Chapter 1: Goodbye, Philly
“Nat! Natalie Anne Morris, where are you?”
I looked up and blinked. Where was I? Lost, as usual, in my favorite graphic novel, The Boy Next Door. I’d read it about a million times, and I’d just reached the part where the hero, Boy, rescues a famous movie star from a volcano. The drawings were so amazing, I could practically smell the lava!
But as I blinked again, I realized I wasn’t standing at the edge of a volcano. I was lying on the bare wooden floor in my bedroom. Instead of lava, I smelled grease from the pizza place across the street.
That smell was familiar. But my room didn’t look familiar anymore. My bed; the battered, old overstuffed bookcase; and the vintage steamer trunk where I kept my art supplies was gone. So was the drafting table Mom had helped me build out of scrap lumber we found on the curb in front of the Korean market.
The room should have looked bigger when empty, but it seemed even tinier than before. My friend Johari always joked that my room was the size of her closet, but I didn’t mind. It was cozy. And all mine.
Well, actually, not anymore . . .
I sighed and slowly stood up. The only thing left in the room was my army-surplus backpack with its cool, nerdy pins and a ratty Philadelphia Eagles bumper sticker covering a rip in the side. I shoved The Boy Next Door into the bag, then glanced around one last time.
“Bye, room,” I said.
My voice echoed off the empty floor and walls.
“Nat!” My mom’s voice drifted up again from the street three stories below the apartment. “Get down here!”
I stuck my head out the window. A crowd was gathered on and around the stoop, spilling onto the street and blocking traffic. “Coming!” I hollered back.
Soon I was down there, being swarmed by a bunch of neighbors cooing about how much they’d miss me and Mom. Ms. Battaglia shoved a paper bag of homemade cookies into my hand, while Mr. Kim tucked a few dollars into my backpack before I could stop him.
“We’ll miss you, kotyonok,” Mrs. Orlov said, enveloping me in a garlic-and-dill-scented hug that made me flash back to all the times I’d hung out in her apartment, watching her cook when Mom had late classes at the university.
“Me too,” I said. “I can’t believe we’re really doing this.”
I glanced at our car, double-parked nearby with a rented trailer hooked to the back. Inside were all of our worldly possessions, minus some furniture we’d donated to the rescue mission. My mother was busy trying to shove in one more box.
Then my best friends, Johari and Blue, pushed past the grown-ups. Blue grabbed me and kissed me on both cheeks—that was her thing lately, ever since she saw someone do it in an old movie—and Johari punched me on the arm so hard it hurt.
“I can’t believe you’re moving to the middle of Nowheresville.” Johari sounded angry, but I knew it wasn’t aimed at me.
“You and me both,” I told her. “I mean, how is Hazem’s even going to stay in business without me?” It was supposed to be a joke, but thinking about my favorite falafel place made me sad (and a little hungry).
Blue nodded, which made her long, blond bangs flop into her face. “They probably don’t even have falafel way out there,” she said. “We’ll have to FedEx it to you or something.”
“Forget falafel.” Johari tugged at a stray curl of her Afro. “How are you going to keep drawing the adventures?”
“Good question,” I muttered. I was currently working on a series of urban-fantasy comics I called The Adventures of Urbanna Urban. In each story, the hero had to battle shape-shifters, vampires, and other supernatural creatures in her Philadelphia neighborhood, which looked a lot like mine. Okay, there were no ghouls or goblins threatening mayhem on my block. But the rest was the same—row houses and apartment buildings, the pizza place, a laundromat, Ms. Battaglia’s law office, and various other businesses all jumbled together. Colorful graffiti decorated brick and stone walls; funky music and smells drifted through the air; and people of all shapes, sizes, and colors were everywhere, all the time, ready to become the next hero, villain, or victim in Urbanna’s adventures. Where was I supposed to find inspiration now? Staring at a bunch of trees and birds?
Thinking about that—about not being here anymore, where I belonged—made me feel shaky, uncertain, and sad, which was pretty much the opposite of my usual self. I wasn’t even sure who I was supposed to be now. I was used to thinking of myself in a few specific ways: A city girl. An artist. A nerd. Definitely indoorsy.
Those things worked for me in Philadelphia. But now I was supposed to live way out in rural Pennsylvania, hours from everyone and everything I’d ever known in the entire ten-and-almost-three-quarters years of my life.
