Chapter 1: Growing Pains
1 GROWING PAINS
As a rule, Rebecca Reznik did not like change. This made being thirteen somewhat difficult, and not just in the horrifyingly embarrassing “your body is changing” kind of way, like when Becca first got her period and her mother subjected her to a mortifyingly thorough explanation of her biological systems while Becca’s brother, Jake, made loud vomiting noises outside the closed bedroom door. Not even in the way that high school and its overwhelming number of people and their overwhelming amounts of noise and smells and expectations were looming terrifyingly closer with each passing day. It was difficult like this:
They’re fighting again.
The plain text in its blue bubble looked very serious in the space underneath the barrage of ridiculous GIFs her friend Eitan had last sent in the Best Friends group chat. Naomi, predictably, was the first to respond.
Parents always fight. It’s NBD Becks.
Not mine, not like this.
I think they probably did, and we were just too little to notice, Eitan replied. Or maybe they’re less careful about hiding it from us because we’re teenagers now.
The complaint felt silly, but it was the truth, even if it didn’t quite cover the way the raised voices and the harsher pitch to the words grated on Becca’s ears in a near-painful way. It wasn’t that she couldn’t handle loud noises—she had three younger siblings; her house was never quiet—but the quality of this loudness was different. It hurt. Naomi’s response came quickly once again.
Do you need to come over here?
Something warm settled in Becca’s chest at how much her friends understood all the things she wasn’t quite able to say. She desperately wanted to say yes. It was pizza night at the Teitelbaum house, and Naomi’s mama always managed to get the cheese exactly the same texture of melty every time. It was great. But—
I don’t think I can ask right now.
Just go and beg forgiveness later? Eitan suggested.
Not when they’re in this mood.
Naomi responded with a string of eloquent emojis that expressed her frustration with the situation. Becca snorted.
I’ll be fine. I’ll see you guys tomorrow.
You’re sure? Becca could almost see the dubious look on Eitan’s face that she knew would be accompanying the message.
Yeah. Becca took a deep breath. She was thirteen now, almost fourteen. She’d had her Bat Mitzvah and everything, so she was basically a grown-up. She could do her homework while her parents yelled downstairs. Like you said, she sent, it’s probably just that the munchkins are out of the house for sports so they’re not being quiet. It’ll be fine. I’m sure they’ll chill in a bit.
It felt like hollow reassurance even as she sent it, but Eitan and Naomi seemed to accept it since the conversation turned to other things, like what everyone was hoping to get for Hanukkah and the gift Eitan was supposed to be allowed to open that night—several nights early because his parents had a surprise for him. Becca flipped her phone over, not feeling like meeting her friends’ enthusiasm about the upcoming holiday, and turned the white noise machine in her room up to its loudest setting.
Eitan was waiting for Becca in front of the school the next day, standing on the low wall that was meant to keep the middle schoolers off the landscaping. She eyed him warily as she approached, trying to gauge if he was in one of his excitable moods that might lead him to forget she wasn’t Naomi and launch himself at her or grab on to her arm. When Eitan only waved excitedly—like maybe he thought she had somehow missed his round buzzed head and neon orange backpack—and made no move toward her, she decided it was probably safe enough to approach. Eitan grinned at her and jumped off the wall, bouncing slightly on his toes until Becca was close enough to hear him over the chatter of the other students pushing and shoving their way into school.
“Did you get my text?” he demanded immediately. “My parents got me a telescope because that lunar eclipse is happening the weekend after Hanukkah, and the second part of the present is a camping trip so we can go somewhere to see it really well! They let me open it early so you all would have time to plan! We have to camp that night, Becca. Did you ask your parents like I told you to?” He was still bouncing. “I texted this morning! Did you ask them?”
