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MOST BEAUTIFUL Jennifer S. Burrows

Royal Fireworks Press Unionville, New York


Copyright Š 2012, Royal Fireworks Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved. Royal Fireworks Press First Ave, PO Box 399 Unionville, NY 10988 845 726 4444 email: mail@rfwp.com website: rfwp.com ISBN: 978-0-89824-376-5 Printed and bound in the United States of America using vegetable-based inks and environmentally-friendly cover coatings on recycled, acid-free paper by Royal Fireworks Press.


GOODBYES

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The dreaded day arrived. It was early in the morning, but already

it was hot enough to bake the stranded worms on the sidewalk. My dad packed the last of our things into the trunk, while my mom buckled my brothers into their car seats. I stood on the sidewalk and helplessly waited for my life to change forever. Maggie came out of her apartment building to say goodbye. “You can’t go, Ali,” said Maggie, stamping her orange flip-flop on the concrete. “You’re my only friend.” That was true. She was my only friend too. She made me smile. I didn’t smile much before I met Maggie. My mom didn’t like me to show my teeth. I stepped behind Maggie and whispered, “Hide me! Maybe they’ll leave without me. They’re making me become a farmer or something. I’m moving to Farmington. I bet my mother already bought me pink overalls.” Maggie snorted with laughter, but tried to stand still, hiding me behind her back. I loved her laugh. I heard her laugh before I met her two years ago at a McDonalds’ Play Land. She was stuck in a hamburgershaped piece of play equipment, laughing. She told me that she thought it would be funny to jam her body inside the hamburger and then say to kids that tried to climb in, “Sorry, no room at the inn.” It was funny, but she couldn’t get back out of the hamburger after her prank ran its course. I pried her arms and legs out one

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at a time, and then her body slithered out easily. We became best friends after that. We accepted each other as is. Maggie didn’t care that I wasn’t pretty, and I didn’t mind that she was a little crazy. How many nine-year-olds would climb into a hamburger built for a toddler? I knew one, Maggie. Our giggles died down, and Maggie stopped pretending to hide me. I squinted at the bright morning sun to look at anything, but Maggie. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to move away and lose the only friend I ever had. Maggie didn’t say anything either. She just picked at the little bit of blue nail polish left on her fingernails. We stood there like that for a while. My family’s car groaned under the weight of another suitcase being jammed into the trunk, and my mom fussed over my brothers. I’ll miss you, Maggie. “Girls, it’s time to say good-bye,” said my mother adjusting her perfect ponytail in the reflection of the car window. “Give each other a hug.” Maggie pounced on the opportunity and pressed my black tank top into my sweaty skin like tissue paper into glue. I didn’t mind. “I gotta go,” I said. “We can write or something. Bye.” Please write me. “Bye.” As my dad drove my family away in our beat-up Pontiac pulling a U-Haul trailer, I watched Maggie waving on the sidewalk until I couldn’t see her yellow t-shirt anymore. I felt a big lump in my throat that wasn’t going to be ignored. I’d lived in New York City my whole life. This is so unfair.

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My mom sighed as she checked her lip-gloss in the mirror on the visor. “That looked like a nice good-bye, Alikah. You have a nice friend there.” Try had a nice friend. “How long will this take? I get car sick.” No one answered. My dad drove around the city for a while. I wished he did it for me, but I knew he didn’t. We passed by my old school. I just finished fifth grade there. We passed by the daycare where my mom used to work. My brothers, Andy and Nicky, both went there each day with my mom. Her two beautiful babies never left her side. Meanwhile, I was four before I figured out that my babysitter, Nancy, wasn’t my mother. Figures. My dad went out of his way to drive through Manhattan. I kept my sad face on, but I loved going there. I wanted to absorb as much of the city as I could one last time. My dad worked at a restaurant called the Greenhouse Café in the New York Marriott World Trade Center Hotel. The hotel sat between these two huge 110-story buildings called the Twin Towers. Glass windows lined the roof of the café, and the Twin Towers sparkled in the sky on sunny days. It was a cool place. I ate there for my eleventh birthday in May. I’ll miss you, Greenhouse Café. “Is that a tear, Alikah?” asked my mom as she handed Andy a snack. There was nowhere to hide in the backseat jammed between two car seats. My mom reached back and picked up a piece of my stringy brown hair. She dropped it back where it was, hanging limply around my face like old threadbare curtains. “Get comfortable. We have a long ride ahead of us,” she said. I watched New York City disappear through a fuzzy haze of tears as Andy’s trail mix showered down all around me.

