We were vacationing on the coast the night that Dad died. And when we came back, our things had all been packed up.
Arrangements were made for us to live for a while in the mountains, in a pair of rooms bestowed on us by Mr. Craig, Dad’s former boss. Just for a year or two, while Mum got back on her feet.
Dad never got along with Mr. Craig while he was alive, but I figured that death must have made them fonder.
My sister, being older, had a different take on it.
“For a good time, call Ann Catherine,” she scrawled on the sides of bus stops and underground tunnels, referencing Mum’s room number.
“Your father always believed you should have a good education,” Mum noted, upon sending Celia off to private school.
This was true. Dad always said that.
“Don’t make friends while you’re here,” Mum in turn instructed me, as regards my own education. “We won’t be staying long.”
While we never stayed anywhere long, even when Dad was alive, this type of counsel was new to me.
“She makes friends wherever she goes!” Celia once screamed angrily, of me and my accidental ease with people.
I wasn’t sure if I knew how not to, but I vowed to give it my full effort.
“This is Delilah,” the year five teacher announced my first day of class.
I slouched down deep in my seat and did my best to appear stand-offish.
“I expect all of you to introduce yourselves, find out two things about her, and submit them to me in writing by the end of the week.”
I called Mum during morning recreation.
“I’m busy, Delilah,” she told me.
“They’re asking about me,” I tried to explain. “I’m not sure what to say.”
Mum sighed. “You’re a smart girl. Just make something up.”
I didn’t know quite what to make of Mum giving me permission to lie.
But in some ways, it was a relief. Life felt slightly off, and I couldn’t place what was happening anyway.
“Delilah’s father is a pilot. He travels a lot for work,” was what every child in the class would have written about me by week’s end. “She grew up in the country, where she had a horse named Shadow.”
When it came to creating a fictionalized life, I was, oddly, a natural.
And yet, even so, my thwarting of friends proved impossible.
“We’re not really friends,” I told Mum, upon being invited out with Brandy. “She’s just going to help me with maths.”
Mum was putting on lipstick in the vanity mirror, didn’t even look at me.
“It’s fine,” she permitted. “Mr. Craig is coming by after work, and it’s better you’re not here.”
I considered this.
Mr. Craig wore lots of silver jewelry inlaid with turquoise. Belt buckles, rings, bolo ties. I’d never really had an opinion about such a thing before, but lately silver and turquoise had become visually offensive to me.
“It’s unbecoming for men to wear jewelry,” I mentioned to Mum. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
Mum stopped dabbing her lipstick, shot me one of her sharp iceberg glares.
It was always fascinating how quickly Mum’s beauty could be transformed.
I could feel that she wanted to hit me, and a part of me wanted that as well.
All it would have taken was one more line, but I couldn’t think of one.
Brandy’s mother worked in a bar and wore flannel shirts that were mostly unbuttoned.
“Delilah’s dad is a pilot,” Brandy told her, as we sat on high stools at the bar’s counter, waiting on some peanut butter and marshmallow cream sandwiches.
“He’s not home very much,” I confirmed, easily.
“Oh, that must be so hard for your mom,” Brandy’s mother commented. “She must just worry herself sick about him.”
I pictured Mum. She really didn’t seem very worried. About anyone.
“I don’t have a mum,” I said.
I really didn’t mean to say it; I didn’t even know I was going to say it. It just came out.
“She’s dead,” I said then, trying to get some kind of a handle on the situation.
“Oh sugar, I’m so sorry!” Brandy’s mum cooed. She reached across the bar and placed her hand on top of mine. Her fingers were a little gummy, from the marshmallow cream.
I took my hand out from under hers and licked the sticky sweetness from it.
“It’s all right,” I told her. “It was a really long time ago.”
Idiotically, I almost said that she died before I was born.
“I never really knew her,” was what I chose instead.
Life went on like that for the better of two months.
Then one day I came home to find Mum packing our bags.
“Eldorado Place is open,” she informed me.
She was referring to a rental property that our family owned, in which we irregularly lived. During odd-numbered years or something. I didn’t know the algorithm for determining when we’d be there.
“The school year isn’t over,” I pointed out, knowing it made no difference.
Mum kept packing. I went outside and got sick in the snow.
I don’t know what happened to Mr. Craig. I never asked; Mum never told me.
I can say with relative certainty that neither of us ever missed him.
When we pulled up out front of Eldorado Place, Mum let out a big exhale, as if she’d been holding her breath this whole time.
“Let’s go in,” she said.
“I’m going to stay here a moment,” I told her.
Mum was piqued, and made no show of hiding it. But she went inside without me anyway.
I sat in the warm car with the dust motes.
Eventually some familiar neighborhood kids came by and knocked on the window. I rolled it down.
“We’re sorry to hear about your dad,” they said.
And suddenly, my dad was no longer a pilot, but a dead man.
And my mum? She actually belonged to me.
“Enough of this Delilah, get out of the car!” she came out then, yelling.
The neighborhood kids stepped away from us.
“She’s not my real mum,” I wanted to tell them.
But she was.