Chapter One: Happy Birthday
“How much more of ‘happy’ can you stand to eat?”
Dad was standing at the stove. Flour dusted the front of his red barbecue apron. His sandy-coloured hair stuck up like a rooster’s comb on top of his head, and his glasses perched crookedly on his nose. The lenses were smudged with fingerprints and tiny splatters of cooking oil.
Amy stared at him. Dad waited as if he really were interested in her answer. Amy knew better. Dad hadn’t listened to a single thing she had said for the past two months. If he had, then they never would never have come to Canada, let alone this farm. She shrugged. Her brown hair fell down in front of her face in limp strands, coated with grime from the highway. Neither of them had taken a shower since they had arrived.
Dad sighed and turned back to the stove. The aroma of baking buckwheat, melted butter and maple syrup filled the kitchen – if you could even call it that, Amy thought, pushing back her hair and gazing around at the one large downstairs room. Cardboard boxes took up much of the available floor space. Most of them had been torn open and partially emptied by either Amy or Dad in an attempt to find something they needed. Dad hadn’t gotten around to labeling the boxes before they had left Boston. Books, papers, music and clothes lay in haphazard piles on top of the L-shaped sofa that was fastened onto the wall, so there was nowhere to sit unless you counted the two kitchen chairs – one with a mended leg, the other with a split seat. A steep, ladder-like staircase led to an upstairs gallery that connected the two upstairs rooms – Dad’s study and Amy’s bedroom – where still more boxes waited to be unpacked. It looked like a tornado had touched down.
Through the banisters, Amy could see the fluttering bed sheet Dad had hung up to cover the entrance of her bedroom. Dad’s bedroom led off the downstairs room, just past the pot-bellied stove, which squatted like a cast iron pig in the middle of the floor. Through the open door, Amy could Dad’s clothes littering the floor and the unmade bed. More half-emptied boxes were stacked beneath the windows. Dad had managed to find some candles. Twelve of them were lined up on the table, stuck to flowery china saucers meant to hold teacups, pathetic reminders of Amy’s birthday.
Dad plunked a steaming pancake down on her plate. “May I present the letter ‘Y?’”
Amy stared down at her plate. The edges of the pancake had puffed into a fat stem supporting two uneven blobs. Dad had carved a v-shape between the two blobs with his spatula, rescuing the letter from total obscurity. Even so, the ‘Y’ looked as if it was suffering from an allergic reaction.
“If you can bring yourself to finish ‘happy,’ I might be able to manage ‘birthday.’”
Amy watched her knife cut into the pancake as though it belonged to somebody else. Every year for her birthday, Dad made pancakes in the shapes of letters, spelling out the words: ‘Happy Birthday.’ Amy had already eaten her way through an ‘H,’ an ‘A’ and two ‘P’s’ while Dad had consumed ‘Birth’ and was about to begin on ‘day.’ It would have been fun – in Boston.
It was hard to believe that the long weeks of good-byes and preparations were finally over, that they really had moved. She took a bite of deformed pancake. At least, it tasted good.
“Ohhh,” Dad groaned as he sat down opposite her. “This is the last one for me. Maybe we can finish ‘A’ and ‘Y’ at dinner – one letter each.” He drizzled maple syrup over a burnt blob with a misshapen point at one end. “What do you say?”
Amy hunched lower over her plate. Why did he have to keep on talking? If only Louisa was here! “We live in a barn (I am not kidding),” Amy had tapped out on the computer last night to her best friend. “When Dad opened the door, a bat flew out. There is a cherry tree growing through our porch. My room doesn’t have a door, I had to put a sheet up.”
Amy had been forced to write an actual letter, since Louisa was at summer camp; the same camp that Amy would have gone to if they hadn’t moved to Preston. There was no way they could text. Cell phones and computers weren’t allowed at camp. Amy had mailed the letter, trying not to think about camp, or what Louisa might be doing there without her. She stabbed at her pancake.
“So, how does it feel to be twelve?”
Amy hunched down lower in her chair.
“The same? Different?”
Dad cocked one eyebrow at her. Amy flushed with annoyance. What did he expect her to say? ‘Thanks a million Dad, for taking me away from Boston and my only friend, and moving me to this dump. It’s the best birthday present ever.’ Amy glowered down at her plate. How did Dad think she felt?
“So, what do you want to do today?” Dad’s voice broke into the silence. Amy stared at him blankly. “I thought we might drive into town. See the sights, check out a few stores.”
He couldn’t be serious. The only stores Amy had seen on their drive through Preston had either been rundown husks of buildings or tacky tourist traps, the kind that all seemed to be called: ‘Shoppe.’ Preston didn’t have any sights and if it did, Amy wasn’t interested in seeing them.
