**So, I’ve done it. Sent the first few chapters to a publisher’s open house. EEEEEEEEEE! Hopefully they’ll slash it within an inch of its life, splattering red ink and making me cry. And then, I’ll pick up the pieces, explain to our resident detective that he is not, in fact, looking at blood spatter, and write it even better.**
Continued from Part 2
The doorbell rings three times fast, then twice more. Kevin is outside my door spraying “Ocean Breeze” freshener and I almost tackle him on my way to the stairs. That bell pattern means one thing. Grandpa.
Kevin races after me and we push past each other, slipping on the steps, grabbing at the shiny curved handrail, trying to be first to the door. I elbow his ribs and get ahead, but he snatches a handful of the back of my shirt and hauls me sideways.
We wrestle for the door, shoving each other away, and I hear my grandfather’s voice outside.
“Just open the door. This is heavy!” I yank it open. I know he’s smiling even though I can only see his twinkling blue eyes above the packages. Wrapped in newspaper paper and twine, as always. He says wrapping paper is a waste of money. Something about the Depression and if people would stop spending on frivolous items, we’d all be in a better place financially. I don’t care how he wraps it, honestly. I just want to know what’s inside.
Kevin lugs the hard, mint green suitcase to the spare bedroom as Grandpa and I carry the packages into the dining room. I stop, stunned. The room is exploding with decorations. Streamers, balloons, confetti, paper tablecloths—all in our favorite colors. When did mom have time to do this? Wow.
“Where do you want these?” I stare around the room. Poster boards full of pictures of Kevin and me plaster the walls. She must have been working on this for months.
Grandpa nods to the small table layered in shades of purple, handing me a shoebox-sized package.
“I assume that table is for you.” He deposits the rest of the packages on the blue camouflage tablecloth, a nod to Kevin’s secondary obsession with the Navy. I feel a little twinge, wondering why Kevin has more presents from Grandpa, but then I remember what dad said this Christmas. “When you get older, the gifts get smaller but more expensive.”
My present must be phenomenal.
Emma is the only friend who showed up for my party. Kevin and I were each allowed to invite six friends. Madison’s birthday is the week after mine, but she planned her party the same day. After I sent her my invitation, which I did two months in advance to make sure everyone could come.
We’ve all been in school together since first grade, when we moved here. Emma, Madison, Shamaia, Brooke, Karmin and I eat lunch together every day, even though seats aren’t assigned. I thought they’d all be here. Instead, Madison betrayed me, luring all the others to her house. They only went because she has a pool.
Madison said her mom told her if she wanted a party, she had to do it this weekend because they have too much going on this month. It’s just an excuse. She’s been trying to bait the rest of the girls away for months. She even had a sleepover a few weeks ago and didn’t invite me.
“It was a hard decision, but my mom said I could only have few friends over. I’ll ask you next time,” she promised.
Emma pokes me, harder than necessary. I yelp.
“OW! What was that for?”
“Your mom just called you. Twice. Are you feeling okay? You keep staring off into space, like this.” She tilts her head and crosses her eyes. “And then your face gets all scrunchy and—” she makes a monkey face.
I shove her with my shoulder.
“Whatever.” I grin, trying to make it look real. “I’m fine.”
“Are you mad that everyone else went to Madison’s?” She squints at me. “At least I’m here. I’ll never desert you. Except for chocolate.”
Geez. She’s got her emotional radar cranked to high velocity today.
“Nah. I’m just done with this situation. Do you think I can spend the night at your house? Please, get me out of here.”
She grins, flopping onto the couch pillows with the back of her hand pressed to her forehead.
“Dramatic goofball. Stop making fun of me. Seriously, get us a ride. Call your mom. Or your dad. Or your housekeeper.” Her smile falters and I realize she doesn’t think it’s funny. Before I can apologize, my mom calls again. I push myself off the couch, heading toward the sound of her screeching.
“Colleeeeeeeeeeeeeee—oh, hey.” Mom quirks an eyebrow at me as I slide around the corner. “Can you take these hot dogs to your dad? And also this platter. He’s got almost-burned hamburgers out there, and I can’t get to him fast enough.”
I grab the platter and dogs, then jog out the back door. Dad’s ability to burn meat nears legendary. He calls it “blackened,” but I tell him that’s not a thing unless you’re Jamaican. And he’s not.
We rescue the hamburgers. Most are okay; a couple are still medium-rare. Several are medium-charred. Banjo, our beagle-bassett mutt, will be thrilled. He considers anything less ashen than cinders to be edible.
When I get back to the family room, Emma is chatting up my grandfather. She loves his stories.
