Chapter 1: Lexi (Now) CHAPTER 1 Lexi (Now)
Sometimes when I was little I’d spin in circles till I got dizzy. Partly I liked the thrill of the spinning, like I’d created my own little hurricane with me at the eye of it. But I also liked what happened after my body stopped but my brain hadn’t caught up to that fact yet. Everything would still be twisting and turning. I’d look at the world around me, and it would be the same as it had been before I’d started spinning, but everything would look different, too.
I sort of feel that way right now, but without needing to spin to make it happen. Even on a quiet night, our kitchen looks a little like it’s swirling from the off-kilter blur of color that is my half brother Connor’s art taped onto every possible surface. Tonight is not a quiet night.
Dad chops veggies and hums as Connor literally runs in circles around the kitchen table fetching ingredients for him. My stepmom, Abby, smiles at them from her work-cluttered seat at the head of the table like nothing makes her happier than her two guys (as she calls them) making dinner. It’s a heartwarming scene, really.
As I stand in the doorway, though, it’s hard not to wish that some of this familial warmth was aimed at me. It’s not fun to feel jealous of a five-year-old, especially one I love as much as I love this kid. But a tiny pang of envy hits me anyway. I barely remember my mom, and would’ve killed to have this kind of relationship with my dad when I was little. Or even now.
Connor starts reciting the poem he “read” at his kindergarten graduation as he runs.
Is now done.
On to first grade,
Oh what fun!”
He stumbles on every other word but since he’s five and adorable (even I can’t resist those dark brown curls and dimples), Dad and Abby don’t care.
“Can you do it again?” Dad asks.
“Really?” Connor’s eyes are wide with happiness.
“Of course really,” Dad tells him. “It’s my new favorite poem.”
Abby stops going through her work to listen to Connor recite the millionth rendition of this poem she’s heard over the last couple of weeks. “Wonderful, sweetie,” she says. “Just like you were at graduation today.”
To be fair, Connor did do a pretty great job at his graduation ceremony, even if his paper graduation cap slipped over his eyes during his recitation. As the true child of two lawyers, he just kept talking like nothing had gone wrong.
Even if he hadn’t, Dad and Abby would still tell him he’s the best.
The pang of envy returns. When I turn back to look at the stairs, it becomes a wave of nausea. Because while everything’s swirling around down here, I know what’s waiting up there.
The package arrived while Dad, Abby, and Connor were at the store, so none of them saw it. It’s addressed to me, or at least to some alternative-universe me: Alexandria Roth. My first name and my mom’s last name before she married Dad. The return address lists a nursing home in Michigan.
I turn and glance back toward the living room. To the stairs that lead up to the bedrooms. All I have to do is get through dinner and I can go see what’s inside the package to alternative-universe me.
“Lexi, did you hear me?” Dad’s voice cuts through my thoughts.
“The table?” he says. “Can you set it? The pizza’s already in the oven.”
“Oh… of course,” I mumble. “I just zoned out for a second.”
“Well, try to zone back in, okay?” he says. “It’s Connor’s graduation celebration.” Nothing about his tone sounds angry or even annoyed, but resentment that he’s now dad of the year gets under my skin, making the nausea even worse.
Without another word, I set the table while Connor recites the poem again. Then I sit down across from him. The seat next to him has been empty since my stepsister, Chloe, left for school in California. Just looking at it makes my stomach feel worse. If she were here, we’d open the package together. If she were here, I wouldn’t feel this lonely in my own family.
But she’s not even coming home this summer except for a long weekend in August. As I look at her empty chair again, the smell of Connor’s chosen meal for tonight, veggie pizza and French fries, makes me gag. I push the food around on my plate, hoping that no one notices.
“Aren’t you hungry, Lexi?” Abby asks.
“My stomach’s not feeling great,” I admit. “I’m not sure pizza and fries are going to help.”
She reaches over and presses her hand to my forehead. “You don’t have a fever,” she tells me. “Maybe you should go upstairs and lie down for a little while.”
This couldn’t be better if I’d planned it. And I really didn’t plan it. My mind is about as diabolical as… well… a ladybug.
“Maybe I should,” I agree. I get up from the table, only to find my dad looking at me with a crease between his eyebrows. Before he starts in on me, I hurry upstairs. The sooner I get to my package the better.
When I close the door to the room I used to share with Chloe, I grab the package from the floor of my closet. Placing it carefully on my bed, I run my fingers over the address label. Alexandria Roth. It could be some weird scam. It could be anthrax for all I know.
