Lucy—the roommate who loves to hear herself sing—is rushing around the living room, gathering keys, shoes, a pair of sunglasses. I’m seated on the couch, opening up shoeboxes stuffed with some of my old things from when I lived at home. I grabbed them when I was home for my father’s funeral this week.
“You work today?” Lucy asks.
“Nope. I have bereavement leave until Monday.”
She stops in her tracks. “Monday?” She scoffs. “Lucky bitch.” “Yes, Lucy. I’m so lucky my father died.” I say it sarcastically, of
course, but I cringe when I realize it’s not actually very sarcastic.
“You know what I mean,” she mutters. She grabs her purse as she balances on one foot while sliding her shoe onto the other. “I’m not coming home tonight. Staying over at Alex’s house.” The door slams behind her.
We have a lot in common on the surface, but beyond wearing the same size clothes, being the same age, and both having four-letter names that start with an L and end with a Y, there’s not much else there that makes us more than just roommates. I’m okay with that, though. Other than the incessant singing, she’s pretty tolerable. She’s clean and she’s gone a lot. Two of the most important qualities in a roommate.
I’m pulling the lid off the top of one of the shoeboxes when my cell phone rings. I reach across the couch and grab it. When I see that it’s my mother, I press my face into the couch and fake-cry into a throw pillow.
I bring the phone to my ear. “Hello?”
There’s three seconds of silence, and then—“Hello, Lily.”
I sigh and sit back up on the couch. “Hey, Mom.” I’m really surprised she’s speaking to me. It’s only been one day since the funeral. That’s 364 days sooner than I expected to hear from her.
“How are you?” I ask.
She sighs dramatically. “Fine,” she says. “Your aunt and uncle went back to Nebraska this morning. It’ll be my ﬁrst night alone since . . .”
“You’ll be ﬁne, Mom,” I say, trying to sound conﬁdent.
She’s quiet for too long, and then she says, “Lily. I just want you to know that you shouldn’t be embarrassed about what happened yesterday.”
I pause. I wasn’t. Not even the slightest bit.
“Everyone freezes up once in a while. I shouldn’t have put that kind of pressure on you, knowing how hard the day was on you already. I should have just had your uncle do it.”
I close my eyes. Here she goes again. Covering up what she doesn’t want to see. Taking blame that isn’t even hers to take. Of course she convinced herself that I froze up yesterday, and that’s why I refused to speak. Of course she did. I have half a mind to tell her it wasn’t a mistake. I didn’t freeze up. I just had nothing great to say about the unremarkable man she chose to be my father.
But part of me does feel guilty for what I did—speciﬁcally because it’s not something I should have done in the presence of my mother—so I just accept what she’s doing and go along with it.
“Thanks, Mom. Sorry I choked.”
“It’s ﬁne, Lily. I need to go, I have to run to the insurance ofﬁce. We have a meeting about your father’s policies. Call me tomorrow, okay?”
“I will,” I tell her. “Love you, Mom.”
I end the call and toss the phone across the couch. I open the shoebox on my lap and pull out the contents. On the very top is a small wooden, hollow heart. I run my ﬁngers over it and remember the night I was given this heart. As soon as the memory begins to sink in, I set it aside. Nostalgia is a funny thing.
I move a few old letters and newspaper clippings aside. Beneath all of it, I ﬁnd what I was hoping was inside these boxes. And also sort of hoping wasn’t.
My Ellen Diaries.
I run my hands over them. There are three of them in this box, but I’d say there are probably eight or nine total. I haven’t read any of these since the last time I wrote in them.
I refused to admit that I kept a diary when I was younger because that was so cliché. Instead, I convinced myself that what I was doing was cool, because it wasn’t technically a diary. I addressed each of my entries to Ellen DeGeneres, because I began watching her show the ﬁrst day it aired in 2003 when I was just a little girl. I watched it every day after school and was convinced Ellen would love me if she got to know me. I wrote letters to her regularly until I turned sixteen, but I wrote them like one would write entries in a diary. Of course I knew the last thing Ellen DeGeneres probably wanted was a random girl’s journal entries. Luckily, I never actually sent any in. But I still liked addressing all the entries to her, so I continued to do that until I stopped writing in them altogether.
I open another shoebox and ﬁnd more of them. I sort through them until I grab the one from when I was ﬁfteen years old. I ﬂip it open, searching for the day I met Atlas. There wasn’t much that happened in my life worth writing about before he entered it, but somehow I ﬁlled six journals full before he ever came into the picture.
