Lily Jo is not my name. Yet.
But I’m working on that.
That’s why I’m in the closet. Literally in my mom’s walk-in closet, with Meatball at my heels.
I scratch under Meatball’s chin, and his tiny pink tongue pokes out the side of his mouth. He’s adorable like that.
“Practice,” I tell Meatball. “Only six days until school starts.” I have to do this. I can’t. Have to. Can’t. I almost feel my best friend (okay, my only friend), Dare, push me toward the dresses.
Thinking about my plan for the first day of eighth grade makes my stomach drop, like I plunged over the crest of a roller coaster at Universal Studios. I’m sure not one other person going to Gator Lake Middle is dealing with what I am, probably not one other person in the entire state of Florida. Statistically, I know that’s not true, because I looked up a lot of information on the Internet, but it feels that way sometimes.
Meatball’s wagging his stubby tail so hard his whole body shakes. I wish the world were made of dogs. They love you one hundred percent of the time, no matter what.
“I’ve got one for you,” I tell Meatball as I pull a hanger from the rack. “The past, the present and the future all walk into a bar.”
I examine the summery red fabric. The tiny white flower print. I remember being with Mom when she bought this dress.
“Ready for the punch line?”
Meatball looks up at me with his big brown eyes, dark fur falling into them.
“It was tense.”
Holding the dress to my chest, I say, “The past, the present and the future all walk into a bar. It was tense. Get it?”
Meatball tilts his head, as though he’s trying hard to understand. I scratch under his chin to let him know he’s such a good dog and I’m a total dork for telling a grammar joke to an animal.
Then I focus on the dress.
“These are lilies of the valley,” Mom said, pointing to the flowers when we were in the store. She held the dress to her cheek for a moment. “Those were my favorite flowers when I was growing up in Burlington, New Jersey. We had them in the garden in front of our house, near the pink azalea bushes. They smelled so good!”
I sniff the flowers now, as though the tiny, bell-shaped blossoms will smell like anything other than a dress. “I’m glad Dad’s at Publix,” I tell Meatball. “And Mom’s at her studio. Gives me time to put the first part of my plan into action. The practicing part.”
Half of me is so excited I could explode. It feels good to finally be doing this. The other half--where other people’s voices jam together in my brain--is terrified. Excited. Terrified. Yup, those are the right words.
I take off my pajamas and let the dress slide over my head and body. The silky lining feels smooth and soft against my skin. It’s hard to get the zipper up in the back. I consider going to Sarah’s room and asking for help, but decide to do it myself, even though I know she’d help me.
When I was little, I tried on one of Sarah’s old dresses and loved how it felt. How I felt in it. When Mom came home from work that day, she laughed and made me whirl and twirl. Even Dad laughed. Back then.
“What do you think?” I ask Meatball while I twirl, feeling the skirt of the dress drift up, then back down against my legs.
“I’ll take that as an approval.”
He barks again.
“Or you might have to pee.”
I slip into Mom’s sandals, barely believing my feet have now grown as large as hers, but they have.
In her full-length mirror, I see how the top of the dress bags out. If only I had something up there to fill it out, like Mom and Sarah do. I consider grabbing one of Mom’s bras and stuffing it with socks, to see how it would look. How it would feel.
A blaring car horn shatters my thoughts.
Scooping him under my arm, I put my face up close to his. “Come on. Let’s help Dad carry in the groceries.”
He licks my nose.
“Oh, Meatball, your breath is so bad.”
He nuzzles into my arm.
“But your heart is so good.” I kiss the top of his head. “Hope Dad remembered Pop-Tarts. Breakfast of champions.”
As we rush down the stairs, I hear Sarah’s bedroom door open behind me. When we reach the bottom, I let Meatball down, then hurry to the front door and fling it open.
Dad’s bent over, grabbing bags from the trunk of his car. I walk down the path to help. It’s so bright and sunny, I have to shield my eyes with my forearm, but I can make out the back of Dad’s T-shirt: The King Pines. I laugh out loud, realizing it was probably supposed to read The King Pins for one of the local bowling teams. Dad and his mom, Grandmom Ruth, run a T-shirt screen-printing business--We’ve Got You Covered--and sometimes orders get messed up.
Because Dad hates to waste anything, we all end up wearing his mistakes. My favorite was when a group of senior citizens asked Dad to make matching shirts for their upcoming vacation with the words The Bus Trippers. Dad goofed on the spacing, and the shirts ended up as The Bu Strippers. He had to redo the whole order. Those shirts got tossed, though, because Dad said there was no way any of us were wearing those rejects. It’s funny how one little letter can make such a big difference to the meaning.
Grandpop Bob, who started the business with Grandmom Ruth about a million years ago, used to say, “Words have the power to change the world. Use them carefully.”
After two years without him, I still miss him and his wise words.
I’m reaching my hand out to help when Dad turns toward me, each of his hands loaded with grocery bags.
I hold my breath, hoping Dad understands how much this means to me. Hoping that this time will be different, that--
“Timothy! What the hell are you doing?”
I deflate like a week-old balloon. Practicing, Dad. I’m practicing being me.
“You know the rule,” he says, letting out a huge breath. “You can’t be outside the house dressed like that.” Dad shifts the bags in his hands. “Where’s your mother?”
I let my arms fall slack to my sides. I wouldn’t have the energy to carry in the groceries now, if I wanted to. And I certainly don’t have the energy to answer Dad. He should know Mom’s at her yoga studio. It’s not my job to remind him of her schedule.
“Go back in the house, Tim.” Dad sounds like the air has leaked out of him, too. I hate that I caused it. “What if one of your classmates sees you? Imagine how they’d make fun of you when school starts. Get in now. Go.”
They already make fun of me, Dad.
He looks around. “Someone’s coming. Hurry.”
I glance along the sidewalk. Someone is coming. A boy, carrying a Dunkin’ Donuts bag and grooving to some music only he can hear. I love the way he doesn’t seem to care how he looks, dance-walking outside like that. He could be in a commercial for Dunkin’ Donuts: “happy-looking, doughnut-carrying boy.” I wish I felt that happy. I wish--
“Go!” Dad says.
I should walk back inside. Make it easier for Dad. Make it easier for myself.
But I don’t.
Copyright © 2016 by Donna Gephart. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.