Sarah Swingle hopped off of her bed and took a step back to examine her work. Her Punky Brewster poster was stashed in the back of her closet, replaced by an even better one. It had been a great show, and she’d never missed an episode, but Punky was off the air, and as much as she loved Soleil Moon Fry, there was another child actress she loved even more. Cara Camden hung on the wall now, standing beside Lukas Haas, where Sarah could look at them when she lay down. Adventure Lane. She’d seen the movie three times over the summer, and that hadn’t been enough. Labyrinth, Willow, The NeverEnding Story – these were decent. But Adventure Lane brought the fantasy world and the real world together better than any other movie she’d ever seen. She was too old for such play now, but it was the kind of film that would have made her younger self drape her blanket over her head and imagine a portal to a world of dreams that no one else could see.
Everything in her room was in place for the start of fifth grade. Her alarm was set for 6:45, and the only thing she still had to find a place for was the orchid her daddy had brought her from work. He’d given her an awkward twist of a smile, standing in her doorway longer than usual before heading into the kitchen. The nightstand had enough room, and that would leave it close. Orchids were her favorite.
The shattering of glass somewhere in the house swept through the air as her hand froze against one of the petals. The impact was so strong that she could imagine a baseball bat splintering a mug instead of cracking a ball into the outfield. The intrusive noise was followed quickly by the muffled shrieks of her mother’s voice, vibrating into falsetto and back again. Her father’s shouts were even louder, but Sarah couldn’t make out anything he said either, only the rise and fall of his baritone.
Sarah knocked her flower to the floor, stumbling backward at her mother’s shrieks. She fell to her knees at the door, pressing her ear into the wood. Her mother never yelled, and those rare times when she did always meant the worst punishments – a spoonful of garlic juice being the worst of all. She focused on the doorknob, wanting to turn it and hear better what was happening but too afraid to make the move.
Her fingers grasped the knob and turned, slowly. The door cracked open, filling her nostrils with a puff of orange-scented carpet freshener.
“Get out of here!” her mother screamed. “Get the hell out of my house!”
“That’s the idea!” her father shouted back.
A moment of numbness ran across her skin as she closed the door to a crack, smelling the fresh paint more than she’d smelled the orange. She leaned into the opening, trying to hear more. The metallic lurch of the opening garage in the far back resonated across the house from the opposite side. She felt it more than she heard it. Then a car engine rumbled to life, barely audible.
Sarah forgot the poster, moving across the room to her window, crushing the flower under her socks. She could feel her father’s soft hug from when he’d given her the orchid, could see the flickering of his eyes like a bad clock with a shifty second hand. She lifted her pink curtains to reveal the twilight of kids riding their bicycles home for the evening, their neighbor walking the Great Dane that weighed as much as she did, maybe more. Her father’s dark blue Aerostar rounded the turn from the side street and slowed to a halt in front of the house, beside the mailbox. She couldn’t make out his face, only his hands on the steering wheel. His right hand clawed at his left with feverish strength until he swatted down as if he were throwing something. She could see him looking around at the yard, the house, the street, but only through the turning of his neck. Her stomach tightened into a fist as she watched.
She focused on where his head should be, and she thought she could see his shoulders, but nothing more. There was motion in the driver’s seat, but she couldn’t see his face. She could only hear the engine humming.
Then he peeled from the curb and the wheels turned slowly as he disappeared into the neighborhood.
After a moment, she backed away from the window and cradled the ruined orchid. She opened the door again, peering into the empty hall. Her mother’s soft, defeated whimpers echoed from the kitchen.
- - -
The next morning, the dingy red Ford Tempo shuddered as Karen Swingle pressed on the gas and made the turn off of Crossbow Lane, down the main road toward the elementary school. Sarah hadn’t been up this early since May, and she’d hardly slept the night before. First day jitters replaced dreams, but there was more than that. She glanced at her mother, eyes fixed on the road as a wet streak traced the curve of her cheek.
Karen wiped herself, offering an attempt at a smile. “Yes?”
Sarah ran her hand along the scraped sticker around the edges of the red plastic box in her lap, cracking it open and getting a whiff of peanut butter. “Can I have a new lunch box?”
