Chapter 1: Eyes Closed
They’d only just begun their new adventure in Chicago (that’s what she’d called it when she’d told Levi about the move—he’d seemed less than convinced) and everything was already stressful. Their new landlord had conveniently forgotten they were moving in that day and had gone off on vacation with his mother, so they’d had to push back their move-in by two days. Then, the first hotel they’d tried to check into didn’t allow pets, and neither did the one after that. Chelsea thought this was not only inhumane and unfair to all of the poor dogs and cats and turtles and other creatures that may be traveling with their humans, but wildly inconvenient for her. But they were finally settling down in their third-attempt hotel, which did allow pets, with less than—she glanced at her watch—ten hours to go until Levi’s first day of school and thirty-four hours until her first day of work.
She closed her eyes and rested against the headboard for just moment, just taking in the fact that, yes, she was really here, and yes, this was really happening. Her entire life had been turned upside down within a matter of months and had kept spinning and spinning ever since. But it felt like things were finally settling down, despite how crazy the past twenty-four hours had been. And soon, they’d be in their own apartment and settled into their new work and school routines and things would be back to normal. She couldn’t wait for normal.
When she opened her eyes, Levi was climbing up onto the foot of the room’s single queen bed, his nearly-as-big-as-him backpack in hand and their golden retriever Zoodles at his heel. In one quick movement, Levi dumped the entire contents of the backpack on the bed. Pencils, pens, crayons, folders, and notebooks covered the white, standard hotel-issue bedspread in a rainbow of color.
“What are you doing, bud?” she asked, rolling some of the crayons that had strayed her way back toward Levi’s pile, with little success.
“I have to organize my backpack for tomorrow. I can’t be the new kid and the kid with a messy backpack,” he answered, without lifting his gaze from the task at hand. With nimble hands and a little (unhelpful) help from a slobbery dog, he began sorting his pencils and pens into piles.
“Do you want any help?” She started to reach forward but he shook his head and stilled her hand.
“Thanks,” he said. “I got it.”
Chelsea nodded, and returned to her resting position against the headboard. She admired and respected her son’s independence, absolutely, but it always made her a bit sad to think about why he was so self-reliant, so willing to go and do things his own way.
“Alright, but make it quick, okay? You need to get to bed soon. There’s school in the morning.”
“I know, Mom.”
Chelsea sighed, and felt a warm, wet patch forming on the side of her jeans. She looked down, and, of course, Zoodles had his nose pressed into her outer thigh, bashfully begging for her attention.
“Come here, buddy,” she called, and he scrambled happily so that his head was resting safely in her lap. She gave him a big scratch behind the ears. “Tomorrow everything will be back to normal, I promise.”
She didn’t know why she was hoping so hard for normal, all of a sudden. For years before her marriage had started to fall apart, she’d been hoping for a return to anything but normal, anything but the monotony that she had inexplicably and then unwillingly fallen into Garrett. Her life had once been just a bit extraordinary, had had a touch of magic. But that was a long time ago, almost eighteen years now, and nothing worth thinking about anymore. She had a new life and, starting tomorrow, a new new life with a new job and a new apartment in a new city. She had a lot to look forward to. There was no use in looking back.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
Paris Fashion Week was always the most stressful time of year for Raven, even though it probably wasn’t supposed to be. Fashion Week was supposed to be a time of socializing and showing off (both of which were things which Raven knew how to do very, very well). By the end of the week, though, she was always exhausted and cranky and even a little bit intimidated by all the other amazing designs she’d seen, and all she wanted to do was go home and do nothing for another week except take several long bubble baths and spend some time with her kids.
If you had told Raven fifteen years ago that she would be passing up shopping in Paris so that she could go home to be with her children, she’d laugh in your face and go back to flipping through her latest copy of Vogue. Yet, here she was, in the back of a car on the way to the airport, bouncing her leg in anticipation.
“Could we go a little bit slower?” she muttered under her breath, checking the time on her phone. She still had over an hour before her flight was supposed to leave, and didn’t need to worry about silly things like security to get on the private jet. But the sooner she was there, the sooner they possibly could take an earlier space in the take-off queue, and the sooner she could be back in Chicago and on her way to pick up her kids from school.
