. I already fell off that roof. Not planning to do it again.”
“Ha! Yeah, I remember that. What were you, like, seven, then?”
“Six, actually.” I looked at the second storey of the house. “And you shouldn’t laugh. It was a big fall. I could’ve been killed.”
“Don't you remember her running down the stairs behind Dad, screaming She’s dead—oh, my God, Greg—she’s dead? Vivid memory.” He tapped his temple. I chuckled. He imitated a very good version of Vicki’s panicky voice. “That was my first traumatic experience, y’know? And I owe it all to you.”
“Isn’t that why Dad bricked up your balcony door—and put a desk there?”
“Yes. But probably also ‘cause it’s harder to sneak out a window than a door.”
Sam smiled, and somewhere, as the day had gone on, despite what I felt for him this morning, I kind of felt a pang of a connection then—seeing my dad’s eyes in his. “Do you smell that?” he asked.
“Yeah, Vicki’s making casserole.” I inhaled the scent of gravy and Italian herb.
“Hey. No fair.” I darted after him, catching up as we both jumped the creaky bottom step of the porch then burst through the front door.
“Sam? Ara-Rose, is that you?” Vicki called from the kitchen.
“Who else would it be?” Sam muttered to me as we dumped our schoolbags on the staircase.
“Come in here and have a snack before homework please,” she called.
As I walked into the dining area to the left, Italian herb blended warmly with garlic and onion, sparking a flashback of cold winters and roast dinners. But the oak dining table by the window, littered with Vicki’s scrapbooking mess, and the island counter sitting centre to dark wood kitchen cabinets, held too much class above the little beach house I grew up in, obliterating any sense of ‘coming home’ after a long day.
“Did you shut the front door? You’re letting all the cool air out,” Vicki yapped from her position at the counter.
Sam waltzed past, grabbing an apple from the fruit bowl. “Sorry—I got homework to do.”
He shrugged, biting his apple, and wandered into the forbidden formal rooms through an archway on the other side of the kitchen.
I groaned and headed back to the entranceway, slammed the front door, then stomped into the kitchen again.
“You just seem moodier than your usual self.”
“Moody? I’m never moody.” I grabbed an apple and plonked into a dining chair facing the window. Outside, across the road, football practice was in full-swing, with shirtless guys running back and forth across the grass. I kind of wished David were on the team this year so I could sit on the tree stump and watch him train. Then again, Vicki would probably be sitting right here, in the chair, watching me watch him. I knew she’d been sitting in it just before we came in, probably watching me talk to that kid Spencer, because the seat was still warm.
My eyes narrowed. That wasn’t just a question formed out of a light attempt at decent conversation—it was a probe; she wanted me to tell her she was right—that school wasn't as bad as I thought—and busying herself washing coriander couldn’t disguise that meddlesome undertone. She should’ve known better. After all, it was her profession. Okay, so she hadn’t worked as a psychiatrist since she married my dad, but she still practiced—on me. “School was fine,” I muttered absently, fingering through the tablecloth of photos and cardboard frames.
“No one makes friends on the first day, Vicki.”
She wasn't sorry. She didn't really care.
“Did you see any cute guys?” her tone became light, suggestive.
Did she really think I was that clueless—that I wouldn’t notice her trying to get me to open up? With a short sigh, I bit into my apple, licking the sweet juice as it spilled onto my lip.
I sat back, rolling my eyes. She wasn't going to let this go. She was hell-bent on having a ‘conversation’ with me this afternoon. If I didn't attempt to ‘play along’, she’d tell my dad I was exhibiting anti-social behaviour again.
“Ara-Rose?” she said, standing right beside me.
“Cute guys? Uh…yes.” I grinned widely, keeping my face down. “A guy that’s so cute he makes Stefan look like a dweeb.”
“No, this boy you saw today.”
“Yeah, do you like him?” she repeated.
Yes, I do. “No. I just met him. But he’s cute.”
She breathed out, her shoulders dropping. The movement was small, but so obvious to me; I was accustomed to the casual displays of indifference she used in order to psychologically assess or relate to me. She counted on the fact that I was a docile teen with no clue what went on around me. Clearly, she’d never been a teenager. I knew all the tricks, and I never gave anything away about my psychological well-being. I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction.
She walked away again, and I shifted the photos until the dark wood of the table bared itself from under them. Not one of those photos was of me. I spent every summer and at least six winters here since I was a child, but the absence of my face in these scrapbooks was just another indicator that I really was just a walk-in—a temporary fixture made permanent by circumstance. I was like a painting you hung on the wrong wall using your last nail.
“Did you sit with anyone at lunch?” Vicki asked.
I spun around again and watched her fussing about near the stove. “Yes.”
“Well, that’s good. I knew you wouldn’t end up sitting alone—even though you were so sure you would.” She laughed lightly.
She ignored my disingenuous tone, tipping the chopping block over the pot, breaking the cloud of steam as she scraped the veggies in. “So, do you like any of your teachers?”
“No.” But my friend likes your husband.
“What about Dad? You’re in his class, right?”
“Yeah, but he gives boring lectures.” I assume. Not that I was listening.
“Well, don’t tell him that—you’ll hurt his feelings.”