They passed the woodsy area on the right, and Sarah put her window up quickly as her nostrils filled with the stink of a nearby skunk. “Nothing wrong with the one you have,” her mother said.
“I don’t like Barbie anymore.” The paper was loose from the plastic, and it snagged when she ran her finger across the surface. One good hard tug would have probably pulled it right off. “K-Mart has an Adventure Lane one.”
Sarah watched her mom, focused on the road. The clicking of the blinker filled the cabin as the familiar orange vests of the safety patrol appeared, scattered across the driveway into Big Winters Elementary. The car turned, and she saw the marquee in lights against the beige brick. Choir Auditions/September 25-28/3:30-5pm.
Sarah pictured the face that she hadn’t been able to see, shrouded in shadow, and imagined it watching her from within the blue van outside the house before speeding away into the distance the night before. She thought she remembered a brief glimpse of his eyes, shifting across the windows from one side to the other, but never noticing her looking back. She and her mother had slept alone in the house. “Is he picking me up after school?” Sarah asked.
“I don’t know. Someone will.”
With every car length they moved forward, she gripped her lunch box tighter. Kids were swarming the front grounds, gradually heading in the direction of the open front doors. Leo Moon had knelt in the grass to tie his shoe, his bowl-cut black hair bobbing as his fingers worked. Maya Fernandez hung by her mother’s side, grasping her hand and looking around at the other children, sporting a Princess Bride shirt, from the looks of it. Maya lived down the street, but she never went outside to play.
The hallways were dreary and dark as Sarah peered through the glass doors. She turned back to the drive as a sleek silver Lexus crunched to the curb a few spaces up. “Ooh, look.” She shot her arm out, finger pointing. “Mallory’s mom’s new car.”
The door swung open, just missing the concrete, and Sarah’s best friend, Mallory Mitchell, put her feet to the sidewalk, her long red hair now shorter, pulling up on the cuff of her jeans. Sarah gripped the door handle. “Can I get out?”
Karen’s composure broke, and she made a gushing noise as she pulled Sarah close. “Oh, baby, baby.” Sarah didn’t move, letting her mom hold her. Her mother’s lungs were strong and sad, traces of pain in her breaths. “I love you so much.” Karen let go and brushed the hair out of Sarah’s face. “I’m so proud of you.”
She wanted to say something, to let her mother know her concern, but she took another glance at Mallory as she pulled back her seatbelt. “Can I go now?”
“You want me to walk you in?”
She popped the door open. “No way!”
The morning air was already warm as Sarah shut the door and scampered away from the car. Mallory’s little brother Joel had been dogging Mallory up the sidewalk, and she gave him a shove. “Buzz off, twerp,” Mallory said, and Joel sauntered up the walk to the main entrance as Sarah stepped in beside her. “Girl! Look at you!” Mallory pulled her in for a hug, and Sarah got her first glimpse in two years of Mallory’s smile without braces. The Mitchells had moved off of Sarah’s street a while back, and they’d been in and out of vacation most of the summer. She hadn’t seen her friend in a month, and she’d changed. Straight teeth, shorter hair, maybe even a little taller.
Sarah brushed her own blonde hair behind her shoulders, still the same length as they had both worn it in the fourth grade. “Size me up, why don’t you? Get a good look!”
Mallory shot back with the next line from The Piano Girls. “’Cause I’m gonna play you down ’til your fingers bleed!”
Sarah and Mallory had been best friends since kindergarten, when they’d gone around singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” for a month straight and calling all the boys in the class Clydesdales, and Mallory had teased her for being scared by Ghostbusters. Their favorite movie had been The Fox and the Hound, and when Mallory started taking piano lessons from Sarah’s teacher, Mrs. Allen, they’d played a duet every time there was a recital. It was only natural that when Cara Camden and Kambree Daniels lit up the screen in The Piano Girls, Sarah and Mallory sat through the film four times.
Sarah noticed the lunch box dangling from her friend’s hand. “You got the Adventure Lane.” Her own box was turned so the Barbie picture was pressed up against her leg.
Mallory hefted it so Sarah could get a better look. “Sweet, right? I’d rather die than eat cafeteria food again. So totally ralphy.”
