I take a breath and hold it before putting my key in the lock. It’s four o’clock on a Thursday, which means Mom is on her way home from work at Boutique Aspirations. It sounds nice. Imagine a boutique selling hopes and dreams, but the boutique is a vacuum-repair shop. Her job literally sucks.

Aspirateur is French for vacuum cleaner. The verb, aspirer, means to suck out and create a void. Aspiration is also when gastric contents end up in your lungs and cause infection. A void created from life being sucked out of it, and the inside of a lung infected with bile is how I’d describe Mom’s house.

If we own a vacuum cleaner, it’s been taken over by a colony of dust Godzillas. Mom’s mania with collecting stuff got out of hand when Dad left two years ago. Ever since, Mom is like the ballerina in my music box spinning round and round, never stopping to look at herself in the tiny mirror.

I turn the knob and push the door open. Obstructing it are plush giraffes, tigers, and bears. I force the door as far as it will go. I turn sideways to get in. I walk through the maze and mounds of boxes, clothes, and other lonely objects, some with the price tags still on.

I’ve gotten so used to it, I was able to navigate around the house during a black-out. Jenny, my twelve-year-old sister, is terrified of the dark and panicked when the lights went out. She couldn’t stop yelling, “Something will fall, Sarah, get me out!”

My muscles have the maneuvers memorized. It’s a climb up a hill of plushies; a walk over large storage containers (which, incidentally, are empty); a giant leap over the newspapers at the base of the stairs; and an obstacle course on the way up. I’m like a spy dodging booby traps.

I feel more anxious than usual because ballet lessons start up again on Saturday, and it’s where I can stretch out, move, and find freedom. Ballet keeps me fit so I can climb the rope in gym class faster than most boys. It also keeps me limber enough to move around the house without making anything fall.

I get to my room and exhale. The air in here is less rancid and, in comparison to the rest of the house, my room is immaculate.

Jenny and I have shared a room since mom’s obsession with sewing. After a shopping spree, Mom filled Jenny’s room with a sewing machine from the thrift store, rolls of fabrics, and patterns from the flea market.

When she came home with the stuff, Mom was on fast-forward. She spoke quickly and loudly, charged with excitement from her purchases.

“My mom taught me how to sew when I was a kid. I forgot all about it until I saw these patterns. I can make all of our clothes,” she told us as she loaded the items into the house.

“Where will you sew?” I asked, making a pirouette and gesturing to the two-foot wide space between piles of debris.

“There’s space in Jenny’s room,” Mom answered as she carried her load up the stairs.

Jenny moved in that night. I’d rather have Jenny here than across the hall of shopping-cart nightmares.

I sit and read while I wait for Jenny to get home from school, but I’ve read the same sentence over several times. I decide to pack instead, hoping the evening goes by quickly. Tomorrow is Friday, and Dad will pick us up to spend the weekend at his place.

Dad is not my father. Dad is Jenny’s biological father. He’s been my Dad since the year after my father died, when I was two.

I feel more anxious than usual because ballet lessons start up again on Saturday, and it’s where I can stretch out, move, and find freedom. Ballet keeps me fit so I can climb the rope in gym class faster than most boys. It also keeps me limber enough to move around the house without making anything fall.

Mom gets resentful when we leave Friday nights, especially with me because I don’t have to go. He’s not my father, and I have no right leaving her alone to see him.

But if I don’t go, I’ll be sick right on top of all of her crap. I know it stings when we leave because it’s a reminder of how Dad doesn’t love her. The junk fills the void.

When Jenny gets home, we make sandwiches for dinner in the cramped kitchen, and spend the rest of the night in our room, doing homework.

School the next day is a bore except for the time I spend with Jake at lunch and between periods.

“Can we hang out this weekend?” He asks, nuzzling my hair.

“Of course. See you tomorrow.” We kiss, and I run to catch my bus.

Dad’s waiting for us in Mom’s driveway at 5:15. I tie my long hair back and load our stuff into his car. Jenny and I both sit in the back seat. I can finally breathe.

“How’s your mother?” Dad asks.

Jenny looks at me as if she wants to tell Dad our secret, but I don’t let her. I squeeze her hand to let her know she should not say anything. She responds by looking at the ground. Nobody would let two children live there if they knew what it was like. Jenny could go live with Dad, but what about me? Mom won’t let me stay with him. I don’t want Jenny and I to be separated. I have to help her with her homework and teach her how to stay organized, be her guide to Tampax, and bras, and high school. We’ll have to tough it out another two years.

