I heard the whistle blast at 9:15. Funny, the thought that struck me wasn’t that the whistle had stopped blowing years ago, but that it should have blown at six. There was a time when the whistle was as reliable as the opening and closing of the hardware store or the passing of the ten o’clock train. The whistle used to rattle the windows and frighten the cats of Nabor every six a.m. and six p.m. for decades.
That was, as my parents liked to say, “way back when.” Used to be, everybody in Nabor who didn’t work at the hardware store worked at the paper mill, and the whistle told them when to come to work in the morning and when to go home at night. Then one day the whistle blew at six p.m. and everybody went home. The next morning, the whistle didn’t blow, so nobody ever came back.
Nabor—with an A—is my town. Nabor is also the neighbor to Neighbor—with an E—which is the town everybody’s heard of. Neighbor-with-an-E boasts a college and a Super Walmart and several law firms with names like Schubert and Schubert, and Williams and Williams, and the less-popular Williams and Schubert. Nabor-with-an-A? Well, Nabor-with-an-A boasts that it is Neighbor-with-an-E’s neighbor. We’ve got a stoplight and two stop signs. A closed paper mill where the stray cats run wild.
And me. Olivia Owen. Former neighbor to just about everyone in Nabor.
You don’t have to believe me. You can look. Open a door. Peek through a window. It almost doesn’t matter which house you try; it won’t take you more than a couple of blocks. You’ll find Livvie Owen Lived Here written on the walls of over twenty dwellings in the county. It’s the only sentence I ever learned how to write.
When the whistle blew, I was standing on a chair on my tiptoes, lining up drinking cups. I knew it was silly, but my eyes checked the micro wave clock, glowing green across the dark kitchen at me. It really did say 9:15, not 6:00—neither time to go to work nor time to come home. I felt compelled then to check the calendar, just to make sure I had that part right as well. But it continued to list the proper year; nothing there had changed.
In the brief seconds it took me to confirm that nothing suspicious had happened with time, my fingers slipped on my mud mug and it dashed itself to the floor.
The whistle was still blowing when the sound of glass shattering raised the volume almost to unbearable. My ears didn’t like so many levels of noise all at once. I wobbled on the chair, ready to fall, and felt familiar pressure building up inside my head. The mug looked so sad and betrayed on the floor, all scattered into pieces I was certain glue wouldn’t fix. As the whistle faded into the night and the sound of glass gave way to the sound of my breathing and the clicking of the cooling stove, I curled my toes into the chair’s woven seat and let my hands find their way into my hair.
“That did not happen!” I hollered into the darkened house. “That had just better not have happened, young lady! Don’t you dare drop that mug, Livvie Owen! Hold on tight before the whistle blows!”
I held on tight to a lot of things, but lately it seemed like it was all the wrong ones. Like the cups. My family had so many different types of drinking cups that if I didn’t keep them lined up neat, I could scarcely think about anything else. The chaos in the kitchen cupboards kept me distracted till I gave in and fixed it. My teachers called it “self-stimming” and made it sound like something bad, but I only wanted to put things right. There was nothing I could do about the mismatched collection of cups we owned, not with the high cost of sets of things. But at least I could give the cupboard a little peace by putting things in order the best I could manage.
I liked to put the glass cups on the top shelf. That way, when the cabinet was open and the sun was on, the light could catch the glass and sparkle. Plastic lived on the bottom according to color, left to right, starting with the cups that had words. With everything in order, I was always able to find my favorite cup, a glass coffee mug that felt like it was made out of hardened mud. It lived on the far right of the top shelf and I used it for everything from water to coffee to my morning yogurt, which was difficult to sip, but worth it if I got to use my mug. It felt worn and soothing under my hands.
When the mud mug hit the floor, the whistle got louder, like all noises did when I started to get upset. I remembered the whistle from my childhood—which is to say, I remembered being routinely frightened by a loud noise, and I remembered my mother saying, “Little Livvie, it’s just the paper mill whistle. You’re all right.” My mother was always saying, “You’re all right.” She said it to me when I got upset. Said it to my father when he stopped laughing and got forehead crinkles, which was usually when I was being difficult or when the bills came in before his paycheck.
Back when there really was a whistle, she said it to the cats each time they went tearing out of the kitchen and slid under the sofa we used to have, the green one with all the stripes that made my eyes dizzy. They hid under that sofa every time the whistle blew. You would think after a while they would get used to it, but they never did. I think maybe they just wanted an excuse to be afraid, like my big sister reading ghost stories in the dark.
Or maybe it was something about the whistle itself that stopped them from getting used to it. It was a scary whistle, high and low at the very same time: a shrill note piercing a sky you imagined was dark from smoke and chemicals, then sewn up with a dark, heavy note like an angry cat’s growl, a note that made my stomach feel hollow.
Coupled with shattering glass, the noise was unbearable, and my hands slapped over my ears. My mug didn’t pick itself up, so I jumped down off the chair to get it. That’s when I remembered it was made out of glass, and glass is sharp. Crashing backward and knocking over the chair, I tumbled to the kitchen floor and grabbed my bleeding foot.
“That did not happen!” I bellowed again. “Glass is sharp, young lady! You watch your step!”
“Oh, lord,” I heard my mother murmur, and her bedroom door opened. “Livvie, is there glass? Come away, honey.” A light switched on.
