“Three cheers for Her Royal Highness! Hip, hip, hooray! Hip, hip, hooray!” shouted the crowd surrounding the palace of Marovia.”
“Tulie, your lunch is ready!” came a familiar voice, rising above the roar.”
“Hip, hip, hooray!” the crowd continued, drowning out that single voice.”
The royal crown of Marovia was heavy, laden with rare jewels including the biggest diamond ever found in the kingdom. Nevertheless, twelve year old Princess Tulip held head high as she stood looking out the window high in the tower of the ancient palace. She smiled serenely and slowly waved to the crowd of her loyal subjects far below. Hundreds, no, thousands of faces were looking up at her with adoration shining in their eyes. No wonder. She had once again saved the Kingdom from being overthrown by Evil Prince Harold. Princess Tulip thought that perhaps she should have a new postage stamp issued today, one with her picture just as she looked at this very moment. Her bright carrot-colored hair was not wildly out of control today for a change. In fact it was not even orange. It was pure gold. And her freckles were gone. So were the glasses she always had to wear. The braces had disappeared from her teeth too.
She gave a final wave and turned from the window. Oh-so slowly she walked across the palace throne room, carefully lifting the enormous skirt of her light blue brocade gown twinkling with diamonds. Her old sneakers had been replaced by silver slippers. She could feel the pull of her fur trimmed velvet cape dragging on the ground way, way behind her. All around her there flew delicate clouds of specially trained blue butterflies.
As Princess Tulip seated herself on the ornate gold throne, the ladies and gentlemen of her court echoed the cheers of the throng outside. Sitting ramrod straight, she nodded graciously, acknowledging their devotion.
“Tulip Mae O'Brien, I'm not calling you again!” shouted her mother from the bottom of the narrow stairway that led up to the attic. “Stop your playacting and come eat lunch. Gran says the soup's getting cold.”
Princess Tulip turned back into Tulie, a skinny girl in cut-off jeans and a faded t-shirt. Oh well, she was getting hungry anyway because she had been busy ruling her imaginary kingdom all morning.
Tulie, her mom, Rose, and her grandmother, Iris, lived in the big old house at the end of Butternut Street, right next to the railroad tracks that ran right through the center of Garfield, Ohio. The trains didn't stop there anymore but that didn't prevent Tulie from imagining she would board them when she'd hear the whistle late at night. She'd dream of traveling to New York City or Chicago or Hollywood. Places where people would appreciate a girl with a rich imagination.
Gran always said that Tulie's imagination was probably due to the fact that they didn't own a TV. They were probably the only family in town that didn't. Tulie would gladly have traded her imagination for a 42” flat screen like the one Katherine Bannister's family had. They owned the town's department store at the Buckeye Mall and lived in a big house on the hill that rose up on the other side of the tracks.
Tulie's mom said TV stifled the brain but Tulie thought the real reason was that they couldn't afford one. Mom's paycheck from Wal-Mart didn't allow for what she called un-necessaries. Sometimes Tulie's rich imagination took her on shopping excursions where she could afford everything. She'd imagine coming home with lots of shopping bags and showing Gran all the wonderful stuff she bought. Dolls and clothes, those were the things she bought most. But there were also CDs and DVDs and gadgets to play them on. All the things rich kids had. And Tulie never forgot to imagine nice presents for Mom and Gran, too. New shoes and sometimes watches and jewelry and big boxes of candy. Lots and lots of un-necessaries. Once she even imagined a new car when Mom's old Honda was having trouble starting.
“Tulie, I'm not calling you again!” came the insistent shout.”
Their house, a ramshackle affair with turrets and lots of curlicue woodwork, was the tallest on the street, four stories high, built almost a hundred years ago, but Tulie got down to the kitchen fast because, as usual, she slid down the banister. She wasn't allowed to do that, but she did it anyway. As she skipped into the big kitchen, Gran was ladling out the soup.
There was a strong resemblance between grandmother and granddaughter. Both were skinny, both had twinkling blue eyes and a fidgety way of moving. Neither liked to sit still for long. Gran's hair had once been as orange and unruly as Tulie's, but now it was white and she wore it in a bun that always seemed to be about to explode. She wore an apron over her sweater and jeans.
“I haven't seen you all morning, Tulie. You must have had a real exciting game going on up there. Who were you pretending to be?” asked Gran who was always interested in hearing Tulie's tales.”
“Just the Princess, again. But I finally managed to find a way to break the spell that kept me prisoner in that tower so I could take my rightful place as ruler of the Kingdom,” Tulie explained as she blew on her soup.
“Lots of curtseying and waving, I suppose?”
Tulie nodded as she slurped a big spoonful of tomato soup. “Has the mailman come yet?”
Just as she asked the question, Mom came walking through the kitchen. She had the same orange hair as Tulie but it was hidden by a scarf she'd tied around her head. The scarf, like her shirt and pants, was spattered with spots of beige paint. Even her nose that was as freckled as her daughter's had a smear of paint on it. She put the paintbrush she was carrying in the kitchen sink and sat down at the table. “Now Tulie, I told you not to be upset that your Dad didn't send you a birthday card.”
“It might have got lost in the mail. Or maybe he's sending one of those belated ones, the kind they sell to busy people.”
“Honey, your birthday was two weeks ago. Dad's busy looking for work andÉand he's got...”