“Is it that bad?” Dad sees Jenny’s sad face in the rear-view mirror.

I try to lighten the mood and tell Dad, “She’s still upset you’re gone, Dad, but it’s okay.”

“We’re okay. What about you? And Alice?”

“She’s fine,” he responds.

Alice is Jenny’s stepmom. Technically, she’s not my anything, but I wish she was.

She wears pearls and teaches little kids. Her house always smells like freshly-baked something opposed to week-old something. Her dog doesn’t stink, and his feces are not in every corner of the basement. Mom’s Chihuahua, Buck, is allowed to relieve himself in the basement because she doesn’t have the energy to take him for a walk. I’ve tried to walk him, but he bit me before I got the leash on. I can’t go in the basement. The stench makes me sick, and I don’t ever let Jenny go. Thinking about it makes me want to set the whole place on fire. Alice’s dog is sweet and fun and smells like outside.

At Dad’s, Jake can come over since his mother lives nearby. At Dad’s, I can get through the house without having to twist sideways to fit through mounds of debris. We can walk straight through the house to the hot tub where Jake, Jenny, and I splash around and have fun. At Dad’s, I have my own room and Jake can come upstairs and we can sit on my bed and play video games, and kiss. I have to leave my bedroom door all the way open. Nothing obstructs the doors at Dad’s house.

Some Saturdays, Alice takes Jenny and I shopping, but I never get anything. Dad and Alice’s money is not mine to spend. In her guilt during her shopping sprees, Mom will usually buy a few new pieces of clothing for Jenny and me. If we always have new clothes, no one at school will suspect our secret.

At Dad’s, I always bring laundry. I say it’s hard to get it done during the week at Mom’s with homework and I don’t want to bother her with my laundry. I do mine and Jenny’s, so Dad and Alice don’t have to. They think I’m responsible and independent but it’s to hide the truth. This way, I have clean clothes all week and no one knows Mom doesn’t have a functioning washing machine. It broke down last year and became a place to pile things on. Sometimes she washes her clothes in the bathtub. The dryer still works, but it takes three cycles for stuff to actually dry. Mom usually buys new clothes when she can’t be bothered to wash and dry them.

You’d think my mom lives in poverty, but she receives money from the government since my father died in a work-related accident. He worked for Hydro Québec and fell while repairing electric cables after an ice storm. It was slippery as hell, and he lost his footing. Mom hasn’t said more about it. I guess it’s too painful. With the compensation she gets to take care of us, I make sure we get things we need: new shoes, supplies for school, and lunch at the cafeteria because it is impossible to cook anything but toast at Mom’s place.

When we get to Dad’s Friday night, Jenny and I make popcorn and watch superhero movies until midnight with Alice and Dad cuddling on the couch. I like these nights when we’re a normal family.

Then, it’s finally Saturday. Ballet class is liberating for the first half hour. My grand plier is gorgeous, my pas de bourrée is right on time, and I float through the air like a seagull. Then I realize seagulls usually end up on trash heaps left by litterbugs. I tell my dance teacher I don’t feel well, and I leave early.

*     *     *

Monday mornings are easier at Dad’s. Alice helps pack our lunches, and all I have to do is get Jenny to the bus stop on time. I don’t have to hike up and down mountains of mislaid objects or empty soda cans.

At the bus stop, I kiss Jenny goodbye and tell her, “I’ll see you at home tonight, okay, kiddo.” She’s looking at the ground again. I read her thoughts, “I know, Jenny, but I can’t tell Dad yet. If he finds out, Mom will have to leave the house, or we’ll have to leave, and she can’t be alone yet. I know. It’s hard. But I’ll be ready soon.”

“I want to live with Dad and Alice.” Her voice is firm. I barely recognize it. Jenny never gets sassy. She usually complies easily. But she’s twelve, not stupid.

“So do I, but I don’t think Mom will let me live here permanently, and then we won’t be together and…”

“I told Alice,” Jenny cuts me off. I’ve been defeated by a skinny 12-year-old in pink-framed glasses.

I stay calm so as not to upset Jenny. “What did she say?”

“We can both stay here. She likes you.”

“What exactly did you tell her?” My voice cracks, and my chin quivers.

