Read an Excerpt
Everything was so easy during the two weeks before my sister died. Her last day was bad, but I don’t want to talk about that. Before the very end, we laughed a lot. Carmen had no hair, not even eyebrows. She looked like a pale pink Easter egg, and who doesn’t like Easter eggs?
We played a million board games because Carmen loved board games. The hospital had Parcheesi, backgammon, Sorry, checkers, and a chess set without all the pieces. Mom got really upset about the chess pieces. “My kid is literally dying,” she said to the hospice nurse near the last day. “How can you give her a game with missing pieces?”
“That definitely seems like a metaphor for something,” said Carmen, who was a little punchy from all the medication.
I moved the jelly bean I was using in place of a pawn on the chessboard. “Just play the game.”
“Mom isn’t wrong about the missing pieces.” Carmen took my jelly bean with her bishop. “It’s the first thing I’m going to talk to God about when I get to Heaven.”
“Who says you’re going to Heaven?”
Carmen laughed. “I know I’m going to Heaven because I’m only twelve years old. Even if you do really terrible things, you can’t go to the bad place if you don’t understand the consequences of your actions, and that’s impossible before you are an actual teenager.”
I’m pretty sure Carmen could understand the consequences of her actions. I didn’t mention that. Instead, I took her bishop with my knight.
“But honestly,” she continued. “I’d have liked the opportunity to do some terrible things.”
“Maybe don’t mention that when you get to Heaven.”
“God already knows.” Carmen slid a rook across the board, took my knight, and popped the jelly bean into her mouth. “Checkmate.”
I never even saw that coming. I reached onto the board and knocked over my king.
Carmen grinned. “Who’s dead now, Oscar?”
“It wasn’t a fair fight. You’re stronger than me in every way.”
That made us both laugh because even though I’m just fourteen, I’m already over six feet tall, and I weigh more than two hundred and twenty pounds. Also, I can bench-press two-sixty, and I’m probably the fastest kid at West Beacon Junior/Senior High School whether I’m wearing football pads or not.
“Oscar,” Carmen said seriously, “I could snap you like a cracker.”
“I know it,” I told my tiny pale Easter egg of a sister.
She waved a finger in my face. “Don’t you ever forget it.”
“I am going to beat you one of these days,” I warned her.
We both knew that was a lie.
Carmen died a few days later. She never did any terrible things. I miss her very much. I also miss the days when Mom, Dad, and I simply did anything and everything Carmen asked. Every decision was clear. Every choice was obvious. We didn’t worry about school or work or football. The hospital let the three of us sleep in her room. We hardly even ate. We just stayed together.
Now, after a wake, a funeral, the cemetery, and enough tears to fill a backyard swimming pool, Mom, Dad, and I sit alone in our tiny kitchen. The quiet is interrupted when our old refrigerator kicks to life. It hums and shakes when it runs, and a round smiley face magnet falls to the floor. The refrigerator door is covered with get-well notes and prayer cards and recipes for all kinds of different smoothies because smoothies are a very good food choice if you ever have to go through chemotherapy. We’d been looking forward to life without smoothies. But not like this.
“Now what happens?” I ask, because I feel like I’m in one of those slow-motion movie scenes that is very quickly returning to full speed, and I am not ready for full speed.
“Maybe,” says Mom, who looks both overdressed and also weirdly sloppy in a long black funeral dress. “Maybe we try to get back to normal.”
I know my mother is trying to make me feel better. Dad just closes his eyes and shakes his head. I glance between my parents, who are seated on either side of me. “I’m sorry,” I say after a long moment, “but that might be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Dad opens his eyes. My father doesn’t talk much. Still, I think he’s about to yell at me for being rude to my mother. Instead, he takes a deep breath and then offers Mom a very slight smile. “Ana,” he says softly. “Oscar might be right.”
Mom sits up very straight. “Is that what you think?”
Mom stands and crosses the room. She says nothing. In the corner, she removes a full bag of trash from the plastic garbage can.
“You’re going to empty the trash now?” I say.
She heads for the back door. “It’s not going to empty itself, Oscar.”
“But you’re still in a nice dress.”
“Don’t worry,” Mom says as she steps outside. “I’m never going to wear this dress again.”
People stare when my mother and I walk into West Beacon Junior/Senior High School. I can’t blame them. I am very small, and my mother is very large. Plus, Mom’s hair is a wild gray tangle, and she’s wearing a giant red lumberjack shirt over a pair of stained blue overalls. Unlike me, she is hard to miss.
“We need to go to the office,” I tell her.
Mom ignores me. She’s stopped in front of a polished black football that’s made out of some kind of stone. It sits atop a wooden pedestal just inside the school’s main entrance. Letters engraved on one side of the ball say:
ANTHRACITE BOWL CHAMPS
“Look, Noah.” Mom nods at the black trophy. “West Beacon students who do well get a big lump of coal.”
I lean forward and read aloud from a framed card attached to the pedestal. “This Anthracite Bowl Trophy, made from a solid block of anthracite coal weighing two hundred and fifteen pounds, goes to the winner of the Thanksgiving Day football game played annually between West Beacon and Frackville gridiron gladiators since 1925.”