“I wanted Miss Bliss, but my dad doesn’t like Zack.” Mallory released a throaty sigh. “Oh, Zack.” The girls had memorized every episode of their favorite show, Good Morning, Miss Bliss, but they’d gone and moved it to a different channel, and Miss Bliss, the teacher, wasn’t going to be on anymore. Now it was just going to be about the students. “Don’t you think Mrs. Hammer looks like Miss Bliss?”
“Yeah,” Sarah said. Mallory brushed her hair behind her shoulders, and Sarah took a look at the pink denim of Mallory’s Levi’s shirt. She’d never seen it before, and it made her want to wrap her arms around her old white Mickey Mouse shirt with the fraying collar.
They moved up the steps into the freezing hallways. The corridors were long, with doorways dead center between the crossways, leading into the sanctuaries of the different grades. They passed the office, weaving their way through the new kindergarteners and their parents, all running around like they were lost, and Sarah spotted the fifth-grade hallway just ahead. Teachers’ names on little flags hung from poles shooting up above the doors. Mrs. Hammer, one of them said.
“Mallsy!” The high-pitched whine broke the air. Mallory swiveled as Becky Sutton joined them. Her pants were puffed up like they were inflated; she looked like a billboard for Cavaricci jeans. Her shirt shouted out the Cavaricci logo as if it were afraid someone might not see it. Becky was one of the Spring Park crew – the rich kids, the popular crowd. Sarah couldn’t remember Becky or any of her friends ever speaking to either one of them before. But six months ago, after Mallory’s father had made a lot of money doing something called day trading, her family had moved into a big two-story house on Spring Park Way with a swimming pool in the back.
Mallory raised her arms with an airy squeal. “Becks! Oh my God, I love your hair!” The two of them shared a hug that was more spectacle than heartfelt, just like all the Spring Park crew. Sarah didn’t know where Mallory had learned to do that, or more importantly, why.
“Yours looks like Molly Ringwald,” ‘Becks’ replied. That was a stretch, but Mallory just pawed at her new do and purred. “Hey, Sarah,” she added.
“Hey, Becks,” Sarah said. The other girls giggled at that, and a warm flush ran up her cheeks.
“Nice…Barbie lunch box,” Becky said. Sarah realized she’d accidentally turned her box for everyone to see.
Mallory swatted Sarah’s arm. “D’you hear Becks went to Europe?”
“Like, you moved there?” As soon as she asked it, she realized how dumb of a question it was.
“No, retard, she went on vacation. For a whole month.”
“Wow.” Sarah wondered when the rest of the Spring Park crew was going to sweep by and drag Becky off where she belonged.
“My dad took us with him on business. It was sweet, like you wouldn’t believe.”
“I’m so totally jealous,” Mallory said. “First I had to go to church camp. Then my dad took us to see the Grand Canyon. It was so totally lame.”
“Your dad take you anywhere this summer?” Becky asked. Another flash of memory from the night before – the unsettling quiet of her father’s voice when he gave her the orchid.
She eyed the doorway to their class, wishing the girls would go on in. “Six Flags.”
“Wow,” Becky chuckled. “I’m so totally jealous.”
Sarah lowered her gaze, slinking behind them as they stepped into Mrs. Hammer’s classroom. While the hallways were dim and depressing, white lights burned inside. The desks were organized in rows like a massive tic-tac-toe game. She always preferred it when teachers were dumb enough to put the desks together in clumps. It was much easier to goof off collectively.
“The Piano Girls are here,” Sage Owens croaked to everyone in earshot. His dark green shirt with the alligator emblem was tucked neatly into a pair of brown Cavariccis ballooning out from his legs like they were inflated to near capacity.
“Still?” Mallory asked. Despite Sage’s use of the moniker the Spring Park crew had given them, Sarah took a gulp of the room’s stale air. In the fourth grade, she had been caught writing Sarah Owens in the margins of her notebook, and when Sage heard about it, he’d given her a knee-buckling smile. Probably laughing at her along with it, but she hadn’t cared.
“Mallory, you look different. Good different.”
“Not afraid of cooties anymore?” Becky asked, offering Mallory a high five, which Mallory slapped hard.
Sage’s smile melted. “Screw you!” The girls burst into laughter as soon as he turned away.
“You are so bad,” Mallory chided.
Becky shrugged. “It’s his own fault he got lice.”