I swore I’d never read these again, but with the passing of my father, I’ve been thinking about my childhood a lot. Maybe if I read through these journals I’ll somehow ﬁnd a little strength for forgiveness. Although I fear I’m running the risk of building up even more resentment.
I lie back on the couch and I begin reading.
Before I tell you what happened today, I have a really good idea for a new segment on your show. It’s called, “Ellen at home.”
I think lots of people would like to see you outside of work. I always wonder what you’re like at your home when it’s just you and Portia and the cameras aren’t around. Maybe the producers can give her a camera and sometimes she can just sneak up on you and ﬁlm you doing normal things, like watching TV or cooking or gardening. She could ﬁlm you for a few seconds without you knowing and then she could scream, “Ellen at home!” and scare you. It’s only fair, since you love pranks.
Okay, now that I told you that (I keep meaning to and have been forgetting) I’ll tell you about my day yesterday. It was interesting. Probably
my most interesting day to write about yet, if you don’t count the day Abigail Ivory slapped Mr. Carson for looking at her cleavage.
You remember a while back when I told you about Mrs. Burleson who lived behind us? She died the night of that big snowstorm? My dad said she owed so much in taxes that her daughter wasn’t able to take ownership of the house. Which is ﬁne by her, I’m sure, because the house was starting to fall apart anyway. It probably would have been more of a burden than anything.
The house has been empty since Mrs. Burleson died, which has been about two years. I know it’s been empty because my bedroom window looks out over the backyard, and there hasn’t been a single soul that goes in or out of that house since I can remember.
Until last night.
I was in bed shufﬂing cards. I know that sounds weird, but it’s just something I do. I don’t even know how to play cards. But when my parents get into ﬁghts, shufﬂing cards just calms me down sometimes and gives me something to focus on.
Anyway, it was dark outside, so I noticed the light right away. It wasn’t bright, but it was coming from that old house. It looked more like candlelight than anything, so I went to the back porch and found Dad’s binoculars. I tried to see what was going on over there, but I couldn’t see anything. It was way too dark. Then after a little while, the light went out.
This morning, when I was getting ready for school, I saw something moving behind that house. I crouched down at my bedroom window and saw someone sneaking out the back door. It was a guy and he had a backpack. He looked around like he was making sure no one saw him, and then he walked between our house and the neighbor’s house and went and stood at the bus stop.
I’d never seen him before. It was the ﬁrst time he rode my bus. He sat in the back and I sat in the middle, so I didn’t talk to him. But when he got off the bus at school, I saw him walk into the school, so he must go there.
I have no idea why he was sleeping in that house. There’s probably no electricity or running water. I thought maybe he did it as a dare, but today he got off the bus at the same stop as me. He walked down the street like he was going somewhere else, but I ran straight to my room and watched out the window. Sure enough, a few minutes later, I saw him sneaking back inside that empty house.
I don’t know if I should say something to my mother. I hate to be nosy, because it’s none of my business. But if that guy doesn’t have anywhere to go, I feel like my mother would know how to help him since she works at a school.
I don’t know. I might wait a couple days before I say something and see if he goes back home. He might just need a break from his parents. Same as I wish I could have sometimes.
That’s all. I’ll let you know what happens tomorrow.
I fast-forward through all your dancing when I watch your show. I used to watch the beginning when you danced through the audience, but I get a little bored with it now and would rather just hear you talk. I hope that doesn’t make you mad.
Okay, so I found out who the guy is, and yes, he’s still going over there.
It’s been two days now and I still haven’t told anyone.
His name is Atlas Corrigan and he’s a senior, but that’s all I know. I asked Katie who he was when she sat next to me on the bus. She rolled her eyes and told me his name. But then she said, “I don’t know anything else about him, but he smells.” She scrunched up her nose like it grossed her out. I wanted to yell at her and tell her he can’t help it, that he doesn’t have any running water. But instead, I just looked back at him. I might have stared a little too much, because he caught me looking at him.
When I got home I went to the backyard to do some gardening. My radishes were ready to be pulled, so I was out there pulling them. The radishes are the only thing left in my garden. It’s starting to get cold so there’s not much else I can plant right now. I probably could have waited a few more days to pull them, but I was also outside because I was being nosy.
I noticed as I was pulling them that some were missing. It looked like they had just been dug up. I know I didn’t pull them and my parents never mess with my garden.
That’s when I thought about Atlas, and how it was more than likely him. I hadn’t thought about how—if he doesn’t have access to a shower—he probably doesn’t have food, either.
