Once Upon a Toad
“Are we there yet?” My little brother pulled his index finger out of his mouth, sounding anxious. Geoffrey’s not quite four and doesn’t like car trips.
Without taking his eyes off the road, my dad reached over the back of his seat and stuffed the finger back in. It works kind of like a safety plug. Geoffrey’s nickname in our family is Barf Bucket.
“Not much longer, buddy. Hang in there.”
I was well out of range, sitting in the very back of the minivan next to Olivia. If you can call being braced against opposite car windows sitting “next to” each other. There was practically a force field between us. My stepsister and I are not exactly best friends.
I’d just arrived from Houston, where I live with my mom for most of the year, and was on the way from the airport to my dad’s house in Oregon. Usually, I only spend vacations with my father: Thanksgiving or Christmas, take your pick; plus half of spring break and a month every summer.
This time, though, was different. This time I was moving in for three months, smack-dab in the middle of the school year. Well, almost the middle. April 1, to be exact. What choice did I have? It’s not like I could stay at home with my mom. She was in outer space. Literally. My mother is an astronaut.
“It’s either go to Portland or stay with your great-aunt Abyssinia,” she told me when she broke the news that she’d been selected to go to the International Space Station. Obviously, there was no way she could take me with her. Not that I didn’t beg her to anyway. Anything would be better than sharing a room with Miss Prissy Pants Olivia Haggerty.
Well, almost anything. The prospect of staying with my great-aunt Abyssinia was marginally worse, I had to admit. Great-Aunt Aby is my mother’s only relative. She lives in an RV with her cat, Archibald, and spends her time traveling around to all the national parks. Our refrigerator back in Houston is plastered with her postcards: “Greetings from Yosemite!”; “Having a grand time at the Grand Canyon!”; and my personal favorite, “Chillaxin’ at Glacier!” All of them are signed “ABYCNU”—the stupid little jingle she and my mother use when they say good-bye to each other. “Abyssinia!” my mother always hollers as Great-Aunt Abyssinia drives away. “Not if I be seeing you first!” my great-aunt hollers back, and then they both laugh their heads off. They think this is just hilarious, for some reason.
Once, a couple of years ago when I was still in elementary school, my mother and I flew out to meet my great-aunt at Mount Rushmore for a week. It was kind of cool staying in the RV, but Great-Aunt Aby is weird. She’s scatterbrained and
disorganized, and she has some strange hobbies (her snow globe collection is about ready to take over the RV) and even stranger ideas about food. I was in my “I don’t eat anything but fish sticks and peanut butter” phase back then, and her refrigerator had neither, just pickled eggs, kimchi, and about a hundred bottles of this disgusting green gloop that she drinks for breakfast. Her cupboards weren’t any better. Who eats dried seaweed? If it’s stinky or looks like it should be thrown in the trash immediately, you can be sure it’s on my great-aunt’s list of top ten favorite foods. I nearly starved to death on that trip.
Dad was thrilled with the idea, of course. Not me starving to death, but me coming to live with him. Ever since he remarried and became the proud owner of a brand-new family, he’s been dying for us all to turn into the Brady Bunch.
Like that’s ever going to happen.
It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for Olivia. My half brother, Geoffrey, is actually really cute, except for the barfing, and my stepmother isn’t like one of those fairy-tale stepmothers, the ones who secretly hate their stepdaughters and make them sleep in the scullery or something. Iz—her real name is Isabelle, but everybody calls her Iz—is awesome. The two of us actually have way more in common than she and Olivia do. For instance, Iz loves the outdoors and she loves classical music, which are my two main passions in life. Sometimes she takes me to the symphony when I visit, just the two of us, and leaves Olivia home to babysit Geoffrey. Olivia hates it when that happens, even though she can’t stand classical music and she has all the rest of the year to do stuff with her mother.
No, it definitely wasn’t Iz. The real reason we’d never become the Brady Bunch was Olivia. My stepsister is a major pain.
