"Piper Lee, honey, what do you think of this one?"
Mama held up a frilly purple bridesmaid's dress.
I rolled my eyes. "It's great if you want me to look like an eggplant."
Mama made a worried sound under her breath as she sorted through the row of dresses. "Piper Lee, I've shown you fourteen and you've hated every one. Why are you being such a fuss box?"
"Because she's a pain," Ginger said, as if it was some obvious fact.
"Shut up, Ginger."
"You watch your tongue," Mama said. "And you haven't answered my question."
"I'm not trying to be a fuss box, Mama. You just haven't shown me anything i like."
"And what would you like to wear to our wedding-- your flight jacket?"
Our wedding? As if I had any say in the matter. as if I were in favor of Mama's changing her name from Heather deluna to Mrs. Ben Hutchings. Who'd want to give up a pretty name like Deluna anyhow? It brought to mind some big, lovely bird soaring through the clouds. but Hutchings? That sounded like a rabbit cage.
Mama said when I grew up and met the right man, I'd be more than happy to take his name. but I wouldn't, not ever. That's on account of my name is special. My daddy named me--Piper Lee deluna--exactly six years before he crashed his single-engine Piper cub into the Atlantic.
Mama turned to Ben. He was sprawled in a brown padded chair in the corner of crosby's Wedding shop, his long legs stretched out in front of him and his arms crossed over his white t-shirt. Except for the little smile he gave Mama, he looked like he was napping with his eyes open.
"If you ask me," he said in a soft, deep voice that rolled from his throat, "I think it might be time to make the decision for her."
Ginger clapped her hands. "Let me pick, daddy. I want the green one." she whirled back to Mama. "Can we go with the green dress, Heather? i just lo-o-o-ve that one."
I chomped on the inside of my cheek to keep from gagging. What a weenie. I'd just as soon roll around in poison oak as get snared with her for a stepsister.
Mama smoothed Ginger's long, blond hair. "I like the green one, too, kiddo." She pulled it off the rack and held it up. "Piper Lee?"
The dress was made of lime-colored shiny stuff on top with a spinach-green skirt. I didn't own anything green except for an olive baseball cap that said Flying Ain't Just For Birds. "It's so boring, is all," I said.
Ginger smiled as if she were made of molasses. "It would go good with your dark hair."
I fought back the urge to punch her. It was another of those dumb Ginger comments, the kind that made her sound all grown up instead of ten, like me.
Mama pulled two more dresses off the rack -- a baby- ish-looking pink one with white sleeves, and a yellow one the color of what my cat, Mowgli, sometimes spit up on the rug. she held the green dress beside the other two, and her eyebrows shot up. "Okay, these are the three finalists. Which do you hate the least, Piper Lee?"
The pout on Ginger's face told me she didn't think it right I got the final pick. I took my time, watching a frustrated bumblebee bump the store window as it tried to reach the fake hydrangeas on the other side. I finally pointed to a dress still on the rack. "That red one there isn't too bad."
Mama's eyes got real wide. "Hh, Good Friday, Piper Lee."
"That wasn't one of your choices," Ben said.
"Well, maybe we ought to look in some other places," I said. "Maybe Savannah or something."
Mama pressed her lips together, building enough steam to bake a sweet potato. "There's no reason to drive fifty miles when we've got perfectly good choices right here. now, pick a dress."
No way was I picking Ginger's favorite -- that left either the pink or the yellow. Did I want to look like a six-year-old or cat spit-up? Which one was Ginger's least favorite? I tried to read her face, like when we played penny poker. it was a gamble, all right.
"I guess the pink one."
Ginger's face scrunched. "I don't like that one. can we please get the green one? Please, Heather?"
Mama fixed Ben with a pleading look. "This is a no-win situation. Help me."
I held my breath. The bumblebee kept bumping the window. Poor little guy wanted in as badly as I wanted out.
Ben got to his feet. He rubbed a thumb and forefinger over his mustache. "Hmm." He winked at Mama. "I think both girls would look real pretty in the yellow one."
Ginger slapped her legs. "Da-a-a-d," she wailed, loud enough to make one of the store ladies frown in our direction.
Ben cut off Ginger's complaint with a sharp wave of his hand. "Hush, now. You're getting the yellow one, end of story."
Mama wilted with relief.
"I kind of like the yellow one," I told Ginger. "It'll go good with your hair."
She glared at me like a hungry cat eyeing a rat.
Ben chuckled. "Shoot," he said, placing a hand on the back of Ginger's neck. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you girls actually liked each other." Mama clicked her tongue and got a real wishful look in her eyes.
Ben dropped me and Mama off at seven that evening. together, we trudged up the stairs to our second-floor apartment, the July air so damp and sticky that you could've wrung it out like a washcloth.
"When are we gonna get the air conditioner fixed, Mama?"
"It's not broken, Piper Lee. It just needs to be refilled with coolant."
"So how come you don't just fill it, then?"
"On account of it costs eighty-five dollars. besides, once we move to Ben's, it won't matter anyway."
"Don't remind me," I muttered. I wiped at the bangs that stuck to my forehead. nothing sounded as good right then as a dip in the ocean. "Can we go swimming?"
Mama dropped her shopping bag onto the sofa. "Oh, honey, not tonight. We just got home and I'm beat." she reached into the bag from Crosby's and lifted out my yellow dress, smiling at it real sweet. "Here, go hang this up before it gets wrinkled."
"How come Ginger and I couldn't each pick our own dresses, anyhow?"
"You know I want you to match."
"But why? It's not like we're twins."
