As I sped down the trail, I kept looking from side to side for any sign that Esther might have turned off it somewhere. I almost collided with the green Explorer that squealed to a stop in the middle of the first street crossing. The one my mother drove, specifically.
She jumped out to confront me up close. “Reid. Not so fast. Where are you going?”
I was so tired of making things up. A big, increasingly vocal part of me just wanted to tell her and get it over with.
“Is this about Esther?”
“What makes you say that?” I asked lamely.
“She hasn’t been herself this week, she’s even more stressed than usual, and you know something about it.” Of course she and Dad would have noticed. The only reason they weren’t on high alert was the context they were missing. Now that she knew I wasn’t telling her something, it was game over.
“Now you barge in, ask me where she went, and barge right out without another word?”
If I came clean, she could drive after Esther and we might catch up. But I’d have to explain how I knew where Esther was going, and she wouldn’t rest until she’d extracted the whole truth. I suspected we were in trouble no matter what happened.
I just had to decide what kind of trouble I wanted.
“Tell me this isn’t anything to do with those Transcenders Fellowship people. They’ve got their hooks in enough kids already, I warned her about them after Jess got involved–”
“It’s not them,” I said, and took a deep breath. “I think – I think… she might be running away.” If I was wrong, I would take the consequences and be grateful.
“And you think you know where.” I nodded. Instead of whatever outburst I might have expected, she became frighteningly calm and focused. That’s when I remembered she had been through this before, six years ago.
We peeled out, leaving my bike lying beside the trail, and that was the last time I ever saw it.
While Mom was occupied with calling Dad’s office, I slipped the object I’d found in Esther’s room out of my pocket. I tweaked it a little to see if it would react again, but no luck. I thought I was being stealthy, but nothing was getting past the mom-vision today. As soon as she’d left her urgent voicemail, she asked, “What’s that?”
There was no point in delaying the inevitable. I handed it over. “I think she left this behind on accident.”
She reset the segment I had just moved, and from the way her eyes widened, I could tell it affected her the same way it had me.
“Mom, the road!” She swerved back over the yellow line just in time to avoid a honking minivan. When she spoke again, her voice was shaken but had a new edge to it.
“What am I looking at?”
“Hey, where are you off to?” I slipped through the opening in our back fence and caught up to Esther a short way down the rail trail. “I’m almost done, but I don’t know where the last of the camping stuff goes.”
“Tent’s all cleaned and packed?”
“Yeah. Who was that?”
“Don’t worry about it. Miscellaneous gear goes in that big bin under the shelves on the left. Make sure the tent’s put away neatly; you know Dad’ll notice.”
Not only were our parents due back within the hour, we were supposed to be at the Espositos’ house down the block in ten minutes for the start of their move. Which is why my heart sank when, as we were walking back, Esther asked, “Did you get the dolly and the straps down?”
“No…I thought you said you were going to take care of it.”
She stopped and closed her eyes. “We said we were going to take care of it.”
“I thought – ” But she was already running for the garage.
Just before Mom and Dad left, our family (sans Tori) had finalized plans to help our neighbors move out of Morrow Glen, with a barbecue to follow at their new house. It was Esther’s and my job to dig up our own moving equipment which had become lost to time in the attic and lend it to them, since Dad wouldn’t be back in time to do it. And Esther was right, we had both volunteered for the task. I just assumed she would take charge of it as always, and yell for me when and if she needed my help.
She was even more distracted than I thought if she’d forgotten a promise to the Espositos. They were the only neighborhood family any of us were close with, but I knew how much they meant to her in particular.
“It never occurred to you to just get started on this yourself if I wasn’t around?” she said as she pulled down the attic ladder. She wasn’t seething or sarcastic – those I could handle, but this was worse. It was the same blank resignation she’d had with Tori yesterday: no expectation, no disappointment.
She got more worked up the longer the search took us, furiously shifting boxes and pawing through piled junk on our hands and knees. “This is why we don’t leave things till the last minute,” she fretted. “We’re going to make – ack! – make them late returning their U-Haul. Pthth, pthoo – die, cobwebs.”
