All I knew about Bo was that he and Momma were married for a little while. Bo was Sydney’s real dad, not mine. I remember that he yelled at me a lot. He didn’t like Sydney. Grandma had once told me that Bo was the reason Momma’s nose was just a little crooked. Momma didn’t say anything about that. I always thought the crooked nose made her face cute. Her nose was not crooked from the side, only the front.
Hours later, I was still watching Momma’s hair waving wildly around her crooked-nosed face. I turned sideways in the front seat and rested the back of my head against the door frame, feeling drowsy in the sun. Suddenly, Momma’s eyes lit up like she recognized something. She turned off the highway and onto a smaller road.
“Almost there!” Momma exclaimed. She turned down the radio.
I sat up straighter and began to pay attention to where we were. This stretch of road looked exactly like every other road we’d driven down, with small houses or tall old farm houses breaking up the green and brown fields. The houses had windbreaks of trees near them. There were basketball hoops, trampolines, swing sets, and parked cars. I realized I hadn’t asked Momma where exactly Great Aunt Georgia lived. But did it really matter?
“Look, Cara, it’s a pumpkin farm,” Momma said as she pointed out her window. “Bet you haven’t seen one of those. They do an awesome haunted house every Halloween.”
I raised my eyebrows and smiled. It was something new, at least.
A few turns and gravel roads later, Momma pulled the car onto a long, unpaved driveway. Set far back from the road was an old, green three-story house with a big porch in front. It might have been a pretty house at one time, but now the porch and its roof sagged frighteningly low. The paint was only green in places. The other parts were dirty or peeled down to old gray wood. My stomach sank.
Momma finally put the car in park and sighed. She looked at me. “You ready?” I couldn’t read her expression behind her sunglasses.
Another season, another town. Why not? I still had a little bit of that happy feeling left over from the day of sunshine and wind. “Sure,” I said. And I mostly meant it.
“Do you remember Great Aunt Georgia?”
I shook my head.
“Oh,” she said. “I guess you wouldn’t. You haven’t seen her since you were three.”
“I’m sure she’s nice. It’ll be okay.” I reached for the door handle.
“That’s my girl!” Momma beamed at me, and I felt myself start believing her. I was still her girl. The day had been golden. We were happier than we’d been in months. Free. Not worrying about anything. Laughing. It felt like summer had truly just begun, and there wasn’t a single thing we had to do for the next three whole months.
Feeling lighter inside, I got out and opened the rear door to start digging Sydney out of the back seat. She was asleep amidst bags and piles and boxes. I didn’t rush because I didn’t want to wake her up just to have her stuck in there. I pulled little boxes and trash bags of clothes and sheets and towels out of the car. Then I grabbed our new backpacks, which were full of books and toys instead of school supplies.
The car door I’d been leaning against opened wider all at once, and I staggered to try to keep my balance.
“Sorry,” a girl’s voice said.
“It’s okay,” I answered automatically. I turned around to see who owned the voice. A girl with long, curly blonde hair stood on the other side of the door. She looked about my age, or maybe a little older. She looked a lot like the kids in my classes back in the last town. She was taller and bigger around than I was. Her pink T-shirt said 2 CUTE 4 U, and she wore shorts and dirty white flip-flops.
“You’re Cara, right?” the girl asked.
“Yeah,” I answered.
“I’m Hayley,” the girl said. She took the white garbage bag I’d been holding and set it on the gravel next to the rest of our things.
“Thanks,” I said.
“No problem. So, you’re going to live here.” She didn’t say it like she was asking a question. It was more like thinking aloud.
I shrugged. “Guess so.”
“You’re going to be in my room.”
“Oh, is that okay?” I asked pleasantly.
"Sure," she answered like it was no big deal, and people came to stay at her house all the time. But I didn't feel okay with it. My stomach tightened up all over again, and the sunshine of the day was gone from my mind. I had never not shared a room with my little sister. I didn't know what to think of this.
Momma had already gone up on the porch and was tapping on the open screen door. I crawled into the car and unbuckled Sydney’s seat belt.
“Wake up, Syd. We’re here,” I said. Sydney opened her eyes and gave me a huge, cheesy smile. A blue butterfly meandered in through the open car window. It landed on my shoulder. “Thanks,” I told her. She smiled again and let me tug her out of her car seat.
