Sometimes things are dead, but still move.
I mean the leaves, of course. The leaves of autumn.
They crawled across the basketball court, scuttling sideways with the wind, tripping and pouncing. It was late fall. Almost everything was dead or hiding. The frogs were dead, the fish were dead, the bugs were dead, and the birds had escaped to Boca Raton.
The sky was not dead, however. It was blue and active. Clouds rolled across it. Trees in vacant lots scratched at it. And in the middle of all the creeping leaves and the nude, shivering branches of dead trees, Lily Gefelty and her mother sat in a car, waiting for Lily’s friends to arrive so the kids could play basketball.
Lily and her mother were having a difficult conversation.
“We need to talk,” said Mrs. Gefelty.
“Okay,” said Lily. “But everyone else is going to be here in a minute.”
“That’s fine. But we need to have a, you know, heart-to-heart.”
A book discussion doesn’t sound like it should be a difficult conversation, but it was for the Gefeltys. This was because Lily had actually been in several books recently. For instance, this one.
Lily had gone through most of her life without appearing in any books at all. Most of us never do. Though some of her friends had appeared in books, Lily had always liked the fact that she had stayed behind the scenes, because she was a pretty shy person and she didn’t think her life was very interesting. Then she began to show up in this series, Pals in Peril. People from the publishing company would call and get details of her adventures, then they would write them up and publish them. It was a little strange for her at first, but she got used to it.
Her mother was still getting used to it.
Mrs. Gefelty sat there in the driver’s seat, looking anxious. She tapped on the steering wheel and looked into the rearview mirror at the backseat. It was filled with library books. Mrs. Gefelty stared at them as if they were poisonous snakes that might strike at any time.
“Lily,” she said, “have you read the books you’re assigned for school?”
Lily looked at her mother, shocked. She always did all her homework. “Mom!” she said. “Of course!”
“Have you noticed anything about books written for people your age?” Her mother clearly was waiting for a particular answer.
Lily shrugged. “It’s a bad idea to have a horse?” she guessed.
“It is a bad idea,” said her mother, “to have a mother.” She pressed her forehead with the heel of her hand and sighed. “In every single book your English teacher assigns you, the mother dies or disappears.” She reached back and began shuffling through the stack of books that slid on the backseat cushions. “In this one, the mother contracts cholera. In this one, she dies of cancer. In this one, she’s killed in a rogue trolley accident. In this one, she’s eaten by a rhinoceros. In this one, she’s making stew when the pressure cooker blows up. And in this one,” Lily’s mother exclaimed, throwing a particularly heavy, dismal-looking volume down on Lily’s lap, “she goes to a dance party and catches thesmallpox. WHAT ARE THESE PEOPLE THINKING?”
Lily didn’t know what to say. She shrugged. Mrs. Gefelty demanded, “What do they have against mothers?”
Lily couldn’t answer that one either. Now that she thought about it, the mothers in books didn’t have such great luck with disease, electricity, the ocean, or crosswalks.
Then Lily realized what was really bugging her mom . . . and a second later, Mrs. Gefelty herself said it: “So what am I supposed to think? Now that you are showing up in books? See what I mean? Do I have to start worrying?”
“Mom, the books I’m in are different,” said Lily. “The ones you’re reading aren’t true. My stories really, actually happened to me.”
“Who knows? Maybe I’m next.” Mrs. Gefelty pressed her hands together between her knees. She was frowning. “I’ve made an appointment to have a checkup with Dr. Singh tomorrow.” She scratched the back of her head, as if she felt a sudden, unaccountable itch. “And we’ve got to get a burglar alarm in the house. And a radon gas sensor. And motion detectors.” Mrs. Gefelty snapped her fingers. “Hey, do you think the fire alarms need new batteries?” She pointed at Lily. “Chore!” she said. “Check them all. Buy batteries. Replace any old ones.” She dusted off the dashboard anxiously. “I’m going to go home and go through the medicine cabinet and throw away everything that’s past its sell-by date. You never know when vitamin D will turn weird.”
“Mom, I think you might be overreacting.” Mrs. Gefelty insisted, “Disaster is hanging over my head. We have got to do everything we can to avoid it.”
Lily’s friends were pulling up and getting out of the back doors of cars.
Lily said, “I wouldn’t worry about it, Mom.”
“I’ll try not to,” said Mrs. Gefelty, worrying. She stared into the distance.
Lily leaned over and gave her a kiss. Mrs. Gefelty jumped as if startled. “Oh,” she said, and smiled awkwardly.
As Lily walked over to greet her friends, her mother drove off to arrange protection against any unforeseen and dire circumstances. As Mrs. Gefelty’s car rounded the corner, she gave a sweet smile and waved back to her daughter.
But you’ve read this book’s title.
You know tough times are coming for Mrs. G.
So get ready. If we stick together, we might all just make it through this thing alive.
© 2011 M. T. Anderson