Little Fires Everywhere (4 page)

They would find an apartment for rent: usually a studio, sometimes an efficiency, whatever they could afford and wherever they could go month to month, for Mia did not like to be tied down. They would set up their new apartment as they had in Shaker, with castoffs and thrift-store finds made fresh, or at least tolerable; Mia would enroll Pearl in the local school and find work enough to support them. And then Mia would begin her next project, working, worrying the idea like a bone, for three months or four or six months, until she had a set of photographs to dispatch to Anita in New York City.

She would set up a darkroom in the bathroom, after Pearl had fallen asleep. After the first few moves, she'd gotten it down to a science: trays for washing prints in the bathtub, a clothesline for drying strung from the shower rod, a rolled-up towel across the bottom of the door to block out any extra light. When she was finished, she stacked her trays, folded her enlarger into its case, hid her jugs of chemicals under the sink, and scrubbed the bathtub so that it was sparkling for Pearl's shower the next morning. She would crack the bathroom window and go to bed, and by the time Pearl woke, the sour smell of developer would be gone. Once Mia mailed her photographs, Pearl always knew, they would pack up the car again and the entire process would repeat. One town, one project, and then it was time to move on.

This time, though, was to be different. “We're staying put,” Pearl told him, and Moody felt suddenly, giddily buoyant, like an overfilled balloon. “My mom promised. This time we're staying for good.”

Their itinerant, artistic lifestyle appealed to him: Moody was a romantic at heart. He made the honor roll every semester, but unburdened by practicalities, he had daydreams about leaving school, traveling the country à la Jack Kerouac—only writing songs instead of poems. Mac's Backs supplied him with well-worn copies of
On the Road
and
Dharma Bums
, the
poems of Frank O'Hara and Rainer Maria Rilke and Pablo Neruda, and to his delight he found in Pearl another poetic soul. She hadn't read as much as he had, of course, because they had moved so often, but she had spent most of her childhood in libraries, taking refuge among the shelves as a new girl bouncing from school to school, absorbing books as if they were air—and, in fact, she told him shyly, she wanted to be a poet. She copied her favorite poems into a beat-up spiral notebook that she kept with her at all times. “So they'll always be with me,” she said, and when she finally allowed Moody to read some of them, he was speechless. He wanted to twine himself in the tiny curlicues of her handwriting. “Beautiful,” he sighed, and Pearl's face lit up like a lantern, and the next day Moody brought his guitar, taught her to play three chords, and bashfully sang one of his songs for her, which he'd never sung for anyone else.

Pearl, he soon discovered, had a fantastic memory. She could remember passages after reading them through just once, could recall the dates of the Magna Carta and the names of the kings of England and every one of the presidents in order. Moody's grades came from meticulous studying and plenty of flash cards, but everything seemed to come easily to Pearl: she could glance at a math problem and intuit the answer while Moody dutifully worked line after line of algebra down the page; she could read an essay and put her finger, at once, on the most salient point or the biggest logical flaw. It was as if she had glanced at a pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces and saw the whole picture without even consulting the box. Pearl's mind, it became clear, was an extraordinary thing, and Moody could not help but admire how fast her brain worked, how effortlessly. It was a pure pleasure, watching her click everything into place.

The more time they spent together, the more Moody began to feel he was in two places at once. At any given moment—every moment he could arrange, in fact—he was there with Pearl, in the booth at the diner, in the
fork of a tree, watching her big eyes drink in everything around them as if she were ferociously thirsty. He would crack dumb jokes and tell stories and dredge up bits of trivia, anything to make her smile. And at the same time, in his mind, he was roaming the city, searching desperately for the next place he could take her, the next wonder of suburban Cleveland he could display, because when he ran out of places to show her, he was sure, she would disappear. Already he thought he saw her growing silent over their fries, prodding the last congealed lump of cheese on the plate; already he was sure her eyes were drifting across the lake to the far shore.