“I wish your mom got a job here in Philly,” Blue said.
“Or if you had to be in the boonies, she could’ve stuck to, like, the Main Line or Jersey,” Johari added. “At least then you could take the train in sometimes, like Anika does since she moved out to Haverford.”
I nodded and glanced at Mom again. Even though I was furious with her for making us move, I was proud of her, too. She’d raised me on her own ever since my dad died when I was a baby. For almost as long as I could remember, she’d held down a full-time office job at Drexel University while also taking classes there to become a PA—that’s short for physician assistant. A PA can do just about anything a doctor can do, and I knew Mom was going to be great at her new job.
The only problem? That new job was working for a doctor way out in central Pennsylvania, an over-two-hour drive from Philly. Like Johari had said: Nowheresville.
“I bet she could’ve found a job in the city if she’d kept looking,” Blue said.
“Yeah,” Johari agreed. “There are way more people who need medical care here than in some tiny hick town.”
“I know.” I watched out of the corner of my eye as Mom hugged our landlord, Mr. Moore. “I told her she shouldn’t take the first thing that came along. It’s not like they were going to boot her from her old job. But she said I didn’t understand.”
If you asked me, Mom was the one who didn’t understand. How could she? She’d lived in a bunch of different places before settling in Philly to marry my dad. But this was the only home I’d ever known.
Mr. Moore rushed over, his wild, curly, gray-and-black hair sticking out in all directions as usual. “Natalie, darling girl,” he exclaimed. “You have to convince your mother to abandon this foolish plan and stay here where she belongs!” He threw both hands in the air. “The place is going to fall apart without you two!”
He probably wasn’t even kidding. Mom was super handy—she could fix or build just about anything. She’d taught me plumbing, carpentry, and everything else she knew from the time I was probably too young to be messing with that kind of stuff. But every time I banged my thumb with a hammer or scratched myself on a rusty pipe, she said it was important to be able to take care of yourself. So I kept trying, and now I was almost as good as she was. The two of us had fixed just about everything in our building over the years, in exchange for a discount on rent. Mr. Moore would definitely miss us.
“Never mind, John,” Mom told him with a laugh. “You’ll have to figure out how to swing a hammer yourself, that’s all.” She checked her watch. “We’d better get this show on the road, Nat. We’ve got a long drive.”
“Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this is happening,” Blue wailed, wrapping her arms around me like a spider monkey. Johari grabbed us both, squeezing so hard I could barely breathe.
“I’ll miss you guys like crazy.” Suddenly, I was crying. We all were. “Promise to text me every hour on the hour, okay?”
“Definitely,” Johari said fiercely, while Blue just sobbed.
The next few minutes felt like one of those breaks between panels in a graphic novel, where one minute something is happening, and then suddenly it’s the next day. Before I knew it, I was in the car waving to everyone I’d ever known as they got smaller and smaller behind us. Then we turned at the end of the block, and they were gone.
I stared out the window, trying to memorize every inch of the familiar skyline for as long as I could still see it. Chapter 2: Hello, Nowheresville
“We’ve made it!” Mom sang out. “Welcome to Daisy Dell—there’s the sign, see?”
I looked up from my sketch pad. I’d been doodling for the past hour or so, ever since we’d left the last remnants of civilization behind for a nonstop panorama of green fields, trees, and the occasional housing development or herd of cows. Yes, literal cows.
“Where’s the town?” I asked.
Mom rolled her eyes. “Don’t play dumb, Natalie. You know our new home isn’t going to be exactly like the city.”
Daisy Dell didn’t look much like the small towns I’d seen in movies. It was just a handful of old houses, a tiny brick post office, a church, a hair salon, a gas station, and a pizza place. Before I knew it, we were passing the COME BACK SOON! sign.
“Wait, that’s it?” I said. “Where’s the hospital where you’ll be working? And did I miss the one-room schoolhouse where I’ll be doing my readin’ and writin’ and ’rithmetic?”
Mom shot me a sour look. Driving isn’t her favorite activity, and she’d been doing it for a looooong time by then, so I knew I was pushing it.
“Very funny,” she said in a tone that conveyed she didn’t think it was funny at all. “We’ll pass my new office in a minute. And your school is a few miles from here—you’ll take the bus to get there.”