If Olivia went to my school back in Houston, there’s no way we would ever be friends. She tap-dances; I’m a tomboy. She’s into arts and crafts; I break out in a rash at the sight of a tube of glitter. And I play the bassoon, while she still plays with Barbies. Olivia gets really mad when I say this—“I don’t play with them, they’re props,” she insists. Yeah, right. Whatever. My stepsister wants to be an interior designer when she grows up, and her room is crammed with boxes she’s decorated to look like rooms from magazines. They’re wallpapered and painted, and there are curtains made of scraps of fabric from Iz’s quilting basket, and carpet samples on the floors. Inside, the Barbies lounge around, reading on their little sofas and cooking in their itty-bitty kitchens and talking on the phones in their miniature offices. It’s creepy.
It would be so much better if Olivia and I didn’t have to share a room. My dad’s house is way different from our supermodern high-rise condo back in Houston. It was built in 1912, for one thing, and for another, it’s tiny. I mean teeny tiny. It’s cute and everything, but it’s designed more for Goldilocks or Thumbelina or somebody like that. Not for real people. It’s like living in one of Olivia’s Barbie dioramas.
My dad and Iz are really proud of their house, though. They call it their Northwest Honeymoon Cottage, and they’re always going on about how much character it has, and swooning over the hardwood floors and the tile work around the fireplace and the stained-glass window on the landing of the stairs. Maybe that’s where Olivia gets her passion for decorating, I don’t know. What I do know is that I’d
trade character for a few modern conveniences any day of the week. Another bathroom would be nice, for starters. There’s only one for all five of us, which is totally ridiculous. Didn’t anybody ever have to use the bathroom back in 1912? I guess nobody had clothes back then either, because the closets are minuscule too. Olivia loathes having to share her closet. She doesn’t like having to share anything, especially with me, and especially her room. Stuffing the two of us in there is like throwing a lighted match onto a pile of wood shavings. Kaboom!
Dad and Iz have been talking about fixing up the attic into a master bedroom suite and giving me their room, but this trip came up kind of suddenly. There wasn’t time for a remodel. Mom was a last-minute replacement for one of the other astronauts, who broke his ankle a week before launch. She was up and into space so fast we didn’t even get a chance to celebrate my birthday. I had to go stay with my friend A.J. and his family instead.
My mother and I had been planning a special trip over spring break, just the two of us. Dad had even agreed to let me skip my usual week in Oregon so that Mom and I could have more time together on our “mystery trip,” as she called it. She wouldn’t tell me where she was taking me. Not that it mattered now. When she got the news about the space mission, we had to cancel.
I was still brooding about this fact as we pulled off the freeway onto the winding road that led up into Portland’s West Hills. We were almost home. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen soon enough for Geoffrey.
“Gross!” shrieked Olivia as the car swerved and my dad
pulled off onto the road’s narrow shoulder. “Couldn’t you have held it for five more minutes, you little twerp?”
Geoffrey started to cry. My father frowned at Olivia, then turned to him and said gently, “It’s okay, buddy. We’ll get you cleaned up in a jiffy. Just a little April Fools’ Day joke, right?”
Some joke, I thought, holding my nose and catapulting out of the car. I sprinted past Olivia, waiting until I was safely out of range of eau de barf before taking a deep breath of fresh air. I love the way Oregon smells. Like evergreens and moss and clean earth. It rains here a lot, especially in the winter and spring, which keeps the air crystal-clear, unlike downtown Houston. And unlike downtown Houston, everything in Portland is incredibly green. I’ve never seen so many shades of the color before in my life.
My dad is a wildlife biologist, and he loves taking me hiking when I visit. I swear he knows every trail in Oregon. And in Portland, too. His house is on the fringes of the city, tucked into the woods up near Forest Park. He loves to brag that he lives on the edge of the biggest city park in the United States, and he loves the fact that the Wildwood Trail passes right by our house. I’ve always thought it was cool how you could hop on it and be out in the middle of nowhere one minute, then downtown the next.
I glanced back at the car. My father was changing Geoffrey’s clothes. Olivia was lounging nearby, fiddling with her cell phone. She’d spent the entire drive home texting madly. She was probably telling her BFF, Piper Philbin, what a loser I was and how I’d completely ruined the rest of the school year for her by coming to Oregon.
