Authors: Diane Vanaskie Mulligan
WATCH ME DISAPPEAR
By Diane Vanaskie Mulligan
Copyright © 2012 by Diane Vanaskie Mulligan
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
eBook cover design by Dara England
For my mother
I swear, every time we move to another town and I have to start over at another school, my mother looks at me and thinks, “Maybe this time she’ll make some friends.” She’s a realist. She never advises me to go out there and be myself. Instead she tells me to use this fresh start to reinvent myself, which means to fix whatever is wrong with me.
All I want is to be invisible. My plan for senior year at my new school: Get straight A’s and get into a top-tier college. But this move is different from all the others. This time, my dad keeps reminding me, we’re moving home, to the town where he grew up. This isn’t Texas (which is like another planet) or California (which is like another universe). My entire life, this has been the one place we’ve always returned to, but up until now, only for short visits. There’s the park where I learned to ride a bike, the ice cream shop that makes the world’s best mint chocolate chip, the hill behind my grandmother’s house where my brother and I used to go sledding on snowy Christmases. Maybe this time I can let my guard down a little and not just be the quiet new girl. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking.
The other day I was sitting on the back deck struggling to start my summer reading (and let me just say whoever cast Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet cannot have read
Pride and Prejudice
), when I heard a girl’s voice through the fence between our yard and our neighbors’.
“I don’t know,” the voice said, “my mom wants me to invite her to hang out this weekend… No! I haven't seen her, but my mom says she’s cute… Uh-huh. A little pudgy… I know, right? My mom, like, had a tea party with her or something the other day... Yeah, like with a tea pot and everything... They’re coming to the cookout this weekend... Hell, no! He’s not my father... Whatever... Okay, see you tonight.”
Then I heard a sliding door open and shut. The voice had been talking about me. I was the one her mother “like, had a tea party with” a few days earlier. I wondered if my parents knew we were going to some cookout and if Mrs. Morgan had really called me pudgy.
I wished I’d never let that stupid woman in the door, with her Talbots clothes and fancy plate of store-bought cookies. She had rung the bell about a half an hour after my parents left for Home Depot.
“Welcome to Hillside,” she chirped, extending the plate of cookies toward me as I opened the door. “I’m Patty Morgan! Your neighbor!” She gestured toward the house to the left of ours. She stood there smiling at me, her hands clasped in front of her chest like a girl scout awaiting a merit badge. When I didn’t say anything, she tried to peek around me into the house and asked, “Are your parents home?”
I felt like I was in a made-for-TV movie. “Are your parents home” are the magic words that unleash unspeakable horrors. I shook my head.
“They’ll be back soon,” I said, when she continued to stand there expectantly. And then, without quite realizing what I was doing, I invited her in for tea. I guess a week of being cooped up with just my mom and dad for company had started to get to me.
She followed me into the kitchen, the one room of the house my mom had somewhat organized. I filled the kettle and set out the teapot and two cups and saucers beside the plate of cookies.
“Lovely!” she said, settling onto a stool at the kitchen island. “Like playing tea party! I usually just nuke water for tea in the microwave.”
I wished the water would hurry up and boil. It was a mistake letting her in. My mom would be furious—the house was still a mess and this woman obviously wanted to spy on us. Besides, what did I have to talk about with a woman as old as my mom?
“So you must be in high school,” she said, her eyes shamelessly scanning our kitchen, taking everything in.
I told her I’d be a senior.
“So will my daughter Maura,” she said, raising her eyebrows.
This comment piqued my interest in my new neighbor. I thought it would be good to meet some people before school started. This was, of course, before I actually heard Maura talking on the phone.
“I would have guessed you were a freshman or sophomore at best,” Mrs. Morgan said. Noticing my expression, she added, “Believe me, one day you’ll be happy you look young.”
I forced a smile. The kettle whistled and I filled the teapot.
Then Mrs. Morgan started plying me with questions about myself. I’ve been well-schooled in etiquette for interacting with grownups. Rule #1: Answer their questions politely to show how appreciative you are that they are faking an interest in you. I found myself babbling away about English class and how I used to do swim team because my dad thought everyone should participate in sports, but I really hated it, and I only joined because there were no cuts.
Mrs. Morgan is a smooth operator. By the time she started pumping me for information about my parents and why we had moved to Hillside, it didn’t even occur to me not to answer. It’s not like we have any secrets, but my mom is a very private person. If she had heard me tell Mrs. Morgan about my dad’s new job as CFO at St. Maria’s Hospital, she would have killed me. When I mentioned it, Mrs. Morgan’s eyes lit up the way cartoon characters’ eyes turn to dollar signs when they think they’ve hit the jackpot. Mrs. Morgan is clever, though. She knew better than to linger on the subject of my parents for long. Instead she asked me how I was adjusting to the new neighborhood.
