When I got home from school, I found my parents huddled at the rustic, dining room table, grinning like kids with a juicy secret. It didn’t surprise me to see them there since they were both authors and were virtually always around. But Dad, he was currently working on his second novel, with a nagging deadline right around the corner. And Mom, she was in the I-can’t-wait-for-you-to-read-this-chapter stage of her first book; she’d been raving for the past few weeks about how she was dying to finish it. So why they were slacking off in the middle of the day like that was beyond me.
Tempted as I was to ask them about it, I just sighed and went to my room. I felt kinda bad not feeding into whatever surprise they clearly wanted to share with me. My parents, Jessica and Jonathan Chase were, without question, the only interesting people I knew. They were the highlight of my life, and no, that wasn’t sarcasm. I really do love being around them. They’re easy-going, laid back parents who actually see me as a person, and not a mindless, fragile object they have to watch over until it’s time for me to head out into the world.
But it had been a long day, fraught with boring classes designed to lower I.Q. points by the second, and an endless parade of gossipy, dim-witted, hum-drum nimrods that share the collective belief that all is great and dandy in Bumpkin Land, the tiniest, most uninteresting hole in America.
Honestly, the only smile-worthy moment of my day was when I punched one of the brainless Bumpkinites that I’m always oh-so-thrilled to be around every freakin’ day of my life. Her name’s Marley Waters. She’s this horse-faced pig in my English class who’d decided that this would be a good day to test her chances of survivability by telling the entire small-town-and-still-smaller-minded school that I had a crush on our tenth-grade history teacher, old Mr. Anderson, a bald, bow-tie-wearing relic who smelled like feet and a variety of foul and mysterious cheeses.
“Zoey?” Mom’s voice seeped through my door, deep and serious, which alone was enough to rattle me; she’d never taken that tone with me before.
“What?” I grunted, hurling my plaid backpack at my closet door.
“Zoey, your mother’s calling you. Now get in here.”
I kicked off my sneakers and shot them at the wall beside my wooden dresser, then popped my head outside my room. “What?”
“Zoey Chase, get over here this instant, Young Lady!”
Great. First Mom, now Dad? He’d never Young-Lady’ed me before. Not even when I got into that fight with Cheryl Mosley, back in eighth grade; I’d discovered she was the one who’d told everyone I was born a boy because someone had told her that her boyfriend liked me.
Somewhat shaken by Mom and Dad’s newfound experiences, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Principal of my school had called to rat me out for punching Marley, the horse-faced pig.
“Zoey!” my parents shouted as one.
“Coming.” I lumbered into the dining room with as much interest as I had in throwing on a wicker hat and dancing around a haystack; sadly, that was the pastime of choice in this kill-me-now part of the world. “What is it? I’m tired.”
“Tired?” Mom crossed her arms. “You wanna trade places? Because anytime you wanna be thirty-five, you let me know.”
Dad leaned forward, clasped his hands and looked me dead in the eyes. “Plant it.”
“Why?” I muttered suspiciously, still wondering if the Principal had called.
“Zoey, for the love of…would you just sit down?!” Mom slid a chair out for me with her leg, her face matching the impatient tone of her voice.
“If this about the pig…in my defense, she deserved to get punched.”
Mom’s forehead tightened in curious confusion. “Uh, no. But we’ll get back to that later.”
“Never mind. It’s not that interesting,” I mumbled, taking a sudden interest in the hideous, oval, multi-colored rug at my feet.
“Knowing you, I doubt that.”
“Zo, we have something to tell you,” Dad said, in this sort of haunting tone.
I plopped down in the wooden chair, officially worried to all hell. The only time we gathered at the dining room table like this was when, for better or worse, something serious was about to rock the Chase household. This was where I found out that Dad had landed his first book deal; that was a good day; we went to Nancy’s Diner to celebrate that night. Not glitzy, I know, but this is Bumpkin Land, and sad as it is to admit, the aluminum sheeting on the wall over the diner’s counter is about as glitzy as it gets in a town built for, and run, by Bumpkinites.
