This book is dedicated to The Avett Brothers band, for giving me the motivation to "decide what to be, and go be it."
To Abigail Ehn with Poetry Slam, Inc. for answering all of my questions with lightening speed. To Dolphus Ramseur with Ramseur Records, for giving me permission to use the lyrics of The Avett Brothers on every single chapter of this book. To my sisters, Lin and Murphy, for equally sharing all of the awesome components of our father’s D.N.A. To my mother, Vannoy, for loving “Mystery Bob” and encouraging my passion. To Jean Ann and Exie, for designing the cover. To my amazing husband and children for not complaining about four weeks worth of laundry and dishes that piled up while I locked myself in my bedroom. To Jessica Benson Sparks, for her kind heart and willingness to help me succeed. And last but certainly not least, to my "life coach" Stephanie Cohen, for being so freaking awesome!
“…I'm as nowhere as I can be,
Could you add some somewhere to me?”
-The Avett Brothers, Salina
Kel and I load the last two boxes into the U-Haul. I slide the door down and pull the latch shut, locking up eighteen years of memories, all of which include my dad.
It's been six months since he passed away. Long enough that my nine-year-old brother, Kel, doesn't cry every time we talk about him, but recent enough that we’re being forced to accept the financial aftermath that comes with a newly single parented household. A household that couldn't afford to remain in Texas and in the only home I've ever known.
"Lake, stop being such a downer," my mom says as she hands me the keys to the house. "I think you'll love Michigan."
She never seems to call me by the name she legally gave me. She and my dad argued for nine months over what I would be named. She loved the name Layla, after the Eric Clapton song. Dad loved the name Kennedy, after a Kennedy. "It doesn't matter which Kennedy," he would say. "I love them all!"
I was almost three days old before the hospital finally forced them to decide. They agreed to take the first three letters of both names and compromised on Layken, but neither of them has ever once referred to me as such.
I mimic my mother's tone, "Mom, stop being such an upper! I'm going to hate Michigan."
My mother has always had an ability to deliver an entire lecture with a single glance. I get the glance.
I walk up the porch steps and head inside the house to make a walkthrough before the final turn of the key. All of the rooms are eerily empty. It doesn't seem as though I'm walking through the same house where I've lived since the day I was born. These last six months have been a whirlwind of emotions, all of them low. Moving out of this home was inevitable, I realize that. I just expected it to come after the end of my senior year.
I'm standing in what is no longer our kitchen when I catch a glimpse of a purple plastic hair clip exposed under the cabinet in the space where the refrigerator once stood. I pick it up, wipe the dust off of it and run it back and forth between my fingers.
“It'll grow back,” Dad said.
I was five years old and my mother had left her trimming scissors on the bathroom counter. Apparently, I had done what most kids of that age do. I cut my own hair.
“Mommy's going to be so mad at me,” I cried. I thought that if I cut my hair, it would immediately grow back and no one would notice. I cut a pretty wide chunk out of my bangs and sat in front of the mirror for probably an hour, waiting for it to grow back. I picked the straight brown strands up off the floor and held them in my hand, contemplating how I could secure them back to my head, when I began to cry.
When dad walked into the bathroom and saw what I had done he just laughed and scooped me up, then positioned me on the countertop. “Mommy's not going to notice, Lake” he promised as he removed something out of the bathroom cabinet. "I just happen to have a piece of magic right here." He opened up his palm and revealed the purple clip. "As long as you have this in your hair, Mommy will never know." He brushed the remaining strands of hair across and secured the clip in place. He then turned me around to face the mirror. "See? Good as new!"
I looked at our reflection in the mirror and felt like the luckiest girl in the world. I didn't know of any other dad that had magic clips.
I wore that clip in my hair every day for two months and my mother never once mentioned it. Now that I look back on it, I realize he more than likely told her what I had done. But when I was five, I believed in his magic.
I look more like my mother than I did him. Mom and I are both of average height. After having two kids she can’t really fit into my jeans, but we are pretty good at sharing everything else. We both have brown hair that, depending on the weather, is either straight or wavy. Her eyes are a deeper emerald than mine, although it could be that the paleness of her skin just makes them more prominent.
I favor my dad in all the ways that count. We had the same dry sense of humor, the same personality, the same love of music, the same laugh. Kel is a different story. He took after our dad in the physical aspect with his dirty blond hair and soft features. He’s on the small side for nine years old, but his personality makes up for what he lacks physically.
I walk to the sink and turn it on, rubbing my thumb over the thirteen years of grime collected on the hair clip. Kel walks backwards into the kitchen, just as I'm drying my hands on my jeans. He’s a strange kid, but I couldn’t love him more. He has a game he likes to play which he calls ‘backwards day’ where he spends most of the time walking everywhere backwards, talking backwards and even requests dessert first. I guess with such a big age difference and no other siblings, he has to find a way to entertain himself somehow.
“Hurry to says Mom Layken!” he says, backwards.
I place the hair clip in the pocket of my jeans and head back out the door, locking up my home for the very last time.
Over the course of the next few days my mother and I alternate between driving my jeep and the U-Haul, stopping only twice at hotels to sleep. Kel switches between Mom and me, riding the final day with me in the U-Haul. We complete the last exhausting nine-hour stretch throughout the night, only stopping once for a short break. As we close in on our new town of Ypsilanti, I take in my surroundings and the fact that it's September but my heater is on. I'll definitely need a new wardrobe.
As I make a final right-hand turn onto our street, my GPS informs me that I've "reached my destination."
"My destination," I laugh aloud to myself. My GPS doesn't know squat.