I’m going to open it anyway. Besides, who sends anthrax from a nursing home? I grab a pair of scissors from my desk and slit the package open. I don’t know why I’m so nervous about this. It’s probably just a promotional thing, or even something that got ordered under the wrong name. But then, my eyes snag on the return address again: Refuge by the Lake Nursing Facility.
I take a deep breath and sift through the layers of bubble wrap inside the box.
Just under it all lies a note.
Let me begin by offering my condolences. Your grandmother was a fascinating woman, and I enjoyed getting to know her over the past few years. She had been talking for ages about writing you a letter and sending this to you, but she put it off too long. I’m sure you’re going to hear from her lawyer about her will, but I wanted to send this to you myself since I know it had been on her mind.
I’m very sorry for your loss.
Refuge by the Lake Nursing Facility
My hand shakes so much that the note falls from it. Her will. I’ll be hearing from her lawyer about her will. My grandmother wanted to send me whatever’s in this box, but she died before she could.
Probably this is the part where a normal person would get all teary-eyed, but I’m like that song from A Chorus Line: I feel nothing.
I remember going to see the play when I was ten and Chloe was twelve. Abby took us for a girls’ night out a few months after she started dating Dad. That song stuck in my head and wouldn’t leave me. Because unlike the woman who sang it, who didn’t feel anything she was supposed to, I felt everything. Every emotion, every minute of the day. And I wanted it to stop.
Now, here I am, thinking about that song again because it’s impossible to feel any sense of loss about my own grandmother.
I guess maybe I should say my estranged grandmother? There are only three things I know about the woman, after all.
I never met her, even when I was a baby.
My parents never talked about her and my grandfather, though I know he died a couple of years after Mom did from the same heart defect. (I had to get tested for it afterward.)
She and my grandfather tried to take me away from Dad after Mom died. This was the one time I ever laid eyes on her. Even then she never said a single word to me.
From stuff Abby’s told me, the custody case got nasty fast. A couple of months after Mom died, I had to appear in court. The judge asked me flat out who I wanted to live with.
There aren’t many things I remember from this time of my childhood, but I remember my dad holding my hand a little too tightly as we walked into a big, empty courtroom. My grandparents sitting at one table surrounded by men in fancy suits and Dad sitting by himself at another. He looked terrified. I hadn’t felt scared at all that day till I realized he was.
A bitter sigh escapes from me. After my grandmother fought to get custody of me, she didn’t want anything to do with me for twelve whole years afterward. There’s nothing she could send me now that could make up for that.
The only emotion I can conjure is disappointment that the one person who might have been willing to talk to me about my mom is gone.
God knows Dad’s never going to.
I pick the letter off the floor and read through it again before looking at what’s in the box. Underneath more bubble wrap is a small chest, about the size of a jewelry box.
The top is painted a deep blue-green, and the four sides of it are covered with intricate mosaics made of tiny rocks and glass and bits of shells. One side of the mosaic pictures a beach; on the other, a garden full of flowers. The front has four people on canoes under a dark night sky. The back is a greenhouse.
“What the hell?” I whisper.
Then I lift the cover.
The hinges creak as if no one’s opened it in a really long time. I gently rest the top of it against the cardboard box so that it doesn’t break off.
Inside, it’s filled to the brim with hoards of stuff: letters, a datebook, fliers. And on top is a postcard with an enormous blue Victorian building with lacy white woodwork and a bright green lawn on the front. It looks fancy and old-fashioned. At the bottom of the postcard are the words:
Palais du Lac Hotel
I’ve never heard of this place before, but it’s pretty. I flip the card over and freeze. Because this isn’t just a postcard. It’s a postcard from my mom.
The days I spent with you here will always be the best of my entire life, no matter what else happened. I thought nothing could ever come between us. I never intended to hurt you, but I know I did. Then everything fell apart and you were gone.
If you’ve somehow forgiven me, I’ll be waiting here for you in our palace by the lake. But if not, I understand.
Either way, I already miss you and hope to see you again soon, even if it’s just in my own memories.
Underneath it lies a napkin, yellowed with time. On it is a whole conversation, like a series of texts but in ballpoint pen.
I’m the worst.
Lots of things are worse than you.
I just stole stuff.
Like Robin Hood, remember? Steal from the rich and give to the poor.
Except I stole fudge. And the poor is me.
I stole fudge with you, JR. Am I the worst too?
Do you really want me to answer that?
Maybe you ARE the worst.
