Chapter no 19

Little Fires Everywhere

Friday afternoon, when the bell rang at just after one, Pearl settled herself into seventh period and set her bag beside her chair. She was going to meet Trip at his car after school; he had put a note

into her locker that morning. Lexie had left another after lunch: Movie tonight? Deep Impact? It was almost enough to make her forget that she and Moody were no longer friends. Every day they still saw each other in class, but most days he jumped up as soon as the bell rang and bolted out the door before she’d even had a chance to close her binder. Now there he was across the aisle, bent over his copy of Othello. She wondered if they’d ever get back to normal, if things would ever be the same between them.

Sex changed things, she realized—not just between you and the other person, but between you and everyone.

She was still turning this insight over in her mind when the classroom phone rang. It was usually a question from the main office about something

—a misplaced attendance sheet, an excuse for a tardy student—so she paid no attention until Mrs. Thomas hung up and came to crouch by her desk.

“Pearl,” she said softly, “the office says your mother’s here to pick you up. Take your things with you, they said.” She went back to the board, where she was outlining the third act of the play, and Pearl puzzled over this as she packed her books away. Was there an appointment she’d forgotten?

Was there some kind of emergency? Out of instinct, she shot a quick look at Moody in the next seat—the closest they’d come to a conversation in weeks. But Moody seemed as clueless as she was, and the last thing she remembered as she left the classroom was his face, their shared moment of confusion.

She came out of the science wing door and saw her mother parked by the curb, leaning back against the little tan Rabbit, waiting for her.

“There you are,” Mia said.

“Mom. What are you doing here?” Pearl glanced over her shoulder, in the universal reaction of all teenagers confronted by their parents in a public place.

“Do you have anything important in your locker?” Mia unzipped Pearl’s bag and peeked inside. “Your wallet? Any papers? Okay, let’s go.” She turned back toward the car, and Pearl jerked herself free.

“Mom. I can’t. I have a biology quiz next period. And I’m meeting—I’m meeting somebody after school. I’ll just see you at home, okay?”

“That’s not what I mean,” said Mia, and Pearl noticed the wrinkle between her mother’s eyebrows that meant she was deeply worried. “I mean we have to go. Today.”

“What?” Pearl glanced around. The oval lay quiet and green before them. Everyone was inside, in class, except for a few students clustered— just off school grounds—at the nearby traffic triangle, smoking. Everything seemed so normal. “I don’t want to leave.”

“I know, my darling. But we have to.”

Every time before, when her mother had decided to leave, Pearl had felt at most a twinge of regret—always over the minor things: a boy she’d admired from afar, a certain park bench or quiet corner or library book she hated to leave behind. Mostly, however, she had felt relief: that she could slide out of this life and begin anew, like a snake shedding its skin. This time all that welled up inside her was a mixture of grief and rage.

“You promised we would stay,” she said, her voice thickening. “Mom. I have friends here. I have—” She looked around, as if one of the Richardson children might appear. But Lexie was off in the Social Room finishing her lunch. Moody was back in English class discussing Othello. And Trip— Trip would be waiting for her after school on the other side of the oval.

When she didn’t appear, he would drive away. She had a wild thought: if she could only run to the Richardson house, she would be safe. Mrs.

Richardson would help her, she was sure. The Richardsons would take her in. The Richardsons would never let her go. “Please. Mom. Please. Please don’t make us go.”

“I don’t want to. But we have to.” Mia held out her hand. Pearl, for a moment, imagined herself transforming into a tree. Rooting herself so deeply on that spot that nothing could displace her.

“Pearl, my darling,” her mother said. “I’m so sorry. It’s time to go.” She took Mia’s hand, and Pearl, uprooted, came free and followed her mother

back to the car.



When they got back to the house on Winslow, a few belongings were already packed: the couch had been stripped of its blanket and disassembled into a stack of pillows; the various prints Mia had tacked to the wall had been boxed. Mia was a fast packer, good at squeezing an improbably large number of things into a tight space. In their year in Shaker, however, they’d acquired more things than they’d ever had before, and this time many more things would need to be left behind.

“I thought I’d be finished by now,” Mia admitted, setting her keys down on the table. “But I had to finish something. Fold up your clothes. Whatever will fit in your duffel bag.”

“You promised,” Pearl said. In the safe cocoon of their home—their real home, as she’d begun to think of it—the tears began to flow, along with a choking rush of fury. “You said we were staying put. You said this was it.