This table’s also where I found out Nana, my great-grandmother, had been diagnosed with cancer. We were really close, she and I, so losing her was really hard. She used to visit a lot, and even though she’s been gone for almost a month now, I sometimes feel like she’s still around. It especially hits me when someone comments on how much I look like her, what with having the same pale (bordering on vampiric) complexion, light-green eyes and nearly-black hair that she had, back before she turned to the gray side of the tracks. Unlike Nana, however, who tended to wear her hair short, mine has always been long, down to my waist, although you’d never know it, since I always wear it up in a ponytail.
Similarities to Nana aside, most of the time, people who never got to meet her, argue that I look more like Dad than I do Mom, using our overly-expressive eyes a prime example of what Dad brought to the Zoey party. He has one of those young faces with hints of gray at the temples, which tends to throw people off and leave them whispering their theories as to his age. To this day, few know he’s actually thirty-eight years old.
A lot of people also insist I look like Mom. The same people who have a tendency to point out how time had definitely been a friend to her. And they’re right. She’s a wrinkle-free thirty-five-year old, who looks more like twenty-five, and stands at whopping 5’ 3 inches, with almond-shaped eyes that are the same chestnut-brown as her shoulder-length hair. I sometimes get a kick out of watching the biscuit-loving women of Bumpkin Land take their ogling husbands and run, when Mom enters a room.
Personally, I only see bits and pieces of myself in them. For instance, height aside, my heart-shaped face, I owe to Mom, while the thickness of my hair, I owe to Dad. It still haunts me though when I see pictures of Nana. Back when I was ten, I once found a picture of her, and actually tried to convince Mom that she was mistaken when she insisted it wasn’t me in the photo.
Mom side-glanced Dad with a glint in her eyes, while he threw her a mysterious grin.
I looked at her, then at him. “What is this? What’s going on?”
Dad placed an arm across her shoulders and dropped his other hand on mine. “So listen…as you know, your mom was always Nana’s favorite granddaughter.”
“I know,” I replied quietly.
“Well…as it happens…she left a…a will,” Mom said with slow intent. Then she paused, leaving her last word hanging out there all alone, as she looked at Dad again, then at me.
Funny, this careful construction of suspense was something I’d expect from my sometimes-melodramatic father. Not her. I guess the fusing of two minds into one is what seventeen years of being married to your best friend will do to a couple.
I couldn’t take the waiting anymore, so I finally said, “And? What, she left you something? Oh god, don’t tell me it’s the bird’s nest hat she bought when she came to visit last year. Please don’t tell me you’re actually gonna wear that in public.”
Mom and Dad looked at each other again, then she said, “She left me the apartment.”
I sat there, frozen in disbelief, like in the movies, when someone says something and everything pauses to the sound of a record scratching. “No. No, you don’t mean…the apartment in…in…the city?” I barely got the words out.
Mom nodded slowly.
My eyes swelled. “So that means we’re—”
“Well, now hold on,” Dad said. “We’ve been discussing it and—”
“Discussing what? What’s there to discuss?”
Dad straightened his back. “What to do, I mean. Do we sell it? Or do we move there? You know, we could get a small fortune for the place, what with it being in Middletin.”
My heart nearly stopped, my hopes dying like an oxygen-starved animal. “You couldn’t have opened with that?” I got to my feet in a huff. “Why would you get my hopes up with all this drama, just to tell me we’re staying here?” I turned away from them, gearing up for a good stomping back to my room.
“Honey, don’t go.”
I turned back to Mom with a drag of my head.
“Jon, I told you not to tell her this way.”
Dad started to laugh. “What, and miss this? Miss that?” he said, pointing in my direction.
Confused, I inched closer to the table. “That’s not funny.”
“Yeah, it is,” muttered Dad, through a lingering chuckle.
“You’re so gonna pay for that,” I said, throwing a playful sneer his way.
Mom slid my chair out further. “Zo, sit down, please.”
After a second, I slid down into it, my eyes narrow.
“The bottom line is this,” Dad took on a more serious tone, “we’ve lived here all our lives, and we love it here. But we know you don’t, and with the success of the book, now we can finally afford to give you the sort of life you’ve always wanted.”
“What do you mean? I…I love it here, too.”
Dad tilted his head at me in an all-knowing way. “Zo, come on. You don’t think we see how unhappy you are here?”
Amazing. I’d spent my life trying to hide my true feelings about this place, and I thought I’d done a great job, with the exception of a rant here and there. Well, apparently I was wrong. “I’m sorry.”
Mom stopped me with a lift of her hand. “Don’t be. We understand. This place isn’t for everyone, we know.”