Hayley backed up to give us room to get out of the car. She stared at Sydney openly. I knew that before I even turned around because everyone stared at Sydney the first time they met her. How could they not? Her eyes were funny shaped, she was always grinning, and her tongue hung out of her mouth half the time. It didn’t bother Sydney that people stared. It didn’t bother me, either―unless they made fun of her. I decided that Hayley was at least a little alright because she didn’t make fun or even ask what was wrong with her.
The screen door squealed open and banged. Momma was using her overly happy “we’re new here” voice to greet an older lady who had come outside. She wasn’t very tall, not like Momma. What she didn’t have in height, she made up for in width. The old lady, probably my great aunt, shuffled her feet as she moved as though it really hurt her to walk. I felt a little sorry for her. At least at first.
Syd and I walked up the porch steps to stand in front of her. I never took my arm off of my sister's shoulders. Great Aunt Georgia looked us over like people look over used cars. I wanted to run away from her unfriendly stare, but I wasn't going anywhere without my sister. After a long time during which Momma didn't say a single word, Sydney stuck out her hand.
"Hi, I Sydney," she said with a smile. "Nice to meet choo." I still couldn't believe how her words had suddenly became so clear.
Great Aunt Georgia had to think about it before she took her hand, like it might have been dirty. Sydney nodded her head encouragingly and said,"'S'okay." She was used to people treating her like a freak of nature. I felt my lips tighten and my face get hot. Momma smirked a little as her aunt shook her daughter's hand. Sydney grinned, wagging that crazy tongue again.
While we carried our things upstairs to the bedrooms with Hayley's help, I heard Aunt Georgia say the words I dreaded but had already guessed were coming: "You never said she was a retard."
Mama's reply was soft, muffled. I couldn't make any of it out. Then I heard something I didn't expect. Aunt Georgia said, "You had better be on the straight and narrow this time, girl. I ain't tolerating no more shenanigans like went on out there in Colfax, you hear?"
Colfax? I'd never heard of that one before. I put that word in my back pocket to ask Momma about later if I ever got up the courage. Momma didn't like to talk about the past much. She mostly just talked about how much better the future was going to be, how we weren't going to have to worry anymore. Stuff like that.
I couldn't fall asleep that first night. It was hot and stuffy in Hayley's room. There was no place to put my stuff, so it was still in trash bags in the corner of the room. Hayley had given me half of her bed, which was two mattresses stacked on the floor. At least I had a mattress of my own. My sheets still smelled like home, since we didn't have time to wash them before we left.
Momma had been in such a hurry to leave, she forgot her shoes and only had the sneakers she wore that morning. She hadn’t sat still from the time she heard about the phone call until she was in the car, leaving our temporary home and half of our stuff behind. Her eyes were too wide and bright as we packed. Her smile was too quick. And she couldn’t stop telling us how awesome Great Aunt Georgia was. She wanted us to be happy and not worried. But she was scared, and that did worry me. I was used to her changing her mind a lot, always looking for the next good thing to happen to us in a new place. But I wanted to know why Bo would come looking for us. Momma kept a lot to herself and wouldn’t tell me if I asked. At any rate, I didn't mind the smell of my sheets. I did mind the heat, though.
In the dark, the hot room felt too much like the one Sydney and I hid in all summer while Justin and his friends did drugs in the living room. Sweat ran down my legs and made them stick to the sheets. When I tried to just throw off the covers, the humid air coming from the open window made me feel too cold and damp. The floorboards creaked a lot, so as I rolled over to get comfortable, the floor beneath me kept making noise. Making things worse, Hayley snored really loudly. I tried to put my pillow over my ears, but then my neck hurt and I couldn’t breathe. I missed the sound of Sydney's even breathing in the next bed.
I didn't put Sydney to bed that night. Momma had insisted on doing that herself, in her bright, fake happy Momma tone. So instead, I spent the evening with Hayley in her room, listening to her talk about her friends and boys and her favorite singer, Connor Marx, while she twirled her blonde curls around her fingers. I tried to care. Really, I did. But it was like she lived in some Disney show planet and not in the real world. I didn't have friends, and boys never noticed me. I looked younger than thirteen; I didn't even need a bra yet. But it didn't matter. I wasn't in any one place long enough to worry about boys liking me. But at least we both liked Connor Marx. I used to watch reruns of his shows and a live concert on the Disney Channel after Sydney was asleep at night.
