The summer I turned ten, my cousin Angelica fell from the sleeping loft at our family’s lake cabin. Uncle Frank says her head missed the woodstove by four inches.
She hit the floor with a bad sound, a whump. Then we didn’t hear anything. No crying. No yelling. Nothing.
Until, finally, there was the sound of Angelica trying to breathe.
Dad got to her first. Aunt Ess, Angelica’s mom, called from her room. “What was that? Dan? What was that?”
He answered, “It’s Angelica--she fell, but she’s okay. She got the wind knocked out of her, but I think she’s okay.”
From the loft, I saw Angelica sit up, slowly. Dad was rubbing her back in circles. Uncle Frank and Aunt Ess came crashing in from their bedroom, and then Angelica started crying these short, jagged cries.
The next morning, Uncle Frank said that if her head had hit the woodstove, Angelica could have died. By that time, she looked normal. She was wearing her turquoise two-piece bathing suit and chewing her eggs with her lips sealed tight. No bruises, even--she landed on her back, Dad said, which is what knocked her wind out.
That summer, my parents had been divorced for two years already, but I still thought about when Mom used to come to the lake cabin with us. I could picture her red bathing suit on the clothesline. I remembered which end of the table she sat at for dinner. I remembered her, sitting on the dock with Aunt Ess, talking.
Mom and Dad told me about the divorce at a “family meeting.” I had just turned eight. We’d never had a family meeting before. I sat on the couch, between them. They didn’t look happy, and I suddenly got worried that something was wrong with our cat, Red. That they were going to tell me he was dying. A boy in my class that year had a cat who died. But that wasn’t it.
Dad put his arm around me and said that some big things were going to change. Mom squeezed my hand. Then Dad said they were getting divorced. Soon he was going to move out of our apartment, into a different one.
I said, “But I’m staying here, right?” I looked at Mom.
Dad said I was going to have two homes, and two rooms, instead of one. I was going to live in both places.
I could think of only one person in my class whose parents were divorced: Carolyn Shattuck. Carolyn had a navy-blue sweatshirt with one big pocket in front. Until the family meeting, I had wanted one just like it.
I said, “What about Red?”
Mom said Red would be staying with her. “With us--you and me.”
You and me. That made me feel awful. Because back then I couldn’t think of Mom and me without Dad.
Dad said, “Things are changing, Bea. But there’s still a lot you can count on. Okay? Things that won’t ever change.”
This was when they gave me the green spiral notebook and the green pen. (My favorite color is green.) In the notebook, they had made a list. The list was called Things That Will Not Change.
I started reading:
1. Mom loves you more than anything, always.
2. Dad loves you more than anything, always.
I skipped to the end, uncapped the green pen, and wrote:
7. Red will stay with me and Mom.
I said, “I want my rainbow to stay here, too. Over my bed.” Dad painted that rainbow, right on the wall, when I was really little.
Mom said, “Yes, of course, sweetie. Your rainbow will stay right where it is.”
I wrote that down, too. Number 8.
Dad moved into a different apartment a month later.
I go back and forth between them.
Here’s how it works:
MONDAY is a DAD day.
TUESDAY is a MOM day.
WEDNESDAY is a DAD day.
THURSDAY is a MOM day.
FRIDAY is part of THE WEEKEND.
THE WEEKEND is FRIDAY and SATURDAY.
THE WEEKEND alternates.
SUNDAY is SUNDAY.
SUNDAY is its OWN DAY.
Before Dad moved out, I thought of the weekend as Saturday and Sunday. Now I think of the weekend as Friday and Saturday. And I think of Sunday as SUNDAY.
Right after the family meeting, I found Red asleep in the laundry basket and carried him to my room, where I opened my new notebook. I looked at the list of Things That Will Not Change.
My parents had written:
1. Mom loves you more than anything, always.
2. Dad loves you more than anything, always.
3. Mom and Dad love each other, but in a different way.
4. You will always have a home with each of us.
5. Your homes will never be far apart.
6. We are still a family, but in a different way.
After that, I carried the green spiral notebook everywhere. I asked a lot of questions. I used the green pen.
