by Emily Cogan

***

Jane Blackstripes traded exasperated glances with her best friend Helen Whitepaw as they carried what felt like the millionth stack of boxes out to the moving van. Her crazy sister Iris kept goofing off, and Jane was this close to killing her. “Iris! We’re supposed to be helping pack up the van!” she hissed.

“I know, I know!” said Iris, tossing her stuffed unicorn Sid in the air. “But Sid wants to see if he can turn into a pegasus, ’cause last night I had this dream that we were flying through the sky, and it was raining chocolate drops, and we were trying to eat the marshmallow clouds, and then there was this rainbow made out of all different colored bananas, and–”

But the thought of rainbow bananas was too much for Jane, and so to save her sanity she tuned Iris out. Instead she focused on Helen, who was trying her hardest not to laugh as Iris continued to spout off whatever nonsense came out of her completely addled imagination.

“Your sister is insane,” Helen said, shaking her head as they left a still babbling Iris behind and headed back into the house for another round of boxes.

“I know,” muttered Jane. “Sometimes I wish we could just leave her here for the next family to deal with.”

“Aww, you don’t mean that. You’d miss her,” said Helen as they walked into Jane’s room. After a beat she added, “Eventually.”

“I’m going to miss you,” Jane said, and it came out sounding much more serious than she had meant it to.

Without a word Helen enveloped Jane in a tight hug, and for what felt like the thousandth time in the last six months, tears filled Jane’s eyes. It was bad enough having to deal with her dad’s death, but now she had to leave the only home she had ever known. It just didn’t seem fair that they had to move away.

“I hate this so much, Helen,” said Jane, sniffling into Helen’s shoulder. “I really, really do.”

Then Jane saw a flash of rainbow-striped white fur scampering past her door. A few seconds later she heard crashes coming from Iris’s room, which was never a good sign. She and Helen both dropped each other at the same time and took off running, their feet pounding down the hallway.

When they reached Iris’s room, several of the boxes that Jane had spent hours helping Iris pack and label were dumped over. Stuffed animals and art supplies lay scattered all over the floor. And Iris stood in the middle of it all, furiously scribbling in her doodle pad.

“Iris, now what are you doing?” asked Jane, her paws on her hips.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” said Iris, glancing up from her pad with wild eyes. Jane didn’t think she looked a bit sorry though. “I just thought of something else to add to my Guide to Beige People, and it can’t wait.”

Before Jane could stop her, Helen said, “‘Guide to Beige People’?”

Jane groaned and held her head in one paw, because she knew exactly what was coming. Iris was obsessed with what she called Beige People, who included pretty much all of Jane’s friends and most of their neighbors. And okay, Jane had to admit that Subdivision Glen was overwhelmingly beige, but there were standards of decency in play. If Subdivision Glen didn’t have a strict Homeowner’s Association, they’d wind up no better than the people living in… well, in The Alley. And no one wanted to live in The Alley.

“Yeah, Beige People!” exclaimed Iris, absolutely bubbling over at the prospect of a captive audience. “I’m putting together a guide so you can tell if you’re a Beige Person. Subdivision Glen is crawling with ’em… I swear they clone them in the middle of the night when we’re all asleep, ’cause every morning I wake up and go on a Beige Hunt, and I always find a little bit more beige one way or another. I swear, one day, an entire house turned beige before my very eyes. Anyway, it’s not finished yet, but this is what I have so far.”

And Iris turned the pad around, showing them what looked to Jane like a mess full of crayon scribblings.

Helen blinked at Iris’s doodle pad for a full thirty seconds, and Jane could tell she was struggling to come up with something to say. “That’s, umm… that’s really…”

But Iris had that far-off look in her eyes that Jane didn’t like, the one that meant she was coming up with something else that would get them all in trouble. Before Jane could stop her, she grabbed a fistful of sidewalk chalk, scooped up Sid, and ran out of the room.

Jane sighed and shoved all of the art supplies and stuffed animals back into their respective boxes as quickly as she could. Nothing was even remotely neat and orderly, but it would have to do. Because leaving Iris alone for any length of time was a terrible idea.

“Come on!” she said to Helen, who was still staring transfixed at Iris’s Guide to Beige People.

Helen shook her head as if to clear it and once again they took off after Iris. They finally caught up with her skipping down the front lawn like she didn’t have a care in the world– if you ignored her twitching tail and rumpled fur, that was.

“Iris, what are you doing with that sidewalk chalk?” Jane asked.

Iris whirled around in surprise, the sidewalk chalk falling out of her paws. “What?” she said, her eyes wide with practiced innocence. “I wasn’t gonna draw a giant rainbow on the driveway.”

“You know we’re not allowed to use sidewalk chalk here,” said Jane, glaring down at her little sister.

“But we don’t live here anymore, so we don’t have to follow their rules! Stupid Subdivision Glen and all their stupid Beige People who want all the mailboxes to be the same three colors, and heaven help you if you want, like, an orange sparkly mailbox, because their heads would probably explode over that. And I still don’t get what’s so bad about dandelions? They’re such a pretty yellow, and you can blow on them when they turn white and watch them go out into the world, and wonder about where they’re gonna land, and–”

Jane clapped a paw over Iris’s mouth, because if she didn’t, she and Helen would have been stuck here listening to Iris ramble on and on even more than they already had. She’d probably ramble until her tenth birthday if they let her.

