First Excerpt – From Chapter 1
year? Take your pick.
23rd is always moving day.
Aunt Cora’s footsteps trudge down the final steps of the staircase, the box in
her hands meeting the wooden floor with a deliberate thud. “So…What’s your big
plan for this time next year, Meredith?”
Her voice as it echoes up the stairs to my room is laced with sarcasm;
but even from this distance, I can hear the undercurrent of concern.
a pause before my mother responds, and I imagine she’s heaving an exasperated
sigh. It’s her favorite response when
her sister gets confrontational for no apparent reason. Eventually, she mutters a reply clearly not
intended for my eavesdropping ears. And
for that precise reason, I abandon the cardboard box I’m packing and tiptoe toward
my doorway with piqued curiosity.
don’t know, Cora…” This time she definitely
blows out a heavy sigh. “I’ll cross that
bridge when I get there.”
what happens when your daughter crosses that bridge ahead of you and disappears
on the other side?” I hear Cora’s
impatient foot tapping against the planks of wood. “She’ll be eighteen…and no longer under your
seconds into the conversation, and Mom’s already on her third sigh. Aunt Cora knows precisely how to push her
buttons. “What could possibly possess
you to think that I haven’t been aware of that fact for the past seventeen years?”
just saying…” Aunt Cora’s voice settles
down a notch. “Prepare yourself.”
know, I know,” Mom reluctantly agrees. I
peer around the doorjamb to catch a glimpse through the staircase railing, as
my mother is trying to scrub the worried wrinkles from her forehead. “But how do you prepare yourself for the most
terrifying event of your life?”
scowl as her somber words filter through the air. Why would the fact that I’m finally nearing adulthood make my mom
look like she’s about to lose her breakfast?
I’m not exactly Hell on Wheels.
Sure, I’ve done a few stupid teenage things…but nothing in comparison to
your average American kid. She knows I’m
not suddenly going to turn into a binge-drinking vandal with the world record
for indecent exposure arrests by the time I’m nineteen. Doesn’t she?
aunt’s voice falls to a murmur, as she gives Mom’s arm a squeeze for
emphasis. “You must tell her, Meredith.”
Cora’s back rounds to face me, dipping down as she scoops up the
cardboard box and marches out to the moving van. My ears strain to pick up her parting
comment, “You can’t protect her forever.
At some point, you have to teach Layla how to protect herself…and the
sooner the better.”
mother’s head dips forward, sagging low under the weight of a burden I don’t
quite understand; but it’s clear from the stoop of her shoulders that she’s on
the verge of buckling. I tilt a little
further out into the hall, debating whether to rush down and comfort her. Apparently she’s getting a jump start on the
whole Empty Nest Syndrome; and maybe I can shoo away the blues with a hug…a
quiet reassurance that we still have a whole year before I leave for
college. Wherever that happens to be, I
definitely plan on staying there for more than three hundred and sixty-five
days. No moving boxes, no packing
tape. They may have to forcibly evict me
from my freshman dorm when I graduate.
my weight shifts from one floorboard to the next, the wood groans in
protest. The low creak seems to snap my
mom out of her funk; and she jiggles her head back into the task at hand
without even looking my way. She scoops
up a box and marches out the door, her long honey blonde waves swaying as she
descends the front steps in a hurried clip.
That box is practically twice her size and probably weighs half as much
as she does; but you’d never know it by the way she heaves it into the back of
the moving van. Mom’s never been
particularly good at knowing her own limits, at least not in a physical sense
(one of the many traits I inherited from my mother). We don’t exactly have a lot of excess meat on
our bones; but we’re a lot stronger than we look…and we’ll practically snap our
spines to stubbornly prove it. Aunt
Cora’s not quite as spindly as her only sister; and it seems a perfectly
natural maneuver as she nimbly leaps down from the back of the van and jogs
back toward the house to retrieve another box.
Day is always just that: One day, and
one day only. The entire house packed up
and whisked away to a fresh, new town before the sun has a chance to dip below
the horizon. Dawdling isn’t allowed.