I blinked up at my mother and hollered, “The paper mill blew its whistle at the wrong time! It’s supposed to be at six! It made Livvie drop her mug and Livvie is very angry!”
My mother quickly took in the scene around her and grabbed a dish towel off the counter. She wrapped it around my foot and held it there. I watched her, but I couldn’t feel the cut anymore. I was too busy fighting off my overwhelming fury at the whistle.
“Simon!” Karen called. Although her voice was just as loud as mine, my mother never hollered or bellowed. She sounded gentle even with her voice raised, as polished as I was rough, my father, Simon, said sometimes.
“Three hours and fifteen minutes late!” I yelled at my mother. “Why was the paper mill whistling so late, Karen? It’s supposed to blow at six and six!” I got louder with every word and I heard someone shuffle in the doorway.
“Livvie, shut up!” my little sister, Lanie, yelled, skidding into the kitchen in her socks and her purple pajamas. “I’m trying to sleep! I have the science fair tomorrow!” Her pale hair stood up in sleepy patches, and her eyes were narrow.
“You tell that whistle to shut up! That’s who should shut up!” I yelled back, slamming against the cabinets and jarring the silverware in its tray. Underneath my noise I heard Karen’s soft voice explaining to my sister, “She’s hurt herself. Simon! Lanie, get your father.”
Lanie took one look at my foot, and her eyes widened in horrified fascination. She dashed for my parents’ room, screeching at a volume rivaling my own, “Daddy! Come and see! Livvie’s cut her foot off!”
I heard shuffling, quite a bit faster than my father usually traveled, before he appeared beside my mother looking winded. “What’s all the hollering?”
“Liv dropped her mug and stepped on it.” Karen handed my injured foot to my father and scooted around to hug me from behind. Karen was much better with words and hugs than blood. “The girl was up on a chair at this hour, stimming on the glasses.”
“It was the whistle’s fault!” I hollered, because nobody seemed to be listening. Or understanding. Sometimes words that made perfect sense in my head simply would not spit out in the proper order. “The mill whistle blew and it wasn’t six! It was three hours and fifteen minutes late and it made Livvie drop her mug!” I wrapped my hands in my hair and tugged, feeling the pressure inside me ease as though I were pulling on a cork.
“Livvie, stop that!” Karen swatted gently at my hands. “Stop it. You’re all right.”
“I am not all right, I’m angry!” I yelled. “The whistle blew wrong!”
“What whistle?” Lanie grumped, blowing her long hair impatiently out of her face. “I didn’t hear a whistle!”
My gaze traveled to her, but she wasn’t lying. I could tell by her nose not crinkling. So I checked my parents and they were looking at each other with concern and dismay on their faces, two emotions I had a lot of practice understanding.
Fear shook my hands loose from my hair and made me cold. I wrapped my arms around myself tightly. “Only Livvie heard the whistle?” I ventured. My old teacher Miss Mandy worked with me a lot on third person versus first person, back before she ran away. First person was when I said “I” and “me” instead of calling myself “Livvie,” and I was supposed to use first person all the time, just like I was supposed to call Karen and Simon “Mom” and “Dad.” Only sometimes when I got upset, it made more sense just to use the proper names for people so everybody knew who was who.
“I didn’t hear anything but glass breaking and then you,” Karen said in a shaky voice, one that underlined just how frightened she had been when she heard those noises. “Simon?”
The way she asked, I knew she was humoring me, knew that if Simon couldn’t hear a kid banging around and breaking glass all over the floor, he definitely couldn’t hear a whistle that, apparently, was imaginary. “No, honey. I didn’t hear any whistle.”
My eyes blinked back and forth, but my parents weren’t lying, either. I could tell by their eyes not moving away from mine. So mine did the moving instead, rolling up to the cupboard, which now had an empty spot on the far right side of the top shelf. I started squeezing my joints tight, first my shoulders, then my elbows, then my wrists, all the way down to my toes, trying to use the technique Miss Mandy taught me to relax when I got upset.
After a few minutes, a breath went out of me and then I felt less pressure, maybe like I wouldn’t explode now. I let myself lean back against Karen and relaxed my muscles a little.
“Ouch,” I said faintly.
“I’ll bet,” my mother said, planting a kiss on top of my forehead.
“I didn’t mean to wake you,” I said to Lanie.
She sniffed. “What ever. Don’t do it again. I have stuff to do.” I heard her feet shuffling with impatience all the way back to the bedroom.
My mother stroked my hair back out of my face and dropped another kiss on top of me. “She’s just nervous about her science fair,” she said. “Don’t worry about it, honey.”
“What were you doing standing on a chair in the middle of the night?” my father’s somewhat-less-sympathetic voice asked from his place at my foot.
“Oh.” I forgot about that part. “It’s not really the middle of the night. It’s only a little after nine. I started thinking about how Lanie did the dishes, and she never does the cups right. I couldn’t sleep.”
“Well, I think your old folks were right about standing on chairs not being safe,” my father said. I loved him for a lot of reasons, but one of them was because that was all he said. Lying on the floor with a dish towel around my foot and the remains of my mug scattered around me on the floor, I could easily see what a stupid idea it was to stand on a chair in the middle of the night. It was seeing these situations from the other end, before they happened, that was the hard part. Apparently, you just never knew when an imaginary factory whistle was going to startle you into breaking something.
Excerpted from Livvie Owen Lived Here by Sarah Dooley.
Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Dooley.
Published in 2010 by Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.