Raven sighed and leaned her head against the cold glass of the window like she’d done as a child in the backseat of her parents’ station wagon. They were stuck in the usual traffic around the Arc de Triomphe, which meant the stop and start and stop and start of almost standstill traffic. Raven closed her eyes and took a deep, calming breath. There was no need to be anxious, there was no need to get upset. She’d be home with her kids in ten hours’ time and she wouldn’t even remember this car ride. If she just let herself let go of the things she couldn’t control, she could be at peace. At least that’s what her therapist always said. Her pilates and yoga instructors, too. Even her ex-husband had said something to the effect at one point, long ago. But Raven Baxter was all about taking control, and always had been. Letting go wasn’t a concept that came to her easily or often.
She managed, though, and with just a few more deep breaths she felt herself center and her muscles relax. Things were better. Things were calm. When she opened her eyes, she would be at peace, able to enjoy the rest of her ride through the city before they hit the Autoroute.
But when she opened her eyes, she immediately felt her muscles re-constrict and her breath catch in her throat. Her body became the absolute opposite of at peace as a shock of red hair flew past her window. Raven’s face pressed even further against the glass, trying to catch another glimpse of the red-haired cyclist, but to no avail. The bicycle was gone, disappeared into the mass of cars ahead of them.
Her every nerve felt on fire.
Raven would love to say that was the first and only time she’d ever jumped at the sight of long, red curls that seemed at one so familiar yet so distant. She felt silly for her excitement, for thinking that, of all the places in the world, she would find her here. She didn’t even want to, she told herself. They hadn’t spoken in almost eighteen years, despite Raven’s earliest efforts, and now she wanted nothing more than for it to stay that way. She could hold a grudge as long as anybody.
She settled back into her seat, head against the leather interior instead of the window, and closed her eyes once more. Her body was still vibrating with energy, and her heart still thumping wildly in her chest. She needed to calm down. She needed to relax. She needed to take a nap.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
The plane landed that afternoon in Chicago at 2:12, which gave Raven exactly 48 minutes to collect her things, get the car, and get over to the Lakeshore Day School before the final bell rang at 3:00. When she pulled into the parking lot and looked down at the dashboard clock, she smiled victoriously. It was 2:51. She still had nine minutes to spare.
In the spring, the grounds of the Lakeshore Day School were lush with blossoming trees and beautiful flowers, and during the fall the leaves on the trees all turned magnificent shades of orange, yellow, and red that Raven hadn’t really gotten to see while growing up in San Francisco. But during the winter, the campus looked no more appealing than the arctic tundra, its perfectly manicured lawns hidden beneath a layer of frost and its trees mere skeletons, crouching over the stone façade of the school building.
On a normal winter day, Raven would turn up the heat and wait in the car for the kids to come out of school. But it was unseasonably warm outside (thanks, global warming) and she’d been cooped up in cars and planes for too long already. She needed fresh air and to stretch her legs.
Benches lined the walkway up to the school’s giant front staircase, but Raven had had enough sitting, so she decided to lean against one instead. She pulled her phone out of her purse and began swiping through meaningless email after meaningless email and responding to some less meaningless texts, when she caught sight of something in her peripheral vision, a flash of red hair leaning a bike up against the other end of her bench. She shook her head and sucked in a breath.
“No. Not again. You’re not gonna fall for this twice in one day.”
She kept her focus fixed on her phone, sent a text to her group message with the twins telling them she was outside, but her curiosity was messing with her, telling her to look up! look up!
She scoffed again. She wouldn’t. She had more dignity than that.
She looked back at the clock on her phone. It would still be five minutes before the bell rang. She could last five minutes without looking up. She had to beat this damn urge somehow. She was a grown woman, a famous fashion designer, she traveled around the world on a weekly basis. She couldn’t keep doing this. It was getting pathetic.