This was how Moody made a decision he would question for the rest of his life. Until now he had said nothing about Pearl or her mother to his family, guarding their friendship like a dragon guards treasure: silently, greedily. Deep down he had the feeling that somehow it would change everything, the way in fairy tales magic was spoiled if you shared the secret. If he had kept her to himself, perhaps the future might have been quite different. Pearl might never have met his mother or his father, or Lexie or Trip or Izzy, or if she had, they might have been people she only greeted but didn't know. She and her mother might have stayed in Shaker forever, as they'd planned; eleven months later, the Richardson house might still have been standing. But Moody did not think of himself as interesting enough to hold her attention in his own right. Had he been a different Richardson, it might have been different; his brother and sisters never worried whether other people would like them. Lexie had her golden smile and her easy laugh, Trip had his looks and his dimples: why wouldn't people like them, why would they ever even ask such a thing? For Izzy, it was even simpler: she didn't care what people thought of her. But Moody did not possess Lexie's warmth, Trip's roguish charm, Izzy's self-confidence. All he had to offer her, he felt, was what his family had to
offer, his family itself, and it was this that led him to say, one afternoon in late July, “Come over. You can meet my family.”

When Pearl entered the Richardsons' house for the first time, she paused with one foot on the threshold. It was just a house, she told herself. Moody lived here. But even that thought struck her as slightly surreal. From the sidewalk, Moody had nodded at it almost bashfully. “That's it,” he'd said, and she had said, “You live
here
?” It wasn't the size—true, it was large, but so was every house on the street, and in just three weeks in Shaker she'd seen even larger. No: it was the greenness of the lawn, the sharp lines of white mortar between the bricks, the rustle of the maple leaves in the gentle breeze, the very breeze itself. It was the soft smells of detergent and cooking and grass that mingled in the entryway, the one corner of the throw rug that flipped up like a cowlick, as if someone had mussed it and forgotten to smooth it out. It was as if instead of entering a house she was entering the
idea
of a house, some archetype brought to life here before her. Something she'd only heard about but never seen. She could hear signs of life in far-off rooms—the low mumble of a TV commercial, the beep of a microwave running down its count—but distantly, as if in a dream.

“Come on in,” Moody said, and she stepped inside.

Later it would seem to Pearl that the Richardsons must have arranged themselves into a tableau for her enjoyment, for surely they could not always exist in this state of domestic perfection. There was Mrs. Richardson in the kitchen making cookies, of all things—something her own mother never did, though if Pearl begged hard she would sometimes buy a log of shrink-wrapped dough for them to slice into rounds. There was Mr. Richardson, a miniature out on the wide green lawn, deftly shaking charcoal into a shining silver grill. There was Trip, lounging on the long
wraparound sectional, impossibly handsome, one arm slung along the back as if waiting for some lucky girl to come and sit beside him. And there was Lexie, across from him in a pool of sunlight, turning her luminous eyes from the television toward Pearl as she came into the room, saying, “Well now, and who do we have here?”

4

T
he only member of the Richardson family that Pearl did not see much of in those giddy early days was Izzy—but at first she didn't notice. How could she, when the other Richardsons greeted her with their long, enveloping arms? They dazzled her, these Richardsons: with their easy confidence, their clear sense of purpose, no matter the time of day. At Moody's invitation, she spent hours at their house, coming over just after breakfast, staying until dinner.

