Melissa is waiting for the "new life" that her mother Sharlene has promised her since a fire devastated their family. But nothing ever seems to change. Melissa has difficulty making friends at school, they never have enough money and her little brother Cody is a brat. When Sharlene announces that they will be spending the month of August at a remote cabin on a wilderness lake, Melissa is less than thrilled. But there is more to do at the lake than she expected, and she is surprised to learn that her mother knows how to paddle a canoe, fish and make bannock and s'mores. On an island in the middle of the lake, Melissa meets Alice, a strange girl who is writing a fantasy novel. Alice shares her tree fort on the island with Melissa, and while at first Melissa is attracted to Alice's strong personality and her stories of her "perfect family," she becomes increasingly uneasy around Alice. As Melissa's relationship with her mother improves and her confidence increases, she is able to hold her own with Alice and start to appreciate her own imperfect family.
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ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERS
Text copyright © 2010 Becky Citra
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Citra, Becky After the fire / written by Becky Citra.
PS8555.I87A64 2010 jC813'.54 C2009-906859-1
First published in the United States, 2010 Library of Congress Control Number: 2009940905
Summary: When Melissa spends the summer at a wilderness lake with her single-parent mother and bratty younger brother, she makes friends with Alice, a mysterious girl with a strange fantasy life.
Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.
Cover design by Teresa Bubela Text design and typesetting by Nadja Penaluna Cover photography by Getty Images
ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERS PO BOX 5626, STN. B VICTORIA, BC CANADA V8R 6S4
ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERSPO BOX 468 CUSTER, WA USA 98240-0468
www.orcabook.com Printed and bound in Canada. Printed on 100% PCW recycled paper. 13 12 11 10 • 4 3 2 1
For my mother, who taught me to love books
Melissa filled her garbage bag with half-dried clothes, heaved it over her shoulder and left the Laundromat. She glanced up and down the sidewalk, hoping that none of the kids from school would see her. She was positive they all had washing machines and dryers in their houses.
She checked to make sure the brochure was still tucked into the back pocket of her jeans. What were the chances of Mom saying yes? Her heart thudded. Why shouldn’t she be allowed to go? Mom was working full-time now and she had hinted, hinted, that Melissa might be able to do something fun this summer.
The apartment building where she lived with her mother and her little brother Cody was eight blocks away if she followed the main street but a little bit shorter if she cut down the alley behind the 7-Eleven. Melissa didn’t like going that way because there were always a couple of creepy-looking teenagers hanging around the Dumpster. She was sure they were doing some kind of drugs—they weren’t always the same kids but they looked the same, with their white faces, blank eyes and black hoodies.
It was such a hot day that she decided to take the shortcut anyway. The garbage bag of damp clothes was already making her shoulder ache. To her relief the alley was empty, and she hurried as the apartment building came into sight.
The sign at the front of the building was missing letters, so instead of saying Skyline Garden Apartments, it said Skle Gardn Apartmts. The word Garden was a joke, unless you counted the pots of geraniums on the balcony of their neighbor, a single woman named Dana who complained a lot about Cody’s noise. Melissa climbed the stairs to the third floor and lugged the garbage bag to the door at the end of the hall. She could hear music and, when she opened the door, her mother’s loud throaty laugh.
Perfect timing. Mom sounded like she was in a good mood, and Cody was at a birthday party. Melissa left the clothes in the narrow hallway, stepped over one of Cody’s trucks and went into the tiny kitchen. Her mother, Sharlene, and her friend, Jill, were sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee. Sharlene’s blond hair was tied up in a ponytail. Her long legs, in tight blue jeans, were stretched out in front of her, and she was wearing an aqua halter top. Beside her, Jill looked very plain in a white blouse and beige pants. Her mother had a way of doing that to people, Melissa had noticed. Everyone was always surprised when they found out that Melissa, who had dull brown hair and a sturdy build, was Sharlene’s daughter.
“Hi, darling,” said Sharlene. She was holding a cigarette, which she set down in a saucer. “You’re an angel. Was it horrible?”
“It was okay,” said Melissa. “But I didn’t have enough money, so the clothes aren’t dry.”
“Hi, Melissa,” said Jill.
“Hi,” said Melissa.
Melissa was never quite sure what to call Jill. At school she was Mrs. Templeton. She taught the fourth-grade class across the hall from Melissa’s grade-six classroom. But lately she spent so much time at their apartment, she had told Melissa to call her Jill when they weren’t at school. There was no way Melissa could do that. Mrs. Templeton had been Melissa’s teacher in grade four, long before she had become her mother’s best friend. So Melissa solved the problem by not calling her anything.
There was one thing Melissa just didn’t get. Why would Mrs. Templeton choose to be friends with someone like her mother? Mrs. Templeton was very nice and very ordinary. She could have been best friends with anyone.