A few seconds later, the figure finally stepped out from the edges of her vision, and Raven rejoiced. She’d done it. She hadn’t looked up. She was probably cured now. She’d never ever have to—
A large weight crashed into her lower legs and sent her almost toppling over the back of the bench, but she was able to catch herself, keep herself upright. Her phone was another story. It crashed to the concrete on the other side of the bench with a horrifying crunch. She tried to go get it, but the thing that had crashed into her—apparently a giant golden retriever—was blocking her path no matter which way she moved.
“You better get your slobbery mouth away from my pants, dog. They’re suede,” she muttered, trying to push it away, but to no avail. The dog would not budge. She kept up the struggle. “Where is your human?”
“Zoodles, come back here!”
Zoodles? Raven thought. What kind of weirdo name for a dog was that?
But the dog backed off instantly and took off jogging toward the voice, leaving Raven covered in hair, slobber, and her own sweat. She leaned over to dust off the bottoms of her pants as best as she could, hoping the slobber wouldn’t leave any stains.
“Are you okay?” the voice said, much closer than it had been the last time. There was something about it that felt so familiar. “I am so sorry about that. We just moved here and he’s been really excited by all the new places and people. Haven’t you, Zoodles?”
Raven froze. That voice. It was more than just familiar. It was the voice. Her voice. She couldn’t tell if she was embarrassed or ashamed or proud that it had taken her so long to figure it out. After all these years of compulsively searching for that voice, for that hair, for that girl, she’d found her. But suddenly, she couldn’t unfix her gaze from her feet. She watched the tiny droplets of melted frost roll down the rounded toe of the leather boots.
The voice spoke again. “Are you okay? Should I call somebody?”
Raven shook her head, finally stood upright, and turned so she couldn’t see the other woman, but more importantly, so the other woman couldn’t see her. “I’m fine,” she grumbled, with a cough, hoping her hardest to disguise her voice. She was a bit out of practice.
“Okay, good.” She could hear the woman’s smile in her voice. “My name is Chelsea Grayson. My son Levi just started school here today. He’s in the fourth grade, but I should probably get him tested out. He’s a really smart kid, a lot smarter than I was at his age. Or I was ever, really. I’m assuming you have kids that go here?”
Raven remained silent. The bell rang, a shrill hum in the distance, but then it was quiet for a long time between them. Raven could hear Chelsea shifting in what was surely a pair of pleather loafers, and release then a soft sigh.
“Sorry to bother you,” Chelsea finally said, her voice quiet, the disappointment carrying through. Raven heard the soft clip-clop as she began to walk away toward the school, but it stopped abruptly. “Oh, is this your phone?”
Raven held out her hand behind her, still unable to turn around, and she felt the cold metal of her phone thunk heavily into her outstretched palm. “Thanks,” she squeaked. She didn’t get a response this time.
As she was inspecting her phone for damage—apparently the fall sounded a lot worse than it had actually been—a pair of voices that she could never forget called out to her, and two pairs of footsteps began pounding thunderously down the pavement. Before she knew it, she was sandwiched between two eleven year olds. Her hands quickly found rest on the backs of their heads.
“Hey, babies,” she whispered, squeezing them closer, planting a kiss to their hairlines. “I missed you.”
“We missed you, too,” Nia, her youngest but wisest answered.
“Did you bring us anything back from Paris?” Booker, her oldest and decidedly less wise, but loveable nonetheless, asked immediately after.
“You know what? I don’t remember. We’ll have to see what’s in my suitcase when we get home.” She chuckled softly, reveling in being home again, having her children so close. “How was school today?”
They shrugged out of her hug simultaneously.
It was okay,” Booker answered.
Nia nodded her agreement. “Yeah, nothing special.”
“What about last week?”
The twins shared a look. “The same.”
Raven narrowed her gaze. “Well, how about I give you two the car ride to think of some better answers, and we’ll talk about it more at home. Sound good?”
The twins both shrugged and began to trudge toward the parking lot, their shoes, the only non-regulated part of their uniform, leaving two trails of footprints in their wake.
Raven started after them, but as she began walking, she realized that she’d made a critical error. She’d forgotten entirely about Chelsea, forgotten that she’d left her bike at the other end of Raven’s bench, forgotten that she would be standing directly in Raven’s path to the car. But she realized her mistake too late.