Mornings, Mrs. Richardson sailed into the kitchen in high-heeled pumps, car keys and stainless-steel travel mug in hand, saying, “Pearl, so nice to see you again.” Then she click-clacked down the back hall, and in a moment the garage door rumbled open and her Lexus glided down the wide driveway, a golden pocket of coolness in the hot summer air. Mr. Richardson, in his jacket and tie, had left long before, but he loomed in the background, solid and impressive and important, like a mountain range on the horizon. When Pearl asked what his parents did all day, Moody had shrugged. “You know. They go to work.”
Work!
When her mother said it, it reeked of drudgery: waiting tables, washing dishes, cleaning floors. But for the Richardsons, it seemed noble: they did important things. Every Thursday the paperboy deposited a copy of the
Sun
Press
on Mia and Pearl's doorstep—it was free to all residents—and when they unfolded it they saw Mrs. Richardson's name on the front page under the headlines:
CITY DEBATES NEW TAX LEVY; RESIDENTS REACT
TO PRESIDENT CLINTON'S BUDGET; “VERY SQUARE AFFAIR” PREPARATIONS UNDERWAY IN
SHAKER SQUARE.
Tangible, black-and-white proof of her industriousness.

(“It's not really a big deal,” Moody said. “The
Plain Dealer
is the real paper. The
Sun Press
is just local stuff: city council meetings and zoning boards and who won the science fair.” But Pearl, eyeing the printed byline—
Elena Richardson
—did not believe or care.)

They knew important people, the Richardsons: the mayor, the director of the Cleveland Clinic, the owner of the Indians. They had season tickets at Jacobs Field and the Gund. (“The Cavs suck,” Moody put it succinctly. “Indians might win the pennant, though,” countered Trip.) Sometimes Mr. Richardson's cell phone—a cell phone!—would ring and he would extend the antenna as he stepped out into the hallway. “Bill Richardson,” he would answer, the simple statement of his name greeting enough.

Even the younger Richardsons had it, this sureness in themselves. Sunday mornings Pearl and Moody would be sitting in the kitchen when Trip drifted in from a run, lounging against the island to pour a glass of juice, tall and tan and lean in gym shorts, utterly at ease, his sudden grin throwing her into disarray. Lexie perched at the counter, inelegant in sweatpants and a tee, hair clipped in an untidy bun, picking sesame seeds off a bagel. They did not care if Pearl saw them this way. They were so artlessly beautiful, even right out of bed. Where did this ease come from? How could they be so at home, so sure of themselves, even in pajamas? When Lexie ordered from a menu, she never said, “Could I have . . . ?” She said, “I'll have . . .” confidently, as if she had only to say it to make it so. It unsettled Pearl and it fascinated her. Lexie would slide down off her
stool and walk across the kitchen with the elegance of a dancer, barefoot on the Italian tiles. Trip swigged the last of his orange juice and headed for the stairs and the shower, and Pearl watched him, her nostrils quivering as she breathed in the scent of his wake: sweat and sun and heat.

At the Richardson house were overstuffed sofas so deep you could sink into them as if into a bubble bath. Credenzas. Heavy sleigh beds. Once you owned an enormous chair like this, Pearl thought, you would simply have to stay put. You would have to plant roots and make the place that held this chair your home. There were ottomans and framed photographs and curio cabinets full of souvenirs, their very frivolousness reassuring. You did not bring home a carved seashell from Key West or a miniature of the CN Tower or a finger-sized bottle of sand from Martha's Vineyard unless you intended to stay. Mrs. Richardson's family, in fact, had lived in Shaker for three generations now—almost, Pearl learned, since the city had been founded. To have such a deep taproot in a single place, to be immersed in it so thoroughly that it had steeped into every fiber of your being: she couldn't imagine it.

Mrs. Richardson herself was another source of fascination. If she had been on a television screen, she would have felt as unreal as a Mrs. Brady or a Mrs. Keaton. But there she was right in front of Pearl, always saying kind things. “What a pretty skirt, Pearl,” she would say. “That color suits you. All honors classes? How smart you are. Your hair looks so nice today. Oh, don't be silly, call me Elena, I insist”—and then, when Pearl continued to call her Mrs. Richardson, she was secretly proud of Pearl's respectfulness, Pearl was sure of it. Mrs. Richardson was quick to hug her—her, Pearl, a virtual stranger—simply because she was one of Moody's friends. Mia was affectionate but never effusive; Pearl had never seen her mother embrace anyone other than her. And yet there was Mrs. Richardson coming home for dinner, pecking each of her children
atop the head and not even pausing when she got to Pearl, dropping a kiss onto her hair without a moment of hesitation. As if she were just one more chick in the brood.

