image

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cataloging-in-Publication Data has been applied for and may be obtained from the Library of Congress.

ISBN 978-1-4197-2882-2
eISBN 978-1-68335-250-1

Text copyright © 2018 Laura Geringer Bass
Illustrations copyright © 2018 Penelope Dullaghan
Book design by Alyssa Nassner

Published in 2018 by Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the publisher.

Amulet Books and Amulet Paperbacks are registered trademarks of Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Amulet Books are available at special discounts when purchased in quantity for premiums and promotions as well as fundraising or educational use. Special editions can also be created to specification. For details, contact specialsales@abramsbooks.com or the address below.

image
ABRAMS  The Art of Books
195 Broadway, New York, NY 10007
abramsbooks.com

image

 

For my sons, ADAM and ETHAN,
and in memory of my dad–
their GRANDPA BEN–with love

–L.G.B.

image

BROWN Eye, GREEN Eye

The day my father’s heart stopped, I discovered an extra heart deep in my belly, below my right rib. It talked to me. I wasn’t crazy. Before that day, I had just one heart that never said a word.

My little brother, Aaron, was kind of crazy, I guess, but everything in our house was what my grandpa Ben liked to call “under control.” At least I always knew what to expect.

Aaron and I had two parents, but really we each had one. Mom was in charge of Aaron. As soon as he was born, she quit her job so she could take care of him. She was his. Grandpa Ben was Aaron’s, too. Dad was mine.

I missed Mom—the mother I remembered from Before Aaron. She used to pick me up every day after school. If my nose was running, she had tissues. She took them from her purse, and they smelled sweet like flowers.

At home, Mom and I used to make things—puppets out of wooden spoons we dressed in scraps from Dad’s old ties. Dolls with tiny holes in their heads made from eggs with their yolks blown out. We balanced them on toilet paper rolls and made their hair out of wool and their dresses out of colored tissue paper.

Mom showed me how to paint and glue wings on clothespins. We sprinkled them all over with sequins. We called them Clothespin Angels. We made them talk to one another in high, squeaky voices the way I imagined bugs would sound if they spoke. We played with them for hours. While we played, Mom’s green eye came so close to mine it looked almost too bright, like when I stared at the moon in Cape Cod.

I have green eyes. Mom has only one that’s green. Her other eye is brown like Aaron’s. I used to wonder: If Mom had been born with both eyes the same color, would they have been green or brown? I asked her if she could change one eye or the other, which color would she choose?

“Green,” she said. “Like new grass.”

“That’s the color of my eyes,” I said, proud she had picked me over Aaron for once.

Mom says she sees mostly through her green eye. I call it her miracle eye because Mom sees miracles. Not big miracles like Moses parting the Red Sea, but everyday ones like the shadow patterns pigeons make in the park when they flutter. Or mist rising from the Hudson River when sunbeams bounce off the George Washington Bridge and hit the sky. You had to be in the right place at the right time and in just the right mood to see Mom’s miracles. It was easy to miss them. When Aaron came along and took Mom away from me, I thought maybe he was better than me at seeing them.

Mom took Aaron to school every morning and picked him up every afternoon and brought him to the playground. She cooked special meals and snacks for him because he was a fussy eater. Aaron refused to eat just about everything. Even if you tried to feed him the most delicious stuff, he’d shake his head so hard it looked as if it might fall off his skinny neck, and he’d close his eyes and clamp his mouth shut if he thought you were holding the spoon or the fork a tiny bit wrong. Mom was the only one who could get him to swallow anything. She reeled him back down to earth from someplace in outer space when he had one of his tantrums. Rock Face tantrums, I called them, because before he started to yell and scream his face got stiff and hard as a rock.

At night, Mom gave Aaron baths and read him stories and put him to bed. She played games with him on the rug and sang him songs, silly ones like the one she used to sing to me when I was little: We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here. The song went on and on, for as long as Mom and Aaron wanted to sing it, to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.” I used to love that song because it didn’t have an end, but it ended for me when Aaron was born. It was his song with Mom now.

I tried not to pay much attention to Aaron and Mom. I really didn’t need Mom to pick me up from school. I was old enough to walk home with my friends. I played with Peter, my best friend, and Tina, my next-to-best friend, and Reena, who tagged along. They came over to my house almost every day, or I went to theirs. Actually, it wasn’t ever Reena who tagged along. It was me, but I didn’t know it back then.

