Read After the Fire Online

Authors: Becky Citra

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After the Fire

After
the
Fire

BECKY CITRA

ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERS

Text copyright © 2010 Becky Citra

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Citra, Becky
After the fire / written by Becky Citra.

ISBN 978-1-55469-246-0

I. Title.

PS8555.I87A64 2010    jC813'.54    C2009-906859-1

First published in the United States, 2010
Library of Congress Control Number
: 2009940905

Summary
: When Melissa spends the summer at a wilderness lake with her single-parent mother and bratty younger brother, she makes friends with Alice, a mysterious girl with a strange fantasy life.

Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.

Cover design by Teresa Bubela
Text design and typesetting by Nadja Penaluna
Cover photography by Getty Images

O
RCA
B
OOK
P
UBLISHERS
PO B
OX
5626, S
TN
. B
V
ICTORIA
, BC C
ANADA
V8R 6S4

O
RCA
B
OOK
P
UBLISHERS
PO B
OX
468
C
USTER
, WA USA
98240-0468

www.orcabook.com
Printed and bound in Canada.
Printed on 100% PCW recycled paper.
13 12 11 10 • 4 3 2 1

For my mother, who taught me to love books

Contents

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty-One

Acknowledgments

One

M
elissa filled her garbage bag with half-dried clothes, heaved it over her shoulder and left the Laundromat. She glanced up and down the sidewalk, hoping that none of the kids from school would see her. She was positive they all had washing machines and dryers in their houses.

She checked to make sure the brochure was still tucked into the back pocket of her jeans. What were the chances of Mom saying yes? Her heart thudded. Why shouldn't she be allowed to go? Mom was working full-time now and she had hinted,
hinted
, that Melissa might be able to do something fun this summer.

The apartment building where she lived with her mother and her little brother Cody was eight blocks away if she followed the main street but a little bit shorter if she cut down the alley behind the 7-Eleven. Melissa didn't like going that way because there were always a couple of creepy-looking teenagers hanging around the Dumpster. She was sure they were doing some kind of drugs—they weren't always the same kids but they looked the same, with their white faces, blank eyes and black hoodies.

It was such a hot day that she decided to take the shortcut anyway. The garbage bag of damp clothes was already making her shoulder ache. To her relief the alley was empty, and she hurried as the apartment building came into sight.

The sign at the front of the building was missing letters, so instead of saying
Skyline Garden Apartments
, it said
Skle Gardn Apartmts
. The word
Garden
was a joke, unless you counted the pots of geraniums on the balcony of their neighbor, a single woman named Dana who complained a lot about Cody's noise. Melissa climbed the stairs to the third floor and lugged the garbage bag to the door at the end of the hall. She could hear music and, when she opened the door, her mother's loud throaty laugh.

Perfect timing. Mom sounded like she was in a good mood, and Cody was at a birthday party. Melissa left the clothes in the narrow hallway, stepped over one of Cody's trucks and went into the tiny kitchen. Her mother, Sharlene, and her friend, Jill, were sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee. Sharlene's blond hair was tied up in a ponytail. Her long legs, in tight blue jeans, were stretched out in front of her, and she was wearing an aqua halter top. Beside her, Jill looked very plain in a white blouse and beige pants. Her mother had a way of doing that to people, Melissa had noticed. Everyone was always surprised when they found out that Melissa, who had dull brown hair and a sturdy build, was Sharlene's daughter.

“Hi, darling,” said Sharlene. She was holding a cigarette, which she set down in a saucer. “You're an angel. Was it horrible?”

“It was okay,” said Melissa. “But I didn't have enough money, so the clothes aren't dry.”

“Hi, Melissa,” said Jill.

“Hi,” said Melissa.

Melissa was never quite sure what to call Jill. At school she was Mrs. Templeton. She taught the fourth-grade class across the hall from Melissa's grade-six classroom. But lately she spent so much time at their apartment, she had told Melissa to call her Jill when they weren't at school. There was no way Melissa could do that. Mrs. Templeton had been Melissa's teacher in grade four, long before she had become her mother's best friend. So Melissa solved the problem by not calling her anything.

There was one thing Melissa just didn't get. Why would Mrs. Templeton
choose
to be friends with someone like her mother? Mrs. Templeton was very nice and very ordinary. She could have been best friends with anyone.

Just after Christmas, Sharlene had been laid off from her job waitressing at Smitty's. She had spent weeks trying to find something else. Her smoking increased from six cigarettes a day to a pack and a half, and Melissa was terrified that her mother was going to get cancer. Cody had started wetting his bed again, and Melissa had to sign up at the school office for the free lunch program, which was humiliating.

And then Sharlene greeted her one day after school with a huge smile. “I've got a job, honey! Finally!”

Melissa was relieved until she found out what it was. “The custodian? You're going to be the new custodian at
my
school?”

“It's temporary,” said Sharlene. “I'm taking over while Mr. Shore is away on sick leave. But I have a feeling it could lead to something permanent. The word is that the poor man is not doing all that well.”

