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The Elephant in the Room

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Hardcover
$17.99 US
On sale Mar 02, 2021 | 256 Pages | 978-0-7352-2994-5
Age 10-14 years | Grades 5-9
Reading Level: Lexile 790L | Fountas & Pinnell V
From the New York Times bestselling author of Counting by 7s comes a heartfelt story about "the importance of compassion and bravery when facing life’s challenges” (Kirkus) for fans of The One and Only Ivan and Front Desk.

It's been almost a year since Sila's mother traveled halfway around the world to Turkey, hoping to secure the immigration paperwork that would allow her to return to her family in the United States.

The long separation is almost impossible for Sila to withstand. But things change when Sila accompanies her father (who is a mechanic) outside their Oregon town to fix a truck. There, behind an enormous stone wall, she meets a grandfatherly man who only months before won the state lottery. Their new alliance leads to the rescue of a circus elephant named Veda, and then to a friendship with an unusual boy named Mateo, proving that comfort and hope come in the most unlikely of places.

A moving story of family separation and the importance of the connection between animals and humans, this novel has the enormous heart and uplifting humor that readers have come to expect from the beloved author of Counting by 7s.
 
“I couldn’t stop reading—I had to find out what would happen. An unusual and lovely real-life fairy tale.” Linda Sue Park, New York Times Bestselling author of A Long Walk to Water

“A gorgeous and emotional novel. I loved every page.” —Cynthia Kadohata, Newbery Medal-winning author of Kira-Kira

1.

What Sila Tekin would remember about that afternoon was that she had been wearing her favorite shirt. It was nothing fancy. Just red with white stripes and blue stitching, but it fit perfectly, not too tight and not too loose. And it wasn’t only comfortable; it was lucky, because she had been wearing the shirt when she found a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk one afternoon while walking home from school. Sila had also bowled her highest score in August, and done well on a very hard math test while wearing the garment. Another time when she had on the shirt she’d spotted a two-foot-tall speckled owl sleeping high up in a tree in Hendricks Park. That was amazing.

So the T-shirt was special. There was no question about it.

At least not until Thursday, September 6, when Sila came through the front door of the apartment to find her parents in the kitchen. Her mom and dad were never there when she got home from school; they were always at work. Her mom’s eyes were red and puffy from crying and her nose looked like it was leaking water. Sila asked in Turkish, which was the language she spoke at home, “What’s going on?”

Her father put his hand on his daughter’s shoulder. She could feel tension even in his fingertips. “We’ve had some bad news.”

Sila’s ears started to buzz. One of her grandparents must have died. Her voice was shaky as she asked: “What’s happened? You have to tell me!”

Sila’s mother, Oya, looked as if she was going to speak, only nothing came out except a long, dry exhale that had choking sounds mixed in. But then her father managed, “Your mother is going on a trip. She’ll be back soon. Very soon.”

“A trip? Why?”

“Legal things. Fixing paperwork.”

Sila looked at her mother. “Where are you going?”

“To Turkey.”

Sila’s eyes moved from her mother to her father. They weren’t sick. No one had died. Health wasn’t the issue. Sila stared at her parents and could see they were trying to seem calm, but it looked as if their heads were going to explode.

“I don’t understand. So what’s the bad news?”

Her mother wiped her nose. “It’s immigration. There is a problem.”

Sila’s parents went on to explain that Oya needed to return to the country she left as an adult and get a replacement for a document that had never been properly executed. Without fixing the situation, Oya was facing a court proceeding and even deportation. So she just needed to correct a clerical mistake. They had a plan.

It didn’t sound to Sila like that big of a deal. Hadn’t her mother admitted she missed where she was born? Couldn’t going back to Turkey be a good thing? Didn’t Oya speak all the time about longing to see Sila’s grandparents? Wasn’t she always saying she missed the bread and the cheese and the tomatoes she’d grown up with?

But this trip was forced on her. Maybe, Sila thought, anything that you are told to do isn’t as good as when you make the choice yourself.

Everyone wants to be the boss of their own life.

 

Sila had been born in Oregon. She was an American citizen. Her parents had lived in Eugene for almost fifteen years, but they were Turkish citizens. In Istanbul her mother had studied to be a librarian, but once they came to America she had taken work in the housekeeping department of the most expensive hotel on main street. She cleaned rooms five days a week, and if she was lucky, got overtime for a sixth day. That job had ended after fourteen years only last week. So much was in turmoil.

These were the facts: Sila’s mother would be gone for eight days—two Sundays with six days sandwiched in between. Before Oya left, she cooked her husband’s and daughter’s favorite foods and then packed the refrigerator and the freezer tight with glass containers. While her mother buzzed around the oven and the stove, Sila tried to be helpful and cleaned the apartment. When she was finished, she cleaned it all over again. She would have started on a third round but she went with her mother to shop for the gifts to bring for family and friends.

Later that night Sila sat on her parents’ bed as Oya filled a large suitcase with wrapped presents. Once they were in place she had room for only three outfits, a week’s worth of underwear, and four pairs of socks. Her mother insisted this would be enough for the short time she would be traveling.

Sila didn’t think so, but said nothing.

Her parents took money from their savings and then more money from a credit card to finance the trip. Sila could see that her mom was nervous when she said goodbye. Oya pressed a blue glass evil eye on a chain into her daughter’s hand and told her to keep it with her at all times for protection. Sila didn’t think her mother believed in curses, but she looked pretty serious. It was, she knew, bad luck to be superstitious.

Sila slipped the gold chain around her neck. She didn’t want to cry. Her mother whispered, “Eight days will go by so fast. You’ll see.”

 

But the eight days had turned into eight months. Sila had hung a calendar on a wall in her room, and she put an X in the appropriate square every night before she went to bed. She then wrote the number of days her mother been gone. She was now on 237.

Sila loved her father, but being apart from her mom was harder than anything she had ever known. She missed her so much that even her skin didn’t feel right. The air was pushing down on her arms in a new way and her feet somehow moved as if they were twice their former size.

At first Sila’s dad, Alp, didn’t eat much. He wore the same shirt for three days in a row, and wasn’t shaving every morning. He spoke to his wife all the time, often trying to hide it from Sila. But she knew. She could hear her mother crying. On Skype. On the phone. Alp would be in the bedroom with the door shut, or even in the bathroom whispering as if Sila didn’t have ears.

It took some time for them to get used to the fact that they were facing a crisis. It was sharp in the beginning and time turned it to something deep and dull and even more difficult. It turned into their new reality.

One of the hardest things was that Sila kept expecting to see her mother everywhere. When she came into the kitchen she looked for her at the stove. Her mom should have been on the couch. In the front seat of the car. Coming out of the bathroom. Her mother was there in Sila’s head and her heart but not in the room.

And who knew when she would be coming back?

 

Waiting was what they did now.

Oya Tekin had flown to a place Sila had only heard about, but never seen. Her mother had gone back to Turkey. She had waited in lines. She had called officials. She had shown her file over and over and over again, and was told it was a process, which took time. Every day Sila and her father woke up hoping that the necessary paperwork was at the embassy in Ankara. But there was no answer to the biggest question: When would Oya get what she needed to fly back across the ocean and then across a continent to the place she called home?

In all the months that her mother had been gone, Sila had not once put on the red-and-white shirt with the blue stitching. The shirt had turned into a symbol for all the bad luck in the universe. Sila wanted to rip it apart and throw it away, but instead she stuffed the shirt into a plastic bag, which she jammed under the kitchen sink.

As the days and then weeks and then months passed, Sila stopped spending time with her friends. She came straight home every day after school and stayed in her room with her family’s computer as a companion. Sila lost track of many of the things that she used to find fun, and clung to a very specific routine. She told no one about her situation. It wasn’t anyone’s business.

Sila did chores with her father on weekends, taking the laundry downstairs to the room off the parking garage on Saturdays. She vacuumed the apartment on Sundays, because that’s what her mother had done.

She and Alp had stretched out her mother’s home-cooked food for as long as possible, but it had been gone for months now. They tried to make meals the way they used to eat as a family, with vegetables, a salad, fish or chicken, and bread, but it was a lost cause. Mostly they ate scrambled eggs and toast for dinner.

Her father always read as he consumed his food. He worked as a car mechanic at an independent repair shop, and Sila was sure he was one of the few people in the world to find an owner’s manual interesting. Sila just stared at the computer screen, keeping the sound on mute.

The best part of the day was when her mother would appear online at the arranged time. They talked. They laughed. They tried not to cry. They worked to keep it light-hearted. It was amazing how much they spoke about the weather. It was a neutral subject that was ever changing. But maybe more to the point, there was nothing they could do about it. Is that why talking about rain felt safe?

Because the time online was never enough. Once they had said goodbye the empty space would return. Sila and Alp didn’t speak much to each other after the calls. Waiting made silence easier to tolerate than voices. No one but Sila’s father understood, because no one else but him was feeling the same thing.

The rest of the world was getting on with their lives.

 

 

2.

The only expensive thing in Apartment 207A at 2599 Cleary Road was an intricately woven carpet that Sila’s grandparents had shipped over from Istanbul. The Tekins’ living space was home to geometrically patterned tiles and hand-painted Iznik ceramics, and then a lot of stuff from thrift stores and garage sales and discount stores. Sila once loved it all. Now it looked like a collection of things that didn’t belong together.

Sila had her own bedroom, but other people living in the same units on other floors in the building used the space as an office because the area was tiny and had no closet. There was one round window in Sila’s room, and it faced away from the street to the back, where railroad tracks were located. Sila had long ago grown so accustomed to the trains that she didn’t hear them anymore. It was, she decided, like the way you don’t see your own nose even though it’s in your field of vision. Your brain says it’s useless information.

But since her mother had gone, Sila could hear every single train that rattled past. She watched through the glass and imagined all the people traveling and felt her stomach knot. They all had somewhere to go.

 

It was a Saturday morning when Sila heard her father’s cell phone ring. She watched as he wrote something on the back of an envelope and said, “I can be there in the next hour.”

Sila moved from her spot on a stool and looked down at the address. She’d never heard of the street. “Dad, where’s that?”

“Someplace out of town. Off old Route 99. You should come with me. I’m going out there to look at a truck that won’t start.”

“I’d rather stay here. I don’t like trucks.”

“And I don’t like leaving you here alone for so long.”

“Maybe you’ll fix it in a few minutes and be right back.”

“I’m not asking you to go. I’m—”

“Forcing me.”

“Bring a book. It will be good for you to get out of the house.”

“It’s an apartment.”

“We’re leaving in twenty minutes.”

Sila thought about putting up a fight but it wasn’t worth it. For either of them. Her father would make her go in the end anyway, so Sila went to the kitchen and put water in the bottle she took to school every day. She then filled three plastic ziplock bags with hard cheese, sunflower seeds, and stale pretzels (someone hadn’t shut the bag correctly, but since she and her father were both capable of that, she didn’t say anything).

Sila stuffed the bags in her sweatshirt pocket. The last thing she did was retrieve a half-filled box of Junior Mints that she had been saving in her room. Her father could go forever fixing something and not need even a glass of water. They were different that way.

 

Twenty minutes later, Sila and Alp were driving out of town together on old Highway 99 North. It was surprising how good it felt to be moving. Sila wished they were going to travel like this for days with the radio on and the windows down heading across country until they reached the Atlantic Ocean. But even passing through twelve states and driving three thousand miles wouldn’t make a difference. They would still be a whole body of salt water from the person who mattered most in their lives.