Mama sighed. "On account of I said so, Piper Lee. We've been through this a million times. Now please just go hang it up like i asked."
Mowgli lay stretched out in the doorway of my room. I took a quick little hop to avoid tripping over him. "Hey, you fat Persian, how you doin', boy?" He sailed up onto my bed and turned his smashed-in face toward me. I giggled. "There you go looking all furious again for no good reason."
I threw the dress beside him and reached for my spray bottle. It sat on my dresser, right below my movie poster for The Great Waldo Pepper. I smiled back at Robert Redford and sprayed my neck and arms with water. it was only a poster, but every time I looked at Robert Redford, wearing his brown aviator cap and hanging out of his cockpit, it made me feel as if daddy were in the room. I flipped on the window fan. It came to life with a roar and I stood right next to it, letting the blast of air blow my hair into a mess.
I stayed there for a couple of minutes cooling off, then turned the fan from high to medium. "Ah, now I feel better. How 'bout you, Mowgli? You feel better now, fat cat?" I glanced over my shoulder and couldn't believe what I saw.
Mowgli was kneading his claws right into the yellow dress.
For a second I just stood there, too stunned to do anything as he worked his big, silky paws up and down. Then I rushed over and grabbed the dress. Snag marks covered the top, with inch-long threads hanging from each one.
"Oh, boy," I whispered, not sure if I should laugh or cry.
"Hey, Piper Lee?"
I shoved the dress into my closet right before Mama stuck her head around the door. "Feel like popcorn? Or are you hungry enough for a TV dinner?"
Good thing for the noisy fan so she couldn't hear my heart pounding. "Um, popcorn sounds good."
Mama left the room, and I pulled the dress out for another look. Fear sloshed in my belly like a bucketful of seawater. I could trim all the loose threads, but how in the world was I supposed to get rid of all the runs? I hung it between my leather flight jacket and my raincoat so the bottom showed but not the top, and I flopped onto the bed beside Mowgli. "I don't like the dress either, but boy, you just got me in boo-coo trouble."
Mama called to let me know supper was ready. I sat beside her on the sofa, munching popcorn and drinking coke, trying not to fret over the dress.
"I sure do love these easy suppers," Mama said.
"That'll all change if you marry Ben, you know. He'll make you cook all the time."
"And I s'pose he'll lock me in the closet, too."
"He might. He's got some handcuffs."
Mama grinned. "Gee, how unusual for a prison guard. You make him sound like such a tyrant. I thought you liked Ben."
"He's okay. It's Ginger that I can't hardly stand. She's such a brat."
"Yeah? Well, you're not always an angel yourself."
Irritation sizzled through me. that wasn't a very loyal thing for her to say. "Things ought to just stay the way they are. Ben and Ginger can live in their house and we can live in ours, and you can just keep on dating like you have for the past year, and everybody will be happy. Getting married is just . . ."
"Just what, honey?"
"Just wrong, is all."
Mama puffed out her cheeks in a big breath. "Piper Lee, look at me." She waited a second and then reached out and turned my chin toward her. "Your daddy's not coming back."
I pulled away. "You don't know that," I said. "They never found him."
"Don't you think after three solid days of searching, the coast guard would have found him if he'd been any place near the wreckage?"
I'd heard the details of the search a million times.
I knew all about the helicopters and boats and divers. I brushed a hand across my eyes. "Sometimes miracles happen, though."
"That's true enough. that's why I spent three real long years hoping against hope that just maybe he'd come back. Every time the phone rang or somebody who seemed a little familiar came into the black-eyed Pea, I thought it might be him. But then one day it dawned on me that I had a little girl to raise and a life to live, and I had to stop wishing for the impossible."
"People used to think flying was impossible, but they just hadn't figured out how to do it yet."
I gave a little start as Mama laughed. "Your daddy was a real optimist, too, you know? Just like you."
"You bet. And he was handsome, smart, funny, and brave. But Piper Lee, he wasn't superhuman. There's no way he could have survived that plane crash."
She stopped there. She never added the last little detail of the story. the part about how there might not have been any plane crash if it hadn't been for me. I worked my finger through a hole in the slipcover of the couch. Mama had sewn it a long time ago from some old curtains she'd found at Goodwill.
"But you loved him, right?"
"Yes, course i did."
"How do you know you love Ben?"
Mama's face got all soft and happy. "I just know, honey. Ben's the best thing that's ever happened to me."
I felt a little jab in my heart. there she went being disloyal again. How could Ben be the best thing?
"But you could get along without him if you had to," I said. "We have for a long time."
"I guess. but I don't think I'd want to."
But you could, I thought. You just said so yourself.
Mama sent me to bed at ten o'clock, but it was still too hot to sleep. I lay there on top of my covers, fretting over how Mama would skin me alive when she found out about my clawed dress. But then a shaft of moonlight shone across my bed. I looked out my window. I could see only a smidgen of sky, but it was enough to make me think of daddy. He was my favorite thing to think about before I went to sleep at night. The memories seemed clearest in the quiet and dark.
I remembered how rough and gritty his chin felt when he kissed me good night and how he'd sometimes read to me--Dr. seuss, or a chapter from one of the Five Little Peppers books, or sometimes a Bible story. I closed my eyes real tight and heard his deep, chuckling laugh. But
Ben laughed like that, too. Was I hearing daddy's laugh or Ben's?
I flipped over, trying to get comfortable. In just two months, if I couldn't find a way to change her mind, Mama would become Mrs. Ben Hutchings and I'd still be Piper Lee Deluna. Our names wouldn't match anymore. Even our address would change when we moved to Ben's house.
If daddy came back, how would he ever find us?