She apologized repeatedly to Mr. Esposito when we finally arrived twenty minutes late, having dragged out all the moving gear and squared away the camping gear. He took it all in stride, thanking us and assuring her that they had alternative means of getting the job done. A gentle soul, he had gotten used to dealing with her brand of intensity over the years since she’d befriended his family.
Despite everything working out, her mood seemed permanently out of joint in an otherwise cheerful and lively gathering. With other friends and relatives on hand to pitch in, the work was progressing faster than expected. But her normal whirlwind of helpful activity was nowhere in sight. The next time I saw her was when I rounded a corner too quickly with an open box and almost knocked her over where she stood in the hallway, contemplating something in her hand. When I looked back after a curt apology, she was stooped over as if looking for something on the floor.
Mrs. Esposito directed me where to stow the box in the van. “Thank you, Reid. Oh, and your parents just called. They’ll be here in a few minutes with the food.”
Good, we were ready for them. As long as we kept our story straight, I was confident that we had sufficiently covered our tracks from the campout. If Nik or Trina’s parents asked too many questions, the worst case scenario would be confessing to holding a sleepover with no supervision but Tori (meaning no supervision). Reprisals would be swift, but it wouldn’t be as bad as the full truth.
Just as I was heading back into the house, the day’s weirdness commenced in earnest. There was a crash from the van, and I turned back to see several stacks of boxes toppled over. As we were re-stacking them, Mrs. Esposito frowned and said, “My memory must be going. I thought the upstairs bathroom box was already packed in here.”
“It is, I just brought it.” But she was right. Though I could have sworn up and down I had just situated that box neatly in its stack, it wasn’t in the van.
I retraced my steps until I came across Esther again, kneeling alone in one of the upstairs rooms with a box labeled UPST. BATH in front of her. Though she had just slipped the box cutter out of sight, the tape was halfway slit.
“I just took that box out to the van is what.”
“Apparently not.” She gestured from the box to the room we were in.
“Uh, apparently yeah! I’m not crazy. I know what I just carried.”
“You know they can put the same label on multiple things.”
I squatted next to her. “More to the point, what are you doing with it?”
“I can’t find my cell phone. I think I might have dropped it in one of these boxes before it got taped.”
A stocky, sprightly girl around Esther’s age swung around the door frame. “Hey Reid, my mom wanted to know if you – oh cool, you found it. Mind if I just grab that?”
She was already scooping the box up before Esther could finish saying, “Oh thanks, Becca, we got it.” But Becca, who never missed a chance to do Esther a favor, wouldn’t hear of it. We had no choice but to follow her down the hall toward the stairs while she took out her moving day jitters in chattering to us.
“I’m going to miss walking to school with you guys, I mean of course I’ll miss all kinds of stuff here, but hey, we won’t be that far away, we can visit any time we want to…”
“Right…” Esther said tentatively.
Esther’s decision to reach out and start walking to school with Becca before we knew anyone in the neighborhood had kicked off our whole relationship with her family. Before long she had gotten to know the rest of the household just as Mr. Esposito’s illness and the attendant financial troubles were approaching their worst. Her pushing us to support our struggling neighbors with occasional acts of kindness eventually led to one of the strongest family friendships we had made in this town. It wasn’t like her to be so lukewarm toward them now.
“You guys ended up giving away a lot of your stuff, right?” I ventured.
“Yeah, honestly it wasn’t as bad as I thought. The hard part for me was trying to find things I really wanted to keep, things we thought were in storage, and finding out we had just lost them over the years. Although, giving away all those other things beforehand made it easier, I think.”
She was halfway down the stairs when I saw the box’s weight shift in her arms out of nowhere. She lost her grip and nearly tumbled after it trying to recover it. The tape split open on the first bounce and dumped out half the contents, most of which fell through the railing and pelted the well-built, balding and graying man who had just arrived and was already bustling past with an open box of his own.
“Ow! Whoa, easy up there. You guys all right?”