While Mallory and Becky chattered, Sarah approached the cubby holes that served as lockers. She found an empty one and shoved in her Barbie lunch box, pushing her bag in to cover it up. As she glanced away, her eye caught onto a sheet of piano music sitting in somebody else’s cubby. “Maple Leaf Rag.” She and Mallory had been the only piano players in their grade. Looked like there was a new kid in the class.
Mrs. Hammer was short and pretty, and Sarah saw a definite resemblance to Hayley Mills, the actress who’d played Miss Bliss. Mrs. Hammer’s hair was a little blonder, and longer, and her face was a bit more slender, but they both had the most welcoming of smiles. She started off the class in the usual way: introductions, rules, textbooks. As she wrote their schedule on the board, Mallory leaned into the aisle.
“Hey, check out Screech.” She gestured to a boy sitting on the back row. The scrawny, pale-skinned kid wore a blue-and-red-striped long sleeve shirt two sizes too big over awkwardly baggy forest green pants. He topped off his ensemble with a shaggy bowl haircut and cheap black plastic glasses.
“Dweeb alert,” Sarah said.
“He goes to my church,” Mallory whispered. “He’s so totally ralphy.”
Mrs. Hammer cleared her throat and the girls sprang back to attention.
The first day flew by without Sarah actually having to learn anything. After school, she buckled her seatbelt, nestled in the back of Mallory’s mom’s shiny new Lexus. “Are you all good back there?” Mrs. Mitchell asked.
The backseat smelled like apples, and the new Paula Abdul tape was playing. Sarah’s parents never let her listen to that kind of music in the car. “Why isn’t my dad picking me up?”
Mallory’s mother gave her a sad smile that tightened a knot in her stomach. “He couldn’t make it, honey. But we’re going to have a good time, aren’t we?”
“Is he all right?”
Mrs. Mitchell looked to Mallory and back to Sarah, responding with a bit of delay. “I’m sure he’s fine.”
“Wanna play duets?” Mallory asked. “West Side Story?”
“OK.” They pulled away, and the seatbelt pressed into her lap as they turned onto the road, headed for Mallory’s new house in Spring Park.
It was four weeks into the school year. The air had a morning chill for the first time since the spring. In previous years the Swingles had gone all out in decorating for Halloween. Family pictures would come down off the walls in exchange for spooky images – old photographs with odd twists like ghosts in the background. Pumpkins would sprout up all over the house, a different jack-o’-lantern in every window, all lit with white candles. Sometimes Sarah’s parents had even decorated the roof with a sinister smile and creepy narrow eyes.
No decorations this year. Sarah would be wearing her witch costume from the last two Halloweens. Every time she looked into the empty windows, she wondered where her father was. Divorce – the word had permeated the Swingle house. She’d linger outside her mother’s door when she was on the phone but never heard what she wanted to hear. And whenever she’d ask why she couldn’t see her father, her mother would give her the same answer. “He’s a son of a bitch.” Custody – that was another word she constantly overheard, especially when her mother was on the telephone with her lawyer.
Sarah rushed into the school as her mother drove away, slowing to a brisk walk as she passed Dr. Dollar, the principal, standing outside the cafeteria with her hands behind her back, holding the traffic steady and the behavior clean with her scolding glare. Sarah’s minty mouthwash had left her thirsty. She hit up the water fountain for a drink, wishing the water was colder than room temperature. Then she whipped past the other kids, past the library and into Mrs. Hammer’s room. Her eyes set on the red hair across the way, by Mrs. Hammer’s desk. Mallory laughed with Becky and the horrible Margot girl who insisted on spelling her name Margeaux and sometimes outright ignored Sarah when she’d say something to her. She fought past her reservations and approached, tapping Mallory on the elbow.
“What?” Mallory asked, blinking at her as if she’d interrupted some important conversation.
“Come here,” Sarah said, beckoning away from the others and ignoring the sharpness of Mallory’s greeting. Once they were alone, she unzipped her backpack and thrust her hand inside. “Remember when I wrote the letter to Cara Camden?”
“I remember she never wrote you back.”