 

It wasn’t very long before her father turned off the highway onto a narrow country road. There were no houses in sight, only fields with tall weeds that would come up past her knees. Sila wondered if there were snakes or rodents hiding in holes out in the meadows. She spotted what she thought was a hawk circling overhead and was curious what the bird saw that she couldn’t.

Another five minutes passed, with only one other car going the other direction, when Sila’s dad turned onto a gravel drive. As they rounded a bend they could see a very high wall made of big rocks. It looked to Sila like something that would surround a castle. There were huge wooden gates that went across a driveway and connected to the stone barrier. This, according to the address on the piece of paper Sila’s father held in his hand, was where they were going. He stared at the wall. “Now, that took a lot of work.”

“It looks so old.”

“It’s beautiful—no?”

“The wall goes on forever.”

“Probably not forever. But yes, as far as we can see.”

Sila felt a strange excitement as they approached. This place was filled with intrigue. Maybe they’d be here for hours and hours and hours. Maybe even days. But then dread took hold. That was the pattern now. What if her mother came home and no one was there? Being away from the apartment suddenly felt disloyal.

They weren’t standing guard in the living room waiting for her.

They weren’t near the computer.

They were out in the world.

Was there even good cell phone service this far out of town?

Who knew what could happen?

 

 

3.

Alp pushed a button on a call box next to the wooden gates. Right away they heard sharp chirping sounds coming from the trees. Out the windshield Sila could see a small flock of red finches against the gray Oregon sky. The sight of the little birds felt hopeful.

Her father’s focus was on the intercom. He pressed the button on the box again, and a voice finally said: “Hello . . .”

“It’s Alp Tekin. I’ve come about your truck.”

A buzzer sounded and then the wooden gates started to roll open. Sila noticed that they had sturdy metal wheels on the bottom and big, dark metal hinges. Alp drove forward, and up ahead they could see a large, old pink farmhouse, a weathered barn, and an ancient-looking windmill that probably pumped water at one time but was now a lasting monument to a different era. Sila noticed that the front porch was surrounded by interesting overgrown plants. A lot of them were exotic, not like stuff that she’d seen wild in Oregon. “I didn’t know you could grow palm trees here . . .”

Alp stared at the sago palms. They were tucked around one side of the farmhouse as if drawing warmth from the building. “Me neither.”

“How come the plants don’t die when it snows?”

He must not have known the answer, because he said, “Where your mom and I grew up in Turkey, there were places with palm trees.”

“Yeah, but you guys love pine trees. I think palms are better.”

“Is something better because you don’t see it all the time?”

When her dad offered up his ideas they usually came out as questions.

Maybe her mother right now was sitting in a grove of palm trees. Sila saw that image in her mind’s eye. It was strangely comforting.

The door to the pink farmhouse opened and an old man came out. He had mostly gray hair, a full white beard, and he was wearing a lemon-yellow jacket. Sila tried to remember if she’d ever seen her father in a yellow jacket. It was possible that he had a raincoat that color. The boys at her school must have thought that bright colors were only for highway workers, because almost everything they wore was blue, gray, brown, or black. Sila looked over at her dad. He had on jeans and a gray shirt. It was as if there were some kind of secret dress code they were all following, she thought. But not this old guy.

Sila’s dad leaned out the open window on his side of the car. “I brought my daughter. This is Sila. I hope that’s okay.”

Sila had been taught that it was important to make a good first impression. It was also (according to her mom, who had made a lot of the rules) necessary to make a good second, third, and fourth impression, which was another way to say that her daughter needed to have good manners all the time. Sila tried to smile, but the corners of her mouth had lost whatever natural will they once possessed to turn upward. At least her teeth didn’t stick to her lips. She’d been eating pretzels and her mouth felt salty and dry.

The older man spoke in a voice that Sila thought sounded like gravel. It was rocky like the road to his farmhouse and there was crunch in his words.

“I’m Gio. Nice to meet you two. My truck’s in the barn. Drove it in there to give it a break from the rain. The thing’s got enough rust spots. Now I can’t get it started. Should we go take a look?”

Many times when Alp went to fix a car or truck, it was on the side of the road, or stuck somewhere, like in the mud. He didn’t mind working in the wet weather, but Sila thought the look on his face said he was glad that Gio’s broken vehicle was under cover. It was late spring and in Oregon that meant that the sky could open up in a downpour at any moment that would last for hours.

Sila swallowed a few times to get rid of the pretzel pieces that were lodged around her mouth between her teeth. Her plan had been to stay in her father’s car while he worked, but then she heard the old man’s voice: “Are you coming with us?”

Sila looked up at him. She thought of all the excuses for why she was going to stay in the car and was surprised to hear herself say, “Okay. Sure.”

Alp lifted his toolbox and they both followed Gio. Sila thought the old man moved pretty fast considering his right knee didn’t bend in the same way as his left knee did. One of the rules when she went with her dad on work trips was to approach everyone she met not just with respect but also with caution. You shouldn’t trust someone, she had been taught, until you really knew the person.

Gio pushed opened the barn’s large double doors and Sila and Alp followed him inside. An old blue pickup was parked in the middle of the cavernous space. Sila wondered if at one time the barn had housed pigs and cows and chickens. She also imagined ponies and geese and sheep. Instead there were just a lot of spiderwebs.

Alp went to work looking under the hood of the truck, and Sila was unsure if she should wait at his side or whether the old man expected her to talk to him. Then she heard, “I went to the bakery on Route 99 this morning. I have donuts. Would you like one?”

 

Sila sat on the front porch of the farmhouse and Gio brought out a plate with a jelly-filled cruller, a chocolate-glazed thug, and a large cinnamon twist. Sila took her time making her choice, but in the end she went for the cinnamon twist because it was the biggest thing on the plate and if her mouth was full she wouldn’t be expected to talk.

Gio went back inside and returned minutes later with a cup of coffee for himself and a glass of milk for Sila. They ate donuts in silence until all three were gone. Sila was surprised she didn’t feel uncomfortable. The man in the yellow jacket didn’t seem to care about talking. It was a huge relief.

Sila’s mother had said it wasn’t good manners to stare at your phone if you were with someone else, so Sila resisted the temptation. She drank what was left of the milk and watched the birds in the trees. Gio sipped his coffee. Finally Sila said, “So, did you build that stone wall?”

“I did not.”

“The barn is so big. But you don’t have any animals.”

“I don’t.”

“Are you a farmer?”

“I was thinking of farming when I bought this place. But I haven’t done that. I’ve only been out here for a few months.”

Gio took another sip of his coffee and then he sat back and told her about the last eight months of his life.

 

 

4.

“For almost thirty years I worked as a carpenter, but then a place called Chinook Modular Housing opened up off River Road. You’re too young to remember when all that land was a blueberry farm.”

Sila nodded.

“Well, they plowed under the bushes and built an assembly plant. I took a job out there. We made housing units—Chinook mobile homes.”

“How do you build a mobile home?”

“The things start as big metal skeletons that are shipped from China. Those pieces get welded together. After that, a wooden frame goes on, which was my part. Then plumbers and electricians come on board. Once that happened my crew would start all over again on another unit. For sixteen years I built the same thing, the same way, with the same materials, five days a week.”

Sila took a moment to imagine what his job was like. “Was it boring?”

Gio laughed. “I could put the thing together with my eyes closed. Well, almost. It wasn’t exciting. But I worked out of the rain. And it took some skill.”

“Were you allowed to listen to music?”

“We did do that.”

“Did you like the other people you worked with?”

“We were a good group. We had a bowling league and a book club. We needed things to talk about besides each other. We didn’t want to spend too much time gossiping.”

“My teacher last year said that gossip is telling stories that you don’t know are true. But most of the stuff kids repeated was true. So does that make it gossip?”

“Hard to say. I think of gossip as being mean.”

Sila managed a half smile. “I agree.”

“Anyway, at one point a bunch of us at work decided to play the lottery.”

Sila repeated the slogan she’d heard on local television commercials: “Powerball and Mega Millions. Hey! Somebody’s gotta win.”

“That’s right. Our friend Corey was in charge. Twenty-four of us put in money and Corey bought tickets every week. It was too much trouble after a while picking all the numbers, so we used an online program that chose random ones, but we always used the number twenty-four. Because that was us. Twenty-four Chinook workers. Well, we played the lottery for six years, four months, and three days . . .”

Gio stopped to take a sip of his coffee. His eyes had lit up, and Sila realized she was holding her breath as she waited. He swallowed his coffee and continued, “When one wet, foggy Saturday—it was October twenty-fourth of this past year—we had the winning ticket.”

Sila couldn’t help but be excited. “You won!”

“We did.”

“Was it a ton of money?”

“It was. Even split twenty-four ways. It was the largest jackpot in the state’s history. No one had won for eighteen weeks. The prize kept rolling over, getting bigger and bigger.”

“Did you freak out when you heard the news?”

“I didn’t believe it at first. It felt like a dream. Or a crazy hoax or scam someone was playing on us. My friend Rosa called me crying. She worked in accounting. I thought her cat had died. She’d been really worried about that cat. But she was happy-crying.”

“I guess it sounds the same.”

“Especially when all you hear is someone having trouble breathing. It was a weekend and no one was at work, but we all jumped into cars and met in the Chinook parking lot. We were screaming and shaking and falling all over each other. Dee Dee Pratt even fainted. There are more than a hundred and fifty people who are employed out there, but we were the lucky ones. I can tell you for a fact that come Monday the other workers really weren’t that happy for us.”

“Maybe they felt left out.”

“It was like someone died. They walked around with their heads down, trying to smile but really filled with grief. Even the president of the company, a guy named Ronnie Roberts, didn’t come in for three days. That’s how much it shook people up. And yes, of course they were mad that they weren’t part of our lottery group.”

Sila nodded. “I guess for once everyone at work was talking about the same thing.”

It looked to Sila as if Gio was enjoying telling his story. She wondered if he’d spent the last eight months keeping what had happened private from anyone not directly involved. She felt no envy as she listened, and was happy when he continued, “Three weeks after the Big Saturday, all of us, except a welder named Duncan Maynard, had quit our jobs. Duncan said he really liked installing windows and he didn’t care that he had a ton of money heading his way.”

“I wonder if he got treated differently at work after that.”

“I’m sure he did. The day we got the check we took a group photo in front of the Chinook Modular Housing sign. I’ve got it right here.”

Gio pulled his phone from his coat pocket and scrolled to a picture. He held it up for Sila. She squinted at the screen.

“Which one is Duncan Maynard?”

Gio pointed to a man in the front. Sila looked carefully. “He’s got the biggest smile.”

Gio turned the phone back around. “You’re right. I never noticed that. Most of us weren’t getting a lot of sleep back then. We were still in shock.”

“Well, he looks happy.”

“He does. And he was the only one not going anywhere.”

Gio put the phone back in his coat pocket and continued, “All I wanted that day was for my wife, Lillian, to be alive. She believed in playing the lottery more than I did. I’ve never been much of a gambler. But Lillian thought it was a fun thing to do. So she’s the reason I was even part of it.”

Sila’s voice was small: “And she’s not around now?”

“She passed away over four years ago.”

Sila knew it wasn’t polite to ask too many personal questions, but she wanted to know more. “What happened to her?”

“She was healthy until just after her sixty-first birthday when she got a sore shoulder. Then the pain moved to her back. We thought she’d pulled a muscle, or slept on her side funny. But it didn’t go away. She wasn’t someone who complained about stuff, so I forgot she even had a problem. After that, maybe a month later, she started to cough. It was winter and everyone was hacking away all the time. We just thought she had a bad cold.”