Mia could not help but notice her daughter's infatuation with the Richardsons. Some days Pearl spent the entire day at the Richardson house. She had been pleased at first, watching Moody and her lonely daughter, who had been uprooted so many times, who had never really been close to anyone. For so long, she could see now, she had made her daughter live by her whim: moving on anytime she needed new ideas; anytime she had felt stuck or uneasy.
That's over now
, Mia had promised her as they drove toward Shaker.
From now on, we are staying put.
She could see the similarities between these two lonely children, even more clearly than they could: the same sensitive personalities lurking inside both of them, the same bookish wisdom layered over a deep naïveté. Moody would come by early each morning, before Pearl had even finished breakfast, and on waking Mia would draw the curtains to see Moody's bike sprawled on the front lawn, and come into the kitchen to find him and Pearl at the table, dregs of raisin bran in the mismatched bowls before them. They would be gone all day, Moody pushing his bike by the handlebars alongside them. Mia, rinsing the bowls in the sink, made a mental note to look for a bike for Pearl. Perhaps the bike shop on Lee Road had a used one.

But as the weeks went on, it worried Mia a little, the influence the Richardsons seemed to have over Pearl, the way they seemed to have absorbed her into their lives—or vice versa. At dinner Pearl talked about the Richardsons as if they were a TV show she was fanatical about. “Mrs. Richardson's going to interview Janet Reno when she comes to town next week,” she might say one day. Or, “Lexie says her boyfriend, Brian, is going to be the first black president.” Or—with a faint blush—“Trip's going to be starting forward on the soccer team in the fall. He just found
out.” Mia nodded and mm-hmmed, and wondered every evening if this was wise, if it was right for her daughter to fall under the spell of a family so entirely. Then she thought about the previous spring, when Pearl had gotten a cough so bad Mia had finally taken her to the hospital, where they learned it had turned into pneumonia. Sitting by her daughter's bedside in the dark, watching her sleep, waiting for the antibiotics the doctor had given her to take effect, Mia had allowed herself to imagine: if the worst had happened, what kind of life would Pearl have lived? Nomadic, isolated. Lonely.
That's done with,
she had told herself, and when Pearl had recovered they'd ended up in Shaker Heights, where Mia had promised they would stay. So she said nothing, and the next day another afternoon would pass with Pearl over at the Richardsons' again, becoming more bewitched.

Pearl had started at new schools often enough, sometimes two or three times a year, to have lost her fear about it, but this time she was deeply apprehensive. To start a school knowing you'd be leaving was one thing; you didn't need to worry what other people thought of you, because soon you'd be gone. She had drifted through every grade like that, never bothering to get to know anyone. To start a school knowing you'd see these people all year, and next year, and the year after that, was quite different.

But as it turned out, she and Moody shared nearly all their classes, from biology to Honors English to health. The first two weeks of school, he guided her through the hallways with the confidence only a sophomore could have, telling her which water fountains were the coldest, where to sit in the cafeteria, which teachers would give you a tardy slip if they caught you in the halls after the late bell, and which would wave you on with an indulgent smile. She began to navigate the school with the help of the murals, painted by students over the years: the exploding Hindenburg marked the science wing; Jim Morrison brooded by the auditorium
balcony; a girl blowing pink bubbles led the way to the mysteriously named Egress, a cavernous hallway that doubled as overflow lunchtime seating. A trompe l'oeil row of lockers marked the hallway down to the Social Room, a lounge designated for the seniors, where there was a microwave for making popcorn during free periods, and a Coke machine that cost only fifty cents instead of seventy-five like the ones in the cafeteria, and a chunky black cube of a jukebox left over from the seventies and now loaded with Sir Mix-a-Lot and Smashing Pumpkins and the Spice Girls. The year before, one student had painted himself and three friends, peeking down Kilroy-style, in the domed ceiling near the main entrance; one of them was winking, and every time Pearl passed beneath the dome she felt they were welcoming her in.