Mia stopped and put an arm around Pearl. “I know I did,” she said. “I promised. And I’m sorry. Something’s happened—”

“I’m not going.” Pearl kicked her shoes onto the floor and stomped into the living room. Mia heard the door to her room slam. Sighing, she picked up Pearl’s sneakers by the heels and went down the hallway. Pearl had flopped on her bed, math book spread in front of her, jerking a notebook from her bookbag. A furious charade.

“It’s time.”

“I have to do my homework.”

“We have to pack.” Mia gently closed the textbook. “And then we have to leave.”

Pearl snatched the textbook from her mother’s hands and threw it across the room, where it left a black smudge on the wall. Next went her notebook, her ballpoint, her history book, a stack of note cards, until her bookbag lay crumpled on the floor like a shed skin and everything that had been inside it had scattered. Mia sat quietly beside her, waiting. Pearl was no longer crying. Her tears had been replaced by a cold, blank face and a set jaw.

“I thought we could stay, too,” Mia said at last.

“Why?” Pearl pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them and glared at her mother. “I’m not going until you tell me why.”

“That’s fair.” Mia sighed. She sat down beside Pearl on the bed and smoothed the bedspread beneath them. It was afternoon. It was sunny. Outside, a mourning dove cooed, the low hum of a lawn mower rose, a passing cloud cast them into shadow for a moment, then drifted away. As if it were simply an ordinary day. “I’ve been thinking about how to tell you for a long time. Longer than you can imagine.”

Pearl had gone very still now, her eyes fixed on her mother, waiting patiently, aware she was about to learn something very important. Mia thought of Joseph Ryan, sitting across the table from her that night at dinner, waiting to learn her answer.

“Let me tell you first,” she said, taking a deep breath, “about your Uncle Warren.”



When Mia had finished, Pearl sat quietly, tracing the lines of quilting that spiraled across the bedspread. She had told Pearl the outline of everything, though they both knew all the details would be a long time in coming. They would trickle out in dribs and drabs, memories surfacing suddenly, prompted by the merest thread, the way memories often do. For years afterward, Mia would spot a yellow house as they drove by, or a battered repair truck, or see two children climbing up a hillside, and would say, “Did I ever tell you—” and Pearl would snap to attention, ready to gather another small glittering shard of her history. Everything, she had come to understand, was something like infinity. They might never come close, but they could approach a point where, for all intents and purposes, she knew all that she needed to know. It would simply take time, and patience. For now, she knew enough.

“Why are you telling me this?” she had asked her mother. “I mean, why are you telling me this now?”

Mia had taken a deep breath. How did you explain to someone—how did you explain to a child, a child you loved—that someone they adored was not to be trusted? She tried. She did her best to explain, and she had

watched confusion wash over Pearl’s face, then pain. Pearl could not understand it: Mrs. Richardson, who had always been so kind to her, who had said so many nice things about her. Whose shining, polished surface had entranced Pearl with her own reflection.

“She’s right, though,” Mia said at last. “The Ryans would have given you a wonderful life. They’d have loved you. And Mr. Ryan is your father.” She had never said those words aloud, had never even allowed herself to think them, and they tasted strange on her tongue. She said it again: “Your father.” Out of the corner of her eye she saw Pearl mouthing the words to herself, as if trying them out. “Do you want to meet them?” Mia asked. “We can drive to New York. They won’t be hard to find.”

Pearl thought about this for a long time.

“Not right now,” she said. “Maybe one day. But not right now.” She leaned into her mother’s arms, the way she had when she was a child, tucking herself neatly under her mother’s chin. “And what about your parents?” she said after a moment.

“My parents?”

“Are they still out there? Do you know where they are?”

Mia hesitated. “Yes,” she said, “I believe I do. Do you want to meet them?”

Pearl tipped her head to one side, in a gesture that reminded Mia so strongly of Warren it made her catch her breath. “Someday,” she said. “Someday maybe we could go and see them together.”

Mia held her for a moment, buried her nose in the part of Pearl’s hair. Every time she did this, she was comforted by how Pearl smelled exactly the same. She smelled, Mia thought suddenly, of home, as if home had never been a place, but had always been this little person whom she’d carried alongside her.

“And now we’d better pack,” she said. It was three thirty. School was out, Pearl thought as she began to roll up her clothing. Moody would just be getting home. Trip would have given up on her by now—or would he be waiting for her still? When she didn’t show up, would he come looking for her? She hadn’t yet told her mother about Trip; she wasn’t sure, yet, if she ever would.

