Laura Ruby Laura Ruby


Lily's Ghosts


Just after six in the evening, with the January sky glowering through the windows like a new bruise, Lily decided to throw Uncle Max in the closet.

It wasn't her painting. It wasn't even her house. But it was a terrible picture. Even her mother thought so, and he was her mother's uncle.

"Oh that awful thing," her mother had said. "Just ignore it. Don't even look at it."

"How can you not look at it?" In the portrait, Uncle Max was just a little older than Lily, but his color was odd and gray and faded, as if he'd spent some time in a washing machine. Pinkish lips flashed a thin zipper of teeth, like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. The eyes, though, the eyes were the worst. Lily thought that if she turned off the lights, the eyes would green up the dark, twirl like pinwheels in the sockets.

"If I looked like that, there's no way I'd let anyone paint a picture of me."

Lily's mother waved her hand. "What does he care? He's dead."

For Lily, it was bad enough that she and her mother had been kicked out of the big, white house in Montclair, New Jersey just that morning. It was bad enough that they had to call Uncle Wesleywho Lily's mother hadn't seen in years and who was the only family they had left—and beg for a place to stay. And it was bad enough that Lily had to endure four hours on a cramped and wheezing bus with everything she owned stuffed into duffel bags and her cat, Julep, howling like a zoo monkey the whole way.

She was not going to spend the next few months in this strange old house staring at some goggle-eyed, fish-faced dead boy.

She settled on an empty closet in the hall just past the huge staircase. She set the frame on the closet floor, leaning the painting face first against the wall.

"Goodnight, Uncle Max," she said, and slammed the door shut.

She did not feel any better.

Lily shoved her hands in her pockets and stalked into the living room, or the parlor, as her mother had called it. She couldn't help but notice how pretty the room was—all high ceilings and polished floors, antique chairs with their whimsical animal feet—like the summer home of some duchess. But pretty, Lily thought, was deceiving. Pretty meant Look but don't touch. Pretty meant Mine but not yours.

The front door belched a cranky moan and her mother's exasperated voice rang out. "Lord, Lily! You didn't even bring the suitcases upstairs yet!"

"I was looking around."

"It's nice, don't you think?"

Lily shrugged. "If you like museums."

"Oh, well, don't you worry about me," her mother said. "I'll just lug these four-hundred-pound grocery bags all by myself."

Lily helped carry the bags in the kitchen and empty the contents on the counter. "Where's the milk?"

Her mother pressed her palms to her temples. "It's official. I'm senile."

"You can always wait until tomorrow morning."

"I need it for my coffee. You know how I get if I don't have my coffee." Lily's mother tossed the few items she had bought into the refrigerator. "I won't bother taking off my coat. You wouldn't believe how cold it is out there."

Lily scowled at her mother's orange cape, the loud, patchwork skirt peeking out from beneath it. "It's January, Mom. It's supposed to be cold, isn't it?"

"I just didn't think it would be this cold."

"You never think it will be this cold," Lily said. Or this bad or this hard or this long.

"What are you talking about?"

"Never mind."

Her mother wandered into the dining room and Lily followed. "Did I tell you that the house has been in the family for more than a hundred years?"

"You told me." Lily took in the china cabinet with its bellyful of crystal, the chandelier that glittered like a small universe over the table. "If this is a summer house, what's the winter house look like?"

"Bigger. More expensive shiny stuff."

"So is your Uncle Wesley a millionaire or something?"

Her mother laughed. "Or something." She ran her hand across the surface of the table, the bracelets she had designed herself jangling on her thin arm. "I don't think Uncle Wes has changed anything since you were little." She smiled. "And it's been a long time since you were little."

Lily inspected the split ends of her long, cinnamon-stick hair. She was used to being as tall as her mother, as tall as an adult. She was thirteen, but sometimes Lily felt like an adult, the way she imagined an adult would feel. Tired. Disappointed.

Her mother sighed. "I can see antiques are not our thing. Did you check if we have cable?" She marched down the hallway past the stairs, and into the TV room, Lily trailing behind.

Her mother plucked the remote off the top of the TV and flicked on the machine. "More channels than a teenager could hope for," she said. She looked past Lily to the wall. "Lily? Where's the painting?"

