PART ONE - FEBRUARY
Chapter 1: An Uncle I Didn't Have
I stared at my test and cursed the day they'd decided to add letters to math. I'd stayed up half the night studying and the equations in front of me still looked like alphabet soup. Concentrate, I told myself as I clenched my teeth, you know this. I took a deep breath and focused on the question - marks didn't matter, impressing my parents didn't matter: the only thing that mattered right now was this problem. Come on. Focus. Clarity washed over me and I dropped the tip of my pencil to the page.
The sharp rap on the door broke my trance. The classroom had been silent save for the frantic scribbling and the sporadic pacing of our teacher, Mr. Rabish, a short, middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a particularly gifted eye for catching cheaters. I glanced up from my algebra exam and saw the principal's face framed in the grey metal door's rectangular window. Mr. Rabish crossed the room, and, after a brief exchange with Principal Andrews, stepped into the hallway, closing the door behind him.
My classmates exchanged bewildered expressions. Mr. Rabish leaving the room during an exam was absolutely unheard of; he lorded over his classroom as if it were his own personal kingdom, which I suppose it was. Of course, Bobby Brewster immediately took advantage of the situation and was trading furtive glances between the screen of his smartphone, which was poking out of the pocket of his navy blue hoodie, and the door. Indira and Candace also reached for their cells and were now leaning across the aisle in front of me comparing something on their screens. Candace was the captain of the girls' volleyball team and Indira had appeared in a bunch of TV commercials, so they were practically worshipped around here. They'd get nothing worse than a reprimand if they were caught: not only did all the guys fawn over them, but teachers always seemed to buy their lame excuses, even Mr. Rabish. It was totally unfair.
The actual cheaters were the only ones who still had half their attentions focused on their exams. While I'd sooner flunk than stoop to their methods, I really couldn't blame them. Even I found algebra impossible and I was supposed to be a math genius.
Back in grade school, I'd won all the math contests. Now, it was a battle that I fought because my parents were so damned proud of those early achievements, as evidenced by the gallery of awards they'd hung up in our rec room - an unintentional daily reminder that the whole "gifted with numbers" thing had turned out to be a no-go.
I did my best to shut out the furtive conversations that had started to spring up around me, and turned my attention back to my test. I'd barely had a chance to figure out where I'd left off when a hush fell over the room. Mr. Rabish was back.
"Mildred," my teacher said. "You need to go to the office."
"Now?" I asked. "Can't I go at the end of the exam?" How long was I expected to keep all of these stupid rules and formulas crammed in my brain?
Mr. Rabish shook his head. "Sorry. And you'd better take your things."
I shoved my pencil and eraser into my backpack, but left the test on the desk. I'd likely have to write it all over again anyway, but at least Mr. Rabish would see that I'd been ready, for whatever that was worth.
I could feel the stares of my classmates as I walked to the door, and I did everything possible to avoid making eye contact with any of them. I already knew they would gossip about this, and I refused to give them more fodder. Never let them know you're scared. When you're in tenth grade and still look like an eighth-grader, those were words to live by.
As I passed Indira, she tucked a wayward strand of curly blonde hair behind her ear and looked at me as if she was considering me for the first time, which she probably was. I also heard Marcus Slovovich stifle a laugh at the back of the room and someone else whispered something I couldn't make out, but I just kept moving. I had no more idea of what was going on than they did.
Mr. Rabish was holding the door open for me. "Sorry," he said again as I walked past him out into the hallway where Principal Andrews was waiting. His sombre expression stopped me dead in my tracks. Something had happened, something really, really bad. Principal Andrews always looked serious and severe, but I'd never seen him like this. Dread descended over me like a thick, harbour fog, choking out everything but the sympathy in my principal's eyes and the fast staccato drumbeat of my heart.
"What happened?" I blurted out, my voice flecked with growing panic. Our family was teeny tiny, and I didn't think I could bear to lose any of them.
"I'll leave that for your parents to explain," he said. Absolutely none of the compassion I saw on his face passed through to his words, though I'm not sure why I expected it to. Everyone knew he preferred to leave the "coddling" to the teachers and the guidance counsellors - he certainly said it enough during school assemblies.