Eventually, I gave up on sleeping and stood up on my mattress. I forgot that the roof was low on this side of the room, so I banged my head pretty hard. When the stars I saw finally disappeared, I felt my way very carefully around the edge of the room to the door. It was slow going without streetlights outside giving off their dull, yellowy light. I had to tap my toes in front of me on the floor to make sure I wasn’t going to trip on shoes or shelves or my bags. I felt my way down the tiny hallway too, so I wouldn’t step out too far and fall down the stairs.
Finally, I found the door handle to Sydney and Momma’s new room. As I tiptoed in, cringing every time the floor creaked, Sydney said, “Hi, Cara.”
“Hey, why are you still awake?” I asked. I knew the answer, but I still asked.
I tripped over the edge of Sydney’s mattress―she and Momma were sleeping on mattresses like Hayley and I were―and ended up sitting down hard on her feet.
“Oopsy daisy!” she said with a giggle.
“Shh! You don’t want to wake Momma up, do you?”
“Nuh-uh.” I got off of her feet, and she turned around and put her head on my leg.
It was quiet for a while, and Sydney said, “Cara?”
“Da window’s broke.”
“Really?” I got up and went over to the window. By the faint moonlight, I could see that the glass was still together. I felt it just to be sure.
“No, it’s fine, Syd.”
“But it won’t open.”
I tried to push up on it. She was right. It wouldn’t move.
“See?” she said.
“I’m sorry. Maybe it’s painted shut or something. We can ask Momma to help us with it tomorrow.”
“But… the bufflyes!” Just then I heard faint tapping against the window, up at the top. I looked, and whole top of the window was filling up with butterflies bumping against the glass, silhouetted against the moonlight.
“Sydney, you can’t! Not tonight!”
Sydney started to whimper, and I hurried over to shush her. I wrapped my arms around her and said, “We’ll figure it out in the morning. We’ll get the butterflies in.”
“’Morrow,” she sniffed.
"I love you, Syd."
"I love you too, three, four..." She began counting. With that, we lay down and went to sleep. I dreamed that butterflies were swarming all over Momma, and she was freaking out and trying to hit them away from her. In my dream, Sydney stood there crying, “Don’t hurt ‘em, Momma!”
* * *
When we woke up the next morning, I felt all confused because there was no clock in the room. Momma had left her phone behind, so I couldn’t check that, either. I felt like I should be up getting Sydney and me ready for school, even though I knew that sometimes we didn’t start school for a few days after we moved to a new place. I took Sydney down the stairs to the bathroom and helped her wash up and get dressed. I wasn’t sure where the towels and washcloths were, so we shared the ones that hung on the towel rack. They didn’t look like the fancy ones people hung up for decoration. They smelled like bath soap, and they were a little damp, but I decided not to care. What else could we do?
We heard Momma’s voice coming from the kitchen, so we quickly put our dirty clothes upstairs and went back down.
“Hi, girls!” Momma practically sang at us. She was standing over the stove with a spatula in one hand.
“Hi, Momma!” Sydney answered. She threw her arms around Momma’s waist, knocking her a little off balance, but she only laughed and hugged her back.
Great Aunt Georgia was sitting at the table, holding a mug of coffee in her hands. She looked up at us and nodded, but didn’t smile.
“Hi,” I said softly.
“Want some pancakes? Eggs?” Momma asked us.
“Ooh, yeah!” Sydney hooted, plopping down in a chair I pulled out for her.
“Sure,” I said as I sat down next to my sister.
I looked at Great Aunt Georgia. She looked back for just a second, and then started fidgeting with her mug. Sydney bounced up and down in the chair, singing “Pancakes, pancakes” to herself and tracing the flowers on the vinyl tablecloth with her fingers. Momma had turned back to the stove, but she was still chattering away.
“…and then Aunt Georgia said that my cousin runs the BP station three miles that way―no, that way―and he’s gonna hire me. All I have to do is go fill out the application. I start day after tomorrow… Cara?”
I wasn’t listening. Instead, I was watching Aunt Georgia. Her face was getting redder and redder. She put her hand to her forehead and pushed the frizzy gray curls away from her face. Her other hand was balled up into a fist on the table. She looked angry, like she might explode soon.