Becca had not, in fact, asked her parents if she could go camping with Eitan’s family in a few weeks. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to go. Eclipses weren’t really her thing, but she had been greedily studying all the star maps she could get her hands on since Jonah, Eitan’s cousin who worked at the observatory, had given her a solar map last year on their adventure with the Golem. She’d pestered Eitan until he’d given her Jonah’s phone number, and now one of her parents drove her out to the observatory twice a month so Jonah could go through his new data with her. It was pretty cool. Eitan’s new telescope was basically a gift to Becca as well, since it meant she could study the stars on her own in between trips to the observatory. Still. “I didn’t have time to ask my parents for anything,” she told Eitan. “They’re still fighting.”
Eitan looked astonished. “But that was yesterday!”
“Some people’s parents don’t have years of couples therapy to fall back on, Eitan. They’re not as good at conflict resolution.” Becca huffed at Eitan’s pinched expression and turned away from him, scanning the crowded parking lot. “Where’s Nae?”
Eitan’s face didn’t quite unpinch, but he let her change the subject. “She’s just running late. Deena’s taking her to school today, and she never leaves on time.” He shrugged. “Should we just meet her in first period?”
Becca grimaced. Deena always made them late to things when she was the one driving. It wasn’t that unusual, but Becca wasn’t prepared to have another interruption to her routine that morning. She glanced around. The crowds were thinning, but there was still a pretty sizable line of cars dropping kids off. “We have time,” she decided. She led the way back to the low wall Eitan had been standing on before and sat down. Eitan trailed after her, darting glances at his watch. He seemed to finally decide that they did, in fact, have time, because he sat down next to her.
There was a slightly uncomfortable silence in which Eitan shifted a little nervously, and Becca ran back through their conversation in her head, trying to figure out what part had made Eitan quiet. He was only ever quiet when he was a little mad at her but didn’t want to start a fight. They always tried not to fight when Naomi wasn’t there to help them figure out what they were fighting about.
“Sorry,” she tried.
Eitan darted a sideways glance at her. “Do you know which part you’re saying sorry for?”
Becca huffed. “I’m not stupid.”
That made Eitan sigh, but he smiled a little too. “You’re not, Becks, but you also don’t always catch what makes other people upset, you know?” He shrugged. “And I’m not as good at not getting upset at the things you say as Nae is. It’s not anyone’s fault.”
Becca couldn’t help but feel like maybe it was a little bit her fault. She ran through the conversation again. “It was the thing I said about your parents,” she decided.
Eitan’s smile was a little bigger now. “Yeah, it was. But I know you’re upset about your parents too.” He tilted sideways so he could bump shoulders with her. Becca let it happen. Eitan had been trying to be better about not touching her without permission, and it wasn’t like he was hugging her.
“Sorry,” she said again.
“What are we sorry for?” Becca and Eitan both jumped at the sound of Naomi’s voice. Neither of them had noticed her walking up.
Eitan shook his head. “It’s over, Nae,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.” He hopped off the wall and threw his arm around Naomi, backpack, hood, big hair, and all, and nudged Becca’s foot with his until she stood up too. “Walk and talk, ladies! We’re going to be late!”
Naomi laughed and wrapped her arm around Eitan’s waist, then held her hand out until Becca relented and shuffled close enough that Naomi could grab the hanging strap of her backpack to tow her along. “We’re not going to be late!” Naomi said. “We’ve got five minutes until homeroom starts, and it’s literally down the hall.” She tugged on Becca’s backpack strap. “Why were you sorry?”
“Becca’s parents are still fighting!” Eitan cut in.
Naomi frowned. “Still? Well, it’s only been a day. I’m sure they’ll figure it out.” She nudged Becca. “I’m guessing that means you didn’t ask if they would let you camp.”
Becca shrugged. “I’m sure they will.”
“Definitely,” Naomi confirmed. “And I’m sure whatever they’re fighting about will be over by the time your mom picks you up from school.”