Mikey! If my parents were waiting in the office that meant it was Mikey. Something had happened to my kid brother! A boulder formed in my throat and plummeted to the pit of my stomach, where it rocked back and forth heavily. There were seven years between us, and that meant it was my job to protect him from bullies and hazards and his own boyish recklessness. And now I'd failed. It didn't matter that I was at my school and he was at his: I was his big sister, I should have sensed something was wrong. I should have been there.
Principal Andrews led me down the empty, locker-lined hall towards the school's office and I walked beside him on auto-pilot. My brain ricocheted between different scenarios: Mikey creamed by a car; Mikey abducted by some murderous pervert; Mikey dead of an aneurism.
My parents sprang to their feet the moment we entered the office's reception area. At the sight of them, my breath hitched and, impossibly, my heart pounded even harder. Oh no, oh no, oh no. I didn't even realize it but I'd been grasping onto that tiny thread-like strand of hope, that maybe this had all been some big mistake. But my mother's gasping sobs laid waste to the last of that fragile optimism. They looked absolutely stricken, as if they'd aged ten years since we'd had breakfast together this morning. Mom's normally finely styled brown hair hung limp, in desperate need of a brush, and Dad's wool coat was done up with the buttons all askew.
"What is it? Is Mikey okay?" I asked.
"Your Uncle Curtis has had a heart attack. They don't think he's going to make it. We have to go to him right now," my mom said, before succumbing to another flood of tears. The office staff watched her outpouring of grief uncomfortably, as if they were unsure of whether they should be ignoring us or offering solace.
Wait. What? It took a moment for what she'd said to process.
Mikey was safe!
The dangling guillotine blade of bad news had had a slo-mo effect on my surroundings, but now everything abruptedly swung back into motion. Phones were ringing, the photocopier was whipping off a ream of duplicates and a half-dozen sets of fingers pecked away at their keyboards.
I took a step back, ready to tell my parents off - Principal Andrews, too - for scaring me like that, but they were still huddled together, looking as if they'd just watched their whole world crash and burn around them.
Who the hell was Uncle Curtis? Fifteen years of Hallmark holidays had gone by without my parents mentioning any uncles - or aunts, for that matter - so I'd assumed I'd had none.
If they didn't tell you about him, they probably had some good reason, I assured myself. Had he done something to get on their bad side? If so, what? And why had his ill health suddenly changed things? Maybe it wasn't him at all, I surmised, maybe Mom and Dad had something to make amends for. Though, I couldn't imagine what.
"We need to go now," my father announced. The receptionist appeared relieved, as if my parents' public display of sadness was not only messing with the feng shui of the place, but also with her ability to get her work done. I shot the woman a look of distain as my mother wrapped her left arm around my shoulder and guided me out of the office.
Dad lingered behind to shake my principal's hand. "Thank you again, Mr. Andrews, for your help and understanding."
"Of course," I heard Mr. Andrews say, then the door swung shut on their exchange and the words became indecipherable. I longed to step closer to try to listen in, but Mom would know exactly what I was up to. According to the clock above the trophy case, it was ten minutes from the end of the period. I wanted to be off of school property by then. The rumours would be ten times worse if I was seen being "escorted" out by my parents.
I knew if I told my mom that, she'd say I was over-reacting. But I'd seen it happen. Unless you had the right friends, you were always at risk of becoming a social pariah, because everyone liked a good story - truth wholly optional.
"Where's Mikey?" I asked once Dad had joined us and we were walking towards the front doors of the building.
"He's going to be staying with Clover and Dot for a few days while we're gone," he said. All four of our real grandparents had died before we were born, but the two old ladies who lived next door filled the familial vacancy so perfectly it almost made me believe in fate. As I got older I came to understand that they felt similarly about us: surrogate grandkids. Which meant while I was being carted off to the deathbed of some relative I'd never even heard of, Mikey was going to be spoiled rotten with video games and ice cream and movies way past bedtime. How was that fair?
I already knew the answer. It's because he's still a kid and you're not.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"Nevada," my father said.
I gaped at him. I'd spent countless afternoons as a little girl lying on my back watching jumbo jets leave white trails across the blue sky, daydreaming about having adventures in far-off places like Egypt and Japan, which at the time still seemed more imaginary than real, but to this day I'd never been on one. Trepidation and excitement duelled within me.