"What painting?" Lily made her own eyes big and round, batting her eyelashes.

"Uh huh. So innocent. You know what painting." Her mother pointed to the empty space over the mantle.

"Oh, that painting. I put it in the closet."


"It's bad. You said so yourself."

"But I didn't say that you could take it down!"

"Nothing's going to happen to it."

Her mother turned off the TV, sighed at the unadorned wall. "I suppose the closet won't hurt it."

"That's what I thought," Lily said.

Her mother looked from the wall to Lily, Lily to the wall, her expression morphing into her sad clown face, her I'm sorry face. Lily hoped her mother wouldn't try to hug her.

But instead of reaching for Lily, her mother hid her hands in the voluminous folds of the orange cloak. "I promise that this is going to be OK, OK?"

Lily nodded, thinking that she had once heard a bird with a call just like that, a polite bird that asked OK? OK? Is it OK if I eat this birdseed? Is it OK if I poop on your head?

A thin, faraway mewl caught her mother's attention, and she pulled her hands out from the folds in the cloak, smoothed her hair from her face. "You can't keep the cat in that box forever. We'll be here till June, at least. Then we'll get our own place. Maybe even on the beach. How does that sound?"

It sounded like another one of her mother's fantasies, but it was no use telling her. In the dining room, Lily and her mother found Julep looking small and doomed in her cat carrier. Lily opened the latch and the Siamese stepped out, blinking her blue eyes, poking the air with her wise nose.

Lily stroked the cat's silky fur, but Julep did not press her head into the curve of Lily's palm the way she always did. The cat stared at the ceiling.

"What's up there, Julep?"

Julep vaulted onto one of the chairs, and then onto the table. She padded to the middle of the table, sat beneath the chandelier.

Lily's mother leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb. "What's she doing?"

"I don't know."

Julep made a strange sound in her throat, a cross between a meow and moan. She rose up on her hind legs and batted at something with a front paw.

"Oh, that's not too creepy," said her mother. "Yikes."

"Maybe there's a spider," Lily said, though she didn't see any spiders. She scratched at the back of her own neck, where the tiny hairs prickled.

"I can't even watch," Lily's mother grabbed the cat. "She shouldn't be on the table anyway," she said, and tossed her to the floor. Julep turned and skidded out of the dining room, down the hallway and out of sight.

Lily looked up at the chandelier. The crystals winked.

"She's just a little skittish. We're all a little skittish." Her mother clasped both hands over her head, and stretched. "I'll be right back with the milk," she said, and strode down the hall toward the front door. When she reached the staircase, she turned. "You know, it smells exactly the same. Like lemon. And tea with mint." She glanced up the staircase as if she expected someone to appear at the top.


Her mother turned. "Yeah?"

"How did your Uncle Max die?"

If her mother didn't want to answer a question, she did one of three things: smiled, shrugged, pursed her lips as if she were blowing a kiss.

Now she made her kissy face. "Why don't you go upstairs and pick a bedroom? I'll be fifteen minutes, tops."

Lily watched as the door swung shut, then grabbed as many bags as she could carry and dragged them to the second floor. All of the bedrooms were decorated with jumbles of fussy-looking furniture; Lily chose one for herself by putting her duffels on the floor by the closet. She didn't bother to unpack.

She sat on the musty bed, hands knotted on her lap. At the house in Montclair, in the corner of her yellow bedroom, there was a microscope that she'd had to leave behind, a microscope that her mother's boyfriend, The Computer Geek, had bought Lily for her birthday. Lily loved to look at things under it, an eyelash, a bit of dust, a mosquito. She unclasped her hands and rubbed the velvet bedcover. Her microscope was gone. Her friends were gone. The yellow room in Montclair, gone.

Lily felt the tears welling up in her eyes and she swiped at them, squinting them away. She could hear the wind wailing outside, high and thin and human: Help meeee! Help meeee! She could smell the faint tang of lemon, and tea with mint. She could see Julep crouched beneath the dresser, eyes florescent with fear. When the phone rang Lily pounced on it, realizing after she gulped her eager hellos that there was no one there.