The screen door clanged shut on our icy house and I lifted my cheeks for New Smyrna Beach’s kiss of warmth. I rubbed my biceps through my bulky sweater and headed toward Riverside Drive, careful to keep to the sun-heated stretches of pavement.
Last night I could see my breath in my room before I curled into a fetal position under a pile of blankets.
I sped along the river, putting more space between me and 316 Faulkner Street, the seventy-year-old fixer-upper Mom had crushed on and moved us two hours up the east coast of Florida to buy.
She saw “character.”
I saw paint chips randomly falling on our heads from the tin ceiling. The kitchen sloped ten degrees into the jungle of a back yard. Due to the live oak growing through our Florida room, the roof leaked so badly it rained indoors. The furnace, huddled beside the wheezing water heater in a creepy five-by-five basement, probably hadn’t worked in a decade. Air conditioning meant cranking open all the jalousie windows.
Long strides across the thick riverbank grass took me away from my stepfather’s gruff bass, barking orders and offering high decibel opinions about the mince pie and creamed onions Mom was making for Thanksgiving. Ralph frightened my friends, but the guy cried at Hallmark commercials. He parked on the edges of my life like a noisy, over-stuffed piece of furniture.
But for my ten-year-old brother R.J., Ralph’s words winged around our house like shattered window glass, every so often piercing a tender spot.
I stopped at Washington Street and scratched a flea bite on my ankle—another reason I spent as little time as possible at home. I didn’t score human-pet bonding in the gene pool. Ugly Princess, a mutt with acute halitosis, didn’t help. Nor Velvet, the French poodle we’d left in Miami, who lacked the intelligence for house-training. Ralph’s German shepherd lap dog proved an upgrade only because he did his business outdoors. Throw in a few random cats, and the house always seemed dusted in a patina of pet fur and the scent of dog.
Eddie Simpson heard about our white elephant house and wore me down until I let him shoot a horror short for film class—complete with catsup for blood.
David Lossing, the Episcopal priest’s son, walked through the front door and said, “Well, it’s better to be beautiful than rich.”
Thanks, I think.
James Knox hung out in the dusty attic with its grimy window, convinced the setting would fuel his song-writing efforts. And maybe it did.
But I just found the house embarrassing.
I crossed Washington Street to Old Fort Park and climbed on top of the ruins.
Winter sun seeped all the way to my soul—like New Smyrna Beach had since September when I started eleventh grade.
I should be irked that Mom packed our lives into a U-Haul while I worked at camp for the summer in North Carolina. She’d jerked me away from the best friends I’d ever had in the middle of high school.
But instead I thought about what I’d gained.
The sparkly Indian River winked at me from across Riverside Drive till even my toes thawed out.
When my folks split up we left Miami and nearly all the adults in my life. But Grandma caught up to us in New Smyrna Beach and moved into an apartment a block down Milford from Jackie Herold’s, where I’d already insinuated myself as a fixture.
I gazed at the boats bouncing in the marina across the street. In a blink I was back in Miami on the Annie Lee, just a few feet from the Canfields’ houseboat. Was it divine intervention or sweet twists of fate that our families moved ashore into Coconut Grove mere blocks apart? And now, after a lapse of two and a half years when we lived in Stuart, only Faulkner Street Elementary and a few houses separated us. The Canfields weren’t blood relatives, but they were my people, just the same.
On a whim, I climbed down from the fort ruins, and retraced my steps along Riverside Drive toward the Canfields’ white Victorian.
Five minutes later I knocked on the kitchen door.
The door flung open and thirteen-year-old Kate yelled, “It’s Annie!” She pulled me through the door by the wrist—as if I needed any encouragement to step into the scents of turkey and sweet potatoes and pie.
Kate’s mother, Anita, looked up from a bowl she was stirring. “Just the person I was looking for!”
I lifted my brows, curious. In the divvy of friends after my folks’ divorce, Dad got the Canfields. But lucky for me, even acerbic Anita kept me and R.J.
Twelve-year-old Matt looked up from where he hunched over a book at the dining table.
Their dad, Dick, walked into the room and I grinned. I couldn’t help it. If kids got the choice, I would have picked him out of the shop window for a dad.
“Happy Thanksgiving.” Dick smiled at us all like he’d called a meeting. He focused on me. “We have a proposition for you. Anita and I want to get away the first weekend in December. Would you like to stay with the kids? We don’t trust anyone else. If you can’t do it, we’ll stay home.”
I looked at the warm moisture condensing on the windows while my grin surged through the rest of my body. “I’d love to.”
Eleven-year-old Scottie bounded into the room. “Can R.J. come, too?”
“Only during the day,” Dick said. He eyeballed Kate. “Can you keep your nose clean for a weekend?”
She narrowed her eyes at her father, barely into first gear of her teen rebellion, then glanced at me. “Yeah. Okay.” Despite the three-and-a-half years between us, Kate and I had bonded a long time ago in Biscayne Bay. And we both knew she would always be the boss.
Dick’s gaze shifted to Matt’s shaggy head. “Matthew?”
Matt shut his book and I glimpsed Civil War in the title. “Sure, no problem.”
I loved that kid. He was as bull-headed as he was intelligent. And somehow—miraculously I thought—we’d always gotten along well.
“Okay, it’s settled.” Dick folded his arms, satisfied.
Scottie piped up. “Hey, aren’t you going to ask me to behave?”
We all laughed. Scottie, though tough-willed himself, was the compliant Canfield.
I scuffed my way home, a smile still hiking the corners of my lips. It was almost time to collect Grandma and head to the Voegeles for Thanksgiving.
Betty Voegele (now Tillinger), Mom’s nurse friend from Miami, had migrated to New Smyrna Beach years earlier. She raised a house full of boys and played warm, wise aunt to me. I walked faster, anticipating the Voegeles’ happy bedlam.
I tugged open the warped screen door and stepped over the threshold of our imperfect home. Maybe Mom didn’t move here just for a rundown house with character. She needed her best friend and her mother—her people.
We both found home in sun-kissed New Smyrna Beach, snuggled up against the Atlantic and the untied laces of the Indian River.