“Cara?” Momma asked again.
I looked at her.
“Isn’t that great?”
“Yeah. It really is,” I agreed with an enthusiastic nod, but I was still watching Great Aunt Georgia from the corner of my eye.
“Are you okay, sweetie?”
“Um, yeah. I’m fine.”
Suddenly, Aunt Georgia banged her fist on the table. Momma jumped and dropped the spatula. I flung my arms around my sister.
“Would you shut that kid up?!” Great Aunt Georgia shouted. She swore.
Sydney stopped singing and stared at her great aunt with her eyes and mouth in perfectly round O shapes. Everyone stayed frozen, and it felt like Aunt Georgia’s yell was still echoing off the cabinets, the table, everything. Sydney took a breath to say something, but I clamped my hand over her mouth and shook my head at her. Momma didn’t dare speak, either.
“I’m old. I’ve worked hard my whole life. Harder than you’ve ever worked in your life. Now I deserve a little peace and quiet. Is that too much to ask?” Aunt Georgia picked up her coffee cup and took a sip.
“Um, no. Of course not,” Momma said very quietly. She set a plate of pancakes, eggs, and sausages in front of her aunt. Great Aunt Georgia covered the sausage and eggs with ketchup, the pancakes with syrup. Then she turned all of her attention to her food and seemed to forget that we were there.
“Pancakes,” Sydney whispered to herself just once.
* * *
Momma and I got started officially moving in to the bedrooms upstairs right after breakfast. I didn’t believe Momma’s story that Great Aunt Georgia had diabetes and got really crabby when she was hungry. I was happy to leave the kitchen, away from that hard stare and rough voice.
The spare room was painted pale green, and the window frame and sills were pink. While Sydney leafed through her butterfly book on her mattress, I put clothes in the old dresser, giving Sydney two drawers and Momma three. Momma used her credit card to push through the paint that held the window closed. She hung a sheet over the curtain rod, but thought better of it and took it down, saying she liked the fresh air and sunlight instead. “I used to have sleepovers with my cousin Patty in this room,” she said, sounding a little sad somehow. “We used to sneak out this window and climb down that tree there.” Sure enough, a huge, twisted maple tree branch spread out just below the window.
“To do what?” I asked.
“Oh, not much,” she said distractedly. “We would borrow the car and go for rides, visit people. You know. Stuff like that.”
“Is Aunt Patty Hayley’s mom?” I asked. She nodded.
“Where is she now? Why isn’t she with Hayley?”
“Nobody knows where she is.” The cheery look had completely left Momma’s face. “She dropped her off two years ago and left. No one has heard from her since.”
“Uh-huh,” she agreed. Then she snapped back to attention and said, “But I don’t want you two to worry. I’m not going to leave you here, I promise. We just need a little time to get back on our feet, is all. Then we’ll get our own place again. It’ll be great.”
The smile returned, but it wasn’t as bright as it had been. I returned it politely and kept my hands busy until Momma announced that the room was now livable. Then she took a load of laundry including everyone’s sheets down to the machines in the basement, announcing that she was going to help Great Aunt Georgia with housework for a little while before she went to the gas station to apply for the job. As soon as Momma left, a butterfly wandered through the window, which didn’t have a screen on it.
“What kind?” Sydney asked. She was grinning and rocking a little. She loved this game. She would bring a butterfly in, and I had to try to name it. It had gotten pretty easy, since that was one of the only books we owned. Whenever we didn’t live near a library, I read that book over and over. Memorizing the butterfly names became pretty easy for me.
“Zebra heliconian,” I said. “Those don’t live around here.”
Sydney clapped her hands and squealed. I shushed her, reminding her that Great Aunt Georgia was crabby and didn’t like noise.
Hayley finally woke up around nine o’clock. I could finally go in to her room without worrying about crinkling my bags and waking her up. After very firmly warning Sydney again not to run or make noise in the house, I took her into Hayley’s room with me. Hayley stumbled out of the room and returned a while later with wet hair, dragging a vacuum behind her.
“Saw your mom’s room. You guys neat freaks?” Hayley asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“’S okay. And don’t worry about Grandma. She yells a lot, but that’s about all she can do. And she can’t get up the stairs to see if your room’s clean or not.”