Chelsea was standing frozen at the end of the bench, her eyes wide and her now shorter red curls flowing gently from beneath a floppy winter cap.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
At first, Chelsea thought she was imagining things. She had to be. She slammed her eyes shut and drew in a sharp breath of the mild Chicago air that was still cool enough to burn her lungs.
That couldn’t be Raven, she thought to herself, because the last she’d heard, Raven was living in New York. That couldn’t be Raven because Eddie had never mentioned anything about Raven having kids, let alone twins. That couldn’t be Raven because Raven wouldn’t have just spent the last five minutes so aggressively ignoring her. That couldn’t be Raven, because, well… It just couldn’t be.
She released the breath she’d been holding and chuckled softly to herself, suddenly feeling silly that she’d over-reacted the way she had. She didn’t know what she was thinking. That so wasn’t Raven.
Except when she opened her eyes and looked back over at the mysteriously evasive woman dressed in black, watched as she placed gentle kisses on two eager foreheads, it became crystal clear that the strange woman was, in fact, no stranger at all. She could feel her eyes bugging out of her head and had every desire to reach up and make sure they stayed right in their sockets where they belonged, but she found herself frozen, stuck standing stock still.
Not moments later, the woman looked up. Their gazes locked and confirmed for Chelsea that she wasn’t making things up. Her eyes weren’t deceiving her. Standing there before her, looking exactly as she had all those years ago and yet completely unrecognizable at the same time, she was sure, that it definitely was—
A long time ago, Chelsea might have been able to pick out the specific emotions from the quick succession that flashed across the woman’s face before a careful smile settled into place, but she couldn’t anymore. At least, not right now.
“Oh, hey!” The long, high-pitched greeting seemed to ring in her ears for hours.
Chelsea would generally consider herself a happy person. She got along with most people and all animals, she always laughed at the jokes that no one else found funny (unless they were hurtful because there was nothing funny about being mean), and she didn’t tend to get angry very easily. When that last one happened, and it happened only very rarely, it had to be caused by something really, really big.
The past ten minutes, in any larger picture, weren’t something really, really big. They were nothing compared to the great college-roommate-script-theft fiasco of 2009, which she got to relive a second time when the movie was released three years later without a credit to her name. Nor did they stand up to the ten-year-long con that ended with her in serious need of a divorce lawyer and a therapist, neither of which she could afford by that point. The only free therapists she knew of had run off to live in a remote Icelandic village as soon as she’d moved into her college dorm, and while they might not have charged her a penny, the phone company sure would have and a pretty one at that.
Somehow, though, this hurt more than either of those moments in her life combined.
Chelsea more than anything believed in fate. She believed that someday, if it was meant to happen, she’d see Raven again. She had been imagining it for a long time, actually. They’d both be older and wiser and they’d talk and hug and things would just work out and they’d be back to being the best of friends. The disagreement that had led to their separation would no longer be an issue—not because Chelsea stopped caring about the chinchillas or the sheep or all the other innocent animals or because Raven had become a vegan and joined PETA, but because they’d realized after all these years that their friendship mattered more than their differences. But maybe Chelsea had imagined wrong. Maybe Raven had recognized Chelsea before Chelsea had recognized her and was still so angry and all she wanted was for Chelsea to leave her alone. The thought made her stomach turn.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t recognize you,” Raven finally supplied, filling the silence that had fallen heavily over them. Chelsea could feel two small pairs of eyes looking at her with curiosity, perhaps trying to parse out whether or not they should be recognizing her, too. “It’s been a long time, you know?”
Or maybe that was it. It had been so long that Raven barely even remembered who she was. Despite not keeping in touch or asking for a lot of details from Eddie, Chelsea knew that Raven had moved on to big things. It was pretty hard to step into a department store anymore without seeing at least one of her designs. Raven had probably met so many amazing people and gone to so many amazing places that her life before wasn’t worth remembering anymore, best friends (well, ex-best friends) included.
“Yeah, it has,” Chelsea nodded her agreement.
It was hard to decide which felt worse—being ignored or being forgotten.