“I need to take a shower.” Amy got up abruptly from the table.
“Fine. We’ll leave after your shower.” Dad followed Amy through the trail of boxes as she headed for the bathroom. Why was he following her? Didn’t he get it? She didn’t want to talk. She didn’t want to drive into Preston. She didn’t want to do anything or go anywhere. All she wanted was to be left alone.
To her intense relief, Dad stopped en route to rummage through one of the boxes.
Amy pushed open the bathroom door. Bathroom- what a joke! The room was little more than a closet, so small you could barely turn around without bumping against the sink or toilet. She ached for a long, hot shower; the kind that lasted thirty minutes or more. Fat chance of that. Amy had had to pump water into the holding tank before breakfast so that the water would have time to heat up. The tank only held enough water for a ten-minute shower, tops.
Then she noticed the empty towel rack. How many boxes would she have to dig through before she finally found the towels? She backed out; there wasn’t even enough room to turn around, and nearly bumped into Dad, who was standing in the doorway, holding out her favourite towel. It was a large, blue square of terrycloth bearing the picture of a windblown kite. She had taken that towel on her last picnic with Louisa before Louisa had gone away to summer camp and Amy had left Boston, forever.
“I’ll pack a picnic lunch. We’ll eat down by the river.” Dad leaned forward and kissed the top of her head.
Amy’s throat closed in grief as she took the towel from him. She pulled away and squeezed through the door frame, instantly banging her hip on the sink. Swearing, she slammed the door shut, pushing her face into the towel. A few grains of sand rubbed against her cheek. During their picnic, Louisa had dropped a slice of watermelon onto the towel and Amy had upset a bottle of sun block. They had rinsed off most of the mess by squirting it with water from their bottles. The towel still smelled of sun block and very faintly, of watermelon.
Amy turned on the tap and stood under the hesitant drizzle from the shower head.
It wasn’t only a bad birthday, she thought as the water hit her face in weak gusts. It was the worst birthday, ever.
Dad backed out of the driveway, Albert’s tires crunching on the gravel. Albert groaned as Dad shifted gears, his boxy beige body shuddering as he lurched forward, narrowly missing the propane tanks poking out from under the front porch. Amy patted the door of the battered station wagon encouragingly. Poor Albert. He didn’t like the Barn, either.
Dad backed Albert up and changed gears again. As the car bumped forward, the front bumper grazed the corner of the raised concrete well.
“Damnation!” Dad swore like Grandpa Walker. “The last time I looked, that well was over two feet away.”
Amy leaned out of the window to hide her grin as Albert chugged down the track, Dad still muttering about the ‘blasted well.’ There were big spiders hidden under it’s concrete lid. Dad had forgotten to mention those. One of them had run over her hand yesterday when she had lifted the lid. Amy had caught a terrifying glimpse of spindly legs and a bulbous body as it had scurried away from the light.
The day was warm as they turned onto the highway that led into Preston. It was so silent, just the hum of tires over the hot, flat roads and the occasional ping of an insect hitting the windshield. Honey-coloured fields blurred past, dotted every now and then with shadowed clumps of evergreen. The sweet gum smell of pine blew in through the open windows. Amy leaned out, into the wind. She felt weightless, placeless, almost as if she had slipped out of time altogether or time, unnoticed, had slipped past her.
“So, what do you hate most about living here?” Dad asked.
Amy sat back in her seat. “No running water, no electricity, no television.” No Louisa.
To her surprise, Dad laughed. “We can download movies. Or we can buy them in Preston.”
Even the name sounded flat and stilted, a place where nothing ever happened. Pressed Town.
“I bet it has a great selection, just like the library,” Amy said.
“How do you know about the library?”
“Dad! I went in yesterday while you were talking to that nosy lady on the street.” Amy remembered the way the woman’s eyes had rested upon her, sharp and interested, as she had plied Dad with questions.
“Poor Mrs. Burroughs. She did ask a lot of questions but that’s just the way of small towns. She meant well.”
Amy decided not to tell Dad that Mrs. Burroughs had gone into the library to gossip with the librarian after talking to Dad. Amy had heard them whispering together about ‘that Walker boy.’
“She made me go into the Teen section,” Amy said, changing the subject. “Most of the books were about love.” She shuddered.
Dad didn’t even bother to hide his grin. “Maybe the school library will be better.”
School! It would start again in a few weeks. School in Preston– in Canada – would be completely different from school in Boston. Unlike Dad, Amy was an “outsider,” someone who was not originally from the town or the surrounding farms. As well, she was American.