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 

After hours of watching field after field of nothing pass by, I thought about my new school. I wondered if there would be a bully like Nathalie. Is there some sort of bully quota that requires one bully per class in the world? I hope not. Last fall, I caught Nathalie picking her nose in the girl’s bathroom. She threatened me daily about keeping her secret as a booger-picker. I lifted my heavy glasses off my nose and fanned myself. “Is the air on? I’m dying back here between ‘Hot and Hotter’.” “Alikah, I forgot to show you the picture of our new house we got from the realtor yesterday,” said my mom attempting to sound perky. She handed me a photo. “That window right there is one of yours. You will have a room all to yourself now.” I gasped. “This is our house? You’re joking. It’s so ugly. It looks haunted. Is it condemned? I told you to take me with you that weekend you went up there to look for houses. Does anyone care about me at all in this family?” My mom snapped the picture out of my hand and stuffed it back into her purse. “I thought it was ugly too, at first.” My mom smiled weakly at my dad. “I’m told it has potential.” My dad shifted in his seat and tried to stretch his legs one at a time. “I’m going to fix it up. Your own room, Ali,… wouldn’t you live anywhere to get your own room?” We’d lived in a tiny two-bedroom apartment in Queens for as long as I could remember. Both of my brothers slept in my room. Andy and I shared a rickety old bunk bed. The person in the top bunk swayed back and forth like the top of a tree in the wind, while the person in the bottom bunk waited to be flattened like a pancake. I took the top.

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I was desperate for anyone to be on my side. “I can’t believe you went along with this, Mom. You don’t like ugly things.” My mom rummaged around in her purse and pulled out her powder. She dulled the shine on her nose as best she could in the summer heat. “Alikah, keep your voice down. Andy and Nicky are finally both asleep. The rest of your trip will be much better if you don’t wake them.” She pointed to the creatures on either side of me in the backseat. They both slept slumped over in their car seats, with cheeks as red as tomatoes and sweaty, matted hair stuck to their heads. I looked at Andy. He’s sweet when he’s sleeping. “You’re going to fix the house up?” I asked quietly. Andy stretched in his car seat and opened his eyes. “Yes, Ali. You’ll like it there. It’s on a country road right next to a farm. I think we’ll be able to see cows from our backyard. See them and smell them,” my dad winked at Andy. “Tow poo is tinky. Poopey-doopey tow poo!” sang Andy. I moaned. “Why do you have to say poo in every single sentence?” “We’re lucky Nicky slept through that racket. Now keep it down,” whisper-yelled my mom as she fiddled with the knobs on the dashboard. “Is the air on? I’m wilting.” Nicky had a gift for making my life miserable. I wanted him to keep sleeping. The day Nicky came home from the hospital, my parents put my favorite reading chair out on the curb with a FREE sign on it. They said they needed to make room for Nicky’s crib. But I knew the truth. The chair was old and dirty and looked like a piece of junk. It was ugly, but I loved that chair. When I sat in the middle of it, I sank down deep. I think the seat almost

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touched the floor. I felt like I could disappear in that chair. It was my only refuge. It was where I sat and read my fairy tales about ugly ducklings turning into beautiful swans, wicked step-mothers getting what they deserved, and of course handsome princes rescuing maidens from tragic and lonely situations. Nicky was only one of my problems though. Three-year-old, Andy, thoroughly enjoyed his job of pesky little brother. After he started potty training, his favorite topics became pee and poo. I needed my own room badly.

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THE NEW HOUSE

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Seven hours later, we were there. An awful smell filled the car as

soon as we pulled in the driveway. I plugged my nose. “I think Nicky needs a diaper change.” “That’s manure,” said my dad. Great. Everything stinks in more ways than one. The picture my mom showed me did the house perfect justice. It was a big dump. The paint was chipping off everywhere. I couldn’t even guess what the paint color had been. There wasn’t enough left to tell. The house looked weather beaten and dirty like an old wooden crate at the pier. The shingles on the crooked roof were green and slimy. Tree branches with matching green slime hung close to the house like they were giving it a hug. They said, “It’s okay, ugly house. You have potential.” The bushes out front looked like green dinosaurs taking a nap in the front yard. Some windows had broken shutters, others didn’t have shutters at all. The stone driveway needed a mow. The house looked like a woman with messy make-up, like it’d been crying. The house didn’t look creepy or haunted in person, just sad, like no one cared about it. I felt sorry for it. You and I have a lot in common, ugly house.

