Keri had a little trick she did on the school bus going home each day. After they’d driven past the beautiful new houses in the suburb of Richmond Heights, then through the pretty, tree-lined streets with small, tidy houses bordering the downtown area, she closed her eyes tight. She knew that in two more wide, swinging turns, they would reach her own inner-city neighborhood. And one fine day, if she concentrated really hard, she would open her eyes and surprise the row of small, old, tired-looking houses and deserted apartment buildings into being pretty and new-looking again, and she would feel proud and happy to live where she did.
Before, she had had a different bus trick—a bus dream, really. She used to pretend that her family would move to one of those houses with the real yards, or maybe even to Richmond Heights! She picked which house she wanted, a different one each day. It was only a matter of time, she pretended, till Mama or Daddy got a decent raise at the shirt factory where they both worked.
But that was before the layoffs. Now she knew they wouldn’t be moving—not a chance.
“We’re lucky to have a roof over our heads,” Mama had whispered to her one night, stroking her hair as she tucked her into bed. “We’re lucky to be together, to be safe and warm.”
Keri didn’t always feel lucky, though, especially when she watched other kids get off the bus in Richmond Heights and run across their neat, green yards to their beautiful houses.
It must be easy to feel happy in a house like that, she thought. It must be nice to not worry about things. Some of those kids griped about having to do jobs around the house. Keri would have worked gladly all weekend if she had a house like that to work in. Those kids didn’t appreciate what they had!
“Do you ever … you know … kind of feel embarrassed about our house?” she asked her brother one night, surprising herself because she’d never spoken to anyone about this before. “I mean, it’s neat and clean, but it’s not at all fancy, like the other places where the school bus stops.”
Simon shrugged his skinny shoulders and smiled a lopsided smile that made his freckles crinkle. “A great house has a basketball hoop and a big dog sitting outside, and our house has both those things. Our house is great.”
Sometimes Keri wished she could go back three years and be Simon’s age again. She hadn’t worried about houses then, either. Back then she hadn’t noticed the differences.
But once you noticed, you couldn’t un-notice. The noticing only got worse and worse, and all you could do was use bus tricks, whether they worked or not. They were a way of hoping, she guessed. Lately, though, she’d started wondering if hoping was wrong.
“Somebody’s birthday is coming up,” Mama had said at dinner one night, smiling in Keri’s direction. “Now, I wonder who is going to be twelve years old—old enough, I think, for a special party. What do you say, James? Do you know any girl like that?”
“Only one,” Daddy said, grinning. “How about it, Keri? Your mother and I thought you might like a party this year.”
Keri froze, a forkful of beans halfway to her mouth. It was about the awfullest thing she could imagine—a bunch of her classmates coming here! It had been ages since she’d invited anybody over. All her friends had houses ranging from “nice enough” to “wonderful.”
“No!” she blurted, dropping her fork to her plate with a clatter. “No, it would be horrible!” Pushing back her chair so quickly that it fell to the floor, she ran to her room and threw herself onto the bed.
As Keri had expected, Mama knocked softly on the door a few minutes later, then opened it a crack. Keri could see Daddy in the shadows behind Mama’s shoulder.
“May we come in?” Mama asked softly, and Keri nodded. Her throat was too throbby to answer out loud.
Mama sat on the edge of the bed, and Daddy lowered himself carefully into the rocking chair. They just sat quietly, apparently hoping that Keri would explain her outburst. When she didn’t, Mama took her hand gently and said something surprising. “Honey, a flower isn’t judged by where it grows. A beautiful flower is beautiful anyplace.”
Keri didn’t know exactly what that meant, and she didn’t answer. A few minutes later, her parents got up, kissed her on the cheek, and left her room.
The next afternoon, Keri decided to give up her bus trick. Stuff like that was for little kids. Still, out of habit, she shut her eyes as the bus turned into her neighborhood, leaving the pretty houses with their tree-lined streets behind. Two wide turns later, she felt the bus slowing for her stop, and she opened her eyes.
To her surprise, the biggest, most gorgeous, bright red geranium was perched on the sagging top porch step of her house. It was too beautiful for description, one of those things that take your breath away and make you glad to be alive just looking at them.
“What a flower!” exclaimed the bus driver.
That was odd—Keri could never remember him being impressed by anything before, not even the biggest houses in Richmond Heights.
“It’s her birthday soon!” Simon piped up. “Mama must have bought it for Keri’s birthday!”
“No, I think it’s for all of us,” Keri said.
As she ran off the bus and across her tiny yard, Mama and Daddy stepped out of the house, onto the porch. They held out their arms, welcoming her home.
Keri finally understood what Mama had tried to tell her, and she knew that things would be all right now. That dazzling flower stood for the four of them, blooming beautifully right where they were.