Lily unlocked the back door of the thrift store using a key that didn’t belong to her. She glanced up and down the alley. All clear. She turned the creaky handle and slipped inside, which was dark and smelled like dust and banana peels. By cell phone flashlight, she could make out the hulking trash bins, stacks of flattened boxes, and brooms conspiring in the corner. Anxiously, she looped a strand of hair over her ear, smoothing it as she tiptoed inside. She knew exactly where she was going; in fact, she could see the hat, its outline drawn as if by a silver pen from the streetlight outside.
* * *
Lily had seen the hat earlier that day when she was at the shop with two classmates, mulling over some novelty salt-and-pepper shakers. It had caught her by surprise, as if she had glanced across a crowded shop and caught sight of her mother with her floppy-brimmed straw hat and oversized purse, waiting at the checkout, faintly humming Itsy Bitsy Spider. And then suddenly—a stab to her heart—she recalled the new reality and had to turn away.
Lily had played it cool, ducking into the thrift-store change room while her classmates continued their banter about the picnic-basket items they were assembling. She squeezed her eyes tightly to make them stop stinging. She’d grown expert at stopping her tears.
When she exited the change room, she memorized the location of the hat and said brightly, “I vote for the zebra salt-and-pepper set.” She planned to return much later that evening.
Aunt Patsy cleaned many of the small shops in this quarter and, sure enough, Lily saw the key to Attic Treasures was hanging in the “Thursday” row on Patsy’s bulletin board. Lily didn’t plan to tell her she was borrowing the key, because she’d return it well before Thursday. Besides, if she did get caught while “liberating” the hat, she felt certain Aunt Patsy would understand.
Dad wouldn’t understand. Dad had “moved on.” And Dad thought the whole world should “move on.” In fact, Dad got irritated nowadays when stopped by well-meaning friends who wanted to share a memory of Jacinta. He got irritated by Lily, who would sit idly for hours, mulling over things. Things like her mother looping a strand of hair over her ear. Or rescuing earthworms stranded on wet sidewalks. Or saying, “The world works in mysterious ways.” What, exactly, did that mean?
Dad had given the big lecture about one full year of grieving being “more than enough,” the phrase bitterly spat out as if God was keeping tally of the minutes and hours devoted to mourning. It was “not normal,” Dad said, to continue thinking about what “the deceased” used to say and do and wear. He now always said “the deceased” instead of “Mom” or “Jacinta.” Lily bit her tongue many times before she got the hang of the Newspeak at home.
“Let’s not dwell on the past,” he said. “Let’s have some consideration for Darya.” At the beginning of year two, Dad had packed up all the boxes and bags from Mom’s side of the closet and stashed them in the garage. He wanted to make room for Darya, his new Ukrainian girlfriend fleeing the war.
During the week of Lily’s semi-annual visit with her grandparents, Dad brought the boxes and bags to vintage and charity shops—or landfill. On her return, Lily was outraged. “Maybe I wanted to keep some of her things!” she stormed. “Why didn’t you ask me!”
“Because you’d say, ‘keep everything!’” Dad had yelled. “Where the hell can we put all that stuff? It’s not like the deceased needs to dress up!”
Lily scowled daggers at him. She knew exactly where they could store her mom’s stuff. They could use the cabinets where his stupid snow globes were stored. Dad had collected snow globes since boyhood and at last count had over four hundred. She had loved them as a child, when she was fascinated with tiny cottages being enveloped by snowstorms. But now the globes reminded her only of his heart of ice.
On her own, Darya checked around a few shops and found Jacinta’s wedding gown. She presented the reclaimed dress to Lily, saying solemnly in her thick Slavic accent, “I not want making trouble. This dress is very very nice for your future wedding.” This aggravated Lily even more. Who said she was ever going to get married? Moreover, the worshipful look on Dad’s face, when Darya handed over the “peace offering” of the wedding gown, was sickening.
Lily held the slithering cloud of polyester and peekaboo lace in her arms for a minute, then dumped it in the corner. And ran from the room.
* * *
What she truly craved were those familiar things that Mom had worn and used. The grass-stained gardening clippers. The cardigan with saggy pockets. Even the high-waisted Mom jeans, totally not in style but with “too much good wear left in them” for her to stop wearing. And now, tonight, the “Mom hat” that had shaded her in the garden.
The irony was, Mom’s “uniform” had once exasperated Lily. At that time, when she was developing her own sense of style, Lily had badgered Mom to modernize her look. “Yoga pants, hoodie, and absolutely no more big handbags, Ma…” Lily shivered. Their fashion arguments had entertained Mom for the first round of chemo—but had ceased the day the second round began.
* * *
Lily lifted the hat from the Styrofoam head in the store and studied it by flashlight. Raffia with a striped band. A sprig of fake berries. Was this indeed Mom’s hat? She thought it might have been a small flower, not berries. She hated her memory that eroded further every month.