“You can't!” Melissa had said instantly. School was hard enough. She didn't fit in, even though she had been going to Huntley Elementary since grade three. All through grade three and most of grade four, Melissa had been invisible. She was shy at school, and she had never dared to invite kids home. After that terrible night two years ago, people started noticing her. But now they felt sorry for her, which wasn't the same as liking her.

Her mother, the custodian? She'd be there, sweeping the hallways, every day. This was way,
way
worse than getting a free lunch. But three months later, Melissa had to admit it had turned out okay. Sharlene actually liked the job and was thrilled when Mr. Shore decided not to come back. Cody, whose day care was in a portable behind the school, was ecstatic because he got to see Sharlene every day at lunchtime. He'd had two months of dry nights.

To Melissa's amazement, her mother was popular. Mr. Shore used to leave nasty messages on the blackboard about the students' messy desks. Sharlene never did that. The teachers joked around with her, and Mrs. Templeton, whom Melissa had always liked a lot, became her mother's new best friend.

Melissa picked up a cookie from a plate on the table. Then she put the cookie down. She had planned to introduce the idea casually, but before she could stop herself she blurted, “Mom! They had this brochure at school. There's an art camp in Kelowna in July! It's at the university. There's going to be pottery and painting and sculpture and…” Melissa produced the brochure and flapped it in the air. Her hands were shaking. “There's even going to be silver casting and you can make jewelry!”

“Let me see,” said Sharlene calmly.

Melissa chewed her lip while her mother scanned the brochure. Sharlene's eyebrows shot up in the air. “It's six hundred dollars, sweetie!”

“It includes your room and all your meals,” said Melissa desperately.

“I should think so! But six hundred dollars. That's almost a month's rent!”

“You said we were saving money now.”

“Exactly. Saving. I'm not going to blow it all on some art camp!”

“Mom,
please
.”

“No, Melissa. Forget it.”

The back of Melissa's eyes burned. When she had first read the brochure at lunchtime on Friday, the idea of staying at a university with a bunch of kids she didn't know had been scary. But the thought of all that art made her feel dizzy with longing. She had stayed awake for hours the night before thinking about it, planning how to approach Sharlene. Now that she had asked, she felt like she would die if she didn't get to go.

Sharlene took a long drag on her cigarette. “Besides, I need you at home in July. I've been counting on not having to pay for day care while I'm working. Kids get the whole summer off but custodians don't!”

Melissa felt her chances sliding away. “There's a session in August I could go to. You're not working in August.”

Sharlene looked at Jill. “I've already made plans for August. Jill's made us a wonderful offer.”

Melissa didn't trust herself to speak.

“Jill's going to Europe for six weeks. Her brother's using their cabin at Flycatcher Lake in July, but no one's going to be there in August. So she's offered it to us. We get a holiday and we'll give up the apartment so we'll save a whole month's rent.”

Melissa stared at her mother. “What are you talking about? You can't just give up this apartment!”

“Why not?”

“What if we don't get another one?”

“We will. There's lots of vacancies in this town, and I've been thinking about moving anyway. I think we can afford something a little nicer. We'll line up a new place before we go.”

“I like it here.” Melissa could hear the stubbornness in her voice. And it wasn't even true. She hated the apartment. Nothing ever worked right. The fridge froze the lettuce, the baseboard heaters rattled, and just last night the cord for the blinds in her bedroom had snapped.

Then the first part of Sharlene's announcement sank in. Spend a whole month in a cabin at a place called Flycatcher Lake! When she could have been at art camp!

“It's the end of June in three days,” said Sharlene. “I'll give our notice and we'll move out the end of July.”

Jill spoke for the first time. “You'll like it there, Melissa. My sons adore it. It's real wilderness. The lake's warm enough to swim in, and we have a canoe. There's even an island to explore. And the cabin is rustic but it's cozy.”

“It'll be a holiday,” said Sharlene. “It will be great for Cody. I used to love going to my grandpa's cabin in northern Ontario when I was a kid.”

“I know. You've told me,” muttered Melissa.

It was the only part of Sharlene's childhood that her mother would talk about. She had spent every summer at the cabin until she was twelve and her grandpa had a heart attack and had to sell the place. Melissa had always thought it sounded like a survival test. As far as she could tell, all Sharlene had done was yank hooks out of fish, swim in a lake full of leeches and battle black flies.

Sharlene took a final drag on her cigarette and stubbed it out in the saucer. “My last one.”

Melissa pulled herself away from a horrifying picture of being stuck in a rustic cabin with her brother and mother. “
What
?”

“My last cigarette. As of right now, I've quit.”

“Really.” Melissa's voice was cold. “I thought quitting smoking was supposed to be hard.”

“It's very hard. At least I think it's going to be. But if I can quit booze and men, I can quit cigarettes.”

Melissa's cheeks flamed. She hated it when her mother said things like that. But Jill didn't seem embarrassed. She raised her coffee mug. “Hear, hear!” she said. “To a new life!”

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