I brightened slightly. “There’s a bus?”
“A school bus,” Mom said. “Not like SEPTA buses. Come on, Nat, I know you’ve seen this stuff on TV, at least.”
I shrugged. “So you’re saying I’m stuck at home when you can’t drive me places.”
“I’ll get you a bicycle.” She sounded distracted. She was peering ahead as we neared a couple of modern-looking buildings with a parking lot out front. “Look, there it is—the medical center.” Now she sounded excited. “I’ll slow down so you can check it out. Dr. Hernandez—on the sign there, above the dental office, see? She’s my new boss.”
“Okay,” I said, trying to sound interested for her sake. “That’s cool.”
She shot me a small smile. “I hope you’ll give this a chance, Nat. You’ve always been so adventurous. I never thought you’d . . . Anyway, it reminds me of where I grew up.”
Mom had lived on a farm in Virginia until she was around my age, feeding chickens, riding bareback and barefoot on her neighbors’ ornery pony, and picking apples right off the trees. Her stories had seemed charming and fun back in Philly.
But that was then, and this was now. Daisy Dell was as different from Philadelphia as it could be. For instance, I spotted yet another small herd of cows grazing within view of Mom’s job.
“Cows,” I murmured, wondering if I could turn them into some kind of foe for Urbanna. Zombie cows? Fairy cows?
“The cows are cute, aren’t they?” Mom looked over again. “Hey, maybe once we’re settled in, we can talk about getting a pet.”
I blinked at her, still half lost in my thoughts. “Like a cow?”
“Not a cow, silly.” She chuckled. “But a cat or dog isn’t out of the question. You’ve always wanted a pet, and they’re allowed in our new rental.”
Mr. Moore was allergic to everything and didn’t allow animals in his building. So although I’d had to leave my friends and everything else I’d ever known or cared about behind, maybe I could finally get a dog. I supposed that counted as a silver lining, even if it was only a sliver of silver.
“Here we are!” Mom announced ten minutes later. “Home sweet brand-new home.”
I didn’t dare look up from my phone. Blue had just texted me a selfie of her and Johari looking sad as they ate chicken shawarma at Hazem’s.
Don’t rub it in!!! I texted back quickly, then finally looked up.
I wasn’t sure “brand-new” was how I’d describe what I saw. But it was big. Mom had told me we’d be renting a house, not an apartment, though that hadn’t really sunk in until now.
“This is all for us?” I said, squinting up at the second-story windows.
The house had pale-blue siding, a front porch, a carport, and a tiny patch of grass. On one side was a cornfield, and on the other were more houses.
I crawled out of the car, my legs rubbery after the long ride. The porch steps creaked when I climbed them. “This place isn’t going to collapse on us, is it?” I asked.
“Stop it, Nat. Come on in and take a look.”
I followed Mom into a small foyer with a wooden staircase and a carpeted floor. There was a living room off to one side and a kitchen at the back.
“Go upstairs and check out your room,” Mom urged, dropping her purse on a table in the foyer. She’d explained that this place came partially furnished, which was why we’d given away some of our stuff. “It’s the door on the left at the top of the stairs. Your bathroom’s right next to it.”
I was three or four steps up when her words seeped into my brain. I stopped short. “My bathroom?”
Mom grinned. “Two and a half baths, baby. No more arguing over who gets to shower first.”
Another silver lining. My own bathroom! Even Johari had to share with her sister.
I peeked into my bathroom (MY bathroom!), which had yellow tiles and a full-size tub. Then I stepped into my new bedroom.
“Wow,” I blurted out. It was enormous—easily four times larger than my old room.
I dropped my backpack onto the mattress and wandered around, a little confused by all that space. One window showed the tiny backyard, which was just a concrete slab surrounded by a tall wooden fence. The other looked over the place next door.
Now that I was paying attention, I realized the building right next door wasn’t actually a house. It was a cute red barn with a fenced paddock out front and a larger field in back that extended behind my new house. I wondered if it was where the local cows stayed at night.
Then a boy emerged from the house on the far side of the barn. He looked about twelve years old, though it was hard to tell since he was staring down at his phone as he walked. He slid open the barn door and disappeared inside.
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