“I said Mom’s house is gross. I told her about the piles of stuff everywhere and I’m scared they’ll fall, and we can’t even open the doors. I told Alice about sharing a room. I mean, I like it in our room, but I had to leave my room because of the stuff. I told her about the basement, and the washing machine. I told her I don’t want to live at Mom’s. Are you mad?”

I’m so mad. I want to yell at her, pull her stupid ponytail and leave.

“No, Jen, I’m not mad. You deserve better. But I can’t leave Mom alone. Not yet. I’ll figure it out. Dad and Alice will help. It’s okay.” I put my arm around her because she’s sobbing. I’m angry, but I’m also proud of her for standing up for herself, and for being honest. I love her to bits.

I don’t get a chance to talk to Dad about it before he and Alice pick us up after school. He drives us to Mom’s and, in the car, I don’t know what to say to prepare him for the disaster within. For the first time since he moved out, Dad gets out of the car and walks to the front door. I think this must be difficult for him.

As I take out my keys, I feel my shame rise to the tips of my ears.

I whisper, “Dad, it’s horrible.”

“It’s okay. Don’t worry about me. Open the door.”

I unlock the door and open it as far as it will go. I step in and over the heap of sewage.

“Holy shit.” The words fly out of dad’s mouth. He covers it, as though stuffing the words back in so we won’t hear.

Jenny starts to cry. She pulls off her glasses and wipes her eyes, but she can’t control herself.

Alice gags.

“Alice, you can wait outside,” Dad offers. She turns and leaves.

We climb over the mess to get to the staircase and up to our room. I lead him in.

“Your room is great. Great job, girls.” Dad is more relieved than proud. He sees I wouldn’t let Jenny down.

We hear stirring in the basement. Mom is climbing the steps. She opens the door and Buck runs up to my room and barks at Dad. He’s a possessive mutt even if he is the size of my foot. Mom follows him and freezes when she sees Dad.

“Greg? What?” She looks at Jenny and me. “No.” She gets defensive because she realizes we are here to pack our things and that we’re not staying the night or coming back tomorrow. Her scream bleeds betrayal, “No!”

“Girls, pack up what you need. We’ll be downstairs.” Dad is firm, but I hear the shake in his voice. He steps out of the room and over the trash in the hallway. Mom and Buck follow him downstairs. I hear the shame and anger in her footsteps, and she kicks objects out of the way.

I help Jenny pack all she can carry in her duffle bag. Most of my possessions are books, and they’re too heavy to carry with me all at once.

“I guess these will have to wait,” I say, looking at my shelf.

“What about The Princess Bride? It’s your favorite. Didn’t your father read it to you when you were a baby?”

“It’s just a book, Jen. I’ll pick it up some other time, along with the rest.”

Jenny goes to the closet to see if she has left anything important behind. Mom and Dad are talking in hushed tones.

“Sarah, what’s this?” From my corner of the closet, Jenny pulls out a string of sheets tied together with large knots. I stuffed it in my corner of the closet. It’s about twenty feet long.

I confess, “Before you moved into this room, I made an escape plan. I knew if something caught fire, it could block the front and back doors. The sheets are long enough to reach the patio from our window if we ever needed a quick escape. I can’t get to the smoke detectors to change their batteries, and we might not make it out in time. I knew I’m strong enough to climb down, and I would’ve caught you if I had to. The end can be tied to the bedpost and might’ve held long enough for us to get out.”

Jenny is in shock, but manages to speak, “What about Mom?”

I look at her carefully. I can’t see the Mom who took us to the park when we were little, or made cookies for a school bake sale, or took us to the movies. I see clutter. I see loss.

“Her room is near the front door.”

She holds back more sobs.

“Girls, let’s get going,” Dad calls.

We lug our things downstairs.

“Time to go, girls.” Dad must be anxious to leave.

I dread leaving. Will Mom grab us, hold us, and yell at Dad for taking us? Will she say he has no right to take me from her?

She looks at us. I thought she would be crying, but no. She is calm. Stoic, even.

“It’s alright,” she says. We can’t live here. Not like this.

“So, what now?” I ask.

“You’ll both go live with Greg until I get this place cleaned out.”

“You’re going to clean it? How? It’s not possible.”

It’s Dad who answers, “Your mom is going to get some professional help with this. If she gets help, and gets this place clean, then I won’t get child protective services involved, and you can come back.” He’s looking at her as he speaks. Mom nods in response, but she looks to the ground. She and Jenny have the same sad face.