We stepped out of the school's double doors and a cold gust of wind blasted our faces. It was another gloomy, grey February day in New York, the first hints of spring still more than a month away. Squalls of snow and carelessly discarded litter danced on the breeze.
Mom's face was almost dry by the time we bundled ourselves into our silver Sunfire. I'd seen my mother tear up less than a dozen times in my life, and it never failed to unsettle me. She always instinctively knew how to comfort me when I was upset, but it didn't seem to work both ways. When she broke down, I was at an absolute loss.
"So, who's Uncle Curtis?" I asked, as my father navigated the car out of the school's parking lot.
"Your mother's brother," he said, and shot me a stern look in the rear-view mirror that meant "zip it."
His unexpected rebuke only stoked my curiosity. What unspeakable thing had this man done to have himself obliterated from our family history? And why were they still refusing to talk about him when we were on our way there right now? I watched the angular contours of the city sweep past outside the car window as I tried to reason it out in my head. Was he a criminal? An addict? A spy? Maybe he was just insufferable.
The silence in the car was amplified by all the unspoken words. Ours was not a quiet household: Mom was constantly trying to coax my brother and I into conversation, especially if Dad wasn't around. And she was just as happy discussing world events, as she was talking about her favourite TV show (always a cooking show, though it changed frequently) or what my brother and I were learning about at school. If something bad happened, she demanded we talk about it and "not keep it bottled up inside to fester." She should follow her own advice, I thought, even though I knew I was being insensitive. I didn't always want to talk about what was bothering me after all.
I whipped out my phone and texted Anna.
Don't stop by tonight, we won't be home, I typed. Family emergency.
A few seconds later my phone vibrated. Is everything alright? When I didn't reply right away, it shook again. Mills? Mills was what everyone except for my parents and teachers called me. A name like Mildred Millhatten just begged to be shortened. Besides, Mildred was an old-lady name.
Yes... no... I don't know, I messaged.
What's that supposed to mean? she asked.
Folks not saying much.
Seriously, I agreed, both soothed and worried that Anna found this as out of character for my family as I did. She would know - she practically lived at our house.
We'd met in history class on the first day of high school, when we'd had to share a textbook, and we'd shared a hundred more things since. Anna's mom had died of cancer when she was in third grade, so it was just her and her dad. The way she told it, the two of them used to get along great until puberty hit, then it was like he didn't know how to talk to her anymore. So, he got a job in long-distance hauling and she barely saw him. That would have been a great excuse to stay out late, throw parties and bring guys home, but not for Anna. She just found herself a new family: mine.
When are we gonna go dress shopping? she texted. I sighed. I'm in the middle of a family crisis and this is what she thinks is important? Anna had made it crystal clear that her sole mission this year was to find the perfect dress; she'd been sticking pictures of ruffled, frilly princess gowns up in her locker since November, swearing up and down that if she purchased the right one Henry would have to ask her to dance, he'd be compelled to, then she'd have her opportunity. I always found myself staring at my feet when she said this. No dress in the universe had that power - not when Henry only had eyes for his girlfriend.
When I get back? Continually putting off this shopping trip was a lousy thing to do, but the dance was more than three months away, and I was in no hurry to slide my boyish body into clothes that had bulges in all the places I didn't. The woman across the street, the one with all the cats, called me a "late bloomer." I hoped she was right - secretly I was starting to worry I would never bloom at all.
When's that? she asked.
No idea, I wrote.
Okay, let me know when you know. I didn't need to hear her voice to sense her disappointment, and it wasn't just because I'd postponed dress shopping again. Anna was dreading eating alone in the caf while I was gone, never mind being stuck on her own in her small, empty apartment. Anna's beauty queen looks should have bought her a one-way ticket to sleep-overs with Candace and Indira, but watching her mother wither away before her eyes had left her with an excess of empathy, making her way too soft to rule the school. She was no shark, and slumming it with me certainly didn't help.
Ask Jenny if she wants to hit the mall with you, I suggested, even though the two of them never hung out without me, which was totally weird since Jenny adored shopping even more than Anna, and I hated it.
Maybe, Anna texted, and I knew she wouldn't. A second later, another message blinked onto my screen. Gotta get to class now. Talk soon. And just like that, she was gone.
