“Hi, Mom!” I said in my fake-cheery voice. “Guess what? Brenda Kowalski threw up during our math test, and it almost got on my desk! She had to go home early.”
“Well, that’s too bad.” She didn’t look up, just sat there, staring ahead, holding her mug. She’d changed from her work uniform of black pants and a white shirt and was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt.
No other words were spoken. Mom just sat there, twisting her wedding ring.
“Where’s Dad?” I blurted, unable to take the silence anymore.
Her eyes flicked to me, then back to the middle distance. “He’s gone,” she said.
“I don’t know. Off island.”
Without us? That was strange. Usually, he’d wait for us, take us on the ferry to Portland, where there was a bakery filled with the most beautiful pastries, and let us get whatever we wanted.
“When will he be back?” I asked.
“I’m not sure.”
My heart started to whump in my chest. “What do you mean, you’re not sure?”
“I don’t know, Nora. He didn’t see fit to tell me.”
Something was wrong. Something big. In that second, I felt my childhood teeter.
I pounded up the stairs. Our room had a slanted ceiling and was divided exactly in half; mine neat and tidy, as Mom requested, Lily’s a snarled mess. She was lying on her unmade bed with her headphones on, waiting for Mom to leave, for Dad to appear with the afternoon’s entertainment, because there was always something fun. Every single day.
I went into our parents’ room, and my breath started to shake out of me.
The closet was open, the top two drawers of the bureau—his—open, as well.
Open and empty. Our father’s shoes—he had more pairs than Mom—were gone. His socks were gone. Empty hangers hung like bones in the closet.
On top of the bureau, dead center, was his wedding ring.
I ran into the bathroom and threw up, my stomach heaving, my whole body racked with the violent expulsion of my ham-and-tomato sandwich and two oatmeal cookies, bits of apple floating on the surface.
“What’s wrong with you?” Lily asked. At ten, she already had a bit of a sneer.
“Daddy’s gone,” I said, my eyes streaming. I puked again, my sinuses burning with throw-up.
“What do you mean, gone? What are you talking about?”
“I don’t know. His clothes are gone. He packed.”
As I sat there, retching into the toilet, my sister ran into our parents’ bedroom, then pounded downstairs. She screamed accusations at our mother, whose flat, implacable voice answered questions. Something ceramic broke—Mom’s cup, I bet, throwing up again at the thought of the smell of coffee.
“I hate you!” Lily screamed. “I hate you!”
Then the door slammed, and it was quiet again.
I waited for my mother to come upstairs and take care of me. She didn’t.
Later that night, Lily told me what happened. Her version of it, anyway. Our mother, who was so boring and hateful and mean, had driven our father away. He’d gotten sick and tired of putting up with her, taken his novel and moved to New York City, where he was born, after all, and he was probably about to become a famous author. He’d call us and tell us to pack our things, that New York was the biggest place of all for adventuring, and we’d move, and Mom could stay here on her stupid Scupper Island.
If that was true...if our dad couldn’t stand our mother anymore, I honestly couldn’t blame him. He was a scarlet tanager, a rare, beautiful bird I’d only seen once in my life, flashing with red, its song happy and bright. She was a mourning dove, gray and dull, endlessly sighing the same notes over and over.
But I didn’t want them to get a divorce.
In my version of what had happened, which I dared not tell Lily, Dad would come home with a bouquet of roses. Mom would be wearing that white dress with the red flowers on it, the only dress she had, and they’d be hugging, and we’d move to New York but come home to Scupper for summers, like the rich people.
Days passed. A week. Lily refused to go to school, and I was put in charge of breakfast while Mom went to work. At night, I listened to the suddenly scary noises of our old house, the muffled sobs from Lily’s side of the room. I tried to climb into her bed to comfort her, but she shoved me away.
I waited for my father to call. He didn’t.
He hadn’t left a phone number, either. He had a brother in Pennsylvania—Jeff, eight years older than my father, a man we’d only met twice before. I called him one afternoon when my mom was at a meeting at school—Lily was acting up. There was a long silence after I asked if he knew where my father might be.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he said. “I don’t. But if I hear from him, I’ll let you know.”
I could tell by his voice he didn’t think this would happen.
Another week crept by. Mom came home on Saturday morning and told us she’d switched her hours so she’d be able to be home with us after school.
“No one wants you here,” Lily said, her voice so cold and cruel I flinched.
“No one asked you,” Mom said mildly.
And that was the end of our deep family discussion.
What if Mom had killed Dad? Was that possible? She could lop the head off a sea bass, slide the knife down its belly and gut the thing in seconds... She could use a gun... We lived on an island, so she could dump his body anywhere and let the tides do what they would. I regretted reading the Patricia Cornwell novels I’d been sneaking out of the library, not to mention Stephen King, the patron saint of Maine. Was my father down the well, like Dolores Claiborne’s husband?
We didn’t have a well. Mom didn’t talk to the police.
He had packed. Left his wedding ring. Sure, Mom could’ve faked it, but she didn’t. I knew.
He was simply...gone. But Lily and I were the lights of his life. He told us that all the time. He wouldn’t just leave us. He would obviously come back for us.
He didn’t. He didn’t come back, he didn’t write, he didn’t call.
The weeks turned into months. I tried to console Lily, asked if she wanted to do things together, but she ignored me, alone in her grief, which she clearly viewed as deeper than mine. I’d lost my father and his buoyant, exhilarating love, and it seemed I’d also lost Lily’s.
I’d lay awake at night, heart pounding, tears slipping into my hair, missing them both with an ache in my heart that blotted out everything else. My childhood had ended, and I never even had the chance to say goodbye.
Jake helped me off the ferry. It was a three-hour ride, and I felt a little seasick. Or a little nauseous from my throbbing knee.
Or maybe it was just being back home.
Without a word, he got my bags and led Boomer off the boat, leaving me to crutch it alone, hobbling awkwardly up the gangplank, then onto the old dock.
Though it was mid-April, spring had not yet come to the island. My mom wasn’t here yet, and the downtown was quiet. A raw wind blew the smell of fish and salt and donuts from Lala’s Bakery, and with it, childhood memories. On cold winter Sundays, my father used to wake Lily and me at 5:00 a.m. to get the first donuts Lala made, almost too hot to hold, the sugar crusting our faces, the heat steaming in the wintry air.
I would see her soon, my sister. I would set things right again. That was the chance Beantown Bug Killers had given me, and I would make good on it.