Just after Christmas, Sharlene had been laid off from her job waitressing at Smitty’s. She had spent weeks trying to find something else. Her smoking increased from six cigarettes a day to a pack and a half, and Melissa was terrified that her mother was going to get cancer. Cody had started wetting his bed again, and Melissa had to sign up at the school office for the free lunch program, which was humiliating.
And then Sharlene greeted her one day after school with a huge smile. “I’ve got a job, honey! Finally!”
Melissa was relieved until she found out what it was. “The custodian? You’re going to be the new custodian at my school?”
“It’s temporary,” said Sharlene. “I’m taking over while Mr. Shore is away on sick leave. But I have a feeling it could lead to something permanent. The word is that the poor man is not doing all that well.”
“You can’t!” Melissa had said instantly. School was hard enough. She didn’t fit in, even though she had been going to Huntley Elementary since grade three. All through grade three and most of grade four, Melissa had been invisible. She was shy at school, and she had never dared to invite kids home. After that terrible night two years ago, people started noticing her. But now they felt sorry for her, which wasn’t the same as liking her.
Her mother, the custodian? She’d be there, sweeping the hallways, every day. This was way, way worse than getting a free lunch. But three months later, Melissa had to admit it had turned out okay. Sharlene actually liked the job and was thrilled when Mr. Shore decided not to come back. Cody, whose day care was in a portable behind the school, was ecstatic because he got to see Sharlene every day at lunchtime. He’d had two months of dry nights.
To Melissa’s amazement, her mother was popular. Mr. Shore used to leave nasty messages on the blackboard about the students’ messy desks. Sharlene never did that. The teachers joked around with her, and Mrs. Templeton, whom Melissa had always liked a lot, became her mother’s new best friend.
Melissa picked up a cookie from a plate on the table. Then she put the cookie down. She had planned to introduce the idea casually, but before she could stop herself she blurted, “Mom! They had this brochure at school. There’s an art camp in Kelowna in July! It’s at the university. There’s going to be pottery and painting and sculpture and…” Melissa produced the brochure and flapped it in the air. Her hands were shaking. “There’s even going to be silver casting and you can make jewelry!”
“Let me see,” said Sharlene calmly.
Melissa chewed her lip while her mother scanned the brochure. Sharlene’s eyebrows shot up in the air. “It’s six hundred dollars, sweetie!”
“It includes your room and all your meals,” said Melissa desperately.
“I should think so! But six hundred dollars. That’s almost a month’s rent!”
“You said we were saving money now.”
“Exactly. Saving. I’m not going to blow it all on some art camp!”
“No, Melissa. Forget it.”
The back of Melissa’s eyes burned. When she had first read the brochure at lunchtime on Friday, the idea of staying at a university with a bunch of kids she didn’t know had been scary. But the thought of all that art made her feel dizzy with longing. She had stayed awake for hours the night before thinking about it, planning how to approach Sharlene. Now that she had asked, she felt like she would die if she didn’t get to go.
Sharlene took a long drag on her cigarette. “Besides, I need you at home in July. I’ve been counting on not having to pay for day care while I’m working. Kids get the whole summer off but custodians don’t!”
Melissa felt her chances sliding away. “There’s a session in August I could go to. You’re not working in August.”
Sharlene looked at Jill. “I’ve already made plans for August. Jill’s made us a wonderful offer.”
Melissa didn’t trust herself to speak.
“Jill’s going to Europe for six weeks. Her brother’s using their cabin at Flycatcher Lake in July, but no one’s going to be there in August. So she’s offered it to us. We get a holiday and we’ll give up the apartment so we’ll save a whole month’s rent.”
Melissa stared at her mother. “What are you talking about? You can’t just give up this apartment!”
“What if we don’t get another one?”
“We will. There’s lots of vacancies in this town, and I’ve been thinking about moving anyway. I think we can afford something a little nicer. We’ll line up a new place before we go.”
“I like it here.” Melissa could hear the stubbornness in her voice. And it wasn’t even true. She hated the apartment. Nothing ever worked right. The fridge froze the lettuce, the baseboard heaters rattled, and just last night the cord for the blinds in her bedroom had snapped.
Then the first part of Sharlene’s announcement sank in. Spend a whole month in a cabin at a place called Flycatcher Lake! When she could have been at art camp!
“It’s the end of June in three days,” said Sharlene. “I’ll give our notice and we’ll move out the end of July.”
Jill spoke for the first time. “You’ll like it there, Melissa. My sons adore it. It’s real wilderness. The lake’s warm enough to swim in, and we have a canoe. There’s even an island to explore. And the cabin is rustic but it’s cozy.”
“It’ll be a holiday,” said Sharlene. “It will be great for Cody. I used to love going to my grandpa’s cabin in northern Ontario when I was a kid.”
“I know. You’ve told me,” muttered Melissa.
