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Flying Solo
Author: Linda Holmes




   Laurie took her fingers out of her ears only after she was out of the house, and only to pick up her bike and ride the mile and a half to Aunt Dot’s. Her mom had said she could go, after Laurie wrapped her neck in a red scarf and slipped on a pair of gloves with little snowflakes on them, and after Dot said on the phone that it was okay. The boys were being loud, the four of them—fighting and wrestling and slamming doors—and Laurie had gotten tired of hiding in her room. Since she turned twelve, her mother had been letting her make her way over to Dot’s by herself, even after dinner when it was dark.

   When she arrived at Dot’s, Laurie dropped her bike in the grass and went up to the big red door. Dot, who was actually Laurie’s mother’s aunt, had grown up in this house and always said her parents brought her here straight from the hospital, and she just kept coming back. Laurie rang the bell.

   When Dot came to the door, she was in jeans and a purple chenille sweater, with her long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail. “Hello, honeybun,” she said, and she stood aside.

   Laurie loved how it smelled in Dot’s house: like wood because of the fireplace, like lavender because of Dot’s soap, and like the ocean because everything in Maine that’s near the water smells a little bit like the ocean. There was a fire going, and Laurie pulled off her gloves and took off her scarf and carefully laid them over the back of one of the dining room chairs. “It’s freezing out there,” she said.

   “I know. I’m so glad you’re here and out of all that. You must be practically a Popsicle.” Dot already had a little pot of milk on the stove, and she spooned instant hot cocoa mix into two mugs and mixed it up, then she took a can of whipped cream out of the fridge and said, “shoooop,” like she always did as she built two little towers of it. Laurie wrapped her hands around her cup as they went into the living room together. “So,” Dot said, “your mom said it was pretty noisy at home.”

   Laurie blew delicately on her hot chocolate and rolled her eyes. “Patrick and Scott are arguing about something. I don’t even know what.” They were teenagers, seventeen and fourteen, and a lot of the time, Laurie didn’t know what they were talking about, whether they were fighting or not. She just tried to stay out of the way. “And Ryan says he’s trying to figure out what the loudest thing in the house is.” Ryan was the baby.

   “Oh, no.” Dot laughed. “Never good when an eight-year-old does research.”

   “And Joey is being Joey.” She looked meaningfully at Dot. “And you know how that is.” Dot nodded. Joey was ten, the drum-on-everything, break-everything, jump-on-everything, run-through-everything, eat-everything, get-stains-on-everything brother.

   “Well, I talked to your mother, and we were thinking maybe you’d like to stay overnight. It’s not a school night.”

   Laurie almost spilled her cocoa wiggling in her chair. “Yes yes yes! Should I go home and get my pajamas and stuff?”

   “Oh, you can borrow something of mine.”

   Laurie looked down at herself. “I’m bigger than you,” she said.

   Dot bark-laughed. “You are absolutely not bigger than me,” she said. “And even if you were, there are plenty of things you can sleep in. For all I care, you can wrap yourself up in my bathrobe. And I have some extra toothbrushes, and that’s pretty much all you really need, right?”

   When they finished their cocoa, Laurie followed Dot upstairs, and Dot dug around in the dresser in her bedroom and eventually came out with a long-sleeved pink shirt that said NIAGARA FALLS. When Laurie held it up to herself, it hung to the middle of her thighs. “Thank you for letting me come over,” she said, and she put her arms around Dot, who squeezed her tight and kissed the top of her head.

   “You know you always have a place here when you need one,” she said.

   Laurie laid the shirt on the bed and sat down next to it, listening to the furnace flip on. “It’s amazing here—it’s so quiet,” she said finally. “I can’t read over there, I can’t even think.”

   “Well, you have a big, beautiful family that loves you very much,” Dot said, “and I know that you love them.” She came and sat down next to Laurie. “But they’re loud, I agree.”

   Laurie smiled. “Really loud.”

   Dot raised her eyebrows. “Well, there’s nobody here but you and me. You can sleep in as long as you want,” she said, “and nobody will make a peep unless it’s me making coffee. You might sleep until noon. You might sleep until dinner!”

   “I’m so jealous,” Laurie moaned. “You get to be by yourself all the time.”

   “I’m not by myself all the time.” Dot laughed.

   “Mom says you have a boyfriend,” Laurie said.

   “Oh, your mother is a gossip.” Dot grinned. “I have lots of friends, and that’s all you’re getting, Nosy-Nose.” She got up, went to stand in the doorway, and ran her finger over the painted wall, which was peeling a little. “I have to paint this room,” she said. “Absolutely have to.”

   “What color are you going to paint it?” Laurie asked.

   Dot was quiet, then she turned back to Laurie. “What’s your favorite color?”

   “Right now it’s goldfish.”

   “Goldfish? Like orange?”

   Laurie nodded. “I really love it. My mother says it makes her think of macaroni and cheese.”

   Dot nodded. “Well, let’s paint it goldfish, then.”

   Laurie’s eyes opened wider. “Really?”

   “Sure. Why not?”

   “Just like that?”

   “Why are you scandalized, love? It’s just paint.”

   “I don’t know. You just…paint your walls however, whenever you want? You don’t…talk to anybody?”

   “I’m talking to you,” she said. “Who else would I talk to? It’s my house. They’re my walls. I can cover the entire place in zebra-stripe wallpaper if I want to. I can fill it up with sand and make a beach. Compared to that, a few goldfish walls are pretty tame.”

   Laurie looked all around. Her parents owned their house too, but somehow she felt certain they didn’t think of it this way. She imagined zebra-stripe wallpaper. She imagined herself lying on this bed, in a zebra-stripe room, with sand on the floor, with no one around, no one yelling, no one deciding when breakfast was or when was too late for hot cocoa.

   A week later, Laurie went over to Dot’s and they repainted the bedroom she had slept in. They did the whole thing in a bright orange with a few red swirls Dot painted with a fat brush to make it more “goldfishy.” At the end of the day, Laurie had orange specks in her hair and on her jeans, and she told Dot it was the greatest room she’d ever seen. And while Dot lived almost thirty more years, and she repainted rooms and refinished floors and put in new countertops and renovated the bathroom two more times, that room stayed the goldfish room, always.

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