April 12th, 2016
Fifteen-year- old Mary Lou Weber is suffocating in her sister's shadow. Though she struggles to
break into the light and claim her own identity—and the attention of the cutest guy in
school—something always seems to pull her right back down into the role of Barbara's little
Down the street lives seventeen-year- old Ben Thomas, a lonely introvert who is captive to a
sensory condition that makes it nearly impossible for him to stand in sunlight, much less talk
to people whom he thinks could never understand his difficulties.
A new year kindles the friendship between a guy who pushes away a world and the girl who’s
striving to find her place in it. Can the relationship help Mary and Ben find balance in a world
that frequently seems too much to handle?
Anaiah Press:Coming soon
Born and raised in California, Carrie Dalby has lived in Alabama for nearly two decades but still has trouble with the humidity of summer. When she’s not writing, Carrie homeschools her three kids and splits her time between family, reading, knitting, concert going, and volunteering. Sharing her love of literature for young adults and children is one of her favorite things to do, and her volunteer hours reflect that. Her local church congregation, the Mobile Writers Guild, SCBWI, and the Metro Mobile Reading Council are where she loves to spend her “free time.”
It’s New Year’s Eve day and I’m pulling weeds. Not so fun, but at least I’m getting paid. My weeding spot between the Japanese yews is the perfect place to lip sync along to my mp3 player while daydreaming about Josh Copperfield.
The project is an over-grown yard of a shingled beach cottage, typical for our central California neighborhood. After winning the battle against a stubborn dandelion, I remove my muddied orange gloves and stand to check my reflection in the small kitchen window. Beyond my dirt-streaked forehead is the outline of someone standing inside the Thomases’ house. I jump back, stumble over the rake, and land in a pile of maple leaves.
It’s difficult to tell if the guy who opens the side door is naturally pale or if the color has drained from his face. The contrast of his complexion against his wavy brown hair and emerald shirt is startling.
“You aren’t hurt, are you?” His dark eyes look me over from the doorway.
I take out my earbuds, letting them dangle over my shoulders, and brush the leaves off my butt. “I’m fine.”
“I was worried you might have sprained an ankle or something.” He looks up at the striped awning over the stoop.
“No, you just startled me. I didn’t think anyone was home.” I remember the smudge of dirt on my forehead and wipe it off with my shirt sleeve. Here I am, in front of the cutest guy I’ve seen during the two weeks of winter break, and I look like a slob.
“Would you like to come in and wash up at the sink?” he asks.
“No, thanks. I’ll just get dirtier.”
“I am here if you need anything.” And with that, he slips back in the house.
I don’t know if I should be relieved that the awkward situation is over or sad because the guy’s gone. He wasn’t as in-your-face-gorgeous as Josh—then again, who could be?—but there was something about him…
Mom comes back from buying lunch at the local deli, interrupting my thoughts. Her blunt cut bangs and red bandana headband are still in place. She’s rockabilly chic, even when working, unlike me and my ponytail that’s long since slid to my neck in wayward glory.
“Matilda!” The mystery guy’s waving from the porch. “You’re welcome to sit up here while you take your break.”
My mom waves back. “You must be Ben. Thanks for the invitation. Those chairs look comfy.”
I lag behind as she crosses the cobblestone walkway to the porch. We’re wearing jeans plus matching green garden clogs and T-shirts advertising her company—Matilda’s Miracles—across the back. Maybe it’s the high-water cuff of her skinny jeans compared to my second-hand boot cut ones that are dragging the back of my heels, but Mom is so much cooler than me.
“You’re welcome to come in and wash up.” The guy now known as Ben bounces on his bare feet.
“Go on in, Mary, you’re filthy,” Mom says.
Way to call me out in front of a cute guy, Mom.
Ben’s tall—taller than Josh. He has a few inches over my awkward five-foot-eleven frame. In the kitchen, he pours himself a glass of lemonade while I lather my hands and forearms at the sink. I have the sinking feeling Ben had the perfect vantage for my sing-along nightmare in the bushes. I can feel the familiar burn of shame on my cheeks.
Out on the porch, as I eat my chicken salad sandwich, Mom sips her drink and tries to make small talk with Ben. “Your mom told me she grew up around Santo Cordero, but you two have been in Oregon until a few months ago. Do you like it here?”
“Yes.” Ben keeps a steady rhythm going on the wicker swing, his gaze darting around the porch.
Mom waits for Ben to share more, but when he says nothing else, she continues. “Mary turns fifteen tomorrow. How old are you?”
“My birthday is November second. I’m seventeen years old.”
“And you’re doing a home study program?”
Ben’s a trip to listen to and watch. Some part of him is always moving: his feet, hands, or eyebrows. It adds to his charm.