Gio stopped abruptly and put down his coffee cup. When he started to speak again Sila heard the words spill out fast and dull. “She had lung cancer. She fought. It won.”

“I’m sorry. . . .”

“Me too.”

 

After a while Gio went back to talking. “So Lillian never knew I won the money. She worked hard her whole life, and she never got to see any of this. She always wanted to live on a farm. She liked to garden. She wanted a house with a second floor. She said she’d like a barn. That’s why I’m here. It’s for her.”

Gio looked out onto the tall pines trees.

“Did you and your wife—”

“Lillian.”

“Did you and Lillian have kids?”

“No. But she was always around young people. She taught second grade at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School.”

Sila’s mouth opened and she looked wide-eyed at Gio. “Wait. What’s your last name?”

“Gardino.”

“So you were married to Mrs. Gardino?”

“I was.”

“She was my second-grade teacher!”

“No kidding!”

“She was my favorite!”

Sila impulsively reached over and touched his hand. “I think about her all the time.”

When she looked at Gio she realized his eyes were turning liquid.

 

 

5.

They heard the sound of an engine starting. Gio seemed to collect himself as the pickup truck emerged from the barn. “Your dad’s got the old engine running again.” Only moments later Alp cut the motor and got out of the vehicle.

“Your truck’s working, but it won’t stay that way. There’s a problem with the alternator. It needs to be replaced, and then the fuel line should come out. I could have the parts shipped to me. That would take about ten days. If you’re interested I can get you a price.”

“You call and let me know what it will cost, but plan on doing it.”

Sila looked at the old man in the lemon-yellow jacket and brightened. “So we’ll have to come back.”

She could see that Gio Gardino seemed to also feel as if not being able to fix the truck was some kind of good news. Gio took his checkbook out of his pocket and paid Alp, saying, “Sila, I enjoyed our chat. But I feel bad that I spent the whole time talking about myself.”

“That’s okay,” Sila said.

“But I didn’t learn enough about you. Except of course that you are a good listener.”

Alp answered for her, “Sila likes books and animals.”

Sila grumbled, “We’re not allowed to have pets at our apartment, which is why we don’t have a dog.”

“What’s your favorite animal?” Gio asked.

She answered immediately. “An elephant.”

Gio laughed. “Well, I can see how you wouldn’t be able to keep one of those in an apartment.”

Sila smiled politely. Alp looked over at his daughter. Oya had made a stuffed elephant for Sila when she was very young, and more than eleven years later it was a lumpy gray mass with the button eyes long gone.

It still spent every night on Sila’s bed.

 

Once they were in the car Sila told her father about Gio’s lottery win.

“I remember that now. A big group of people. I heard one of them went into the Mercedes dealership on Franklin and bought four cars.”

“Really?”

“I think it was the biggest lottery payout they’ve had.”

“That’s what he said. And guess what? His wife was my second-grade teacher. Mrs. Gardino. She was so nice.”

“We’ll have to tell your mother tonight. She’ll remember her.”

“She was my favorite teacher ever.”

“And she’s gone?”

Sila nodded. “She died four years ago. I guess I was in her last class. They didn’t tell us much about what happened.”

Alp glanced at his daughter. He tried to change the subject. “If I won the lottery I’d hire a great immigration lawyer. Maybe from someplace like New York City. Somebody who knew all the right people.”

Sila’s face scrunched up. “Is that the problem? We can’t get Mom the visa because we know the wrong people?”

“The rules changed. That’s a bigger problem. But still, it would help if we had a real advocate on our side.”

“Dad, if we won the lottery, after we hired the right lawyer, I’d fix the sidewalk in front of our apartment. People trip out there all the time.”

“I like that idea, Sila. It’s very thoughtful.”

“Thank you.”

“What else would you do, little one?”

“I’d rent the apartment next door to us and make a door connecting the two units. Then I’d have a big bedroom and also my own kitchen.”

This made her father laugh. “So we’d have two kitchens to make eggs and toast.”

“Exactly. But Mom would be back, so things would be normal and she’d like the extra oven for baking.”

“Well, if I had some of that Powerball money I’d start my own auto mechanic business. I wouldn’t work at the repair shop anymore or take weekend jobs.”

They drove in silence for the next ten minutes, both thinking about the fantasy Powerball money they had. Sila finally spoke again as they pulled into their parking space at the apartment building. “I bet everyone who meets Gio starts thinking about all that money and what they’d do with it.”

“No doubt.”

“Maybe,” she said, “that’s why he moved out of town to live behind the big wall.”

 

After Sila and Alp left, Gio sat in the chair in his living room where he had a good view of a photo of Lillian he had positioned at eye level on the bookcase. So his wife knew Sila Tekin. It was such a small world. Lillian always spoke about the kids she taught, and Gio wished now that he could remember more of those conversations. Was he imagining that Lillian had spoken about the girl? He really couldn’t be sure. But he guessed yes.

Gio knew one thing was for certain: If Lillian were still alive she would have gotten to the bottom of why Sila seemed sad. Instead, Gio now felt he shouldn’t have spent so much time telling his story, even if it did seem to interest her. He looked out the window at the changing light on the distant hills, his two thousand acres that backed up against Flynn’s Butte. He thought the low mountains looked like pillows. When he closed the deal on the property, the grass in between the tall trees was yellow, and at the end of the day the slopes turned gold. It was the land he loved, but also the old wooden farmhouse dating back almost one hundred years. It had been painted so many times that the color was speckled and from a distance appeared pink. To Gio it was weathered and worn, not peeling and shedding its skin. The structure with its steep roof, round windows, and large wraparound porch was unusual and filled with intrigue. A very old, green copper rooster weather vane perched at the highest point of the tallest gable. It spun around in a strong wind and the rusty bearings made a screeching sound as if the rooster were alive.

But what really set the property apart was that most of the acreage was enclosed by a high stone wall. This was what no one else had been willing to pay for.

Eighty years before, the owners of these hills had been in the quarry business, supplying gravel for the roads that early lumber companies had needed when they forged into the forests to cut down timber. The wall had started when the family decided to grow exotic plants and rare orchids. The climate was a problem, but the bigger issue was the deer that roamed the area. The animals went crazy for the new vegetation. A barrier needed to be put up, but the deer could jump, and so the wall was made higher and then higher, until it finally towered eight feet tall. The cost wasn’t a problem for the family since the rock was free from their quarry, and the wall continued to be built, even after their interest in exotic plants faded.

No one had a wall like this wall. No one wanted one. But at a certain point the wall became a source of pride. The wall started for a specific reason. Then it became a hobby. And it ended as an obsession. The family couldn’t stop themselves from more and more construction. Neighbors reported seeing people mixing cement and lifting boulders in the middle of the night. The result was that acres and acres of Gio’s property were enclosed.

Local people wondered what the previous owners were doing on the other side of the high barrier, and stories were whispered about ghosts, secret ceremonies, and even illegal activity. Gio didn’t pay attention. He loved the old farmhouse, the gentle slope of the hills, and the sound of the wind as it stirred the tops of the pine trees. The useless wall was something he was willing to accept because it was part of the package.

There was very little flat land available on Gio’s new property and the whole place was dotted with trees. Enormous boulders seemed to pop up unexpectedly like huge eggs dropped from the sky. The earth hiding beneath the moss, ferns, and wildflowers was streaked with dense orange clay. It was not meant to grow vegetables. His plan to plant lettuce and tomatoes was permanently on hold.

Gio wasn’t hiding out at the new place, but something close to that happened. Walls do that. They separate worlds. The winter months in the valley in this part of Oregon are wet, which means a lot of gray, closed-in skies. Gio started to believe he’d come to the end of the road in life. He wasn’t an ancient man, but he was approaching his seventieth birthday. It felt like a lot of living, especially when his knees hurt and his back was sore every morning. Because his job had been in construction, his life had been very physical. He’d been a human pretzel, bent over while pounding nails or standing tall as he held wooden beams high over his head. Now he was a lottery winner with no money worries, no wife, an achy body, and a lot of time on his hands. The excitement of having a big bank account had worn off. There was no one waiting for him to show up at a job—no one expecting him to share a meal, or to even talk with about what to watch on TV. Gio was in a hole that can appear when a person doesn’t feel they’re needed.

He was no more happy, and no less happy, than before he won all the lottery money. But he was a whole lot more alone. He carried around an emptiness that was the space Lillian once filled. Missing her every day was the connection they now shared, and that meant she was still alive. He was seeing the world for both of them now. His steps were hers.

Had the little girl he’d met today lost someone?

Gio wondered if that was the look he saw in her eyes.

He wished he’d found a way to ask.

 

 

6.

Gio climbed inside his new truck the next afternoon and his vehicle seemed to drive itself into town, to the address listed on Alp Tekin’s business card. He sat in front of 2599 Cleary Road and stared at the apartment building. Why was he there?

Gio watched as Alp Tekin’s car came down the street. Sila was seated inside with her father. She spotted Gio before he could start his engine and drive off. This left him no choice but to roll down the window and come up with an explanation. “I brought you the money—so that you could order the parts for my old truck.”

Alp nodded and said, “But it was okay to pay when I came back.”

Gio opened the door to his vehicle and reached into his pocket, taking out a handful of hundred-dollar bills. Alp accepted the money, saying thank you, but what followed was an awkward pause, which Sila finally filled.

“Do you want to come in and have a cup of tea with us? Or maybe some cheese and olives?”

Gio surprised himself and them when he said, “Sure. That would be nice.”

 

Sila put out a plate of snacks. Alp made tea and served it in little tulip-shaped, clear glasses with two lumps of sugar on the side. Gio sat at the table in the small kitchen. For once Sila was glad that her mom wasn’t there; Oya always insisted people take off their shoes at the door. Alp and Sila hadn’t said anything to Gio, who was wearing what looked like fancy leather bedroom slippers. Sila wondered if he’d forgotten to put on real shoes when he left home.

It had been quiet for what felt like a long time when Alp asked, “How did you end up calling me to fix your truck?”

Gio took a sip of tea and explained, “When my truck wouldn’t start I thought about having it towed to the dealership in town. But then I remembered how they’d treated me the last time I came in. The head of the service department flat out said he didn’t think the truck was worth repairing. I wasn’t going near that pinched-face man again.”

This made Alp laugh. Gio then continued: “I keep a stack of business cards in the kitchen. People offering up gardening services, housecleaning, and pet sitting—mostly stuff I don’t need. When I lived in town, I’d get the cards put in the mailbox.”

Sila’s and Alp’s eyes met and they both smiled. They sometimes walked together around town and left Alp’s business cards in people’s mailboxes. It always felt great to see that the work paid off.

“When I moved out to my new place I took the cards with me,” Gio went on. “It’s an old-fashioned way to look for employment, what with the Internet and all. I admire the effort.”

Sila reached for one of the cards from a bowl on the kitchen counter. There was a small drawing of an elephant sitting in a wagon on Alp’s business card. Sila told Gio, “I helped make the card. There’s a program online and you just put in your information. I picked out the logo.”

Talking about the business card made Gio come to life. He explained that while he’d bought a new truck with his lottery money, it was his old truck that he owned when his wife was still alive that he cared the most about.

“The upholstery in the front seat’s split down the middle and there’s yellowy sponge poking out. The floor mats are worn through and the outside paint long ago got dull. The truck has rust spots on the fenders and the hood. But it feels more comfortable than my new one—with its dashboard all lit up and the crazy warning sounds telling me to brake or stay in my lane when I know I’m doing just fine.”

Alp nodded with understanding. Sila didn’t care much about cars or trucks, but she liked this guy. He was making it feel less sad in the apartment.