“Anyway,” Dad said, “since you two boredom-mongers need it fast and open, here it is. We’re moving to the city.”
“Is this another one of your jokes? Because if it is, I swear I’m gonna make lives hell here ‘til I graduate.”
They just shook their heads.
Without a word, I got up and went to my room.
“Zoey?” Mom called after me. “You OK?”
“I’m fine,” I said, pressing my back to the door, trying my best to contain my euphoria.
The city. I couldn’t believe it. We were finally leaving Bumpkin Land and all those Bumpkinites behind. My heart started racing something wicked. I danced around my room, squealing and shaking, as city shots from movies rampaged through my mind. I ran to my closet-like thing, pulled out my Buick-sized, red duffel bag and tossed it over by the bed. Then I grabbed Old Boxy. That’s what I called this hard-as-steel suitcase Dad bought for me back when I was thirteen, for our trip to Disney World, where we went to celebrate the release of his book.
Old Boxy was covered in bumper stickers from dozens upon dozens of cities its previous owner had been to. I knew the minute I saw it in the window of Gorman’s Second-Hand Goods that day, that I had to have it, if only to live vicariously through someone who’d actually broken through the borders of this nothing town. Every time I see Old Boxy, it kills me that, to-date, the only sticker that didn’t come with it was the one I’d added after our trip to Disney. My own said little contribution to the reality that there was an entire world out there, just waiting for me to explore it.
I propped open my duffel on the bed and went to work, yanking every T-shirt and pair of jeans from my closet and shoving them into the bag without the slightest interest in folding them. Wrinkles be damned. I had a new life coming to me. One I’d been waiting for…well, all my life. When the duffel begged for mercy, I plopped Old Boxy onto the bed, gathered up all my books—there were a lot of them, more than I realized—and stacked them in the suitcase. Then I brought over all my movies and threw them in, followed by the million-or-so framed pictures of my parents and me that were scattered all over my room. When I couldn’t fit anything else in—and luckily, there wasn’t anything else I needed to put in Old Boxy—I stuffed some socks in the little empty spaces to make sure all my most-valued possessions were tightly packed.
My room-raid was topped off when I took down my poster of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, which I carefully rolled up and slid into the art tube I bought the same day I bought the poster. It was last year, at the town’s annual garage sale. It’s actually considered a big event around these parts. Everyone comes down to Main Street and spends all day trying to pawn all their it’s-garbage-to-me-but-you-can-have-it things on all the Bumpkinites on the hunt for a second-hand bargain.
I happened to be walking by one of the tables with my parents, when I noticed this poster with a partially-faded section sticking out from under a pile of fishing books. Curious, I slid the books aside and just stood there, staring down at the image, which grabbed me from the minute I caught a glimpse of the haunting diner in the poster. It was, in fact, the first time anything had grabbed me in this place, so I had to have it. The greedy Bumpkinite behind the table must’ve seen the glint in my eyes, because despite the poster’s $1.00 sticker price, he jacked it up to $20.
As much as I wanted to tell him off, I bit my tongue and dipped into my allowance to buy it. But it was worth it, because for the first time, I felt a glimmer of hope that something could stir me out of the Bumpkin Land-induced state of absolute numbness. I hung the poster up the minute we got home and spent an hour just staring at it. Staring at the people in the diner and at the empty street. I mean, I was so lost in the loneliness and isolation of the entire image, that I actually dreamt about it for days.
With Nighthawks safely tucked away and everything packed up and ready to go, I stood at my door, my duffel in one hand, Old Boxy in the other, and the art tube under my right arm. I looked back at my room. It was so barren, it was almost sad. Now that there was no longer the slightest remaining hint of my ever having lived there, it looked like any other typical country bedroom, with pale yellow walls, a sheer, white curtain and a slanted roof.
For a second, I actually felt bad about leaving. Not the town. The town can kiss my ass.
I mean this place. My house. I was really gonna miss it. My entire uneventful life had played out here. I’ve never made friends in Bumpkin Land, but only because in all my sixteen years of life, not a single person in this town has failed to bore me to all hell. I’m not including my parents, of course, because if it wasn’t for them, I think by now, I’d have slipped into a catatonic state just for the fun of tuning out.