On weekends, it was harder not to notice Mom and Aaron in their own little bubble, but Dad was more fun than Mom and we had adventures, just the two of us. We’d sneak out of the house without letting Mom and Aaron know where we were going. Mostly, we just went to the movies at the Loews around the corner. Or we rode our bikes in Inwood Park. Or we went swimming at the Y. Or we took the subway to museums like the New York Hall of Science in Queens, the one with the giant yellow slide and the see-through floor and the water wheel in the playground. Dad walked on a weird treadmill there once with special sensors in the handlebars. It spat out a crinkly blue slip of paper like the fortune in a cookie. Dad read the paper and looked annoyed. He crumpled it into his fist and shook it at the machine. “What else is new?” he said.

I hopped off my treadmill. It was a twin to Dad’s, but it spat out a red paper. Don’t quit now, it said. Go for pro.

I showed Dad my printout. “What does yours say?” I asked. “I’ll trade you. I like blue better.” He handed his to me in an angry little ball. I rubbed it with my finger to flatten it out. It said: Your heart is working too hard.

“You may as well tell me I’m alive,” said Dad to his machine.

“Mine didn’t say that,” I said. “I’m alive.”

“You may as well tell me I have a family,” he said.

“I do, too,” I pointed out.

“And that I love my family no matter what,” he added, not looking at me. He was still talking to the treadmill. “If you’re human, your heart is working too hard,” he said.

I wondered if my treadmill could tell I didn’t love Mom and Aaron no matter what. I wondered if it knew that when it came to Mom and Aaron, I wasn’t sure I had a heart at all. When Dad was tired, the pale scar on his forehead from when he was a little kid and rode his bike through a glass door bulged a bit, as if a worm had gotten under his skin. It did that now. I wondered if Mom and Dad had been up all night again, talking about Aaron, worrying about him.

I’m human,” I reminded Dad.

He looked at me then and smiled. “As human as they come,” he said.

“I love you, Dad,” I burst out. I hugged him. I reached up and touched his scar and then his beard gently, the way I’d seen Mom do it. “I’m not so sure about Mom and Aaron. I guess I love them—but not as much.”

He didn’t correct me. He didn’t say, “Of course you love Mom and Aaron.” He gathered me in his arms and squeezed me tight. He said, “I love you, too, Beautiful.”

image

Say GOODBYE

Mom made scrambled eggs the morning my dad’s heart stopped. She had just put a jar of blueberry jam on the kitchen table. She swatted the dishcloth to clear away bread crumbs.

“Go call your father, Briana,” she said. Swat. Swat. “He’s overdoing it on that bike.” Swat. “He’ll be late for work.”

Dad was never late for work. He was never late for anything. Whenever we took a trip, he rushed us out the front door two hours early. I was never late for school; my dad made sure I got up on time. This year, when I graduated to eighth grade, Dad told me I was “in the big time” now and it was more important than ever to be on time. I was proud to be in the big time until I heard him say the same thing to Aaron, who is only in kindergarten. Dad was usually the one who made breakfast.

The door to my parents’ bedroom was open. I pushed it with my knee. Dad was slumped over the handlebars of his exercise bike. Morning light flooded the room. It made my father’s head glow like a bulb.

The first thing Dad did every morning was pull up the blinds. He said he was greeting the day. He had greeted the day before he got on his bike, but now his eyes were closed. His nose was pale and pinched like when he wore a nose clip to do laps in the pool at the Y. One hand dangled by his side. His New York Times had fallen to the floor.

“Dad?” I said. He didn’t answer. I turned and rushed back to my mother.

“Dad looks funny,” I said. Mom was pouring milk into Aaron’s cow cup. She stopped pouring and looked up. The milk had reached about halfway up, to the cow’s big smile.

“Funny ha ha? Or funny cuckoo?” asked Mom. It was an old routine we had before Aaron was born. Mom and I decided what to laugh at each day and what was too crazy to laugh at and what was too crazy but impossible not to laugh at anyway.

“No really, something’s wrong,” I said, panicking. “I think he fainted.”

Mom’s brown eye turns black when she’s afraid. It turned black now. She rushed past me toward the bedroom.

Later, after the emergency team had left, before the coroner came, my mother took both my hands in hers. She squeezed them so hard it hurt. My heart raced.

It was then, staring into the black fear in both her eyes, that I got my second heart.