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My seat was drenched with sweat, but I didn’t bother unbuckling my seatbelt until “Thing 1 and Thing 2” were unbuckled and out on the weedy lawn. “Dad, there’s a tree growing out of the roof.” My dad stood in the driveway with his hands on his hips proudly admiring his purchase. “This place is even better than I remembered. Ali, that’s just a sapling growing out of the gutter. I’ll take care of that.” My dad was giddy. “What do you think? That’s where your room is. Right up there, Ali.” He pointed to a boarded-up window. I felt a surge of excitement run through my car-stiffened body. I wanted to get up to my new room and check it out. Finally, my own room. “Please put the first priority boxes on top in each room,” my mom told my dad. She looked nervous as she took her long black hair out of its ponytail and twisted it up into a purple clip. “Alikah,” barked my mom. “Watch Nicky for me and keep Andy out of our way.” Then she disappeared into the house. I said, “I want to go see my room.” But she didn’t listen. I was trapped, walking around hunched over with Nicky attached to my fingers taking his baby steps. Every step hurt. My back was aching from the trip. Nicky was more than one-year-old, but he still couldn’t walk by himself. I pried my fingers out of Nicky’s sticky hands and let him fall on his butt in the grass. He wailed and screamed at losing his walking helper. “This is so annoying, Nicky. Why don’t you walk by yourself already?” I asked. Nicky held both arms up to me and grunted his demands, his bottom lip quivered like Jell-O. “Oh fine! Come on.” He grinned with victory as his tear and drool-drenched hands gripped my fingers again.

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Andy spun around in circles on the lawn like a dog chasing its tail. “A yard, a yard, a yard, a yard! Wahtch out for da dawg poopie, Aah-leek-aah!” I had to find a way to get inside to check out my room. “Let’s look at the toilets inside, Andy,” I said, swinging Nicky up to my hip. “Don’t you need to go?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I want to do a poo-poo on dah noo poddee.” Andy darted into the house. I slipped through the front door balancing Nicky on my hip being careful not to get plowed over by the furniture and boxes steadily moving into the house. The house smelled like my greatgrandmother’s nasty old quilt. Torn, orange and green wallpaper hung off the walls. There were three or four fist-sized holes punched right through the wall. It looked like a gang had had a fight inside. My mother was engaged in a vicious battle with a window that must have been painted shut in the front room. She never liked the smell of my great-grandmother’s quilt either. “Hold on, Nicky. Here we go.” I headed up the stairs to where my dad said my room was. I didn’t dare hold the railing. It looked loose. My excitement mounted with every stair squeak, and so did the temperature. It must have been 100 degrees upstairs. It was hard to breathe. The door to my room was shut. I felt lightheaded as I reached for the corroded doorknob. The doorknob was broken, but the door swung open with a push. My excitement vanished like a puddle in the sun. The room was disgusting. Why me? I stood there for a moment trying to take it all in. The mothball smell was overwhelming. Nicky started to cry. I wanted to cry. My mom said that the house was last decorated

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in the bicentennial year, which was 1976. My room had wallpaper with creepy eagles and flags all over it. But the flags weren’t even red, white, and blue. They were orange and green. Was it a bicentennial/Halloween year? I toured the rest of the house trying to hold a 25- pound baby who wanted down more than anything in the world. I decided that my room was the worst room in the house. I’m the only person in this family who doesn’t matter. My mom yelled from the kitchen. “Alikah, come get your boxes and start unpacking. I’ll take Nicky now.” Maybe my stuff will make me feel better. I lined my books up in a make-shift library shelf on the floor. I didn’t have that many. I ran out of room to store them in our old apartment a long time ago. In my new room, which was pretty big, it looked like I barely had any books at all. Room for more books is good. The sleeping dinosaur bushes cast long shadows across the front yard cooling off the day. Finally, the trailer and the car were empty. The rooms in the house looked empty too even with all our stuff inside. My stomach let out a slow, “BROO-WAAH.” I hadn’t eaten when we stopped for lunch on the way. My dad knows I don’t like burgers. I saw my dad in the backyard with the boys checking out a run-down shed. Overgrown ivy draped over everything in the backyard; the shed, the trees, and even the grass. The backyard looked like someone tucked it in for the night with a green, leafy blanket. It looked cozy. The boys were laughing and rolling in the ivy. Andy settled on his back and tried to make an ivy angel, fanning his arms and legs out and in. It looked like fun. Why don’t they invite me?