Amy had been in Canada long enough to know that Canadians loved to make fun of Americans. There was even a television show about how dumb Americans were. Amy had watched it once. A fake reporter had walked around a big city in the United States, New York or Washington, interviewing people. “Do you realize that all the igloos in Toronto are melting because of global warming?” He had demanded, thrusting his microphone into people’s faces as they had expressed their shock and sympathy for the homeless, and had demanded immediate government intervention. Dad had laughed but Amy hadn’t found it funny. The show had made her feel more of an outsider than ever.
“The other kids will hate me,” she said.
“Amy, you have to give people a chance.”
Amy barely managed to suppress her snort. Like Mrs. Burroughs?
“I know everything feels a little strange,” Dad said, “but just give things a chance to work out, okay?”
That was what he said after every move. Every time things started to feel good, every time things started to work out, they moved again. This time, the trouble had started when the show Dad had been working on for National Public Radio in Boston got canceled. Then Uncle Jake had called, asking Dad to consider settling on the family farm in Preston, which was in the state – no, the province – of Ontario, Canada.
‘We’re lucky, Amy.’ Dad had said on that first terrible night after Amy had finished crying and was too tired to pull away. ‘We have a place to go to and we have family. This time will be different, I promise.’
Boston had been different. That was the problem. Amy had made a friend, a real friend. It had helped that she had stayed in the same school for nearly three years, instead of being yanked out in the middle of the year and moved to a different school where all the other kids had already made friends. Three years was long enough for Amy to start believing that maybe this time was different; that maybe this time they were staying. She should have known better. Dad had made Amy trade in Louisa for some ‘family’ she had never met, and everything was supposed to be wonderful. At least, until Dad announced that Preston wasn’t working out, and it was time to move on.
“If the school library isn’t up to snuff, I’ll give you a monthly allowance so that you can buy whatever books you want over the Internet,” Dad said. “We’ll build our own library.”
Amy didn’t bother to answer. She knew they were broke. She plugged in her earphones, careful to keep the volume low so Dad wouldn’t nag her about how she was ruining her ears. She leaned out of the window. She was tired of Dad’s promises. Things were never better for very long, no matter where they went. The fast beat of the music mixed with the hum of the tires. A hawk soared lazily overhead.
“This move has been hard for me, too.” Dad said, interrupting the flow of the music.
Amy turned up the volume. Music pounded through her earphones. She didn’t want to hear about how hard it had been for Dad, as if he were not totally to blame for moving them to Preston.
Pressed Town. Pressed Town.
The rhythm of the name fit neatly into the beat inside her earphones. This town was just like every other place she had ever been – a temporary stop on the way to somewhere else. That’s all it would ever be. Moving around from place to place was the only thing that never seemed to change. The truth of it wrapped around her like the beat, insistent, pressing close, a prison from which there was no escape.
They pulled into the parking lot behind the library. Dad parked Albert in a narrow space between two pick-ups, the front bumper squeaking against the sagging hurricane fence in front of them.
“Nobody cares if we use this lot,” Dad said, turning off Albert’s engine and unbuckling his belt.
It was easy to see why. The asphalt surface of the parking lot was cracked and the white lines marking the spaces had nearly faded. Dandelions sprouted from the cracks. Rusty metal bolts bled into the concrete dividers marking each space. A row of parking meters stood on a raised bank of asphalt, marking each divider. Dad ignored them. He couldn’t have used them anyway, since they were all broken. The metal knobs had been pried off and the curved glass windows had all been smashed. The yard on the other side of the fence was scattered with garbage. More spilled from the two dumpsters parked at one end. A peeling advertisement for Coca-Cola decorated one side of the red bricked building opposite. A lone orange cat stalked across the yard, its twitching tail held high.
Amy opened her door carefully, so as not to hit the rusty red pickup next to them. ‘Roy’s Hardware’, read the faded sign on the door. The air was damp and humid. It clung to Amy’s skin like a piece of plastic sheeting.
“Why don’t we check out the thrift store?” Dad said. “It will be just like old times.”
Amy didn’t bother to answer. This whole outing was Dad’s idea, not hers.
They crossed the lot. The main street lay on the other side of the library. The rows of ‘shoppes’ still lined both sides of the road. Their brightly painted facades were in stark contrast to the other stores, whose faded signs advertising shoes and sporting goods stood as a silent testament to better times gone by. Their doorways were boarded up with thin sheets of plywood warped from wind and weather. Nobody appeared at the dusty windows.
