“Hi, Cawa,” she said. Her eyelids were purple like she was tired, but she reached out toward me and bounced her legs up and down in her bed. When she did, she upset a bunch of butterflies that had been sitting all over her blanket. They fluttered up around my face. Even though they were pretty, I still ducked my head and flapped my arms to scare them off me.
“You shouldn’t do that til Momma is gone for the night,” I whispered.
She seemed to think about what I said, but you could never really be sure if she was really thinking or off in some other place. A butterfly landed on her nose. She crossed her eyes to look at it and giggled. She put her finger up next to the bug, and it walked onto her hand and sat there slowly moving its yellow and brown wings.
“Pwetty!” she squealed.
“Shh!” I went over to the window and pushed really hard until it opened. “We gotta let these out of here so Momma doesn’t see them!”
“Aww, maaaan,” Sydney grumbled. “Keep one?”
Of course I gave in. For a little sister, she was not that annoying, not really. Even though she was only three. She was special, Momma had told me. That much was true. So what if she wants a butterfly to sleep with her? Besides, even if I made every single butterfly leave, she would just make more come.
“Fine. But just one,” I said. “Which one do you want?”
Sydney sat up and narrowed her slanted, almond-shaped eyes, staring seriously at the cloud of pretty bugs that was flying in a circle around her. I thought those eyes were football shaped at first, but Momma says almond shaped is a nicer word. It made her sound like a pretty model and not a Down Syndrome kid. That was the word Momma said to other adults who asked what was wrong with Sydney. I didn't think there was much wrong with Sydney, but the adults sure thought there was.
Finally, Sydney made her choice. She pointed to a black one with pretty aqua near the bottoms of its wings. “That one,” she said.
That one I knew. Momma had given me a butterfly book for my birthday the month before. “Swallowtail. Now lay down.”
“Swawtaw,” Sydney murmured as she obeyed. The butterfly walked up the blanket and came to stand on her chest, right where she could see it up close.
“Now the rest of you, get out,” I said to the cloud of butterflies. They didn't really listen to me, but I felt like I had to talk to them and not just swat at them. After all, they obeyed Sydney so well, they must have had some kind of brains in their funny little heads.
I grabbed a teddy bear off the bed and swung it at the butterflies to shoo them toward the open window. Most of them went, but a few landed on the ceiling. I couldn’t reach them, not even if I jumped on my bed and swung the doll high over my head. Sydney laughed her high-pitched, screamy laugh.
I didn’t hear Momma coming down the hallway, or else I would have gotten off the bed.
“What’s going on in here?” Momma asked. She sounded angry, but I knew that was only because she was in a hurry.
“I was just making the butterfly go outside,” I said. That was honest. Momma didn’t need to know how they got into the room in the first place.
Momma stepped up on the bed and flicked her hand at the butterfly lightly. It fluttered away and rested for a moment on the lacy blue curtain before fluttering out the window. I jumped down from the bed and grabbed a plastic cup out of the toy box at the end of my bed. I put the cup upside down on the nightstand between our beds, right over the butterfly Sydney wanted for company.
“Fankoo,” Sydney said.
“Seriously, I don’t know how these things keep getting in,” Momma said. Sydney put her hand over her mouth and giggled too loudly. I glared at her, and she stopped.
I offered, “Maybe it’s the flower bushes outside.”
Momma’s stressed out face relaxed a little. “Oh well, maybe. It’s still better than our last apartment. We can handle a few pretty bugs.”
“Bufflye,” Sydney corrected her.
She was right. The last apartment had been noisy because of the people upstairs. It also smelled like the bad kind of smoke. I didn’t know there was a good kind of smoke, but Momma said to just trust her, there was. Some nights, people drank too much alcohol and banged on our door instead of the next one. Once someone even broke down the door. Momma couldn’t stand it. We moved out of there after just a couple of months.
Momma got down off my bed and leaned over Sydney to give her a hug. Then she hugged me.
“Now, you two behave yourselves,” Momma started. She said the same thing every night. Don’t answer the phone, don’t answer the door, don’t turn on the stove, the cell phone number is on the fridge, sit Sydney up if she starts to choke in her sleep, and Miss Johnson is next door if we need help. We never needed help. Besides, Miss Johnson slept with the TV on really loud. Even if we needed her, I didn’t think she could hear us knock.
Momma hugged me and gave me a kiss on top of my head.
“Thank you for being my helper,” Momma said. I just smiled and hugged her again. “Don’t forget the light,” Momma said as she left the room.
“I won’t,” I said.
As soon as the front door closed and locked, Sydney popped up and took the cup off the butterfly. It fluttered in a few wild figure eights around the ceiling before coming back to land on Sydney's blanket. She held her hands out to it, and it fluttered away from her grasp and landed on her forehead instead. She wrenched her eyes up to see it again and screeched happily.
I felt bad about leaving Momma out of Sydney’s secrets, especially the one about the butterflies. But she hated bugs so much. The only reason she didn't kill the butterflies was because she knew Sydney would cry. Besides, Momma was so upset all the time, I didn’t think she needed to worry any more than she already did. She worried about money, about Sydney and her doctor bills, about me needing new shoes because my old ones were too small, about whether or not anyone would catch her leaving me to babysit all night. She said she didn’t have enough money for a babysitter. I thought we were just fine. We didn’t need a babysitter. And as for Sydney, she was more than fine.