“I put a battery in the old truck three months ago,” Gio said. “So when I went out to drive it Saturday and it wouldn’t start, I was surprised how rotten it made me feel. Things can just be moving one minute and not working the next.”

Sila wondered if he was talking about the truck or himself. This man was one of the winners of the biggest lottery payout in the state, yet he had his problems. Everyone did. Since her mom had gone, Sila understood that.

 

Alp got up to put the teakettle back on the stove, and Gio looked at Alp’s daughter. “What are you thinking about right now, Sila?” he asked.

She didn’t take even a moment to answer. “Having my mom come home.”

Gio nodded.

So there it was. The problem.

He’d known there was something forming a cloud over the girl.

And with that, the conversation changed to an explanation by Alp of new laws that required new documentation for immigrants, which was the reason they were waiting so anxiously at 2599 Cleary Road.

 

 

 

7.

Gio had let it slip out that the next day was his birthday. Sila hoped he wasn’t going to be spending it alone. He had seemed vague when she asked, so they had made a plan. They would meet in the morning before school for donuts at Gio’s favorite breakfast spot: the Hole in One bakery. He had explained to them, “It’s really not a bakery because they only sell donuts. It’s run by two sisters, Margo and Mayo. They don’t keep regular hours and they sell whatever they’ve made, then close for the day.”

Alp knew the Hole in One but had never been inside. “They have that huge parking lot,” Gio said. “I think they lose money making donuts, but they hold a flea market on the property once a month. Truckers know the place because it’s so easy to park.”

That night Sila looked it up online. A review said: “Not far off the highway you can get a decent dunker and park ANYTHING there.”

 

It was raining and windy outside when Sila and her father walked in to find the lottery winner staring into the glass case at the maple bars. It smelled like cinnamon and sugar, and Sila wondered if it was possible to make a perfume with the odor of a donut shop. She could imagine it being a best seller.

Gio had brought three coffee mugs from home. At the Hole in One they gave ten cents off for bringing in your own drink container. Gio said he was doing it to help the planet, not to save thirty cents. He and Alp ordered coffee. Sila asked for hot chocolate. They each picked out donuts.

Sila had made Gio a birthday card and she gave it to him while Alp paid the cashier. Gio read out loud what Sila had written inside: “May this be your best year yet.” He thanked her, and she thought he looked genuinely happy as he slipped the card in the pocket of his yellow jacket.

They had just found seats by the window when three very large trucks pulled into the oversized parking lot. Two of the three were the kind of transporters that could carry very heavy loads. Both of these vehicles had been customized with a foot of open metal grating at the top on three of the four sides. These openings appeared to be designed to let in air. But why?

An old school bus, painted purple and green, motored into the lot behind the trucks. The bus was followed by two dented passenger vans, three SUVs, and five packed pickup trucks.

Behind the counter Margo could be heard grumbling, “Prepare for an invasion.”

Sila was no longer fixated on her hot chocolate or cream-filled donut. She stared out the window. The rain was coming down hard as the doors to the vehicles opened and people started to spill out. Lots of people. Gio caught Sila’s eye. “This could be interesting.”

They weren’t disappointed. The new arrivals were a lively bunch, dressed in bright clothing, with imaginative hairstyles, arms of tattoos, and rattling metal jewelry. A disproportionate number of the crowd wore hats and carried overflowing shoulder bags. Six poodles, dyed purple and pink, came out of one of the vans. In several minutes more than fifty people were waiting to use the donut shop bathroom. Those who didn’t take a place in the crooked line headed to the glass counter and eyed the pastry with real enthusiasm. The group was loud. They talked and horsed around in a way that Sila decided meant many of them had to be related. It wasn’t long before they were moving chairs, sitting in clusters, or standing to argue, while eating donuts and gulping coffee.

Sila was eager to know more about the group when a man close to Gio’s age, with tangled long curls of silver hair, came over and pointed to an empty chair. He asked, “Anyone sitting here?” Gio responded, “It’s reserved for you.”

The man lowered himself down with obvious relief onto the red cushion of the metal chair. Sila tried not to eyeball the guy, but it was impossible. The newly arrived traveler had silver rings on all of his fingers, even his thumbs. He wore an orange scarf around his neck, a green army jacket, and faded striped pants, which were tucked into old yellow rain boots.

Sila wanted to say something and was grateful when Gio did it for her by asking, “Where’s your group headed?”

The man took a big bite of his cinnamon twist and answered with his mouth full: “Nowhere. Real fast.” The man swallowed. “Just finished our last booking.”

Sila stared back out the window at the vehicles. She read the faded words painted on the side of one of the trucks: the briot family circus. She found herself asking, “So you’re all in a circus?”

For the next fifteen minutes they heard that the Briot family (along with some non-Briot employees) had traveled the country for almost thirty-two years. But while Chester Briot said he would like to keep moving from town to town entertaining small communities (never big cities—they weren’t intended for that kind of crowd), his employees, who were his children, cousins, two former wives, and other stakeholders in the operation, had different ideas.

In Klamath Falls, the Briot circus members had taken a vote. As the ringmaster, Chester insisted that his single ballot count for ten, but even that hadn’t made a difference. They’d come to the decision to stop performing at the end of the month, sell off what they could, and each go their own way. So they were, as Chester said, “getting ready to close down the big top for good.”

 

Sila hadn’t taken a single bite of her donut since the man opened his mouth. Gio saw the look on her face, a mixture of fascination and intrigue, and he went to the cash register and paid the bill for the whole group. It was donuts and coffee on Giovanni Gardino! This act of generosity, and the fact that Sila explained it was Gio’s birthday, led Chester to invite Sila, Alp, and Gio out to meet another longtime member of the Briot circus.

 

The rain had tapered off to a sprinkle and the sun was poking through a hole in the thick clouds as the group followed the circus man out the door of the donut shop and into the large parking lot. A rainbow suddenly appeared in the sky. It formed an arch high above their heads that felt to Sila like destiny as Chester opened the back of the largest truck.

Because that’s when Sila met Veda.  

 

 

8.

Veda was an elegant elephant. She had dark brown eyes and long lashes that looked like they were made of black wire. In the tight space of the transport trailer she angled her head so that one eye could get a look back. Her gaze was penetrating. When their eyes connected Sila took in a big gulp of air. She was awestruck.

“I’ve never seen an animal this big.”

Chester seemed to puff up with pride. “I got her when she was young. She was a lot smaller then. I’ve had her for years and years.”

“Is it okay if I touch her?”

“Sure. Go ahead.”

Sila reached up and her fingers brushed gently against the leathery gray hide of Veda’s right back leg.

“She’s amazing” was all Sila could manage to say.

 

Chester saw Sila staring in awe at his pachyderm. He’d long ago forgotten how majestic the elephant was. The cost of feeding and transporting the huge animal was worth it when the money was coming in, but that was back when crowds were waiting to greet the circus. Those days Chester was younger and life on the road with his family was an adventure.

He listened as the girl spoke, straining to hear her barely audible words. “There are two kinds of elephants. African and Asian. Like cousins, branches of the same family. The Asian elephants are smaller. They have different ears. An elephant is the second-smartest land animal. We come in first. We’re mammals. We’re related. But of course it’s important to remember that all living things are related. I did a report on elephants at school last year.”

Chester found himself saying with real feeling what he’d mouthed thousands of times into a microphone without much genuine emotion. “Elephants are inspiring. Just in size alone. They’re the largest living land animals on the planet. They have twenty-six teeth. Tusks are teeth—did you all know that? They’re incisors. But only male elephants have them. Veda’s a female, so no tusks on her. An elephant can stand almost perfectly still for hours and hours. They use up almost no energy. Sounds crazy, but it’s true. It’s how they’re built—where the bones are and all! Elephants get most of their sleep standing up. Bet you didn’t know that.”

Sila met his gaze. “I knew.”

Alp shrugged. “I didn’t.”

Gio was silent.

 

Gio could tell that Sila would have spent the day standing there in the drizzle watching the enormous animal, but she had school. Her father gently reminded her that they needed to get going.

“But . . .”

“You have to get to class and I have to be at work.”

Gio watched as Sila’s eyes filled. She put her head down but managed to say “Happy birthday, Mr. Gardino.”

“Gio.”

Alp placed his hand on Sila’s shoulder. “Yes. Happy birthday, Gio.”

“Thank you. Both of you,” he answered. “I won’t forget this birthday.”

Gio watched as Sila headed to Alp’s car. Chester continued talking about the circus, but Gio wasn’t listening to his words. He felt his stomach twist as his mind fixated on a single thought: He would never get over the look on Sila’s face as she stared at the elephant. Gio had to place his left hand on the side of the circus truck to steady himself as he watched Sila and Alp’s car recede down the highway.

Suddenly something shifted inside him, and he felt a kind of steadiness take hold that had been missing since Lillian died. Maybe his whole life had led to this. A man with not much to do but a ton of money meets an elephant that has been riding around in a truck for years.

Trapped.

Alone.

Wasn’t this a perfect match?

This had to be the reason he’d won 1/24 of the Powerball millions! This had to be why he’d bought acres and acres of land surrounded by a ridiculously high stone wall! This had to be why he’d kept a mechanic’s business card with an elephant logo for three years in a brass bowl and then moved it with his belongings to the farmhouse. This was why Sila and her father had shown up to fix the old truck.

Chester was still speaking and Gio heard him say, “The guy I bought her from named her. We tried to call her Jumba—get it? Not Jumbo. But she never took to it. So we went back to Veda.”

Gio’s voice was filled with anxiety as he asked, “What’s your plan? You said you were closing down the circus. What will you do with your elephant?”

“I couldn’t stop reading—I had to find out what would happen. An unusual and lovely real-life fairy tale.” Linda Sue Park, New York Times Bestselling author of A Long Walk to Water

“A gorgeous and emotional novel. I loved every page.” —Cynthia Kadohata, Newbery Medal-winning author of Kira-Kira

★ "Each character wrestles with love and loss and struggles with decisions about when to act and when to wait; each in their own way has insight into the others, and empathy for them . . . Sila wonders if people are more compassionate because of their own difficult experiences; in this unique, touching book, the answer is yes." —School Library Journal, starred review

"Using multiple narrative perspectives, [Goldberg Sloan] touches on many weighty topics (grief, autism, deportation, animal cruelty), handling each with sensitivity." —Booklist

"Sloan captures the importance of compassion and bravery when facing life’s challenges . . . themes of collectivity and community in the face of isolation and stigma are brought to the surface and themselves offer depth to this heartfelt and sincere story." —Kirkus

"Sloan (To Night Owl from Dogfish) fully builds the emotional interiors of each character, including Veda. This heartfelt tale thoughtfully conveys the agony of family separation, the beauty of nature, and the power of friendship to overcome tremendous difficulties." —Publishers Weekly

"This beautiful story and the wonderful connections between all of the characters remind readers that very often people and animals come into our lives for a reason and usually just when we need them the most. A perfect title for middle school, fans of animal stories, and a great suggestion for readers looking for books that help deal with loss, heartache, and hope." —School Library Connection

"The friendship of old man, child, and giant pachyderm is convincing, touching, and just odd enough." —Horn Book
Holly Goldberg Sloan was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and spent her childhood living in Holland; Istanbul, Turkey; Washington, D.C.; Berkeley, California; and Eugene, Oregon. After graduating from Wellesley College and spending some time as an advertising copywriter, she began writing family feature films, including Angels in the Outfield and Made in America. She is the author of the New York Times best sellers Counting by 7s and Short, among other novels. View titles by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Discussion Guide for The Elephant in the Room

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About

From the New York Times bestselling author of Counting by 7s comes a heartfelt story about "the importance of compassion and bravery when facing life’s challenges” (Kirkus) for fans of The One and Only Ivan and Front Desk.