They walked across the street, heading towards an A&P grocery store, which stood on the corner. People walked in and out of the sliding glass doors, lugging plastic bags or pushing shopping carts filled with groceries and grubby, wide-eyed children. The men wore baseball caps and T-Shirts tucked into worn jeans. The women, dressed in sleeveless shirts and shorts, moved with a slow, careless grace, as if they did not care where they were going or how quickly they got there. Not one of them clutched a cup of coffee in their hands and there were no cell phones to be seen. One woman stared openly at Amy and Dad as she ambled past, her narrowed eyes almost disappearing into the folds of her face. Her flip-flops smacked against her heels with each step. Amy felt conspicuous in her rolled-up cargoes and high-top sneakers but Dad just smiled and nodded. The woman nodded back.
Dad led them into a neatly painted white clapboard building with the words ‘Preston Goodwill’ stenciled in red lettering across its front window.
“Feels like old times, doesn’t it?” Dad said.
Amy shrugged. Although she and Dad had often combed through thrift shops, Amy felt sure that this Pressed Town store wouldn’t be anything like the stores in Boston. She glanced back at the shadowed windows of the library. She wondered if the librarian was watching.
Besides the grocery store, the thrift store seemed to be the busiest place in town.
Dad smiled and nodded his way through the aisles, as though he knew everybody. Amy felt people’s eyes brush over her curiously. She looked down at the floor, flushing. She tagged a little ways behind, so that it would not look like she and Dad were together. She didn’t feel like talking to any of these strange people, even if Dad did.
Amy paused in front of a rack of used jeans and began to flip half-heartedly through it. She didn’t know why she bothered; there was nothing here that she liked. Dad planted himself in front of the jeans, one rack over. He shifted into zombie mode: pulling out brand names, checking pairs of jeans for signs of wear, comparing prices. Within a few minutes, he had a good-sized pile hanging over one arm.
“Try these on,” Dad handed the jeans to Amy. “They’re all loose fitting, just the way you like them.” He stepped back, eying her critically. “You’ve grown. You’ll need some shirts and a couple of sweaters for school.”
Amy took the jeans. Dad turned back to the racks. Dad was right; she had grown. Just that morning, Amy had tried on one of her old shirts. It had felt too tight, straining against her chest. How had he known?
Dad coughed. “We’ll need to buy you some brassieres, too.”
“I’m only saying…” Dad began.
Amy fled, heading for one of the one of the tiny changing booths that lined the far wall. She dumped her armful of jeans on the flowered vinyl cushion of the chair inside and closed the plastic shower curtain behind her. Nobody called them ‘brassieres’ anymore. What if somebody had heard? She peeked around the shower curtain. Dad was still picking through the racks, oblivious to the fact that he had embarrassed Amy in front of the entire store.
She let the curtain drop again. It was almost peaceful inside the tiny cubicle. The florescent light bulb overhead blinked and sputtered, filling the booth with a harsh, grayish glow. Amy tried on the jeans. She hated to admit it but she did like them. They were only three dollars a pair too, much cheaper than in Boston. They didn’t have any paper one or two dollar bills in Canada, just gold coloured dollar coins called “loonies,” and silver and gold two dollar coins called “toonies.” The names sounded unreal, like funny money used in a board game.
When she came out of the changing booth, Dad was gone. Amy breathed a sigh of relief. She wandered through the aisles, wondering what kinds of things the kids in Preston wore to school. Not that she cared. A vent blasted her with freezing air as she went past. She shivered and rubbed her arms, noticing the rows of goose bumps. She decided to leave the jeans with one of the check out clerks and wait for Dad outside. She hated feeling cold.
She was just leaving the store when she spied Dad hovering beneath a sign marked: ‘Lingerie.’ Two grubby white display bins stood on either side of him. As Amy watched in horror, Dad hooked a bra out of one of the bins. A clerk came over. Dad looked up, nodding and smiling. Then he caught sight of Amy and waved, beckoning her over.
Amy pounded through the doors. Outside, the damp heat settled on her like a weight. She ran around the side of the building, expecting Dad to pop out at any minute, waving the bra. At the back of the store lay an abandoned lot. The hard packed dirt was littered with cigarette butts. Yellowish grass grew over bald patches of earth in scraggly tufts, hiding old cans, newspapers and candy wrappers. She needed to get out of here. If only there was somewhere to go!
She fled across the lot, kicking the grass with her sneakers. Winged insects whirred before her. One of the candy wrappers caught the wind and fluttered across the field. A lone pop can rolled past with a hollow clang. On the other side of the field, lounging against a rusty hurricane fence, a couple of girls bent low over a cigarette. Amy could hear them coughing even from here. She turned abruptly away and began to follow the lot lengthwise, intending to go between the stores to main street and from there, find her way back to the parking lot and Albert. She’d had enough of Pressed Town and its dreary inhabitants. A boy sprang out of a clump of milkweed like a startled hare, directly in front of her.
