Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Chapter Fourteen Excerpt

The day I found out we had to move was late in July and white-hot. That day broke heat records for the county, and it was a wave that swept through the Midwest like the aftershock of an earthquake. Took us all by surprise.

The leaves on our maple tree in the front yard curled brown at the edges. When I looked out the window that morning, I swore I could see the air shimmer and bend. I went outside at about nine. The cement sidewalk under direct sun was searing to touch; you would burn the soles of your feet. I didn’t know if you could cook eggs on it, but that day, I half-wished I could try.

My mother made cups of coffee for all of us that morning on our new Keurig, and I remember feeling like an adult. She didn’t normally let me have coffee. Lily was still sleeping. She slept a lot those days, and I wasn’t sure if it was because the sickness was making her tired, or if she couldn’t bear to be awake in her new reality.

Mama put a mug of coffee in front of me and a plate stacked with pancakes. The pancakes were burnt at the edges. She was never good at making pancakes for some reason, but whenever she did, it was an effort to impress me.

Why would she make something that tasted dry and not-sweet-enough for special occasions instead of something actually good? Who knows.

I touched the handle of the mug and waited for them to talk.

“Fei Fei,” Mama said gently, so gently that she could have coaxed a groundhog out of its winter hole to see its shadow. “We have something to tell you.”

“Okay,” I said. Even then, I didn’t know.

“We bought a house in Arlington Heights.”

“Where’s that?”

“It’s in Illinois. Right outside of Chicago.” She pronounced Illinois with the s at the end. I did too on the first day of public school in the suburbs, before I learned. Or more so, before I got it smacked out of me when the other kids laughed at how hillbilly I was that I couldn’t pronounce Illinois right.

 “You didn’t tell me,” I said. “When?” But I already knew when. After Lily got diagnosed, we went to the city for consultations, and I stayed in the hospital with Lily the whole time. The doctors gave us mismatched crayons, markers, and highlighters with a stack of printer paper to keep us occupied. Lily drew creatures; birds, cats, and unicorns. I drew landscapes. Abandoned cottages in the middle of snowy woods with firewood piled high against the side. Autumnal lakes. Fields of endless cherry trees.

She used the colors. I used pencils. I don’t think I was very good.

My father would be gone for hours at a time, while Mama stayed with us. I guess he must have been house-hunting.

“We’re moving next week,” Mama said quietly. “We have to. We can’t get the best treatment here, and there is a very good hospital close to us. I’m sorry. I know you love it here.”

I didn’t know until that very moment how much I loved it. I burned with love. There was a ringing in my ears, and I kept thinking I wanted it to go away, I wanted it to go away so badly. I thought I was going to go deaf. I wanted to go outside. Instead, I took a sip of my coffee. It was bitter. How strange, I thought, that coffee smelled so tantalizing, but it tasted so terrible. Somehow, I managed to convince myself every time that it would be good, but it was always disappointing.

I looked over at my father, who had been silent the whole time. His face was carved hollow with grief. The room had been sucked dry of everything but devastation. Devastation and heat.

“—and you’ll like it. We’ll be near Chicago, and there are so many things to do in the city, you don’t know yet. We’ll take you to all of the museums, and the city has pretty parks. Tell her, Chen Shu,” she said. “The schools are good. Better than here.”

My father managed to arrange his face in some semblance of positivity. It wasn’t a smile, but it was like the attempt of someone who had never actually smiled before and was only trying it for the first time, imitating what he had seen on other people. Watching him then, I really understood what it meant to forget how to be happy.

“All right,” I said. After, I couldn’t remember if I ate the pancakes or drank the rest of the coffee, or what I did for the rest of the day.

I didn’t throw a tantrum. I didn’t even cry. My sister was sick, and she needed the best treatment. What in the world could I possibly say to that?

There was nowhere to go that day. The heat wave was so intense that we lost power. My parents sat in the living room and fanned themselves with magazines as we waited for the electricity to come back so the air conditioning could work again.

I meant to tell Ian that we were moving. I did. I left him a letter, in the end, mailed to his home address the day we left. I’m sure the mailman thought it was stupid, picking up a letter from a mailbox where nobody lived anymore and delivering it a few streets over to another mailbox.

But I just couldn’t tell him that week. Every time I tried, the words got lost on the way out, and no matter what I did, they were stuck. And besides, it was Blueberry Bay, it was the Midwest, where people are obsessive about the weather. In town, we never talked about my family moving away, or Lily’s cancer, or the childhood I would be leaving behind. All we talked about was that damn heat.

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