I mean, I truly think it’s humanly impossible to care less about Sally Allswat’s newest straw hat, or Mr. Baller’s latest battle with a fish he still refers to as Fishzilla, which he snagged down at Mueller’s Pond last summer; in all honesty, the thing was more like a sardine, but I kept that little nugget of truth to myself. After all, who was I to crush someone’s fantasy, when so few exist in this crap-hole. There is so much dead space here that the Nothing-To-Report Gazette actually found both those stories news-worthy and plastered them all over the front page.
It’s so infuriating being stuck in a place where I’ve never met anyone I could connect with. A place where not one soul has a single interest apart from hayrides, staring up at all the little lights from heaven, which normal people call stars, and gossiping about the lives of everyone around them. People that share the common belief that BLAH was the very definition of chic.
But, here in this house, because of my parents, life was different. They were the only two people I knew who actually had interests, like Mom with her photography—she was a nut about it—and Dad with his knack for story-telling. We’d had a lot of amazing times here, laughing over the dinner table in the country-style kitchen that Mom loved, talking about movies and shows we watched together, not to mention the annual three-person birthday parties we’ve shared.
I still remember this one time back when I was fourteen. Mom and Dad were in the kitchen, having a bickerment about how much cheese she should put in a dish she was making. Bickerment was a term I came up with back when I was ten. It was literally the best way to describe their almost-comical way of arguing because of how rare and unimportant the issue always was, and how with a smile, the entire thing was laughed off and set aside like it never happened.
So there they were, having one of their bickerments about the cheese. Mom wanted it more on the heart-friendly side, while Dad believed it wasn’t truly cheesy if you could still see the pasta. I’d left the kitchen for just a second, and when I came back, Mom and Dad were covered in, not only cheese, but also flour, salad dressing, and a wide variety of utterly unidentifiable remnants of food. When they saw me standing there, Mom turned to me, a piece of pasta clinging to her cheek, and threw a handful of mac and cheese at me, bringing me into, what turned out to be, one of the funniest and most memorable dinners ever to unfold in the Chase house.
My excitement over the move suddenly weighed on me. I felt so guilty. Like how I imagine it would feel to turn my back on a friend. But as fun as it had been—not in the town, but here in this house—it was time to move on.
I went out to the living room, where my parents were snuggled on the sofa next to the fireplace, watching an early episode of the new Battlestar Galactica, one of our favorite shows.
My parents looked at me for a second, then giggled.
“I knew it!” I barked, dropping my things. “We’re not going anywhere, are we?”
Mom got up. “Of course we are, Zo. But not until next Thursday. The movers’ll be here on Wednesday to pick up our stuff, so Aunt Milly offered to be at the apartment to meet them.”
With a sigh of relief and an inward thank god, I picked up my gear, heaved it all over to the entryway and dropped it on the hardwood floor.
“What are doing?” asked Dad, looking up at me.
“Just making sure it’s all ready to go,” I answered over my shoulder. There was no way I was gonna take any of it back to my room. It’d be like tempting fate, and not a single part of me was aiming to stare down the barrel of that gun.
The week crawled by like time was playing with me. I barely slept a wink the night before the big day, so the minute the sun came up, I jumped out of bed. With a spring in my step, I threw on the jeans, pink T-shirt and sneakers I’d left out last night, then gathered my hair into my usual ponytail and headed out to the now-empty kitchen.
Mom and Dad were by the sink, talking over coffee, laughing about who-knows-what. And that would have been okay had they been ready to go. But no, they were still in their robes. It was like they wanted to put off our escape from hell as long as possible.
“What’s this? You know, I’m pretty sure they’re not gonna let you on the plane dressed like that.”
“Morning, Honey. Hungry? Your father bought doughnuts.”
“Doughnuts? No. When are you two getting…wait, what kind of doughnuts…no wait, never mind. You should be dressed already. Come on, get a move on,” I said, slapping my hands together.
They just looked at me, giggling, so I took Mom by the arm to hurry her along.
She hesitated and nearly dropped her mug. “Can we please just finish our coffee in peace?”
Dad took a casual sip of his. “Yeah, where’s the fire?”
Mom held out a brown box from Nancy’s Diner. “Relax. Here, have a doughnut.”
“Relax? No. No, I wanna get out of here before…hey, is that a Boston Cream”?
END of Chapter 1. So, any thoughts?