Ever since their father's sudden death eight years ago, Chuck and Lori's mom has spent most of her time on the road as a motivational speaker, leaving them and their younger siblings in the care of their grandparents. But this trip is different; this time, their mother has invited Chuck and Lori along in an attempt to reconnect with her eldest -- and now most distant -- children. Lori is so angry with her mother for her constant absence she can barely look at her, and Chuck, as usual, tries to make himself invisible. From the start the trip seems doomed. But slowly, walls built up over the years begin to show cracks. Laser-sharp glares are finally and painfully turned inward. And in the end secrets are finally revealed -- secrets that will change all of their lives forever....
Lori stared at her lap. They hadn't even gotten on the plane yet, and already her sundress was a mass of wrinkles.
She'd been warned.
"Oh, that won't travel well," her mom had said when Lori came downstairs for breakfast that morning.
Gram had barely glanced up from flipping pancakes to add, "Why don't you wear one of those outfits your mother bought you?"
That was all Lori needed to hear.
"No," she said. "I want to wear this."
She hated the way she sounded saying that -- like she was four, not fourteen. Gram only made it worse.
"She's so proud of making that dress in 4-H last year. Won an Outstanding of the Day ribbon, you know?" she said to Mom, as if Lori weren't right there listening -- and perfectly able to speak for herself.
Lori wasn't proud of the dress. She knew the right side seam was just the tiniest bit wobbly, and the facing in the bodice never had lain right, no matter how many times Lori smashed it down with the iron. Plus, she was totally sick of the red-and-white flowered pattern of the material. She'd spent so much of last June and July cutting it, pinning it, sewing it, ripping out bad stitches in it....Her hands went sweaty just looking at it. But, with both Mom and Gram suggesting she change, she absolutely had to wear the dress.
Now, sitting in a contoured plastic seat at the airport, waiting to fly to Chicago, she wished she'd just put on one of her new outfits to begin with. Even though they came from Mom, those outfits were cool, in style, right. Already, Lori had seen six other girls wearing shirts and shorts just like the ones folded up in her suitcase. (For the record: No one else was wearing a squashed-up, homemade cotton sundress.) Mom had shopped at the Gap, Old Navy, even Abercrombie & Fitch. Some of Lori's friends would practically kill for the clothes Lori was refusing to wear.
What had she been thinking?
It was too bright in the airport. In the half-light of dawn that morning, as she'd tiptoed down the hall at home to peer in the full-length mirror without waking everyone up, Lori had had everything figured out. Her reflection had been perfect in that mirror. Her light brown hair arced just right, flowing to her shoulders. Her gray eyes sparkled. None of her stress-zits showed. Half in shadow, the dress was beautiful, perfectly fitted, maybe even the tiniest bit sultry. She'd watched a little fantasy in her mind: Lori walks into the airport with an air of confidence, striding as casually as if she'd been flying all her life. The crowd parts to make way for her. Everyone is in awe of her beauty, her style, her je ne sais quoi. Then someone steps forward. It is an incredibly handsome man -- TV-star handsome, movie-star handsome, better looking than any guy in all of Pickford County. His fingers brush Lori's arm, and the mere touch sends a thrill through her body. (Did that ever really happen outside of romance novels? Lori decided it could.)
"Excuse me," he whispers. "I am a fashion designer. I must know -- where did you get that incredible creation?"
"This old dress?" In her fantasies, Lori is humble as well as gorgeous. "I made it. It's a Butterick pattern."
"Oh, but you have transformed it," the man says. "You have genius as well as beauty. Will you -- "
And then Lori was stuck. Did she really want this fantasy man admiring her sewing skills? She didn't even like to sew that much. And what was he going to offer her? A job? Not very romantic. A date? Come on, how old would this fantasy man have to be to be a successful fashion designer? She was only fourteen. It was kind of gross if he was too much older than that.
This was a problem Lori often had with fantasies. After a certain point, they just weren't very practical.
Lori might have changed her clothes right then, before she went downstairs. But there was already another fantasy playing in her head: Lori walks into the kitchen. Mom takes one look at her and stops short.
"You are not wearing that," she says. "Go change."
"What's wrong?" Lori taunts her. "Are you ashamed of me? Scared someone will find out you've kept your kids locked up in dinky old Pickford County while you're out traveling the world?"
Maybe Lori really would have had the nerve to say something like that, if Mom had out-and-out ordered her to change.
Lori and her mother didn't really talk. Oh, they spoke in each other's presence -- "Please pass the orange juice," "Can I see your report card?" "Do you want me to do the dishes?" -- but it had been years, probably, since they'd exchanged any words that actually meant anything. Mom was never around long enough for Lori to move from "Please pass the orange juice" to anything she really wanted to say.