Dad works as a lab technician at the hospital and knows a psychologist who can help Mom. He doesn’t have to do a thing to help her, but I can see what is left of his love for her. Maybe Mom sees it too, which is why she’s going along with it.

We get in the car and Alice drives us home. I know Dad is crying. I’ve never seen him cry, but I can tell by the way his head is down, and his back curved, and Alice’s hand on the back of his neck. He clears his throat and looks out the window. I think he mostly feels guilty.

Before Dad left home, he and Mom used to argue about money. He makes a decent salary, but Mom spent her inheritance on things we didn’t need: waffle makers, a new television, and too many clothes. It frustrated him, but since it was her inheritance money, he couldn’t stop her. I think he felt like he was with a child more than a partner.

Their relationship crumbled, but I know he still cares for her.

There’s traffic on the T-Can and it takes forty-five minutes to drive up to Dad’s house.

There is darkness across the lawn. The garden lights are on and the specter of near-winter casts shadows as we approach the driveway. We walk in as Jenny notices she doesn’t have her glasses.

Dad looks exhausted, but he zips his coat up again and gestures to Alice for the keys, “I’ll go get them.”

“Can’t it wait?” Alice hands over the keys while she asks.

“I can’t do my homework without them. I’m so sorry. Maybe I can get them after school tomorrow?”

“It’s alright, Jenny. Your dad will go,” Alice realizes Jenny’s stress level rising, and puts her at ease. “The traffic shouldn’t be so bad now.”

“I’ll go with you,” I suggest. I don’t want to go back, but I don’t want to leave Dad alone either.

“We’ll be back soon,” Dad kisses Alice and Jenny on their foreheads and we leave.

The drive is quiet. There’s still traffic from the West Island into the East end, but it’s starting to clear as we get closer to Mom’s. I know I have to say something.

“Thanks, Dad.”

“You’re amazing, Sarah. I don’t know how you do it, but you have taken such good care of her. And Jenny, and yourself, but it’s not your job.”

“I’m making it through each day, but I usually feel helpless. I don’t know how it happened.”

“I think your mom has had to deal with a lot. When your father died, it must have been so hard, but with you being a baby, she had no choice but to move on. When I met her, she was a bit scatterbrained and disorganized, but a packrat at her worst.”

“So why do you think it got so bad?”

“Your father died. She had no choice or control in the matter, but I chose to leave her. People do amazing and scary things when they don’t know how to deal with loss. I think her feelings got piled up. Like the stuff in the house. She doesn’t know how to let it all go. But she’ll get help, Sarah. I promise.”

“She’s a good Mom. I mean, she loves us.”

“I know she does, but she’s not being a good mom right now, Sarah. She will be though.” Dad is full of promise and fear. I know he doesn’t know how things will turn, but he wants to comfort me, so I let him.

When we turn the corner onto her street, I can see black smoke rising. The clouds above mom’s house are twinkling with amber. The flashing lights from the emergency vehicles make me squint. Fire trucks are driving to and from the house. I know what to do. I’ve thought about it so many times. Except, I’m not in the house. I’m in the car. I never thought of what to do if I was on the outside.

The car stops and I move to open my door, but Dad holds me back.

“Wait, Sarah.”

A police officer approaches our car and Dad rolls down the window.

“Sir, you can’t go this way.” The officer is young. He speaks firmly, but his eyes dart back and forth from the house, then to us.”

“This is my daughter’s house. Her mother lives here. She was inside the house.”

Dad’s voice is shaking.

“The woman in the house has already been taken to the hospital.”

“Oh my god, is she okay? What happened? Is she okay?” I want to run out of the car.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know how she is now,” the offer speaks sympathetically.

“Okay, thanks,” Dad starts to roll his window back up.

“Sir, I can find an officer to escort you to the hospital.”

Dad parks his car, and we get into a police cruiser and rush to the hospital. In the back seat, Dad holds my hand, and we sit in silence.

When we arrive, we find mom in the emergency room. She is lying on a stretcher with an oxygen mask over her face.

“Gail!” Dad is the one who reaches for her hand first. I feel guilty about hesitating, but I don’t know how to feel. All I keep thinking is, I hope she’s alive, I hope she’s alive.

She removes the mask, lets out a slight cough, and speaks, “Hey. I’m okay. Smoke inhalation.”