There was a knock at the side door. To Pearl, it was as if she’d summoned Trip with her mind, and she turned to Mia, wide-eyed.

“I’ll go and see who it is,” Mia said. “You stay up here. Keep packing.” If it was Mrs. Richardson, she thought—but no, it was Izzy, standing bewildered in the driveway.

“Why is the door locked?” she said. For months she’d been coming to help Mia every afternoon, and the side door had never before been locked. It had been open to her—to all the Richardson children, it occurred to her now—at any moment of the day, no matter what her trouble.

“I was—I was taking care of something.” Mia had forgotten all about Izzy, and she tried to think of a plausible excuse.

“Is Bebe still here?” This was the only thing Izzy could think of that might make Mia shut her out and send her away.

“No, she’s gone home. I just—I was busy.”

“Okay.” Izzy took a half step back from the doorway, and the storm door, which she’d been holding open with her foot, gave a faint shriek. “Well, is Pearl here? I—I wanted to tell her something.” She had been trying to catch Pearl all day; in fact, she had tried to call Pearl the previous night—but had gotten only a busy signal: Mia, while comforting Bebe, had taken the phone off the hook, and had forgotten to put it back on. She’d tried over and over, until past midnight, deciding at last that she’d find Pearl at school in the morning. Pearl, she felt, ought to know what Moody had said about her, that her mother knew about Trip. But she didn’t know which routes Pearl might take from class to class—would she take the main stairwell, with its crush of students, or the back one that led down to the English wing? Would she eat in the cafeteria, or in the Egress downstairs, or perhaps out on the lawn somewhere? Each time she guessed wrong, and Izzy was frustrated at missing Pearl again and again, even more frustrated at how poorly she seemed to know Pearl. Right after school, she promised herself, she would find Pearl and tell her everything.

Now, face-to-face with Mia, she could tell something was wrong, but wasn’t sure what. Did Mia already know? Was Pearl in trouble? Was Mia, for some reason, angry at her, too?

Mia looked down at Izzy’s anxious face and could not tell whether lying or telling the truth would hurt her more. She decided to do neither.

“I’ll tell her you came by, okay?” she said.

“Okay,” Izzy said again. With one hand on the doorknob she peeked up at Mia through her hair. Had she done something wrong, she wondered.

Had she made Mia angry? Izzy, Lexie had always said, had no poker face,

and it was true: Izzy never bothered to hide her feelings, didn’t even know how. She looked so young at that moment, so confused and vulnerable and lonely, and this, more than anything, made Mia feel she’d failed her.

“Remember what I said the other day?” she said. “About the prairie fires? About how sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over?” Izzy nodded. “Well,” Mia said. A long moment unraveled between them. She could not think of a way to say good-bye. “Just remember that,” she finished. “Sometimes you need to start over from scratch. Can you understand that?” Izzy wasn’t sure she did, but she nodded again.

“See you tomorrow?” she said, and Mia’s heart cracked. Instead of answering, she pulled Izzy into her arms and kissed her on the top of her head, the same place where she often kissed Pearl. “See you soon,” she said.

Pearl heard the door close, but it was a few minutes before Mia came back upstairs, her feet slow and heavy on the steps.

“Who was it?” she asked, though she had a good idea by now.

“Izzy,” Mia said, “but she’s gone,” and she turned into her bedroom to pack.

They had done this so many times before: two glasses stacked, their handful of silverware corralled inside, glasses nested into bowls, bowls nested into pot, pot nested into frying pan, the whole thing wrapped in a paper grocery sack and cushioned with whatever food would keep—a sleeve of crackers, a jar of peanut butter, half a loaf of bread. Another bag held shampoo, a bar of soap, a tube of toothpaste. Mia wedged their duffel bags into the footwells and laid a stack of blankets on top. Her cameras and her supplies went into the trunk, along with the dishes and toiletries.

Everything else—the gateleg table they’d painted blue, the mismatched chairs, Pearl’s bed and Mia’s mattress and the tussock of pillows they’d called a couch—would be left behind.

It was almost dark by the time they’d finished, and Pearl kept thinking about Trip and Lexie and Moody and Izzy. They would be home now, in their beautiful house. Trip would be wondering why she hadn’t come to meet him. She would never get to see him again, she thought, and her throat burned. Lexie would be perched at the counter, twirling a lock of hair around her finger, wondering where she was. And Moody—they would never have the chance to make up.