I’m reminded of that fact, I scurry back to finish packing boxes. I hate it when Mom and Aunt Cora get antsy
and start to pack my things for me. I
pick up the pace as Cora’s footsteps bound up the stairwell. She’s sure to be finishing up her own room
any minute now, and then she’ll descend upon mine. I start grabbing armfuls of books from the
shelves, delicately easing them into the boxes lined up on my bed. (I have a thing about creased covers.) Of course, I’ll have to re-organize my
collection yet again. Maybe I’ll take
the opportunity to mix it up this time—sorting them by cover color, rather than
alphabetically. The thought brings a little
smile to my neat-freak face.
breathe a satisfied sigh as I step back from the bed and dust my palms
together, the mattress now sagging under the weight of my treasured
library. Mom and Cora can barge in if
they want now. I’m not nearly as particular
about the contents of my closet. (Okay,
so I sort my shirts by color too…but creases in shirts are easily
remedied.) Almost on cue, Aunt Cora
whisks through the doorway. Her hurried
knock announces her presence somewhere around the moment she leaves the door
swinging in her wake. She’s already
halfway across the room and scooping up one of the boxes from the bed. “If you want to pack the rest of these
yourself, Honey Bun, it’s time to light a fire under it.” She darts her brown bobbed head toward the
empty boxes still lying in wait in the corner, hiking the book-laden box up
with a knee. “We’re moving on to
furniture in fifteen minutes.”
swear my aunt was a drill sergeant in a past life.
she’s not quite this bossy the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the
year. With each passing year, I get the
sense she despises Moving Day as much as I do.
watch with a nervous gulp as she wrangles my meticulously-packed box into her
arms with another hoist from her knee, the tape straining to hold its grip on
the shifting cardboard. She calls a
reminder over her shoulder as she tromps out into the hall, her feet already
finding the stairs. “Fifteen minutes,
Birthday Girl…Not a minute more.”
right. Moving Day coincides with my birthday.
one of my mom’s many quirks…She thinks it’s somehow “exciting” to make a new
beginning in honor of my birthday each year.
I gave up long ago on trying to convince her it’s not exactly my idea of
excitement. And I gave up even longer
ago on trying to decipher the reason behind her obsession with relocating
annually. Believe it or not, it’s not
her strangest quirk. So I’ve learned to
tolerate it, just like I tolerate all of her little eccentricities (possibly
because she loves me despite my fairly abundant peculiarities).
went through a phase of concocting all kinds of mysterious stories surrounding
our life on the move. My personal
favorite: Cora and Mom were former
C.I.A. operatives, who stole government secrets and were now forced to change
their identities and live on the run.
(Never mind that they stupidly chose to stay in the country. Maybe crossing the border would be too
risky? Or maybe they’re just not as
bright as they seem.) Of course, I
didn’t share my outlandish stories with anyone.
I scrawled them in spiral notebooks—my “rough drafts”, as I called
them—ready and waiting to be turned into a full-length autobiography if ever
the need arose. Nowadays I’ve moved on
to writing fiction with no connection (real or imagined) to my personal
life. My life may be a little weird…but
beyond that, it doesn’t make for riveting reading.
Cora’s tromping through the house bellowing, “Move, move, MOVE!” with a clap of her hands on each booming repetition. I stand by my former drill sergeant
seal off the last box, pausing to press out the air bubbles trapped under the
packing tape. The walls practically
rattle as Cora’s voice blasts past the open doorway, and I scramble to my feet,
heaving the box from the floor and dutifully marching out to the moving
van. Mom is still standing in the cargo
area, hurriedly shoving boxes against the walls, clearing space for the
furniture. It drives her crazy that Cora
just dumps boxes wherever they happen to land; and she’s got about 0.2 seconds
to get everything in order before her sister starts cramming in a mattress on
top of everything.
cross the lawn to help Aunt Cora with the box spring, purposefully fumbling to
heave it up over my head—just trying to buy Mom a few extra seconds to satisfy
her obsessive-compulsive organizing side.
She signals the O.K. to start loading the furniture with a nod,
streaking the matted hair across her sweaty forehead with the back of one
hand. We’re no strangers to humidity;
but the back of a moving van in the middle of a Mississippi summer is flat
brutal, even at ten o’clock in the morning.
It takes another hour before Mom is stepping back with a satisfied fold
of her arms, admiring the fruits of our labor:
our whole lives once again jam-packed into the back of a moving van,
without an inch to spare. For three
reasonably feminine-appearing women, we can rival any burly moving crew with
one hand tied behind our backs.
don’t put much effort into saying goodbye to the house. Soon it will be just another one among the
sea of places I’ve counted sheep at night.
