MY BROTHER IS SMILING SO hard I think his cheeks are pinned to his ears. This would be fine, of course, if we weren’t at my grandfather’s funeral.
I elbow him in the ribs.
“What was that for?” He rubs his side.
“You shouldn’t look so happy at a funeral,” I hiss.
“I’m not happy,” he says. “I’m just glad Grandad’s in a better place.”
“And that his truck is still here,” I say, teeth clenched.
“Grandad loved that truck, and he wanted me to have it,” Troy whispers. “And it’s not like he ever drove it once he went into the nursing home.”
“It doesn’t matter.” I cross my arms. “He’s dead and it’s sad.”
My father turns around in the pew in front of us and puts his finger to his lips. “Shhhhh.”
I point at Troy with my thumb to show my dad that it was clearly his fault. My dad just shakes his head and turns back around in his seat.
The minister is droning on about how Grandad is reunited with Grandmom and Mom. My stomach sinks a little when I hear Mom’s name. I hope and pray that she’s up there somewhere, hanging out with her parents, playing Scrabble, looking down on us and smiling. But I don’t know. I’ve asked for a sign every single day since she died five years ago, and I’ve gotten nothing. Not even one little boo. It’s hard to believe that her spirit is still around but never bothered to get in touch.
Finally, we file out of the church. Dad shakes hands with some guy I don’t recognize. Like most everyone else in this town, he has a white beard and long white hair—a skinny Santa Claus. Dad looks uncomfortable, shifting from foot to foot, hands fiddling around with his tie. I know he wants to get out of here as soon as possible, but I can’t tell if it’s because of Skinny Santa Claus, or because he hasn’t stepped foot near a church since Mom died.
After the service we follow the hearse to the cemetery. The gray, rainy day makes it look even creepier than it
already is. By the time we get to Grandad’s grave, I feel like I swallowed a tombstone. We pull up to Grandad’s new home—a hole in the ground. At least he’s got good neighbors. Grandmom’s grave is next to his, and next to hers is Mom’s. I haven’t been here in a couple of years. Maybe that’s why Mom’s spirit doesn’t visit. She’s mad at me for ditching her.
When the casket is ready to go into the ground, Dad squeezes my hand. He looks like he just ate a lemon covered in hot sauce. His eyes keep wandering over to Mom’s grave.
Devoted wife and mother
April 3, 1973–March 21, 2011
Her grave site is totally bare. No flowers, no teddy bears, no nothing. I kick myself for not bringing something along with me. Duh. Why didn’t I realize that Grandad would be buried with Mom? If Mom wasn’t mad before, I’m sure she’s furious by now.
I pull my hand out of Dad’s and stuff it in my pocket. He was supposed to be the one to bring something for Mom. He was supposed to know that we were going to be here. He was supposed to be the grown-up.
Except that he isn’t and he hasn’t been. Not since Mom died.
They put Grandad in the ground. I know Troy is right and Grandad hasn’t been Grandad for years, but my eyes don’t realize this, and tears leak out of them. I quickly wipe them away with the back of my hand. I glance up at Dad, who has his head down and his lips pursed. I feel a twinge of pity for him. Grandad wasn’t his father, but he never knew his own father and Grandad was the closest thing he had. Poor Dad, he—
I give myself a mental slap. I am not giving Dad a ride on the pity train.
The service ends, and we walk back to the car.
“Can I drive?” Troy eagerly holds out his hands for the keys.
“Not a chance,” I pipe in. “I’m not driving with him.”
“I have my permit,” Troy says. “And anyway, who do you think is going to drive you around when we move?”
“Troy!” Dad shakes his head.
“Oops.” Troy slinks to the passenger-side door.
“We’re moving?” I ask, after I pick my jaw up off the ground.
Dad turns to look at me. He tries to take my hand again, but I cross my arms instead.
“Poppy, honey.” Dad takes a deep breath. “We’ve moved from tiny apartment to tiny apartment over the last few years. Things haven’t exactly been stable.”
I snort at the understatement.
“That was your mom’s biggest complaint. She always said we needed to go somewhere we could have roots.”
I can’t believe Dad’s trying to use Mom to talk me into this. He hasn’t talked about Mom in years.
“Your grandad left us the house.” His voice takes on a giddy tone, as if this is the best news ever. “And I think we should move into it and start our lives over. And the house is paid for, so I won’t have to be out working so much. We could spend more time together. We could have a real home.”
“But here? In a haunted house on hillbilly hill? What about school? What about my friends?”
“The house isn’t haunted, Poppy. And don’t call the locals hillbillies. Your mom grew up here, you know.”
I feel a twinge of guilt pull at my stomach. I didn’t mean Mom was a hillbilly.
“And you can still see your friends. We can visit each summer.” Dad smiles as if I should be doing backflips at the news of seeing my friends once a year.
Ugh. I happen to know for a fact that the house is haunted. Grandmom used to tell me all the time. I know she tried to make it not-scary by saying that the ghosts were
friendly, like Casper, but let’s face it: How many friendly cartoon ghosts are there in the real world? And based on the people at Grandad’s funeral, this place is the hillbilly hub of the world.
“And what if I say no?” I cross my arms with finality.
“I’m sorry.” Dad sighs. “But the decision’s been made. We’re going to go over there now and check things out, and then we’ll move our things in over the weekend.”
