- Pages: 368 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Viking Books for Young Readers
- ISBN: 9780593350256
An Excerpt From
Catch the Light
Oh my god.
It’s the time of day when the light is just starting to turn gold and we’re driving through thick forest and the sun is dappling down through the leaves everywhere. There are layers and layers of shifting light. Hundreds of shades of green. Magic.
It’s almost enough to make me forget why we’re here. It’s almost enough to make me forget my grandparents in the front seat and the tedious, awkward, ten-day road trip and the hours of NPR and the slow driving and the musty motel rooms and the subtle humiliation of my grandmother herding us together at every single state park and viewing station, wielding her ancient iPad like a Leica M10 and chirping, “Smile like you mean it.”
It’s almost enough to make me forget. Almost.
My sister Bea is sitting on the other side of the back seat with her earbuds in, staring out the window. She looks lost in thought and the leafy sunlight is moving across her pale, freckled face in little flickers and flashes. She’s fourteen, old enough to be pissed about the whole thing, but young enough that it’s not ruining her entire life.
To be clear: this whole thing is ruining my life. Not that it really matters. The grand scheme of things is much bigger than that. I get it.
But in California, I had friends. I had a boyfriend, sort of. I had a job at the photography store downtown. I had parties, hanging under the giant palm tree on the lawn after school, laying out in the hot sand at the beach on the weekends. A whole senior year shimmering off in the distance. Some days it was still hard to do anything—grief pressing down like a weighted blanket—but things were getting better.
And then, six weeks ago, a month before my older sister Hannah left for her freshman year of college in Connecticut, I overheard Mom on the phone.
I’m drowning, El. I don’t think I can do this.
My dad died nine months ago. If I try, I can say it now without really feeling anything. But my mom still disappears every time it comes up. She’ll be standing right there in front of you, but the self inside of her is gone.
When I heard her say this, I’m drowning, in a voice that crackled with sadness, I was surprised. The first few weeks after Dad died, she was blown wide open, leveled by a hurricane, splinters of her former self littering the front lawn. But then about three weeks in, she just got dressed and went to work. And that was the end of it.
I take out my camera, adjusting the shutter speed and focusing in on the tiny pieces of dust glowing gold on my window. I twist the lens and the dust blurs; leaves and sunlight emerge and sharpen.
Then the world in my viewfinder lurches and we pull into a long, bumpy driveway that winds through a tunnel of overgrown shrubs and briars. It’s darker in here, too dark for photographs, the heavy greenery making it feel as though the sun’s already gone down.
The car lumbers along, branches scratching across the windshield.
“Jesus,” my grandpa whispers.
“Don’t curse, Jack,” Grandma whispers back.
“Are we really leaving them here?”
He must think that my music is on because I’m wearing my earbuds, but I turned it off a while ago. Sometimes I like to listen without anyone knowing.
If it was up to my grandfather, we would all be moving to Ohio. He’s my dad’s dad, not my mom’s, so all of this is really hard for him. He’s also been ingrained with generations of Irish Catholic stoicism, which makes emoting difficult. He likes college football and church and reading the newspaper quietly in his chair. He doesn’t like New York or California, preferring the flat expanse of the Midwest, where he’s lived his entire life. The thought of us moving here, with our mother and recently divorced aunt, seems like it might be more than he can handle.
He shakes his head and adjusts his glasses, swiping at his sweaty forehead and smoothing the thin piece of white hair that stretches across his bald spot.
“This place is like a tropical rainforest,” he says. As if he or any of us have ever seen one.
Eight months ago, when Grandpa was in LA for the funeral, he spent half an hour wandering around Whole Foods looking for Keebler sandwich crackers. He circled the store twice, his black dress shoes squeaking as he wove through the aisles squinting at the artfully packaged items and fuming silently. I finally convinced him to ask for help, and a bewildered teen employee led us to the organic snack aisle he’d already searched four times.