“I wrote to Mary Tyler Moore, too.” Mary had played the mother in Maggie Migglesly, Cara’s first movie. When Sarah’s favorite actress never responded, she’d tried a different approach, sending all of her questions to Mary instead, along with a picture of Cara to autograph, which she wouldn’t mention because, in retrospect, it had been a pretty dumb thing to do. She carefully pulled out the letter she’d received in the mail the day before. “Look. She wrote me back!”
Mallory accepted the pages with little flair. “Huh.” Sarah slipped out the last bit and laid her new autographed picture of Mary Tyler Moore over the letter. “What’s the big deal with Cara Camden, anyway? Seriously.”
Sarah had expected Mallory to be excited, even if the letter wasn’t from Cara herself. The two of them were, after all, the real-life piano girls, like the movie. She took back her prized possessions much more slowly than she’d offered them. As Mallory crossed her arms, Sarah realized that the friendship bracelet she’d given the girl last year was no longer on her wrist. “She saved the world,” Sarah said. It hadn’t been that long ago that Mallory knew more about Cara than Sarah did. In Maggie Migglesly, Cara had been the only real child of a family that ran a foster service. All her character had ever wanted was a brother or sister, and every one she gained she had to let go of eventually. Sarah had also always wanted a sibling, and the movie had stuck with her for a long time. She’d liked to imagine Mallory as her sister, but at night, when she was lonely, she’d put in the movie and imagine she was the child coming to live with Cara.
Throughout the first part of the day, Sarah was silent. She followed along with the lessons, but she kept wanting to pull out her letter and read it again, or find someone else to show who might appreciate it. Cara’s father was “like a brother,” according to Mary. Sarah wished she’d asked more questions about Mary herself.
The class moved about the room, collecting paper sacks and lunch money when it was time to head to the cafeteria. Sarah slid her book under her desk as Mallory checked her lunch box. “Gag me. Lunchables. Where’s yours?” Mallory asked, hiking down the collar of her denim jacket. She’d forgotten the letter, and Sarah wouldn’t bring it up again, although she grabbed her backpack in case she wanted to look at it during lunch.
“I’m buying,” Sarah said. The class filed out the door as she double-checked the money tucked in her pocket.
“Since when do you buy?”
“I don’t know. Mom’s busy,” Sarah said.
“At least you don’t have to use that retarded Barbie box, right?” The dork in the bad glasses passed them, clutching a notebook under his arm and wearing a gray baseball uniform. “He must have left his tutu at the cleaners,” Mallory giggled. Sarah had heard Mallory’s mother talk about people that way.
Becky laughed at the joke as she joined them, the silky curl of her ponytail bouncing like a spring. She had on a pair of pink fingerless gloves just a shade lighter than the ones Mallory wore. Sarah hadn’t seen gloves like that in at least a year or two. “Hey, Sarah, guess what.”
“Saw your dad yesterday,” Becky said.
Her shoulders tightened. “You did?”
“Yeah. At Chili’s with some other girl. Little five-year-old or something.”
A snort of laughter spewed from Becky’s lips. “Some little geek girl, with this ralphy Punky Brewster shirt.”
Mallory’s laugh exploded from clenched lips. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Mallory said, but her face said otherwise. “So sorry!”
The girls kept talking. Sarah followed close behind them, not quite listening to what they had to say. She’d heard a rumor that her dad was out there somewhere, with a new girlfriend or wife or something like that. It had come from the Spring Park crew, and part of her wondered whether it was for real or not. She pictured the encounter, her daddy sitting beside another little girl, buying her a hamburger and sharing his fries. In her mind, the child looked like Soleil Moon Frye, short and freckled with fluffy strands of pigtails spouting off the sides of her head. Shiny black eyes. Patches on her jeans. Punky.
Sarah entered the lunchroom in single file with everyone else. Mallory and Becky made for the tables as she waited in line. She stared at the Velcro shoes of the boy in front of her, but all she saw was her father’s face. Rolling around with her on his bed, making silly noises. Beaming with pride at her piano recital when she’d played the Beethoven sonatina in F major. Teaching her about which flowers grew best in which soil, and the differences in how much water they needed. Holding her when she had a nightmare. His soft gray eyes flickering across the pages when he used to read her bedtime stories. Hidden in shadow behind the steering wheel before fading into the distance.
Sitting beside some little Punky Brewster, giving her an orchid.