The thrift store’s front door rattled. Lily jumped. It began to open, causing the chimes to sound. She ducked behind the polka-dot curtain of the change room and pulled it so that she had a gap to look through.
Mrs. Hodge, the proprietor, flipped on a few lights and bustled in, humming “Rolling in the Deep.” She was pulling clothes out of donation bags, recent drop-offs from the street side. “Dah-ling!” she said of one dress. “Trash… trash… hubba-hubba,” she said of the others. She quickly sorted them into three piles. Under ordinary circumstances, Lily would have been intrigued—but right now, she was too charged with adrenaline to enjoy the show. Still humming, Mrs. Hodge walked further into the store—Lily’s heart hammered—and abruptly turned toward the washroom. Lily did not hear the washroom door close and soon heard loud tinkling. She recalled her friends once discussing whether they always closed the bathroom door when at home with no-one else there. Mrs. H was evidently one of the broadcast-to-the-world types, even when it was a tuba solo. It made Lily giggle and she struggled to regain control.
Mrs. Hodge was oblivious to any but her own noises and soon she finished and left the store, locking the front door after her. Minutes later, Lily, wiping laughter-tears from her eyes, exited through the back door, with the hat tucked in her knapsack.
When she arrived home, she took a small yogurt from the fridge, acting nonchalant, and walked right past the sofa where Dad and Darya were watching Squid Game. Darya held a cushion to her face. “I cannot watch, I cannot watch… oh, hello, Lily.”
“How was band practice?” Dad asked.
“Awful,” Lily said. “He kept us there for ages just because the newbies didn’t know their parts.” She aimed to sound exhausted and angry enough to discourage further conversation.
She slammed her bedroom door, tossed her knapsack on her bed, and gulped her snack. She slid out a cardboard box from under her bed and surveyed its contents. Dozens of photos. A small cheap jewelry box. A couple of old school notebooks with “Jacinta” in extra-neat cursive written on the cover. Lily looked at tonight’s trophy under the buttery yellow lamplight. She set the floppy hat on her head at the angle Mom used to wear. The hat was perky, optimistic, ever ready to protect a complexion from sun-burn. Lily still felt effervescent after her giggle-fit, her first one in over fourteen months. She pawed through the photos, looking for a picture of Mom in the hat.
Suddenly there was a tap at the door.
Lily pushed the contents higgledy-piggledy back in the box while she said, “Who… is… it?” as slowly as she could.
“Me,” Darya said.
“What’s… this… about?”
“Can I come in?”
“I’m… doing… my… homework.”
“I estimate one minute! Please!”
Lily flung open the door and barked, “Alright, alright! I don’t get any privacy any more in this house, do I?”
Darya squinted at Lily’s head. “Nice hat,” she said.
Lily’s hands flew to her head. Damn! “What’s this about?” she said curtly. She glared at Darya, whose mouth was twitching as she tried not to laugh.
“My friend Masha needs babysitter so she can attend the Ukrainian benefit I am helping to organize.”
Bang! The door closed on Darya’s face.
Lily scowled at the mirror. Darya had some nerve. Babysitting!
Although, come to think of it, the babysitting would help the cash flow… and she was still in debt to Dad for her new phone.
* * *
Reclaiming her mother’s hat had been a close call but Lily rather enjoyed the rush. She continued to visit Attic Treasures after school, usually with one classmate or another, and pore over its contents, secretly waiting to discover the next Mom-donation.
As fall turned to winter, Mrs. Hodge changed the scantily clad “Bodacious Bedroom” display to cozy, modest fashions in “Cuddle Time.” Lily nearly squealed aloud when she recognized the elephant PJs worn by a tall mannequin. It was a flannel two-piece set printed with Babar, “King of the Elephants.” Lily remembered Mom wearing them on “lazy days” when she didn’t have school and her mother would take the day off work. Pancakes. Hours of coloring. A big jigsaw on the go. She felt warm and loved just looking at the PJs. They were a gift from Dad, because he knew Mom and Lily loved reading Babar books together.
For the second time, Lily borrowed Aunt Patsy’s key and slipped in through the back door after hours. She found the “Cuddle Time” display. With difficulty, she lowered the mannequin to the floor. The buttoned top was stiff to unbutton, and the fabric bristled with pins, added to make the PJs more form-fitting.
Then the cell flashlight died. Damn! Lily stabbed her finger on a big pin. Double damn! And suddenly, there was the sound of keys rattling at the front door. Lily froze. The door began to open. The chimes sounded. Oh no—the change room was ten yards away. Suddenly the entire store was illuminated, and Lily heard Mrs. Hodge humming Rolling in the Deep.
Lily crept away from the mannequin to crouch beside a rack of colorful skirts. She clanked against something. She froze again. She prayed Mrs. Hodge hadn’t heard.