It's been almost a year since Sila's mother traveled halfway around the world to Turkey, hoping to secure the immigration paperwork that would allow her to return to her family in the United States.

The long separation is almost impossible for Sila to withstand. But things change when Sila accompanies her father (who is a mechanic) outside their Oregon town to fix a truck. There, behind an enormous stone wall, she meets a grandfatherly man who only months before won the state lottery. Their new alliance leads to the rescue of a circus elephant named Veda, and then to a friendship with an unusual boy named Mateo, proving that comfort and hope come in the most unlikely of places.

A moving story of family separation and the importance of the connection between animals and humans, this novel has the enormous heart and uplifting humor that readers have come to expect from the beloved author of Counting by 7s.
 
“I couldn’t stop reading—I had to find out what would happen. An unusual and lovely real-life fairy tale.” Linda Sue Park, New York Times Bestselling author of A Long Walk to Water

“A gorgeous and emotional novel. I loved every page.” —Cynthia Kadohata, Newbery Medal-winning author of Kira-Kira

Excerpt

1.

What Sila Tekin would remember about that afternoon was that she had been wearing her favorite shirt. It was nothing fancy. Just red with white stripes and blue stitching, but it fit perfectly, not too tight and not too loose. And it wasn’t only comfortable; it was lucky, because she had been wearing the shirt when she found a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk one afternoon while walking home from school. Sila had also bowled her highest score in August, and done well on a very hard math test while wearing the garment. Another time when she had on the shirt she’d spotted a two-foot-tall speckled owl sleeping high up in a tree in Hendricks Park. That was amazing.

So the T-shirt was special. There was no question about it.

At least not until Thursday, September 6, when Sila came through the front door of the apartment to find her parents in the kitchen. Her mom and dad were never there when she got home from school; they were always at work. Her mom’s eyes were red and puffy from crying and her nose looked like it was leaking water. Sila asked in Turkish, which was the language she spoke at home, “What’s going on?”

Her father put his hand on his daughter’s shoulder. She could feel tension even in his fingertips. “We’ve had some bad news.”

Sila’s ears started to buzz. One of her grandparents must have died. Her voice was shaky as she asked: “What’s happened? You have to tell me!”

Sila’s mother, Oya, looked as if she was going to speak, only nothing came out except a long, dry exhale that had choking sounds mixed in. But then her father managed, “Your mother is going on a trip. She’ll be back soon. Very soon.”

“A trip? Why?”

“Legal things. Fixing paperwork.”

Sila looked at her mother. “Where are you going?”

“To Turkey.”

Sila’s eyes moved from her mother to her father. They weren’t sick. No one had died. Health wasn’t the issue. Sila stared at her parents and could see they were trying to seem calm, but it looked as if their heads were going to explode.

“I don’t understand. So what’s the bad news?”

Her mother wiped her nose. “It’s immigration. There is a problem.”

Sila’s parents went on to explain that Oya needed to return to the country she left as an adult and get a replacement for a document that had never been properly executed. Without fixing the situation, Oya was facing a court proceeding and even deportation. So she just needed to correct a clerical mistake. They had a plan.

It didn’t sound to Sila like that big of a deal. Hadn’t her mother admitted she missed where she was born? Couldn’t going back to Turkey be a good thing? Didn’t Oya speak all the time about longing to see Sila’s grandparents? Wasn’t she always saying she missed the bread and the cheese and the tomatoes she’d grown up with?

But this trip was forced on her. Maybe, Sila thought, anything that you are told to do isn’t as good as when you make the choice yourself.

Everyone wants to be the boss of their own life.

 

Sila had been born in Oregon. She was an American citizen. Her parents had lived in Eugene for almost fifteen years, but they were Turkish citizens. In Istanbul her mother had studied to be a librarian, but once they came to America she had taken work in the housekeeping department of the most expensive hotel on main street. She cleaned rooms five days a week, and if she was lucky, got overtime for a sixth day. That job had ended after fourteen years only last week. So much was in turmoil.

These were the facts: Sila’s mother would be gone for eight days—two Sundays with six days sandwiched in between. Before Oya left, she cooked her husband’s and daughter’s favorite foods and then packed the refrigerator and the freezer tight with glass containers. While her mother buzzed around the oven and the stove, Sila tried to be helpful and cleaned the apartment. When she was finished, she cleaned it all over again. She would have started on a third round but she went with her mother to shop for the gifts to bring for family and friends.

Later that night Sila sat on her parents’ bed as Oya filled a large suitcase with wrapped presents. Once they were in place she had room for only three outfits, a week’s worth of underwear, and four pairs of socks. Her mother insisted this would be enough for the short time she would be traveling.

Sila didn’t think so, but said nothing.

Her parents took money from their savings and then more money from a credit card to finance the trip. Sila could see that her mom was nervous when she said goodbye. Oya pressed a blue glass evil eye on a chain into her daughter’s hand and told her to keep it with her at all times for protection. Sila didn’t think her mother believed in curses, but she looked pretty serious. It was, she knew, bad luck to be superstitious.

Sila slipped the gold chain around her neck. She didn’t want to cry. Her mother whispered, “Eight days will go by so fast. You’ll see.”

 

But the eight days had turned into eight months. Sila had hung a calendar on a wall in her room, and she put an X in the appropriate square every night before she went to bed. She then wrote the number of days her mother been gone. She was now on 237.

Sila loved her father, but being apart from her mom was harder than anything she had ever known. She missed her so much that even her skin didn’t feel right. The air was pushing down on her arms in a new way and her feet somehow moved as if they were twice their former size.

At first Sila’s dad, Alp, didn’t eat much. He wore the same shirt for three days in a row, and wasn’t shaving every morning. He spoke to his wife all the time, often trying to hide it from Sila. But she knew. She could hear her mother crying. On Skype. On the phone. Alp would be in the bedroom with the door shut, or even in the bathroom whispering as if Sila didn’t have ears.

It took some time for them to get used to the fact that they were facing a crisis. It was sharp in the beginning and time turned it to something deep and dull and even more difficult. It turned into their new reality.

One of the hardest things was that Sila kept expecting to see her mother everywhere. When she came into the kitchen she looked for her at the stove. Her mom should have been on the couch. In the front seat of the car. Coming out of the bathroom. Her mother was there in Sila’s head and her heart but not in the room.

And who knew when she would be coming back?

 

Waiting was what they did now.

Oya Tekin had flown to a place Sila had only heard about, but never seen. Her mother had gone back to Turkey. She had waited in lines. She had called officials. She had shown her file over and over and over again, and was told it was a process, which took time. Every day Sila and her father woke up hoping that the necessary paperwork was at the embassy in Ankara. But there was no answer to the biggest question: When would Oya get what she needed to fly back across the ocean and then across a continent to the place she called home?

In all the months that her mother had been gone, Sila had not once put on the red-and-white shirt with the blue stitching. The shirt had turned into a symbol for all the bad luck in the universe. Sila wanted to rip it apart and throw it away, but instead she stuffed the shirt into a plastic bag, which she jammed under the kitchen sink.

As the days and then weeks and then months passed, Sila stopped spending time with her friends. She came straight home every day after school and stayed in her room with her family’s computer as a companion. Sila lost track of many of the things that she used to find fun, and clung to a very specific routine. She told no one about her situation. It wasn’t anyone’s business.

Sila did chores with her father on weekends, taking the laundry downstairs to the room off the parking garage on Saturdays. She vacuumed the apartment on Sundays, because that’s what her mother had done.

She and Alp had stretched out her mother’s home-cooked food for as long as possible, but it had been gone for months now. They tried to make meals the way they used to eat as a family, with vegetables, a salad, fish or chicken, and bread, but it was a lost cause. Mostly they ate scrambled eggs and toast for dinner.

Her father always read as he consumed his food. He worked as a car mechanic at an independent repair shop, and Sila was sure he was one of the few people in the world to find an owner’s manual interesting. Sila just stared at the computer screen, keeping the sound on mute.

The best part of the day was when her mother would appear online at the arranged time. They talked. They laughed. They tried not to cry. They worked to keep it light-hearted. It was amazing how much they spoke about the weather. It was a neutral subject that was ever changing. But maybe more to the point, there was nothing they could do about it. Is that why talking about rain felt safe?

Because the time online was never enough. Once they had said goodbye the empty space would return. Sila and Alp didn’t speak much to each other after the calls. Waiting made silence easier to tolerate than voices. No one but Sila’s father understood, because no one else but him was feeling the same thing.

The rest of the world was getting on with their lives.

 

 

2.

The only expensive thing in Apartment 207A at 2599 Cleary Road was an intricately woven carpet that Sila’s grandparents had shipped over from Istanbul. The Tekins’ living space was home to geometrically patterned tiles and hand-painted Iznik ceramics, and then a lot of stuff from thrift stores and garage sales and discount stores. Sila once loved it all. Now it looked like a collection of things that didn’t belong together.

Sila had her own bedroom, but other people living in the same units on other floors in the building used the space as an office because the area was tiny and had no closet. There was one round window in Sila’s room, and it faced away from the street to the back, where railroad tracks were located. Sila had long ago grown so accustomed to the trains that she didn’t hear them anymore. It was, she decided, like the way you don’t see your own nose even though it’s in your field of vision. Your brain says it’s useless information.

But since her mother had gone, Sila could hear every single train that rattled past. She watched through the glass and imagined all the people traveling and felt her stomach knot. They all had somewhere to go.

 

It was a Saturday morning when Sila heard her father’s cell phone ring. She watched as he wrote something on the back of an envelope and said, “I can be there in the next hour.”

Sila moved from her spot on a stool and looked down at the address. She’d never heard of the street. “Dad, where’s that?”

“Someplace out of town. Off old Route 99. You should come with me. I’m going out there to look at a truck that won’t start.”

“I’d rather stay here. I don’t like trucks.”

“And I don’t like leaving you here alone for so long.”

“Maybe you’ll fix it in a few minutes and be right back.”

“I’m not asking you to go. I’m—”

“Forcing me.”

“Bring a book. It will be good for you to get out of the house.”

“It’s an apartment.”

“We’re leaving in twenty minutes.”

Sila thought about putting up a fight but it wasn’t worth it. For either of them. Her father would make her go in the end anyway, so Sila went to the kitchen and put water in the bottle she took to school every day. She then filled three plastic ziplock bags with hard cheese, sunflower seeds, and stale pretzels (someone hadn’t shut the bag correctly, but since she and her father were both capable of that, she didn’t say anything).

Sila stuffed the bags in her sweatshirt pocket. The last thing she did was retrieve a half-filled box of Junior Mints that she had been saving in her room. Her father could go forever fixing something and not need even a glass of water. They were different that way.

 

Twenty minutes later, Sila and Alp were driving out of town together on old Highway 99 North. It was surprising how good it felt to be moving. Sila wished they were going to travel like this for days with the radio on and the windows down heading across country until they reached the Atlantic Ocean. But even passing through twelve states and driving three thousand miles wouldn’t make a difference. They would still be a whole body of salt water from the person who mattered most in their lives.

 

It wasn’t very long before her father turned off the highway onto a narrow country road. There were no houses in sight, only fields with tall weeds that would come up past her knees. Sila wondered if there were snakes or rodents hiding in holes out in the meadows. She spotted what she thought was a hawk circling overhead and was curious what the bird saw that she couldn’t.