Before anything else could be said, Zoodles started beating his tail wildly against Chelsea’s leg. She crouched down beside him and began to run her hands through his shaggy coat to calm him, grateful for the distraction, but it wasn’t as much of a distraction for Zoodles. He lunged forward as soon as the object of his affections was in range and was immediately wrapped in a hug by a weary-looking Levi. Chelsea leaned forward and brushed her son’s short bangs back from his face, momentarily forgetting that the rest of the world existed.
“Hey, honey. How was the first day?”
Levi sighed and, instead of giving any sort of answer, buried his face into the dog’s soft hair. Chelsea didn’t push further, but it left her with nowhere to turn but back to Raven.
“So, how have you been?” she asked as she stood, her genuine curiosity getting the better of her. The answer seemed obvious because Raven looked good. Great, even, despite the damp patches of slobber on the hems of her (suede, she tried and failed not to note) pants.
“Good, good, you know,” Raven said. She was no longer looking at Chelsea, though, her gaze falling instead to Levi below. Chelsea could see him peeking back at her from the corner of her eye. Raven cleared her throat. “You know what, though? We really have to get going. We have… things to do at home, right, guys?” The kids nodded after a moment of silence under their mother’s scrutinous gaze. Raven resumed her walk toward the parking lot, passing Chelsea almost completely before calling out a rushed, “Bye!”
They were gone a moment later, leaving Chelsea stunned and silent. It was Zoodles’s wet nose pressing into her palm that brought her back to the present.
“Well, that was weird,” Levi noted.
“You’re telling me,” Chelsea agreed absently. Her mind was still lagging a few moments behind everything else, which wasn’t out of the ordinary but extremely inconvenient in this particular moment.
A loud clatter caught her attention and she looked down to find Levi attempting to wrestle his bike from the small trailer that was hooked to the back of her own. Without hesitation, she leaned over to help and, after freeing it from its bungee confines, traded him the bike for his backpack, which she immediately hiked on her shoulders.
“Ready to go?”
Levi nodded, and as soon as their helmet straps had clicked under their chins and Zoodles’ leash was safely hooked to Chelsea’s handlebars, they were heading for home—or for the hotel, which was as close as they could get for the moment.
They were in the car and halfway home before Raven felt as though she could breathe properly again. And by breathing properly, she meant being able to take a breath without feeling like her heart had found a new home in her throat and her lungs didn’t constrict with every new intake of air.
She felt guilty, in a weird way, for acting the way she had toward Chelsea, for pretending as if years and miles could erase the memory of a person who had been by her side for a majority of her years and miles in the first place. Sure, it was a bit harsh, but you know what else was harsh? Ignoring someone for a decade and a half over a silly little sweater. That was harsh.
Raven sat up straighter in her seat then, a smug smile forming on her lips. Of course, this wasn’t her fault. There was no fault to be had in the first place, because what harm had she caused (if she had really even caused any at all) that was any worse than what Chelsea had done all those years ago? Protesting her boss’s company, sabotaging her design, and nearly getting her fired from the best internship Raven could have possibly asked for? That seemed a lot worse in Raven’s opinion. She’d always been good at rationalizing.
“Mom!” she heard Booker and Nia yell from the back seat, the sound loud enough to jar Raven from her thoughts.
She narrowed her eyes and looked at them through the rearview mirror. Even though she was grateful for the reprieve, she still didn’t appreciate being yelled at in her own car. “May I help you?”
“You missed the turn,” Booker said, pointing behind them.
Raven scoffed. How could she have missed the turn onto her own street? That was just ridiculous, she thought to herself. She looked into her rearview mirror with a soft sigh, just to appease the kids, but they were right. The blue and white house that marked their corner was slowly disappearing into the distance behind them.
She cleared her throat. “Well, I decided we’re taking the scenic route today. Past the Obamas’ house.”
“But we’ve already seen the Obamas’ house. A lot actually,” Nia muttered.
“Well, we’re gonna see it again. It’s historic.”
No one made another sound until they had actually passed the Obamas’ house five minutes later. Only the ping-ping-ping of Booker’s video game and the bass thumping from Nia’s headphones could be heard over the hum of the engine. Raven was about to reach for the radio to turn on her own music when Nia’s voice rose again.