My new heart started as a fist-size ball in my stomach. It split into two chambers, then into four. All that splitting didn’t hurt. I heard the dull snaps like a cracker breaking along dotted lines, just where it was supposed to break. It began to beat. Once. Twice. Too many times to count. I told my mother I had a heart in my belly. I pointed to where I could feel it beating.

“Maybe it’s a spare?” I said. “Like a spare tire.”

“It’s just your pulse,” said Mom.

That night, the new heart spoke to me. It sounded like distant thunder, but also it sounded like Dad. I wasn’t afraid, just surprised, but not that surprised. I didn’t really think Dad would leave me. I was Dad’s girl.

Goodbye, my Dad heart rumbled. Say goodbye.

How could I say goodbye? Dad hadn’t said goodbye to me.

In the next few days, I waited for buildings on our block to crumble, subways to grind to a halt, the sidewalk in front of our house to break into a million pieces, the West Side Highway to cave in, the Cloisters to split in two and topple, the tallest trees in Inwood Park to fall, and the bike trails to disappear, erased by a sudden explosion of plants that shouldn’t be there. Like the ones my best friend, Peter, taught me to recognize. Mugwort. Wintercreeper. Yellow floating heart.

I expected a hurricane to hit New York City. Or a tornado.

By the sunny September morning of my dad’s funeral, none of those things had happened.

image

BLACKBIRD

At Riverside Memorial downtown, Aaron stood on his toes, craning his neck and blinking at the crowd. He didn’t like crowds. His yellow curls fuzzed into a tangle all over his head. His big brown eyes had the look of a newbie from outer space.

Tina and Reena came over, clinging to each other. “Tina and Reena? Really? Those are their names?” Aaron whispered, pretending he had never met my friends before. Maybe he really didn’t remember. He had a hard time with names.

I looked around for Mom. I thought she would take charge of Aaron until the service started. She was sitting on a couch with her head on Grandpa Ben’s shoulder. “Lily, oh, Lily,” Grandpa Ben said.

“You’re my rock,” Mom sobbed.

I thought Dad was her rock. I guess her dad was the next best. Who was my rock now?

“Briana? I’m sorry for your loss,” said Tina, looking down at the floor. She wobbled on high heels. Her thick eyebrows shot up. She bit her lip and rubbed her ear. Her studs were the shape of little black roses. “It’s so sad,” she whispered.

“My father had heart surgery a year ago,” offered Reena.

“We know that,” said Tina.

Reena played with her bushy ponytail, darting quick looks over her shoulder at the crowd. Her miniskirt looked like a black-and-white chessboard with all the pieces missing. Clutching her tissues, she dabbed at her eyes and sniffled. What gave her the right to cry at my father’s funeral? Dad didn’t even like Reena. He didn’t like Tina much either. He never said so, but I could tell.

I wished Peter would come. He called Tina and Reena the pushmi-pullyu after Doctor Dolittle’s two-headed llama. I would know what to say to Peter. Or if I didn’t, it wouldn’t matter.

“How did . . . I mean . . . was it his heart?” asked Reena. Her chin quivered.

“The doctors said it was an electrical storm in his heart. It’s called ES,” I told her.

She looked alarmed. “It’s rare,” I added.

“Not a heart attack?” asked Tina.

“Heart attacks aren’t rare,” said Reena. “That’s what my father had. I’ve heard of ES. It’s very fatal.”

“Fatal is fatal, stupid,” said Tina.

I had the familiar feeling Tina and Reena were talking to each other and not to me. I looked toward the door, searching for Peter. I spotted Daisy. She was the smallest girl in my class and the best artist in the school. She used fountain pens. Some days, she came to school with the ends of her red hair colored purple or green as if they’d been dipped into one of her ink bottles. Today they were green. Her mom had died of cancer last year. She lived with her dad.

“What’s she doing here?” asked Reena.

“Yeah,” said Tina. “She never even met Briana’s dad. Did she?”

Aaron tugged at my hand. “Look!” he said. “Mom wants us to sit down.”

My mother stood by the pulpit talking with the rabbi. She signaled me. “I have to go find our seats,” I told Tina. Where was Peter?

I walked Aaron down the aisle toward the reserved row in front. The ushers looked like toad footmen, each one fatter than the next. They stared at us with bulging eyes. Aaron clung to me.

Daisy came over. “I’m sorry about your dad,” she said.

