Today's Reading

CHAPTER ONE

I used to imagine my mind a room in confusion, and I was to put it in order.
—LMA

TAYLOR

CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS
JULY 1995

Thirteen isn't quite grown-up, but it's old enough for a girl to realize that hope can be a dangerous thing.

The first time I realized this I was no more than four. My mother had dropped me off with Uncle Rob. This wasn't unusual, but this time, she was gone more than two sleeps. Longer than she had ever been gone.

When I asked my uncle when she'd be back, he only shrugged and said, "You better hope soon, kid."

Hope.

I did that a lot back then. Each morning when I woke, throwing my threadbare blanket off my shoulders and rolling off the couch to search the small rooms of Uncle Rob's apartment, but finding the woman in his bed was not my mom. Each night, when I fell asleep, thinking if I only hoped hard enough, and maybe held my breath real tight while I did it, my mother would appear by morning.

But time and time again, hope failed. And still, it seemed, I didn't learn. Not after I found my mom's obituary on Uncle Rob's fold-up kitchen table, where I'd left my precious copy of Little Women when I was eight, not after the police came and hauled him off to jail when I was eleven, and not when I found myself in the vicious grip of the foster care system a short time later.

And then, a year ago, the Bennetts took me in. And I found hope again. Only this time it was a fragile, frayed thing—a lot like the toothbrush I had growing up that Uncle Rob never remembered to replace.

Victoria Bennett had been my best friend since we were seven years old, and now she was my sister. Her parents gave me new toothbrushes and Nike sneakers and love as much as they were able. They gave me a chance to go to Jo March Writing Camp at Orchard House, a place Victoria and I had become obsessed with. All those years of immersing myself in the world of Jo March, imagining what it would be like to have a family, to have even just one sister . . . to belong.

And now I was here, in the very room where Louisa May Alcott had written her best-loved classic. In the very house where she had set the adventures of her "little women." Dipping my toe in those dangerous waters of 'hope' once again.

I closed my eyes and soaked in the near magic of Louisa's bedroom. Beneath my bent knee and through the thin nylon of my string bag I felt the hard edges of my nine-year-old copy of Little Women. In some ways, I regretted bringing it today. Mom had sent it to me that first Christmas after she had left. There'd been no note within, just a thick manila envelope with my name on it, the book naked of any red-and-green holiday wrappings.

The present wasn't really suitable for a girl who hadn't even entered kindergarten. Yet while I knew deep down she had probably grabbed it up as a last-minute thought at some secondhand store, I couldn't help but imagine and hope that she had spent hours pondering the perfect Christmas present for me, that she had wanted me to have this gift and this message—the story of a family that fiercely loved and went through hard times together—even when she couldn't bring about that reality in my own life.

I cherished it more than I ought. Still did. And I couldn't resist bringing it along today. Hoping that the old would somehow make way for the new. That maybe, just maybe, the wounds of my past would be covered over with perfection.

Victoria and I had looked forward to this for months, and I couldn't wait for this moment—the moment when I was certain some grand story would strike my consciousness, when time might cease to exist and the brilliance that had inspired Miss Alcott would descend upon me in a magnificent cloud of glory.

I looked down at what I'd written, more journal entry than inspired glory.

There's something funny about being the one on the outside looking in.

Not funny ha-ha, and not funny strange, because strange means out of the ordinary, and for me, not belonging is more normal than out of the ordinary. So what kind of funny am I talking about?

Funny lonely.

Funny I've-gotten-good-at-hiding-my-tears.

Funny I-wonder-if-it-will-always-be-this-way.


I hastily flipped to a fresh page, feeling the press of time squeezing tight. I poised my pen over the paper, but nothing came. I peered out the window beside Louisa's half-moon desk, wondered if she'd glimpsed the same elm more than a hundred years earlier.

I sighed and pressed the pen on the page until a small dot of black ink expanded beneath it. A dot, but no words.
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