“Hey, Mom?” They locked eyes in the rearview mirror. “Who was that woman you were talking to at school?”
Raven’s back stiffened, the hairs on her arms rising up. “What woman?” she asked, her brow furrowing deeply, as though she were digging into the deepest depths of her memory. She suddenly, inexplicably felt guilty all over again.
Booker had paused his game and joined in. “You know, that woman with the dog?”
“You were being really awkward?” Nia prompted one more time.
Raven knew she had smart kids, which meant she also knew she couldn’t play the obtuse card for much longer. So, she conceded. Kind of. “Oh, that woman,” she finally said, playing it off with a shrug. “Just someone that I used to know.”
She could feel their eyes on her, looking at the back of her head with a suspicion so intense that their gazes felt hot on her skull. But she ignored it, refused to look back at them fearing she might give herself away. She let out a sigh of relief when she finally made the turn into their driveway.
“So, what do you guys want for dinner?”
When Chelsea woke up in her hotel bed the next morning, the butterflies in her stomach were fluttering so furiously that she thought they were just seconds away from bursting free from her abdomen. She always felt like this at the cusp of anything new. That morning she’d be starting her new job at the and after a few hours of training, she’d be leaving at lunch to get her keys and finally move into their new apartment.
She couldn’t tell if the butterflies were nervous or excited. Maybe both. Maybe something else completely. All she knew was that, as much as she loved butterflies, she really wished they would go away. She thought as she got older they might subside, but they were still there, and still beating their wings as strong as ever. And they stayed there all morning while she showered, while she brushed her teeth, while she took Zoodles for a quick walk around the building, and even while she woke Levi and started him on his morning routine. She wondered if had been this nervous yesterday before his first day of school—maybe he had inherited her butterflies. But if he had, he hadn’t shown it.
Nothing had changed by the time he emerged from the bathroom half an hour later, fully dressed in his school uniform except for his tie.
“Do I really have to wear this?” he asked, the tie dangling limply from his clasped fist.
The sight made Chelsea smile, the fluttering in her stomach taking a break for just a moment. “I think so, honey. You don’t want to get in trouble on your second day, do you?”
Levi seemed to consider his options for a moment before he sighed and held his hand out to her. “Can you do it?”
She took the blue and white fabric in her own hands and knelt down in front of him. It didn’t take her very long to secure a tight-but-not-too-tight knot at the base of his neck—she’d had a few years of practice with her ex-husband. “All right. All set.”
“Thanks, Mom,” he mumbled before walking off to collect his school supplies from around the room. Chelsea did the same and soon they were saying goodbye to Zoodles and heading out the door, bundled up in the warmest clothes they had in their suitcases. It was much colder than it had been the day before, Chelsea had unfortunately discovered during her morning walk, and riding their bikes was pretty much out of the question.
Minutes later, their minivan pulled up to the front of the drop-off lane and Levi gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before sliding out of the car and toward the school’s front doors. She watched and waited until he disappeared behind the heavy wooden doors, and then waited a while longer before finally pulling away from the curb. She’d be lying to herself if she said she hadn’t been looking out for someone other than Levi.
As she began her drive toward the Great Lakes Lacustrine Research Center or the “glurck” as her boss had lovingly called it when she had offered Chelsea the position, she noticed something weird had happened: the butterflies had stopped.
She tried not to think about why that could possibly be as she drove the remaining five miles to work.
Levi wasn’t much of a complainer but that was mostly because, until recently, there wasn’t all that much to complain about. Before his dad had left him and his mom, Levi had gotten whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, and if that came at the cost of picking up his socks and underwear from his bedroom floor once in awhile, so be it.
But now that he and his mom were finally moved into their new apartment in Chicago, he felt like he had a little more right to complain. The whole place was smaller than the living room of their old house and kind of smelled funny. To top it all off, his bedroom window looked right into the apartment of an old man who seemed to prefer walking around only in boxer and an undershirt.
But just because he felt more entitled to complain didn’t mean that he would. He knew how hard his mom had been working to try to make the move exciting and fun, even though it was neither. He wouldn’t want to make her feel bad.