“Hey, watch where you’re going!” Amy shouted at him.
The boy stared back at her without answering. He was strangely dressed in coarse trousers and suspenders. A pair of worn leather moccasins were wrapped around his ankles. His dark hair was plastered with sweat, as though he’d been running. A crack rang out. The boy dropped like a stone, an expression of terror twisting his face. Amy hit the dirt too, her heart pounding. Had that been a gunshot?
Maybe it was thunder. The sun shone down without a single cloud to mar the bright blue sky. Amy had heard of rogue lightning that sometimes struck on a sunny day. ‘A bolt from the blue.’ Was that what had caused the noise?
The boy sprang to his feet and bolted like a frightened deer, running so lightly that his feet barely touched the grass. Something fluttered from the boy’s belt. Amy raced after it, stomping one foot down upon it. It was a white scrap of cloth. Amy picked it up and waved it at the boy.
“Hey, you dropped something!”
The boy didn’t stop. He kept on running. Amy pelted after him.
They should have reached the end of the vacant lot by now but trees had sprung up on all sides, hemming them in, massive and primeval, with green branches laced together row upon row. The row of stores had entirely disappeared and so had the assorted litter underfoot. There was no sign of the hurricane fence. The ground seemed softer now, almost muddy. Moist earth caked Amy’s sneakers. The boy kept on running until he disappeared into the trees.
Amy watched him go, her own chest heaving up and down from the effort of running. She looked down at the piece of cloth. It was covered with strange markings. There was a long squiggle down the middle and a series of scrawls Amy could not make out. Crude stick-figures marched towards one another.
She heard a distant shout and wheeled around. A man in a blue coat was standing at the edge of the field, pointing straight at her. As she watched, several other blue-coated figures emerged in a jagged semi-circle from the trees.
Instinctively, Amy looked around for the store, her fingers clamping around the cloth. As she did so, the whole world seemed to sway. She stumbled as the soft mud of the field grew firm beneath her feet. She flung out her hands to stop herself from falling and saw that there were no trees before her and no blue-coated figures, only a rusty hurricane fence. Cold bit into her, despite the crushing heat. She felt a pair of anxious hands on her shoulders, steadying her.
“Are you okay?” The worried face of a girl blurred into view.
“Give her some room, Kit.” Another girl materialized to the left of Amy. She was taller than the first girl was but otherwise, they could be identical twins. They both wore jean shorts and running shoes without socks. They had the same high cheek bones and straight black hair that was pulled back from their foreheads in tight ponytails. They snapped their gum and eyed Amy warily.
“You’re not from around here,” the tall girl said. It was not a question but a statement.
“Are you lost?” Kit asked.
“No.” Amy shook her head, then wished she hadn’t. An explosion of pain shot through her skull. Her stomach gave a sudden lurch. She bit down hard on her lip, hoping she wouldn’t throw up in front of these girls.
“Where are you from?” The tall girl persisted.
“Jeez, Donna! Stop grilling her. Can’t you see that she’s sick?”
“Oh, sorry.” Donna looked a little shamefaced.
“No, it’s okay.” Amy took a deep breath. The pain was fading as quickly as it had come, leaving her giddy with relief. “I’m from…Boston. We…we just moved.”
“Why did you move to this dump?” Donna asked. “I hope you like being bored. There’s nothing to do.”
“It’s so boring,” Kit agreed. “I’m Kathy – Kit, for short. She’s Donna. My sister lives in Toronto. I’m moving there the first chance I get. Have you ever been to Toronto? Have you ever gone up the CN tower?”
“Now who’s grilling her?” Donna snapped her gum loudly at Kit. “Come on,” she said to Amy. “We need to get out you out of this heat.”
Amy didn’t protest as Donna took one arm and Kit, the other. Propping Amy between them, they half-carried, half-walked her back through litter-strewn grass.
“I was running after that boy.” Amy’s teeth were chattering. “Did you see him?”
Kit and Donna exchanged a look. “We didn’t see any boy,” Kit said. “Why were you running, anyway? Was somebody bothering you?”
Amy shuddered again, remembering the circle of blue-coated figures. “Only those men. I think they were chasing the boy. They stopped when they saw me.”
“Men? What men?” Kit said. “Did you see any men, Donna?”
Donna shook her head. “If I had, I would have taken off. My grandmother says that any men hanging around here spells ‘trouble.’”
“But there were men, a whole bunch of them! They were standing right over there, in those….” Amy stopped short. She had been about to say ‘trees,’ but the trees had vanished. She made a feeble gesture towards the hurricane fence. “Over there,” she repeated.