“So, after we built the plane, we covered it with fabric and painted it with dope,” he says.
I’ve heard this one. The first time we heard that story, Kevin thought Grandpa covered his plane in drugs. Grandpa laughed, telling us that it might be where the word came from, but the dope he used was more like glue.
Sitting down to listen, I pick up my pencil and start sketching a princess dress. Lacy and jeweled. I wish I could wear it today, instead of my t-shirt and jeans. I suddenly realize I forgot to change for the party. I can’t believe Emma didn’t say anything, since we were planning to match.
“I have to run upstairs. Be right back.”
Emma nods, barely noticing me. She is rapt, listening to my grandfather. I dash up the stairs, slam my bedroom door and drop my clothes on the floor. I grab my cute new sundress and pull it over my head. As I slip back out of my room, Mom waddles down the hall. As she passes, she glances into my room.
“I know you’re not going to leave those clothes on the floor.”
“Seriously? Not only do I have to clean the bathroom, you’re making me clean my room on my birthday, too?” This is too much.
“Call me a horrible momster, but yes.” She shrugs and grins at her own joke. “Get it? Momster?”
I roll my eyes and snatch the clothes off the floor, dropping them in the laundry basket by the door. She smiles.
“Was that so difficult? It took, what, four seconds?”
“My favorite color is teal. Purple was last year.” I don’t know why I feel this need to bring her down off her high, but she’s driving me crazy. Her “happy happy” act is so annoying. No one is that cheerful. No one sane, anyway. I see the hurt flash in her eyes and for a moment, I regret my words.
Then she shrugs again.
“Well, honey, too late to change the decorations now. You’ll just have to enjoy the party anyway.”
I glare at her.
“Party? Party? What party?” I hear the pitch of my voice reaching unreasonable, but I can’t stop. “You made me clean a bathroom on my birthday, Kevin is doing his best to ruin my day, Dad is too tired, Grandpa is all buddy-buddy with Emma. She’s supposed to be my friend, but she’s hardly even talking to me. I might as well not have anyone here. She probably wishes she went to Madison’s party, but she knows we always have better cake. She can sniff out quality sugar anywhere.”
Mom’s eyes focus slightly over my shoulder. She’s not even listening. I try to draw her attention back to my words.
“You know it’s true. I don’t know how she stays so skinny, with the amount of sugar she eats. Your cookies are probably the only reason she comes over here. She didn’t even bring me a present,” I growl.
Her eyes widen slightly.
“What?” I ask, then realize someone is behind me. Emma.
I turn around, almost nose-to-nose with her freckles.
“I came to see if you had any cookies in your room,” she said, tone cool.
Grandpa puffs up the stairs behind her.
“Why are we stopping? I thought you were going to show me the gift.” He looks from Emma to me. “Uh-oh.”
Emma crosses her arms over her chest.
“Well, I was. But I think I’d rather sniff around for quality sugar.”
Grandpa squints at her.
She leans in toward me.
“I don’t know what your problem is. You’ve been crabby for weeks. You snap at me, at Madison, at our whole group. You’re rude to your mom and nasty to your brother. You crab about your life and how things would be better if both your parents worked so you could have more money. And I have to tell you, I just don’t get it. At least you have a sibling. At least your parents are home. Do you know who dropped me off today?”
I back up a step.
“No. The housekeeper drove my mom’s car. My mom is across the country at some big meeting for those stupid scarves she’s selling. They have pep rally meetings and then she comes home all brainwashed and pumped up about how this flowered scarf matches with that houndstooth jacket. It’s unnatural. And she ignores me most of the time, even if she is home. And dad is never around. At least you have a family. You should be thankful. And the reason no one showed up at your party today is because you’ve been such a jerk lately.”
Emma takes a deep breath. She’s not done yelling at me. Super.
“You’re my friend, my best friend, and no matter how you treat me, I’ll always love you. But you aren’t even happy I’m here. All you’ve done since I got here is mope about your life. Well, I’ve had enough for one day. I’m going to walk over to Madison’s. Your present is in your closet under a pile of clothes; I brought it over last week when you were at soccer practice. To surprise you. Happy birthday.”
She turns toward the steps, then walks over to my mom and grandpa, hugging each of them.
“I hope she gets herself together. It was great to see you both.”
And then, she leaves.
Here’s the full first chapter. I’m submitting the book idea at the end of the month, so if you have editorial commentary, now’s your chance. 🙂
Summary: Colleen, adopted through foster care with her brother, dreams of finding her birth family and learning they are royalty. She hates chores and feels displaced by her adoptive parents’ pregnancy. She wishes her life were different, the life of a princess. A gift from her grandfather might make her wish reality.