Not that I really cared what she said, especially not to Piper Fleabrain.
I think it says a lot about a person, who they pick for their best friend, and the fact that Olivia picked Piper didn’t exactly boost my opinion of my stepsister. Piper is one of those empty-headed popular girls that my middle school back in Houston is stuffed full of. Texas, Oregon—it doesn’t matter, they’re all the same. I swear they’re made with cookie cutters in a bakery somewhere. All they care about is clothes and boys and makeup, and they talk in these high, squeaky voices that get higher and squeakier whenever someone male is nearby. It’s enough to make a person, well, barf.
My best friend, on the other hand, may be a total nerd, but he’s also the nicest guy on the planet. A.J. D’Angelo is the smartest kid in my school, and possibly in the whole state of Texas. He’s a computer geek, which isn’t surprising because both his parents work for NASA. Not as astronauts, but doing computer stuff. The whole family is scary smart. They live in the same building as my mother and I do, only we’re on the seventeenth floor and they’re on the fifteenth. I’ve known A.J. since the day we moved in, when I was six.
“All clear!” called my father.
Olivia and I climbed back into the van, still holding our noses, and a few minutes later we pulled into the driveway. My father tooted the horn to let my stepmother know we’d arrived, and the door flew open and Iz came running down the front steps, her long, curly blond hair bouncing behind her.
“I’m so glad you’re here!” she said, throwing her arms around me, and for a brief moment I was glad too. Such was the power of Iz.
Then Olivia ungraciously set my suitcase down on my foot, and all of a sudden I would have given anything to be back in Texas.
My stepmother planted a kiss on the top of my head. “You grew again,” she said. “At least an inch.”
I smiled up at her. Iz knows that my greatest ambition in life—besides playing bassoon for a major symphony orchestra or doing something involving the outdoors—is to be taller. I’m really, really short. Vertically challenged, as A.J. puts it.
“Sorry I couldn’t be at the airport to meet you,” Iz told me. “I had a shoot up on Mount Hood and I couldn’t reschedule.”
My stepmother is a nature photographer. Even though deep down I still sometimes wish that my parents would get back together again, I have to admit that Iz and my dad are kind of a match made in heaven. The two of them have a whole lot more in common than my parents ever did.
My mother always tells me that what happened between her and my dad isn’t my fault and it isn’t my business, either. My business is just to know that they both love me more than anything and always will. I suppose she’s got a point, but still, sometimes I wish things could have worked out differently.
“That’s okay,” I told my stepmother. “I don’t mind.”
This was true, and Iz knew it. She smiled and gave me another hug. “Wait until you see some of the shots I got. The mountain was out in all its spring glory this morning.”
Mount Hood is amazing. There’s snow on it all year round, and you can see its white-capped peak from all over the city. It’s like Portland’s trademark. One of our traditions when I come here during summer vacation is to drive up to
Timberline Lodge and take the ski lift to the snow line. Iz takes our picture for the family Christmas card, and then we have a snowball fight. I love telling my friends back in Houston about this. They can’t believe there’s someplace that has snow in July and August.
Olivia really gets into the snowball fight—big surprise there, especially since I’m always her prime target—but that’s about the only outdoor activity she likes. Nature is not Miss Prissy Pants’s favorite thing. And Geoffrey’s still at the stage where he wants everybody to carry him, so the two of them get left at home a lot when there’s an outdoor adventure planned.
“Olivia, why don’t you help your sister take her things upstairs?” Iz prompted.
Stepsister, I thought automatically.
“While you girls are getting settled in,” she continued, “I’ll get dinner on the table.”
“Um, someone needs a bath first,” said my father.
My stepmother plucked Geoffrey from his arms. “Bathwater’s drawn and ready,” she said, and gave Geoffrey a kiss too, even though he still smelled faintly of barf. Mothers are amazing that way. “How about I scrub the G-Man while you set the table?”
“Deal,” said my dad.
Iz nudged Olivia, who glared at me as she picked up my suitcase again.
I followed her warily into the house.