Our first summer at the lake cabin without Mom, there were Mom-shaped reminders everywhere, like her blue Sorry! pieces and the chipped yellow bowl she always used for tomato salad. The Mom–reminders were all over the place, but I was the only one who saw them.
That summer, Dad explained to everyone at the cabin--Uncle Frank and Aunt Ess, and my cousins, James, Angelica, and Jojo--that he is gay. I already knew. My parents had told me at the one and only family meeting, when they gave me the notebook.
“Will you be gay forever now?” I asked Dad at the meeting.
Yes, he told me. He would always be attracted to some men the same way that some men were attracted to some women. It’s the way he’s felt since he was little. I uncapped my green pen and wrote it down right away on the list of Things That Will Not Change. It’s number nine: Dad is gay.
After Dad explained about being gay to everyone at the lake cabin, he asked if anyone had questions. No one did. Then Dad and Uncle Frank walked down to the dock and sat with their feet in the water. I watched from the porch, where I was sitting on the edge of Uncle Frank’s favorite chair. After a while, they stood up and jumped in the lake. They were splashing each other like little kids, laughing. I remember being surprised, because Uncle Frank never swims. He always says the water in that lake is too cold. Most of the time, he just sits on the porch, in his chair, in the sun.
“So, you live with your mom now?” my cousin James asked me that night in the sleeping loft. James is four years older than I am. I was eight that first summer without Mom, so he was twelve.
I explained to him about the days of the week. When I was done, we got into our beds, and Angelica tickled my arm for a while. (Usually, I tickled her arm, and then she would say she was too tired to do mine.)
Right around then, James started calling me “Ping-Pong.”
He had really weird nicknames for his little sisters--he called Angelica “BD,” which was for “bottom drawer,” because she’d once stepped into an open dresser drawer to reach something on a shelf and fallen over, cutting her lip. And James called Jojo “Speaker,” short for “speakerphone,” because when she was a baby she used to cry if she heard Uncle Frank’s voice but couldn’t see him anywhere. The names were kind of mean, but I had secretly wanted a James nickname for a long time.
I couldn’t remember doing anything Ping-Pong-related that James might be making fun of me for, but I didn’t care. I actually liked the name Ping-Pong, until Aunt Ess heard him down at our dock and told him to march himself up to the porch so they could “have a chat.”
“Aunt Ess, I don’t mind it!” I called after them. But she ignored me.
“You mean you like being a Ping-Pong ball?” Angelica said. Angelica is a year and a half older than me. We were trying to teach Jojo, even though she was only five, to play volleyball on the little beach where we kept the boats pulled up next to our dock. Now Angelica was tapping the dirty volleyball with the tips of her fingers. She had it trapped between a hip and an elbow.
“What?” I felt my eyes narrowing. I hated it when I didn’t understand something right away.
“You go back and forth, right? From your mom’s to your dad’s? Like a Ping-Pong ball.” She smiled.
I was on top of her in three steps. First, I yanked her ponytail, and then I smacked that ball off her hip, down to the dirt.
“Bea!” Aunt Ess shouted down from the porch. I guess she’d been yelling at James and watching over us at the same time.
Angelica just stood there smiling.
I stomped to the water and floated on my back with my ears under the water so that I couldn’t hear. Angelica was stuck waiting for me to get out because we were swim buddies. James didn’t call me Ping-Pong again. Or anything else.
When my parents were together, two weeks at the lake with my cousins was never enough for me. After the divorce, it felt about a week too long.
It felt too long the summer I was eight, when my cousin Jojo was finally old enough to stay up and play Sorry! with us after dinner. Green is Jojo’s favorite color, too, so I let her have my pieces, and I took Mom’s blue ones.
It felt too long the summer I was nine. That was the summer the chipped yellow bowl broke. I don’t know how it happened; I just saw the pieces in the garbage.
It felt especially too long the summer I was ten. The summer Angelica fell. When those two weeks were finally over, I was in the back seat of our car even before Rocco, our dog, could hurl himself in there. And Rocco loves the car.
