The New House
There comes a day in the life of every big sister when it's simply no longer suitable to share a bedroom with your toad of a little brother.
For Odessa Green-Light, that day was a Tuesday.
They'd only been living in the new house a few months. Odessa and Oliver shared a room, like they had in the old house, and like they did in Dad's apartment. This new house, of which Odessa was not particularly fond, had one redeeming feature that the old house she missed so much did not.
It had an attic.
From the first time the landlady gave them the tour--with someone else's scribbles on the kitchen wall, and someone else's stickers stuck to the dryer that had dried someone else's clothes, and the narrow wooden staircase scuffed from someone else's shoes--Odessa had her eye on that attic.
"You'll love it here," the old lady barked at Odessa, as if this were an order and not a wish.
Odessa doubted very much that she would love it there, but she did think that she might love living in the attic, a full flight of stairs removed from Oliver.
She asked, but of course her mother said no. If there was one thing Odessa could count on, it was Mom saying no to the things Odessa wanted most.
So a few months back, on move-in day, a day Mom tried to make cheery by blasting old-fashioned music and singing into a broom handle, Odessa unpacked her stuff into one half of a too-small bedroom while Oliver the Toad unpacked into the other.
And each day since, or at least every weeknight and every other weekend, which were the nights she spent at her mother's, Odessa had begged to move into that attic, but it hadn't worked.
Begging rarely did.
She'd also tried cajoling, bamboozling, and hoodwinking.
"Not a chance," Mom said.
Sometimes, however, victory is found in unlikely places.
Oliver discovered the field mouse that delivered this victory in the backyard. Oliver didn't seem to know how to get along with real live people: his terrible shyness got in the way. But there was no denying he had a way with rodents.
It was a Tuesday, which meant the next day was a Wednesday, word-study day, and Odessa had set her mind to moving into word group N, which required some studying.
The fourth-grade class was divided into word groups L, M, and N, and although Mr. Rausche chose letters from smack-dab in the middle of the alphabet, Odessa knew that as an M, she was only a second-level word-study student.
Smack-dab in the middle.
Odessa loved words. And she always tried her best to use the ones that other people too often ignored. But loving words and knowing how to spell them were two different things, and Odessa knew she would never make the move to group N without mastering the illogical rules of spelling, which was nearly impossible to do with Oliver crashing around her too-small room.
So she told him to get lost, not having any idea that this would lead him to their new backyard, where he'd find a field mouse sniffing around a chew toy that someone else's dog had left in the grass. Nor did she guess that Oliver would sing softly to this mouse until it wandered into his outstretched palm, at which point he would carry it into their bedroom and drop it down the back of Odessa's pink T-shirt with the turquoise stripes.
Odessa did what any reasonable person would do. She shrieked, ran to find her mother in the kitchen, and threatened to sue in a court of law if she couldn't move into the attic.
From her mother's lips sprang these three beautiful words:
"I. Give. Up."
And so Odessa found herself tucked in bed by 7:45 that Tuesday night under the quilt Mom pulled from one of the attic's boxes. A quilt sewn as a gift for the darling baby Oliver, who had grown up to be a pesky toad.
Odessa had been sleeping in the attic for exactly three nights before it happened.
One of the reasons Odessa did not love the new house was that she'd seen it for the first time the day after Dad told her that he was getting remarried.
To re something means to do it all over again, so remarrying should have meant he'd be getting married to Mom again, not getting married to someone else.
But Odessa didn't say this to Dad as they sat in a booth at Pizzicato and he made his announcement. Odessa and Oliver loved Pizzicato. Dad hated it. That he'd taken them there without any begging should have been the first warning sign.
The second was when he clinked his glass with his fork and said he had big news.
Odessa preferred small news. Big news was never good.
She'd cried that night, and Mom had held her.
"I don't want to be de-hyphenated!" she wailed. She'd never much liked the name Green-Light. If you were a woman named Green, and you met a man named Light, wouldn't you run as fast as you could in the opposite direction? Probably. But her parents didn't. They fell in love and got married and had kids whose names they hyphenated, and then fell out of love and got divorced, and now the most important thing in the world to Odessa was to hold on to the name Green-Light.