“It isn’t fair,” she said as her mother put the last of their things in a paper grocery bag.

“No,” Mia agreed. “It’s not.” Pearl waited for a parental platitude to follow: Life isn’t fair, or Fair doesn’t always mean right. Instead Mia held her close for a moment, kissed her on the side of the head, then handed her the grocery sack. “Go put this in the car.”

When Pearl returned, she found her mother in the kitchen setting a plain manila envelope on the kitchen counter.

“What’s that?” Pearl asked, interested in spite of herself. “Something for the Richardsons,” Mia said. “A good-bye, I guess.” “A letter? Can I read it?”

“No. Some photographs.”

“You’re just leaving them here?” Pearl had never known her mother to leave any of her work behind. When they left an apartment, they took everything that was truly theirs with them—and Mia’s photos were the most important. Once, when they hadn’t had enough space in the trunk of the Rabbit, Mia had jettisoned half of her clothing to make room.

“They’re not mine.” Mia took her keys from the counter. “Who else’s could they be?” Pearl insisted.

“Some pictures,” Mia said, “belong to the person who took them. And some belong to the person inside them. Are you ready?” She flicked off the lights.



Across town, Bebe sat on the curb in the shadow of a parked BMW and watched the McCulloughs’ house across the street. She had been sitting there for some time, and now it was seven thirty, and inside, her daughter must be having her bath. Linda McCullough, she knew, liked to keep to a schedule. “I always find that regular habits make for a calmer life,” she had told Bebe more than once, especially on the days Bebe was late for her visitation. As if, Bebe thought, as if she were just offering her own opinion on the subject, free of judgment, as if she were expressing a preference for apples over pears.

The light in the upstairs bathroom clicked on, and Bebe pictured it: May Ling holding on to the white porcelain edge of the bathtub, one hand

stretching to touch the water as it tumbled from the faucet. The street was quiet now, lights glowing softly in the living rooms, an occasional blue flicker from a TV, but when she closed her eyes she could almost hear her daughter laughing as a spray of droplets flecked her face. May Ling had always loved water; even in those hungry days, she had calmed when Bebe had lowered her into the kitchen sink for a bath, and when Bebe had lost the energy even for this—afraid the baby would wriggle from her hands, afraid she might simply lie down on the scuffed linoleum and let the child slip beneath the surface—May Ling had screamed all the more. Mrs.

McCullough, she was sure, must have an array of bath products at her disposal: all those lotions and soaps and creams made just for babies, rich with shea butter and almond oil and lavender. They would be lined up along the edge of the tub—no, on a fancy glass rack, safely out of reach of inquisitive little hands—and there would be toys, too, bins of them, not just an old yogurt cup for rinsing her hair, but ducks and wind-up frogs.

Dolphins. Boats and airplanes. Miniature versions of the marvelous life May Ling would have with the McCulloughs.

After the bath, Mrs. McCullough would wrap May Ling in a fluffy white towel, so plush that when she unwound it there would be a perfect imprint of a little girl in it, right down to her thumbprint navel. She would brush May Ling’s hair—which was straight when dry but wavy when wet, just like her mother’s—and coax her damp limbs into pajamas. And then she would give May Ling her bottle and put her to bed. Bebe watched the light in the bathroom go out and, in a moment, saw the light at the back of the house—May Ling’s room—go on. May Ling would fall asleep, milk-sated and warm, in that cozy crib, snug under a hand-knit coverlet, a wall of crib bumpers shielding her from the hard slats of the sides. She would fall asleep and Mrs. McCullough would turn on the night-light and close the door, and when she went to bed herself, she would already be looking forward to the morning, when she would come in and find Bebe’s daughter there waiting for her.

Bebe leaned her head against the BMW and waited for the light in her daughter’s room to go out.



Izzy came home from Mia’s to an empty house. Her parents, of course, were still at work, but one of her siblings was usually around. Where was Lexie? she wondered. Where was Moody? Trip, she decided, must be out with Pearl—she hoped she could catch Pearl before her mother arrived home.

As it happened, Trip and Moody had arrived home earlier—Moody right after school, and unexpectedly, Trip a short while later. Trip seemed grumpy and at loose ends, and Moody suspected—correctly—that he’d planned to meet Pearl and something had gone amiss.