We were almost at the airport now. As my dad followed the signs to the car park, I played a couple rounds of Angry Birds, just like I did when I was trying to block out annoying people on the subway or speed up my boring fourth period spare. Once my parents had found a spot and turned off the car, I had a revelation: I hadn't packed for this trip!
"What about my clothes and toothbrush and stuff?" I asked, as I undid my seat belt and opened the door.
"Don't worry, I packed you a bag," my mom said, not reassuring me in the least.
I could only imagine the explosion of boisterously patterned dresses and "stylish" accessories that awaited me inside. Despite the bad news, she had probably leapt at the opportunity to dig out all of the clothes that she'd bought me that I never wore, from the blaring blouses that screamed "attention whore" to the beige capri pants I kept buried in a dresser drawer beneath my jeans and band tees. That kind of stuff looked good on Anna and Jenny, but it just didn't work with my black hair and ghostly complexion, which made me look goth no matter what I was wearing.
We'll be far away, I consoled myself miserably. At least no one at school will see you in that ridiculous Barbie doll crap.
The airport turned out to be as good as Angry Birds at taking my mind off of sick relatives, unanswered questions and the horrors that may or may not be lurking in my luggage. I found myself gawking at the milling crowds, trying to guess which far-flung destination they might be heading off to. Sometimes I was close enough to overhear an accent or a word or two of a foreign language, which helped me narrow it down, but most of the time it was entirely up to my imagination. That woman in fancy burgundy hat with the black silk flowers was going to Paris to rendezvous with a secret lover; that family with the three obnoxious brats who were screaming and chasing each other from one end of the check-in counter to the other were on their way to Disney World to spend one last vacation together "for the kids" before filing the divorce papers; and that absolutely delicious blonde guy who walked by - the one my eyes couldn't stop following until I lost him behind a gaggle of Asian tourists - had decided to leave his friends and family to embark on a six-month long backpacking adventure across Europe, first stop Amsterdam.
My parents didn't bring up Uncle Curtis again and neither did I. Maybe they were worried that if they started talking about him Mom would break down again. Instead, they acted as if nothing unusual was going on at all. Dad was muttering about how plane food was expensive and unpalatable, and a few minutes later, the three of us were sitting in a burger joint a short walk from our gate scarfing down fast food; lunchtime had come and gone and I hadn't even noticed.
I humoured them as they questioned me about my algebra exam, the one I didn't get to finish. When I didn't have much to say about that, Dad asked if I'd given any more thought to helping him out with his summer school classes. Another topic I didn't want to get into. I shoved my fries idly around my plate.
I'd be sixteen in two months and I wanted to get a real job this summer - at a restaurant or a store or something. One that came with a paycheque and freedom, not my dad as a boss; it wasn't like he was ever going to sell me on teaching anyway. I'd already gotten stuck being his assistant two long, yawn-inducing summers in a row.
"I'm sorry," I told him. "I really haven't."
"Well, I can't keep the position open for you indefinitely," he said. "We've already had dozens of applications for the spot." He failed to mention that those applicants would be getting college credit for working there, something that I, as a high school sophomore, was not eligible for. And while getting to ogle cute college guys all day long should have been some incentive, it was just icky doing it in front of my dad, who'd never allow me to date any of them anyway. Also, how was I ever supposed to figure out what I wanted to do if I kept doing the things I knew I didn't want to do?
And why was it so freakin' important to have my entire life figured out in tenth grade anyhow? What was so wrong with being unsure?
"I know," I said. "Would it be wrong if I tried something different this year? You could always ask Anna. I bet she'd love it."
My father frowned, and ran his hand through his thinning, mousy brown hair. "I can't say that I wouldn't be disappointed, Mildred, but you know I'd support your decision." He paused and glanced at my mother, then added. "We both would."
Thirty minutes later I was buckling myself into my window seat. I kept my head turned towards the tarmac, that way it didn't matter if my expression didn't match the weight and gravity of the situation. My parents looked so sad and defeated - after our meal, they'd fallen back into that uneasy silence - but I could barely sit still.
Maybe this trip will hold some revelations, I thought.
If I'd known how right I was, I probably would have kicked and screamed until security was forced to carry me off of the plane.