Another five minutes passed, with only one other car going the other direction, when Sila’s dad turned onto a gravel drive. As they rounded a bend they could see a very high wall made of big rocks. It looked to Sila like something that would surround a castle. There were huge wooden gates that went across a driveway and connected to the stone barrier. This, according to the address on the piece of paper Sila’s father held in his hand, was where they were going. He stared at the wall. “Now, that took a lot of work.”

“It looks so old.”

“It’s beautiful—no?”

“The wall goes on forever.”

“Probably not forever. But yes, as far as we can see.”

Sila felt a strange excitement as they approached. This place was filled with intrigue. Maybe they’d be here for hours and hours and hours. Maybe even days. But then dread took hold. That was the pattern now. What if her mother came home and no one was there? Being away from the apartment suddenly felt disloyal.

They weren’t standing guard in the living room waiting for her.

They weren’t near the computer.

They were out in the world.

Was there even good cell phone service this far out of town?

Who knew what could happen?

 

 

3.

Alp pushed a button on a call box next to the wooden gates. Right away they heard sharp chirping sounds coming from the trees. Out the windshield Sila could see a small flock of red finches against the gray Oregon sky. The sight of the little birds felt hopeful.

Her father’s focus was on the intercom. He pressed the button on the box again, and a voice finally said: “Hello . . .”

“It’s Alp Tekin. I’ve come about your truck.”

A buzzer sounded and then the wooden gates started to roll open. Sila noticed that they had sturdy metal wheels on the bottom and big, dark metal hinges. Alp drove forward, and up ahead they could see a large, old pink farmhouse, a weathered barn, and an ancient-looking windmill that probably pumped water at one time but was now a lasting monument to a different era. Sila noticed that the front porch was surrounded by interesting overgrown plants. A lot of them were exotic, not like stuff that she’d seen wild in Oregon. “I didn’t know you could grow palm trees here . . .”

Alp stared at the sago palms. They were tucked around one side of the farmhouse as if drawing warmth from the building. “Me neither.”

“How come the plants don’t die when it snows?”

He must not have known the answer, because he said, “Where your mom and I grew up in Turkey, there were places with palm trees.”

“Yeah, but you guys love pine trees. I think palms are better.”

“Is something better because you don’t see it all the time?”

When her dad offered up his ideas they usually came out as questions.

Maybe her mother right now was sitting in a grove of palm trees. Sila saw that image in her mind’s eye. It was strangely comforting.

The door to the pink farmhouse opened and an old man came out. He had mostly gray hair, a full white beard, and he was wearing a lemon-yellow jacket. Sila tried to remember if she’d ever seen her father in a yellow jacket. It was possible that he had a raincoat that color. The boys at her school must have thought that bright colors were only for highway workers, because almost everything they wore was blue, gray, brown, or black. Sila looked over at her dad. He had on jeans and a gray shirt. It was as if there were some kind of secret dress code they were all following, she thought. But not this old guy.

Sila’s dad leaned out the open window on his side of the car. “I brought my daughter. This is Sila. I hope that’s okay.”

Sila had been taught that it was important to make a good first impression. It was also (according to her mom, who had made a lot of the rules) necessary to make a good second, third, and fourth impression, which was another way to say that her daughter needed to have good manners all the time. Sila tried to smile, but the corners of her mouth had lost whatever natural will they once possessed to turn upward. At least her teeth didn’t stick to her lips. She’d been eating pretzels and her mouth felt salty and dry.

The older man spoke in a voice that Sila thought sounded like gravel. It was rocky like the road to his farmhouse and there was crunch in his words.

“I’m Gio. Nice to meet you two. My truck’s in the barn. Drove it in there to give it a break from the rain. The thing’s got enough rust spots. Now I can’t get it started. Should we go take a look?”

Many times when Alp went to fix a car or truck, it was on the side of the road, or stuck somewhere, like in the mud. He didn’t mind working in the wet weather, but Sila thought the look on his face said he was glad that Gio’s broken vehicle was under cover. It was late spring and in Oregon that meant that the sky could open up in a downpour at any moment that would last for hours.

Sila swallowed a few times to get rid of the pretzel pieces that were lodged around her mouth between her teeth. Her plan had been to stay in her father’s car while he worked, but then she heard the old man’s voice: “Are you coming with us?”

Sila looked up at him. She thought of all the excuses for why she was going to stay in the car and was surprised to hear herself say, “Okay. Sure.”

Alp lifted his toolbox and they both followed Gio. Sila thought the old man moved pretty fast considering his right knee didn’t bend in the same way as his left knee did. One of the rules when she went with her dad on work trips was to approach everyone she met not just with respect but also with caution. You shouldn’t trust someone, she had been taught, until you really knew the person.

Gio pushed opened the barn’s large double doors and Sila and Alp followed him inside. An old blue pickup was parked in the middle of the cavernous space. Sila wondered if at one time the barn had housed pigs and cows and chickens. She also imagined ponies and geese and sheep. Instead there were just a lot of spiderwebs.

Alp went to work looking under the hood of the truck, and Sila was unsure if she should wait at his side or whether the old man expected her to talk to him. Then she heard, “I went to the bakery on Route 99 this morning. I have donuts. Would you like one?”

 

Sila sat on the front porch of the farmhouse and Gio brought out a plate with a jelly-filled cruller, a chocolate-glazed thug, and a large cinnamon twist. Sila took her time making her choice, but in the end she went for the cinnamon twist because it was the biggest thing on the plate and if her mouth was full she wouldn’t be expected to talk.

Gio went back inside and returned minutes later with a cup of coffee for himself and a glass of milk for Sila. They ate donuts in silence until all three were gone. Sila was surprised she didn’t feel uncomfortable. The man in the yellow jacket didn’t seem to care about talking. It was a huge relief.

Sila’s mother had said it wasn’t good manners to stare at your phone if you were with someone else, so Sila resisted the temptation. She drank what was left of the milk and watched the birds in the trees. Gio sipped his coffee. Finally Sila said, “So, did you build that stone wall?”

“I did not.”

“The barn is so big. But you don’t have any animals.”

“I don’t.”

“Are you a farmer?”

“I was thinking of farming when I bought this place. But I haven’t done that. I’ve only been out here for a few months.”

Gio took another sip of his coffee and then he sat back and told her about the last eight months of his life.

 

 

4.

“For almost thirty years I worked as a carpenter, but then a place called Chinook Modular Housing opened up off River Road. You’re too young to remember when all that land was a blueberry farm.”

Sila nodded.

“Well, they plowed under the bushes and built an assembly plant. I took a job out there. We made housing units—Chinook mobile homes.”

“How do you build a mobile home?”

“The things start as big metal skeletons that are shipped from China. Those pieces get welded together. After that, a wooden frame goes on, which was my part. Then plumbers and electricians come on board. Once that happened my crew would start all over again on another unit. For sixteen years I built the same thing, the same way, with the same materials, five days a week.”

Sila took a moment to imagine what his job was like. “Was it boring?”

Gio laughed. “I could put the thing together with my eyes closed. Well, almost. It wasn’t exciting. But I worked out of the rain. And it took some skill.”

“Were you allowed to listen to music?”

“We did do that.”

“Did you like the other people you worked with?”

“We were a good group. We had a bowling league and a book club. We needed things to talk about besides each other. We didn’t want to spend too much time gossiping.”

“My teacher last year said that gossip is telling stories that you don’t know are true. But most of the stuff kids repeated was true. So does that make it gossip?”

“Hard to say. I think of gossip as being mean.”

Sila managed a half smile. “I agree.”

“Anyway, at one point a bunch of us at work decided to play the lottery.”

Sila repeated the slogan she’d heard on local television commercials: “Powerball and Mega Millions. Hey! Somebody’s gotta win.”

“That’s right. Our friend Corey was in charge. Twenty-four of us put in money and Corey bought tickets every week. It was too much trouble after a while picking all the numbers, so we used an online program that chose random ones, but we always used the number twenty-four. Because that was us. Twenty-four Chinook workers. Well, we played the lottery for six years, four months, and three days . . .”

Gio stopped to take a sip of his coffee. His eyes had lit up, and Sila realized she was holding her breath as she waited. He swallowed his coffee and continued, “When one wet, foggy Saturday—it was October twenty-fourth of this past year—we had the winning ticket.”

Sila couldn’t help but be excited. “You won!”

“We did.”

“Was it a ton of money?”

“It was. Even split twenty-four ways. It was the largest jackpot in the state’s history. No one had won for eighteen weeks. The prize kept rolling over, getting bigger and bigger.”

“Did you freak out when you heard the news?”

“I didn’t believe it at first. It felt like a dream. Or a crazy hoax or scam someone was playing on us. My friend Rosa called me crying. She worked in accounting. I thought her cat had died. She’d been really worried about that cat. But she was happy-crying.”

“I guess it sounds the same.”

“Especially when all you hear is someone having trouble breathing. It was a weekend and no one was at work, but we all jumped into cars and met in the Chinook parking lot. We were screaming and shaking and falling all over each other. Dee Dee Pratt even fainted. There are more than a hundred and fifty people who are employed out there, but we were the lucky ones. I can tell you for a fact that come Monday the other workers really weren’t that happy for us.”

“Maybe they felt left out.”

“It was like someone died. They walked around with their heads down, trying to smile but really filled with grief. Even the president of the company, a guy named Ronnie Roberts, didn’t come in for three days. That’s how much it shook people up. And yes, of course they were mad that they weren’t part of our lottery group.”

Sila nodded. “I guess for once everyone at work was talking about the same thing.”

It looked to Sila as if Gio was enjoying telling his story. She wondered if he’d spent the last eight months keeping what had happened private from anyone not directly involved. She felt no envy as she listened, and was happy when he continued, “Three weeks after the Big Saturday, all of us, except a welder named Duncan Maynard, had quit our jobs. Duncan said he really liked installing windows and he didn’t care that he had a ton of money heading his way.”

“I wonder if he got treated differently at work after that.”

“I’m sure he did. The day we got the check we took a group photo in front of the Chinook Modular Housing sign. I’ve got it right here.”

Gio pulled his phone from his coat pocket and scrolled to a picture. He held it up for Sila. She squinted at the screen.

“Which one is Duncan Maynard?”

Gio pointed to a man in the front. Sila looked carefully. “He’s got the biggest smile.”

Gio turned the phone back around. “You’re right. I never noticed that. Most of us weren’t getting a lot of sleep back then. We were still in shock.”

“Well, he looks happy.”

“He does. And he was the only one not going anywhere.”

Gio put the phone back in his coat pocket and continued, “All I wanted that day was for my wife, Lillian, to be alive. She believed in playing the lottery more than I did. I’ve never been much of a gambler. But Lillian thought it was a fun thing to do. So she’s the reason I was even part of it.”

Sila’s voice was small: “And she’s not around now?”

“She passed away over four years ago.”

Sila knew it wasn’t polite to ask too many personal questions, but she wanted to know more. “What happened to her?”

“She was healthy until just after her sixty-first birthday when she got a sore shoulder. Then the pain moved to her back. We thought she’d pulled a muscle, or slept on her side funny. But it didn’t go away. She wasn’t someone who complained about stuff, so I forgot she even had a problem. After that, maybe a month later, she started to cough. It was winter and everyone was hacking away all the time. We just thought she had a bad cold.”

Gio stopped abruptly and put down his coffee cup. When he started to speak again Sila heard the words spill out fast and dull. “She had lung cancer. She fought. It won.”

