The day she came, the day everything changed, was a sunny Tuesday afternoon.
After a long, boring day at Walluby Middle School, I slung my backpack over my shoulders and headed home. I was humming to a song from the Harry Potter movies, called Hedwig’s Theme, as I climbed up the winding hill, around the corner, and past the shady maple tree.
I reached a small white house barely visible under the dense ivy covering it. My hand made its way to tug open the rickety red door when the familiar creeeak of the swingset came from behind me. Spinning around to face the old wooden swing, I came face-to-face with a small girl. She was probably no older than nine years old, with icy blue eyes and a river of silvery blond curls tumbling down her back. Her nose was small like the rest of her, but crooked and slanted to the left. Dark bags under her eyes indicated what looked like several days without sleep. For a second, I thought maybe I was at the wrong house, but there was no way. I’d lived here my whole life.
The girl didn’t seem to notice me- she just continued to swing back and forth, staring wide-eyed into space and humming something. A part of me thought I recognized Hedwig’s Theme. But what were the odds of that? Anyway, what was this girl doing here? At my house? On my swing?
I cleared my throat and she jumped about a foot. “Uh, sorry, but, um… what’re you doing here?” I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans and tried to look calm and cool. A part of me wanted this girl to like me; I don’t know why.
“I live here.” she said in a surprisingly deep voice that caught me off guard. “What’re you doing here?”
I raised an eyebrow, or at least tried to. It might’ve just looked like I was about to sneeze. Anyway, who was this girl trying to fool? She certainly didn’t live here, that was for sure. Last time I checked the only people who lived here were my mom, my dad, and me. No one else but the potted plants.
As if on cue, my mom’s car vroomed into the driveway and I sighed in relief. She’d sort this out. Her heels clopped up past our mailbox and I turned to say hello. Mom was flustered, her vibrant red hair sprawled across her sweaty face. I had always wanted her hair- mine was a boring brown that was always full of tangles. Her face was long and thin just like mine, and we both had a little twitch in our lips when we smiled. She did this now, and I grinned back at her. “Hi, honey.”
“Hey,” I said along with the girl, who mumbled “hi”. I glared at her and gave Mom a quizzical look.
Mom sighed and fiddled with her hair, only making it look more like a bird’s nest. “Madi, this is Clara. Clara, Madi.”
Is that all the explanation I get?
“Let’s go inside and get a snack.” Mom held the door open for us, but we both remained still. “Madi, I’m sorry, I should’ve told you earlier.” She wrapped an arm around me and pursed her lips. A sinking feeling filled my stomach. Something wasn’t right. Why was Mom so upset? She almost never acted sad, even after our dog died three years ago. Mom was the embodiment of calm.
The three of us stayed silent for a moment, but finally I gave in and she led us inside. Our house was small but bursting with life. The second you walk in you’re surrounded by dozens of plants- ferns, orchids, tiny yellow flowers, and even pumpkins. It smelled like soil.
We sat on the old gray couch in the dimly-lit living room, and I was careful to scootch several inches away from Clara. She had her fingers wrapped tightly and was mumbling to herself.
“I got a call this morning,” Mom began slowly, “asking-if-I-could-foster-a-girl.” she blurted out all at once.
Wait- Foster?! As in, she’s LIVING WITH US?!
She continued, ignoring my shock, “I had no time to tell you, Madi, I’m sorry. But I know you’ll be a great foster sister.”
Foster. Sister. The words crashed down on me like a boulder. I couldn’t even think, I just felt my legs start to churn and before I knew it, they were barreling out the door and down the sidewalk. The sun was starting to set, casting rays of orange, pink, and gold over Lullinson Street. A frozen wind bit at my skin, which was covered in goosebumps. Thump, thump, thump, went my feet down the pavement. I came to a stop at the corner of Lullinson and Parle and sat on the curb, humming Hedwig’s Theme shakily. Trying to comfort myself, but the lump in my throat said I wasn’t doing such a great job.