Donna regarded her steadily for a second. “You must have been hallucinating,” she pronounced.
“Donna, don’t tell her that!”
Amy stared down at her hand, which was still clutching the handkerchief. It was real, unmistakably there. If the boy had been a hallucination, then who had dropped the handkerchief? The world took another sickening swoop and she swayed on her feet.
Donna tightened her grip on Amy’s arm. “You need to get out of the sun. It’s way too hot, you’re probably dehydrated. Are you alone or are you with someone?”
“You’ll have to excuse her.” Kit apologized as they re-crossed the field, heading back towards the thrift store. “She doesn’t mean to be the Diagnostic Queen of the Universe but she can’t help it. Her grandmother is a doctor.”
“Healer,” Donna corrected her.
Amy found herself grinning at the pair of them, in spite of herself. “No, it’s okay,” she said. “I’m with my Dad. He’s inside the thrift store.” She winced. Should she have said that?
Donna gripped her arm, nonplussed. “Come on.”
They led her around to the front of the building. Sunlight glinted off the window like a burning eye. It was a funny thing, but when Amy had been running across the field, chasing after the boy, she had almost felt cold. The strangeness of it drifted towards her, blanketing her with a damp chill.
Kit suddenly halted. “Omigod!”
Amy wheeled around. Framed in the window, in full view of the street, was Dad. He was holding a bra up to his own chest, frowning down at the padded beige cups. He rotated the bra to and fro, as if trying to decide if it was the right size. Behind him, an interested army of shoppers and sales clerks looked on.
“Is that your Dad?” Donna asked.
Amy nodded. There was no point in denying it. She could feel the blood pulsing in her cheeks. Her face was probably beet-red, too.
“I know exactly how you feel.” Donna said. “My grandmother did the same thing to me.”
“Really?” Kit’s face brightened with interest. “You never told me that.”
“It happened at K-Mart,” Donna said. “I thought we were just shopping for school supplies. Then Grandmother stopped by a bin. It was completely full of bras. Grandmother took one out. She held it up to my chest, right there in the store…” Donna paused for effect. “…right in front of my brothers!”
“Omigod!” Kit shrieked.
“The worst thing was, she didn’t act like she had done anything wrong. Like it was totally normal to embarrass me to death in front of the entire store.”
Amy began to laugh. She couldn’t help it. Donna and Kit each joined in. They fell back against the window. Inside the store, Dad had moved to the check-out counter. They couldn’t tell if he was buying the bra or not. Somehow, that made it funnier. They collapsed against each other, gasping with laughter.
Wiping tears from her face, Donna checked her watch. “Oh, no. Kit, we’d better go. I have to baby sit Louis,” she explained to Amy. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
Amy shook her head. “No.”
“Lucky you!” Donna sighed. “So you’re okay?”
“I’m fine. Thanks.”
There was an awkward pause. Then Kit said:
“I guess we’ll see you around. Hey, I almost forgot to ask your name.”
“It’s Amy. Amy Walker.”
“See you, Amy Walker!” Kit waved.
Amy waved back. The two girls headed down the street, still giggling. As Amy watched them go, she couldn’t help wondering if the girls would have been so friendly if she’d met them in Boston.
Dad came out of the store, carrying a large white plastic bag. “Don’t worry,” he said, holding up his hands. “I only got the jeans.”
Amy breathed out a sigh of relief.
Dad’s eyes took in Kit and Donna who had turned once more to wave at Amy. When they caught sight of Dad, they burst into fresh peals of laughter. Dad raised his eyebrows. “Friends of yours?”
“I just met them.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re making friends.” Dad took a deep breath, his face reddening slightly. “About the brassieres…”
“Dad, I don’t want to talk about it, okay? It’s my birthday.”
Dad’s face relaxed into a smile. “Okay.” Then he sighed. “I guess I’m just not used to the idea of you growing up.”
Growing up. Was that what she was doing?
They crossed the street, heading for the shady library with its cool stone walls and emerald lawns.
“Thanks,” Amy said awkwardly. “For the jeans, I mean.”
“You’re welcome, Sprout.”
Amy started at the familiar nickname. She couldn’t remember the last time Dad had called her that. Something white fluttered in her hand. She was still clutching the handkerchief. A wave of coldness hit her. For an instant, she saw the field of grass where the boy had run and the dark circle of trees. Then, the vision faded. Two lone oaks leaned out over the lawn beside library. There were no other trees on Main Street, or behind any of the stores.
“Are you okay?” Dad sounded concerned.
“Yeah.” Amy shivered and stuffed the handkerchief into her pocket. She didn’t want to think about it or the boy. She just wanted to go home – wherever that was.