The truth: I don’t like it at all. I wanted to live in the New England of
with old houses on a charming town common, but I got McMansions on Corn Row Avenue, Pumpkin Patch Terrace, Hayfield Lane. Seriously. And the whole thing is arranged like a maze with winding streets that sometimes connect to others and sometimes dead end in cul-de-sacs like the one we share with the Morgans. It’s like a medieval fortress designed to confuse advancing armies so they never reach the castle. Every time my mom goes out on an errand, she gets lost coming or going or both. It’s tragic. Since no one ever seems to be out in the perfect green yards, she can’t even ask directions. My dad might have to overcome his hatred of GPS units if she doesn’t figure it out soon.
But I didn’t say that to Mrs. Morgan. Instead I said, “It’s really quiet.”
“As long as we keep Maura inside,” Mrs. Morgan said laughing. At the time I didn’t know what she meant, but now I do.
Anyway my parents eventually came back and as anticipated my mother was pissed that I let a “stranger” in. But she put on her polite face until Mrs. Morgan left. Then she grounded me, which was no punishment at all since I didn’t know anyone here and I had nowhere to go.
* * *
“You look like a page right out of the L. L. Bean catalog,” I tell my mother, having been summoned to give my opinion of her outfit for the Morgans’ cookout. I’m pretty sure she actually opened to a page of the catalog and ordered the entire outfit off of one of the models: khaki skirt, nautical blue-and-white-striped twin set with the sweater draped across her shoulders and tied in the front, a woven belt, and slip-on campus boat shoes. I watch her inspect herself in the mirror.
“You know it’s like 85° out, right?” I ask. “You really won’t need a sweater.”
“Are you making fun of me?” she asks, turning to look at me. “And what are you going to wear?”
I stand up from her bed and pose. I have on a jean skirt, a black T-shirt, and flip-flops.
She frowns. “What about your hair?”
Again with the hair. She hated it a couple of years ago when I cut it short because it was “too boyish.” She hates it now because “it just hangs there like a mop.” She thinks I need layers to make it “squishy” and “cute.” I like it how it is—simple, shoulder-length, easy to put in a ponytail.
“Can you put some mousse in it or something, make it look nice? And how about some earrings? Do you have to wear that necklace?”
I have on a hemp rope necklace with a big multicolored bead in the center of it. My brother Jeff gave it to me for my birthday and I wear it all the time. He’s in college, and this summer he isn’t coming home at all because he has some internship. I don’t blame him for not coming home—I mean, this isn’t any home he’s ever known—but I wish he were here. Everything is easier with him around.
I agree to put on some earrings and scoot from the room before she can make any more “suggestions.”
* * *
From the window of the unpacked mess of my room, I can see into the Morgans’ backyard. The pool water glitters in the sun. The table on the deck has been dressed up with a festive tablecloth. As much as my mother’s obsession with appearances drives me nuts, I know she’s just nervous, and I am too. It’s like my first day at a new school, except instead of blending into a crowd of a thousand kids, jocks and nerds alike, I will have to face Maura and her friends all alone.
I’ve practically only eaten fruit all week in hopes that I’ll look good for these new people who can make or break my senior year with one word. I hate myself for caring so much, but I feel along my jaw for a double chin anyway. My face definitely looks thinner around my cheekbones. I wish it wasn’t too hot for long pants that would hide my stubby legs, but if I can’t be skinny, at least I can avoid being one big pit stain.
* * *
Mrs. Morgan descends upon us the minute we arrive, gushing over the cucumber salad my mom brought. We follow her like little puppies on parade, shaking hands with some of the neighbors and Mr. Morgan and Billy, their five-year-old son who is covered in the sticky residue of purple popsicles.
Maura is sitting on the far side of the pool with her friends. She has on a red and white bikini and is flicking red polish over her fingernails. She’s wearing big, stylish sunglasses, and her hair is arranged in a perfect mess atop her head. Mrs. Morgan seems hesitant to take us over to her daughter or even to approach the group herself. She tells us to wait and then she goes to get Maura. Obediently we watch her circle the pool and return with her daughter.
Maura flashes a smile and gives a coy hello. She speaks with a sugary drawl. She declines shaking my parents’ hands—wet nail polish—but she answers their questions politely enough.
“Why don’t you introduce Lizzie to your friends?” Mrs. Morgan suggests.
Maura smiles again and turns to me. “My mom said you used to live in California. We’re dying to get to know you.”
So I join the circle of half-dressed girls sitting in the sun looking bored. Maura makes quick introductions. The girls’ names are Tina, Jessica, and Katherine. All of them wear tiny bikinis and flashy sunglasses and have long messy hair. And they all greet me with close-lipped smiles. And then no one says anything.
Finally, to break the silence, I ask, “Are you all on the cheerleading squad or something?” I mean, they look like Laker Girls or Playboy Bunnies. It seems like a logical question.
“Oh my God, no!” Jessica answers. “Cheerleading is social death! You weren’t a cheerleader at your old school, were you?”