What's Wrong with This Picture?
There was no mistaking it. Something was wrong. It was like when you look at one of those what's-wrong-with-this-picture puzzles. You know something is weird-but what? Then you look a little longer and you start to see stuff you hadn't noticed before, like a dagger hiding in a tree. Or a face in the shadows on a mountain.
Weirder still if you find your own mom staring out of the picture.
That's what happened to me. More or less. I was coming home from school one day last fall, a whole two hours earlier than usual because my after-school computer class had been cancelled at the last second when the teacher got sick. It felt strange to be taking the early bus, knowing there'd be time just to hang out on my own. I was making plans, like how I'd bring a whole bag of chips and a huge bowl of salsa up to my room and watch TV. Or how I could watch my Star Wars videos for the fiftieth time. It was going to be so cool to be in the house with time to myself. For once.
So when I let myself into the front hall with my own key and heard a noise coming from the living room, I froze. It was our housekeeper Mrs. White's day off, and no one else should have been home yet. For a second I was worried about burglars, but when I peeked across the hall, there was my mom-of all people-sitting on the living-room couch. She was just sitting there with a big book open on her lap, looking up with a little smile, as if she'd heard me come in and was glad to see me. And for some crazy reason she was holding a long-stemmed red rose in one hand.
"Hey, Mom," I said, shrugging out of my jacket. "What's with the rose?"
Her smile stayed just the same, and she didn't move at all. It was as if she were a statue or something. I dropped my jacket onto the floor and entered the living room. "Mom, are you okay? You look different-are you sick?"
My mom commutes to Oakland and doesn't usually get home until late, sometimes not till I'm in bed. And she's never sick. She says she doesn't have time to be sick, what with her job and her clients and all the work she has to do being a hotshot lawyer. She's a partner in the firm of Johnson, Judd, Jones, and Rigoletti. Mom's the Rigoletti part. As always, she stands out in a crowd.
"Mom?" She didn't answer me. It was as if she didn't even hear me or see me-though her eyes were wide open. Then I noticed that she wasn't blinking. She was just holding the big book-but she wasn't reading it-and that rose in her hand stayed perfectly motionless. It was very freaky.
I reached out hesitantly and touched her shoulder, feeling the soft, lacy sleeve of the swirly dress I'd never seen before. Not her usual style.
"Connor!" she shrieked, suddenly coming to life and snapping the book shut like a trap. I jumped back, like she'd turned into a tiger.
Then she was up off the couch and grabbing me in a humongous hug. The book slid to the floor with a thunk. "Connor, darling! My baby! My little boy! Let me look at you-oh, my goodness, you are absolutely the cat's meow-you haven't changed a bit!" The rose tickled my ear.
She must be very sick. "Whoa, Mom. It's been, like, one day since you saw me last time." I tried to pull out of her arms-we're not a very huggy-kissy family, after all-but she held on like a big bear. This was sort of scaring me.
"I can't believe it." She smoothed her hand over my blond hair. "My own, sweet, curly Connor."
"Yuck, Mom. Lay off!" I pulled back, scowling at her.
It was strange how she looked so different from yesterday. It wasn't just the new haircut-short and curled into little waves that bobbed on her cheeks-and her new clothes, but she smelled different, too. Like fresh flowers-not her usual spicy perfume.
She let me go. "Sorry, love. I'm just-just so glad to see you." Her voice was trembly and her eyes were tearful. She kept sneaking little looks at me. Then she laughed and ruffled my hair. "But don't look so worried, Con. I'm here now. I'm back."
I gave her a look. "Okay, Mom, whatever you say."
"Connor Rigoletti-Chase." Mom pronounced my name slowly, as if savoring the sound.
I frowned. "Whatever." I hardly ever use our double-barrelled last name. Just Chase. It's easier.
"Come to the kitchen, darling." Mom reached for my hand. "Growing boys need their afternoon snacks-and I've got something in the oven you're going to love."
Oven? When had my mom learned to cook?
She picked up my jacket and the fallen rose petals, and carried them out of the living room. I just stood there for a moment, feeling the strangeness. Somehow even with my mom out of the room, the living room still felt...different. As if something had happened there. I leaned down and picked up the big book she'd been reading.
It was one of the books that usually lies on the coffee table, in the living room, with a lot of other big books, the kind no one ever reads. No one is even meant to read these books-they're just the ones the decorator told my parents were needed on the table to give the room a cozy and lived-in yet sophisticated and elegant air-though hardly anyone ever uses the room, anyway. The decorator found the books in an antique store and thought they had the right "look" for our coffee table. I put the big book back on the table. It was called Cotton in the Twentieth Century, probably about weaving or sewing or something. It looked dead boring.
"Connor!" Mom's voice was shrill. She stood in the living-room doorway. "Leave that silly book alone and come get your snack."
I followed her to the kitchen. It was strange to see Mom working in the kitchen instead of Mrs. White or Ashleigh. Ashleigh is our baby-sitter. She lives in the apartment over our garage and takes care of my sister, Crystal, and me when she's not doing whatever people in college do. She's been with us for nearly four years, ever since our au pair from Switzerland left, and my parents have said a million times they have nightmares about the day Ashleigh will graduate and leave us.
Mom turned to me with a swirl of her skirt. "Crystal should be home by now, shouldn't she, Connor?"
"Nah," I told her. "It's not nearly time. She gets here closer to six."
Mom pursed her lips. "That seems so late for a child to be getting home."
"Well, you're the one who signed us up for our activities." Duh, I thought. As if Mom didn't know! She and Dad paid megabucks for all our extra lessons and stuff.
Crystal is my thirteen-year-old sister, and usually the less said about her, the better. But right now I would have been happy to see her home on an early bus. She might know what had happened to Mom's clothes, for one thing.
Mom's soft blue dress had a knee-length skirt with little glittery glass bead things sewn into it. She looked sparkly, like somebody in an old-time movie. Usually she wore elegant, businesslike clothes in gray or beige, with colorful silk scarves around her neck. She looked younger today, somehow, in the blue dress-younger even than she does on weekends, with her pale hair in a ponytail, rushing around, driving me to karate, Crystal to ballet, and both of us to soccer and gymnastics.
Mom kept smiling like she was so thrilled to see me as she led me to the kitchen table. "Now, sit yourself right down and tell me about yourself. I mean, about your day."
"The computer teacher threw up so they cancelled class, and I caught the early bus home."
"Oh, dear. Nothing serious, I hope," Mom said. She put two plates on the table, one for me and one for her, and two glasses. "Now, go ahead. Sit down. Why are you looking so anxious, honey? Aren't you hungry?"
"Sure, I'm hungry," I said agreeably, and sat down. I'm always hungry, but I felt antsy. I'm used to getting my own snack after school. But