"Nobody is taking away your hyphen," Mom said, stroking her hair. "You will always be Odessa Green-Light, for better or for worse."
That night, it definitely felt for worse.
The next day Mom took her to see the new house they'd be renting because they'd finally sold the old house that Dad had moved out of the year before.
So Odessa had disliked the house from day one, but now that she'd moved to the attic, that had started to change.
Oliver's behavior didn't change, however.
It started with him mimicking her ("Oliver, have you seen my pencil case?" "Oliver, have you seen my pencil case?") and refusing to stop ("You're so annoying!" "You're so annoying!"), and it ended with the comment he made under his breath about how she like-liked Theo Summers, something she had only just admitted to her best friend, Sofia, that afternoon.
Sofia had called, as she always did, just after Odessa finished her snack.
Sofia had been eying Odessa and Theo since they'd all been assigned to the same hexagonal table at school.
"You like him," Sofia said. "I can tell by the way you stare at him."
Theo sat directly across from Odessa. Where else was she supposed to look?
"Yeah," Odessa said. "He's funny." She also thought he was smart, but she knew this wouldn't matter much to Sofia. In the world of fourth grade, funny mattered. Smart did not.
"But do you like him like him?"
Today Odessa had admitted that she thought he was cute, especially since he'd stopped cutting his hair, and that yes, she guessed that meant she liked him liked him.
This is just what Oliver mumbled to her: "You like-like Theo Summers."
She'd always suspected that Oliver eavesdropped on her phone calls, and now she had the proof. So she shoved him.
Hard enough to knock him off his pigeon-toed feet.
And he fell.
They were in the kitchen, clearing the dinner dishes like Mom made them do every night before dessert. Tonight it happened to be butter-brickle ice cream, Odessa's favorite.
Mom was by the sink, exactly where she'd been standing three days earlier when she'd thrown up her hands and said, "I. Give. Up."
One of the reasons Odessa loved words was that sometimes the very same words could have a totally different meaning. So tonight when her mother shouted, "I. Give. Up," she didn't mean You can have what you want. This time she meant You are in huge trouble.
"I'm tired of the fighting!" she hollered. "To your room, Odessa. Now. TIME OUT."
Odessa could have explained what had led her to shove Oliver, but she was too angry. Too tired of being blamed for his toadiness. So she stormed out of the room yelling, "My pleasure!"
"And don't come down until I say so," her mother called after her.
Odessa stomped through the house and raced up the narrow attic steps, slamming the door behind her.
She flopped down onto her bed. I'm almost ten years old, she thought, even though her birthday was still half a year away.
What ten-year-old gets a time-out?
Odessa jumped up and began to pace the creaky floorboards. Oliver is shy with other people; why can't he be shy with me? Why is he always nosing around in my business?
She wanted to smash something. When she felt this way she'd usually reach for the oversized sock monkey Sofia had given her on her sixth birthday and bite him on the belly.
He didn't seem to mind.
They had an understanding.
But the sock monkey was downstairs in the room that was now Oliver's, because her move to the attic wasn't finished. For example, she still had no desk. No mirror. She didn't have the posters she'd torn from the pages of the tween magazines Mom didn't like her to read.
Odessa noticed just then that despite having none of the essential things, she did have a hand-painted pottery cupcake sitting on top of her empty bookshelf.
A cupcake that belonged to Oliver.
Mom must have brought it up by mistake. Odessa's hand-painted pottery was shaped like an ice-cream cone. They'd made these pieces at I Did It Pottery, on a recent Saturday afternoon with Uncle Milo.
Odessa reached for the cupcake, threw it to the floor with all of her strength, and watched, with wonder, as it smashed into tiny shards.
That felt good.
But what felt even better was the sensation of those shards crunching beneath the soles of her orange Converse high-tops.
So she stomped.
And she stomped harder.
She jumped up and down on that broken cupcake, smashing the shards to dust, until finally the creaky floorboards gave way beneath her, and she fell.
Have you ever fallen?
Down some stairs? Off the jungle gym? Out of your bed in the middle of the night?