“I’m sorry. . . .”

“Me too.”

 

After a while Gio went back to talking. “So Lillian never knew I won the money. She worked hard her whole life, and she never got to see any of this. She always wanted to live on a farm. She liked to garden. She wanted a house with a second floor. She said she’d like a barn. That’s why I’m here. It’s for her.”

Gio looked out onto the tall pines trees.

“Did you and your wife—”

“Lillian.”

“Did you and Lillian have kids?”

“No. But she was always around young people. She taught second grade at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School.”

Sila’s mouth opened and she looked wide-eyed at Gio. “Wait. What’s your last name?”

“Gardino.”

“So you were married to Mrs. Gardino?”

“I was.”

“She was my second-grade teacher!”

“No kidding!”

“She was my favorite!”

Sila impulsively reached over and touched his hand. “I think about her all the time.”

When she looked at Gio she realized his eyes were turning liquid.

 

 

5.

They heard the sound of an engine starting. Gio seemed to collect himself as the pickup truck emerged from the barn. “Your dad’s got the old engine running again.” Only moments later Alp cut the motor and got out of the vehicle.

“Your truck’s working, but it won’t stay that way. There’s a problem with the alternator. It needs to be replaced, and then the fuel line should come out. I could have the parts shipped to me. That would take about ten days. If you’re interested I can get you a price.”

“You call and let me know what it will cost, but plan on doing it.”

Sila looked at the old man in the lemon-yellow jacket and brightened. “So we’ll have to come back.”

She could see that Gio Gardino seemed to also feel as if not being able to fix the truck was some kind of good news. Gio took his checkbook out of his pocket and paid Alp, saying, “Sila, I enjoyed our chat. But I feel bad that I spent the whole time talking about myself.”

“That’s okay,” Sila said.

“But I didn’t learn enough about you. Except of course that you are a good listener.”

Alp answered for her, “Sila likes books and animals.”

Sila grumbled, “We’re not allowed to have pets at our apartment, which is why we don’t have a dog.”

“What’s your favorite animal?” Gio asked.

She answered immediately. “An elephant.”

Gio laughed. “Well, I can see how you wouldn’t be able to keep one of those in an apartment.”

Sila smiled politely. Alp looked over at his daughter. Oya had made a stuffed elephant for Sila when she was very young, and more than eleven years later it was a lumpy gray mass with the button eyes long gone.

It still spent every night on Sila’s bed.

 

Once they were in the car Sila told her father about Gio’s lottery win.

“I remember that now. A big group of people. I heard one of them went into the Mercedes dealership on Franklin and bought four cars.”

“Really?”

“I think it was the biggest lottery payout they’ve had.”

“That’s what he said. And guess what? His wife was my second-grade teacher. Mrs. Gardino. She was so nice.”

“We’ll have to tell your mother tonight. She’ll remember her.”

“She was my favorite teacher ever.”

“And she’s gone?”

Sila nodded. “She died four years ago. I guess I was in her last class. They didn’t tell us much about what happened.”

Alp glanced at his daughter. He tried to change the subject. “If I won the lottery I’d hire a great immigration lawyer. Maybe from someplace like New York City. Somebody who knew all the right people.”

Sila’s face scrunched up. “Is that the problem? We can’t get Mom the visa because we know the wrong people?”

“The rules changed. That’s a bigger problem. But still, it would help if we had a real advocate on our side.”

“Dad, if we won the lottery, after we hired the right lawyer, I’d fix the sidewalk in front of our apartment. People trip out there all the time.”

“I like that idea, Sila. It’s very thoughtful.”

“Thank you.”

“What else would you do, little one?”

“I’d rent the apartment next door to us and make a door connecting the two units. Then I’d have a big bedroom and also my own kitchen.”

This made her father laugh. “So we’d have two kitchens to make eggs and toast.”

“Exactly. But Mom would be back, so things would be normal and she’d like the extra oven for baking.”

“Well, if I had some of that Powerball money I’d start my own auto mechanic business. I wouldn’t work at the repair shop anymore or take weekend jobs.”

They drove in silence for the next ten minutes, both thinking about the fantasy Powerball money they had. Sila finally spoke again as they pulled into their parking space at the apartment building. “I bet everyone who meets Gio starts thinking about all that money and what they’d do with it.”

“No doubt.”

“Maybe,” she said, “that’s why he moved out of town to live behind the big wall.”

 

After Sila and Alp left, Gio sat in the chair in his living room where he had a good view of a photo of Lillian he had positioned at eye level on the bookcase. So his wife knew Sila Tekin. It was such a small world. Lillian always spoke about the kids she taught, and Gio wished now that he could remember more of those conversations. Was he imagining that Lillian had spoken about the girl? He really couldn’t be sure. But he guessed yes.

Gio knew one thing was for certain: If Lillian were still alive she would have gotten to the bottom of why Sila seemed sad. Instead, Gio now felt he shouldn’t have spent so much time telling his story, even if it did seem to interest her. He looked out the window at the changing light on the distant hills, his two thousand acres that backed up against Flynn’s Butte. He thought the low mountains looked like pillows. When he closed the deal on the property, the grass in between the tall trees was yellow, and at the end of the day the slopes turned gold. It was the land he loved, but also the old wooden farmhouse dating back almost one hundred years. It had been painted so many times that the color was speckled and from a distance appeared pink. To Gio it was weathered and worn, not peeling and shedding its skin. The structure with its steep roof, round windows, and large wraparound porch was unusual and filled with intrigue. A very old, green copper rooster weather vane perched at the highest point of the tallest gable. It spun around in a strong wind and the rusty bearings made a screeching sound as if the rooster were alive.

But what really set the property apart was that most of the acreage was enclosed by a high stone wall. This was what no one else had been willing to pay for.

Eighty years before, the owners of these hills had been in the quarry business, supplying gravel for the roads that early lumber companies had needed when they forged into the forests to cut down timber. The wall had started when the family decided to grow exotic plants and rare orchids. The climate was a problem, but the bigger issue was the deer that roamed the area. The animals went crazy for the new vegetation. A barrier needed to be put up, but the deer could jump, and so the wall was made higher and then higher, until it finally towered eight feet tall. The cost wasn’t a problem for the family since the rock was free from their quarry, and the wall continued to be built, even after their interest in exotic plants faded.

No one had a wall like this wall. No one wanted one. But at a certain point the wall became a source of pride. The wall started for a specific reason. Then it became a hobby. And it ended as an obsession. The family couldn’t stop themselves from more and more construction. Neighbors reported seeing people mixing cement and lifting boulders in the middle of the night. The result was that acres and acres of Gio’s property were enclosed.

Local people wondered what the previous owners were doing on the other side of the high barrier, and stories were whispered about ghosts, secret ceremonies, and even illegal activity. Gio didn’t pay attention. He loved the old farmhouse, the gentle slope of the hills, and the sound of the wind as it stirred the tops of the pine trees. The useless wall was something he was willing to accept because it was part of the package.

There was very little flat land available on Gio’s new property and the whole place was dotted with trees. Enormous boulders seemed to pop up unexpectedly like huge eggs dropped from the sky. The earth hiding beneath the moss, ferns, and wildflowers was streaked with dense orange clay. It was not meant to grow vegetables. His plan to plant lettuce and tomatoes was permanently on hold.

Gio wasn’t hiding out at the new place, but something close to that happened. Walls do that. They separate worlds. The winter months in the valley in this part of Oregon are wet, which means a lot of gray, closed-in skies. Gio started to believe he’d come to the end of the road in life. He wasn’t an ancient man, but he was approaching his seventieth birthday. It felt like a lot of living, especially when his knees hurt and his back was sore every morning. Because his job had been in construction, his life had been very physical. He’d been a human pretzel, bent over while pounding nails or standing tall as he held wooden beams high over his head. Now he was a lottery winner with no money worries, no wife, an achy body, and a lot of time on his hands. The excitement of having a big bank account had worn off. There was no one waiting for him to show up at a job—no one expecting him to share a meal, or to even talk with about what to watch on TV. Gio was in a hole that can appear when a person doesn’t feel they’re needed.

He was no more happy, and no less happy, than before he won all the lottery money. But he was a whole lot more alone. He carried around an emptiness that was the space Lillian once filled. Missing her every day was the connection they now shared, and that meant she was still alive. He was seeing the world for both of them now. His steps were hers.

Had the little girl he’d met today lost someone?

Gio wondered if that was the look he saw in her eyes.

He wished he’d found a way to ask.

 

 

6.

Gio climbed inside his new truck the next afternoon and his vehicle seemed to drive itself into town, to the address listed on Alp Tekin’s business card. He sat in front of 2599 Cleary Road and stared at the apartment building. Why was he there?

Gio watched as Alp Tekin’s car came down the street. Sila was seated inside with her father. She spotted Gio before he could start his engine and drive off. This left him no choice but to roll down the window and come up with an explanation. “I brought you the money—so that you could order the parts for my old truck.”

Alp nodded and said, “But it was okay to pay when I came back.”

Gio opened the door to his vehicle and reached into his pocket, taking out a handful of hundred-dollar bills. Alp accepted the money, saying thank you, but what followed was an awkward pause, which Sila finally filled.

“Do you want to come in and have a cup of tea with us? Or maybe some cheese and olives?”

Gio surprised himself and them when he said, “Sure. That would be nice.”

 

Sila put out a plate of snacks. Alp made tea and served it in little tulip-shaped, clear glasses with two lumps of sugar on the side. Gio sat at the table in the small kitchen. For once Sila was glad that her mom wasn’t there; Oya always insisted people take off their shoes at the door. Alp and Sila hadn’t said anything to Gio, who was wearing what looked like fancy leather bedroom slippers. Sila wondered if he’d forgotten to put on real shoes when he left home.

It had been quiet for what felt like a long time when Alp asked, “How did you end up calling me to fix your truck?”

Gio took a sip of tea and explained, “When my truck wouldn’t start I thought about having it towed to the dealership in town. But then I remembered how they’d treated me the last time I came in. The head of the service department flat out said he didn’t think the truck was worth repairing. I wasn’t going near that pinched-face man again.”

This made Alp laugh. Gio then continued: “I keep a stack of business cards in the kitchen. People offering up gardening services, housecleaning, and pet sitting—mostly stuff I don’t need. When I lived in town, I’d get the cards put in the mailbox.”

Sila’s and Alp’s eyes met and they both smiled. They sometimes walked together around town and left Alp’s business cards in people’s mailboxes. It always felt great to see that the work paid off.

“When I moved out to my new place I took the cards with me,” Gio went on. “It’s an old-fashioned way to look for employment, what with the Internet and all. I admire the effort.”

Sila reached for one of the cards from a bowl on the kitchen counter. There was a small drawing of an elephant sitting in a wagon on Alp’s business card. Sila told Gio, “I helped make the card. There’s a program online and you just put in your information. I picked out the logo.”

Talking about the business card made Gio come to life. He explained that while he’d bought a new truck with his lottery money, it was his old truck that he owned when his wife was still alive that he cared the most about.

“The upholstery in the front seat’s split down the middle and there’s yellowy sponge poking out. The floor mats are worn through and the outside paint long ago got dull. The truck has rust spots on the fenders and the hood. But it feels more comfortable than my new one—with its dashboard all lit up and the crazy warning sounds telling me to brake or stay in my lane when I know I’m doing just fine.”

Alp nodded with understanding. Sila didn’t care much about cars or trucks, but she liked this guy. He was making it feel less sad in the apartment.