It wasn’t over by the time Becca’s mom picked her up from school. Jake and the twins were as rowdy and annoying in the back seat as usual, but their mom never once told them to quiet down. Not even when Ariela bit Jake and Jake hit her hard enough that Becca could hear it through her headphones. She turned around and pushed her siblings apart, sparing a sympathetic glance for Benji in the far back, who was trying to play a game on his Switch while tucked into a ball to avoid getting hit by flailing arms. Their mom didn’t seem to notice the commotion, and she didn’t even scold Jake for nearly making Ariela break her face on the pavement when he climbed over her to get out of the car. It wasn’t until they got in the house, though, that Becca realized something was really wrong. Their father was home. He was never home earlier than seven at night from his job at the newspaper. They were always short-staffed, and something was always coming up that needed his attention as a managing editor. Becca looked at her mom, but her mom didn’t seem surprised. She just sighed and nodded when Becca’s father caught her eye.
“Jacob, Rebecca,” she said, speaking for the first time since picking them up from school. Becca and Jake looked at each other, wide-eyed. Their mom never used their full names unless things were really serious. “We need to talk to you guys, okay?”
“Becca did it,” Jake said immediately. “I had no idea.”
Becca stuck her tongue out at him, but her dad cut her off before she could say anything back. “Neither of you is in trouble,” he said. He sounded tired. “But this is important, okay? I need you guys to be serious.” Becca nodded immediately, and Jake finally seemed to realize something was off. He shut his mouth and stopped trying to pull Becca off her feet by swinging from her backpack. Their father rubbed his hand down his face. “Okay, thank you. Let’s talk in the living room.”
Becca shuffled to the living room with her brother and dropped down onto the couch. She felt prickly with tension, and she was hungry—she was supposed to use the bathroom and then have a snack when she got home from school; that was the way it went every day—and her skin was itchy in a way that felt a little too familiar and made her very, very nervous.
Her parents settled in the chairs across from them, still quiet in the distracted way Becca’s mom had been in the car. Finally, her dad cleared his throat and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees.
“The paper is closing down,” he said. “We don’t have enough readers, and the owner is cutting his losses.”
Becca tilted her head a little, trying to understand. Beside her, Jake was wearing an expression similar to the one he’d had when he caught a ball to the stomach during Little League practice. Her dad looked at them and nodded, like they had asked him a question out loud.
“That means I don’t have a job anymore,” he told them, “and until I can find another one, we’re going to have to be a little more careful with our money.”
“What does that mean?” Becca asked.
Her mom sighed. “It means we’re going to have to cut back on the fun stuff for a while. Starting with Hanukkah.”
“With Hanukkah?” Jake demanded. His eyes were giant in his face. It would have been funny if Becca weren’t still trying to process what her parents were saying. “Are we not getting presents?”
“We’ll have presents,” her dad said, “but we’re not going to do one every night, or anything big.”
That was wrong. Hanukkah was supposed to be big. It was her mom’s favorite holiday. They got small presents every night, so they always had something to open, and then something really big on the eighth night. That was how it was supposed to go. It was never as big as what Eitan or Naomi got—the newspaper didn’t pay that much at the best of times, and her mom had tenure as a professor at the university, but it wasn’t like she was a corporate lawyer—but it was always something. That was how things were supposed to go.
“We’ll need you two to help set an example for the twins,” Becca’s dad was saying. “They’re too little to really get it. So, please, just be good about this, okay?”
“Are we still going to visit Bubbe over break?”
Her mom sighed. “Probably not, Becca. It’s a lot to pay for plane tickets for that many people.”
Her dad’s phone rang loudly, cutting her off. He rubbed his hands on his face again and pulled it out of his pocket. “I’m sorry, guys, I need to take this. Go get your snack. I’ll answer any questions you have later.”
Becca’s mom nodded and stood up. She sent Jake to wash his hands again—there was always dirt under his nails—and kissed Becca on the top of the head. “Come eat so you can get to your homework, okay?”
Becca nodded but didn’t get up to follow her mom. She felt like as long as she didn’t move, things would stand still for a minute, but as soon as she stood up, everything would start shifting again. Her skin was crawling like her favorite sweater had suddenly turned scratchy and unfamiliar. There was no Golem around to blame for it this time, though, just bad news and worse changes. Becca really hated change.