In the night, something misses me. I sit up and peer into the blur of darkness, check to see if Bodhi is at my feet but know he isn’t. He likes Kara’s bed more, it has a hollow where he buries his cat pink nose and white paws, his furred tail more like a slinky snake about her feet. There he is, babied in blankets. If she would go back to her room, he might come visit me.
But it isn’t Bodhi that awakens me; it never is. It isn’t Kara, either. Nothing wakes her. It’s just the sounds of our house, clunks and groans so soft I might have dreamed them. I used to get up and tiptoe out into the hall, call Mom and Dad to their door but that was many months ago, way before I was ten. Now I know everyone else sleeps or pretends to sleep and I’m the only one rubbing my eyes, pushing back the curtains to check the yard. The house must only catnap like Bodhi. Only humans worry about things like the right amount of sleep, I guess.
It’s only me here at three in the morning. I wave a childish wave at the apple trees down below, then the tire swing that hangs from one naked maple, its arms reaching around in search of birds or me. That’s what misses me tonight, I think. Last night it was the forsythia bush doing nothing but waiting to bloom. Tomorrow it might be the iron bench with my gathered sticks left on the seat. I lie down, pull the soft blankets to my forehead and drift off, plunge in deeper, am gone.
Kara’s dagger-nailed fingers are yanking the bedding off me.
“It’s seven-fifteen, get up or you’ll be late. Tim and I aren’t driving you again this week.”
The air feels cold so I jump up, grab clean undies I laid out last night then head into the bathroom. In the shower, I go to Amazonia, as usual; steam swirls around me, rising heat is thick with something good. Flowers, big and brilliant. My soap is a floral, lilies-of-the-valley scent. I don’t know if Amazonia has any sort of lilies but one day I’ll find out. I also need to look up how many kinds of butterflies there are. I plan on being a ecologist and expect to be an adventuress.
There is heavy thudding on the door.
“Open up! You don’t need to lock our bathroom door, you’re just a kid, I need the hair dryer right now!”
Sometimes Kara’s voice sounds like a train, the old kind like at the train museum, one that makes all the racket as the wheels grind and turn. I don’t have to hear her words to know what she means. When she yells I’m supposed to do something different. If she’s late, she for sure won’t take me to my school on her way to high school so I rinse off, grab the towel, unlock the door. It’s thrown open, proof that she was leaning on it, getting ready to apply her weight–all one hundred and five pounds of it, bones and boobs. She thinks she’s fantastic.
I toss the hair dryer at her.
“Hey nothing, I’ll still beat you. I don’t have to paint on a face to leave the house. I already have one.”
She swats me with the hand towel, her laugh more like a sigh.
Downstairs, Mom is stacking toast on a plate beside a sickening mound of scrambled eggs. I take two slices and three bacons and make a sandwich. Dad is trying to kiss her on the cheek but she bats him off with irritation as she turns the last bacon, and he disappears out the side door into the garage, hand making a backward wave at me.
I’m not sure how anyone can even cook in the kitchen. It’s in various stages of being undone. Upgraded. Renovation, they call it, but so far it’s just torn apart more each day, right down to the studs. I learned that word by harassing a carpenter on Saturday until Dad made me go to the store with Kara. We’re often sent on errands, useless missions or our friends’ when the noise gets feverish or sawdust falls about us like some lethal downpour. I pretended I was choking to death on it once and Mom got so upset and mad, she about cried.
I hear big trucks pull up, doors slam, grumbled greetings, heavy footsteps: the reno people are here already. I wonder what Mom will do today? Maybe leave like the rest of us. She used to teach yoga in our passable basement but that’s been suspended, she says with a frown.
Everything feels upside down since the parents decided to fix up the house. I don’t get it. It was good before, though Kara insists we’ll finally not be the almost-worst house on the block but closer to best. Still, even on a cruddy day our rambling house has been the sort of place you’d want to hang out. Our friends loved coming over, especially to be in the back yard, a half acre with fruit trees and overgrown hedges, the usual flowers and random, pretty weeds gone crazy.