“Hi Dad. Yeah, we’re good.”
In the flurry that followed, between picking up Becca and the things she dropped and giving our father more appropriate filial greetings, Esther slipped off with the box. When I caught up to her again, she was going through it on the pretext of repacking it. Her perplexity told me she was still coming up empty. But my attention was diverted by the compact black case she had put off to the side. I popped it open to reveal a small stethoscope kit, complete with blood pressure cuff and a couple of those unsettling little flashlights nurses like to shine in every available face hole.
I stared Esther down. “Before you say whatever BS you’re about to say…I know for a fact this wasn’t in there before.”
“It’s gone,” she muttered to herself. “I didn’t see it on the stairs either…”
“Hang on, is this Becca’s?” I remembered now, she’d been talking about becoming a doctor ever since taking care of her father when he was bedridden. It had to be hers. “How in the…”
“Excuse me, you two,” said someone behind us, not in the polite way. One of the men I didn’t know, an uncle or something, had popped up and was eyeing us suspiciously. “The idea here is to pack everything and leave it packed.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. She lost her cell phone.”
Esther snapped her fingers. “That box Dad was carrying. That’s gotta be it. Excuse me sir, I’ll be back.”
The Nokia ringtone blared from her pocket as she dashed off, and the uncle and I both reacted with “Wait a minute…”
Left on my own with him glaring at me, I said the first thing I thought of – “Jinx” – and went after her.
Dad was in his element when we found him in the kitchen, his broad genial face lit up as he greeted new people, holding the box with one arm while giving out his vaunted handshakes with the other. “It was good for us, simplifying like that,” Mr. Esposito was saying to him. “Makes you step back and think about what’s really worth holding on to.” Dad nodded as he looked thoughtfully at the items in their donation bin by the door.
I racked my brain for a diversion, by now almost as eager as Esther to find whatever she was looking for. Seeing a coffee table nearby that was obviously a two-man lift, I picked it up awkwardly and staggered into the kitchen with it, narrowly avoiding both knocking a girl over and taking a chunk out of the door frame. As intended, Dad set down his box to assist, chiding me about common sense, and I quickly agreed to let him handle the table and take the box off his hands instead.
He hefted it from the counter where he’d left it. “Oof, I didn’t realize how heavy this was. Esther, give him a hand.”
“I can take it,” I muttered, but she was already grabbing the other end and pulling me back upstairs. As we went, I heard Becca calling ecstatically from across the house, “Dad! My stethoscope kit! It wasn’t gone, someone found it!”
I began to feel like I was dreaming. I kept waiting for the floor to open up or my shirt to start singing to me. What we found when we got the box open did nothing to allay that feeling.
We could only stare at each other as Esther held up a familiar, colorful wooden spoon whose other end was a maraca.
“Esther…” I said slowly under my breath, “what is the good china doing here?”
“I don’t know!”
I snatched the spoon and pointed it at her with an accusatory rattle. “Confess. You know something.”
“I know we need to get this stuff back home right now.” Her confusion seemed genuine. “Help me find an extra box.”
“Good china” was our affectionate misnomer for the collection of novelty, garish, or otherwise unique items that we used for entertaining on certain special occasions. It started with a few gifts made by us kids, but at some point Mom established it as an unofficial tradition for new friends invited to our New Year’s party to bring a small addition of their own. The tradition then became a contest to see who could contribute the strangest piece of silverware, serveware, or drinkware, whether homemade or unearthed on eBay. The size and tackiness of the collection was a sort of metric for how many people we had brought together over the years.
Such were the priceless family heirlooms that now confronted us from inside someone else’s overstuffed moving box.
Even after we had pulled them all out, Esther kept rifling through the remaining contents. Just then we heard Mom coming up the stairs and calling our names.
“I’ll stall her, you get these out of sight. Try that desk,” Esther whispered. Whatever her reason for not wanting Mom to see her precious eyesores, I was bewildered enough to play along. I certainly wouldn’t be able to give an explanation if she saw them here.