“I know Mom,” Tulie interrupted because she knew Mom didn't ever like to talk about Dad. “He's got his new family in North Carolina. It's just that he never forgot before. I've got all eight cards he sent, one every year since you got divorced. It's okay, my feelings aren't hurt,” Tulie said, keeping her eyes on her soup because her feelings were hurt.
“We love you, Tulie. Your Dad loves you too, you know,” said Mom, giving her a hug and flashing a look at Gran. “Look, why don't you help me this afternoon? You could paint the little girl's bedroom. Wouldn't that be a nice thing for you to do? Sort of a welcome gesture.”
“Okay, I'd like to do that. I can't wait to meet her. I know I'm going to love her. It will be such fun having her here, like a little sister. I have so many plans for her.”
Tulie saw Mom shoot another glance at Gran who just raised her eyebrows. “Maybe she has some plans of her own, Tulie,” Gran said.
“How could she? She's never even been to Garfield before. Everything will be new and strange for her. I can imagine how I'd feel, coming from China to Ohio! She'll really need my help at school and making friends. Maybe she doesn't even speak English.”
“Now Tulie, you know better. She's from San Francisco, not China. You know that as well as I do.”
Nothing her mother could say was going to change Tulie's mind about the Lee family. The very idea of a Chinese family coming to rent the apartment in their house had fired Tulie's imagination. She had asked so many questions about them that even Gran had grown tired.
“They'll be here soon and you'll find out all about them then,” Gran had said. “You know that curiosity killed the cat, don't you?”
Gran always was mentioning that cat. When she was a little girl Tulie thought that there really had been a cat that was killed and used to look for its grave in the back yard. Maybe that is what gave Tulie the idea for the cemetery she had made back by the lilacs when she was a very little girl. It was there she still held the funerals for old dolls and for little birds that sometimes fell from their nests early in the springtime.
“I think we are so lucky to live in a house that's big enough to have an apartment in it,” Tulie said as she spooned the last of her soup out of the bowl and got ready to eat her tuna sandwich. She insisted on eating food one thing at a time, even when it was on the same plate. Soup was her favorite food because it always came in its own separate dish. “I liked old Mr. and Mrs. Patterson, they were nice, and they lived here as long as I can remember. But I know the Lee family is going to be much more interesting.”
The Pattersons had moved to a nursing home last month. The new tenants would be Garfield's very first Asian family, moving to Ohio from California to open the town's very first Chinese restaurant.
When Mr. Lee came to see the apartment a month ago, he told Tulie about his daughter. He said, “I have a little girl just your age. Winsome is her name and I hope you will be friends. She is worried about coming to a new place and going to a new school.”
“Oh, of course, I'll be her friend,” Tulie had assured Mr. Lee. She immediately pictured Winsome Lee as a tiny doll-like person, delicate as a hummingbird. She'd have a single black braid, long enough to sit on and she'd be exquisitely dressed in silks with dragons embroidered on them. She'd be very shy and quiet, just the sort of girl who would need a friend like Tulie to guide her, to introduce her to the kids in the neighborhood, to help her get used to a new school. Oh yes, Tulie had plans for Winsome Lee.
The Lee family was expected to arrive next week-end, just in time for the start of the new school year. That's why Mom was painting the apartment on her day off from her job at Wal-Mart. She wanted everything to be perfect. Without tenants, Mom said they wouldn't be able to make ends meet. What would happen then, even Tulie's imagination could not imagine.
“While you two are busy painting this afternoon, I'm going to be busy too,” Gran said as she dunked her tuna fish salad sandwich in her tomato soup. “Since Tulie isn't going to be playing in the attic, I'm going to sort out some of those boxes I've been meaning to get to for years. Why, some of them have been there since I was a girl your age, Tulie, so who knows what I might find?”
After they finished lunch and Tulie had helped Gran with the dishes, she went outside and climbed the covered stairs on the side of the house that led up to the apartment's entrance. Mom was finishing up the living room, covering up the old flowered wallpaper with a fresh coat of beige paint.
“I've put the can of paint for the little girl's room in there already. There's a roller and a pan, too. Just be sure you stir it good before you start,” she instructed. “And try not to get any drips on the floor.”
When Tulie pried open the can, she was disappointed to see that the paint was pale pink. She stirred it with a wooden stick, but it remained definitely pink and decidedly pale. She walked back into the living room, holding the stick.
“Are you sure this is the right color, Mom?” she asked.
“Yes, dear,” Mom answered without even looking up from her task.
“But it's so wishy-washy.”
“Mr. Lee was very clear. He said beige for the living room, pale yellow for the big bedroom and pastel pink for his daughter's room.”
“Well, I'm sure he's wrong about the pink. A Chinese girl doesn't want pastel pink.”
“Pink just isn't right, Mom. I'm sure she'd want bright red or orange. Maybe with gold trim. Or a mural with a pagoda or even a dragon!”
“Tulie, Tulie, Tulie,” sighed her mother. “What am I going to do about you?”
“OK. I'll use this paint but I'm positive Winsome Lee isn't going to like it. Not one bit. I bet she will want it repainted as soon as she moves in and I'll be glad to help her.” With that Tulie went into the little bedroom and got to work. Three hours later she was finished. She wasn't very happy with the result but Mom said it looked perfect.
“Go get cleaned up. You've got almost as much paint on yourself as you have on the walls,” Mom chuckled. “You've been a big help. Now why don't you go see if Gran needs anything. Make yourself useful. Maybe you could take a cup of tea up to the attic for her.”