I went inside my house and made a couple of sandwiches. I grabbed two sodas out of the fridge and a bag of chips. I put them in a lunch bag and I ran it over to the abandoned house and set it on the back porch by the door. I
wasn’t sure if he saw me, so I knocked real hard and then ran back to my house and went straight to my room. By the time I got to the window to see if he was going to come outside, the bag was already gone.
That’s when I knew he’d been watching me. I’m kind of nervous now that he knows I know he’s staying there. I don’t know what I’ll say to him if he tries to talk to me tomorrow.
I saw your interview with the presidential candidate Barack Obama today. Does that make you nervous? Interviewing people who could potentially run the country? I don’t know a lot about politics, but I don’t think I could be funny under that kind of pressure.
Man. So much has happened to both of us. You just interviewed someone who might be our next president and I’m feeding a homeless boy.
This morning when I got to the bus stop, Atlas was already there. It was just the two of us at ﬁrst, and I’m not gonna lie, it was awkward. I could see the bus coming around the corner and I was wishing it would drive a little faster. Right when it pulled up, he took a step closer to me and, without looking up, he said, “Thank you.”
The doors opened on the bus and he let me walk on ﬁrst. I didn’t say You’re welcome because I was kind of shocked by my reaction. His voice gave me chills, Ellen.
Has a boy’s voice ever done that to you?
Oh, wait. Sorry. Has a girl’s voice ever done that to you?
He didn’t sit by me or anything on the way there, but on the way back from school, he was the last one getting on. There weren’t any empty seats, but I could tell by the way he scanned all the people on the bus that he wasn’t looking for an empty seat. He was looking for me.
When his eyes met mine, I looked down at my lap real quick. I hate that I’m not very conﬁdent around guys. Maybe that’s something I’ll grow into when I ﬁnally turn sixteen.
He sat down next to me and dropped his backpack between his legs. That’s when I noticed what Katie was talking about. He did kind of smell, but I didn’t judge him for that.
He didn’t say anything at ﬁrst, but he was ﬁdgeting with a hole in his jeans. It wasn’t the kind of hole that was there to make jeans look stylish. I could tell it was there because it was a genuine hole, due to his pants being
old. They actually looked a little too small for him, because his ankles were showing. But he was skinny enough that they ﬁt him just ﬁne everywhere else.
“Did you tell anyone?” he asked me.
I looked at him when he spoke, and he was looking right back at me like he was worried. It was the ﬁrst time I had actually gotten a good look at him. His hair was dark brown, but I thought maybe if he washed it, it wouldn’t be as dark as it looked right then. His eyes were bright, unlike the rest of him. Real blue eyes, like the kind you see on a Siberian husky. I shouldn’t compare his eyes to a dog, but that’s the ﬁrst thing I thought when I saw them.
I shook my head and looked back out the window. I thought he might get up and ﬁnd another seat at that point, since I said I didn’t tell anyone, but he didn’t. The bus made a few stops, and the fact that he was still sitting by me gave me a little courage, so I made my voice a whisper. “Why don’t you live at home with your parents?”
He stared at me for a few seconds, like he was trying to decide if he wanted to trust me or not. Then he said, “Because they don’t want me to.”
That’s when he got up. I thought I’d made him mad, but then I realized he got up because we were at our stop. I grabbed my stuff and followed him off the bus. He didn’t try to hide where he was heading today like he usually does. Normally, he walks down the street and goes around the block so I don’t see him cut through my backyard. But today he started to walk toward my yard with me.
When we got to where I would normally turn to go inside and he would keep walking, we both stopped. He kicked at the dirt with his foot and looked behind me at my house.
“What time do your parents get home?” “Around ﬁve,” I said. It was 3:45.
He nodded and looked like he was about to say something else, but he didn’t. He just nodded again and started walking toward that house with no food or electricity or water.
Now, Ellen, I know what I did next was stupid, so you don’t have to tell me. I called out his name, and when he stopped and turned around I said, “If you hurry, you can take a shower before they get home.”
My heart was beating so fast, because I knew how much trouble I could get into if my parents came home and found a homeless guy in our shower.
I’d probably very well die. But I just couldn’t watch him walk back to his house without offering him something.
He looked down at the ground again, and I felt his embarrassment in my own stomach. He didn’t even nod. He just followed me inside my house and never said a word.
The whole time he was in the shower, I was panicking. I kept looking out the window and checking for either of my parents’ cars, even though I knew it would be a good hour before they got home. I was nervous one of the neighbors might have seen him come inside, but they didn’t really know me well enough to think having a visitor would be abnormal.