She’d asked her mother when she would see her father again. He’s not coming back. When Sarah had asked why not, her mother had given an equally confusing answer. Because he’s a son of a bitch. She wondered if it had to do with this new girlfriend. The lawyer had come by to visit over the weekend. He wore a nice blue suit and had kind eyes. From what she’d overheard when she was supposed to be watching television in her room, her mother was keeping the house and her father was keeping the flower shop. Only she’d also heard that he was selling the flower shop. Every time she brought it up, the conversation died. He’s a son of a bitch.
The smell of greasy spaghetti hit her nostrils as she entered the alcove and picked up a red tray, still not dry from its previous use. She looked beyond the shoes of the boy in front of her to the gray grass-stained baseball uniform hanging on his thin frame, beneath his pale face and those cheap plastic glasses. He didn’t look like much of an athlete.
She dropped her faded dollar and two clean quarters into the lunch lady’s bony hand and turned into the cafeteria. An empty stool waited for her beside Mallory, but something inside her froze. She gripped the tray, looking for another seat, when she spotted the new kid. He had just set his tray down to the side and was opening up a notebook in front of himself, alone. There were only a few spaces between him and the rest of the class. She lingered, looking between the empty seat beside Mallory and the six or seven beside the new kid. A shrill lilt of laughter erupted, and several heads from Mallory’s side had turned in her direction. She lowered hers.
The boy looked up from the notebook, where he’d begun writing something, as Sarah approached the empty seat across from him. “Anyone sitting here, Slugger?”
The pencil wavered in his fingers. “No.”
Sarah eased her way down onto the stool across from him. He continued with his work, and she took the opportunity to glance in Mallory’s direction. Drew Hunter had claimed the empty seat. When she turned around, she could tell from the way the new kid was looking at her that he had spoken. “I’m sorry,” she squeaked. “What did you say?” He closed his notebook, which bore a bright red-and-yellow Superman shield on a blue background.
“I said my name is Adam.”
“Oh. I’m Sarah.”
The kid gave her a soft nod. Cougars, his uniform said. “I know who you are. You’re one of the Piano Girls.”
“Right.” She wondered when that was going to finally die.
“I play the piano, too.” He gave her a warm smile from behind the dorky glasses as he pushed them up to the top of his nose. This close, she could tell they were either too loose or too big for his face.
“That’s cool.” Sarah jabbed her fork into her spaghetti and turned it, wrapping the noodles around the tines. She didn’t have much of an appetite.
“I try to write music, but I’m not very good,” he said. Sarah glanced at his abandoned notebook, wondering if he’d written any music in it. As many years as she’d been practicing, she’d never written anything of her own. “Aren’t you Mallory’s best friend?”
“Yeah.” She didn’t look up.
“Why are you sitting over here?”
She turned the carton of chocolate milk on her tray, watching the corners spin. An old grass stain on his elbow clashed with the gray. “You play baseball?”
“Yeah, I have a game after school.”
Cougars. “That’s why you wore the uniform.”
“You like baseball?”
“Not really.” She nodded at his notebook. “You’re always writing in that thing.” He sipped on his apple juice. “Even at recess.”
“Yeah, but even at recess?” she asked. He gave her a weak smile, and his expression reminded her of her attempts to hide her beat-up lunch box. “What is it you write in there?”
He spread his palm flat across it. “My stories.”
“What are they about?”
“Lots of things,” he said.
Mallory’s laugh echoed from the far end of the table. The baseball dork turned to look that way for a moment, then back to Sarah. Notebook closed, lunch uneaten, she had his full attention. With a moment’s hesitation, she hefted her backpack onto the table. “Want to see something cool?”
“Sure,” he said. She slid her autographed Mary Tyler Moore photo across the table. “Neato! Is this for real?”
“Yeah. I wrote her a letter, and she wrote me back.” She waved the letter, pleased by the crack in his voice when he’d said Neato! She let him read it, watching his eyes dart back and forth behind the glasses. They’d slipped down from his field of vision, yet he read on without adjusting them.
“She has diabetes?” he asked, handing it back to her.
“Yeah. I don’t really know what that is.”
“Me neither,” Adam said. “And I don’t want to! I wrote Bill Cosby a letter once. He never wrote back.”