I am so tired of that woman. She will not leave me alone.
I just want to have peace and quiet, but no. It’s bad enough that Mom puts her nose in my school business, calling my teachers, showing up for lunch without warning, bribing my friends with cookies so they’ll like her. But that’s not enough meddling in my life. Nope. She also makes me do work. Like I’m her slave or something. If I forget, she follows me around and nags.
“Chores are your duty as a citizen of this great land we call our household,” she tells me.
Chores. Ha. More like doing her job for her. Parents are supposed to take care of the house. Moms do the inside, dads take care of the lawn and the cars and all that. Or they hire someone. None of my friends have “chores.” So much for my childhood.
“You’re lucky, Colleen,” mom says. “Not every kid learns life skills. When you graduate, you’ll be able to survive on your own. I know you don’t appreciate it all, but chores are good for your character. Be thankful. Your life, even when you think it’s horrible, is someone else’s fairytale.”
“Fairytale, ha. Emily and Madison don’t have to learn life skills,” I complain.
She laughs. Laughs. Like it’s no big deal.
“Well, when they pull their first all-pink load of laundry out of the dryer in college, they’ll wish they did. In the meantime, you still need to clean the downstairs bathroom. People are coming over in three days, and you’ve left it a mess. And then sort your laundry so we can start a load for you. I’m asking you to clean up after yourself. It’s not like you’re Cinderella.”
Pink clothes? What does that even mean? And no, I’m not Cinderella. If only. I’d ride off with that prince and live in style.
My thirteenth birthday party is Saturday. I will be a TEENager. Almost eighteen. In just five more summers, I can be outta here. A few weeks ago, I said this out loud. Stupid me. She laughed then, too.
“Wait,” she said, doubled over and gasping for air, “you’re killing me. Do you remember how long it’s been since you were eight years old?”
I sniffed. “That’s forever ago.”
“Exactly,” she said. By this time she was cackling, that annoying snorty laugh she does when she thinks something is really, really funny. “You are not almost eighteen. Trust me, five years is a long time. By the time you hit eighteen, thirteen will feel like ‘forever ago,’ too.”
I’m counting the days, believe me. One thousand, eight hundred twenty-nine, to be exact. In case you’re checking my math, don’t forget leap year.
I head downstairs to my bathroom. It’s actually the guest bathroom, but last year I sort of claimed it. Mom said it was fine as long as I clean it. And I do. Most of the time.
My twin brother Kevin and I used to share a bathroom. He’s completely gross. Leaving him in his filth was one of the best hygiene decisions I’ve ever made, right up there with deciding to wear deodorant. So he has to clean the upstairs bathroom himself. Now, if we could just get him to shower. With soap. Mom said he’ll start when he finally discovers girls. Like that will happen. He’s got his head so far inside his science books, he’s lucky he remembers to eat.
I wipe the toothpaste dots off the mirror. Mom always checks. She says “no one wants to see that.” I rub the chrome until it sparkles, then flick the rag across the counter. If the chrome is shiny, no one notices the rest. After I pour blue stuff in the toilet bowl, I figure the bathroom is good enough. It’s not like party guests are going to use the tub.
My birthday is horrible.
I knew this would be an awful day before I opened my eyes. Drops of rain splatter against my window as thunder crashes above. Kevin, always up “at the cracka,” according to my dad, is already adding his ridiculous noise to the cacophony. Apparently my parents gave him his big present early. Of all things, an electric guitar. My parents were thrilled when he started showing interest in music.
“Finally, we’ll hear something from Kevin other than science facts,” my dad winked at me yesterday from his perch on the edge of his favorite chair. Leaning over the Fender’s slick black and pearl body, he finished tuning the instrument and ran through a few chords. “Beautiful music will be a blessed change.”
Maybe, but this is not beautiful. Or music. It’s awful.
Wrapping a hypoallergenic, fiber-fill pillow around my head, I blunder out into the hall. The pillow stuffing shifts under my hands, soft and puffy. Still groggy, I try to keep it over my ears, skimming my shoulder along the wall for support. Mom appears, carrying a large gift bag.
“Happy Birthday, honey!” She crows. Yes, crows, like a rooster. It is way too early for this. I’m pretty sure it’s not even eight o’clock.
I narrowly avoid her kiss; it lands on my pillow.
“Can you do something about Kevin? I’m still trying to sleep!” I grit my teeth.
She laughs. Why does she always laugh at me? Like I’m trying to be funny. This is serious.