I had given Atlas a change of clothes, and knew he not only needed to be out of the house when my parents got home, but he needed to be far away from our house. I’m sure my father would recognize his own clothes on some random teenager in the neighborhood.
In between looking out the window and checking the clock, I was ﬁlling up one of my old backpacks with stuff. Food that didn’t need refrigerating, a couple of my father’s T-shirts, a pair of jeans that were probably going to be two sizes too big for him, and a change of socks.
I was zipping up the backpack when he emerged from the hallway.
I was right. Even wet, I could tell his hair was lighter than it looked earlier. It made his eyes look even bluer.
He must have shaved while he was in there because he looked younger than he did before he got in the shower. I swallowed and looked back down at the backpack, because I was shocked at how different he looked. I was scared he might see my thoughts written across my face.
I looked out the window one more time and handed him the backpack. “You might want to go out the back door so no one sees you.”
He took the backpack from me and stared at my face for a minute. “What’s your name?” he said as he slung the pack over his shoulder.
He smiled. It was the ﬁrst time he’d smiled at me and I had an awful, shallow thought in that moment. I wondered how someone with such a great smile could have such shitty parents. I immediately hated myself for thinking it, because of course parents should love their kids no matter how cute or ugly or skinny or fat or smart or stupid they are. But sometimes you can’t control where your mind goes. You just have to train it not to go there anymore.
He held out his hand and said, “I’m Atlas.”
“I know,” I said, without shaking his hand. I don’t know why I didn’t shake his hand. It wasn’t because I was scared to touch him. I mean, I was scared to touch him. But not because I thought I was better than him. He just made me so nervous.
He put his hand down and nodded once, then said, “I guess I better go.” I stepped aside so he could walk around me. He pointed past the kitchen, silently asking if that was the way to the back door. I nodded and walked behind him as he made his way down the hall. When he reached the back
door, I saw him pause for a second when he saw my bedroom.
I was suddenly embarrassed that he was seeing my bedroom. No one ever sees my bedroom, so I’ve never felt the need to give it a more mature look. I still have the same pink bedspread and curtains I’ve had since I was twelve. For the ﬁrst time ever I felt like ripping down my poster of Adam Brody.
Atlas didn’t seem to care how my room was decorated. He looked straight at my window—the one that looks out over the backyard—then he glanced back at me. Right before he walked out the back door he said, “Thank you for not being disparaging, Lily.”
And then he was gone.
Of course I’ve heard the term disparaging before, but it was weird hearing a teenage guy use it. What’s even weirder is how everything about Atlas seems so contradictory. How does a guy who is obviously humble, well-mannered, and uses words like disparaging end up homeless? How does any teenager end up homeless?
I need to ﬁnd out, Ellen.
I’m going to ﬁnd out what happened to him. You just wait and see.
• • •
I’m about to open another entry when my phone rings. I crawl across the couch for it and I’m not the least bit surprised to see it’s my mother again. Now that my father has passed and she’s alone, she’ll probably call me twice as much as she did before.
“What do you think about my moving to Boston?” she blurts out. I grab the throw pillow next to me and shove my face into it,
mufﬂing a scream. “Um. Wow,” I say. “Really?”
She’s quiet, and then, “It was just a thought. We can discuss it tomorrow. I’m almost to my meeting.”
And just like that, I want to move out of Massachusetts. She can’t move here. She doesn’t know anyone here. She’d expect me to entertain her every day. I love my mother, don’t get me wrong, but I moved to Boston to be on my own, and having her in the same city would make me feel less independent.
My father was diagnosed with cancer three years ago while I was still in college. If Ryle Kincaid were here right now, I’d tell him the naked truth that I was a little bit relieved when my father became too ill to physically hurt my mother. It completely changed the dynamic of their relationship and I no longer felt obligated to stay in Plethora to make sure she was okay.
Now that my father is gone and I never have to worry about my mother again, I was looking forward to spreading my wings, so to speak.
But now she’s moving to Boston?
It feels like my wings were just clipped.
Where is a marine-grade polymer chair when I need one?!
I’m seriously stressing out and I have no idea what I’d do if my mother moves to Boston. I don’t have a garden, or a yard, or a patio, or weeds.
I have to ﬁnd another outlet.
I decide to clean. I place all of my old shoeboxes full of journals and notes in my bedroom closet. Then I organize my entire closet. My jewelry, my shoes, my clothes . . .
She cannot move to Boston.