“What’s your name?” asked Aaron.

“If you ever want to talk . . .” said Daisy.

I shook my head. My eyes filled with tears.

“I mean, not right now,” she said. “Not today. Sometime. Anytime.”

“Thanks,” I mumbled.

“Your dad looks . . . nice,” she said, pointing to the photo on the program. Mom had picked the photo. I didn’t like it. You couldn’t tell that Dad was always joking.

“He looked better when he smiled,” I said.

“Who are you?” Aaron demanded.

Daisy squatted down to be eye level with Aaron. “I’m Daisy,” she said.

He reached out and touched a strand of her hair. “Mom wants us to sit down,” he told her.

“Okay,” she said, rising. She turned and walked away.

“She’s nice,” said Aaron. “Her hair is red. And green.”

Peter came in. Dressed in black, he looked even taller than usual. He scanned the room. I wished he could sit next to me, but Mom had said the first row was for family only. Peter was family. I’d known him since second grade.

He was wearing a tie, gray with a pattern of silhouetted bird shapes, flying. He strode over and put his hand on Aaron’s head. “Hey, dude,” he said. Aaron swayed to one side, taking Peter in. He squinted at the tie, then reached out and touched it.

“Blackbird one, blackbird two, blackbird three . . .” he counted. He pointed to each dark winged shape with his finger. Peter’s eyes met mine. They were blue like Grandpa Ben’s. He took Aaron’s hand in both of his and held it, then gave it back to Aaron.

“Four blackbirds . . .” whispered Aaron, holding up four fingers.

Peter patted my handbag. It was stuffed with my notes for Dad’s eulogy.

“Good luck,” said Peter.

“Thanks, I’ll need it,” I said.

“You’re the writer in the family,” Mom had said when she asked me to speak.

“I make up stories,” I had told her. “That’s different.”

Peter gave me a quick fist bump, then slouched into a seat all the way in the back, behind Tina and Reena. The rabbi cleared his throat. I pulled my notes from my purse. I should never have promised Mom I would say something. I had nothing to say except that a storm in my father’s heart had taken him away. Everyone knew that. What could I say that they didn’t know—that only I knew?

I stared at the white tulips on the podium. The rabbi jiggled the microphone. It barked out a round of static. He put a pudgy hand over it. “Can you all hear me?” he asked. He shuffled his papers.

Leaning on Grandpa Ben’s arm, Mom made her way toward me, head down as if she were fighting a strong wind. She sat down. I hunched over, pressing my hands to my belly. My Dad heart beat fast, faster.

Be your own, it said.

Was my Dad heart going to talk to me in riddles? Be your own. “I can’t!” I said.

“You can’t what?” whispered Mom. “Briana, sit up, please!”

“I can’t speak,” I said.

“What?”

“I can’t do the eulogy.”

My mother nodded. “It’s okay if you don’t want to do it,” she said, but she looked disappointed. Grandpa Ben leaned over and patted my knee. He winked at me. I looked away. What would he say if he knew I had a Dad heart in my belly that talked to me?

The rabbi began. “God, filled with mercy, may you illuminate like the brilliance of the skies the soul of our beloved, who has gone to his eternal place of rest. May you, who are the source of mercy, shelter him beneath your wings eternally and bind his soul among the living that he may rest in peace. Amen.”

“Amen,” said my mother, bowing her head.

My Dad heart was singing now. The words came out in the wrong order one by one like drops from a stuffed-up faucet. Black. Light. Night. Fly. It was an old Beatles song from The White Album, but it was all jumbled up. I had heard Dad sing it a million times.

My father was not among the living. He couldn’t walk in the park or ride a bike or take me to a movie. He couldn’t sing “Blackbird.”

He wouldn’t know if I did a eulogy or not.

image

ESTRELLITA

It was time for Mom to speak. She flushed, fingering her necklace, a string of beads. She looked short, shorter than usual. Mom talked about her first date with Dad. I waited for her to get to me. Me and Dad. No surprise, she got to Aaron first.

“Aaron!” said Mom. “When Dad decided to teach you baseball, he had no idea what he was up against.” Aaron beamed angelically at Mom. There was scattered laughter. It was Dad who made jokes. Mom wasn’t funny.

“Every Sunday for months your dad sang ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ and bought you a new bat and ball,” Mom continued. “‘Today, you’re a slugger,’ he’d say. ‘New bat. New ball. New hope.’ All those yellow bats are still around the house somewhere.”