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I walked out to the backyard and lingered, hoping for an invitation. No one noticed me. As usual. “Dad, where do people get take-out around here? I’m starving.” My dad turned to the boys and said, “Who’s hungry?” “Meeeee! Me! Me! Meeeee!” yelled Andy. I rolled my eyes. “There’s a Subway around here somewhere. Your mom and I ate there when we came up to buy the house,” said my dad as he pulled ivy out of Nicky’s mouth and chubby fists. “Let’s find your mom and go out for dinner.” I laughed. “A Subway? That’s funny, Dad. I thought you meant a subway. We would probably have it all to ourselves if there was one. I don’t see any people here, just cows.” The Subway was empty except for the sandwich guy and us. We walked right up to the counter and ordered our sandwiches. It was cool not to wait in a long line. Of course, everyone in my family ordered before me. “Do you like your room, Alikah?” asked my mom as she tried to wipe mayonnaise off Nicky’s head. “You may be trying out our pea-green bathtub tonight, Nicolas.” My mom liked to use our proper names when she was annoyed or frustrated. I put down my sub sandwich. “Mom, could you please call me Ali here? You know I don’t like being called Alikah.” I felt my mother look at my mousy brown hair, thin lips, buckteeth, pointy nose, and giant ears, sticking out of my hair. She looked disappointed and said, “Maybe.” My mother hoped I would follow in her beautiful footsteps. My name means “most beautiful.” What a joke that turned out to be. After my name failed to deliver, my parents chose normal names for my brothers.

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“My room is too awful and ugly for me to call my own. You and Dad need to take the wallpaper down right away,” I said firmly. “We’ll see, Ali,” said my dad. “I have a lot of necessary repairs to make on the house. I start my new job in a couple weeks. I don’t have much time to spare for your wallpaper.” “I can pull all the wallpaper off myself.” “No,” said my dad. “That room has had that wallpaper on the walls for 25 years. Chunks of the drywall will come off if you’re not careful. I need to do it.” I folded my arms across my chest and sighed miserably. They never care about what I want. That night Andy had trouble sleeping. He wanted to sleep in my room just like he had since he was born. He’s such a nuisance. It was too quiet in Farmington, except for the crickets chirping. I thought the crickets in Central Park were loud at night, but this was the loudest bunch of crickets I’d ever heard. I missed the city noises like traffic and honking. That felt safe to me. There was a deafening silence and loneliness in Farmington, even with the crickets. None of us could sleep. My dad hunted around in some priority #3 boxes and found two fans. He hooked one up in the master bedroom and one in my room. I agreed to let Andy sleep with me that night so that we could share a fan. The fan noise helped. It drowned out the deafening quiet and the crickets. It was pretty good for the smell too. Before I knew it, I was waking up to Andy saying, “Get up! Get up! Get up! Get up! Time to take off your poopie diapurr, Aah-leek-aah.”

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It’s Ali. I shuffled downstairs in my PJs. The rooms looked neat and orderly. It looked like our old apartment, except there was more space. There was a lemony fresh smell mixing with the smell of my great-grandmother’s quilt. The hanging wallpaper was gone and some of the holes in the drywall were filled. “Wow, Mom and Dad. You’ve done a ton of work already.” My mother looked radiant. Her olive-colored skin was glowing. I guess she unpacked her mud mask last night. “Maybe you can take down my wallpaper today.” No one answered. I sat down at the table for breakfast. The kitchen was small, but the morning sun flooded it with warmth. Ugly house, you have a nice little kitchen. Nicky crawled over to my feet. He started pulling on my legs, trying to stand up. Then he grabbed my fingers for a walk. “Forget it.” “Alikah, walk him around a little and I’ll make you guys some pancakes on this rusty old thing,” said my mother as she turned to the stove. It was either rust-colored or rusty. I wasn’t sure. “Fine,” I said as I hobbled off with Nicky attached to my fingers. I like French toast better.

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Opening Chapters