It was the only part of Sharlene’s childhood that her mother would talk about. She had spent every summer at the cabin until she was twelve and her grandpa had a heart attack and had to sell the place. Melissa had always thought it sounded like a survival test. As far as she could tell, all Sharlene had done was yank hooks out of fish, swim in a lake full of leeches and battle black flies.
Sharlene took a final drag on her cigarette and stubbed it out in the saucer. “My last one.”
Melissa pulled herself away from a horrifying picture of being stuck in a rustic cabin with her brother and mother. “What?”
“My last cigarette. As of right now, I’ve quit.”
“Really.” Melissa’s voice was cold. “I thought quitting smoking was supposed to be hard.”
“It’s very hard. At least I think it’s going to be. But if I can quit booze and men, I can quit cigarettes.”
Melissa’s cheeks flamed. She hated it when her mother said things like that. But Jill didn’t seem embarrassed. She raised her coffee mug. “Hear, hear!” she said. “To a new life!”
“To a new life!” said Sharlene.
Melissa turned around and flew out of the kitchen. She slammed the door of the bedroom she shared with Cody and threw herself on her bed. Her mother was always talking about their new life. Ever since the fire two years ago.
Melissa’s tears poured out. It was unfair. When Sharlene talked about their new life, it made Melissa feel hopeful. Maybe things really would change. Some things were better, she had to admit. Sharlene’s boyfriend Darren was gone and that was no loss. Sharlene wouldn’t touch even a drop of alcohol anymore. But the money problems were still there. And when Sharlene worked, Melissa had more responsibilities at home and with Cody than ever.
She sat up and tore the brochure about art camp into tiny pieces. She would never ever want to go back to the way they were before the fire. But feeling hopeful and then being let down so hard was worse than not caring in the first place.
Sharlene said she had packing down to a fine art. That’s because we move so much, Melissa thought. Huntley was the third town Melissa had lived in, and Huntley Elementary was the fourth school she had been to. After the fire, Melissa had been sure they would leave Huntley, but instead Darren had left. Sharlene had announced that, as part of their new life, it was time they put down some roots.
Now the school principal offered to store their stuff in his garage. In July, Melissa babysat Cody during the long days while Sharlene was at school. In the evenings she helped fill the cardboard boxes that threatened to take over the apartment.
The boxes that Sharlene had written Storage on in black felt pen grew in a steady pile in the hallway. You had to turn sideways to edge your way past. Melissa made sure all the lids were securely taped down. She didn’t want anyone poking around and seeing their junky stuff.
The boxes marked for the cabin at the lake stayed in the living room. They slowly filled with blue jeans, shorts, beach towels, socks and T-shirts. Pretty soon Melissa had trouble finding something to wear.
One afternoon Sharlene took Melissa and Cody to see the new apartment she had found. It was in a modern block at the other end of town. The present tenant, who was moving out in the middle of August, let them have a peek inside. Melissa got an impression of big airy rooms and lots of sunlight coming in the windows. It was better than anything she could have dreamed of. But she just shrugged when Sharlene asked her what she thought. She didn’t really believe they were actually going to live there. Something was sure to go wrong.
The old apartment was stifling. Melissa slept under only a sheet, and even then she was drenched with sweat. Cody’s whining became out of control. Sometimes Sharlene sat on the edge of Cody’s bed and wiped his scarlet face with a cool damp facecloth. “Just think. Pretty soon we’ll be swimming in a real lake every day,” she said. When she said things like that, Melissa caught herself listening. Then she reminded herself that nothing Sharlene had ever planned had turned out well.
It was weird to see her mother without a cigarette in her hand. In the evenings after supper, Sharlene drank cups of coffee steadily, and Melissa could sometimes hear her in the middle of the night roaming around the apartment. When she had gone exactly one month cigarette-free, Jill Templeton came over and they celebrated with cheesecake and a sparkling apple drink that looked like wine but wasn’t. They all drank some out of wine glasses, even Cody.
One night Jill brought over all kinds of stuff for the cabin, including mosquito coils, bug spray, bottles of lamp oil, a secondhand campstove to replace the broken one, and spare flashlight batteries. Melissa got sick of her mother screeching over each item as if it were a long-lost friend. “Oh my god…my grandpa had a campstove just like that…I remember playing flashlight games on the ceiling with my sister…”
Jill told them more about Flycatcher Lake. “It’s almost a mile long and kind of shaped like a banana. It’s mostly wilderness. There are four cabins, including ours. I’m afraid August is going to be quiet this year. I think you’ll be the only ones there.”
Even Sharlene looked a little alarmed, and Jill added hastily, “You won’t be entirely alone. The Hopes have a ranch at the end of the lake.”
“Any kids?” said Sharlene. About six months earlier she had suddenly realized that Melissa never hung out with anybody, and she never gave up trying to find friends for her.