“Happy Birthday, Amy.”
Amy stared at the lopsided birthday cake Uncle Jake had set down on the table. One side of it rose in a kind of hump while the other side tapered down to the platter. Under the lurid green icing, were the words: “Happy Birth,” spelled out in chocolate chips. A thick white candle had been stuck in the middle of the cake.
“We ran out of chocolate chips,” Uncle Jake said without the slightest trace of embarrassment. His green eyes, the same colour as Dad’s, twinkled beneath a shock of reddish-brown hair. “Then the store in Preston didn’t have any birthday decorations.” He struck a match, touching the wick with the flaming end. The fat candle wavered to light.
Amy stared at the candle. Was she supposed to blow it out? The scent of vanilla wafted through the air.
“Aromatherapy,” Caspar Walker said.
His sister Cynthia made a choking sound. She was one year younger than Amy, small for her age and wiry. Her short blond hair stuck up in unruly tufts. She fell back in her chair, her mouth twitching.
“Well, it’s certainly original.” Dad finally said.
Uncle Jake’s glasses sparkled in the light from the candle. “Why don’t you make a wish?”
“Make two,” Dad said. “The candle’s big enough.”
Cynthia and Caspar burst out laughing. Amy clenched her fists. She wanted to pick up the cake and grind it into her cousins’ faces. How dare they laugh at her? She filled her lungs and blew a savage gust. The flame wavered, then went out.
“What did you wish for?” Caspar asked.
Amy stared at the candle. If she had believed in birthday wishes, she would have wished herself away from all of them. “Nothing,” she said. “Wishing is for babies.”
Silence descended on the kitchen.
“Well, what about presents?” Uncle Jake said brightly.
“I already opened them.” Amy cast a meaningful glance at Dad. Can we please go now?
Dad shook his head. No.
“What did you get?” Caspar said. His grey eyes, framed by thick-lens spectacles, regarded Amy with interest. Beneath the blond spikes of his hair, his pudgy cheeks were flushed with excitement, as if it was his birthday instead of Amy’s.
Amy shrugged. “Some clothes.” She didn’t say they were from the thrift store.
“Well, now that you’re here, your Dad can take you for a ride in his famous canoe,” Uncle Jake said. “Grandpa Walker gave it to him when he was about your age,” he told Amy. “I bet you didn’t know your old man was the best canoeist in Royal County, did you?”
Who cares? Amy shifted in her chair. Then she caught Dad’s warning glare. “Oh, really?”
“He looked for any excuse to step into a boat,” Uncle Jake continued. “Rain and snow were no exception. One winter, he even tried to put runners on the canoe so he could use it as a toboggan.” Uncle Jake laughed.
Dad shook his head ruefully. “Father gave me the canoe during that awful Christmas when he was laid off from the factory, remember Jake?”
“I sure do,” Uncle Jake chuckled. “You were furious! You had wanted a B.B. gun and instead got some old, hand-me-down canoe that looked like it had been through the war. You put a stone through Old Man Parker’s picture window, just as the Parker’s were sitting down to Christmas dinner. The Parkers owned the factory where Grandpa worked,” Uncle Jake explained.
Amy sneaked a sideways glance at Dad. She couldn’t imagine her mild-mannered father throwing a stone through anybody’s window.
Dad shook his head, looking sheepish. “I remember that I couldn’t sit down for a week.”
“Did Grandpa hit you?” Caspar was aghast.
“No,” Dad corrected. “Grandma did.”
“With a wooden spoon,” Uncle Jake added.
Cynthia, Amy and Caspar exchanged horrified glances.
“That’s assault,” Caspar said. “You could have reported Grandma. She could have gone to jail.”
“Not in those days,” Dad said. “It was just the way parents disciplined their children. Not that I agree with it – then or now.”
“Did you get hit?” Caspar asked his father.
“Oh, all the time.” Uncle Jake said.
“At least three times a week.” Dad laughed.
Caspar looked from his uncle to his father, realized they were joking and then laughed, too.
Silence descended once again.
“Well Amy,” Uncle Jake cleared his throat. “I think your cousin Cynthia is curious about how folks from Boston spend their birthdays.” He poked Cynthia in the ribs. “Right, honey?”
Cynthia squirmed away. “So what did you do for your birthday?” She asked in a bored tone, as if she couldn’t care less about Amy’s answer.
“We had a pretty good time,” Dad nudged Amy under the table with his foot.
“We drove into Preston,” Amy cut in, before Dad could tell her cousins about their visit to the thrift store.
“Amy met two girls in town,” Dad said. “Kit and Donna. Do you know them, Cynthia?”