“Bad day?” Trip grunted. “She stood you up,” Moody went on, clucking his tongue. “Sucks, man. But I mean, what did you expect.”

“What are you talking about?” Trip said, turning to Moody at last, and Moody felt a mean thrill shoot through him.

“Did you think you were the only one?” he said. “You think anyone’s dumb enough to save themselves for you? I just can’t believe you didn’t catch on sooner.” He laughed, and it was then that Trip dove at him. They hadn’t scrapped like this in years, since they were boys, and with a sudden sense of relief Moody laughed again even as Trip socked him in the stomach and they toppled onto the floor. For a few moments they scuffled on the tile, their shoes leaving streaks on the cabinet doors, and then Trip got Moody into a headlock and the fight was over.

“You shut up,” Trip hissed. “Just shut the fuck up.” Since the first time he’d kissed Pearl, he’d wondered what she saw in him, had wondered if she might—sooner or later—decide she’d made a mistake choosing him. It was as if Moody had somehow peered into his brain and spoken all his fears out loud.

Moody sputtered and pulled at Trip’s arm and Trip, finally, let him go and stormed off. After half an hour of aimless driving, he headed to Dan Simon’s house. In the days before Pearl, he and Dan and some of their hockey teammates had spent hours hunched around Dan’s Nintendo playing GoldenEye, and this afternoon he hoped that video-game haze would distract him from what Moody had said, from wondering if it was true.

Moody, meanwhile, headed to Horseshoe Lake, where he thought about all the things he wished he’d said to his brother, today and over all the years.

Izzy, home alone, turned Mia’s words over and over in her head.

Sometimes you need to start over from scratch. At five, Mia had not yet arrived to prepare dinner, and an uneasy feeling grew in the pit of her

stomach. It only intensified when her mother called at five thirty. “Mia can’t come today,” she said. “I’ll pick up some Chinese food on the way home.” When Moody finally came home, at a little past six, she ran downstairs.

“Where is everyone?” she demanded.

Moody shrugged off his flannel shirt and tossed it onto the couch. He had sat at the lake for hours, throwing rocks into the water, thinking about Pearl and his brother. Look what you did to her, he thought furiously. How could you put her through that? He had thrown every rock he could find and it was still not enough. “How would I know,” he said to Izzy. “Lexie’s probably over at Serena’s. Who knows where the fuck Trip is.” He stopped. “What do you care? I thought you liked being alone.”

“I was looking for Pearl. Have you seen her?”

“Saw her in English.” Moody went into the kitchen to get a soda, with Izzy trailing after him. “Not since then. She left class early.” He took a swig.

“Maybe she’s with Trip?” Izzy suggested. Moody swallowed and paused. Izzy, noticing that he did not contradict her, pressed her advantage. “Is that true, what you said last night about Pearl and Trip?”


“Why did you tell Mom?”

“I didn’t think it was a secret.” Moody set the can down on the counter. “It’s not like they were subtle about it. And it’s not my job to lie for them.”

“Mom said—” Izzy hesitated. “Mom said Pearl had an abortion?” “That’s what she said.”

“Pearl didn’t have an abortion.” “How would you know?”

“Because.” Izzy couldn’t explain, but she was sure she was right about this. Trip and Pearl—that she could believe. She had seen Pearl watching Trip for months, like a mouse watching a cat, longing to be eaten. But Pearl, pregnant? She thought back. Had Pearl seemed unusual at all?

Izzy froze. She remembered the day she’d gone to Mia’s and Lexie had been there. What had Lexie said? That she’d come over to see Pearl, that Pearl was helping her with an essay. Lexie, usually so coiffed, was disheveled and wan, hair in a limp ponytail, and Mia had been so quick to shoo Izzy away. She thought back further. Lexie, coming home the next afternoon in Pearl’s favorite green T-shirt, the one with John Lennon on the front. In one hand she’d clutched a plastic bag with something inside it.

She’d stayed in her room all evening, skipping dinner—again, unlike Lexie, who had an appetite—and had been in a sour mood for weeks afterward.

Even now, Izzy thought, her sister seemed less effervescent, less gregarious, as if a damper had been closed. And she and Brian had broken up.

“Where’s Lexie?” she said again.

“I told you. I think she’s at Serena’s.” Moody grabbed Izzy’s arm. “Keep your mouth shut about Trip and Pearl, okay? I don’t think she knows.”