See, Sydney could make things happen. I don’t know how she did it, but whatever Sydney wanted, it just happened. If Sydney wanted the crackers that were on the top shelf of the cabinet, they somehow showed up in her hands. (And I got into trouble for climbing on the counters to get them, even if I was all the way across the room.) If Sydney wanted Mr. Sandusky's cat to come by for a visit, the cat would suddenly appear on the windowsill. Momma thought Mr. Sandusky should keep his cat locked up better. I told Momma that we liked the company and begged her not to tell Mister Sandusky about it. If Sydney wanted the crayon I was using, she suddenly had it. When I looked down at my hands, I wasn’t holding it anymore. Instead, it had turned to a pencil or some different color of crayon. Usually black. Sydney hated the black crayon.
“You sleepy yet?” I asked Sydney.
“I drink,” she said.
“Can’t you just wish for one?” I asked.
She shook her head against the pillow. The front of her red hair stuck up a little bit with static electricity. “You git it.”
I sighed and went to the kitchen to get a sippy cup of juice from the fridge. When I got back, Sydney emptied the cup in ten seconds and lay back down, hugging it to her chest. I hoped she didn’t need a new pull-up in the middle of the night. I didn’t like helping her take off wet pull-ups.
“Ny-ny, Cawa,” she said.
“Night,” I answered. Sydney turned over and fell asleep instantly. Her eyes never quite closed all the way. Instead, they just wobbled back and forth, looking at everything and nothing all at once. That was too weird to watch. I turned out the light for once and climbed into my bed. I stared at the butterflies―now there were three of them― as they fluttered by the window. They made fancy little shadow shapes against the street light shining in.
Chapter One - A Quiet Life - Five Years Later
Momma said we Clements like to live a quiet life. There wasn’t much that changed for us. Momma worked at the nursing home five nights a week, or six if they needed extra help. I got my little sister Sydney ready for school and got myself to the bus stop. After a long, typically uneventful day at school, I got back on the bus and went home. I didn’t stay after school for cheerleading practice or art club. I never really wanted to. I got along with people all right, but nobody ever asked to come home with me after school. I wouldn’t have let them come, anyway. Not with Sydney being―well, Sydney. She made weird things happen, and I didn't feel like explaining it to anyone.
When we got home from school, Momma got up and spent the evening with us until it was time for her to go to work. I locked the door after her and checked to see that the neighbor’s name and phone number were still on the fridge―old habit. Throw in the occasional weekend trip to Grandma’s or the zoo, and that was pretty much it. Every day, every situation was the same story. The only things that really changed for us were the names of the towns, schools, neighbors, and nursing homes. Those things changed a lot.
This time we were in a town called Buckley. Buckley was a pretty small town and very far away from our last one. Which was that? Plainfield? Pontiac? Mount Vernon? I forget because we only stayed in any town just a few months. Momma worked at Sunset House changing bedsheets and pushing wheelchairs. Sydney was in a regular school here, a first-grader at Amelia Earhart Elementary School. She didn't seem to mind being the only eight-year-old in first grade. I was a seventh-grader at Buckley Middle School. Buckley middle school was my third school this year. From what I could tell, seventh grade here was pretty good. Better than Pontiac, but about the same as Plainfield. The lunches tasted better, and mostly people just ignored me instead of picking on me for being new. I counted up all my schools once. There were eleven. Thirteen if you count preschools. One for every year I've been alive. You would think I'd have memorized all the cities in the Midwest by now, but surprisingly, I had yet to pass a geography test.
School is not terribly hard for me, but geography just didn't keep my attention. Why read about the world in a book when you could see most of it just by being a member of the Clement family? I was much better at reading and math and art class. I left the real school trouble to Sydney. She had plenty of that. The school counselors told Momma that Sydney threw fits at school because she needed a stable home environment, whatever that was. I thought Sydney just threw fits because people didn't listen to her when she asked for things.
I threw open the door one day and saw that Momma was already awake and dressed. She sat at the kitchen table with her forehead in her hands and a blank sheet of paper in front of her. I knew it was only blank on one side. The other side was stuff that people had printed at Sunset House. We used recycled paper because it was free. It also made pretty cool snowflakes with random patterns of letters on them. A few recycled snowflakes were still taped to the picture window. Sydney sat next to Momma at the table, scribbling happily. I was pleased to see that she was coloring mostly on the paper and not on the vinyl tablecloth. Her bus wasn't supposed to drop for another half hour, though. I always took care of my sister until dinnertime so Momma could sleep. The school must have called Momma to come and get her.
Seeing my mother like that, though, made my stomach sink to my knees. I knew what this meant. Being up early. Holding up her head with her hands. That weird, pinched look in her mouth. She had lost her job. Again.
She glanced at me, and her eyes were already begging me not to be upset. I had seen this look three times already this year. We were moving again.
