The room is bare, with a bed and not much else. There are no curtains on the windows and the carpet has burn holes from a previous tenant. I shiver, although it isn't cold. The new place is what causes my unease. It is another town, another house, but still the same life. My suitcase lies on my bed while I deliberate over unpacking. Will we be here long enough for me to make a friend? Or will I leave here the stranger I was when we arrived?
Resigned, I open the suitcase and catalogue its meager contents. Two shirts, a pair of pants, panties with torn waistbands and embarrassing holes; all of them have seen better days. There is one treasure among the castoff garments. It's a copy of my favorite book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The sight of it brings an instant sense of belonging; like I'm home now. I take a breath, fill my lungs to the bottom and then let it out, slow and measured. I'm testing the air in this new place; testing it to see if I can breathe here.
My mother calls me and I hesitate, reluctant to leave my new room just as we were getting acquainted. It no longer looks ugly and barren. Soon I will put the imprint of my personality on it, make it mine, for whatever time we have together. I've become a master of adjustment. Only sometimes now it makes me feel old and weary.
I put the book on the bed beside my suitcase, giving it a prolonged glance. I wish I could lose myself in the world of Charlie, where I'm not the only one with dreams of a family and a future. Chocolate filled dreams.
My mother wants me to help unpack my sisters' room. The three of them will share and I get my own for once. Sometimes being the oldest is nice. Other times it's frustrating; when I have to babysit, clean the house and cook the meals every day while my mother works and tries to support her four daughters without a husband. Once in a while a man comes along, but that doesn't make things any better. They will fight and scream and when the violence escalates I might step between them and get a black eye of my own. My mother doesn't appreciate my help. She screams at me and hits me too. Saddened, I hide in my room with my books; for I've discovered the local library. I sink into the world of Charlotte and Wilbur, Charlie Bucket, Scout Finch and so many others; characters I consider my best friends. For they are the only friends I have sometimes.
My sisters' room is unpacked, their belongings are as sparse as mine. We left in the middle of the night this time. "One suitcase," our mother barked at us as we stumbled around with sleep-dulled limbs. What to choose? The books stare at me as I pass them over for my one favorite. One book is all I'm allowed to bring and the hurt of it nearly breaks me. As always I choose Charlie. His life resonates with me. His longing to have a different life mirrors my own. Charlie and I understand each other.
We have dinner; something thrown together; purchased with what little money my mother has left from the move. This time we were on a train for three weeks. It was fun at times, seeing new faces, being silly with my sisters in the seats across from me. It kept us from thinking about where we were going and what would happen when we got there. It kept us from asking if we would stay this time.
After dinner, my mother goes out, she doesn't tell us where and I put my sisters to bed. They listen to me. For a long time they thought I was their mother. I'm older than the oldest by five years. It isn't much and yet it's immeasurable to them. I seem so mature and capable. At least they are comforted by my charade.
It's time for bed, but I never sleep without reading. My bedroom has no light, so I have to find a lamp. I find one in the basement. The lamp needs a table to sit on. The only furniture in my room is a rickety bed, not even a dresser. I'm used to this. I find a sturdy box for the lamp and then put a pillowcase on it to make it look less like a box. I stand back. Yes, that looks okay. Already my room is looking more lived-in and less like my life; barren.
Now I'm excited to go to bed. Charlie is waiting. I'm never tired of his story. I could probably recite most of the book, but I like it this way. Charlie doesn't change, his life is still the same colorless life with the promise of future fulfillment. It's comforting. I fall asleep far into the night with a smile on my face. I've gone away for a while and now I don't mind my life quite as much.
The morning brings new anxiety. I have to go to a new school. My mother says we're going to stay here, but I don't listen much anymore. Her words no longer sound like truth to me. They bounce off my ears and fall to the floor unheard. She smiles, but there's no warmth in it for me. Sometimes I see the guilt that she tries to hide and I understand her a little. She's trying, but there's something broken inside. It got broken a long time ago. I've heard the nursery rhyme, All the king's horses...and I know it's true for her.
I enter the new school on shaky legs. The reception is always different. I'm pretty. They'll like me, but soon the girls will hate me because their boyfriends don't. I want to be their friend, but they push me away. They think I'm a threat. If they only knew how I want to be part of their group. I don't want to stand out and be different, but they won't let me blend in. Sometimes I wish I could write myself into a story where I am The Invisible Girl.
This school is different. Most of them are farm kids. They show me around. They're friendly and kind. I'm afraid when people are nice. It will just hurt more when they're not nice anymore. I put my notebook and pen in my locker after school. I never come back.
When I get home, my mother is packing our things. We are leaving again. With a heavy heart I say goodbye to my room, pick up Charlie and close the door.