“Eh, let the kid draw her rainbow,” said a boy’s voice from behind Jane. His breath was close enough to make the fur on the back of her neck stand up.

“Hi, Zachary,” breathed Jane, fiddling with the buttons on her sweater. She pointedly ignored Iris pretending to puke in the background.

“Hey, Jane,” said Zachary, giving her a crooked grin. He draped a casual arm around her shoulder which made her feel like she should be the one turning into a pegasus. “And hello, sis.” He nudged Helen with one foot. Zachary and Helen were twins, and they were both in Jane’s sixth grade class.

Jane spent several very pleasant minutes exchanging shy and smiling glances with Zachary until her mom called, “Girls, Gramma Betty is on her way with Aunt Ellie and Uncle Jim! Jane, you can ride with Gramma, and I’ll take you, Iris. You two can help Gramma and me unload the car at our new place. But we’re going as soon as everyone gets here. Your Aunt and Uncle will finish packing up the van and meet us later.”

And there was a lot of feet shuffling and paw twisting. Zachary kicked the tires on the moving van. Helen and Jane clung to each other, wailing. Even Iris sniffled into Sid’s purple fur.

Then Iris picked up the sidewalk chalk and gave each of them a piece. And just this once, Jane decided not to follow the rules. Because making a chalk rainbow on the driveway with her friends seemed like the perfect way to say goodbye to her old life.

***

Jane watched their house in the rearview mirror. For a moment grief weighed on her chest so much that she almost couldn’t breathe. Helen and Zachary stood beside the chalk-covered driveway, waving until the car made a left turn onto Cul de Sac Lane, which would take them out of Subdivision Glen. And then it would be official. The Blackstripes would no longer live on Stone Facade Drive. And her dad really would be gone forever.

All of a sudden she felt much older than eleven.

Gramma Betty put one paw on Jane’s knee. “Honey, I know this is hard. And I’m so sorry for everything that’s happened. I loved your dad like he was my own son, and I still miss hearing that booming laugh of his. But moving is really the best thing for your mom, and it will be good for you, and for Iris too. It may take awhile, but you’ll see.”

“I know,” said Jane, wiping the tears from her eyes. “And I know we’re not going that far, and I know I’ll still get to see Helen at school. Mom even said we could visit each other on the weekends, but it’s just not the same, Gramma. It’s just… it’s not. You know?”

“I understand, honey. Believe me, I do. I still miss your Grampa Joe every day. But you, and Iris, and your mom, and me, we’re family. And that means we need to lean on each other to get through this. Don’t ever think that you’re alone in this, all right?”

“Okay,” said Jane. She wanted to talk some more about her dad, but for some reason she couldn’t bring herself to. Instead she looked out the window at a group of kids throwing coins into the Town Square fountain.

And then in her mind’s eye she saw her dad, holding up Iris, who couldn’t have been more than three, and helping her throw a penny into the fountain. Iris hurled the penny with her trademark great enthusiasm, giggling as the water splashed onto her nose. And Jane stood on the stone walkway, a penny clutched in her paw.

“Go ahead, Janey,” her dad said, as Jane approached the fountain.

She looked into the water, and saw her reflection shimmering there, a five year old girl with a serious look on her face. “Does this really work, Daddy?” she asked, wrinkling her nose.

Iris climbed in circles in and out of the fountain, hooting when it sprayed her.

“Of course it will,” said her dad, stooping down beside her. “You just close your eyes, and make a wish, and throw the penny into the fountain. If your heart is true, your wish will be too.”

Jane threw the penny as hard as she could into the fountain and waited for the splash.

“Whatcha wish for, Janey?” Iris yelled, her dress all wet from the spray of the fountain.

“Well, now, look at you, Little Cub,” her dad said. He reached into the fountain and plucked Iris out, smoothing her dress. Rainbow mist slipped through the spaces between his paws, and in that moment Jane loved him. “What did I say about wishes? If you tell, they won’t come true.”

“I wish I get some money for da ice cweam man,” said Iris, laughing as she kicked her shoes into the fountain.

Jane didn’t remember what she had wished for that day. But today, she wished more than anything that she could just go back and hug her dad one more time. She wished she could feel his strong paws squeezing her shoulders, and hear him call her “Janey” again. She wished that her mom had a better job, so they didn’t have to move away from Subdivision Glen. She wished that she didn’t have to be the big girl, the strong girl, the one who had to keep it together for everyone else.

And when she and Gramma Betty pulled up to the new house, Iris had somehow gotten into her paints. Jane squinted through the glass, thinking to herself, of course. Of course Iris was painting the mailbox with glittering orange paint, a dandelion crown ringing her head as she sang something ludicrous, no doubt. Jane noticed that Sid had a dandelion crown on his head too, and wondered how on earth Iris had time to make two dandelion crowns and get her paint out of their mom’s car. But that was Iris for you. She drove Jane up the wall like nothing else, but all the same, Iris was family.

And family meant home, even with a tacky mailbox.

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