“Really, mom. It’s Saturday. It’s my birthday. I should be allowed to sleep in a little.” I pull the pillow tighter, trying to block the noise.
“It’s your birthday, Colleen. Plural. His too, you know. He can play if he wants.”
“It’s not playing. It’s noise,” I frown.
“Well, you remember what your teacher said after the Christmas program. ‘We’re supposed to make a joyful noise. Nobody said anything about talent.’ As long as he’s happy, and he’s making noise…” she trails off, looking at the hall clock. “ And, hey, it’s already nine. You should be up anyway. I need your help.” She hefts the bag.
“Help? On my birthday?” I grimace. Can’t even catch a break on my birthday.
“Yes. If you’d cleaned the bathroom properly the other day, you could sleep longer. As it is, you gave it a lick and a promise instead of a good cleaning. So, now you have to clean a toilet on your special day. Seems unfair, I’m sure, but you did this to yourself.” She grins.
“I gave it a what?” I imagine licking the tub faucet.
“Never mind. Go.” She staggers down the hall under the weight of the bag and her enormous belly.
Yep, that’s right. She’s pregnant. Preggers. Bun in the oven. Having a baby. Knocked up. Mom, laughing again, asked me where I’d heard that last one. It’s so ridiculous, at their age. I mean, seriously. She’s like, thirty-eight. And do you know what they had to do in order for her to get that way? So disgusting. I can’t even think about it.
The day she took me to find a dress for the eighth grade dance, she was all excited because she and dad went to the doctor that morning and they found out the baby is a girl. She couldn’t even concentrate on my dress. She said, “that’s great!” and, “beautiful!” every time I tried on something new, but I could tell she wasn’t even looking. Not really.
A little blue dress was already hanging in my changing room, the kind they’d never let me wear, so I tried it on for fun. It made me look older. I liked the way it stayed up without straps and barely skimmed my knee. I knew she wasn’t paying attention when I pranced out in front of the mirrors and she said, “wow, cute!”
I almost got away with it, but her eyes focused at the last minute and she said, “when you’re twenty-one, you can come back to get that one.”
Finally, she said, “come, on, just pick one already.”
She used to spend more time picking out my dress than I did.
Before the baby.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the baby department, looking at frilly baby clothes. Everything was impossibly fluffy and lacy and pink. She gave away all my baby stuff years ago, so we have to buy it all again. And, since baby things are expensive, Kevin and I will have to pick between two weeks of summer camp, instead of getting to attend both. This baby is already irritating. I’m just waiting for her to tell me I have to let it share my room.
I toss the pillow back on my bed and pull on my favorite jeans, the ones with colorful cheetah print on the side. By the time I pull a brush through my hair, Kevin has stopped his racket. Thank God. Hopefully this new interest will go the way of his pet hissing cockroach, last year’s birthday present.
Mom said it escaped. I’m pretty sure she flushed it.
Pulling my hair into a ponytail, I head downstairs to scrub the toilet. Like a slave. On my birthday.
After she made me do everything three times, the bathroom finally met mom’s military inspection. Seriously, no one notices dust in the corners. Ridiculous waste of time. I got all sweaty scrubbing out the tub and had to take a shower, so all that work was for nothing. At least she didn’t make me clean it again.
Thirteen. I just can’t stop saying it. Thirteen. ThirTEEN. Finally a teenager.
The night before I turned five, I remember thinking I’d be able to reach the kitchen faucet in the morning. When I woke up, I ran to the sink, shocked to find the handle still several inches out of reach.
This time, I am a teenager. No question. Height is irrelevant; I am older. More mature. Almost eighteen. Almost out of here.
I can find my birth parents.
Kevin and I had other parents, but no one knows much about them except our mother was really young. “She loved you so much, she wanted you to have a family with parents who could take care of you.” That’s what they say to our faces. But once, years ago, I heard mom whispering to Aunt Melissa that the social worker said our grandmother forced our first mom to give us up. I think of my birth mother’s mom as a green-faced wicked witch, not a grandma.
I bet our mom was from a really rich family and the wicked grandmother just didn’t want to deal with the stigma of teenage pregnancy. We learned about stigma in my psychology elective class. It’s when people get treated differently because of something shameful they did.
So they dumped us into foster care for six months, and then Dad and Mom picked us up. A year later, we officially “belonged” to them. Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate what they did for us. But some days, I wish I knew about the family we were born into. And borne out of.
When I turn eighteen, I can see the files. And maybe, by that time, the wicked witch will be gone, and our birth mom will be happy to see us, and we’ll get to live like the modern-day royal family we were born to be.