Grandpa stood there, shaking his head and holding a box of Late July mini peanut butter sandwich crackers in his hands, muttering, $6.59 a box, again and again like he was trying to make himself believe that any of it—the organic snack aisle; the ridiculous, fancy grocery store with the landscaped parking lot; the fact that his oldest son was dead and gone—was real. I thought he might be broken, for good, but then he just sighed and put the box back onto the shelf.
“C’mon, Mary,” he’d said. “We’re going to 7-Eleven.”
Now in the stuffy front seat of our old Toyota, Grandma lays her small, knobby hand on Grandpa’s arm. “It’s going to be fine, Jack,” she says. I can tell it’s hard for her too, but she does a better job of hiding it. She’s raised ten kids and grandmothered twenty-nine grandchildren. She’s basically an emotional fortress.
Finally, the driveway ends in a clearing so big I’m shocked that there could be so much open space in the middle of this forest. The house itself is medium sized and covered in gray-brown shingles. It has two and a half stories, the kind where the bottom floor is dug into a slope in the ground. On one side an outrageous garden bursts with a jumble of vegetables and late-summer flowers. On the other side a sea of green grass stretches all the way to the distant tree line, fresh cut close to the house and long and wild farther off.
A heavy wooden front door stands in the middle of the house, facing the afternoon sun. It’s framed on either side by rows of deep red dahlias, all bowing under the weight of their heavy heads.
“I guess this is it,” Grandma says, adjusting her butterscotch-colored polyester skirt. It sounds like she’s trying to force extra cheer into her voice to compensate for everyone else in the car.
Bea just sighs heavily and shoves her phone into her backpack.
As soon as we park in the gravel out front, the door opens and three dogs burst out: one giant and shaggy, one stocky and short haired, and one tiny and fierce and loud. All three are mutts; El found them in parking lots and walking down the road, and now, despite never having set out to be a pet owner, she dotes on them like they are her children.
Behind the dogs are Aunt El and Mom. El looks cool as ever, in ripped jeans and Birkenstocks, her face glowing in a wide-lipped smile. Mom is wearing casual clothes, no computer in sight. Her hair is curling in the humidity and her skin is pink from the sun. She almost looks like she used to before the great comet of Pancreatic Cancer ripped the roof off our life.
I open the car door, feeling like I’m inside a mirage. I’m trying to get myself to believe that this is the place I’m going to be living now and this very alive person waiting for me on the porch is my mother.
After Dad died, when Mom went back to work, it was like she stepped off a pier and ended up in another person’s life. Her hours doubled, tripled, stretched out into nights and rolled over weekends. She encased herself in clients and paperwork, building a thick, opaque shell between herself and the rest of us. She said she was fine but not even her eyes peeked through.
Now she’s here. Right in front of me. She pulls me into her and I can feel her heart beating where my cheek is pressed into her neck. Bea slinks up to us and El reaches for her and we’re all in one giant hug: Mom, El, Bea, and me.
It’s a while before we let go and look over to where my grandparents are standing stiff next to the car, the dogs sniffing all around them. They look small and out of place in this great big clearing.
El holds her arms out, as if to hug them from all the way across the yard. “Jack! Nancy! You must be exhausted. Come on in and get settled.”
My mom adds, “The girls can get the bags.”
Normally, as in one year ago, I would have rolled my eyes and protested. Because I’ve been in the car for a thousand hours. All I want to do is go inside and shut myself in a room and not talk to anyone. But things are different now, so I jump off the porch and head over to the car.
“Come on, Bea.”
Of course my little sister balks.
“This is stupid,” she says under her breath.
But she drags herself down the steps and follows me over.
I open the trunk and start pulling bags out and piling them onto the grass. Bea grabs her backpack and pillow out of the back seat and starts walking off toward the house.
“Seriously?” I say.
“If she wants the bags inside she can do it herself,” Bea says.
I turn back to the trunk, sweating as I empty the whole thing by myself and haul the bags inside. I tell myself it’s good exercise. I tell myself that I’m not exhausted, that I’m not freaking out, that I’m not getting a sunburn and bug bites and possible heatstroke. I tell myself that I’m not really moving into this house in the middle of the woods of upstate New York. Everything, even this, is temporary. I’m fine.