Dad’s phone is buzzing, and he answers it in the hallway next to Mom’s curtain. I back up as though she’s a snarling wolf.

“I’m sorry, Sarah. I’m okay.”

I get closer.

“What happened?” I almost don’t ask because I feel I might be somehow responsible, but I know how impossible that is. Still, I feel guilty about something.

“Before you and your dad arrived, I was in the basement, trying to fix our stupid dryer. I left it on when I came up to see who was home and I forgot about it. The damn thing caught fire. I was in the sewing room when I smelled the smoke. I wanted to get Buck, but the flames…” She starts to cry. “I’m sorry about Buck, Mom,” I don’t know what else to say.

“And all our stuff,” She places the oxygen mask back on when the nurse walks by.

“It’s your stuff, Mom. And it’s not important. Who cares?” She cries more. Harder. Sobbing.

“Yeah, but it’s all gone, Sarah.”

I look at her carefully. I can’t see the Mom who took us to the park when we were little, or made cookies for a school bake sale, or took us to the movies. I see clutter. I see loss. I see she doesn’t realize how lucky she was. It didn’t happen in the middle of the night, and I didn’t have to use my rope. I see Boutique Aspirations and I know I have to let go, because Mom is in a vacuum. I leave her to go find Dad, who’s explaining everything to Alice. He puts the phone back in his pocket.

“Hey, how is she?”

“I can’t say. She needs to see your doctor friend, and I want to go home.”

Dad calls Mom’s sister Izzy in Québec City, who I haven’t seen in years, and takes me home. I fall asleep in the car.

When we get to Dad’s, Alice has already told Jenny about the fire. They’re at the kitchen table when Dad and I walk in. The look on Jenny’s face is oddly one of relief. I don’t quite understand it, but she explains it well.

“Mom is safe. Nothing can fall. It’s all gone,” she says. Jenny is so smart.

It is all gone: the junk, the smell, the nightmares, all of it. What’s left is Dad and Alice and hope ahead of us. I sigh in relief.

“Sorry, Jenny, we couldn’t get your glasses,” is all I can manage.

I sleep well, and the stress of having to get through another day melts away. I can enjoy tomorrow, and the next day.

Mom goes to stay with her sister three hours away. I don’t get to see her, but we talk once in a while.

I don’ know what to say to her when she calls, but she says she wants to get help.

It’s been months since the fire, and she hasn’t seen a doctor yet. Dad’s friend even found her someone she could see near Aunt Izzy’s, but she has yet to make an appointment.

When she calls me, I follow Jenny’s lead and decide to be honest. I know she’ll be hurt, but I need to tell her how I feel. “Mom, I think maybe we don’t have much to say to each other. Jenny and I are fine. School is good. Dad has filed for custody. I’m sixteen and I can make the choice to stay here. We asked you to get help. You’re not. It says a lot.” I’m curt and to the point, because I’ve spent enough time not saying what I think.

“I miss you both, Sarah.”

“Then go see the doctor, Mom,”

But the rest of the conversation is her trying to guilt me into going to Québec City, which is ridiculous because why would I leave Dad and Jenny and Alice and Jake? I resolve to live with Dad without Mom in my life.

About a month after our last phone call, Mom sends me a package in the mail. It’s a copy of The Princess Bride. I leave it on my desk and stare at it. I hadn’t thought about it since the night of the fire. I start to think the reason Mom had so much stuff is the same reason I kept my books. I didn’t even like The Princess Bride, but it was all I had to connect me to my father. I couldn’t grieve him since I never knew him, but I still felt the loss. I think Mom felt the same way. I don’t think she got to grieve either. She felt the aspirations dissolve, replaced by the void, and filled it with stuff reminding her of good times, like the sewing machine.

“What’s that?” Jenny sees me sitting on my bed from the hallway. She stands in the threshold.

I hold up the book.


“Do you want me to read it to you?” I ask, hopeful.

Jenny sits on my bed, and I start reading to her. She snuggles into my pillow and I read until she falls asleep. I look at her and see all of our real aspirations. We have the room to be us. I can breathe and I can be.


Lea Beddia is a high school English teacher in Québec, Canada. She enjoys writing for children and young adults and is currently working on a young adult novel. When Lea isn’t teaching, reading, writing, doing laundry or playing with her children, she can be found sneaking chocolate away from the kids. Visit her website or find her @LeaBeddiaWriter.