I knew you really thought so.
Both sets of handwriting are in smudged ink, and it looks like the writers were young. But as I hold the postcard in one hand and the napkin in the other, one thing is clear: Mom’s handwriting is on both.
“What. The. Hell?”
My door bursts open and Connor runs in with his purple blanket. “I brought you Oscar to make you feel better!”
“Jesus, you’re supposed to knock, Connor!” I yell as I shove everything back into the blue chest and slam it shut.
The words come out more harshly than I mean them to. Connor’s bottom lip starts trembling. His little fingers knead into Oscar the blanket’s purple yarn, which he only does when he’s had a nightmare or is really sad.
“Sorry,” he says in a cracking voice.
I shake my head and sigh. “It’s okay. Just knock next time.”
He nods, but still won’t look at me.
“Thanks for bringing Oscar,” I say, trying to make this right. “He always makes me feel better.”
Connor finally looks up. “Me too.”
“Want to be an Oscar sandwich with me?” I already know the answer to this question, which is why I ask it.
Connor wipes his tears and climbs onto my bed next to me. “With pickles and mustard?”
I grab my old yellow sunflower pillow and my even older Grinch stuffy. “Got them. Now get ready, because it’s sandwich time!”
Connor giggles as I grab him, the sunflower, and the Grinch up in my arms and wrap the blanket around us. “OSCAR SANDWICH!” he yells.
“Best kind ever.”
As soon as his giggling subsides, though, he peeks out of the blanket. “What’s in your blue treasure chest?”
I glance down at the Grinch. Like him, I have to think up a lie and think it up quick. “Sneakers,” I say.
There’s only one problem: Connor may be five, but he’s no slouch. “Sneakers came in that?” he asks. “I thought sneakers came in cardboard boxes.”
My eyes shift uncomfortably through the hole Connor’s made in the blanket sandwich and realize he’s right. Sneakers don’t come in wooden chests with mosaics on them.
“They’re special edition sneakers,” I tell him. There’s no choice but to keep it going now. “That’s why they came in that box.”
Connor’s eyes widen. “Wow,” he breathes. “Can I have the treasure chest after you’re done with it?”
I am the worst sister ever. Seriously, the worst.
“Um… well… they don’t fit,” I reply. “So I have to return them. The box, too.”
His whole face droops in disappointment.
“But maybe we could make a box just like it this summer?” I offer, and he’s instantly smiling again. It seriously takes so little to make him happy.
“With little rock pictures?”
“Definitely with little rock pictures,” I say.
Connor gives me one of those full-body hugs only little kids can get away with. “You’re the best.”
A knock sounds at the door and I unwrap us and throw Oscar on the mosaic box just as the door opens to reveal Dad.
“Bath time, kiddo,” he tells Connor. I should’ve known he wasn’t coming to check in on me. Connor hurtles himself at Dad. “Bath time’s the best!” he yells.
Dad laughs and swoops him up in his arms. I watch them, wondering if Dad acted like this when I was little, too, or if a different side of him came out when he started a new family. Did he sweep me up and swing me around like I was the best thing in his world?
Even if he did, I don’t remember it. It’s hard to remember lots of things that happened before Mom died. It’s like the edges of everything got rubbed off and a little blurry after I lost her.
“Lexi and me are going to build a treasure chest,” Connor tells Dad. “With little rock pictures on it!”
Suddenly a wave of panic hits me that Connor will tell Dad about the blue chest. If all the stuff in there really belonged to Mom, I want to keep it for myself.
I have to keep it for myself.
Dad’s already gotten rid of almost everything that reminded him of her. I won’t let him take another piece of her away from me.
Time for a diversion.
“After we make it, we can play pirates,” I tell Connor. “Won’t that be fun?”
The dimples come out in full force. “Argh, matey, it will!”
Just as I think I’ve thrown Connor off the scent, Abby appears in the doorway, laying her hand on Dad’s shoulder. “What’s this I hear about a pirate chest?”
“With rock pictures!” Connor says again.
“Rock pictures?” Abby smiles. “I’ve never heard of that before. How will you make them?”
“Lexi knows,” Connor says with utmost confidence. “She’ll show me.”
Both Dad and Abby look my way.
“Oh… um… maybe we can make sand art,” I tell them. “Or mosaics.”
Suddenly Dad’s eyebrows knit together. “What did you just say?”
“Um… sand art?”
“Or mosaics!” Connor yells in Dad’s ear. Then he looks at Abby. “What’s mosaics?”