The cul-de-sac is not very long, lined with about eight single story brick houses on each side of the street. There's a basketball goal in one of the driveways, which gives me hope that Kel might have someone to play with. Honestly, it looks like a decent neighborhood. The lawns are manicured, the sidewalks are clean, but there's too much concrete. Way too much concrete. I already miss home.
Our new landlord e-mailed us pictures of the house so I immediately spot which one is ours. It's small. It's really small. We had a ranch-style home in Texas on several acres of land. The miniscule amount of land surrounding this home is almost nothing but concrete and garden gnomes. The front door is propped open and I see an older man who I assume is our new landlord come outside and wave.
I drive past the house about fifty yards so that I can back into the driveway where the rear of the U-Haul will face the front door. Before I put the gear shift in reverse, I reach over and shake Kel awake. He's been passed out since Indiana.
"Kel, wake up," I whisper. "We've reached our destination."
He stretches his legs out and yawns, then leans his forehead against the window to get a look at our new home. “Hey, there's a kid in the yard!” Kel says. "Do you think he lives in our house too?”
When the U-Haul is successfully backed in, I put the gear shift in park, roll down the windows, and kill the engine. My mother pulls in beside me in my jeep. I watch as she gets out and greets the landlord. I crouch down a few inches in the seat and prop my foot against the dash. I lean my head back and watch Kel and his new friend sword fight with imaginary swords in the street. I'm jealous of him. Jealous of the fact that he can accept the move so easily, and I'm stuck being the angry, bitter child.
He was upset when mom first decided on the move. Mostly because he was in the middle of his little league season. He had friends he would miss, but at the age of nine your best friend is usually imaginary, and transatlantic. Mom subdued him pretty easily by promising he could sign up for hockey, something he wanted to do in Texas. It was a hard sport to come by in the rural south. After she agreed, he was pretty upbeat, if not stoked about Michigan.
I understand why we had to move. Dad had made a respectable living managing a paint store. Mom worked PRN as a nurse when she needed to, but mostly tended to the house and to us. About a month after he died, she was able to find a full-time job. I could see the stress of my father's death taking its toll on her, along with being the new head of household.
One night over dinner, she explained to us that she wasn't left with enough income to continue paying all the bills and the mortgage. She said there was a job that could pay her more, but we would have to move. She was offered a job from her old high school friend, Brenda. They grew up together in my mother's hometown of Ypsilanti, right outside of Detroit. It paid more than anything she could find in Texas, so she had no choice but to accept. I don't blame her for the move. My grandparents are deceased and she has no one to help her. I understand why we had to do it, but understanding a situation doesn't always make it easier.
"Layken, you're dead!" Kel shouts through the open window as he thrusts his imaginary sword into my neck. He waits for me to slump over, but I just roll my eyes at him. "I stabbed you. You're supposed to die!" he says.
"Believe me, I'm already dead," I mumble as I open the door and climb out. Kel's shoulders are slumped forward and he's staring down at the concrete, his imaginary sword limp by his side. Kel’s new friend stands behind him looking just as defeated, causing me to immediately regret the transference of my bad mood.
"I'm already dead,” I say in my best monster voice, “because I'm a zombie!”
They start screaming as I stretch my arms out in front of me, cock my head to the side and make a gurgling sound. “Brains!” I grumble as I walk stiff legged after them around the U-Haul. “Brains!”
I slowly round the front of the U-Haul holding my arms out in front of me when I notice someone holding my brother and his new friend by the collars of their shirts.
“Get ‘em!” The stranger yells as he holds the two screaming boys.
He looks a couple of years older than me and quite a bit taller. "Hot" would be how most girls would describe him, but I’m not most girls. The boys are flailing around and his muscles flex under his sleeves as he tries hard to hold onto them.
Unlike Kel and I, it's unmistakable these two are siblings. Aside from the obvious age difference, they're identical. They both have smooth olive skin, the same jet black hair, even the same cropped hair style. He's laughing as Kel breaks free and starts slicing at him with his "sword." He looks up at me and mouths "help," when I realize I'm still frozen in my zombie pose.
My first instinct is to crawl back inside the U-Haul and hide in the floor for the remainder of my life. Instead, I yell "Brains" once more and lunge forward, pretending to bite the younger boy on top of his head. I grab Kel and his new friend and start tickling them until they melt into heaps on the concrete driveway.
As I straighten up, the older brother extends his hand. “Hey, I'm Will. We live across the street," he says as he points to the house directly across from ours.
I reciprocate his handshake. "I'm Layken. I guess I live here," I say as I glance to the house behind me.
He smiles. Our handshake lingers as neither one of us says anything. I hate awkward moments.
"Well, welcome to Ypsilanti," he says as he pulls his hand from mine and puts it in his jacket pocket. "Where are you guys moving here from?"
"Texas?" I reply. I'm not sure why the tail end of my reply comes out like a question. I'm not sure why I'm even analyzing why it came out like a question. I'm not sure why I'm analyzing the reason why I'm analyzing-I'm flustered. It must be the lack of sleep I've gotten over the past three days.
"Texas, huh?" he says. He's rocking back and forth on his heels. The awkwardness intensifies as I fail to respond. He glances down at his brother and bends over, grabbing him by the ankles. "I've got to get this little guy to school," he says as he swings his brother up and over his shoulders. "There’s a cold front coming through tonight. You should try to get as much unloaded today as you can. It’s supposed to last a few days so if you guys need help unloading this afternoon, let me know. We should be home around four."
"Sure, thanks," I say as they head across the street. I'm still watching them when Kel stabs me in my lower back. I drop to my knees and clutch at my stomach, crouching forward as Kel climbs on top of me and finishes me off. I glance across the street again and see Will watching us as he shuts his brother's door then walks around to the driver's side door. He waves goodbye as he climbs inside the car.