The place fell silent. Not even a hum. After counting to ten, Lily peeked down the “Skirts & Tops” aisle. Mrs. Hodge was tiptoeing toward her, holding a raised broom. Lily’s heart leapt to her throat.
“You! Hey!” Mrs. Hodge yelled, “Come on out, you lily-livered coward!”
Lily came out, hands in the air like she’d seen on TV. Lily-livered, what does that mean? How does she know my name?
Mrs. Hodge recognized her. “What on earth! You! I thought you were one of the good kids!” She looked suspiciously at other racks and jumble-boxes. “Where are your friends?”
“I’m alone,” Lily said, “I—I can explain!” But she was unable to order her thoughts.
“Go on, I’m waiting.” Mrs. Hodge lowered the broom. “Stand up, brush the dust off your knees there…” She frowned at the mannequin, lying half-undressed, its chest exposed like someone in the middle of receiving CPR.
“Dad dropped off a bunch of Mom’s stuff and… and he shouldn’t have.”
“Well, tell your mom to come and talk to me,” Mrs. Hodge said. “I hate getting in the middle of a divorce, not the first time this has happened, though.” She grumbled to herself something about lawyers.
“She can’t—she—” Lily stuttered.
“Oh, I see, she’s skipped town and left you to do the dirty work.”
“No, I—she—” Lily faltered.
Unexpectedly, a look of deep comprehension washed over Mrs. Hodge’s face. “Hang on, is this the Zimbrach family?”
“Oh, I see. I received a big load, all personal effects, from your family, what, a couple months ago? Then the lady came in, a foreign lady, asking, could she take back some clothes. I thought at first she was the second wife until she asked for the wedding dress—no second wife ever re-wears that!” Mrs. Hodge made a comical face.
“She’s my dad’s new girlfriend. Darya. It’s not a divorce. My mom… my mom… ” Lily felt herself choke up again, and tears of rage filled her eyes.
“Darya, eh? She was very apologetic and even offered some cash to cover the loss of the donation,” Mrs. Hodge said, nodding reflectively as she bent toward Lily, offering a dry tissue. “She said there was some brave girl out there who’d lost her mother and wanted to save her wedding dress.”
“Actually… you can have that wedding dress back… I don’t care about that so much.” Lily was gasping as she tried to explain.
Mrs. Hodge caught her eye. “Hush now.” She bent toward Lily, offering a dry tissue. In a softer voice she said, “The elephant pajamas, isn’t it? The clothes that have your memories of her attached?”
Lily nodded, relief coursing through her veins. “You understand!” She dabbed at her eyes with the tissue.
The silence sat between them a while. Finally Mrs. Hodge spoke. “I remember your mom. She came by the shop a few times…. My own mom died when I was about your age. Blighted my teen years, it did. Everyone else was talking boys and dance parties. I felt so alone.”
“What did you do?”
“I don’t… rightly… know.” A vacant look came over Mrs. Hodge as she tried to recall. “Got through it somehow.” She handed Lily the box of tissues. “Go ahead, blow your nose.”
Lily did as instructed.
“Now, look. I don’t take kindly to folks who sneak into my shop after-hours,” Mrs. Hodge said, a note of sternness entering her voice. “Especially as I’m getting on in years.”
“I would—I would never hurt you.”
“Yup, but you coulda give me a heart attack all the same.”
“I’m sorry,” Lily said. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I would have bought the PJs but I couldn’t get the money in time before someone bought them. You made such a fun display, someone’s sure to buy them soon.”
“You like ‘Cuddle Time,’ do you?” Mrs. Hodge straightened. “I worked as stage manager for many years. I like to ‘make a scene.’”
“I think your scenes are awesome. Like that one—‘Flapper Party.’”
Mrs. Hodge’s eyebrows shot up. “Yeah, Darya liked that scene, too. … But she nearly puked when she saw that whole section of kids’ camouflage. Said it brought back a painful memory.”
“I don’t know. She didn’t say.” Mrs. Hodge sighed. “War going on… Some folks keep a very tight lid on.”
Lily wondered if Darya had mentioned it to Dad. And if Dad had given the same “time to move on” speech to her, too?
“I’d like to know what other items belonged to your mom—eventually.” Mrs. Hodge held up her hand. “The Zimbrach boxes came in at a busy time—spring cleaning—and frankly, I lost track of what was what. But wait… I’d like to make an offer to you first. Part-time work after school. I’m short-staffed. You would have first chance to see things before we put them up. Anything that’s your mom’s you can take back right away. And you’d learn about assisting customers and ringing up sales.”
Lily inhaled. She felt dizzy from the extremes of emotion tonight. “I’d have to ask permission.”
“And maybe you could design some scenes of your own.”
The world works in mysterious ways. Lily looped a strand of hair over her ear and felt a small weight shift inside.