Instead, he decided, he would just lay on the weird green carpet of his new bedroom and close his eyes. With his eyes closed, he could pretend that he was back in his old house, in his old room, with his bed and his old trampoline and his old hardwood floors. (Hey, at least they smelled way better than the “new” carpet.) He could pretend that tomorrow when he woke up, he’d be going back to his old school with his old teachers and old classmates, although to be fair, his old school wasn’t much different from his new one. He’d only been at Lakeshore for two days but he could already tell that he’d still be the kid who sat in the back of the class that nobody talked to and whose name the teachers always forgot.
His mom kept saying that things would get back to normal. That in no time, everything would feel the same as it always had. He was suddenly starting to think that maybe she was right. Even if they weren’t living in the same house, even if his dad wasn’t there, even if they were in an entirely new city, he was still going to be the same Levi. He wasn’t exactly sure how he felt about that.
A knock at his door caused him to snap back upright.
“Sorry, honey. Didn’t mean to scare you,” his mom said from where she was standing in the doorway, her arms full with an open box of knick-knacks.
Levi pushed himself up to his feet. “It’s fine, Mom.”
She smiled at him, but something about it looked… he didn’t know how to describe it. “Well, I found some boxes full of stuff that I thought might be fun to go through together. Look,” she said, pressing the box in her arms against the doorframe for support and then reaching inside. She pulled out what looked like a stuffed whale and promptly put it on her head like a hat, moving her head from side to side and pursing her lips like a model would. “We can decide if we want to keep any of it. We don’t really have much room for it anymore.”
“Okay,” Levi agreed, walking toward her. He watched as his mom’s eyes lit him and a smile overtook her face. “And as our first order of business, we’re not keeping that.”
Her smile immediately fell away. “Aw, really?”
Levi reached and reached, but couldn’t quite grasp the hat in question until she crouched down to meet him. “Yeah. Sorry, Mom. It’s a little too much. Even for you.”
She pouted for a moment, but finally released a great sigh and ruffled his hair softly with her fingers. “I guess you’re right. That must be why I keep you around.” They began the short walk back into the living room with him following behind her like a baby duckling. He put the whale hat that was still in his hands on his head, just for safe keeping.
“No, I’m pretty sure you keep me around because I’m cute,” Levi corrected. His mom nodded, her lips pursed together. She couldn’t disagree.
They took their seats on the sofa, each with a box in front of them full of what looked like junk to Levi. He didn’t really think he needed to go through the stuff at all. Based on what he could see right away—a broken robo-dog, some feathers, and a bunch of buttons with silly slogans about vegetables (which, okay, maybe he found a little funny but not really)—he was ready to say it should all go in the trash. But he watched for a moment as his mom began her careful evaluation of each new-again item and placed it in a pile, before switching it to the other because she changed her mind, he began to dig in. He figured he should at least pretend to care about this stuff. She clearly did.
They sat quietly for a while, sometimes nudging each other to show off an especially impressive (or creepy, or just plain weird) find, but soon Levi found that his box was empty.
“All done,” he announced, standing from the couch and gesturing to one of his piles, the one that was larger by far than the other. “What should I do with all of this trash?”
His mom glanced over briefly to where he was pointing and had to do a double-take. “That’s all to throw away?” Levi nodded, causing his mom to giggle uncertainly. “Honey, that’s kind of a lot of stuff. Are you sure? Maybe I should go through it again.”
She began to lean forward, but Levi stepped into the small space between her and the coffee table, blocking her reach. “You wanted me to help you get rid of stuff, Mom.”
He watched as his mom closed her eyes and took in a deep breath, then watched her nostrils flare as she released it again. “You’re right,” she agreed, but he could see the doubt in her eyes.
“I can take them to the trash room for you,” he offered, thinking maybe it would help if she didn’t have to do it herself. That was how he finally stopped needing to sleep with his blanket when he was seven.
She hesitated for a moment more but finally nodded her agreement. “Okay. But make sure to sort out what can be recycled. Remember the rules: paper, plastic, and aluminum go—”
“Styrofoam, batteries, and ceramics, no. I remember, Mom,” he assured and began to put the pile of trash back into his box.