Take. Me. Out. Root. Root. Root, sang my Dad heart. It sounded like one of Dad’s old vinyl records, skipping . . .

It’s baseball Sunday in Inwood Park. Dad is mine, not Aaron’s, but Mom says she can’t teach Aaron baseball. Why not? I ask.

Dad is pitching. I’m the catcher. I paw the dirt with my sneaker, raising a puff of grit. I cough, half choking.

Dad runs up to my brother and switches out his bat for another beginner’s bat just like it. He corrects Aaron’s grip and shows him the right stance. Bouncing on his toes, he backs up, raises one leg high, and holds the ball with both hands close to his mouth like he’s telling it a secret. He tosses it straight to Aaron.

Aaron swings and misses.

Strike one, I yell. I slam my fist into Dad’s old catcher’s mitt. My long hair is stuck to my sweaty neck. Dad holds his hand up for a time-out. He takes off his baseball cap and squats down, his hands on his knees, panting. Something is wrong. I walk toward Dad. He gets up, goes to the water fountain, wets his hair. He gives off a golden glow like marmalade.

“Aaron!” said Mom, bringing me back. “Think of your father’s face as he pitched you those balls. It wasn’t about baseball. It was about how much he loved you.”

I coughed, covering my mouth. I couldn’t stop. I was choking.

Mom didn’t know where those Wiffle bats were but I did. They were still in the corner of my closet like a bunch of yellow flowers left over from a party that had been called off. Dad hadn’t bought them for me. Still, I couldn’t bear to throw a single one away.

“And Briana!” said Mom. At last, she had gotten around to me. “Remember how your father loved his Estrellita.”

I stopped coughing. My mouth felt dry, my tongue tasted like dust.

Estrellita, called my Dad heart.

“Don’t,” I whispered. Softly, it sang the Estrellita song. Little star. Can’t live. Without. Your love. Can’t live. Without.

I heard the raspy sound of Mom crying. I plugged one ear with my finger.

“What are you doing?” whispered Aaron. He imitated me, plugging his own ear.

“Stop that!” whispered Grandpa Ben. He took Aaron’s finger out of his ear. “Your mother is talking. Listen.”

Aaron threw me a look for getting him in trouble with Grandpa Ben.

Weeping, Mom tugged at her beads. The string broke, and the beads bounced and rolled. The fat funeral ushers rushed forward, ducking their heads. Their bulging toad eyes looked for Mom’s beads. I waited for Mom to stop crying. I waited for her to say something else. About me and Dad.

Mom clutched at her neck where the beads should have been. She shook her head. Tears streamed down her face. She thanked everyone for being there. She thanked the toads. The rabbi stepped forward for the closing prayer. I couldn’t believe it. Mom had summed up my life with Dad in one embarrassing word. Estrellita. It was private, Dad’s private name for me. How dare Mom say it in public in front of the pushmi-pullyu!

“Beautiful” was another name Dad had called me. Couldn’t she have said that?

image

BLUE

That night, after everyone had gone home, Mom asked me to put Aaron to bed.

“No, you,” said Aaron.

Mom kissed him on the forehead. “Go with your sister, please, sweetheart,” she whispered.

“My Dad heart is still there,” I said. “In my belly.”

She sighed. “I told you, Briana, it’s just your pulse.”

“It spoke to me. At the funeral.”

A pearl button on Mom’s blouse had popped off. Her curly hair had gone frizzy. The color had left her face.

“It sang ‘Blackbird.’ And ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’ And ‘Estrellita,’” I said. She squeezed my shoulder.

“We’ll talk about it in the morning,” she said.

I took Aaron’s hand. “G’night, Mom.”

“Thank you, honey,” she said, turning away.

I told Aaron to wait while I went to find a story to read to him. He propped his back against the wall and slid down to the floor. Resting his chin on his knees, his head drooped to the left. When he was tired or upset, he always drooped like that, as if his skull were heavier on that side. It made him look like a dandelion someone had stepped on but not quite crushed.

Inside my room, I shut the door and leaned against it, my arms crossed over my chest. Through the door, I could hear Aaron humming to himself. It wasn’t a happy sound, but it wasn’t sad either. I breathed in blue.

Everything in my room was blue—blue green, blue gray—like the sea: walls, rug, blinds, bedspread, sheets, pillows. Blue was my color.