After school she went to the Richardsons' house and sprawled on the sectional in the family room with the older children and watched Jerry Springer. It was a little ritual the Richardson kids had developed over the past few years, one of the few times they agreed on anything. It had never been planned and it was never discussed, but every afternoon, if Trip didn't have practice and Lexie didn't have a meeting, they gathered in the family room and turned to Channel 3. To Moody, it was a fascinating psychological study, every episode another example of just how strange humanity could be. To Lexie, it was akin to anthropology, the stripper moms and polygamous wives and drug-dealing kids a window into a world so far from hers it was like something out of Margaret Mead. And to Trip, the whole thing was pure comedy: a glorious slapstick spectacle, complete with bleeped-out tirades and plenty of chair throwing. His favorite moments were when guests' wigs were pulled off. Izzy found the whole thing unspeakably idiotic and barricaded herself upstairs, practicing her violin. “The only thing Izzy actually takes seriously,” Lexie
explained. “No,” Trip countered, “Izzy takes everything too seriously. That's her problem.”

“The ironic thing,” Lexie said one afternoon, “is that in ten years we're going to see Izzy on
Springer.

“Seven,” Trip said. “Eight at most. ‘Jerry, Get Me Out of Jail!'”

“Or ‘My Family Wants to Commit Me,'” Lexie agreed.

Moody shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Lexie and Trip treated Izzy as if she were a dog that might go rabid at any minute, but the two of them had always gotten along. “She's just a little impulsive, that's all,” he said to Pearl.

“A little impulsive?” Lexie laughed. “You don't really know her yet, Pearl. You'll see.” And the stories began to pour out, Jerry Springer temporarily forgotten.

Izzy, at ten, had been apprehended sneaking into the Humane Society in an attempt to free all the stray cats. “They're like prisoners on death row,” she'd said. At eleven, her mother—convinced that Izzy was overly clumsy—had enrolled her in dance classes to improve her coordination. Her father insisted she try it for one term before she could quit. Every class, Izzy sat down on the floor and refused to move. For the recital—with the aid of a mirror and a Sharpie—Izzy had written
NOT YOUR PUPPET
across her forehead and cheeks just before taking the stage, where she stood stock-still while the others, disconcerted, danced around her.

“I thought Mom was going to die of embarrassment,” Lexie said. “And then last year? Mom thought she wore too much black and bought her all these cute dresses. And Izzy just rolled them up in a grocery bag and took the bus downtown and gave them to some person on the street. Mom grounded her for a month.”

“She's not crazy,” Moody protested. “She just doesn't think.”

Lexie snorted, and Trip hit unmute on the remote, and Jerry Springer roared to life again.

The sectional seated eight, but even with only three Richardson children, there was always a fair amount of jockeying to get the spots with the best view. Now, with the addition of Pearl, there were even more complicated maneuverings. Whenever she could manage it, Pearl would drop—unobtrusively, nonchalantly, she hoped—into the seat next to Trip. All her life, her crushes had been from afar; she'd never had the courage to speak to any of the boys who caught her fancy. But now that they'd settled in Shaker Heights for good, now that Trip was here, in this house, sitting on the very same couch—well, it was perfectly natural, she told herself, that she might sit next to him now and then; no one could read into that, surely, least of all Trip. Moody, meanwhile, felt he deserved the seat beside Pearl: he was the one who had introduced her to the fold, and of all the Richardsons he felt his claim—as the one who'd known her longest—was paramount. The end result was that Pearl would settle beside Trip, Moody would plop down beside her, sandwiching her between them, Lexie would stretch out on the corner, smirking at the three of them, and turn on the television, and all four of them turned their attention to the screen while remaining keenly aware of everything happening in the room.

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