Mom points at the West Beacon mascot, a high-kicking mule, painted on a nearby wall. “If you’re lucky, maybe there will be pony rides too.”
If I were lucky, we would have arrived at school on time, I would be registered for classes by now, and my mother would not believe in sarcasm as a parenting tool.
“It’s not a pony.” I drag Mom away from the anthracite trophy and toward the doorway that leads into the school’s main office. A moment later, I’m looking over the front desk at West Beacon’s school secretary. “Hello,” I say. “I’m Noah Wright. I’m here to sign up for eighth grade.”
The white woman has a plain face, cat’s-eye glasses, and short, unnaturally red hair. She gives me a smile. “I’m Mrs. James, and I know who you are.”
I turn to Mom. “Did you call and say I was coming?”
“You’re the one signing up to be a Mighty Mule,” Mom says. “Not me.”
“You won the regional spelling bee,” Mrs. James continues. “And the mathletes tournament, and the county art show. I see your picture in the paper all the time. You’re Noah Wright.”
I nod because we already covered that.
“Aren’t you homeschooled?” asks Mrs. James.
“He’s decided he wants to come here,” Mom informs the secretary. “Homeschool isn’t good enough anymore.”
I really thought we were done fighting about this. Apparently, we’re not.
“Homeschool was fine,” I say. “I’m just ready for a change.”
“What he really means,” Mom says to Mrs. James, “is that he’s ready to get out of the house and away from his lunatic mother.”
The school secretary smiles and nods. “Mrs. Wright,” she says kindly, “lunacy is a word that originally referred to a kind of insanity caused by the phases of the moon, but of course there is no such thing. Sadly, and even though the word is meaningless, it can be unkind and even hurtful for people struggling with mental illness, so we don’t use it anymore.”
“Oh,” says Mom.
“Unkind, hurtful, and meaningless,” says Mrs. James. “It’s not a winning combination, is it?”
“No.” My mother is a lot of things, but she is not unkind, hurtful, or meaningless. “I’m sorry.”
“Apology accepted.” Mrs. James turns to me. “Do you realize that school started a month ago?”
“I’ll catch up.” I place a fat folder on her desk. “Here’s my forms and paperwork for registration along with medical records and a description of my academic progress. I made a list of classes that would work best for me this year. I definitely want to take art. I’m already pretty good in Spanish, but I could use the review. It’s probably best for me to take calculus again too.”
“Again?” says Mrs. James. “I’m not sure—”
“According to Pennsylvania state guidelines, you have to take me.”
Mrs. James gives me a puzzled look. “Why wouldn’t we take you?”
“You said you weren’t sure.”
She looks at me over her glasses. “You didn’t let me finish.”
“Sorry,” I say.
“I’m not sure eighth grade will be right for you,” she continues.
“As opposed to what?” says Mom.
“Ninth grade?” says Mrs. James.
“No,” says Mom.
“Why not?” I ask.
Mom shakes her head. “You’re not getting on a track that ends up with you leaving for college before you turn fifteen.”
“I’m already thirteen,” I point out.
“I don’t care,” Mom says. “You’re signing up for eighth grade or else you’re going back to homeschool.”
“Fine,” I say, because I don’t want to fight with my mother anymore. Plus, I never wanted to sign up for ninth grade in the first place. I push the folder toward Mrs. James. “Everything is filled out and ready to go.”
The secretary opens the folder and examines the paperwork. “There’s just one parent signature?”
“There’s just one parent,” I say.
“I’m sorry,” says Mrs. James.
“Don’t be,” Mom and I say at the exact same time.
At least we agree on one thing.
Before the secretary can offer any kind of reply, three girls enter the office followed by a delivery guy pushing a big box on a handcart. Mom rolls up the sleeves on her flannel shirt. “Are we really doing this?” she asks.
“We’re really doing this,” I tell her.
“In that case,” says Mrs. James, “welcome to West Beacon Junior/Senior High School, home of the Mighty Mighty Mules.”
Mom raises one hand and twirls a limp finger in the air. “Go Mules.” She sounds like she just swallowed a bug.
“It’s going to be okay,” I tell her.
“You sure about that?”
“I’m sure,” I promise, even though I’ve only been on planet Earth for about forty-eight hundred days, and like most human beings, I spent a bunch of that time pooping in my own pants followed by several years in close relationships with stuffed animals and invisible friends. How am I supposed to be sure about anything?
“I guess we’ll see.” Mom gives me an awkward kiss on the cheek and then heads for the door.
People stare as she exits the office. I pretend they’re admiring her artsy attitude and quirky fashion sense. I turn back to Mrs. James. “Can I go to a class now?”
“No.” The secretary points me toward a chair against the wall. “Sit.”
“And do what?” I ask.
“Stay,” she says.
I drop into a green plastic chair like a good dog. Around me, the office walls are brown and drab and covered with fading photos of old sports teams. I’m definitely not in homeschool anymore, and everything’s going to be fine. At least I hope so.