I wait for him to say more, but he doesn’t. I open my mouth to scream and yell and demand to know why he’s all of a sudden deciding to become a parent when he’s been nearly absent for the last five years. But instead of words coming out, I just sob. I turn my back on him, open the door, and crawl into the backseat. How can he expect me to switch schools now, in the middle of seventh grade? Isn’t there some kind of cruelty-to-children law about that?
But my mouth won’t work, except to leak out ugly gurgling sounds. My dad keeps looking at me in the rearview mirror, but I’m pretty sure his brain turns off at the sound of crying.
My grandparents’ old farmhouse sits off a country road, which is miles away from any town center, mall, restaurant, or actual people. Our closest neighbors are a flock of sheep and a herd of cattle. I used to love visiting
when I was little. Grandad would always help me pick berries, and let me sit on his lap while he drove the tractor up and down the fields. I was seven the last time I was at the farmhouse. I remember because it was a few months before Mom died and Grandad went into the nursing home. Yep, that was a stellar year.
Dad parks the car next to the garage. Everything looks exactly the same. Grandad had a caretaker living here before he died. But I guess the place is ours now.
The house looks just like I remember it. A giant porch wraps around the building, and the forest-green rocking chairs are in the exact same place they’ve always been. Mom used to sit me on her lap for hours and we’d rock back and forth, drinking lemonade with fresh mint leaves dropped in. Mom loved mint, and every time I smell it I think of her.
I swallow hard. This place is full of Mom memories, and they come flooding back to me with every whiff of hay and every step in the freshly mowed green grass.
“There she is!” Troy leaps over to Grandad’s pickup truck, parked next to the barn. He taps the door gently. “How are you doing, baby? Ready for a new life?”
I roll my eyes. How can Troy be happy about this? Is getting a truck better than switching schools in the middle of the year? Better than leaving the city we’ve called home since birth? Then I remember how easily Troy can
be bought—and distracted. When Mom died, Dad got him a puppy. But Troy got sick of taking care of it after a few months, and we gave it to my cousins who lived in the suburbs. So Dad got him an Xbox instead, and he seemed perfectly content with that.
While Dad and Troy oooooh and aaaaaah over the truck, I wander over to the barn. Troy and I played hide-and-seek when we were younger, and there was no better hiding spot than the hay bales in the loft. I slide open the barn door, and the memories practically push me over—or maybe it’s the stench of horse poop.
The stalls are empty now, but it still smells exactly the same. I climb up the ladder to the loft. The hay bales are still here. I squeeze myself in between two of them and sit there, breathing in the familiar smell of straw. Maybe if I hide in here long enough, I’ll be able to miss the rest of seventh grade altogether.
This was a great hiding spot when I was seven, but not so great now that I’m twelve. There’s not enough room in between the bales, so I wriggle my butt until each hay bale slides away, giving me more room to sit. I scooch backward until I realize I’m sitting on something hard and pointy.
I quickly stand up and spot the edge of wallboard sticking out. One of the panels must have come loose and fallen down into the hay. I reach my hand out to
close it, when I notice a metal box crammed inside. I squeeze my hand into the crack and pull out the box. It’s silver, and about the size of a textbook. When I lift it up, I can tell that something’s sliding around inside. There’s no lock, but it won’t open. I pry my fingernails under the lid and pull. The lid pops off, flies through the air, and lands with a clank on the barn floor.
Inside are letters. A whole stack of letters, tied up in a rubber band. I flip through the envelopes and notice they all have the same name neatly printed on the outside.
These letters are to me.
I stare at my name. Did someone know we were coming? But why would they leave the letters here, hidden in a stack of hay? And why do they look so old?
There are numbers at the top of each envelope. I pull the envelope labeled #1 out of the rubber band holding the stack together, and flip it over. It’s sealed.
Do I open it?
I have to open it. It’s not like I’m spying or breaking some sort of federal mail law, or even invading someone’s privacy. The letters are addressed to me.
Before I can change my mind, I rip open the top of the yellowed envelope. I gently slide the paper out and carefully unfold it.
April 13, 1985
I wonder about you all the time and I can’t wait until you’re here! Not much is happening these days—in fact, things are pretty lame. Tammy and Kelly still slip fake love notes into my locker. Of course I know they’re fake and I know it’s them, but I guess they get their cheap thrills doing those sorts of things. Oh! Brian did smile at me in English class today, so there’s a silver lining. I think Tammy noticed, because she glared at me for the rest of the day. Just because she is waiting for him to invite her to the square dance doesn’t mean he’s not allowed to talk to anybody else, right?
Other than that, my roses are miserable. Maybe they wish you were here too. I think they’re wilting. I hope I can save them in time for the 4-H fair, which is eight weeks away. I have to beat Tammy this year.
I just have to. I don’t think I can stand another minute of hearing her brag about how great she is. Gag me with a spoon.
I’m going to write to you every single week until the fair. I know you can’t get or send mail right now, so I’ll save them for you until you can. Just don’t read them out of order, and read only one per week. It will be more realistic that way, more like we’re in the same room together. Promise? Okay, good!
Until next week.
Love & friendship always & forever,
I stare at the letter, holding the paper between my fingers as if it were made of glass. I don’t know how this is possible, but somehow it is. Maybe all the years I spent wishing and praying and asking for a sign finally worked.
Because if this isn’t a sign, I don’t know what is.
This is a letter to me.
And it’s from my mother.