Cynthia shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“So, how did you like our town?” Uncle Jake asked, glaring at Cynthia. “I imagine it’s pretty different from Boston.”
Amy wondered what the Walkers would say if she told them what she really thought about Pressed Town instead of droning out the expected response about how nice it was and how glad she was that they had moved here. “It’s pretty small,” Amy said. She allowed a note of disdain to creep into her voice. Cynthia’s head shot up. Caspar’s shoulders stiffened. Good.
“We were supposed to have a picnic, only I forgot our lunch.” Dad said hastily. “I went back to Albert to get it, then remembered I had left it behind on the kitchen counter.”
“Who’s Albert?” Caspar asked.
Dad shot him a grateful look. “Our car.”
Caspar grinned. “We have a canoe named Han Solo. Cynthia named it. She’s a Star Wars freak.”
“Shut up, Caspar.” Cynthia mumbled, twirling spaghetti around her fork.
Uncle Jake cleared his throat. “You haven’t opened our present yet, Amy.”
He raised his eyebrows at Cynthia, who reluctantly scraped back her chair and made her way over to the wood box. She pulled out a bulky, brightly wrapped package and brought it back to the table, plunking it down before Amy. She sat back down on her chair without saying a word.
Amy could feel Dad’s eyes upon her. “Uh, thanks,” she made herself say. She didn’t want their dumb present.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” Caspar asked impatiently.
Amy cast a quick glance at Dad, whose eyes were boring into her like gimlets. She tore open the wrapper, throwing scraps of paper down on the floor. It was sleeping bag, one of the expensive ones with down fill and a bright red cover. Amy reached out a tentative finger and stroked the shiny fabric. Red was her favourite colour. “What is it for?”
“Are you serious?” Cynthia burst out. She turned to look at her father.
“Go on,” Uncle Jake said. “I can see you’re just dying to tell her.”
Cynthia rolled her eyes.
“We’re going on a canoe trip!” Caspar burst out. “I wanted to leave tomorrow but Dad says we need at least a week to get things ready.”
“Canoe trip?” Dad sounded as dazed as Amy felt.
“We thought it would be a nice way of welcoming you back to the farm,” Uncle Jake explained. “A chance for us all to get away and get to know each other as a family.”
Dad’s smile was as lopsided as the cake. He got up from the table and made his way over to the kitchen counter, which stood against the far wall by the door. Uncle Jake picked up the cake and followed him.
“We’ll probably need a chain saw to cut this thing,” Uncle Jake said, gesturing towards the green lump. “I should know, I’m the one who baked it. Unfortunately, Hannah’s misplaced the chain saw.” Uncle Jake was referring to Aunt Hannah, who worked as a university professor in nearby Albany. Amy remembered that she was away on a research trip. Uncle Jake pulled open a drawer. “Would you settle for a knife?”
Dad managed a shaky laugh. “A knife would be great.”
The red sleeping bag fell off Amy’s lap and rolled under one of the chairs. The glow of the overhead light cast shadows into the far corners of the room. A flowered sofa drifted in the half-light, rootless, without anchor. Although it was growing dark, the bright yellow curtains had not yet been pulled. Through the windows, Amy could see the tossing fronds of the willow trees surrounding the farmhouse, and the faint outline of the Barn. Amy had thought she would never in her life be glad to see it. Now, all she wanted to do was flee up the hill towards the weathered cabin.
Caspar and Cynthia were busy counting the number of chocolate chips on each slice of cake, and arguing over which slice would have the most.
“I guess she’ll get first pick,” Caspar said, indicating Amy with a shake of his head.
“No way,” Amy said. “I’m not eating that.” The icing alone was enough to make her sick.
Cynthia leaned forward, her eyes narrowed. “My father slaved away all day, making that cake for you. So the least you can do is eat it. Alright, Aimless?”
Amy sat up with a jolt. The blood pounded ferociously inside her head.
“Caspar, Cynthia.” Uncle Jake called. “Clear the table, please.”
Her cousins got up without a word. Amy slid off her chair. Soundlessly, she crept onto the screened porch that stood off the kitchen. The air was cooler on the porch. Hay-scented wind blew past her face. Beyond the screen, evergreens waved back and forth with a hushing noise. The air rang with the piercing drone of insects. The fields rippled like a dark lake. A fluff ball with a few stray pine needles stuck to it rolled past her sock feet. She wouldn’t go on a canoe trip with these people, no matter what Uncle Jake said. The Walkers were not her family. The farm would never be home, and neither would Canada. She, Amy Walker, was American and she would never forget it.
Grabbing her sneakers, Amy let herself out into the night, careful not to let the screen door bang behind her.