We have a deck that seats thousands. Mom proudly stated this once as she carried out more food-laden platters for a summer party. But Dad is about have it taken out. He wants a big screened in porch to keep out hungry mosquitoes, what he says are mean-looking moths and so on. He is not too bug friendly despite often playing golf.
How am I ever going to get used to them for my Amazonia trip if I am protected from them? He makes me put on repellent any time I go out for long. He plans on a new patio with a “discreet water feature.” What is that? Lame. I will so miss the deck. Underneath it Bodhi can scamper and catch things and I can make myself narrow as a noodle, too, slip into an opening in the ancient lattice. Can hide awhile as needed, along with Bodhi.
There’s nowhere to hide now. Kara has taken over my quarters too much. Her own room is wrecked, being made bigger and soon will have a bathroom just for her. I call that extravagant, totally unnecessary; she leaves in three years for college if she studies harder. I have to fly across the hallway to use the one public bathroom. Mildew creeps onto loose caulking edging the tub. There’s a hole in the one high screened window. Will they fix these things? I don’t care. I like my house, broken things and all; why can’t they?
I stuff the last of the bacon sandwich into my mouth and leave before Mom can insist I need eggs. I hate eggs; they make me think of dead yellow, fluffy little chicks though I know they aren’t. It just doesn’t seem right whereas eating pork seems reasonable. I’m not fond of pigs when alive. Bodhi agrees. I toss him a small piece and his purr machine starts up.
“Wait up!” I call out to a threesome huddled in a bulky knot across the sidewalk, their puffer jackets too warm for the temperature today. I have on my sweatshirt hoodie, as usual. Lately, they–two girls and a guy, more or less friends since age six–seem like all that’s left for me. It’s the house’s fault, that’s why. The house changes, so everything else does–even they hardly ever come by now.
This all hits me like a bunch of cherries falling from our tree right between my eyes: a demonstration of gravity, a truth maybe a little too obvious. But that’s how things occur to me sometimes.
Kara is at the library tonight studying with the newest guy, Yuri, which is a lie. They’re hanging out at the Ridge with the rest of the fools. I will never go there; it’s dumb what they do, drink beers and smoke cigs and suck face, plan escapades they won’t carry out. But it’s some relief she’s gone awhile.
Bodhi sits at the end of my bed, wetting his paws, grooming his head and face. I’m reading things, a fashion magazine of hers that I tear pictures from–she’ll never miss those, it’s old and I like to make collages. Then I do homework, read a geography book. This part is about Mongolia, how they live and work outside like I want to. It’s a huge land and they have no neighbors nearby, only their family which might be trying. I’ll bet they don’t worry about remodeling their ready-to-go houses. They’re nomads, a word with a meaning I like. Everything in the picture looks like it has its place. Not so much is needed. I wish we had less stuff cluttering floors, corners, closets. And now even more with remodeling. Sometimes I still put up the tent in the back and sleep there–until Mom or Dad insist it’s time to come in, it’s not safe out there. It’s been fine for years–okay, usually Kara or my friends slept out with me–but not so much now. Anyway, now the parents want to spoil my fun; what used to be easy, good, is suddenly off-limits or irritating to them. The girl in my book looks like she could go miles away on her own, hunt, round up goats, sleep through a cold and lonely midnight and never get worried.
But that’s what I feel lately. A little worried. I don’t know what about exactly. I shake my head, open my notebook to answer questions about Mongolia. Bodhi snuggles in a bit more, warms up my feet. I feel more content than when Kara is nearby, when my parents are hovering and slinking around between words. Cats seem to know certain things, I think. I might be let in on the secret if I just have patience. I rub his ears and he half-blinks then closes bright eyes, shutting me out.
I hear the door creak open and shut as Kara creeps in way late and climbs in bed. I stay still, hoping Bodhi will remain happy where he is. He’s still awhile and then, as if awake the whole time, springs up and bounds off, goes to her. She blows her nose, shudders, turns and twists, little sobs eking out here and there, then muffled into nothing. I think I can smell the beers from an opening in covers where my nose pokes out. Bodhi jumps back onto my bed, startling me. I stare into darkness long after they both are dead still then give in, myself.