Well then, you know what was happening to Odessa: that upside-down, over-under, inside-out feeling.
She landed with a thud.
Right in the middle of her bedroom floor.
It wasn't her old bedroom floor directly below the attic. This was the attic floor. The very floorboards through which she'd just fallen.
Odessa gripped her stomach. Then she scratched her head. This made no sense at all.
Mom's order rang in her ears: Don't come down until I say so. The type of order her mother called "nonnegotiable."
Even so, Odessa took the stairs quietly. When violating a nonnegotiable order, it's best not to stomp your way down from your room.
She found Mom and Oliver sitting at the dinner table, enjoying their dessert without her, which hardly seemed fair, considering that butter-brickle ice cream was her favorite, and nobody else's.
"Hi, honey," Mom said, grinning.
"Hello . . . ," Odessa said carefully.
Maybe all was forgotten. Maybe she should just take her seat and not offer any explanation for why she'd come down from her room without permission.
So she sat. Right in front of a piece of carrot cake.
Carrot cake was not her favorite.
And it was the same dessert they'd had the night before.
Odessa didn't want to push things, but she couldn't help herself. Sometimes things, like little brothers, needed to be pushed.
She asked politely, "What about the butter-brickle ice cream?"
"We don't have any," Mom said. "But I'll get some for tomorrow night, how 'bout that?"
Again, Odessa tried out her politest voice. "Yes we do, Mother. We bought it today. Remember? It's in the freezer."
Duh. Where else do you keep ice cream?
Odessa got up and went to the kitchen. She opened the freezer to find an empty space where the butter-brickle ice cream had been.
"WHO ATE ALL THE ICE CREAM?" she shouted.
Back in the dining room Mom and Oliver stared at her funny.
"Tonight we're having carrot cake," Mom said slowly. "And tomorrow, if you can find another way of asking, I'll be happy to buy some butter-brickle ice cream. Now take a seat."
Odessa sat. "But we had this last night," she said glumly.
"No we didn't." Oliver had frosting on his lip. "We had pineapple slices."
Odessa knew that if she opened her mouth to tell Oliver that, actually, they had pineapple slices the night before last, it would come out in a way that might get her sent to the attic again. So instead she pushed her carrot cake around her plate with her fork.
"Are you feeling okay?" Mom asked.
No, Odessa wanted to say. There's no more butter-brickle ice cream, AND I don't understand why you're not still mad at me.
"My tummy hurts," she said.
Mom reached over and put a hand on Odessa's forehead. "Maybe you should go lie down." She tucked a strand of hair behind Odessa's ear.
As Odessa pushed back her chair and took one last look around the table, she noticed something else.
Something that gave her the same upside-down, over-under, inside-out feeling.
Mom and Oliver were wearing what they'd been wearing the night before, when they'd all eaten carrot cake, not pineapple slices, for dessert.
Odessa looked down at herself. Amazingly, she too wore yesterday's clothes, though she had no memory of changing.
She wasn't feeling well.
Not well at all.
Up in her attic Odessa threw yesterday's clothes in the hamper and put on her favorite pajamas. She crawled underneath the quilt of teddy bears and reached over to turn out her light. The last thing she saw before she closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep was this: Oliver's pottery cupcake.
Sitting on top of her empty bookshelf.
In one perfectly intact, un-stomped-upon piece.
Early the next morning, when Odessa's alarm clock began to tweet (she preferred the sound of birds to buzzing, beeping, and the William Tell Overture), she rubbed her eyes.
What a strange dream she'd been having.
Falling through floorboards. Broken pottery. Carrot cake that should have been ice cream.
Uncanny, she thought.
She got out of bed and dressed quickly. When she came down to the kitchen, Oliver was halfway through his glass of chocolate milk, and he stuck his tongue out at her from beneath a chocolate-milk mustache.
Mom slid a plate of scrambled eggs on rye toast in front of her and said, "Eat up. The clock is ticking."
This wouldn't have been odd if her mother said this every day, the way her teacher Mr. Rausche always started each morning by saying, "Best feet forward."
Excerpted from Odessa Again
by Dana Reinhardt
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