They all start to blur together after a while. I turn my back on the quaint little house
that’s no longer home and hop behind the wheel of my vintage Volkswagen
Rabbit. (Somehow “vintage” seems a
kinder description for my beloved girl than “old as all Hell”.) Her engine sputters a wheezy glug, pop, gluggity-putt-putt-putt as I
anchor my left foot against the clutch and give her a gentle little rev on the
gas with my right, pulling one of the ponytail holders from the stick shift and
quickly twisting my hair into a wadded bun.
It will take an eternity before the A.C. finally gets cool enough to
rival the scorching summer sun; and I can’t see past the dash with a tangled
mess of windblown brown in my face. I
glance in the rearview mirror and take a moment to mash down the pile of
quilt-wrapped clothes in the backseat, coaxing the mound out of my line of
sight. Aunt Cora’s parked behind me,
tapping her impatient fingers on the steering wheel, and I scramble to get some
tunes going on the MP3 player in my passenger seat. Music is definitely a necessity to make the
ten-hour drive to our new Texas address tolerable. I settle on one of my favorite Pearl Jam
tracks, moving on to making sure my notebook is safely tucked under one of the
portable speakers. We can’t have the
pages of my novel-in-progress getting ruined by flapping in the breeze all
that everything is settled in its proper place, I adjust the speaker volume one
more time and wave ahead to Mom’s reflection in the van’s side-view
mirror. I follow behind as she eases out
into the street, with Cora taking up the rear in her faded maroon minivan. Why a middle-aged woman with no kids needs a
minivan is beyond me; but I guess I shouldn’t be complaining. At least I’m not the one driving it. My Little Red Rusty Hood suits me much
better. (Yes, I gave her a name…“Lil
Red”, for short. She gets me where I
need to go, and that at least earns her a name.) As expected, we’re fifteen minutes outside of
town by the time the air from the vents seems cool enough to seal myself inside
the vehicle with a crank of the window.
Another two miles or so, and our little caravan is merging onto I-10
states of residence until now. I say
“surprisingly”, because it has a fair chunk of coastal property. Enter Mom’s next noteworthy quirk: She has to live near the water. The more of it the better. With the exception of the year I turned ten,
we’ve always lived on one coast or another.
Actually, even that year wasn’t really an exception, per se…They call it
the “coast” of Lake Huron, but Mom decided it doesn’t count. It’s the only year we moved twice, relocating
to South Carolina in the fall. I wasn’t
the least bit heartbroken…It was already starting to turn pretty chilly in
Michigan, and I’m not so good with winter weather.
the reason, Texas is our new home-of-the-year.
Port Aransas, to be exact. And as
we cross into the Lone Star State and veer southward, it’s clear that winter
weather is not even remotely on the horizon.
didn’t think it was possible, but it feels even hotter and muggier than
Mississippi. And it’s after five
pushing nine by the time Highway 361 takes us to the deck of a Port Aransas
ferry. I cut the engines and crank down
the window, feeling the gentle rock of the boat as we coast across the water to
pick up where the highway left off. At
least it’s good and breezy here…although, the impression that it seems cooler
may have more to do with the fact that the sun has finally gone to rest for the
night. I can’t make out much of our new
hometown in the darkness, so I just lean my head back and enjoy the gentle
rocking motion. Call me crazy, but I’ve
always loved the sway of the waves. As
much as the constant packing up and changing homes drives me nuts, I’ll never
complain that Mom insists on living the coastal life. My fingers tap out the rhythm of the music on
the steering wheel, the MP3 player still going strong. I haven’t even come close to exhausting my
playlist on this trip, and I’ve got a fresh new gift card burning a hole in my
pocket. Mom and Aunt Cora figured out a
few years back not to bother picking out a birthday gift. Just give me the funds to divide between
books and music, and I’m a happy camper.
been nice to soak up the serenity of the moment—the familiar squawk of seagulls
echoing through the night air as we drift along—but I’m not disappointed when
the ferry docks on the Port Aransas side.
I restart Lil Red’s engine, giving her a reassuring pat on the dash as I
gently rev the gas. She’s as tired of driving
as I am, and we still have a moving van to unload.
one of the cardinal rules of Moving Day:
It’s not over until the van is empty.
Layla…Happy birthday to me.
mother of two adorable children, part super top secret agent…Oops, probably
just lost that job.
into the wee hours of the night.
Fortunately, she has a lot of energy (Read: caffeine is her
friend). She has a bit of an obsession
with music (It does a fantastic job of tuning out rambunctious children while
she attempts to focus).
there enjoy reading her work as much as she enjoys writing it. And if anyone hears of work for a super top
secret agent, she’s now available (Discretion guaranteed…).