“An older boy and a girl about Melissa’s age called Alice, but…” Jill hesitated.
“But she’s weird,” supplied Melissa.
Sharlene frowned at her.
“Not exactly weird,” said Jill. “The whole family is a bit…well, reclusive. I’ve heard they’ve had some problems, but I’m not sure what exactly. They keep to themselves, but they’ll be there if you have an emergency.”
Melissa took a can of bug spray away from Cody, who was about to try it out on his hair. She read the label out loud. “Effective against mosquitoes, black flies, ticks, fleas, gnats and chiggers.”
Sharlene and Jill laughed as if it was the funniest thing they had ever heard, but Melissa didn’t. What on earth were chiggers? They sounded disgusting.
Jill offered Sharlene the use of her truck. “It’s four-wheel drive, and you’ll need that to get in to the cabin. It’s pretty rough.”
Melissa held her breath. It was her mother’s last chance to back out of this, to say it was all a horrible mistake. She peered at Sharlene hopefully and then her shoulders sagged.
Sharlene’s grin was enormous. It was one of the few times that Melissa had ever seen her mother look truly happy.
They left for Flycatcher Lake on the first of August in the baking hot afternoon. The back of the truck was filled with duffel bags and boxes of various sizes and shapes. As well, there were three cartons of groceries and two large coolers, borrowed from Jill, containing orange juice, margarine, eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese packed around blocks of ice.
After a couple of hours, they pulled off the highway at a rest stop to eat ham sandwiches and pieces of carrot cake, the icing melting on their fingers. Hot and sticky, they got back in the truck and continued on their way, Cody crammed in between Sharlene and Melissa.
Melissa leaned against the open window, freeing her hair from its ponytail and letting it blow outside as she watched the highway slide by. The hot vinyl seat stuck to her bare legs, and her back prickled with sweat. Sharlene, who had announced that she now had the hang of the truck, drove quickly, belting out the words to “King of the Road.” “No phone, no pool, no pets…I ain’t got no ciii-ga-rettes…”
Melissa wished she still had her iPod. It had been her Christmas present, the most expensive gift she had ever got. She knew her mother had made a lot of sacrifices to buy it, and she had been terrified a month later when she had to tell her that someone at school had stolen it from her backpack. Sharlene had been predictably furious—not at Melissa but at the unknown thief—and Melissa knew that there was no hope of Sharlene scraping up the money for another one.
Cody squirmed in his seat and said, for the hundredth time, “Are we almost there?” Every time he asked, Sharlene answered him patiently, telling him how many kilometers were left, which anyone could see was pointless because five minutes later he asked all over again.
This time Sharlene said, “We’re almost at the turnoff. You watch for a sign that says Bear Creek.”
“Like he can read,” muttered Melissa. Cody’s running shoe banged against her shin and she gave him a shove, then hunched further into her corner. She couldn’t wait to get out of this furnace of a truck.
“Third boxcar, midnight train…Dessstination Bangor, Maine…,” sang Sharlene.
“Mom, please,” said Melissa.
Sharlene slammed on the brakes and turned right off the highway onto a gravel road. “My navigators are sleeping on the job!” she said. She drove over a cattle guard and along the road for half a kilometer and then stopped in front of a log building with a wide porch. A sign hung on chains from the eaves. Bear Creek General Store Established 1916.
“This is the end of civilization for us,” she said. “Let’s make the most of it!”
Melissa unglued her legs and climbed out of the truck. Cody slid out after her. “I have to go pee,” he whined.
Sharlene glanced around vaguely. “There must be a washroom somewhere…come on, let’s go inside and see what we can find.”
A bell tinkled when they opened the door. Melissa had never seen such a cluttered store. Three long aisles were crammed with goods. Cereal, cookies, bags of sugar and boxes of pasta were mixed in with things like flashlights, bottles of detergent, fishing gear and mops. Two tall coolers stood against one wall, one with soft drinks and water and the other with milk and cheese in the top, and eggs, a basket of tomatoes and a few heads of lettuce in the bottom. A thin woman with short straight gray hair was reading a magazine at the counter at the back of the store.
Sharlene gave her a dazzling smile and said, “We need a washroom desperately for this little fellow.”
Really, all Cody had said was that he had to go. Now he seemed to have forgotten all about it as he made a beeline for a row of jars filled with candy. The woman reached up to a hook on the wall and took down a key attached to a wooden horseshoe. “Washroom’s around the back. Lock it when you’re done.”
Sharlene said, “Be an angel, Mel, and take him. I want to pick up a few things.”
Melissa dragged Cody out of the store and back into the blistering heat. She found two doors, one that said Colts and another that said Fillies. She unlocked the Colts door and pushed Cody inside, ordering him to wait for her when he was done. Then she went into the Fillies and splashed cold water over her face and twisted her limp hair into a braid.
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