There was an old-school writing desk in the room, the kind whose writing surface is a flap that folds up to close it. I shoveled keepsakes into it while listening to Mom and Esther catch up out in the hallway. My ears pricked up when I heard Mom ask, “Oh, and did you finish the MYL application essay?”
“I haven’t had the time yet,” Esther said. “I was going to write that tonight.”
When she came back into the room, I asked, “What gives? Didn’t you already do that essay? You were writing it the other night in the tent, I remember.”
“No…that was different. A school thing.” To change the subject, she turned her attention back to the box, which was no longer there. “Oh come on!” Another overeager helper had made off with it while we were distracted. “Too many freaking cooks,” she fumed, and rushed off again.
I was stowing the last of the china when I heard an unpleasant “Hey!” The uncle from before was still playing detective and had returned to thwart the thieving neighbor kids. I instinctively slammed the desk flap shut, but that still left me looking like I’d been caught in the act of stealing silverware, albeit a fistful of forks shaped like Grover Cleveland.
Uncle Nancy Drew folded his arms. “All right, what’s in the desk?”
“I know what this looks like, but these actually belong to us. They’re…borrowed. Look, this one has my name on it.” I poked around in the desk and pulled out a lumpy ceramic mug emblazoned with TO DAD LOVE REID.
“Let me see what else is in there.”
“You got it.”
“There you are, Reid.”
“MOM! Uh – hey, welcome back!” I shut the desk again and tried to shield the mug from view, which made for an awkward reunion hug. Uncle Nancy must have had a premonition that it would be a bad time if he accused me of stealing in front of Mom, because he stepped out uncomfortably. As soon as she started looking around the room to see what still needed doing, I slipped the Cleveland forks in my pocket and picked up the mug to find better concealment for it. But it was too late. She glanced from my hand to my face with a quizzical look that let me know I was dealing with the real detective now.
I left the room as casually as I could, knowing she would be right behind me in a few seconds. I spotted Esther down on the first floor, where she’d caught up with the guy who had made off with the box and was about to make her move. But I had to focus on selling the mug situation to Mom, otherwise she’d keep investigating. All she needed to believe was that she was dealing with one of my dumb impulses rather than anything devious.
My eye fell on a bucket of cleaning rags in what I hoped was mostly water. Time to do something dumb and impulsive.
You owe me for this, Esther.
“Is that what I think it is?” Mom asked when she came into the hall.
“Oh, this?” I turned around with the full mug in plain view. “It’s a warm day, I knew we’d need to stay hydrated.” I tried to ignore what was floating in the water, took a noisy sip, and suppressed my gag reflex long enough to add, “And, you know, all their cups are packed up – cough – I just grabbed this on the way out.”
“For goodness’ sake, Reid, we have plastic cups for the cookout. Why would you…” She gave up and shook her head at my inscrutable life choices. Down below, Esther looked up from whatever switcheroo she had just pulled, box in hand, and gave me a thumbs up.
Nailed it. Now as soon as Mom leaves…
“Want to give me a hand with that desk in there?”
I was gritting my teeth all the way down the stairs with the desk, waiting for the inevitable clattering or maraca noise from inside to give us away, but all was miraculously silent. After the furniture-shaped time bomb was buried in the van underneath the last of the Espositos’ worldly goods, Esther reappeared, jogging back from our house and tucking something I couldn’t make out into her pocket.
“Where were you? They’re closing the van up soon. If I run interference, do you think you could snag everything from the desk?”
“I already took care of it.”
“You did no such thing. It was only out of my sight for two minutes tops. Unless you’re adding sleight of hand to that college resume –”
“Don’t believe me then! See how much more chaos you can make trying to fix it yourself, but don’t expect any backup.”
I reluctantly let the matter drop. If she wanted to take responsibility, she could always have it.
The others were drifting off to get in their cars, leaving the two of us to ponder the open van. “Wow,” I said quietly. “No wonder it went so fast. Is this really all they’re taking with them?”