I felt a little better when she said that. I liked knowing that there was one place that crabby old woman couldn’t get to us. Hayley helped me clean up the room, and she even emptied out the bottom two dresser drawers so I could fit some clothes in. She didn’t talk much, so I guessed she wasn’t a morning person. I shooed Sydney off the mattress and held it up for Hayley to vacuum underneath it. It was yellowed with age, and stained in one corner, just like about every mattress I’d ever seen.
When most of the clutter was put away and the floor was vacuumed, I saw that the room was a lot bigger than I had thought it was at first. The thick carpet was light blue and old, just like the sheer curtains that hung at the window. The walls were light purple, and the dresser and computer desk were white. “This is a pretty room,” I said.
“Thanks,” Hayley said. “Sorry it was so messy before. I didn’t know you were coming.”
“Me neither,” I confessed. “And don’t worry about it. I can help you keep it clean if you want.”
I turned away while Hayley got dressed, but not before I noticed that her chest was very much developed, like a woman’s. I only wore a bra because Momma said it was time for me to, not because I needed one.
“So, um, when does school start?”
“Never,” Hayley replied cheerfully. She was now pulling a comb through her hair.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know what your mom’s going to do with you, but I don’t go to school. I’m guessing you won’t, either. The bus doesn’t come out this far, and Grandma sure ain’t gonna drive us every day.”
“How do you get away with that? I mean, without the school or someone coming looking for you?”
“Easy,” she said with a grin. “She tells them I’m home schooled.”
“Hm…” My eyebrows went up as I considered this. I really didn’t mind school, since it gave me something to do instead of being stuck in an apartment all day. But the thought of not having to learn new names and faces, not having homework, and not having Fs in geography―I had to admit that it sounded pretty good.
Hayley bumped my shoulder lightly with hers as she passed me on the way to the closet. “See? Not so bad, is it?”
“Huh. Nope, not bad at all. So, like, what do we do all day, then?”
“Well, first we go feed the horses.”
Sydney started wiggling on the mattress, clapping her hands but still not saying a word. For being different like she was, she certainly did learn fast. I was impressed.
* * *
“So, what's up with your mom?” Hayley asked me as she poured grain into the blue plastic bin that hung over the wall of the horse stall. A spotted horse named Sassy nodded her head up and down wildly and stamped her hooves as she waited for her breakfast. The stable smelled like poop, and all the horses there were stomping and snorting, waiting for their food. Huge flies buzzed all around us and kept biting my legs.
I slapped at a fly on my leg and responded, “Huh?”
“Your mom. Why’s she here? Is it drugs again?” She stuck the old gallon jug that was cut into a scoop back into the food barrel.
“My mom doesn’t do drugs,” I said. I tried to sound firm, but I remembered how Momma had acted over the summer when Justin was around. My voice wasn’t very steady.
Hayley looked at me for a minute like a school nurse trying to decide whether your stomach ache was from being sick or having a science test after lunch. She eventually nodded and said, “Okay, sure, whatever. Just I heard different.”
I suddenly wanted to hurt her feelings, so I said, “So what about your mom?”
“She was definitely doing drugs. Pot, and some other stuff I didn't know what it was. I found it in her drawer once when I was looking for socks. You ever smell pot smoke?” When I didn't answer, she continued, “Anyways, she got tired of California, and tired of being a mom. She dropped me off here with my grandma two years ago. Here, go fill this up with water. The faucet's down there.” She handed me a bucket and pointed to the end of the stable, where a faucet was attached to the outer wall. I filled the bucket up. Some splashed on the ground, which made little mud splatters on my feet.
“Just like that?” I asked.
“Yeah. Just like that.” Her words sounded rough.
“I’m sorry,” I said softly.
Shaking hair out of her eyes, she said, “’S not your fault. She sucked, as far as moms go. At least yours is still around. Pour it in there.” She pointed to an empty trough through the stall window. I poured, hoping the horse wouldn't bite my head while I did it.
“My mom said she used to hang out with your mom all the time.”