“You are such a fucking idiot.” Izzy shook herself free. “Pearl wasn’t pregnant. You realize Mom and her mom are probably going to kill her, and you threw her under the bus for no reason?”

Moody blanched, but only for a moment. Then he shook his head. “I don’t care. She deserved it.”

“She deserved it?” Izzy stared.

“She was sneaking around with Trip. Trip, of all people, Izzy. She didn’t even care that—” He stopped, as if he had pressed too hard on a fresh bruise. “Look, she decided to sleep around. She deserves whatever she gets.”

“I cannot believe you.” Izzy had never seen her brother act this way. Moody, who had always been the most thoughtful person in her family; Moody, who had always taken her side even if she chose not to take his advice. Moody, the person in her family she’d always trusted to see things more clearly than she could.

“You realize,” she said, “that Mom is probably going to blame Mia for all of this.”

Moody shifted. “Well,” he said, “maybe she should have kept a closer eye on her daughter. Maybe she should have raised her to be more responsible.”

He reached for his can of soda, but Izzy got it first. The cold metal smashed into his cheekbone, and a spray of fizz and froth hit him squarely in the face. By the time he could see again, Izzy was gone, and he was alone, except for the can rolling slowly away across the wet kitchen tile.



Serena’s house was on Shaker Boulevard, by the middle school, nearly two miles away. Forty minutes later, Serena answered the doorbell to find Izzy,

breathless, on the front steps.

“What are you doing here, freak?” Lexie said, coming down the stairs behind Serena.

“I need to ask you something,” Izzy said. “Ever heard of the telephone?”

“Shut up. It’s important.” Izzy pulled her sister by the arm into the living room and Serena, familiar with Richardson family dynamics, retreated to the kitchen to give them some privacy.

“What,” Lexie said when they were alone. “Did you have an abortion?” Izzy said. “What?” Lexie’s voice dropped to a whisper. “When Mom was out of town. Did you?”

“It’s none of your fucking business.” Lexie turned to go, but Izzy barreled ahead.

“You did, didn’t you. That time you said you slept over at Pearl’s.” “It’s not a crime, Izzy. Tons of people do it.”

“Did Pearl go with you?”

Lexie sighed. “She drove me. And before you start getting all moralistic and self-righteous—”

“I don’t care about your morals, Lex.” Izzy flicked her hair out of her face impatiently. “Mom thinks Pearl’s the one who had it.”

“Pearl?” Lexie laughed. “Sorry, that’s just funny. Virginal, innocent little Pearl.”

“She must think that for a reason.”

“I made the appointment under Pearl’s name,” Lexie said. “Whatever.

She didn’t mind.” She turned to go, then wheeled around again. “Don’t you dare tell anyone about this. Not Moody, not Mom, not anyone. Got it?”

“You are so fucking selfish,” Izzy said. Without saying good-bye, she pushed past Lexie into the front hallway, where she nearly knocked Serena over on her way out the door.

It took her another forty minutes on foot to reach the little house on Winslow, and by the time she got there she knew something was wrong. All the lights upstairs were off and there was no sign of the Rabbit in the driveway. She hesitated for a moment on the front walk, poking at the peach tree, where the blossoms were shriveling and turning brown. Then she went around to the side of the house and rang the doorbell until Mr. Yang answered.

“Is Mia here?” she said. “Or Pearl?”

Mr. Yang shook his head. “They leave maybe five, ten minutes ago.”

Izzy’s heart went leaden and cold. “Did they happen to say where they were going?” she asked, though she already knew the truth: she had missed them, and they were gone.

Mr. Yang shook his head again. “They don’t tell me.” He had peeked out from behind the curtains just in time to see Mia and Pearl backing carefully out of the driveway, the Rabbit piled high with bags and boxes, and driving off into the growing darkness. They had been good people, he thought sadly, and he wished them a safe journey, wherever they were headed.

A note, Izzy thought wildly; there must be a note. Mia would not have left without a good-bye. “Can I go up and check their apartment for something?” she said. “I promise, I won’t bother anything.”

“You have a key?” Mr. Yang opened the door and let Izzy clomp up the stairs. “Maybe the door locked?” It was, in fact, and Izzy knocked several times and rattled the doorknob before giving up and coming back down.

“I don’t have key,” Mr. Yang said. He held the storm door open as Izzy rushed outside. “You ask your mommy, she have the key.”