“I put a battery in the old truck three months ago,” Gio said. “So when I went out to drive it Saturday and it wouldn’t start, I was surprised how rotten it made me feel. Things can just be moving one minute and not working the next.”

Sila wondered if he was talking about the truck or himself. This man was one of the winners of the biggest lottery payout in the state, yet he had his problems. Everyone did. Since her mom had gone, Sila understood that.

 

Alp got up to put the teakettle back on the stove, and Gio looked at Alp’s daughter. “What are you thinking about right now, Sila?” he asked.

She didn’t take even a moment to answer. “Having my mom come home.”

Gio nodded.

So there it was. The problem.

He’d known there was something forming a cloud over the girl.

And with that, the conversation changed to an explanation by Alp of new laws that required new documentation for immigrants, which was the reason they were waiting so anxiously at 2599 Cleary Road.

 

 

 

7.

Gio had let it slip out that the next day was his birthday. Sila hoped he wasn’t going to be spending it alone. He had seemed vague when she asked, so they had made a plan. They would meet in the morning before school for donuts at Gio’s favorite breakfast spot: the Hole in One bakery. He had explained to them, “It’s really not a bakery because they only sell donuts. It’s run by two sisters, Margo and Mayo. They don’t keep regular hours and they sell whatever they’ve made, then close for the day.”

Alp knew the Hole in One but had never been inside. “They have that huge parking lot,” Gio said. “I think they lose money making donuts, but they hold a flea market on the property once a month. Truckers know the place because it’s so easy to park.”

That night Sila looked it up online. A review said: “Not far off the highway you can get a decent dunker and park ANYTHING there.”

 

It was raining and windy outside when Sila and her father walked in to find the lottery winner staring into the glass case at the maple bars. It smelled like cinnamon and sugar, and Sila wondered if it was possible to make a perfume with the odor of a donut shop. She could imagine it being a best seller.

Gio had brought three coffee mugs from home. At the Hole in One they gave ten cents off for bringing in your own drink container. Gio said he was doing it to help the planet, not to save thirty cents. He and Alp ordered coffee. Sila asked for hot chocolate. They each picked out donuts.

Sila had made Gio a birthday card and she gave it to him while Alp paid the cashier. Gio read out loud what Sila had written inside: “May this be your best year yet.” He thanked her, and she thought he looked genuinely happy as he slipped the card in the pocket of his yellow jacket.

They had just found seats by the window when three very large trucks pulled into the oversized parking lot. Two of the three were the kind of transporters that could carry very heavy loads. Both of these vehicles had been customized with a foot of open metal grating at the top on three of the four sides. These openings appeared to be designed to let in air. But why?

An old school bus, painted purple and green, motored into the lot behind the trucks. The bus was followed by two dented passenger vans, three SUVs, and five packed pickup trucks.

Behind the counter Margo could be heard grumbling, “Prepare for an invasion.”

Sila was no longer fixated on her hot chocolate or cream-filled donut. She stared out the window. The rain was coming down hard as the doors to the vehicles opened and people started to spill out. Lots of people. Gio caught Sila’s eye. “This could be interesting.”

They weren’t disappointed. The new arrivals were a lively bunch, dressed in bright clothing, with imaginative hairstyles, arms of tattoos, and rattling metal jewelry. A disproportionate number of the crowd wore hats and carried overflowing shoulder bags. Six poodles, dyed purple and pink, came out of one of the vans. In several minutes more than fifty people were waiting to use the donut shop bathroom. Those who didn’t take a place in the crooked line headed to the glass counter and eyed the pastry with real enthusiasm. The group was loud. They talked and horsed around in a way that Sila decided meant many of them had to be related. It wasn’t long before they were moving chairs, sitting in clusters, or standing to argue, while eating donuts and gulping coffee.

Sila was eager to know more about the group when a man close to Gio’s age, with tangled long curls of silver hair, came over and pointed to an empty chair. He asked, “Anyone sitting here?” Gio responded, “It’s reserved for you.”

The man lowered himself down with obvious relief onto the red cushion of the metal chair. Sila tried not to eyeball the guy, but it was impossible. The newly arrived traveler had silver rings on all of his fingers, even his thumbs. He wore an orange scarf around his neck, a green army jacket, and faded striped pants, which were tucked into old yellow rain boots.

Sila wanted to say something and was grateful when Gio did it for her by asking, “Where’s your group headed?”

The man took a big bite of his cinnamon twist and answered with his mouth full: “Nowhere. Real fast.” The man swallowed. “Just finished our last booking.”

Sila stared back out the window at the vehicles. She read the faded words painted on the side of one of the trucks: the briot family circus. She found herself asking, “So you’re all in a circus?”

For the next fifteen minutes they heard that the Briot family (along with some non-Briot employees) had traveled the country for almost thirty-two years. But while Chester Briot said he would like to keep moving from town to town entertaining small communities (never big cities—they weren’t intended for that kind of crowd), his employees, who were his children, cousins, two former wives, and other stakeholders in the operation, had different ideas.

In Klamath Falls, the Briot circus members had taken a vote. As the ringmaster, Chester insisted that his single ballot count for ten, but even that hadn’t made a difference. They’d come to the decision to stop performing at the end of the month, sell off what they could, and each go their own way. So they were, as Chester said, “getting ready to close down the big top for good.”

 

Sila hadn’t taken a single bite of her donut since the man opened his mouth. Gio saw the look on her face, a mixture of fascination and intrigue, and he went to the cash register and paid the bill for the whole group. It was donuts and coffee on Giovanni Gardino! This act of generosity, and the fact that Sila explained it was Gio’s birthday, led Chester to invite Sila, Alp, and Gio out to meet another longtime member of the Briot circus.

 

The rain had tapered off to a sprinkle and the sun was poking through a hole in the thick clouds as the group followed the circus man out the door of the donut shop and into the large parking lot. A rainbow suddenly appeared in the sky. It formed an arch high above their heads that felt to Sila like destiny as Chester opened the back of the largest truck.

Because that’s when Sila met Veda.  

 

 

8.

Veda was an elegant elephant. She had dark brown eyes and long lashes that looked like they were made of black wire. In the tight space of the transport trailer she angled her head so that one eye could get a look back. Her gaze was penetrating. When their eyes connected Sila took in a big gulp of air. She was awestruck.

“I’ve never seen an animal this big.”

Chester seemed to puff up with pride. “I got her when she was young. She was a lot smaller then. I’ve had her for years and years.”

“Is it okay if I touch her?”

“Sure. Go ahead.”

Sila reached up and her fingers brushed gently against the leathery gray hide of Veda’s right back leg.

“She’s amazing” was all Sila could manage to say.

 

Chester saw Sila staring in awe at his pachyderm. He’d long ago forgotten how majestic the elephant was. The cost of feeding and transporting the huge animal was worth it when the money was coming in, but that was back when crowds were waiting to greet the circus. Those days Chester was younger and life on the road with his family was an adventure.

He listened as the girl spoke, straining to hear her barely audible words. “There are two kinds of elephants. African and Asian. Like cousins, branches of the same family. The Asian elephants are smaller. They have different ears. An elephant is the second-smartest land animal. We come in first. We’re mammals. We’re related. But of course it’s important to remember that all living things are related. I did a report on elephants at school last year.”

Chester found himself saying with real feeling what he’d mouthed thousands of times into a microphone without much genuine emotion. “Elephants are inspiring. Just in size alone. They’re the largest living land animals on the planet. They have twenty-six teeth. Tusks are teeth—did you all know that? They’re incisors. But only male elephants have them. Veda’s a female, so no tusks on her. An elephant can stand almost perfectly still for hours and hours. They use up almost no energy. Sounds crazy, but it’s true. It’s how they’re built—where the bones are and all! Elephants get most of their sleep standing up. Bet you didn’t know that.”

Sila met his gaze. “I knew.”

Alp shrugged. “I didn’t.”

Gio was silent.

 

Gio could tell that Sila would have spent the day standing there in the drizzle watching the enormous animal, but she had school. Her father gently reminded her that they needed to get going.

“But . . .”

“You have to get to class and I have to be at work.”

Gio watched as Sila’s eyes filled. She put her head down but managed to say “Happy birthday, Mr. Gardino.”

“Gio.”

Alp placed his hand on Sila’s shoulder. “Yes. Happy birthday, Gio.”

“Thank you. Both of you,” he answered. “I won’t forget this birthday.”

Gio watched as Sila headed to Alp’s car. Chester continued talking about the circus, but Gio wasn’t listening to his words. He felt his stomach twist as his mind fixated on a single thought: He would never get over the look on Sila’s face as she stared at the elephant. Gio had to place his left hand on the side of the circus truck to steady himself as he watched Sila and Alp’s car recede down the highway.

Suddenly something shifted inside him, and he felt a kind of steadiness take hold that had been missing since Lillian died. Maybe his whole life had led to this. A man with not much to do but a ton of money meets an elephant that has been riding around in a truck for years.

Trapped.

Alone.

Wasn’t this a perfect match?

This had to be the reason he’d won 1/24 of the Powerball millions! This had to be why he’d bought acres and acres of land surrounded by a ridiculously high stone wall! This had to be why he’d kept a mechanic’s business card with an elephant logo for three years in a brass bowl and then moved it with his belongings to the farmhouse. This was why Sila and her father had shown up to fix the old truck.

Chester was still speaking and Gio heard him say, “The guy I bought her from named her. We tried to call her Jumba—get it? Not Jumbo. But she never took to it. So we went back to Veda.”

Gio’s voice was filled with anxiety as he asked, “What’s your plan? You said you were closing down the circus. What will you do with your elephant?”

Praise

“I couldn’t stop reading—I had to find out what would happen. An unusual and lovely real-life fairy tale.” Linda Sue Park, New York Times Bestselling author of A Long Walk to Water

“A gorgeous and emotional novel. I loved every page.” —Cynthia Kadohata, Newbery Medal-winning author of Kira-Kira

★ "Each character wrestles with love and loss and struggles with decisions about when to act and when to wait; each in their own way has insight into the others, and empathy for them . . . Sila wonders if people are more compassionate because of their own difficult experiences; in this unique, touching book, the answer is yes." —School Library Journal, starred review

"Using multiple narrative perspectives, [Goldberg Sloan] touches on many weighty topics (grief, autism, deportation, animal cruelty), handling each with sensitivity." —Booklist

"Sloan captures the importance of compassion and bravery when facing life’s challenges . . . themes of collectivity and community in the face of isolation and stigma are brought to the surface and themselves offer depth to this heartfelt and sincere story." —Kirkus

"Sloan (To Night Owl from Dogfish) fully builds the emotional interiors of each character, including Veda. This heartfelt tale thoughtfully conveys the agony of family separation, the beauty of nature, and the power of friendship to overcome tremendous difficulties." —Publishers Weekly

"This beautiful story and the wonderful connections between all of the characters remind readers that very often people and animals come into our lives for a reason and usually just when we need them the most. A perfect title for middle school, fans of animal stories, and a great suggestion for readers looking for books that help deal with loss, heartache, and hope." —School Library Connection

"The friendship of old man, child, and giant pachyderm is convincing, touching, and just odd enough." —Horn Book

Author

Holly Goldberg Sloan was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and spent her childhood living in Holland; Istanbul, Turkey; Washington, D.C.; Berkeley, California; and Eugene, Oregon. After graduating from Wellesley College and spending some time as an advertising copywriter, she began writing family feature films, including Angels in the Outfield and Made in America. She is the author of the New York Times best sellers Counting by 7s and Short, among other novels. View titles by Holly Goldberg Sloan

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Discussion Guide for The Elephant in the Room

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