Feelings? Do dads have feelings? Almost as if his past self heard me, his smiling face appeared among the pile of photos. He was so much younger then. His hair was darker and the crinkles around his eyes weren't as deep. Vicki was younger, too. Her hair was still the same straight blonde, but her thin, white face had no smile lines. They were abysmal now, running down from her nose to the outside corners of her mouth like a V… for Vicki.
“What did you think of the cafeteria food?” Vicki asked, tasting her casserole.
I spun my apple core between my fingers and watched her rinse the spoon off under the tap. “It was okay. Pricey, though.”
“Shall I give you some extra money tomorrow—did you have enough today?” She looked up with round eyes of concern.
“Actually, I didn’t use my own money.”
“Someone offered to spot me.” Well, forced me to let them.
“Oh, that was nice. Who was it?”
“Hm. David…David,” she muttered his name under her breath, her brow wrinkles deepening. “Nope. Never heard of him.”
“Well,” she said, “sounds like you’ve made an impression, Ara-Rose. I told you people would like you—you’re a very lovely girl.”
I dropped the snotty teen facade and sat back against my chair. It was hard to be hostile when she wouldn't take the confrontation bait. “Um, thanks, I mean, that’s great and all, but I don’t think being a lovely girl is an asset in high school these days, Vicki. Also, I’m just gonna go by Ara now.”
“Oh? Really? But you always loved your name. What does your dad think of that?”
“But you were given the name Rose for a reason, dear. I know it would break your fathe—”
“Mike always called me just Ara, Vicki. It doesn't bother me, so it shouldn't bother my dad.”
“Okay.” She nodded and turned back to the stove. “If you’re sure?”
But I wasn't sure. I didn't want to drop the Rose. I didn't want to go to a new school, make new friends—pretend to be something I just wasn't sure I could be anymore. “I’ll be in my room,” I said, shoving my chair out. “I have a lot of homework to do.”
“Okay, Ara,” Vicki called after me with a hint of detest behind my new name.
Why did she have to make it worse? She could just be nice about it—supportive, even. I mean, on what twisted version of this story was I supposed to seek my dad’s permission to omit my middle name? I felt like kicking something.
“Is Mom still cooking?” Sam asked, coming in through the arch on the right.
He grinned, dropped his books in his schoolbag, then dumped it back on the stair. “I'm gonna watch TV. Don't tell, okay?”
He held up his wireless headphones.
“Whatever,” I said, grabbing my bag, and stomped up the stairs. As I pushed my door open, it swung back and hit the wall, making my open window rattle. But the heat in my temper simmered a little at the sight of dancing prisms on my lemon walls, like rainbow butterflies, as the afternoon sun reached through the crystals on my windows, reflecting life around the room.
Back home, my room faced west, and the setting sun would cast golden rays of blinding light through my window, igniting the whole room ablaze with a warm, orange glow. I’d lay on my bed, talking to Mike on the phone, watching the prancing spectrums perform their final act for the day. But here, my window faced east, giving me only morning sun. Dad, somehow, knew how much that daily routine meant to me, so he bought these Plane Mirrors and even let me climb out my window—after I threw a tantrum about independence—to position them carefully so they’d catch the light of the retiring sun. It was just a little piece of magic, from a childhood passed, that he wanted me to hold onto.
I smiled to myself and shut my door, kicking my shoes off as I flopped backward on my bed; one hit my dressing table and the other landed by my door, then, I dug my toes into the squishy carpet and let out a long sigh.
It was over. The torturous first day was over.
“See?” I called across to the girl in the mirror. “It wasn’t that bad.”
“Mo-om!” Sam yelled from the hallway. “Ara-Rose is talking to herself again.”
“Shut up, Sam!” I sat up and ditched a pillow at the back of my door.
“Time to call the men in white coats,” he yelled.
“That’s enough, Samuel,” Vicki said, loud enough that I heard her voice from the kitchen.
Sam’s boisterous cackle faded down the hall, but he’d left a great cloud of infuriation behind. I huffed out loud. Talking to myself did not make me crazy. Waiting for myself to talk back did, but…let’s not go there.
I looked down at my bag, then over at my dresser, sitting against the angled wall of my wardrobe. The girl in the yellow dress wasn’t there anymore; the only thing looking back was the oak tree outside. I smiled then, thinking about my day; thinking about how David said he liked me, and I read into so wrong I couldn’t even speak after. I think he took it pretty well, though. He didn’t make me feel like a total loser. Well, until Society and Environment class, when he corrected the teacher on the Emancipation Proclamation. It wasn’t even on topic, but it took one simple comment from a kid up the back, and our discussion on North America turned into a full-blown slavery debate. David, rather heatedly, put everyone in their place. I stayed quiet through the whole thing, but his mere presence made me want to pick up a book and read it. I think he had that effect on everyone—even the teacher.
“Yeah?” I jumped up and sat at my desk, quickly grabbing my books from my bag.
“Dad called—asked if you need some help with homework.”
“Okay. Well, just give him a call if you do,” she said through the door. “He’s supervising detention today.”
“Got it,” I said, kind of just wanting her to go away. I waited another few seconds, and when she added nothing else, spun around to face the window. The day outside was so bright and the afternoon breeze had settled among the leaves of my oak tree, rocking the rope swing in a soothing wave, as if to say, “Come to us, Ara-Rose.” And I wanted to. I really did, which made homework feel like a rock of pressure on my neck. I looked at the pink phone on my desk and slowly pulled my nail from between my teeth, grabbing it quickly to dial Dad’s mobile.