Sleep is a genie. It turns off the world, lets me enter a magic kingdom where I live in a tree house. All passing creatures tell me things, like how to blend in and make my way in the dark, where the best food is, and who will be enemies and trusted allies. They tell me how to never be lost. But this will mostly disappear when I awaken. Turning, there comes a wave of sadness.
Then there it is, something missing me again. It tugs like a boat trying to get me off a dock and jump into it. It’s like something I know but don’t quite understand even as I sense it more each night. My eyes adjust to see a barely lit outline of my bedside window so I sit up, listen. There is nothing except the strange but deeply familiar forms of sleeping cat and sister, a soft snore from their own dream surfing. There’s a bird, one of the first robins. I know it by its insistent song as morning light rises and tilts into our deep, wide yard. I push off covers, hold my arms close against the cold, then nudge back the curtain to look out.
There’s heavy white mist hovering about trees. It’s chilly but gentle; I’ve been into it many times. But as my eyes wander, someone else stands in it. It is no stranger, I know that form. I get up, slip into a flannel shirt with sweatpants. Press my face against the cool pane of glass to get a better look.
It’s Mom. She’s wearing her robe, the heavy blue velveteen robe Kara and I got her for Christmas. Her hair, thickly woven with white, spreads over her shoulders. Her arms are holding onto herself good and tight; her back looks small, bent. Her feet are bare. Out of nowhere comes the thought that maybe she is praying. I realize it’s an odd thought, my mother out in a cold March fog talking to God, as if God wasn’t available in a cozy room. But it seems the thing she has to do this early spring morning, the hard-to-hold fog dressing her like a tired goddess. Her head bows deeper and I feel afraid.
The house seems lighter, as if it could float away. It feels as if it needs something to hold it down this instant, but I don’t know what. My sister slumbers on; I have no desire to wake her. I must know what Mom is saying and leave my room, down the stairs on whispering feet, out the back door and into the grass. I step through ghostly fringes of mist, let it encase me like a mysterious cape of dawn. It might hold me and my mother in one piece.
When I reach her she glances over her shoulder as if waiting for me then lets me in, under the warmth of her enveloping wing. We watch as golden light spreads through the fogginess, then begins to pull apart. It’s like gold as it touches tree limbs and bushes, daffodils that are blooming early, lights up the deep pink daphne that fills my nose with sweetness.
I lean into her, one living thing into another, and she knows I know.
“Dad left…” I whisper.
“Yes,” she says and her free hand covers her mouth.
“It didn’t help, fixing our house.”
“No,” she says and crumples a second before standing tall again for me. For us.
“I never wanted things to change,” I say loudly now and scare the robin from its perch.
“We found we were wrong about…. well, some things have to first change inside no matter what we want to believe.”
I think of the creaky old deck, how it will remain standing now. How the mosquitoes will try to feast on us all and how I can bear their bites, have and will. But part of me wants terribly to have the porch screen between me and the world, and my skin slathered with that repellent every time I step out. I hug my mother closer and she reaches down, her lips planting a kiss on my forehead but before she smooths back my mess of tangled hair, I lurch away, follow the mist as it leaves the outer reaches. I look into a baby blue sky that melts away the night.
I am being missed somewhere. By Amazonia, by Mongolia, or our tent and my scared-of-the-dark-friends, or Bodhi, our warm, watchful cat. My father, even as he turned the corner at the end of our terribly quiet street, drove around the block and down the main street and who knows where next. He might be humming for all I know. His chest might have a hole in it, too, where we have always been.
I want to make him weak with my mightiest hug so he’ll have to come back and stay. I want to find Kara, scream at her until she screams with me, then collapse into her arms. I want to tell my mother how her sadness fills me with terror, with love.
None of this will happen, at least not now.
Because mostly there’s just me standing here. Mostly there is an awful longing for how it was before now. Before the house began to change and fall down around us. And now I know that all those weird nights as I woke up wondering it was only me who was being missed– the little kid Roxie who was happy before the past year, who carried on as if all was just fine. Me, before I knew I had to grow up. And having Amazon dreams means I had better be as brave as I imagined.