FRIDAY, DECEMBER 20
In the middle of a quiet block on 141st Street, inside a brownstone made of deep red shale, the Vanderbeeker family gathered in the living room for a family meeting. Their pets—a dog named Franz, a cat named George Washington, and a house rabbit named Paganini—sprawled on the carpet, taking afternoon naps in a strip of sunlight. The pipes rumbled companionably within the brownstone walls.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news first?”
The five Vanderbeeker kids looked at their parents.
“Good news,” said Isa and Laney.
“Bad news,” said Jessie, Oliver, and Hyacinth.
“Right-o,” said Papa. “Good news first.” He paused and adjusted his glasses. “You kids all know how much Mama and I love you, right?”
Oliver, who was nine years old and wise to the ways of the world, put down his book and squinted. “Are you guys getting divorced? Jimmy L’s parents got a divorce. Then they let him get a pet snake.” He kicked the backs of his sneakers against the tall stack of ancient encyclopedias he was sitting on.
“No, we’re—” Papa began.
“Is it true?” six-year-old Hyacinth whispered, tears pooling in her round eyes.
“Of course we’re—” Mama said.
“What’s a dorce?” interrupted Laney, who was four and three-quarters years old and practicing her forward rolls on the carpet. She was wearing an outfit of red plaids, lavender stripes, and aqua polka dots that she had matched herself.
“It means Mama and Papa don’t love each other anymore,” said twelve-year-old Jessie, glaring at her parents from behind chunky black eyeglasses. “What a nightmare.”
“We’ll have to split our time between them,” added Isa, Jessie’s twin. She was holding her violin, and jabbed her bow against the arm of the couch. “Alternating holidays and summers and whatnot. I think I’m going to be sick.”
Mama threw up her hands. “STOP! Just . . . every-one, please. Stop. Papa and I are not getting a divorce. Absolutely not. We’re going about this all wrong.” Mama glanced at Papa, took a deep breath, and briefly closed her eyes. Isa noticed dark circles under her mom’s eyes that hadn’t been there the week before.
Mama’s eyes opened. “Let’s start over. First, answer this question: on a scale of one to ten, how much do you like living here?”
The Vanderbeeker kids glanced around at their home, a brownstone in Harlem, New York City. It consisted of the basement; a ground floor with a living room that flowed into an open kitchen, a bathroom, and a laundry room; and a first floor with three bedrooms, a walk-in-closet-turned-bedroom where Oliver lived, and another bathroom, all lined up in a row. A door on the ground floor opened up to a skinny backyard, where a mommy cat and her new litter of kittens made their home under a hydrangea bush.
The kids considered Mama’s question.
“Ten,” Jessie, Isa, Hyacinth, and Laney replied.
“A million,” said Oliver, still squinting suspiciously at his parents.
“It’s the best place in the world,” reported Laney, who somersaulted again and knocked down Isa’s music stand. The pets scattered, except Franz, who didn’t flinch, despite now being covered in sheet music.
“We’ve lived here most of our lives,” said Isa. “It’s the perfect home.”
“Except the Beiderman, of course,” added Jessie. The Beiderman lived on the brownstone’s third floor. He was a seriously unpleasant man. He was also their landlord.
“Mr. Beiderman,” Papa corrected Jessie. “And funny you mention him.” Papa stood up and started pacing the length of the couch. His face was so grim that his ever-present smile creases disappeared. “I didn’t see this coming, but Mr. Beiderman just told me he’s not renewing our lease.”
“He’s not renewing our—” Jessie started.
“What a punk!” shouted Oliver.
“What’s a lease?” asked Laney.
Papa continued as if the kids hadn’t spoken. “Now, you have all done a great job this past year respecting Mr. Beiderman and his need for privacy and quiet,” he said. “I mean, I thought for sure he would have kicked us out a couple of years ago when Oliver hit that baseball through his window, or when Franz used his front door like a fire hydrant. I’m surprised he’s making us leave now, after a spotless record this year.” Papa paused and peered at his children.
The kids nodded and looked back at him with innocent eyes, all except Oliver, who was hoping no one remembered the little incident earlier that year when his Frisbee snapped a sprinkler pipe, causing a blast of water to shoot right into the Beiderman’s open window.
Papa did not bring up the sprinkler incident. Instead he said, “We have to move at the end of the month.”
The room exploded with indignation.
“Are you serious? We’ve been so good, there might as well be halos above our heads!” exclaimed Jessie, her glasses slipping down the bridge of her nose.
“I haven’t bounced a basketball in front of the building in months!” Oliver said.
“What’s a lease?” Laney asked again.
“Isa has to practice violin in the freaking dungeon!” said Jessie.
“Language,” Mama warned at the same time Isa said, “I like practicing down there.”
Papa looked at Laney. “We have a lease with Mr. Beiderman. It’s an agreement between us for living here.”
Laney considered what Papa said as she prepped another somersault. “So that means he doesn’t want us?”
“It’s not that?. . .” Mama trailed off.
“I think the Beetleman needs hugs,” Laney decided. She completed an accident-free somersault, then rolled over to lie on her stomach, searching for her bunny, who had taken refuge under the couch.
Jessie glanced at the calendar on the wall. “So that’s it? We’ve only got eleven days...