Mrs. Thomas returns, parking her hybrid in the garage as we’re gathering our trash. By the time she steps onto the porch she’s out of breath, like she ran through the house to get here.
“Well, hello.” She glances at her son. “Have you been enjoying yourselves?”
“Yes,” Mom says. “Ben invited us to take our lunch with him. I hope that’s all right.”
“It’s wonderful! I’m sure he appreciated the company.” Mrs. Thomas smiles at me.
Ben’s fingers wiggle. “And I was on my best behavior. I didn’t talk about history and I even held the door open for Mary.”
Our mothers both chuckle. I stare at my shoes.
“Thanks, again. It’s been great, but we need to get back to work.” Mom slips her hands into her floral print gloves.
“Yeah, it was nice to have shade,” is the only lame response I can think of. I start for the steps.
“Happy Birthday tomorrow,” Ben says.
I stop and turn back. “Oh, thanks.”
He’s staring at me from his perch on the swing. “Do you like working?”
“Yeah, pruning’s fun. Weeding, not so much. I have to keep myself motivated with music.” I try not to look sheepish referencing my embarrassing moment.
“The yard looks nice.”
“Thanks.” I’m not sure how to break away from the conversation. “I better get back to it. My mom doesn’t like a job to take longer than necessary.”
With the weeding done, we start pruning. The overcast sky begins to clear as I move up the fence line. The tendrils of ivy reaching from the fence slats make me think of how many times I’ve wanted to reach out to Josh at school—either across a classroom aisle or passing him during lunch. I want to know how his arms feel, muscled from football and surfing. My curiosity about his sun-bleached hair—is it dry from the saltwater or soft, like his lips look…
Startled, I turn and see Ben on the porch. Since he doesn’t seem like he’s going to come out to me, I approach him. “Yeah?”
“Do you need anything to drink?” He rocks on his feet.
“No, but thanks.” I remove my gloves so I can run a hand over my hair, smoothing any tangled areas in the ponytail. Not that it does much good.
“Do you have any big plans tonight? Do you go to parties with your school friends or something?”
“Not this year. Things are going to be pathetically low-key around my house.”
The past three years, New Year’s /my birthday Eve was a full-on slumber party with Katrina, Monica, and Trisha. This time around, Monica has plans with her new friends and Katrina wouldn’t agree to come if I invited Trisha—which I agreed not to do. It would have been fun with just me and Katrina, but she had to cancel this morning because her little brother came down with the flu. Her parents wouldn’t let her risk infecting us.
The flu versus a lonely birthday.
I’d take the flu.
“Oh, well, I don’t want to keep you from working. Just thought I’d ask about a drink.”
I hold the ladder while Mom shapes the upper branches of the cypress tree—the focal point of the yard. My hands might be stationary, but my mind is racing with thoughts of Josh and my so-called friends. I’m looking forward to seeing Josh when school starts back in a few days, but not to tagging along with Monica and feeling out of place. And I’m definitely not eager to see if Trisha tries to spread another lie about Katrina like she did after summer break.
While Mom and Mrs. Thomas inspect our work, I head to the front porch to say good-bye to Ben. Maybe between broken friendships and the guy I’m crushing on, Ben could be a fun distraction.
He’s hanging out on the swing, this time wearing sunglasses.
“Nice meeting you.” I stay in the yard, keeping those three steps between us.
He fiddles with something he’s holding. “I thought you might like my e-mail. I’d like to get yours. You know, so we could talk.”
Ben comes to the edge of the porch and holds out a notecard-sized piece of paper. My heart does the drop-down-into-my-stomach routine it’s fond of doing around Josh.
“Sure, thanks.” I take it from him, along with a pen. Why isn’t it this easy with Josh? I write my name and e-mail on the bottom half and rip the paper, handing back my information and his pen and pocketing his address. “I’ll talk to you later then.”
Mrs. Thomas paid in cash, and Mom counts out fifty for me.
“Thanks for your help today,” Mom says on the drive to the neighborhood compost pile. “I wish I could get your sister out with us sometime, but you know how Barbara is about her nails.”
I nod, looking down at my own hands. Even with gloves, dirt managed to creep under the fingernails. I pick at a particularly grubby spot.
“That Ben sure is sweet,” Mom says.
“Yeah, I got his e-mail address.”
“Good for you. It’ll be nice for you to have a friend in the neighborhood.”
After we drop off the compost, and I decide to walk the rest of the way home, trying to figure out Ben. Six houses down and across the road, that’s all that separates our homes. It’s weird to think of a guy wanting to talk to me when the only guy I’ve thought about since starting high school is Josh, and he’s never even asked for my phone number.