Everyone has a story about the first time they read the Orman Chronicles. This is mine.
The day my father left us, it was sunny. I remember thinking it was odd, because in books tragedy always strikes during a storm, lightning and thunder magnifying the worst that could happen. But my father didn’t care about the perfect, cloudless sky, or how he was leaving with our only car, marooning us in our grief.
Even then, I couldn’t help but imagine us on an island. The sofas in our small living room became piles of uneven sea stones. My father’s crossed arms and defiant stance became a crumbling, abandoned lighthouse that stood uncaring against the angry waves of my mother.
Through the front window blinds, I could see his reason sitting in our peeling green van, a woman—girl—who wasn’t even ten years older than me. Her freshly twenty-one appeal was somewhat dulled by her habit of worriedly gnawing on her index finger as our eyes connected over the dashboard.
I recognized her, I dimly realized. A cheerleader from the Saturday afternoon college football games my father had dragged me to for the past three months.
I let the broken bit of blind fall back into place with a quiet shudder as my mother pleaded with Dad to stay. My stomach twisted into a hundred cruel shapes and my mind forgot all about the island, the lighthouse, everything.
“For Amelia,” my mother begged, mascara dripping down her face in a way I thought only happened in movies. “You can’t leave her, Willy. She’s your daughter. Tell him, Amelia!” She roughly jerked me by the shoulder to face them. “Tell. Him.”
I stared at them. Mom with her self-dyed red hair sticking up in all directions. Dad, trying to look stoic and resigned, his polo collar smudged from the self-tanner that had turned his pale skin orange.
I turned back to the window.
“Let him go,” I said. “What do I care?”
I wasn’t sure if the ceramic pot holding the succulent I grew from a seed in elementary school fell when Mom whirled away from me, or if she knocked it off the table on purpose.
When the green van finally barreled away, tires jumping over the cracked drive, my mother went to her bedroom and slammed the door. I stood there, listening to the kitchen faucet drip in tune with her sobs, before my feet carried me out the front door, down the driveway, and block after block, until I found myself in front of Downtown Books.
I never came here unless I had a gift card. I couldn’t afford to pay the price on a book’s bar code, only on a yellowing discount sticker at a used bookstore. I spent my babysitting money on new school supplies and the occasional hot lunch, instead of my usual cheese and mustard sandwich, never on books from here.
But, that day, I let myself stand there and gaze through the window for as long as I liked. I could stay all night, I thought, watching customers drift around the low shelves like sailboats bobbing on the horizon. I didn’t have to go home to a Dadless but Momful house, didn’t have to clean up the shattered pottery and succulent leaves still scattered across the floor.
My reflection in the bookstore window looked haunted, my bright yellow Harry Potter shirt washing out my pale white skin and blue eyes. My long hair—caught somewhere between blonde and brown—wasn’t helping. I wondered if emotions could suck the color right out of you. I wondered if hatred and bewilderment could make you anemic.
I don’t know how long I would have stood there, outside looking in, if not for Jenna Williams.
The glass door to the bookstore wasn’t even fully open before she poked her head out and said, “You’re Amelia, right? You can’t just stand there. It’s creepy. What are you doing? Come inside if you want to look.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
Even in my daze, part of me felt like I should be curtseying or something. Jenna Williams—reigning valedictorian from fifth grade onward, always impeccably dressed, the first of our grade to wear eyeliner, noted tennis enthusiast—was the closest thing to royalty in the freshman class, though she never held court. She had a few girls from the tennis club she hung out with, but nobody ever managed to get closer than arm’s length. It made her all the more appealing, really, than the girls that collected doting admirers and disciples. Jenna was less obtainable. She was never unfriendly, but she was a supernova in a galaxy of new stars and we all knew it, even the teachers.
We had been classmates since kindergarten, but I was surprised she knew my name.
Maybe it was because of the star thing, but I heard myself tell her, “My dad left today.”
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