As the last two items fell in, the whale hat and a pair of weird-looking red binoculars, he heard his mom gasp. “My View-Master!” she said as she reached out for the toy. “That was my favorite. They had a wheel with pictures from the natural history museum and—”
Levi stopped her once more. “Mom,” he said sternly and took a step back to put even more distance between her and the box in his arms.
She sighed in defeat and fell back into the sofa cushions. “Alright, alright.”
Levi began to walk toward the apartment door, but he couldn’t miss the soft “Goodbye, Mr. Whale,” that his mom whispered from across the room. He shook his head, trying hard not to laugh.
It took him longer to sort the box into recyclables and trash that he thought it would, but when he finally finished, he stood from the concrete floor of the trash room and dusted off his hands. He was actually glad that his mom had given him something to do, otherwise, he’d probably still have been lying on his floor staring up at the boring ceiling. At least sorting through his mom’s really old toys and stuff had been kind of fun.
He stooped down to pick up the box to take it back upstairs, when he noticed something stuck under one of the bottom flaps that he hadn’t seen before—a picture, it looked like, but he couldn’t tell what of. He knelt back down and lifted the cardboard flap, tugging on the photo hard as he could without ripping it. When it finally came loose, he tumbled backward, his back hitting the concrete with a thud and the picture flying out of his hand on the way down. But as he pushed himself up onto his elbows, he was finally able to take a good look at the folded up picture that had landed not two inches away from him.
He picked it up carefully. The picture was old, obviously, and there was a giant crease down the middle, like it had been folded up again and again and was about to fall apart and probably would have if he had pulled any harder. When he unfolded it, he was unsurprised to see that it was a picture of his mom as a teenager. He’d seen a lot of pictures of her from when she was young—his grandparents’ yurt in Iceland was filled with them. But as he took in the rest of the photo, he could immediately see that this one was different from the rest. In all the other pictures he’d ever seen, they were always just of his mom and no one else. He’d always thought it was kind of weird, especially since he knew that she and his uncle Eddie had been friends since they were in kindergarten and even he wasn’t in any of the pictures.
Except, well, this one. And there was someone else in the picture, too: another girl that Levi didn’t recognize.
The three of them stood in a park on a sunny day, a checkered blanket and picnic basket laid behind them in the background of the picture. They were posing in the shade of a giant tree: the other girl was on his mom’s back with her arms looped around her neck, while Uncle Eddie squatted in front of them with his arms crossed over his chest. His uncle Eddie’s pose made Levi laugh because he still did that pose when he used to visit and they all took pictures together. He looked back at his mom for a second—she was smiling and he thought that it was the biggest he’d ever seen.
Then there was the mystery girl.
Levi squinted his eyes then, focusing as hard as he could. The longer he looked at her, the more familiar she started to seem, but he still couldn’t figure out who she was. He looked for a long time, longer than he probably should have, but nothing was coming to him. Maybe he didn’t know actually know her and his brain was playing tricks on him. He figured he’d probably remember a person who could wear bright orange corduroys and not look silly; he still had a hard time picking out what to wear when he wasn’t in a school uniform.
School. That was it.
He looked at the picture one more time, and then he was sure. The girl in the picture was the weird woman his mom had been talking outside to when she’d come to pick him up after the first day.
When he’d asked her about it on their bike ride home, she’d said it was nothing and immediately started talking about decorating the apartment, even though they hadn’t actually seen it yet. Levi had forgotten about it since, but now it was bothering him.
Why would she say it was nothing if they had obviously been friends once, and based on the picture, really good ones? What had happened to them? Why could they hardly talk to each other now?
He took another look at the picture—everyone seemed so happy. Why didn’t they smile like that anymore?
He needed to find out what happened. He needed to make a plan.
He carefully refolded the photo, slipped it into his new school slacks as gently as he could and gave a final pat to his pocket (just to make sure the picture was, in fact, where he had placed it just seconds before). With the picture safely in its place and the now very empty box tucked under his arm, Levi began his trek back upstairs to the new apartment, his thoughts never straying from the photo.
He had a mystery to solve.