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.
t 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 Wesley -- whom 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 while her cat, Julep, howled 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.
"Good night, Uncle Max," she said, and slammed the door shut.
She did not feel any better.
Lily shoved her hands into 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 into the kitchen and empty the contents onto 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 into the refrigerator the items she had bought. "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 and 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?"
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. We haven't been there in years."
"Was Dad with us?"
f 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.
Lily sighed. "So is your uncle Wesley a millionaire or something?"
"Or something," her mother said, laughing. 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 here 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.
Excerpted from LILY'S GHOST © Copyright 2005 by Laura Ruby. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins. All rights reserved.
- paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: HarperCollins
- ISBN-10: 0060518316
- ISBN-13: 9780060518318