It took Izzy twenty-five minutes to walk home, where—although she would never know it—Mia and Pearl had dropped off their keys just a short time earlier. It took her another half an hour to find her mother’s spare keys to the Winslow house in the catchall drawer in the kitchen. She was quiet, ignoring the half-eaten carton of lo mein and orange chicken left on the counter for her, careful not to disturb her brothers or her parents, who by then had dispersed to their various corners of the house. By the time she returned to Winslow Road, it was nine thirty, and Mr. Yang—who on weekdays rose at 4:15 in order to drive his school bus route, and liked to keep a regular schedule—had already gone to bed. So no one heard Izzy come in through the side door, unlock the door to Mia and Pearl’s apartment, and step inside at last, knowing deep down that she was too late, that they were gone for good.



By nine the next morning, the Richardson house was nearly empty as well. Mr. Richardson had gone in to the office to catch up, as he often did on

Saturday mornings; the recent developments in the McCullough case had set him behind in everything else. Lexie was asleep across town in Serena’s queen-size bed. Trip and Moody had both gone out: Trip to distract himself with a pickup game at the community center, Moody on his bike to Pearl’s house, where he intended to apologize but instead—to his consternation— found a locked door and no Volkswagen. And on Saturday mornings, Izzy knew, Mrs. Richardson always went to the rec center pool to swim laps. Her mother was such a creature of habit that Izzy didn’t even bother to peek into her bedroom. She was certain she had the house to herself.

It was unfair, all of it, deeply unfair: that was the one thought that had pulsed through Izzy’s mind all night. That Mia and Pearl had had to leave, that they’d finally made a home and now they had been driven away. The kindest people she knew, the most caring, the most sincere, and they’d been chased away by her family. In her mind she cataloged the many betrayals.

Lexie had lied; she’d used Pearl. Trip had taken advantage of her. Moody had betrayed her, on purpose. Her father was a baby stealer. And her mother: well, her mother had been at the root of it all.

She thought of Mia’s house, glowing golden and warm. All her life she’d felt hard and angry; her mother always criticizing her, Lexie and Trip always mocking her. Mia hadn’t been like that. With Mia she’d been different, in a way she hadn’t known she could be: in Mia’s accepting presence she’d become curious and kind and open, as if under a magic spell. She had felt, finally, as if she could speak without immediately bumping into the hard shell of her sheltered life, as if she suddenly saw that the solid walls penning her in were actually bars, with spaces between them wide enough to slip through. Now Izzy tried to imagine going back to life as it had been before: life in their beautiful, perfectly ordered, abundantly furnished house, where the grass was always cut and the leaves were always raked and there was never, ever any garbage in sight; in their beautiful, perfectly ordered neighborhood where every lawn had a tree and the streets curved so that no one went too fast and every house harmonized with the next; in their beautiful, perfectly ordered city, where everyone got along and everyone followed the rules and everything had to be beautiful and perfect on the outside, no matter what mess lay within. She could not pretend that nothing had happened. Mia had opened a door in her that could not be shut again.

And then she thought about the first day she’d met Mia, what Mia had asked her: What are you going to do about it? It was the first time Izzy had ever felt there was something she could do about anything. Now she remembered what Mia had said to her the last time they’d seen each other, the words that had been echoing through her head ever since: how sometimes you needed to start over from scratch. Scorched earth, she had said, and at that moment Izzy decided what she was going to do.

She had spent the night planning and now that it was time, she hardly thought at all. It was as if she were standing outside herself, watching someone else do these things. Their father always kept a can of gasoline in the garage, to fill the snow blower, and to power the generator if the power went out during a storm. With the jerry can Izzy made a neat circle on her sister’s bed, then her brothers’. The gasoline made a dark, oily blotch on Lexie’s flowered comforter, on Trip’s pillow, on Moody’s plaid sheets. By the time she’d finished in Moody’s room the can was empty, so she contented herself with setting it outside the closed door of her parents’ bedroom. Then she replaced the keys to the Winslow house in the catchall drawer and removed the box of matches.

Remember, Mia had said: Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way. She thought of Mia now and her eyes began to burn and she scraped the first match against the side of the box. On her shoulder she had her bookbag stuffed with a change of clothes, all the money she owned. They couldn’t be far ahead, she thought. There was still time to find them. The sandpaper grated under the match head like nails on a chalkboard and there was a whiff of sulfur and the tip flared bright, and Izzy dropped it onto her sister’s flowered comforter and ran out the door.

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