A good person, I thought, would’ve said, “Welcome to my house, Clara. Make yourself at home. You can have my room, and my books, even Harry Potter.” Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to say that, or even think it. The truth was, I just wanted Clara to leave. And I felt tears well up in my eyes as I thought that. Why did I have to be so selfish? She’s the one whose parents died or something like that, so why was I so upset? I balled my fists to my eyes and tried to dry out the tears, but before I knew it they were dripping down my cheeks. This is so stupid, I thought, wiping my face with the sleeve of my sweatshirt.
“I get it,” a soft voice whispered. I jumped and hiccuped loudly. Clara was sitting beside me, tears glimmering on her smooth cheeks. “It’ll be hard to get used to, for me, too.”
“I’m sorry about-”
“My parents?” her voice cracked and she let out a sob. We sat in silence for a minute.
“And I’m sorry for being such a jerk,” I added.
“Don’t be.” She rose and wiped the tears dripping off her chin. “Let’s go back home.” We both cringed a bit as she said “home”, but I stood and joined her.
A gush of warm air invited me inside, along with the smell of potatoes cooking in the oven. It was so familiar, except for the stranger who shut the door behind me and walked down the carpeted hallway to the last door on the left. An unevenly-cut piece of cardboard hung on the door; it had the words “Madi’s Room. Caution, DO NOT ENTER!!! ” sprawled across it in black sharpie. Clara swung open the door anyway and was greeted by the smell of sweaty feet and moldy food. I giggled as she gagged and slammed the door.
“Good thing I brought my perfume,” she mumbled and tossed back her golden curls.
“You wear perfume?” But she’s like, nine!
“How old are you?”
“13. You?” That tiny girl was a year older than me?!
I slumped and headed to the kitchen where Dad was sizzling vegetables on the stove. He had the same exact tangled brown hair as me, but shorter of course. I couldn’t think of what to say, so I just sat at the table next to him until he noticed I was there.
“Oh, hey Madi! Do you think you could catch Clara up on notes for school tomorrow? It would be a big help. Listen, I know this is hard, but we need to make her feel welcome. Maybe you could introduce her to Riley and Sarah? You four could ride your bikes to the park!”
“Mmhmm,” I wasn’t really listening to what he was saying, just tapping my fingers and nodding along. I’d heard Clara’s name and just zoned out. Maybe part of me was trying to pretend that she didn’t exist. That things were back to normal.
“So what do you think?” Dad was sitting beside me now, his eyebrows creased with worry.
“Umm…” I had no idea what he had been talking about. Dad sighed and returned to the stove.
A thick smell of violets from Clara’s perfume filled my nostrils as I fluttered open my eyes. The sun had streamed golden light over the piles of clothes littering my room. It was strange not to smell sweaty feet anymore. This place certainly looked like my room, but Clara’s violet perfume didn’t belong there. Neither did her tiny body, which was curled up on a mattress on the floor.
I hopped out of my bed and made my way around a few t-shirts and a pair of jeans sprawled across the floor. My soccer ball was in the corner next to an old volcano for science class a from a few years ago. I kicked it around a bit, trying to be as soft as possible. I needed something to do to keep my mind off the girl peacefully sleeping next to me.
Suddenly, the girl gasped, blinked her crystal blue eyes open, and vomited right on the floor next to her.
For a second, nothing registered. I stood there, frozen. She stared into my eyes, still and silent, until I flickered my gaze away towards my soccer ball.
Get Mom and Dad, a voice in my head whispered. My heart thumping, I ran out of the room and banged on their door. A few minutes later, Dad was wiping it up with a stack of paper towels and Mom was nervously applying a wet washcloth to Clara’s pale forehead.
“Terrible dream,” she croaked. “Had to watch them die all over again.”
It was like a knife stabbed me in the gut.
More cold silence. As cold as Clara’s icy blue eyes.
I stood in the corner of the room, kicking my soccer ball, and wishing Clara would be sick enough to go to the hospital. And wishing that that wasn’t what I was wishing. Wondering why I had to be such a bad person.