It’s the middle of October, and I have been a West Beacon eighth grader for almost four weeks. I’ve started every single school day with Mr. Alexander Martin, a skinny white art teacher with a short black beard who leads Introduction to Clay. So far, I don’t even wedge—which basically means rolling clay around on a tabletop—particularly well.
Mr. Martin looks over my shoulder while he sips coffee from a handmade mug shaped like a Christmas reindeer. “Working on something for the December art show, Riley?”
I push a strand of hair out of my face. “I’m not sure,” I say. Honestly, I’m not really sure about anything anymore.
“You should think about it.”
“Is artistic ability required?”
“Artistic ability is not mandatory, but participation counts as your final exam.”
“Then I’ll think about it.”
Mr. Martin throws back a last sip of coffee, then, without looking, he places his ceramic mug atop the pile of papers, pencils, and various clay-making tools that covers his desk. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Coffee Cup stays balanced for a moment, but then it tips and rolls off the desk. Somehow, it drops straight into a plastic pail that Mr. Martin uses for trash. The cup hits the bottom of the bucket and smashes to pieces.
“I meant to do that,” Mr. Martin announces.
The class laughs because Mr. Martin is a very nice man. He’s also a very clumsy man.
“You should be more careful with your things,” a pretty ninth-grade girl named Isabelia tells our teacher.
“No great loss,” he says. “That mug was already chipped.”
My mother and I moved to West Beacon from Philadelphia near the middle of September. If we smashed all our chipped mugs, plates, and glasses, we’d have to eat off the floor and drink out of the faucet.
“Plus,” says Mr. Martin, “I really dislike reindeer.”
That’s something I can appreciate. One of the first things Mom and I did when we got to West Beacon was run into a two-hundred-pound white-tailed deer. The animal bounced off our front end and sprinted away, leaving us with a crushed bumper, a cracked windshield, and a crumpled fender. I used to think deer were like giant, cuddly bunny rabbits. In fact, they are large, fast-moving, fur-covered bags of cement. As a result, we now drive around town in a beat-up Chevy that looks like it lost a fight with a bulldozer. “Don’t worry about it,” Mom tells me. “Around here, running into deer is sort of like a hobby.”
My mother grew up in West Beacon. She moved us back here after the restaurant where she worked in Philly got robbed. It was just a little diner, and I was there helping out when it happened. A plain-looking man in a bright blue baseball cap came up to the cash register. He smiled, showed my mother a gun, and politely asked for all the money. Mom handed him the cash. The man said thank you. When the door closed behind him, Mom started to shake and cry.
Before middle school, I used to get into fights. I won some and I lost some. Either way, I never let anybody see me cry, but this was a whole new level of scary. As far as I’m concerned, tears are a perfectly good response to a man with a gun. Unfortunately, the owner of the diner, who always seemed nice enough before, disagreed. “Blow your nose,” he told Mom. “You’re scaring the customers.”
Mom’s mouth dropped open.
“Did you give away all the money?” he asked next.
Mom looked down and noticed that the cash register drawer, now empty, was still open. She took a breath and slammed the drawer shut. A moment later she announced, “It’s time for a change.”
Two weeks later, we carried everything we own into a small rented West Beacon row house across the street from Saint Barbara’s Catholic Church, which is where Mom’s brother, my uncle Pete, is a priest. Uncle Pete greeted us at the door on the day we moved in. “Welcome home,” he told me.
“Is that where I am?” I asked him.
Back in the art room, Mr. Martin interrupts my thoughts. “Riley,” he says now. “I’m serious about the art show. All students are required to turn in at least one piece by the end of November.”
I pick up my clay, which resembles a long gray blob of toothpaste. “Does this look like art to you?”
“Not so much,” Mr. Martin admits. “But you’ve got time.”
I drop the clay, which hits the table with a loud plop. “All the time in the world isn’t going to make me an artist.”
“You never know,” says Mr. Martin, whose enthusiasm is not always as inspiring as he thinks it is.
A big tenth-grade boy named Aengus looks up from his own clay to see what I’ve done.
It’s kind of weird to be an eighth grader in class with high school kids, but West Beacon Junior/Senior High School is less than half the size of my middle school in Philadelphia, so some classes, like Introduction to Clay, are open to everybody.
“That’s a really good snake,” Aengus says. He tilts his head. “Or maybe it’s a worm?”
For a moment, I am confused, and maybe even a little afraid. Aengus is big and loud, and I honestly don’t know if he’s being nice or making fun of me. Plus, ever since the robbery I’ve been wondering if the best solution to being afraid isn’t to just punch somebody in the face. It would be tough with Aengus, and it didn’t work particularly well in grade school, but I’m willing to try. Even now I wish I could have given the guy who robbed my mother a good punch in the face. Maybe Mom wouldn’t have gotten so scared. Maybe she wouldn’t have made us run away to the safety of living in the middle of nowhere.
I turn to face Aengus, but Isabelia stops me with a quick smile. “Aengus means well,” she says.
I stop, breathe, and then I decide to take Isabelia’s word for it.
“Thank you,” I say, because first of all, my clay really does look like a snake. Or maybe a worm. Second, I am trying to mean well too.