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The car is too hot and smells of leather, and my stomach dips up and down with it.
I think about unrolling the window some more but don’t. My grandpa is talking to me as he drives, and it’s an Important Talk. The sound of traffic coming from the freeway outside is already too loud, making him raise his voice. It makes him seem nearly angry, and I almost kind of wish he were, instead of disappointed. That’s what he can’t hide from creeping up into his eyes.
Mom inherited his eyes, and I know hers would have the same disappointment in them if she were here driving me instead. Except maybe ten times worse, since Grandpa is still a stranger, here for me now that there’s no one else.
The airport is in Richmond, the suburb south of Vancouver, and still twenty minutes away. I slide down a bit farther in the passenger seat. My backpack is in my lap—inside is everything I’m going to need for the next three weeks, the last part of this strange and terrible summer. I’m about to fly over the ocean to a home I don’t remember, and suddenly I’m sure I didn’t pack enough. That I packed all the wrong things.
My grandpa clears his throat and adjusts a sleeve cuff, still driving.
He used to be a fancy accountant before retiring five years ago, but he continues to wear a suit every day, as though he’s still going to work, complete with a tie and shiny loafers and everything. Mom said the habit’s from when he first came to Canada from Japan with nothing but a wife, young daughter, and job skills that were no longer as good as they’d been on the other side of the ocean. Which means, I guess, that he’s still scared of ever feeling that way again.
When I’m that old, I hope I’ll be able to let go of stuff more easily.
Mom dying would be an example.
This mess I’ve gotten myself into might be another.
“Well, Kaede, don’t forget to call once you land.” My grandpa clears his throat again, like he’s nervous around me, or unsure. Which I get because it’s how I still feel around him. “Just so I know.”
“It’ll be like one in the morning Vancouver time.” Tokyo is sixteen hours ahead, about as far away in the world as you can run. “I don’t want to wake you up.”
“Oh, right, the time difference. Leave a message, then, and you can call again once you’re settled.”
We’ve been living in the same house for months now, but he’s just as stiff as he was back in the spring, when he first moved from his home in Ontario to come out west to be my legal guardian. We circle each other like animals in a too-small cage in the zoo, doing our best to not get in each other’s way, but in each other’s way anyway.
I guess it makes sense, him not enjoying the change. He’d never asked to become a parent again at his age, after already having his own life for years once he was done raising my mom. I think he does a lot of mental hand-wringing over it all, given how often I catch him watching me, a tired look in his eyes and his shoulders slumped.
I wish twelve wasn’t considered too young to live by yourself. Seems it’d be easier all around. The only thing I can’t do is drive, but I have my bike, and Grandpa could just make sure I always had enough in the bank for food. I’d email him my report cards so he’d know I was still going to school. Then he’d be able to move back to Ontario and be happy again doing all the things retired people like to do.
“Kaede? You haven’t forgotten anything? You’ve packed all you need?”
“Nope, and yeah.” I look out the window. We’re going over the bridge that connects Vancouver to Richmond, the river below unable to decide between being blue or gray. The airport’s close now.
“Did you go over the checklist one last time like I told you?”
“Yeah.” It’s not a long list. Just enough clothing to keep me going between loads of laundry at my dad’s place in Tokyo. An emergency cash card from my grandpa I can use at an ATM. The lined spiral notebook I bought from the local Walmart for a journal.
It’s buried now between the shirts and shorts and other clothes in my backpack, but still its corners dig into my legs through my shorts.
They’re calling it the Summer Celebration Project, but I have different names for it, ones that feel real and remind me how important it actually is. Like the Journal of the Unknown, or the Book of Questions, or the Diary of Still Figuring It Out—each of them are more truthful, more honest.
The project’s supposed to save me.
It’d been the last day of school, five weeks ago back at the end of June, and we were each taking turns drawing from the hat Ms. Nanda held in her hand. It was a party one, one of those paper cones with the elastic around the bottom to go around your chin so it stays on your head. I remember thinking she must have chosen it to make the idea of homework over the summer fun, but from the sounds of students complaining, I don’t think it worked.
Someone in the back of the classroom began to moan like he was in pain.
Beside me, Gemma had dramatically thrown her head down onto her arms on the top of her desk.
And Jory, he would have turned from his seat near the front to make one of his awesomely ugly faces, holding it long enough that Ms. Nanda would finally have to tell him to quit it.
But Perry was sitting there instead, since Jory still wasn’t back in school.
“Now listen, no switching topics with anyone else,” Ms. Nanda had reminded us as we all went up and pulled out a piece of paper with a word written on it. “You can include journal entries, photos, drawings—anything you want that you think applies to your selected topic, as long as you can make it fit into a notebook. When school starts again in the fall, there will be a drop-off box set up outside of my office. After all your projects have been collected, they’ll be put on display in the lobby in the glass case for the school to enjoy. Marks will count toward your next year’s grades.”
Some of the topics seemed way more fun than others. And safe.
And some seemed anything but fun. Still safe, though.
When it was my turn to pick, my chest went a bit tight as I read the word printed on the piece of paper.
Which might have been okay if it had been any other summer but this one. Because lately I have a lot more questions about home than I do answers, and I’m pretty sure Ms. Nanda won’t want a notebook like that on display when it’s supposed to be encouraging.
Copyright © 2019 by Elsie Chapman