“It’s a kind of art where you make pictures from tiles. Or in this case, rocks,” she tells him.
“Oh!” Connor practically sings. “Just like—”
“Or we’ll do sand art,” I interrupt him. “As long as it looks like a pirate chest, it doesn’t matter how we make it, right?”
Connor agrees as he squirms out of Dad’s arms and pulls on Abby to pick him up instead.
Dad, on the other hand, still stares at me like I’m some giant, annoying puzzle he can’t solve. “Since when do you know how to make mosaics?”
I shrug. “I don’t. I just thought it would be a fun thing to do with Connor.”
Abby beams at me over Connor’s head. “You’re such a good big sister, Lexi.”
I don’t know how Abby does it, but somehow she manages not to see any of Dad’s moodiness. Ever. It’s like she put on a pair of rose-colored glasses the first time she asked him out and never took them off.
Dad glances at me again. “You really are a good big sister.” Then he starts to usher them out of my room.
“You can keep Oscar for now, too,” Connor calls back to me. “To help you feel better.”
Through the closed door I can hear them talking and laughing as they get ready for bath time. I wait a few minutes to be sure they’re not coming back. Then I lift Oscar off the mosaic box, careful that none of the tiny pieces of the chest get stuck in the yarn.
I need to know what else is in this box.
Just underneath the dirty old napkin is a small notepad that hotels leave in rooms, with Palais Du Lac Hotel printed at the top of each page. A tiny sketch of a short pink dress with a high lace collar covers the top page. The lines and angles Mom used to draw the lace are harsh. Etched around it is a gravestone with RIP in formal lettering written on it. On the next page is my mom’s young handwriting.
Today I had to wear a scratchy lace dress for 3 ½ hours. JR told me I should build a Viking funeral pyre for it. He was kidding but I talked him into doing it for real so I never have to wear it again. Once we have it built I’ll steal marshmallows from the kitchen to roast over the dress’s pyre. It’s a more honorable way to go than this dress really deserves.
I laugh out loud for a second as I read it, trying to picture my mother as a girl doing something as reckless as burning a dress. I hope she didn’t get in trouble. I hope she and whoever JR was got to roast marshmallows as they watched the dress go up in flames.
Mom sounds like she was a handful.
Then I look into the chest again and see it: a single piece of watercolor paper. In the middle of the page, there’s a painting of a pitch-black sky dotted with stars—so many of them that it’s hard to imagine how she even painted something so intricate. The creamy slide of the Milky Way runs through the image, a soft mix of purple and white and even pale yellow. And swirled all around all of this is my mother’s tiny, much more grown-up writing.
The four of us went canoeing tonight. There was no moon so the stars were impossibly bright. It felt like if we just looked hard enough we could see into the universe and understand something important about it—something that no one else had ever discovered. Ryan sang with his annoyingly perfect voice as Linda rowed their canoe. The night was so beautiful that it made my chest ache. Right at that very moment, everything seemed exactly as it should be. I wish I could have put it in my pocket like a piece of lake glass so I could feel it warm and smooth in my hand whenever I needed a reminder that life could be this way.
I put the paper down and run my fingers over her writing and the rough texture of the painting. I wonder who Ryan and Linda were. Who JR was. Then my mind wanders back to Mom herself. Her writing spirals around the page as if she’d tried to create her own little galaxy with her painting at the center of it.
Being able to read this is like getting a part of her back I didn’t know existed before. I’m missing someone I barely remember, yet here she is, through her art and her writing, giving a piece of herself to me.
Mom was beautiful. I can tell even from the tiny note about her dress and this peek into her impossibly beautiful night. She seemed cool and funny and creative, all things I’ll never be. Sadness hits me so hard that it’s paralyzing for a little while. It’s not fair that I don’t know how beautiful she was for myself. It’s not fair that she died so young.
Or that Dad won’t ever talk about her.
Or that I’ll never have a chance now to ask my grandmother about her.
My stomach turns. I’m going to throw up. I grab my recycling bin and hold it against my chest. I focus on the air entering and leaving my lungs. Without my phone, I have no idea how much time has passed, but after a while my stomach starts to feel less queasy.
I return Mom’s stuff to the chest, before stowing it in my closet. Then I slump onto my bed, closing my eyes to try to block everything out.
My grandmother is dead.
My mom’s mosaic chest is here in my room.
My stepsister is halfway across the country.
My dad and Abby are probably going to have a great night without me.
The world starts spinning again, but this time I’m not sure how to make it stop.