Though Mom told Clara she should stay home from school, the girl insisted on going. Why on earth would she pass off on an opportunity to skip school? I thought while banging my locker shut in the crowded hallway at Walluby Middle School.
I had no classes with Clara until after lunch, and the morning dripped like a leaky faucet. Science, English, history, then math. Drip, drip, drip. Each one equally boring and each teacher excruciatingly dull. As lunch came around, I had almost forgotten about the blond intruder. I had her locked up in a cage at the back of my mind.
“Hey, Mad,” Riley, a stubby girl with chestnut hair dyed purple on the ends, high-fived me as I slammed my lunchbox to the table. Sarah, the tall and skinny girl munching on a carrot next to her, gave me a small nod. “Phar-- iph eh tur?” Riley said through a mouthful of goldfish.
“Is what true?” After years of knowing Riley, it was easy to decipher her goldfish-talk.
“All the rumors about that girl,” Sarah said softly. “What was her name, Claire?”
My heart skipped a beat and my face must’ve looked like a ripe tomato. “Clara.” There were already rumors about her?
“Are you talking about the new girl?” A girl with a heavy southern accent, I’m pretty sure her name was Sylvia, barrelled over at the mention of Clara. “I heard her parents were executed for shipping drugs from Japan to Australia! Oh, oh, and Ethan Normandy likes her!”
“He does?!” Riley spit out her apple juice.
Suddenly, I felt queasy. “I- I don’t think that’s true. About the drugs, I mean.”
“Oh, who cares about the drugs? Ethan Normandy likes her!”
“We should invite her to our table,” Sarah said with a dreamy look in her eyes. “Wow, Madi, you’re sooo lucky. To be sisters with her.”
“Foster sisters.” I corrected her.
An hour later, I left art class to go to the bathroom. Swinging open the girl’s bathroom door, I was greeted by a pungent smell. I scrunched up my nose and approached the closest stall. Just as I pulled the pale yellow door open, the sound of soft sniffles escaped from the stall next to me.
“Who’s there?” I asked, fumbling with a loose thread from my t-shirt.
“Just go away, Madi,”
“Clara? Is that you? Please open up.”
To be honest, I didn’t think that would actually work. If it were me, I’d just stay in there and mope, but she swung the door open. Her face was red and blotchy, and her icy blue eyes were very bloodshot. Clara’s formerly silky hair was stuck up and frizzy like a mad scientist’s. She sniffed and said, “I’m being stupid. It’s not like-” she took a big sniff- “they’re gonna come back.” Then she exploded into sobs.
My insides were torn to pieces. I had no idea what to do, I stood there awkwardly, tugging harder on the thread dangling from my shirt. There had to be something I could say to make her feel better. But my mouth was somehow zipped tight. A dry “I’m sorry” just wouldn’t do it. We stood there for an eternity, the tiny girl choking back sobs and me wishing I was anywhere else. Even math class would be a whole lot better than this.
Just say something! I screamed at myself. Anything!
The longer the silence (apart from Clara’s crying) dragged on, the more I felt like a rubber band was squeezing my skull. Tighter and tighter, it squeezed. And the churning of my stomach wasn’t helping.
“I’ve read about orphans all the time in books.” Clara finally mumbled. “I never thought I’d be one myself.”
And finally, I knew what to say. It had been on my tongue all along. “Harry Potter was an orphan.” I started slowly, pondering on what to say next. Then suddenly it just came gushing out: “But he didn’t let that define him. He was super brave, and you are, too. Moving to a new place and a new family must be hard. But I’ll try my best to be your Ron and Hermione.” I exhaled at the end of it, feeling my face grow warm. That was probably the deepest thing I’d ever said and would ever say. I didn’t know I’d had that in me. Maybe if I’d tried to plan it out it wouldn’t have ever made the same point.
She smiled weakly. “How many times have you read the series?”
“I stopped counting after 8.” A genuine smile emerged through her glistening face.
We walked back to class hand in hand, both of us humming Hedwig’s Theme.