“Yeah. They’re cousins. Best friends, too. That’s how I know about your mom doing drugs. She smoked pot all the time with my mom when they were teenagers. Grandma told me about it.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I hated Great Aunt Georgia for talking about Momma like that. But I also hated Momma because it was probably true. There was a lot I didn't know about her, and the more I heard, I realized I didn't want to know any of it. Hayley tossed me a small bale of hay, but I wasn’t expecting it. It knocked me off balance, and I fell backward against the stable wall. The horse in the nearest stall raised up its front legs.
“Calm down, Herbert. She didn’t mean to fall,” Hayley said. She grabbed my arm and pulled me up and away from the stall. “That’s Herbert Hoover. You wanna stay away from him. He bites and kicks.”
“Oh. Is Herbert your horse too?”
“No. Grandma rents out stalls so people can board their horses here. Herbert’s owner pays me twenty bucks a week to feed him and clean out his stall. Sassy is mine, and that one is now, too.” She pointed to a small, skinny, grayish horse in the stall next to Sassy’s. “That’s Melly. Her owner abandoned her, so Grandma gave her to me. See how they starved her?” The horse’s ribs and spine stuck out so far, I could count the bumps.
“Yeah. That sucks.”
Hayley brought Sassy and Melly out one at a time and put them in a pen where they could graze. We shoveled poop into a wheelbarrow and dumped it on a pile outside the barn. Then we put new hay in each stall. When we were finished with that, Hayley tethered Sassy in the center of the stable. Then she showed me how to curry and brush her. It took a lot longer than I thought, and we eventually ran out of things to talk about and worked quietly.
Suddenly a loud whoop came from outside. I took off running. I had completely forgotten Sydney was with us, she had been so quiet. I worried that she had found a pile of poop somewhere, or maybe a snake or something. But instead, she was dancing around, completely soaked, and the faucet was running full blast. A mud puddle was forming around the faucet, and Sydney's legs and shorts were splattered brown. “Sydney! I yelled, but Hayley started laughing.
“Let her go,” Hayley said. “She’ll dry. It’s not like anybody out here cares if she gets wet or dirty.”
I tried to reach for the faucet anyway, to turn it off. Sydney beat me to it and splashed water all over me. Mud splashed all over my bare legs.
“Shower! Shower!” Sydney hooted, dancing from foot to foot. I couldn’t help smiling. I splashed her back.
Without warning, Hayley shrieked, "Cara! Look out!"
I felt hot breath on my neck. Herbert Hoover was standing just behind me, close enough to bite my head off. I screamed and ducked, and Herbert spooked. He started to raise up on his hind legs.
Sydney called, "Hi, horsey!" and ran right up to Herbert. Hayley jumped into action. She ran up and grabbed Sydney around the shoulders and chest, dragging her away from the horse before the flailing hooves could hit them. She shoved Sydney in my direction and went back to Herbert Hoover, shushing and murmuring softly to him as she grabbed onto his bridle. It took some time to calm him down and get him back into his stall.
"How in the world-- How did he get out?" Hayley began.
My stomach dropped to my feet. I knew how that horse got out. I just didn't know how I was going to explain it. Before I could come up with an answer, Sydney blurted out, "I wished."
"Syd," I warned.
"Yup!" She ignored me and nodded at Hayley, licking her chin as she did.
Hayley looked at me. Of course she didn't believe her. Why should she? It was every bit as crazy as it sounded. I just shrugged and nodded.
"So you're saying you can... wish for things?"
“And they come true.”
"Uh-huh!" Sydney laughed again as Herbert Hoover flapped his lips and shook his head.
My cousin's eyes narrowed for a minute, then her eyebrows went up. "All the time?"
"Hold on," I interrupted. "It's not like you think it is. She can wish for things, but only some things."
I could tell Hayley was already making plans for Sydney's gift. "Like, only what she can see. Or what she knows is there. And only what she can understand."
"Bufflyes!" Sydney sang. "Popsicles! Ice cream!"
"Money?" Hayley asked.
"No! Bufflyes!" Sydney insisted.
"See what I mean?" I said.
"Hm," was all she said.
I stepped closer to Hayley. "But you cannot tell anyone. Not a single soul. Not your friends. Not your grandma. And definitely not my mom!"
"I won't tell."
"Swear to me. Swear it on your life."
She put her hands up. "Okay, I swear. I won't tell anyone."
"Shh! It's a secwet!" Sydney said with complete seriousness. "Momma makes da bufflyes go away."