There's nothing ten-year-old Lily Sinclair likes about her new life in the city with her single mom. She misses her best friend, who seems to have forgotten her and their secret place, Willowood. She never sees her mom, who's working long hours at her new job. She's managed to make an enemy of the class bully. Mrs. Hiller from across the hall, who takes care of Lily after school, keeps preparing yucky healthy snacks for her. And she can't get her mother to tell her anything about her absent father. Her only source of comfort is her beloved pet gecko, Weemis. Everything changes when Mrs. Hiller introduces Lily to the owner of the Pet Palace, a nearby pet store, and his adult Down's syndrome son, Nate Lily finds herself with an unofficial after school job--and forges a tentative friendship with Nate that's threatened by a dark secret about Nate Lily knows nothing about.
LILY LAY BACK AGAINST HER PILLOW AND listened as her mother spoke into the phone. The pounding downstairs was getting louder. “Yes, of course I’ve asked them to be quiet!” her mother said. “Several times! And every night there’s another problem… .”
Lily closed her eyes. How could Mom have thought that moving to the city would be a good thing? Their lives had been so perfect back home in Glenview, where everything was quiet and green. At night Mom would open the windows so the breeze could drift in, and Lily would fall asleep to the sound of crickets chirping. Here in the city, she was surrounded by steel and sirens and car horns. Mom had opened the window a little bit their first night, since it was so warm, but it had been too loud to sleep. “Don’t worry,” she’d said, sliding it shut again. “We’ll get used to it.” Lily had rolled over and squeezed her eyes shut. She knew it wasn’t Mom’s fault that she had been let go from her job. And she was pretty sure that her mother realized by now how upset she was about having to leave her best friend, Bailey. But she wasn’t about to pretend everything was going to be okay, like Mom was constantly doing. It wasn’t okay. And she didn’t know if it ever would be again.
She tried not to cry as she thought about Bailey for the umpteenth time. Bailey had been her best friend since the first day of kindergarten, when they’d discovered they were wearing the exact same shoes. Lily smiled as she remembered the expression on Bailey’s face when she looked down and saw that Lily had on identical pink and white princess sneakers with Velcro straps. They had worn them all year, even when the heel of Bailey’s had gotten ripped and the Velcro strap on Lily’s left shoe had stopped working.
She and Bailey looked alike too. Once a girl at the mall had asked if they were twins. They had looked at each other, giggled, and then said yes. Other than the fact that Bailey was at least four inches taller than Lily, they really could pass for twins. Or at least sisters. Their light brown hair was cut just below their ears, and they both had wide blue eyes and small noses. They even had the same ears, tiny and shaped like pink question marks. The best thing about Bailey, though, was that she wasn’t boring. In fact, Lily never knew what was going to happen when they spent time together. Bailey, it seemed, had a way of turning perfectly ordinary days into something magical. Take their tree, for instance. To Lily it had been just another willow tree next to the empty tennis courts in the park. It had a brown trunk and branches with leaves. Big deal. But one afternoon, as Lily and Bailey cut through the park on their way home from school, Bailey stopped in front of it.
“What’s the matter?” Lily asked.
Bailey cocked her head and then bent over, as if looking at the tree upside down. “What are you doing?” Lily asked. It was getting close to six. Mom had dinner on the table every night at six fifteen sharp. Lily was not allowed to be late. “Come on, I have to go.”
Instead of answering, Bailey walked straight toward the tree. “Bailey!” Lily called. “I’m gonna be late!” She watched her friend disappear through the leafy curtain of low-hanging branches.
“Get in here!” Bailey’s voice drifted out from inside the tree. “You won’t believe this!”
Lily walked toward the tree and yanked aside the branches. “What?”
“All the way,” Bailey said, beckoning with her fingers. Her voice was soft. “You gotta come in all the way.” Lily sighed and stepped through the opening. It wasn’t a very large space, especially since most of it was taken up by the trunk. But as the branches slid back into place, she became aware suddenly of standing in a pool of golden light. All around them, like an enormous umbrella, the flat yellow leaves formed a perfect wall, shutting out the rest of the world. It was so quiet that Lily could hear Bailey breathing in and out next to her.
“Whoa,” she said.
“Look up,” Bailey whispered. Lily tilted her head back. Through the tangle of limbs and branches, little patches of pale blue sky peeked through. But otherwise, Lily thought, it was like being inside an upside down jar of honey. “It’s like a whole other world inside here, isn’t it?” Bailey said.
“Uh-huh,” Lily answered.
They named it Willowood and met there every day after school, unless the weather was bad. Bailey found a rusty beach chair in her basement that her mom said she could have. The spring was broken in the back, but if they leaned it against the trunk, it worked just fine. When Lily’s Aunt Wava, who lived in New York City, sent her a postcard of the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, Lily poked a hole through the top of it and threaded it through one of the tendril-like branches. Those were her favorite times with Bailey, when they would lie listlessly on the beach chair, staring up at the postcard, which swayed like a forgotten photograph among the leaves.
A few months later, Mom came home with the news that she had gotten a new job. Lily was excited to see Mom so happy; it had never been a secret that Mom hated her job waitressing, and now she said she was going to make a lot more money. But then she let it drop that the job wasn’t in Glenview. It was four hours away in a city called Riverside Heights. Lily had heard of Riverside Heights once on the news. Someone had been killed there. The body had been found the next morning by a man who was fishing. Of course Mom didn’t seem to take this bit of information very seriously when Lily reminded her of it.
“I know it’s a big change, honey,” was all she said. “But it’ll be okay. I really think you’re going to like it.”
Knock, knock, knock!
Now, Lily pulled the covers up to her chin as Mom rushed to the front door. Outside her window, flashes of blue and red blinked through the blackness.
“You Mrs. Sinclair?” a deep voice asked.
“Miss Sinclair,” Mom said. “Yes.”
Lily rolled her eyes. Mom always corrected people when they assumed she was married.
“Did you make the complaint?” the voice asked.
“Yes, I did,” Mom said. “Right downstairs …”
Thud, thud, thud.
The noise interrupted Mom midsentence.
For a second, Lily wondered if maybe someone else in Riverside Heights was getting murdered. Right beneath them.
“You hear?” her mother said. “Did you hear that? That’s been going on all night!” Her voice drifted off as she followed the policeman down the steps. Lily could hear him banging on the door downstairs.
“Open up! Police!”
Lily rolled over.
Of course Mom thought she knew what she was talking about when she told Lily that she was going to love Riverside Heights.
Cecilia Galante received a B.A. in English from King's College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, Vermont. She lives in Kingston, PA with her husband and three children, and is a faculty member of the Graduate Creative Writing Department at Wilkes University.
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