“Hey, Mom,” I said, trying to pretend that her look didn’t scare me. I flung my backpack off my shoulder and kicked off my sneakers on the tiny rug next to the door.
“Hey,” Mom said in a voice that told me she was not paying attention to anything but the problem on her mind. This wasn't so strange, either. I was usually the one who entertained my sister while Momma sat there looking distracted.
“Momma not cudderin,” Sydney tattled.
“Maybe she doesn’t want to color right now,” I answered Sydney. I asked Momma, “Is everything okay?”
Momma nodded and smiled vaguely. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just sleepy, is all.”
“Why did you get up so early?”
Momma looked over at Sydney with one eyebrow raised.
“Uh-oh. Another tantrum?”
“More than that. Sydney, why don’t you tell Cara what you did at school today?”
Sydney kept coloring, either pretending to be oblivious to the question, or truly being on her own planet. Momma sighed heavily and whispered, “She got the class's pet hamster out of the cage and set it loose in the classroom. And then she threw a fit when the teacher put it back in its cage.
I raised my eyebrows, nonplussed.
“The funny thing is,” Momma continued, “No one actually saw her take the hamster out of the cage. There was supposedly a lock on the cage door, too. Call me crazy, but I’m thinking Sydney isn’t quick enough to do all that while the teacher is passing out snacks.”
I glared at the top of Sydney’s head. She must have sensed it because her crayon paused for the tiniest second. Then she went back to scribbling more vigorously than before.
I poured myself a glass of juice, my mental gears spinning super fast to try to come up with a good explanation.
“How do they know it was her?” I asked.
She was sitting at her desk, holding the thing and singing to it.
I was impressed. I didn't know how Sydney did stuff like that, but I had seen her little trick in action plenty of times. Of course she never opened the cage; I was sure of that. No, she just wished she could hold the hamster, and boom! It was in her hands. Momma looked like she'd had enough surprise and drama for the day, so I said, “The teacher probably left the cage unlatched. And you know Sydney can be pretty slippery when she wants to be. Can't ya, Syd?”
Sydney gave me what I could only guess was a conspiratorial look. Turning to Momma, she said, “Momma okay. You cudder, okay? I love you two, three, four, five, six,” Sydney said, patting Momma on the shoulder. She gently pushed a red crayon into Momma’s hand. Sydney nodded encouragingly, grinning when Momma put the crayon to the paper and made a few wavy lines. Sydney’s pointy tongue darted out of her mouth and waggled from side to side.
“You too, Cawa,” Sydney said. She shoved a piece of paper across the table. I sat down with a sigh and picked up a blue crayon.
“Hm, I wonder what I should color,” I said, pretending I really didn’t know what Sydney was going to ask for.
“A bufflye!” she prodded with the same encouraging nod she had given Momma. Her slanted eyes were wide and serious, as though she had forgotten that I knew the routine.
I started with the familiar curve of the tops of the butterfly痴 wings. Sydney oohed and aahed as she did every time I drew one. I worked small and quickly since I had a lot of homework to do, and I didn't want to miss my favorite TV show, The Zoe Files. As soon as I was done, Sydney took the drawing and produced a pair of scissors out of nowhere to cut it out. Momma must have been to stressed to notice the scissors. Her head was still bent over her paper, which was now full of wavy red lines and a couple of hearts. Sydney thrust the now jagged-edged butterfly at me and said, “Hang.”
I taped the butterfly to the front of the old, brownish-yellow fridge, where no less than thirty other butterflies already hung. One for every day. I wondered if I should start using butterflies to count how long we lived in any one apartment.
Now that the butterfly queen was appeased, she bounced into the living room and turned on the TV. The SuperPets theme song blared, andSydney applauded as though those stupid cartoon characters could hear her.
“Did you lose your job?” I whispered to Momma. She nodded, but that was all. I was going to have to prod for more answers.
“They said I was late five times this month.” When she looked up at me, huge tears stood in the rims of her blue eyes. They always looked bluer while she was crying.
“You could always teach me how to cook. Then you wouldn’t have to do it. You could be on time.”
“No way!” She sounded almost angry, and her lips trembled. “No! I already ask so much of you, taking care of Syd at night. You're only thirteen! You should be going out and having fun with your friends, not raising a kid. I will not have you cooking meals, too.”
“So what are we going to do, then?”
“I'm going to try to find a job somewhere else. I can't pull you girls out of school again. That's why Syd is such a mess. Did you know the school called twice this week because of her behavior? Maybe the gas station is hiring. Or the Pig.” She shook her bangs out of her face and gave a firm nod. She sniffled the snot back up into her nose and said softly to herself, “Yeah. I'll check with The Pig.”
I was relieved to hear that I wouldn’t be moving again that year, but only sort of. I had gotten so used to moving, I kind of liked it. New places, new people, and stuff. If I made a fool out of myself in one school, I didn't have to live with it for long. There was always another chance at another school. It was like an adventure. I couldn’t really imagine my mother checking groceries at a Piggly Wiggly. But it would also be easier not to have to pack up all my things again. All our things. Sydney wasn’t much help when it came to moving.