Lori toyed with one more fantasy. She could imagine having a different kind of mother, the kind Lori could sit and talk with for hours. The kind who could help Lori figure out what was going on inside her own head. Lori could imagine telling this perfect mother, You know what? I think maybe Gram was right. I did wear this dress because I was proud of it. I wanted people to see I was the kind of person who could make her own clothes if she had to. Like I'm as good as anybody out there, outside Pickford County. No -- like I'm better. How could I have been so stupid? Why didn't anyone tell me how awful I looked?
Lori couldn't imagine saying that to her own mother in a million years. The kind of mother she could say that to wouldn't be taking her to Chicago right now.
That would be fine with Lori. She hadn't asked for this trip.
And the longer she sat in this strange, impersonal airport, the less she wanted to go. She felt uglier by the minute. She squirmed in her seat, embarrassed beyond words to be wearing such a horrible, homemade, crumpled sundress. Her hair had gone limp now, too, and her zits were probably as bright as neon signs. If anyone like that fashion designer she'd imagined was strolling through the airport right now, he'd run from her in horror. Probably all the other passengers were staring at her when she wasn't looking and laughing at her from behind their USA Todays and their John Grishams. Get a load of that girl over there. Ever seen such a hick?
Lori glanced around quickly, ready to glare at anyone hiding giggles. But the only person she caught looking in her direction was her brother Chuck.
Chuck was someone else Lori couldn't talk to. She'd practically forgotten he was there, practically forgotten he was going to be on this trip with her and Mom, too.
Chuck was easy to forget. He was big and fat and dumb. And that was what people said about him when they were trying to be kind.
Chuck looked away as soon as Lori's eyes met his. Ordinarily, that would have been fine with Lori. But she was so miserable today that his glance away made her feel rejected. Even fat, gross, sweating -- ugh -- Chuck couldn't stand to look at her. Lori bit her lip, holding back tears. Aside from Mom, who didn't really count, Chuck was the only person she knew in this whole crowded, overly bright airport. Part of her wanted to cling to Chuck, the way she'd clung to him all those years ago at Daddy's funeral.
Part of her wanted to slide down a few seats, so nobody would think they were together.
Mom came back from the bank of phones at the other end of the waiting area.
"Well, that's confirmed," she said. "One of the organizers will meet us at the airport, so we won't have to take the hotel shuttle."
They'd been away from home for only two hours, and already Mom sounded different. Her voice was crisper, more businesslike. She didn't seem like the same person who'd been reading bedtime stories last night to Lori's little sister, Emma, in a lulling, singsongy tone.
No wonder Lori could never talk to Mom at home. Mom-at-home was just a fake, some role she played while she waited for her next flight out.
"Excited?" Mom said, sitting down beside Lori. "Just think -- your first plane trip."
Lori shrugged. If Mom couldn't see how far away Lori was from excitement, there was no way Lori could tell her.
Behind her, Chuck only grunted.
Good for Chuck, Lori thought, as if they'd chosen sides and Chuck were on her team. She wished he were. She wished he were someone she could talk to, confide in. She wanted to ask him: Why is Mom really taking us on this trip? It made no sense. She wished Chuck could explain it to her. After years of traveling on business, why had Mom suddenly decided to take Lori and Chuck with her?
But Chuck wasn't the type of person who had any answers. And it had been years and years and years since they'd been Chuck-and-Lori, inseparable pals. "Joined at the hip," Gram used to joke. Not anymore.
Around them, people were talking in little clusters. Two businessmen types were comparing golf scores. A family with a toddler laughed as the child careened from seat to seat: "Now, come back here and give Grandma a good-bye kiss," the mother implored.
Lori felt like she and Chuck and Mom were an island of silence in the midst of all that chatter. She wished suddenly that the rest of her siblings had come, too -- eight-year-old Emma, ten-year-old Joey, and eleven-year-old Mike. Joey would be rattling off a list of questions: How fast can our airplane fly? What will the ground look like from up there? How high will we be? How many people will be on the airplane? Mike would be pretending he knew all the answers: It's thousands of miles an hour, right, Mom? And we'll definitely be above the clouds. Definitely. And Emma would have Mom's full attention, as usual: Do you remember when you told me that the clouds look like cotton balls up there? In the Raggedy Ann books, the clouds are bouncy, and you can jump from cloud to cloud. Could someone really do that?
Most of the time, Lori's younger brothers and sister drove her crazy. But if they'd come, they'd hide the fact that Chuck and Lori and Mom had nothing to say to one another.
Margaret Peterson Haddix is the author of many critically and popularly acclaimed YA and middle grade novels, including the Children of Exile series, The Missing series, the Under Their Skin series, and the Shadow Children series. A graduate of Miami University (of Ohio), she worked for several years as a reporter for The Indianapolis News. She also taught at the Danville (Illinois) Area Community College. She lives with her family in Columbus, Ohio. Visit her at HaddixBooks.com.