I like to dance. Not “dance” dance, with mirrors and leotards, but secret dancing in my room with my earbuds in. I don’t know how it looks, but I know how it feels. It feels like I know exactly what to do. I know when to turn or sidestep, when to take it easy and when to go a little crazy. It doesn’t matter whether I’m at my mom’s or at my dad’s. I keep my eyes closed, and I’m wherever I’m supposed to be.
But when I’m dancing, I’d rather be at my dad’s, because my mom doesn’t believe in bedroom-door locks. And she has a way of flinging my door open as if she’s trying to catch me at something.
“Bea, you have a fever. You should be resting.”
“Mom!” I was breathing hard from dancing.
She made a face. That’s what Mom thinks of privacy.
“Dad just called,” Mom said. “Sheila’s on her way.”
This was at the beginning of fifth grade, when I was ten. Right after Jesse moved in with Dad and me.
This is all part of the story about the sound of corn growing. Believe it or not.
I’d stayed home sick, so my babysitter, Sheila, was picking me up from Mom’s apartment, instead of at school. Sheila picked me up on my “Dad days”--Mondays and Wednesdays and every other Friday. She also used to clean Dad’s apartment. And she walked our dog, Rocco.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays and every other Friday, Mom picked me up at school. Mom cleans our apartment herself because she doesn’t believe in paying someone else to pick up your mess. Or your dog’s.
Dad doesn’t believe in ten-year-olds going to PG-13 movies, and Mom doesn’t believe in cereal with more than three grams of sugar per serving. Dad doesn’t believe in curse words, and Mom doesn’t believe in going to school with a temperature above 98.6.
Dad thinks anything below 100 is fine.
Mom doesn’t believe in wasting money, but Dad says it’s fine to splurge once in a while. When he bought me a puffy purple swivel chair for my room at his apartment, Mom muttered about it, and I went online and found out it cost almost 200 dollars, and after that I felt weird.
Dad believes in allowance for chores. Mom believes in free allowance and doing chores for nothing. But Dad’s allowance is a dollar higher. Confused? Welcome to my life.
Sometimes when I’m dancing at Dad’s with the door locked tight, I slam myself into that puffy purple swivel chair and just spin. Everything is a blur, and my feet kick off the floor, shooting me around, and around, and around.
At Mom’s, I do my spinning on my feet, with my arms stretched out.
The doorbell rang, and I heard Mom let Sheila in. My temperature was only 99.3. Even after a lot of dancing, I couldn’t get it up to Dad-sick, so I knew I was going to school the next day. Thursday. Spelling-test day. I looked on my desk for my word sheet.
I picked up my backpack and started throwing stuff in: word sheet, math workbook, planner, colonial-breakfast folder (with butter recipe), and the only barrette I had that actually stayed in my hair. Most of them fall straight down.
Sheila knocked on my bedroom door, and I yelled “Come!” which is what Captain Picard always says on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Sheila and I used to watch that show together at Dad’s. (Eventually, we streamed all seven seasons. That’s a lot of Star Trek.)
Anyone would like Sheila--she has pink glasses and big hair, and she wears a lot of bracelets. And cowboy boots, even in summertime.
“You’re sick?” Sheila said.
She nodded. Sheila got it, even though her parents were never divorced. They stayed married until they died.
“Got your medicine?” Sheila said.
“Yep.” I patted my bag.
“Shall I set a course for Ninety-Ninth Street, Captain?”
I tugged down the front of my shirt with both hands. “Make it so!”
Sheila was the one who noticed that Captain Picard was always tugging on his uniform, pulling it down in front like he was trying to cover his stomach. She heard the actor being interviewed on TV, and he said it was because they made the costumes a little too short.
I hugged Mom goodbye.
“I’ll see you after school tomorrow,” she said, squeezing me. My face was mushed against her, so one ear heard the regular way, and the other one heard through her body. When we let go, I saw her see the rash on my neck, which itched.
“Got your medicine?”
“Yes!” I hated being asked things twice. Even by two different people.
“Don’t shout at me, Bea.”
And Sheila said, “Let’s go, Captain.”
Copyright © 2020 by Rebecca Stead. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.