“They’re smart. You heard what Mr. E said to Dad. You want to make a fresh start, you need to figure out what’s important and leave the dead weight behind.”
“’Don’t let your possessions possess you,’ sort of thing,” I said sagely. “I get that.”
“Oh right, you get that,” she smirked. “Have you ever voluntarily let any of your stuff go?”
“Sure, there was…I mean, that one time that…hmm. Give me a minute.”
“You think you could ever leave behind, let’s say your paperweight collection?”
“A, number one, they’re not just paperweights. B, number two, inconceivable.”
“Yes. They’re literal dead weights.”
A thought struck me. “Is that what all that was about just now? Tell me it wasn’t one of your schemes.”
“Tell me you weren’t trying to teach us a lesson about materialism or something, giving our stuff away.”
“Of course not! What do you mean, my schemes?”
“Then what, Essie? What the heck just happened?”
“Let it go, dude.”
I must have pushed her too far, because she didn’t give me the chance to talk to her alone for the rest of the day. After we all drove one town over and went through the whole process in reverse at the new house, when everyone was relaxing out back, she kept herself busy in the kitchen or helping Dad at the grill. I realized it wasn’t just me who felt a little snubbed when Mrs. Esposito came up to me for a hug and a chat.
“Thank you so much…I hope you know what a blessing you’ve been…I hope Esther knows too. I guess she doesn’t feel like talking to us now.”
“You know how she gets when she feels like she’s let someone down.”
“Nobody’s let down, silly. Doesn’t she know we’re just happy to see her?”
“Ah, we had some snarl-ups earlier. It put her on edge.”
“I understand. She wanted everything today to go perfectly.” She gave my hand a wistful squeeze. “Always taking care of someone. She’s a special girl, your sister.”
“I know.” I mentally pulled the ears off a baby bunny, as I did every time I had to hear that sentence. I could make a mental fur coat by now from all the tiny ears I’d collected.
I had snuck a peek inside the writing desk the first chance I got, and true to Esther’s word, it was empty. But just before we left, I saw her slip something into one of its drawers. She rejoined us looking, if not at peace, at least like there was a weight off her shoulders.
When I checked our dining room cabinet that night, the good china was all there, and my mind was just about ready to call it quits.
Mom and Esther were in the other room going over her leadership essay thing, which to my surprise she really had spent the last few hours writing as if from scratch. Although eavesdropping was beneath me, it wasn’t my fault if I overheard some things while I was nearby…keeping perfectly silent…standing just out of their sight around the nearest corner.
“You’re so tense, starlight. Is something bothering you?”
“Oh, just the usual jar of bees. Nothing I can’t handle.”
“It just seems like your heart’s not really in it this round the same way it was for the prelim application.”
“What if it wasn’t, hypothetically? What if I was okay with not moving on to the next round? What if I stopped caring what MYL thinks?”
“Well,” Mom said carefully, “that would be your choice, but you’d hypothetically be throwing away a lot of hard work and a valuable opportunity that you deserve.”
“There’s more than one kind of opportunity.”
Mom sighed. “Your brother used to say something like that.”
There was a long pause, then a sullen “Tori’s not wrong about everything.”
It was no more surprising than anything else that day to hear Tori defended by the same girl who had once threatened me with ending up like him if I didn’t get my act together.
As I went to bed, I made a list of everything else so far that didn’t add up.
- She lied about whatever she was writing on our campout. Not a huge deal.
- She knew more about the secret valley than she was letting on and didn’t want to talk about the six-legged whatsit we saw. Troubling.
- She was getting forgetful and avoiding people she loved, which as of this afternoon included me. Red flag.
And one more thing came to me as I was drifting off.
It was one of those thoughts that obnoxiously elude the conscious mind, but can be caught right on the verge of sleep. When Esther had wandered off to the rail trail that morning, between when I tracked her down and when we ran back, I realized dimly that there was a gap in my memory. I could remember where we were, what we said to each other, but there was something else, something I was missing.
This thought itself was gone the next morning. It wouldn’t return until it was far too late.